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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A Sleepless Night

The elderly, the sick and the parents of new-born children tend to be more familiar with sleepless nights than most people. When in ‘holy mode’ I advocate trying to pray. Nothing is more likely to induce slumber than turning mind and heart towards the Lord at an unexpected hour. Alternatively, one can listen to the BBC World Service (I learned more about lithium last night than I ever dreamed possible), finish the last chapter of one’s current book or three, or toss and turn as one reflects on the various difficulties and anxieties facing oneself or those one loves. Once one has exhausted those possibilities there is nothing left but to listen to the sounds of the house and of the night.

We are fortunate to live in a converted barn on the edge of the Golden Valley, a beautiful part of rural Herefordshire with a long monastic history behind it. The old oak timbers of our house are constantly moving slightly: they creak and groan softly, and when the wind and rain blow, as they did last night, they utter a quiet protest. The garden makes its own response. I love listening to the snuffles and squeaks of whatever is abroad in the night-time, beginning with bats at dusk and moving through a whole range of owls and rabbits and foxes, with the occasional rough bark of a deer or perhaps the husky note of a badger out on patrol.

There is more to this than finding a way of passing time. To listen to the sounds of night as they come from house and garden is to reconnect with the world in which we live and for which, often enough, we have no time except when we make a point of going for a walk or doing some gardening. I can’t do either of those, so listening to the soundscape of where I live matters. It is another way of seeking the Lord — and being found by him. A sleepless night may leave one feeling tired and crotchety next morning, but it is never wasted. It is an opportunity to be relished.

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‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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Silence and Stillness: Holy Saturday 2021

Today is a strange day. The drama of the crucifixion is over and we are left, tired, empty, devoid of the sacraments and the conventional rhythms of church life, to ponder what we do not see: the coming of the light, Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the promise of the resurrection. It is a day when we do nothing because God does everything. An early Christian writer captured the essence of this time by speaking of its silence and stillness:

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’

It is hard for us to do nothing. We seem to think everything depends on us, and life would certainly come to an end were we to fold our hands and expect food, shelter and everything else to fall into our laps. The kind of nothingness I am talking about is a recognition of God’s supremacy. It requires the silence of humility, the stillness of love, but we find both difficult. We tend to fill the universe with our noisy chatter and busy plans for this and that. One of the lessons of Holy Saturday is to let all that go, to allow God to be God in our lives, to own the mystery. Only then can we embrace the resurrection.

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Cleansing and Healing Waters

Photo by mrjn Photography on Unsplash

Today’s Mass readings are deliciously watery. We have the life-giving waters that stream from the Temple (Ezekiel 47. 1–9, 12) and the quieter waters of the Pool of Bethesda that also cleanse and heal (John 5.1-3, 5-16). Cleanse and heal, please note, rather than cure. I wonder how often we pray for someone or something to be cured, asking for the restoration of a situation as it was before illness or disappointment struck? Biblically, however, it seems to me that we pray for cleansing and healing, to be made whole again, sound, rather than cured. The distinction may be a false one, but it makes sense to me. It is not my old life I want back again, but a new one freed of the limitations the old imposed. I take heart from the fact that the body of the Risen Christ still bore the wounds of crucifixion. Even the most appalling evil can be redeemed and transformed.

Yesterday was a difficult day for many, for all kinds of reasons. We cannot undo its sorrows as though they had never been, but we can open them up to the healing power of God. It may not happen all at once. Indeed, we may not be aware of anything at all happening; but just as water can wear away a stone, so God’s love and mercy can transform our lives. We can be cleansed and healed.

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Lenten Lilies for Mothering Sunday

One of the joys of my return from hospital has been seeing the changes in the garden, albeit viewing them from a safe distance indoors. Daffodils, especially wild daffodils (the Lenten Lilies of the title), remind me of some of the ambiguities of Laetare or Mothering Sunday.

We celebrate today as a feast of joy and motherhood, sometimes descending into sentimentality, sometimes becoming so abstract that we forget that actual motherhood is hard work — frequently, smelly and tiring. The token bunch of daffs dutifully handed over to Mum may be exactly that: tokenism, but sincerely meant and with a beautiful face to it. However, to see the Church as Mother, which is what the Church herself invites us to do, is, I think, increasingly difficult because so many have experienced hurt at her hands. There is no token bunch of daffs that will quite bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Is there any way to make sense of this?

I find my own answer in the garden. The wild daffodils I like so much are planted in soil. They grow out of the Herefordshire mud and loam. For most of the year they are unseen, lying deep in the earth. They bloom briefly yet brilliantly. So with the Church. She is flawed because she is made up of flawed creatures like you and me, but she is also shot through with grace, with truly infinite possibilities we may see only rarely. She shares in the muckiness of ordinary motherhood, as she also shares its glories.

Today, let us pray for all mothers, living or dead, for those who feel they’ve failed, those who don’t understand the concept of motherhood, those who need to be set free, and for our mother the Church.

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The Chuckit List

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, is about forgiveness — something we all find difficult, especially if we try to forgive others in our own strength or think of it as a once-for-all process. It becomes even harder when we hear Jesus telling us that it is not those who have offended us we most need reconciliation with but those who have something against us. Forgiveness is clearly both simpler and more complicated than we might have thought, but there is no escaping it. We live by the mercy of God and that mercy is to be shared with others.

Yesterday, in a different and much sadder context, I was introduced to the concept of the Chuckit List. It is rather like a Bucket List in reverse: not a list of things we want to do or acquire, but a list of things we can let go. May I suggest that we each think about our own Chuckit List — of grudges, resentments, quarrels, prejudices, misunderstandings, estrangements — and resolve to let them go. In setting others free, we are ourselves liberated; and it is never too late to learn that lesson.

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False Gods

I hope my friend Elizabeth Scalia will not think I am borrowing too much from her excellent Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, but today’s first Mass reading, Deuteronomy 30. 15–20 made me think again about the idols we construct for ourselves and how they bar the way to God. It is not only, or even predominantly, the obviously bad things that lead us astray. Most of us agree that violence, selfishness, greed and so on are not the way to holiness and closeness to the Lord. The temptations of essentially good people are often ‘good’ themselves. I wonder how many people have woken up this morning determined to tackle a Lenten programme of self-improvement that would make a Desert Father wilt!

The clue, of course, is in the phrase ‘self-improvement’. Sometimes what we elect to do during Lent is about us, not God. Ash Thursday is a good day for taking a second look at what we have decided to do or not do during Lent. If what we are offering up places burdens on others (because we are tetchy or demanding) or is a covert form of achieving a secondary aim (e.g. mistaking dieting for fasting), then we need to re-think. The sole purpose of our Lenten observance is to draw us closer to Christ. That both simplifies and makes more joyful our pilgrimage to Easter, but it also requires us to let go some of our own ideas about what would be best. Smashing those false gods may be our first step on the way.

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An Ocean of Tears

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Yesterday we heard that UK deaths from COVID-19 had reached 100,000 +. Today we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and remember the millions of Jews who died in the concentration camps and death camps of the Nazi era. What sadness, what an ocean of tears! Statistics have a way of appearing inhuman, yet we know that every figure represents a human person, an individual, infinitely loved by God, tenderly loved by family and friends, and we feel helpless in the face of so much suffering and anguish. It is good that we should. If we did not feel pain, would we ever know compassion? Would we ever try to make things better for others?

I have often thought about my mother who, when I was young, paid a weekly visit to someone I’ll call Hedwig — a survivor of Nazi ‘experimentation’, who led a sad and lonely life, consumed by fear, all her possessions gathered into a few carrier bags. My mother wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’, nor was she motivated by religion or any ‘ism’. She knew what it was to grieve (she lost two brothers during World War II) and she knew that Hedwig grieved the loss of everyone and everything familiar to her, so she did what she could to reassure her that she was both loved and lovable. I hope her sympathy and interest made life a little better for Hedwig. I know it did for me. Go figure, as they say.

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