The Fragility of Hope

Is it just me, or do the news headlines of the last few weeks seem to be full of sadness? We read of natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and wildfires, taking their toll of human life; disease spreading fear and death into countries already ravaged by war and civil unrest; the unremitting violence of terrorists and thugs; and then the high-profile deaths of some who have taken their own lives or who have been brutally battered in their homes or on our supposedly ‘safe’ streets. We read of broken promises, agreements reneged upon and political spats that may have consequences for years to come. It all seems very dark, and then we add to it the stories few others may know about: the family torn apart by alcoholism, the would-be nun living in a homeless shelter because her bishop has closed the monastery in which she used to live, the famous person close to despair. It is difficult, in such circumstance, to keep our hope up, especially if we think of hope as something that innoculates us against doubt or fear. Depression, anxiety, even a fleeting feeling of being down in the dumps, are realities we have to face.

This morning I found my own personal encouragement in something that may strike others as strange. In today’s gospel (Mark 3. 20-35) we read that those hostile to Jesus said, ‘Beelzebul is in him!’ Think about that for a moment. It is an utter travesty of the truth, but Jesus had to live with it. The argument he uses to refute the scribes’ allegation impresses us, because we know the truth of the matter, but I wouldn’t mind betting that at the time, both to him and his hearers, it looked a little weak. There was no act of power to substantiate what he said. We do not often think of Jesus as needing hope.* Trust in the Father, yes, but hope, no. I think, however, that this is an instance of Jesus’ living by hope, uncertain of the outcome, but continuing nonetheless. It is a variant of what I have called elsewhere ‘just plodding on’. In our weakest moments, when everything seems black, that is all we can do. We cannot summon up a feeling of faith we do not have; we just have to go on.

Please pray today for those who feel they cannot go on; and give thanks for those whose humanity enables them to reach out to others in their need and give them comfot.

* I speak of Jesus in his humanity, not as he was and is as the Second Person of the Trinity.

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On Planting a Lilac Tree

Yesterday we planted a lilac tree. Or rather, D. Lucy did most of the work while I merely supervised and indulged in vague thoughts about the lost gardens of Aleppo and the vanished Lemoine nursery that developed the cultivar we planted, Syringa Vulgaris Belle de Nancy. There is something about tree-planting that is very life affirming. We plant, knowing that we shall never see the tree in its full-grown beauty but with the hope that its leaves and blossom will delight another generation. Tree-planting is a truly anonymous act, a collaboration with nature rather than a defiance of it and, as John Evelyn understood so well, an act with consequences beyond the particular. Trees may be felled or sicken and die; gardens may be destroyed, nurseries disappear, but the impulse to plant, to cherish and to grow remains. We do not know what will be the fate of our little lilac tree, but it was planted with a prayer — a reminder of Eden, of Calvary, and of the hope that sustains us all.

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Worry and St Cyril of Alexandria

Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in  later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.

I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.

I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.

 

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Email and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas and Companions

The death of Ray Tomlinson, the creator of email, probably made many of us pause for a moment. Email is both a blessing and a bane. It is immediate, cheap and a huge help in keeping in touch with multitudes of people, especially for those of us who have not yet adapted fully to the smartphone and social media. It is also a significant time-waster, a source of scamming and dangerous when one is rattled about something. As far as I know, no one has yet published, electronically or otherwise, a collection of the world’s greatest emails; and I have a hunch no one ever will. Email is essentially transient, read this moment, forgotten the next.

What a good thing, therefore, that email didn’t exist when Perpetua wrote her account of the circumstances leading up to her martyrdom and that of Felicitas. It is a kind of prison diary, written in the first person and full of the sort of detail that gives the story an amazing vigour. There are two versions of the Passio, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here, and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation into English here. It is one of the earliest texts, if not the earliest, written by a Christian woman to have survived. We are at once under the Carthaginian skies of 7 March, A.D. 203 and can feel the heat, hear the brutal cries and smell the sweat and blood of the arena where an extraordinary display of courage is taking place. There is pathos, too, for Perpetua, the nobly-born, is a nursing mother and Felicitas, a slave, is in an advanced state of pregnancy. As we read the text, we begin to realise that this account is not merely historical, something from nearly two thousand years ago that belongs to a vanished world. It is appallingly, violently contemporary; and the dreams and the arguments Perpetua records as leading inexorably to her death still have the power to shock because they have their dreadful equivalents today.

Let us pray for persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East, especially those who are subject to the brutality of IS and its imitators; and let us not lose hope. SS Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that death is not the end but the entrance into life, and that those who kill the body cannot kill the soul.

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A God of Integrity and a Saviour

The title of this blog post is taken from the first reading at Mass today, Isaiah 45.6-8, 18, 21-25. If you have time — and surely, you do have time — read the omitted verses as well. It is a magnificent piece of writing, expressing the power of God, his intimate connection with creation and his tender love towards all that is. I think the astronauts on the International Space Station, whether they be religious or not, must have something of the same sense of wonder and awe as the prophet Isaiah when they look back at the earth and see the beauty and fragility of our slowly-spinning blue globe.

There is a paradox here, as so often. The planet on which we live is torn by war and division, sullied by our abuse of the environment, its beauty equalled only by the brutality of its inhabitants (you and me, to speak plainly). But that is not the whole story. We may be just a little speck of life in the Universe, but a little speck with a glorious destiny. As Isaiah proclaims, our God is a God of integrity who will restore wholeness, a Saviour who will redeem our sin and failure. In these dark days, when the weather is bleak and the news full of stories of death and disaster, it can be hard to maintain hope, but that is preciasely why we are given Advent. These few days invite us to reflect on what it means not to have a Saviour, not to know the mercy of God, and, having reflected, to experience anew the hope which is already fulfilled in Christ. The Promise of the Messiah is for all generations, including our own.

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Broken Dreams

The people of Thailand awoke this morning to find that they are under martial law, although the Army has denied anything as definite as a military coup. The situation in Ukraine seems ever more desperate; and if we look at the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ that so excited Western journalists has turned, by and large, to a bleak and unpromising winter. Not so long ago, the economic ‘growth miracles’ being hailed in Europe and the U.S.A. proved they were no such thing and ushered in a long and dreary period of financial failure and business collapse. Yet still we dream of a better tomorrow. The shape our dream takes is determined by our own ambitions, fears, desires, but the common element is always that the future will be an improvement on the present.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can make us complacent or unappreciative of the present. Christians are not immune. As we look forward with hope to eternal life, we can ignore or pay too little attention to what is happening here and now. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ is one we must all learn to celebrate. We cannot live in the past nor in the future: now is all we have, so we must make sure it is a good ‘now’ — not in any self-indulgent, vapid way, but as the time given us for a reason and a purpose.

St Benedict, as you might expect, has quite a lot to say on this subject. Today, for example, in RB 4. 22–43, he lists among the tools of good works several that concern inner and outer truthfulness and control over one’s appetites. We cannot put off doing good till tomorrow: our salvation must be worked out today. There is an urgency about his insistence on living virtuously because it affects not just us but everyone with whom we come into contact. His prayer towards the end of the Rule is that we may all be brought to everlasting life (RB 72.12). All, without exception. That is a big dream to have, and one that, please God, will not end as broken.

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Loss of Enthusiasm

Whether we call it loss of enthusiasm or End of the World Syndrome, we all know what it is: the moment when feelings go flat and the world turns monochrome. We no longer believe, no longer hope, all is is blank and bleak. When this moment comes in the novitiate, then the real work of conversion can begin. We no longer try for perfection by our own efforts but settle for the rather messier, less obvious work of the Holy Spirit in us. (cf RB 7.70) So, too, with life in general. Enthusiasm is a great quality, especially when the inspiration comes from God; but it is not meant to be a permanent state. If, today, you are feeling knee-high to a grasshopper, lacking energy and bored stiff by everything, do not assume that something dreadful has happened to you. You are simply discovering anew what it means to be human. Like it or not, we have to be human to be redeemed; and isn’t that a rather wonderful and inspiring thought?

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O Radix Jesse: hope that does not disappoint

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

Some scripture texts worth pondering as we listen to the antiphon are Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16

 

We all have a tendency to believe in D.I.Y. salvation or, if not that, to put our hope in political/economic solutions. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ opened up the hope of greater freedom and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, but the latest news from Syria and Egypt, as well as disturbing reports from Libya, suggest that we may have been over-optimistic. The death yesterday of Kim Jong-il, while welcomed by some as removing a tyrant, has raised the spectre of an unstable nuclear power. Add to that the fragility of the Eurozone, the British economy in the doldrums and the prospect of a rather bleak New Year, and one can see why some fear the emergence of new dictatorships in place of the old. It is in this context that we sing O Radix Jesse. It reminds us that Christian values are never the world’s values; that the promise we rely on is one that will transform the world; that our hope and trust are in a Saviour who will be given to us, not in anything we can do ourselves*.

The symbolism of the antiphon is beautiful. We think of Jesus as the flower that blossoms on Jesse’s ancient stem and fills the whole world with its scent. Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God’s faithfulness by making good God’s promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. The promise to Israel, the mercy shown to the gentiles, the hope we all share is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted, the divine harmony restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, ‘Come and free us; delay no longer!’

* That does not mean we need do nothing. On the contrary we must do all we can to bring about the Kingdom.

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Christ the King

The last Sunday of the liturgical year is marked by the comparatively modern feast of Christ the King. It began as a response to the challenges of the 1920s (perceived by Pius XI to be nationalism and secularism) but was developed under Paul VI as an expression of the Church’s eschatological hope (he changed the title to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and gave the feast a new date and status, that of a solemnity). We who celebrate the feast today can surely find reason to pray for the Lordship of Christ to extend through the whole of creation. As so often, the Preface gives us the theology of the feast in a little. Christ’s kingship is that of the eternal high priest, redeemer of the human race, and his kingdom one in which justice, love and peace flourish. Could there be a more hopeful end to the year?

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Hopelessness

We’ve all experienced it: moments when hope dies and we are faced with something too big and bleak for comprehension. It may have been the death of someone we love, a diagnosis of terminal disease, the collapse of a business or some other dream of a better, brighter future. Hope is always a cinderella virtue, neglected until needed, and given at best a grudging welcome even then. As Christians, we don’t want to acknowledge, even to ourselves, how hopeless we feel.

It is at times like these that I find Catholicism a great help. I don’t have to pretend to a hope I don’t have. I can rage and rail and call on the aid of the saints, just as I call on the prayers of my friends on earth. Saints Simon and Jude, whose feast is today, are a case in point. St Jude is popularly known as the patron saint of hopeless causes. He is the saint whose aid we invoke when the going gets tough. It seems fitting that he is the patron saint of the Chicago Police Department, some obscure football clubs and many hospitals. He is a good friend to have in heaven.

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