Of Tears and Laughter on September 11

The twentieth anniversary of September 11 was always going to be hard. No one who was alive in 2001 can forget the terrible sight of aircraft crashing into the twin towers, nor what followed after. Seeing people crammed onto window ledges or deliberately leaping from them to certain death brought home to us the intensity of the hatred that inspired such hideous acts. Today, in Afghanistan, the story is still not ended and we are as helpless as we were twenty years ago. People suffer, are maimed for life, die. We pray for peace, for the healing of wounds, but with a kind of reluctant half-belief. It is the best we can do. At least our prayer is real, we say. Tears express what we cannot put into words and today they will flow freely, not just in the U.S.A. but also in the 78 countries whose citizens died in the attack on the World Trade Centre and the aircraft brought down near the Pentagon.

If that were all there were to say, it would be to acknowledge the triumph of death and destruction over life and hope, and I’m not sure that we should. There is another image, also from New York, I would like to put before you*: a young girl laughing with astonishment and delight at finding herself in the finals of the U.S. Open. Whether she wins or loses tonight’s match is irrelevant. Emma Raducano has not only demonstrated that she is a very fine tennis-player but also that enjoyment — being filled with joy — is not dependent on success as such. She has clearly enjoyed playing in New York, and those armchair critics who were so dismissive of her when she showed nerves at Wimbledon might like to reconsider their earlier verdict. Life is not all about winning, though it must be nice when one does. The greatest prize is life itself— one we all share and should cherish.

*For copyright reasons, I can’t post a photo of Emma Raducano and her huge smile here.

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How do we Pray about Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

The shock and horror of what is happening in Afghanistan have left many in the West angry or numb. Some have taken to social media to vent their distress or accuse those they consider to be responsible. Others have found solace in tears or confided to their diaries thoughts they can scarcely put into words. As to what it means for the people of Afghanistan themselves, there we draw a blank. We can speculate, but imagination and knowledge of what has happened in the past will take us only so far. Afghans living in Britain may have some idea, but most of us do not. We are outsiders, with a guilty sense of being being at least partly responsible for  the tragedy unfolding before our eyes. 

While politicians and commentators take to the media to try to ‘explain’ what is happening and tell us what to expect in the future, the Church exhorts us to pray. That sounds easy enough, at least to those who do not believe or have never tried to pray. It is what the Church always says in times of crisis or tragedy, isn’t it? But how do we really pray when the heart is overwhelmed with feeling and there are no words that do not seem hollow and trite? How do we pray about something as big and painful as Afghanistan? 

Not Praying

Perhaps the first thing we should do is not even try. By that I mean, we need to abandon the idea of praying as a self-regarding exercise. We must forget that we are praying, take the spotlight off ourselves as doing a good act (praying for those in need) and remember Jesus on the cross, his words reduced to very few and ending with a great cry. We must forget all the words we love so much, too, and the way we try to cajole God into doing our will rather than paying attention to him and his will. Words are not necessary, and they bend and break under the strain of trying to express what lies deepest in our being. The Holy Spirit is more eloquent than any of us, and we can trust the Spirit to articulate what we cannot put into words. Most difficult of all, perhaps, we must try to forget the self and its emotions. When greatly affected by another’s pain, it is easy to turn everything round to what we feel, our sorrow, our pain, and forget why we were inspired to pray in the first place.

Why Pray?

Why do we want to pray? It is a question we need to ask because I am not sure we are always clear or honest with ourselves in the answers we give. Praying is what good Christians do, isn’t it? Yes, but there is more to it than that. We pray because we are made for union with God, and for that union to be perfect, it must include everyone. So, we want the suffering in Afghanistan to end, for peace and justice to be established, but we want more than that. We want God to have joy in what he has created, for his beloved sons and daughters to live in freedom and harmony, to experience a transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. The means God chooses to achieve that— the people, the events — may surprise us, but that is not really our business. Our business, humanly speaking, is to make what God desires and wills possible by responding to the invitation to pray, to align our will with his. In Jesus Christ we have the perfect example of prayer and obedience — a prayer and obedience so wonderful that the whole human race has been redeemed.

The Prayer of Christ

At a time of tragedy or crisis, we need to unite ourselves ever more profoundly with the prayer of Christ himself. To do that we have to be much quieter and more attentive than most of us like being. To pray with Christ and in Christ requires a radical change of stance. We no longer have the satisfaction of thinking we do anything. We throw ourselves and the whole world on the mercy of God. There is no safer place to be, but that act of renunciation, of relying on God alone, is infinitely costly. It is much easier to seek safety in words and gestures (which may be very eloquent/heroically generous) and thereby miss the essential. As a wise old monk once remarked, ‘It was not Christ’s death on the cross that redeemed us but the love and obedience that led him there.’ Love and obedience — they are what God asks of us in prayer, not eloquence, not brilliance, just our deepest, truest selves.

Not everyone is comfortable with the kind of prayer I have been describing, and I should be sorry if anyone were to conclude that I think it the only kind of prayer that is valid. We must always ‘pray as we can, not as we can’t’, but none of us should dismiss what I have described as being ‘not for me’ or impossible of attainment. Old friends don’t need to say much to each other, and it is cultivating friendship with God that the habit of prayer encourages. Confronted with the tragedy of Afghanistan, however, I think it is also the kind of prayer which protects us against two temptations that can paralyse our best efforts. They are (1) condemning others for what has happened and possibly wishing all kinds of ill upon them, and (2) spending time on our own solutions, most of which are probably naive or ill-informed or both.

Simply asking God to do what is best is much harder than railing against others. Giving time to prayer which doesn’t try to tell God what to do is harder still. To get up from our knees, seeing no obvious change yet determined to persevere, is hardest of all. It is to walk by faith not sight, to trust, to hope. It is what all Christians are called to do, and I think it is a good way of praying for Afghanistan.

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A Lesson from Pontian and Hippolytus

Comparatively few people will be celebrating today’s feast of SS Pontian and Hippolytus with a great sense of their individual personalities. Hippolytus was an important Church writer of the third century although, as with many details of his life, there is disagreement about the exact scope and content of his work, despite many writings having his name attached to them. In The Apostolic Tradition he gave us the first account of the ordination ritual of the early Church which is significant in itself. He may, or may not have been, elected as an anti-pope. What we do know is that he had a furious dispute with the pope of the day about some of the latter’s decisions, accusing him of too much leniency towards sinners. Beginning to sound familiar and contemporary?

Pontian, the pope with whom he had the dispute, was imprisoned by imperial authority and sent to the quarries in Sardinia. Hippolytus was also sent there and somehow the experience led to a reconciliation. Their deaths are recorded as martyrdom, and their names are for ever united in the Church’s calendar. I ask their intercession for long-running and bitter disputes that seem impossible of resolution, for ‘nothing is impossible with God’— a lesson we need to learn again and again.

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Enriching the World: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The so-called Passport Photo: c. 1938

The feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) which we celebrate today always produces a mixture of complicated emotions in me. I must have read almost everything she ever published after she became a nun, admire her deeply, yet confess to being disconcerted by her. Is it the philosopher in her I find difficult, the intensity of her sanctity, or something else altogether? I do not know, but this morning, when everything was dark when the community got up and some of the news darker still, I remembered the hope that sustained her to the last in Auschwitz, the glimmer of light she never failed to see, and the courage with which she and her sister Rosa went to their end. She is a saint of the Holocaust who combines in her own person both Jewish and Christian traditions, whose humanity contrasts with the inhumanity of the regime that killed her.

We need saints who challenge us out of our comfortable mediocrity. At first sight, St Teresa Benedicta is impossible of emulation. But is she really? Aren’t we all called to live as well as we can, whatever our circumstances? She did not have the long, quiet life in Carmel she might have expected, but she embraced the life she was actually given and, in so doing, has enriched the world — not just the ‘religious’ part of it but the whole of it. We are called to do the same.

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Too Woke for our Own Good?

Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?

If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.

What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.

There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.

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The Holy Abbots of Cluny

The feast of the holy abbots of Cluny rarely excites the imagination of anyone outside the cloister. A few liturgists may perhaps refer to them in passing, those who know something of the story of Abelard and Heloise will probably smile at the mention of Peter the Venerable, but, by and large, they are all ‘long ago and far away’. Even my attempt to sketch a pen-portrait of four of them on Twitter this morning may have confused or bored as many as it enlightened. The trouble is, we are not very good at integrating history into our everyday lives or seeing the relevance of the past to the present. Instead of seeking to understand or explain the cruelties and injustices of Black Slavery, for example, we prefer to do away with any of its relics, from statues to church monuments, because that lets us off the hook of really engaging  with the subject. We all know slavery of any kind is wrong, so we don’t have to bother with why it is wrong. Unfortunately, that weakens our ability to judge other matters where decisions about rightness and wrongness are not so clear-cut. We forget that the argument is part of the answer, and the way in which we conduct that argument is an intrinsic part of working the answer itself out.

The abbots we commemorate today — Odo, Maiolus, Odilo, Hugh and Peter the Venerable — were not weak men, far from it, but we do not think of them as controversialists. St Odo, for instance, was particularly severe on the use of rough or judgemental language by his monks. I do not imagine, for example, that he would have endorsed the current trend among some Catholics to impugn the faith of public figures like Pope Francis or President Biden on the basis of their own understanding of Catholicism. He knew — as we are often reluctant to admit — that judgement in such matters is God’s business unless we have been given explicit authority, and even then, there are all kinds of caveats to be observed. It is no accident, I suppose, that his devotion to Our Lady was to Mary, the Mother of Mercy. Peter the Venerable became involved in many of the hot topics of his day, but he was a patient man, who knew that finding out what another thought or considered true was essential to opening up a dialogue with them. That, I suspect, is why he had the Quran translated into Latin rather than assuming he already knew what Muslims believed and taught. 

You notice how careful I have been in my use of verbs: imagine, suspect, think, suppose. That is because no matter how well we may think we know the people of the past, to attribute ideas and sentiments to them is a risky business. We may have good grounds for thinking as we do, but we do not have certainty. That applies as much to the present as to the past, though most of us forget that when we use social media!

One of the things that has always attracted me to Cluny is precisely that element of not knowing everything, of being ready to let God be God in all things, while still being firm and clear about the values we hold. By a happy co-incidence, today we begin re-reading Benedict’s first chapter on the kind of person the abbot should be, RB 2. May I suggest it has something to teach us all? Something the holy abbots of Cluny grasped very well.

N.B. If this post is not to your taste, you will find at least five more on the holy abbots of Cluny in this blog.

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Patriotism is not Enough

The solemnity of St George tends to bring out much that is good, a little that is bad, and, if I am honest, a certain amount of silliness as well, among the English. Leaving aside those learned discussions about the origins of the dragon-slaying legend, the displacement of St Edmund as patron saint of the English, and the feast for the eyes that St George-themed paintings and sculpture have produced over the years, what are we left with? For some there is only that red and white flag showing our tribal allegiance, prominently displayed at football matches or on the number plates of cars. For others, there is the annual St George’s Day Dinner, with sentimental speeches pledging fidelity to ‘our own dear Queen, God bless her!’ and a selective recall of history that is both enchanting and infuriating. For many more, the day brings with it either an embarrassed indifference or a sober assessment of England’s role in the world and what are regarded as typically English characteristics. Perhaps we could spend a moment or two looking at these latter.

English Qualities: Myth and Reality

Everyone knows that the most characteristic quality of the Englishman or woman in every age is emotional reserve. Along with that goes a highly-developed sense of duty, honesty and sense of fair play. We pride ourselves on our sense of humour, but not enough to make fools of ourselves learning another language. We just speak English more loudly. We can safely assert that the English are not very imaginative but we do make good administrators. We are entirely clueless about the Arts, depressingly bad cooks, and kinder to animals than to our children. Bluff and gruff, that’s us. Only, it ain’t absolutely true.

Merrie England was not all myth, and in the sixteenth century Erasmus paints a very different picture of England from the one we have now. He didn’t think much of our beer(!), but the cheese was better than that in Basle and he found the English habit of kissing one another on every possible occasion utterly delightful. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and, at least in the circles in which he moved, there was an ease with languages, especially Latin, that made communication easy. Then, I suppose, the rot set in. The English became a little more dour, more intent on empire-building and the martial qualities that go with conquest and administration. By the time we get to the Victorians, the myth becomes reality.

England Today: Values and Virtues

Today, I think very few would claim that the English are emotionally reserved, although there remains an awkwardness about the kind of display of personal emotion we see in Prince Harry. To speak of duty is to invite derision. There are serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of some holding public office, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can no longer count on anyone’s word being their bond. Administration is not our forte, if it ever was, and although we can claim to be more imaginative than allowed in the past, we are just as mono-glottal, inward-looking and dull as ever we were. Is there any hope for us then, as a nation and as individuals?

I think there is. English love of country never descends into nationalism, ‘my country right or wrong,’ except among the eccentric. Despite what I see as the tragedy of Brexit, we are still open to collaboration with others and appreciate their good points. Even after the current Government’s cut in the aid budget, we continue to be one of the most generous providers of help to other countries, both as a state and as individuals. Our cooking has improved but so too has our awareness of the need to share what we have with the hungry. We’re still not good at languages, but we remain kind to animals and we are becoming kinder to our children.

The qualities I have singled out are not obviously Christian virtues but they contain within them some important Christian values. Thinking of Erasmus, though, and his remarks about music-making and kissing, maybe one quality we largely lack nowadays is joyfulness. Easter is the season of joy, and alleluia is its song. Let us not stop at patriotism but ring out our joy to the Lord.

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April Sunshine, April Tears

Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.

I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.

Image
The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

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Ears Have Walls: a problem for Tweeting Brides of Christ?

I wonder how many people will read ‘walls have ears’ rather than ‘ears have walls’? I wonder, too, how many will know the source of the quotation. It comes from graffiti seen in Paris in 1968, that year of endless radical questioning. To me it expresses very neatly a common problem. We tend to see and hear what we expect. St Benedict’s opening to his Rule, Obsculta, ‘Listen carefully,’ not only shows awareness of this tendency but also offers an immediate corrective. We are to pay attention, think, allow ourselves to be shaped and stretched by what we encounter, but how difficult most of us find that. We prefer our comfort zone — most of us, anyway.

A Religious Life Thread on Twitter

Yesterday there was a Twitter thread on religious life, more specifically the use of Bridal imagery in relation to religious women. It was not easy to follow because some who joined late responded to tweets that had been sent much earlier, while others introduced ideas/themes that, though fascinating and enriching in themselves, were secondary to the matter in hand. 

The thread began because @CarmelNunsGB noticed a poll by a non-religious asking the question ‘Are nuns and religious sisters married?’ The wording of the question suggested unfamiliarity with traditional language yet at the same time invited reflection on the meaning and purpose of such language. It evoked a wide-ranging response from the #NunsofTwitter and others.

Brides of Christ and Nuptial Imagery

Some people were happy to think of themselves as Brides of Christ; others definitely weren’t. Some insisted on limiting application of nuptial imagery to the Church as a whole (cf St Paul); others found even that difficult. We touched on religious profession (Catholic and Anglican, of both nuns and religious sisters), marriage, the rite of Consecration of Virgins, the diaconate, the use of signs and symbols (e.g. rings), eschatology, and individual experience, with some valuable insights from an Orthodox perspective. I had to bow out of the discussion early because of other duties but not before I had posited a link between the rite of Consecration of Virgins and the diaconate. 

Taking the Subject Further

It would be good to take these topics further, especially as they relate to the post-pandemic Church, but some of them, e.g. discussion of the diaconate in relation to women and the nature of religious/monastic profession, presuppose a level of scholarship we do not all possess. In an ideal situation, I think a writer would need

  • A sense of period and historical development. The fourth century is not the same as the fourteenth, and the fourteenth is different again from the twenty-first. This sense of period is rarer than one might think.
  • Familiarity with the sources — historical, theological, liturgical — and the scriptures and legal forms on which they depend. That means hard work, knowledge of languages and intelligent interpretation. 
  • Theological literacy, and awareness of how the Western Tradition has evolved. 
  • Judgement. Probably the most difficult quality of all, but the most important. Not every shred of ‘evidence’ is equally valid but it isn’t always easy to recognize that.

I’d love to explore some of the questions the thread raised, but a very little reflection showed how ill-prepared I would be for such a task. But there is another reason, just as pertinent, which I think throws light on the nature of religious community and the kind of obligations we assume when we join one. My community asked me not to do so.

Post-Vatican II Reflection on Religious Life*

If I may be allowed a very broad generalisation, the best reflection on religious life* comes from religious themselves, those who actually try to live the values they profess. Much post-Vatican II commentary on religious life emanating from the Vatican itself has reflected an anthropology and sociology I, and others, find unconvincing. For women, in particular, the results have been disappointing; but it is not just women who have been affected. The concentration on clerical control and the reluctance to see women as fully participant in the life of the Church has had negative consequences for the Church as a whole. It is actually quite difficult to discuss some subjects openly and freely without attracting the kind of attention that chokes off such discussion because of its virulence. My community does not want me to give anyone grounds for misunderstanding — in other words, contributing to the negativity often encountered, especially online.

Discussing Hot Questions

I know the community is especially nervous about my discussing the diaconate. Since St John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, Catholics have been forbidden to discuss the ordination of women to the priesthood and many have taken that to include discussion of the diaconate as well. Some will recall the high price Lavinia Byrne paid for Women at the Altar (which she wrote before the Apostolic Letter was published). I regret to say that even today some people regard it as their duty to delate others to Rome for opinions they may or may not actually hold, but which the delator thinks they do and have expressed. Although such a drastic reaction to anything I might write is unlikely (the benefits of obscurity!), I do know how much time and energy can be taken up dealing with objections and criticisms, many of which are the consequence of sheer carelessness (on my part, or that of the reader) or misunderstanding. My community has a right to my time and energy, so, in this I must comply.

A Tension in Religious Life

My decision highlights a tension inherent in religious life, and in membership of the Church more generally. We all have a commitment to our communities whether they be little or large, religious or secular. That commitment may be experienced at times as a freedom, an energiser, at others as a restraint. It would be easy to make a show of bravado along the lines of ‘publish and be damned’ but it would be just bravado, and rather selfish bravado at that. We are called to build one another up, to hasten the coming of the Kingdom. That may mean questioning, challenging, refusing to be sidelined or silenced. It may also mean patience, not saying all one wishes, listening rather than adding to the clamour.

I believe some subjects do need to be discussed quite urgently or we are likely to see a further loss of members of the Church and of the religious communities that form part of her. As I said at the beginning, ears have walls. I hope someone with the necessary learning and love of the Church will break them down. It won’t be me, but I will be praying for them.

*The term ‘consecrated life’ is used nowadays, but the term ‘religious life’ will be more familiar to many readers.

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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