Irrelevant to Today?

Last year, I penned a kind of shortened Cambridge Shorter History account of St Wulstan, whose feast we keep today, (see here). An earlier account of his role in ending the slave trade between Bristol and Ireland drew derision from some whose focus is Black Slavery, while more serious attempts to assess his character and activity appear to have bored my readers more than somewhat. So, is St Wulstan, who died in 1095, irrelevant to today — one of those musty old medieval male saints who belong in stained glass windows and are not part of the living faith of anyone nowadays? That depends.

We can make a case for considering Wulstan to be very modern indeed, principally by ignoring his historical context and seizing on aspects of his life that appeal to us. Take that interest in the slave trade, for example. It resonates with all who are concerned about the evils of human trafficking and exploitation. Or take his extraordinary ability to maintain his position under William the Conqueror. That surely provides food for thought among those who do not see their national identity being crushed out of existence by association with others. It even has something to say about our current preoccupations with Christian unity and liturgical observance, for Wulstan found a way of adopting and advancing Lanfranc’s reforms while making Worcester a centre of Old English culture and piety.

The difficulty only really comes when we have to take seriously the intellectual and spiritual world Wulstan inhabited and the way in which that affected his thoughts and actions. Even if we would describe ourselves as religious, those long unseen hours of prayer, those daily distributions of alms to the poor, those foot-washings, they are a world away from our usual experience. I don’t mean that we do not pray, or that we do not give alms; but the way in which we do those things has changed. The way in which we live has changed. More and more things clamour for our attention. Even in a monastery, we have to spend time on matters that would never have troubled Wulstan or his contemporaries. The world we inhabit is larger, noisier and apparently much more complex. So, where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us confronting something we may find uncongenial: the reality of a sanctity that, at one level, baffles and bewilders yet, at another, rings true. Wulstan was a saint and it is as such that he has a claim on us today. It is in his holiness, in his closeness to God, and in his activity as intercessor on our behalf that we find his relevance. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different age or context from the one with which we are familiar. He is part of that great Communion of Saints that embraces the whole of creation. As such, he is very close to us even now. We can rejoice in his closeness and learn from him. St Wulstan, pray for us!

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No Comfort: There Is None

For all of us there comes a time when we are unable to comfort someone we love. There is nothing we can say or do that will ease their pain. We can only mutely register their need and pray that God will do what we cannot. It is at such times that we know our own fragility and are humbled by our incapacity. We discover that all our ambitions and dreams are as nothing compared with this desire to help another. We are finally freed from our obsession with self, but at the cost of feeling a pain so intense that it numbs us utterly. Overstatement? If you think so, you probably have not yet experienced what I am describing. This morning that experience of aching helplessness is being undergone at many a hospital bedside, in prison waiting-rooms, refugee camps and behind the curtains of respectable houses on respectable streets that give every appearance of knowing no need. Most of us have a busy day ahead, filled with plans for this and that, shot through, I hope, with moments of joy and gladness. Let us remember, and pray for, those less fortunate — those who grieve silently, inwardly, for whom there is no comfort, given or received. It is the work of the Communion of Saints and, as such, our work, too.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Saints Day 2013

I made the mistake of re-reading last year’s post for this day and realised that it says most of what I want to say this year too, so I’ll spare you the repetition. There’s just one thing to add. A twitterstorm yesterday afternoon has heightened my awareness of the need for real holiness among the people of God. I don’t mean the kind of self-conscious ‘sanctity’ that seems chiefly to consist in adopting all the currently fashionable attitudes of liberal left or conservative right, I mean the kind of holiness that costs: the holiness of prayer, sacrifice and service; the kind of holiness that shakes us out of our complacency and changes us for ever; the holiness that reflects the holiness of God himself. It is that kind of holiness we celebrate today, not only among the saints in heaven but also among the saints on earth.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Saints 2012

Last year, in my post for this feast, I tried to express the connection between All Saints and All Souls:

The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I realise, however, that for many people both feasts are problematic. As always, I suggest reading through the preface of the Mass in order to gain insight into the theology of the feast in question. Today’s is rich in scriptural allusion, but I’d like to single out one aspect that doesn’t depend on knowledge of scripture so much as a modicum of imagination. The preface ends with the words

And so, we glorify you with the multitude of Saints and Angels, as with one voice of praise we acclaim . . .

They are a reminder that the Saints now enjoying the bliss of heaven are one with the saints (= Church members) on earth and TOGETHER we glorify God. Neither is complete without the other. We can go further and say that we are the connection between All Saints and All Souls, for it is our privilege, as it is our duty, to be the bond of prayer between the two. In short, today invites us to reflect on the meaning of the communion of saints, a phrase we repeat often enough in the Creed without necessarily seeing how it reaches into own ordinary, humdrum lives. If we could but see the glory that surrounds us, how changed our lives would be! We are, so to say, the theology of today’s feast enfleshed. Or at least, we ought to be.

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Praying for the Sick

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes prompts a few thoughts about praying for the sick. What do we think we are doing?

First of all, we are obviously obeying biblical injunctions to pray for the sick that they may recover; but what are we doing when recovery is unlikely: for example, when the person for whom we are praying is very old and tired and wants to go home to God? I think prayer for the sick in such situations is praying on behalf of the sick person. Even a bad cold can make it difficult for us to do the things we normally do, and prayer is no exception. It can be a thousand times worse when we have a serious illness that exhausts us or makes us so ‘down’ that our spiritual lives go blank. It is then that knowing others are praying for us, that the communion of saints is holding us up before God, may yield a grain of comfort and encouragement. Finally, when we pray for the sick, we pray for ourselves. There is none of us who is not in need of healing, but most of us don’t know our own sickness or refuse to acknowledge it.

Today, when we pray for the sick and those who care for them, let us not forget to pray for ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation in Christ.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

All Saints

The communion of saints is something I never tire of meditating on. The thought that you and I are saints by virtue of our membership of the Church is always uplifting. Weak, fallible, crotchety creatures that we are, there is something about us that is infinitely more important than the sum of our failures. Add to that our fellowship with the saints in heaven, and you can see why the Church regards the Solemnity of All Saints as one of the most important feasts of the year. With the celebration of All Souls tomorrow, this great feast of the Church will be complete: the Church in heaven, the Church on earth and the Church in purgatory, awaiting the resurrection.

I suspect that for most people this rather lofty and liturgical conception of All Saints is much less interesting that the ‘tents and temple’ situation at St Paul’s. I don’t pretend to understand what is going on, but it is deeply troubling that, as many have mentioned, a dispute about capitalism should have become a dispute about the Church. It is in the nature of tent dwellers that they should move on; the temple stands as a reminder of the eternal. St Bede’s most important book, De Templo, was a sustained meditation on Solomon’s temple as an image of the Church with lots of number theory thrown in. Perhaps it would make good reading today for the tent dwellers around St Paul’s because it asserts the unity of the Church, both those who dwell within and those stuck outside in the courts, and the salvation possible to us all in Christ.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Feast of the Visitation

The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral
The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, Chartres Cathedral

When Paul VI moved the feast of the Visitation to 31 May, he ensured that May, ‘Mary’s month’, would finally have a feast of Our Lady, and what a beautiful feast it is!

There is something very moving about Mary’s making the difficult journey to visit her kinswoman when she was herself pregnant. Equally moving is Elizabeth’s amazed and humble greeting, ‘Why should the mother of my Lord come to me?’ We tend to think of the Visitation as the feast of the Magnificat, that glorious canticle of praise that fell from Mary’s lips, but perhaps for us it is Elizabeth’s question that matters. Why should the saints, chief of whom is Mary, bother themselves with us?

The Visitation is yet another reminder of the strength of the communion of saints, of the bonds of prayer and mutual concern that bind us together. The communion of saints is a reality here and now as well as hereafter. When times are hard, there is a tendency to put ourselves first, arguing that we cannot afford to be generous to others. Some British charities are experiencing the truth of this as donations decline and the work they do for for the poor or disadvantaged has to end. Today we have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to encourage us: we can and must help others and in so doing we may help more than we know. We must be saints for others.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail