In Touch with the Holy

by Digitalnun on October 22, 2014

D. Catherine meets St John Paul II

D. Catherine meets St John Paul II


















Holiness is not something strange or above and beyond the reach of us. In fact, it is all around us, for the simple reason that God is everywhere. There is no part of the Universe where God is not. That is a comforting fact when we are faced with a lonely or discouraging experience. It is also a challenging fact when we are tempted to selfishness or moral cowardice or anything else that is less than perfect. You notice I call it a fact, not a thought. That is because most of us are apt to be a little choosey about what we deign to call ‘holy’. We like our holy places to conform to our own ideas of what they should be; we like our saints to be what we would secretly like to be ourselves. I have not the slightest hesitation in admitting that I never found St John Paul II personally sympathetic, but he is a saint, and one who challenges me much more than I find comfortable. I thank God for saints such as he.


Twelve Every Hour

by Digitalnun on October 21, 2014

According to UNICEF, twelve children die every hour as a result of violence, most of it not linked to war. That is an appalling statistic. It means that every five minutes somewhere in the world a child is being done to death, most probably by adults charged with their care. Very often we note such things with a shudder, utter a silent prayer, and then move on to the business of the day. We forget that children have no real voice. They aren’t in a position to make much fuss. They don’t lobby politicians, launch Social Media campaigns or otherwise engage public attention. Here in Britain we are inclined to be a bit sentimental about childhood. Child abuse and child poverty grab the headlines when they are uncovered, but the kind of violence UNICEF was talking about tends to be under the radar. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments thinking about these things — not condemning the perpetrators, which can often be a fruitless exercise in vicarious anger, but rather but thinking about how we can protect the young. Violence against children is not acceptable, but how do we create a society where we all believe and act on that principle?


St Luke, Asia Bibi and the Challenge of Being a Christian

by Digitalnun on October 18, 2014

You might be expecting me to write about the Magnificat, as I have often done in the past (e.g. see here) or about evangelisation, the medical profession, painting or women-in-the-gospel, all of which are fairly predictable themes for this feast day; but what struck me forcibly this morning was, what would St Luke write about if he were alive on earth today? In one way, I think his subject would be unchanged: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. But I think there might also be a fairly devastating critique of the way in which we Christians live and proclaim our faith. Do we truly believe what we say we believe? Do we want to share the Good News with others? Or are we so very British and diffident that we find enthusiasm (literally, being filled with God) in rather poor taste?

This morning, somewhere in Pakistan, Asia Bibi is living with the knowledge that she has been condemned to death by hanging because she refused to convert to Islam when accused under the country’s blasphemy laws. Reports of the case suggest a squabble on the fruit farm which got out of hand. A cup of cold water (how biblical is that!), tempers fraying, an escalation of words on both sides and then a life imperilled. Two politicians who spoke in defence of Asia Bibi have already been murdered and the Government of Pakistan is now in the ‘difficult’ position of upholding a verdict many see as unjust. The trouble is, governments do not care as much about justice as they say they do; and unless some face-saving formula can be found, Asia Bibi will surely die.

What would St Luke make of that? I think he would applaud Asia Bibi for her steadfastness of purpose and condemn the Pakistani government and judiciary for their cowardice and political chicanery. But I suspect his severest words would be for those of us in the West who do nothing more than wring our hands, metaphorically speaking, in the face of such outrages. We are too concerned about upsetting other nations, unless there is some economic advantage to be had. We have become lukewarm in our faith, preferring our domestic disputes about marriage and divorce, liturgy and practice, even, at times, the cut of our vestments, to the life and death issues faced by our brothers and sisters in less comfortable parts of the world. Praying the Magnificat in the light of what Asia Bibi faces is an unsettling experience. I suspect that is exactly what most of us need: a shake-up by the Holy Spirit. The questions posed by St Luke in his gospel are just as relevant today as they were in the first century. Answering them is just as difficult, too.


A Sleepless Night and a Good Night

by Digitalnun on October 17, 2014

After a certain age, sleepless nights become commonplace. We may lie awake pondering the awfulness of Ebola and the sluggish international response; or we may toss and turn over some more immediate, personal problem concerning family or finances. I wonder how many of us, however, register the sounds of night-time. Here in the country, where traffic slows almost to a stop, the soft soughing of the wind and the snuffles and shrieks of small creatures mean that the night is never completely silent. The nocturnal soundscape has its moments of violence—the high-pitched bark of the vixen or the scream of the rabbit caught by a predator are not easily forgotten— but the general impression is of life proceeding purposefully on its course. Our lying awake is part of that process, not to be resisted or fought against, nor always to be filled with displacement activity (think, cups of tea and the radio). In Christian tradition, the night hours are specially privileged times of prayer. They form a kind of desert moment in our busy lives. Peter of Celles loved the long winter nights when he could give himself more completely to seeking God without the interruptions of business or people. We can all learn from him. Whether sleeping soundly (no barriers to God) or lying awake watchfully (keeping vigil), we can still claim to have had a good night. The important thing is to have allowed God some share in it.


St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

by Digitalnun on October 15, 2014

St Teresa of Jesus, usually known as Teresa of Avila, the ‘great’ Teresa as distinct from the ‘little’ Thérèse, the eagle not the dove, is one of those saints whose character seems forged by the landscape and townscape in which they lived. The stony beauty of Avila — its cold, clear light in winter and its burning, intense sunshine in summer— have always struck me as factors in Teresa’s strength of purpose, her passionate love of God, and her equally passionate but commonsensical approach to life. The intelligence, the drive, the shrewd understanding of what makes people tick and her ability to win over opponents with flashes of humour bespeak her Jewish ancestry (her grandfather was a converso or convert from Judaism). I find her both engaging and mysterious: a saint who attracts but who is also, in some measure, alien, ‘other’.

If you want to learn about contemplative prayer, read Teresa, not John of the Cross. She misses nothing out and takes her readers stage by stage, through mansion after mansion, until the seventh is reached. Her letters, too, are full of wisdom. Today, at Midday Office, we’ll read one in which she teases her sisters about their dislike of choir, their feigning of excuses, little headaches and so on, that prevent their serving His Divine Majesty. But it is her actions that make me realise what a very different world Teresa inhabits from the one in which I live. When, as children, she and her brother set off to meet martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, she displayed a zeal, a fervour I find completely alien. The nearest we come to it today is among those young men and women seduced by Islamic extremism who set off to fight in the ranks of IS or Boko Haram. Is it the same impulse at work? I don’t think so; but I also hesitate a little because the explanation I would give will not make sense to everyone.

St Teresa of Avila is a very great saint; and she is great not because she was fervent or full of zeal or reformed the Carmelite Order but because she loved much — both God and her fellow human beings. As her friend and confidant St John of the Cross remarked, ‘At the end of the day, it is by the quality of our loving that we shall be judged.’ Teresa of Avila has been judged and not found wanting. May she pray for us who go along but limpingly in the way of holiness.


The Importance of Taking a Nap

by Digitalnun on October 14, 2014

Once upon a time, when I was young and foolish, I despised the very idea of taking a nap. How could one waste precious moments of daytime asleep, when one could be reading or walking or busy about some activity that the daylight hours favoured? Now I am older, and wiser at least in this. The siesta, the midday nap, is a great blessing. The drowsiness of a summer’s day can be given into without a single, Anglo-Saxon guilty pang. The chill of a wintery afternoon and its greyness can be forgotten as one loses oneself in a few minutes’ quiet slumber. For those of us whose energy levels have been sorely affected by age or illness, it is a great restorative. St Benedict assumes that his disciples will have a noonday rest (though he wisely allows us to read quietly during that period). What more can I say? Only this. One of my favourite quotations, trotted out whenever I have caught myself falling asleep over my prayer or some other religious duty: Ego dormio, sed cor meum vigilat. ‘I am sleeping, but my heart keeps vigil.’ Only sleep puts up no barriers to God. Perhaps we should all take a nap more often.


Can the Powerful Be Holy?

by Digitalnun on October 13, 2014

In Anglo-Saxon times such a question would probably never have occurred to anyone. The long roll-call of saintly kings and queens, bishops, abbots and abbesses (who were themselves usually of royal or noble origin), would have been evidence enough. The royal cults of Anglo-Saxon England are especially interesting, as they include one or two saints whose claim to holiness is — what shall we say — a little on the questionable side by modern standards. Even today’s saint, Edward the Confessor, has had his sanctity questioned by latter-day historians, though more on the grounds of political ineptitude than because of any deliberately ungodly behaviour on his part. It is as though the possession of power marked a man or woman out as blessed by God; and provided the administration of that power was in conformity with Christian ideals and accompanied by manifestations of divine approval (miracles), the holder of it could be thought of as holy. Is that true today?

I daresay anyone looking at the political landscape in Britain today would hesitate to dub any of our chief politicians holy; there have certainly not been any obvious miracles to attest to divine favour recently — or am I being unduly cynical? It makes one ask, is there now a divorce between holiness and power? Does personal goodness in a leader matter? Should our conduct in the public sphere be affected by the ideals we hold in the private sphere? These become important questions when we are talking about legislation on life-death issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or war. They are also important when we are considering the education of our children or the welfare system that supports the sick or unemployed. They matter, too, when we are managing a company or administering a service. In short, anyone who is a leader or holds any kind of power has to make choices that affect others on the basis of what he or she thinks or believes.

For many people — not just politicians — the answer is to be found in compromise. One does what one can, according to one’s lights; and because Britain today is a multi-ethnic, polycultural society, what one can do must be tempered by the knowledge that someone’s susceptibilities are likely to be affected. The only problem I have with that is the fact that we are all called to be holy, something which admits of no compromise. I do not know how to square that with the realpolitik of leadership, but I am sure prayer is an essential element. To some, Edward the Confessor may seem a bit of a loser, but I think myself he makes a very good patron for those in positions of power wanting to do the right thing, but not entirely sure how to set about it. St Edward, pray for us!


The Ethics of UKIP or Party Politics for the Non-Partisan

by Digitalnun on October 11, 2014

The three supposedly unmentionable subjects of conversation in polite society used to be religion, sex and politics. Some of us may still sigh for those days, even in monasteries, for we are not immune to what is going on around us, nor should we be. In recent weeks, we have heard a great deal of politics. First, there was the Scottish Referendum, which sent political commentators scuttling in all directions and panicked the denizens of Westminster; then there were the party conferences, with David Cameron allegedly producing the best speech, if not the best policies, of the three main political parties; and now we have all and sundry picking over the rise and rise of UKIP and devising strategies designed to harness the power of the UKIP sympathizer for their own party.

As someone with no party political allegiance, may I point out what seems to me a dangerous flaw in all this supposedly strategic thinking? Whatever those who vote  for UKIP may be thinking, it is surely dangerous for any other party to allow its own policy to be dictated by UKIP’s agenda. Nigel Farage has the popular touch and has correctly identified some of the major concerns of many British people, but his proposed solutions may not be the right ones, either ethically or politically. We all know how easy it is for those not in power to make promises they cannot fulfil when they are. It is just as easy for those wanting power to feel they must adapt their policy to what they perceive to be popular, and perhaps make the most enormous mistakes into the bargain. The pros and cons of current British immigration policy, for example, cannot be reduced to a few emotive headlines. Politics and ethics are linked, for both are concerned with how we live.

I myself don’t think any political party has a monopoly of what is right, which is why I am uneasy when some people equate being Christian with holding specific political views. I am, however, even more uneasy when Christians suspend their Christianity to espouse political doctrines that are radically unfair or unjust or will imperil future generations. We know when the next General Election will be held. During the months ahead we shall need to think carefully about the choices we shall make.  You won’t be surprised that I think we should also pray about them — starting now.


Mental Health

by Digitalnun on October 10, 2014

I’ve never much liked awareness weeks, or special days for this or that, for the simple reason that I think they often end up being token gestures. We remember X on this day and forget about it for the remaining 364 days of the year. I have therefore fought shy of Mental Health Awareness Week, but so many of the requests for prayer that we receive via our email prayerline have touched on mental health recently that I have been forced to rethink my attitude.

Mental health is something that affects us all, every day of the year, but we still seem to have complicated, and sometimes quite negative, feelings about it. Anyone who is not ‘normal’ — whatever we mean by that — who suffers from stress/anxiety/depression/bipolar/schizophrenia or any one of a thousand other conditions, is an object of pity and/or fear. Objectification is a terrible thing to do to another human being. It makes them ‘other,’ and not in a very kind or respectful way. I hope readers of this blog are generous in their support of mental health charities. I hope they are generous with their prayer. Most of all, however, I hope they are welcoming and accepting of friends and family who struggle with mental health difficulties, and supportive of those closest to them, who often struggle equally. No one tells a cancer patient to ‘snap out of it’ or runs from them in fear. Sadly, that is not the experience of many who suffer from mental illnesses. We may not think we can make much of a difference, but we can at least try, can’t we?


John Henry Newman and Ecumenism

by Digitalnun on October 9, 2014

When it was announced that the feast day of Blessed John Henry Newman would be celebrated on 9 October, the day of his reception into Full Communion with the Catholic Church, rather than the day of his death (his entry into eternal life), some Anglicans, who honour Newman as much as Catholics do, were disappointed, seeing it as a slight on them and on the ecumenical endeavours of both Churches. Was it just another instance of tactlessness on the part of Rome, or was there some deep, sinister meaning behind it all?

It is sheer guesswork on my part, but I suspect Rome chose the date of Newman’s conversion to Catholicism because it marks the chief event of his life: the moment he laid aside his doubts and questionings and embraced the demands of his intellectual and moral certainty that the Catholic Church was the true Church. It was an act of integrity, entered upon after a long, painful and searching journey of faith. He is therefore an apt patron for those with what we used to call religious difficulties, who seek to know the truth whatever the cost. It does not imply any slight on the Church which first nurtured his faith. Newman himself was well aware how much he owed to the Anglican tradition.

Where ecumenism is concerned, however, I think we often confuse wanting to highlight the things we share with wanting to gloss over the things that still divide us. The ARCIC statements have indicated areas of agreement between Catholics and Anglicans, but areas of agreement are not enough, in and of themselves. We seek truth; and although we rejoice in the mutual charity and understanding we now enjoy, we know we still have a long way to go. It is something we have to work at, not just assume has already happened or doesn’t much matter. From a Catholic perspective, the schism between East and West is the most important breach in the unity of the Church and the one that most needs healing. Here in England that may not be so obvious because we tend to think solely in terms of Anglicanism, Non-Conformity, and Roman Catholicism (though the Eastern Catholic Churches are here, too).

Newman’s feast day is a good day for thinking and praying about these things. How we understand unity; what we mean by authority; the sacramental tradition; the role of Scripture and Tradition; these are all important questions, to be approached with humility. Important though they are, there is something we need to remember even more. It is not clever arguments but love which makes one holy. It is also, incidentally, what wins the hearts and minds of others.

Personal note
I trust my Anglican friends know how much I love and value them. I am a Catholic by conviction, as they are Anglicans by conviction; but we know we are not yet one in faith and practice.


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