Friday, 24 April 2009

Through a Messy Business

Most of the congregation had departed after the weekday Mass - leaving just a few of us to say our prayers. The luxury of peace and quiet. I was jolted out of my pious reverie by a sharp exclamation that described precisely what had fallen on a devout head. My mind became feverish with speculation. Why was he of all people the target of this misadventure? Why not I? Why not one of the others in the building? Had he quite literally ‘brought it upon his own head’ as a fitting punishment for his sins?

I reflected that no creature on earth, in the sea, or in the air, could do a single thing - not even a messy thing – except when and where God allows it. By a happy coincidence, a particular verse of Scripture mentions not only God’s responsible awareness of every individual small bird, but also, and here I tremble with awe, of every single hair on every single head. [Luke 12:6] “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted.”

What do I now say about this particular pigeon, about this unfortunate man? And most of all, what do I say about God who, knowing all, controlling all in His Divine Providence, could have prevented this episode but did not?’ That’s what now bewilders and confuses me. I ponder on what threshold of morality this man must have crossed for him to have been treated in this way… while deep in prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Barbados!

I wonder if I myself have already crossed this threshold. Is it now only a matter of time before sinful I get my own visitation? I wonder whether I am touching on some weighty truth or whether I am becoming rather silly. Am I entitled to apply this jumble of thoughts about a small-scale messy business to a much larger scenario – the landfall of hurricanes in the Caribbean?

What conclusions would I then reach about those whose homes have been destroyed by storms? Or earthquakes? That they must have been massive sinners? And what must I say about those who suffered no damage? That they were living saints? I just can’t go in this direction. It is too absurd, too cruel, too judgmental! What is more, I and two others where in The Rosary Priory that suffered from the destructive force of hurricane ‘Ivan.’ What does that say about us?

No way am I able to assess the virtues and vices of other people…nor their just deserts. Of one thing I am quite certain… nothing escapes God’s knowledge. Well then! Am I to conclude that His ‘inside information’ causes Him to allow some people to be messed about by birds and others not? Some to suffer from storms and others not?

In all conscience, I can’t go along with this. These things I do know: God is merciful and compassionate. He is neither vicious nor vindictive. Also, not one of us is totally innocent; not one is totally wicked. I am an idiot when it comes to explaining the movements of the bowels of birds, the paths of hurricanes, and much else besides. All this is God’s business and is a mystery to me.

MY WAY, GOD’S WAY…this day is to conclude that at best I am endowed with what is known as ‘enlightened ignorance’ about what is going on in my own life and in the lives of other people.

Next week Isidore will reflect on “These Foolish Things…”

Saturday, 18 April 2009

In Sunset and Sunrise

Occasionally I’ve visited Peter in the beautiful W. Indian island of Grenada. The most peaceful time was when I sat on Grand Anse beach and watched the sun set. The sky was a glorious flaming red and orange, with dark purple. I realised what the psalmist meant when he said that the heavens proclaim the glory of God. They give us a glimpse of his majesty and creative genius. I certainly have met God in the wonder of his creation! And there’s a great peace in simply being still in watching the sun slowly sink beneath the horizon, after the heat of the day, with all its bustle, its joys and sorrows, hopes and fears.

Perhaps surprisingly, the setting sun makes me think of death and my life drawing to a close. My thoughts are not morbid, nor are they filled with fear, at the thought of my earthly life coming to an end and my meeting Christ. Twilight is much longer in England than in tropical lands. None of us know how long the sunset and twilight of our earthly lives will last. But sooner or later it will come.

We should not be afraid of the darkness when the sun sets on our life. When we meet Christ at the moment of death he will not be a stranger, nor will he be a hostile judge, determined to condemn and punish us. Throughout our lives he has been with us, guiding and supporting us, even, though at times we may have felt he has abandoned us. And, imperfectly, we have tried to respond to his love. When we have failed we have experienced the wonder of his love and mercy. We are confident, not in ourselves, but in Christ’s unshakeable love and mercy. That should be the foundation of our hope and peace as we face death.

In England we have a saying, ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.’ The bright sunset holds out the promise of a brilliant new day. As we approach the sunset of our lives we should be filled with hope that after the dark sleep of death Christ will come in glory to awaken us to the glorious sunrise of a bright new day. On that day he will raise us to the fullness of life to share in the bright glory of his resurrection.

With this in mind, we should not panic as the sun sets on our lives here on earth. We can look forward to the dawning of a new day, when Christ will come to rouse us to greet the sun rising on the most glorious of days. Then we will be more awake, more alive, than ever before. That day will be filled with nothing but happiness, as we bask in the love of the Lord, together with all our loved ones.

Sunset and sunrise do, indeed, remind me that we will meet Christ in a very special way as the sun goes down in death and then rises to the glorious brightness of the resurrection. If we welcome him during the day time of our present lives, we can be confident that we ill greet each other with joy when we meet again in the sunset of death and the sunrise of the resurrection.

Next week Peter will meet God ‘Through a Messy Business’

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Momentous "Ifs"

I count the number of ‘ifs’ in the following words of St Paul and weigh their significance.

“If the dead are not raised, neither is Christ, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable.” (1 Cor. 15:16)

God alone knows how many funerals I have attended, how many times I have stood beside a grave surrounded by mourners. So many words of consolation, words of Christian hope, prayers and hymns based on the faith that the resurrection is a fact. This faith is grounded in the belief that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

My priesthood, indeed, my Christianity, is justified by the conviction that my hope in Christ is not for this life only. I believe in Christ, attempt to follow Him, and bear witness to Him, not only because of His inspiring life and teaching. My Christ is the one who was crucified and rose from the dead on the third day. His empty tomb is not the symbol of the emptiness of my Christianity. It is the symbol of its vitality.

The corpse of Jesus was not removed by thieves, nor by well-meaning admirers intent on giving Him a decent burial. Those women, early on Easter morning, expected to find a closed tomb and within it, the body of Jesus. Whatever hope they had placed in Jesus had died on Calvary. Surely, as they came to the tomb, they were of all people, the most pitiable.

And here am I, so many centuries after these lamentable events, preaching the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of us all to people who say their ‘Amen’ to my words.

This is something extraordinary. We believe with unshakable faith that the dead do rise, precisely in the power of the resurrection of Jesus. Where is the evidence for such faith? What gives to it such absolute certainty?

Why do I and so many others believe in the resurrection of Jesus and stake our lives on this, some even being prepared to die for this?

My celebration of Easter demands answers. This amazing faith is an amazing gift of grace from God. It is parallel to that act of faith by St Peter – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” to which Jesus replied, “You are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven.” (Matt 16:16)

No human agency has brought about my faith in the resurrection of Jesus, nor has the report of the empty tomb, nor the accounts of the appearances of Jesus after the crucifixion, nor the preaching and teaching from the time of the apostles to the present day. It is God Himself who has produced in my mind and heart, and yours, the conviction of faith.

I reach God at Easter and throughout my life as I dismiss the tantalising speculations of St Paul’s momentous ‘ifs’.

Because I believe with unwavering faith and enthusiasm I count myself the most blessed of people. My faith in the risen Jesus is not fanciful. It is not pathetic. It is terrific!

Peter Clarke O.P.

On Saturday Isidore will post a blog entitled, ‘Sunrise and Sunset.’

Friday, 10 April 2009

Being in a Vacuum

It’s like being in a vacuum – waiting for the next bus to arrive; staring impatiently, restlessly, at the desktop for our computers to find the energy to respond to our hasty clicks. Nothing happening, nothing to do. We feel we must fill the emptiness of this vacuum. We even feel uncomfortable with the emptiness of silence, even when we’re busy doing something. To be at ease we must have background music.

This was brought home to me when I was working with some teenagers. While they were dancing to loud disco music one of them said she wanted to talk about a problem. When I suggested we should find somewhere quiet she insisted on being at the disco, where she would be at ease with background music. That was the environment in which she could relax, but not me! I was nearly deafened by the loud music, and I found it very difficult to concentrate.

Our impatience when nothing seems to be happening turned my mind to Holy Saturday. On the previous day, Good Friday, we’ve commemorated the high drama of the crucifixion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Probably our reactions were very mixed, swinging between horror at the brutal way Jesus was unjustly executed, to an enormous sense of gratitude that the Son of God was prepared to go to such lengths to rescue us from the consequences of sin.

But then, with his death his sufferings ended. He had achieved his purpose. He was laid to rest in the grave. There was the silence, the stillness of the grave, before Jesus rose to new life. Those who loved him and had followed him were left with their grief.

That still silence is reflected in the liturgy of Holy Saturday, when nothing dramatic happens. For me this empty period is very important. It responds to my need to have a special time to reflect on my deceased loved ones –time to relate their deaths to that of Christ crucified.

As I do so, I’m reminded that just as death didn’t put an end to Jesus, so, too, it doesn’t write the concluding chapter in the life-story of my loved ones. For Jesus and for them the best was yet to come.

On Holy Saturday my grief is filled with hope. And this is reflected in people being busy preparing the church for us to celebrate the glorious resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As we do so we rejoice that if we die with him to sin we will rise with him to share his glory in heaven.

I need the stillness of Holy Saturday to give me time to reflect on the greatest of all mysteries –life and death. Far from being morbid, my thoughts are filled with the hope, which the crucified and risen Lord has given me. If I’m to meet him in the celebration of the drama of his death and resurrection I need the quietness of Holy Saturday to give me space to think and pray about life and death –his, my loved ones, mine.

If I meet God in this way Holy Saturday is far from empty, and still less is it a waste, a marking of time.
Isidore O.P.

Peter ‘s reflections on ‘Momentous Ifs’ will be posted on Saturday evening, GMT.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Through Being a Wretch

During this Season of Lent we have been singing the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” I am puzzled by the thought that amazing grace has “saved a wretch like me.” What disturbs me is that I am described as a ‘wretch’ and so are others.

All the time when I am taking part in discussions on social issues such as human sexuality, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, I speak of ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-respect.’ Such a positive approach provides strong motivation for living worthwhile lives. If we believe that we are wretches we shall be discouraged from making the effort.

So where does this leave me? Confused! I can see that the cultural environment of modern society is wretched. There is so much violence – domestic and community. So much corruption and dishonesty. Also, there seems to be a breakdown in family and social values. We have lost our way. What we have is ugly, wretched. I belong to this environment. The whole situation needs to be saved.

When I look to myself I cannot be entirely happy by what I find. Like everyone else, I have my sins. These I regret. For these I repent. How I wish that this were not necessary. Though I can point to a certain goodness in my life, I must admit that this has not come easily.

With St Paul, I labour under the tension between my good intentions and my actual performance.
“I know of nothing good living in me – in my natural self, that is – for the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not: the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want – that is what I do” (Rom 7:18-19)

We must allow for a certain amount of exaggeration. It was not true that St Paul never did the good thing he wanted to do. Nor is it true of you and me. Nor do we always do the evil thing that we do not want to do. All the same, it is something wretched that we have to struggle to live a virtuous life. The stark reality of this, together with our record of lapses, does lower our self-esteem.

This, in itself, caused St Paul much anguish, as it does me. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” His answer, “God – thanks be to Him through Jesus Christ, Our Lord,” (Rom 7: 24, 25).

In another of his letters, St Paul pleaded for deliverance from what he described as a thorn in his flesh. This time it was God Himself who provided the answer. “My grace is enough for you: for power is at full stretch in weakness,” (2 Cor. 7. 7).

Now I come to terms with the confusion in me over singing about myself as being a wretch while at the same time insisting that I should regard myself with esteem and respect. The wretchedness lies in my sinfulness and in my being prone to sin. My self-esteem comes from God restoring and safe-guarding my worth by His amazing, saving grace.

This led St Paul, as it leads me, to a surprising conclusion. “It is then, about my weakness that I am happiest to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” (2 Cor. 7: 9)

I must confess that I would have preferred an easier way of reaching God – a more peaceful one devoid of a sense of wretchedness and the need to struggle for wholesomeness. But God has allowed it to be otherwise. It is through my admitting that I am a wretch that I come to appreciate how much God loves me. I need His amazing, saving grace. I can rely upon this and reach God – MY WAY, GOD’S WAY… through being a wretch.

On Saturday Isidore will reflect on Meeting God in Emptiness

Friday, 3 April 2009

Meeting God in a Braying Donkey

‘EE-AW, EE-AW.’ That was the sound which would greet me early every morning, when I was p.p. in the mountainous country parish of Birch Grove, Grenada. First one donkey would bray. Its call would be taken up by another donkey, then another one, until the whole valley reverberated with the sound of donkeys greeting each other.

And what a mournful noise a donkey makes! It sounds as though it’s in great pain or is carrying all the cares of the world on its back. The dawn chorus of braying donkeys reminded me of S. Paul writing about the whole of creation groaning as it waits for its redemption.

These humble beasts unwittingly seemed to express the universal growing pains and longing for Christ to return in glory to renew the whole of creation, both in heaven and on earth. We people articulate that yearning when we pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come.’ In its own way the donkey’s bray seemed more eloquent and heart-felt than our many words –certainly it’s much noisier.

As I toyed with the thought of the donkey sounding as though it were carrying all the cares of the world I was pulled up with a jolt.

In a flash I realised that there was one donkey, which did exactly that. On Palm Sunday it carried our saviour into Jerusalem and to his Passion. On that donkey’s back rode the one who bore the burden of the guilt of our sins, a burden, which he would remove through his death on the cross.

That donkey unwittingly played an important walk-on part in the drama of our salvation, as it carried our saviour to his Passion. It’s very appropriate that at least one breed of donkey has a dark cross on its shoulders. This is seen as reminding us of the privileged role one of them played in helping our saviour carry and remove all the troubles of the world.

With the doleful donkey I, too, groan or bray for the renewal of the whole of creation. With the Palm Sunday donkey I, too, must help those who are overburdened to carry their load. Christ identified with them, and so must I.

And isn’t it strange that a donkey is present at the birth and at the Passion of our saviour? The presence of this lowly beast of burden frames the whole of Christ’s life. As Jesus bore our sins on the cross he assumed the role of a beast of burden. We, too, are called to take up our crosses and follow him.

Another thought has just occurred to me. Perhaps the donkey’s braying is not only a doleful lament before the Lord, but also its way of singing his praises. I must learn from the donkey to do both. This humble beast of burden has its own special way of leading me to God.

On Wednesday Peter will post his reflections on a ‘Wretch like me.’

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


More Catholic than the Pope; more English than the Queen. Such was a venerable priest whom I accompanied him to a convent where they were celebrating their patronal feast day. Firstly, the very High Mass – this was many years ago, so I can use such language – and then the very special meal. Now this community was American and German in its membership. No surprise, then, that we were served huge T-bone steaks and that on the side-plates jelly was nestled in lettuce leaves. I suspect that our revered cleric was fretting at the unEnglishness of our meal. The limit to his English martyrdom was reached when he exploded, ‘You only serve pancakes on Shrove Tuesday!’

I thought of the dire consequences of breaking the Law of the Medes and Persians and of the fraternal contempt meted out to the one who intoned an Alleluia during Lent. Life becomes so much simpler when it is totally predictable and is governed by inflexible rules and customs. There is the security of being in control and the relaxed freedom of not having to make decisions. Here the luxury of living with ‘the given’ which dispenses with the agonizing over what to take. What bliss to live with the certainty that you will not be eating pancakes on Wednesday…certainty, because in this kind of world of conformity ‘should not’ equals ‘will not.’

We come now to what prompted these reflections. Fr. Isidore emailed me across the Atlantic that he regretted we could not publish one of our features because we were running out of weeks in Lent. We would have to save it till next year. Rather than this being a ‘No Problem’ situation it proved to us to be a delicious call to devise a ‘Blog Mission Statement.’ I’m working this out even as I type these words.

In truth and in fact life does not fit neatly into the ‘Pancakes only on Shrove Tuesday’ format. Neither does the liturgy. Look at how the whole modality of Lent was interrupted by the celebration of the Solemnity of the Annunciation – conception-parenting-birth thoughts in the middle of our organizing crucifixion-death-resurrection thoughts. In the midst of Christmas festivity there will always be families experiencing intense and immediate bereavement. There is no logical sequence about the flow of life. And thus it is with the flow of the Holy Spirit,

‘8The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,’ (John 3.8).

You can’t predict when and where the Holy Spirit is going to blow, how often, how strongly. The thing is that we have to take the Spirit as and when he comes. So it is with this blog. There will be ‘windy’ times when it seems the Spirit is pushing for a more than once a week blog – as seems to be the case during Holy Week . Our one commitment is to provide something at least each weekend – which should not be too difficult with the two of us being on the look-out for gusts from on high!

In fact most of the ideas appearing in the blog have come unexpectedly and at inappropriate times and circumstances. Seldom have they come during intense sessions of trying to meet a date-line for the diocesan newspaper which I used to edit -the original rock-face from which this blog is now being hewed. ( I suggest you refer to our Welcome to you on this very site).

We shall not allow ourselves to be confined to the ‘Once Weekly’ programming nor to the ‘Pancake on Shrove Tuesday’ syndrome. We shall strive to be receptive to the fickle puffs and gusts of the Holy Spirit. As long as there is life he will be blowing somehow, somewhere, someway. Unpredictability is our watch-word.

On Friday Isidore will post a reflection entitled, ‘Meeting God in a Braying Donkey.’