The Cross

Jesus’ prediction of his passion – in the wake of Peter’s Confession of faith – has popped up in the Gospel readings of the Liturgy 3 times in the last few weeks. Coincidence is probably what it is, but then coincidences seem to have a way of producing consequences, and they are always susceptible to providence.

There’s something quite muscular and manly about the cross. The idea of going through great physical agony for the one you love, laying down your life so that your bride may live, it all has obvious purpose and meaning. To the man with red blood in his veins, the doer rather than the talker, it is very appealing.

However, if we maintain that Jesus’ suffering was greater than that of any other human before or after him, then the physical aspect must have been the least of his trials. When I look out over a congregation on a Sunday or weekday, I see the faces of people who would suffer any physical trial if it meant their hearts didn’t hurt. The face of a woman who has lost her brother, the mother who has lost her son, the single parent abandoned by the one they pledged their body and soul to, they would trade their spiritual nails in an instant for physical ones. We can bear any pain for love, but take that love away, drop a person to the abyss of nothingness… how can the heart continue?

Now picture Jesus on the Cross, abandoned. Abandoned by his followers, abandoned by his friends, abandoned by the Father. Only his sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross. He chose this, the loneliness, the utter desolation, the rejection and utter humiliation at the hands of his beloved creation. His pain was mirrored by his mother, and he had inflicted it upon her himself. Years of intimacy transformed in an instant when he set out on his mission. He doesn’t even use her name at the Wedding feast of Cana, and when she seeks him out, he will not even give her an audience. Reduced to the role of least – as befits the greatest – she can not even act out even the most natural of motherly instincts, of comforting her son in his agony.

Some crosses we make for ourselves, many crosses beset us, none we would choose. But if we seek comfort in the Cross, don’t look only to the nails in Christ’s hands and feet. Look to his broken heart, and know that he chose it for you, who broke it. An eight year old boy once asked me if Jesus was happy as he hung on the Cross. After recovering from the shock, I replied that he must have been because he was giving his life for those he loved. However, now I’m not so sure. We weren’t made for happiness in this life, we were made to love. Jesus loved to the bitter end, the bitter bitter end, and he rose again. Happiness is merely the bait which hooks us on to the line of love, and love always leads us to the cross, if it is authentic. Take it up, let it break you, drop it, but pick it up again. Life without the Cross ends in death, life with the Cross walks through death into eternal joy.

We walk by Faith and not by sight

Homily for the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Mother Theresa

1st Reading: Ez. 17:22-24

Psalm: 91:2-3. 13-16. R/cf. v.2

2nd Reading: 2 Cor. 5:6-10

Gospel: Mk. 4:26-34

We walk by faith and not by sight

Picture the scene: a tiny woman, barely 5ft tall, stands on the border of a bloody war zone, the perilous green line, in Beirut. There is a hospital of mentally and physically disabled girls on the other side of town, and she wants to help them. To attempt to cross the town will mean almost certain death. Aid workers and politicians crowd her vision and tell her she must not go. She responds, “we will go tomorrow”. They set off, with the sound of mortar shells and gunfire heavy in their memory… they cross untouched, they reach the girls, and they attend to their needs. Such was the faith of Mother Theresa, who saw a path through darkness though eyesight showed otherwise.

We walk by faith and not by sight

We might think to ourselves when we hear this and other stories “I wish I had mother Theresa’s faith”. Of course we would, but we might shudder with terror at the price she paid for that faith. What does God say to Ananias when he sends him to baptise the newly converted St Paul? “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name”. And suffer Mother Theresa did. For all of her religious life, she went through the deepest darkness, receiving absolutely no consolation in prayer, no sign from heaven, no comfort. And yet, had the letters to her Spiritual Director not been released after her death, we would never have known, because in her life she radiated joy. We would never have known the darkness, how deeply buried she was. She was the mustard seed, deep down in the earth, around her life sprang up, and now millions take shelter in the branches of a religious order that spans the globe, nursing the poorest of the poor, striding where mighty men fear to tread.

We walk by faith and not by sight

 The world we see around us is cruel, it is dark. There is great darkness in our lives, and there can be no person here who has not said maybe more than once “God, what are you playing at? Where is the evidence of your work in the world? Where is the evidence of you work in the Church, or in my own life?” Reason forces us to accept the world as we see it, but faith invites us to tread the invisible path through this life, so that none of its trials may destroy us. Jesus Christ is the way, and his way led to the deepest darkness. Could there ever have been a more hopeless scene than Good Friday? When we are suffering and life seems to overwhelm us, when nothing makes sense and all hope is gone, we might remember that God in Jesus Christ experienced it too. In prayer, in her deepest darkness, Mother Theresa remembered Christ hanging on the Cross, crying out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” How she could identify with that prayer of complete abandonment, uttered by the very lips of God! But then followed the words which would define her whole ministry “I thirst”. From the place of darkest agony, she could identify the call of God, “win souls for me, satisfy my thirst”. And so she did.

When you can’t see the road ahead, when all avenues seem closed, when sadness, temptation and despair cloud your vision, know that God is at work in spite of it all. The most fertile ground is often the purest muck, and some of us have to be planted deep in it to grow. Trust in God, for in the trials of life we walk by faith and not by sight.

Unto Us

In the time it took the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly to kill 17 people, around 500,000 children were killed in the wombs of their mothers.

One of the consequences of 24 hour news and social media is that you get to observe the moral confusion that would normally go on solely in people’s minds were they not to have a laptop in front of them. Ill considered, irrational, ‘extreme’ actions tend to provoke the same response, and now we get to see what they look like. For example, one minute a person will proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’, and you can almost see the thought process, like the guys who can read the code in the Matrix, “Oh wait, Charlie Hebdo was a right wing mag. That’s bad, isn’t it?” Next status update: ‘Je suis Ahmed!’, and so it goes on. When I think of my electronic trail, I shudder. My confused little brain splattered all over the web forever.

One moment, reported after the event, troubled me. It was the interview with Michele Catalano, the Kouachi brothers’ final hostage. Captured by these ‘monsters’, he found that they were quite polite, friendly even. They shook hands and assured him that they did not intend to kill him. He made them cups of coffee, dressed wounds and was eventually set free. “Damn”, the unarticulated word in my heart, “they’re human now”. They too, were some mother’s sons, brought to birth in pain and love (they necessarily go together in this life). I wished I hadn’t heard that, because now I felt for them. My moral confusion had been transformed into moral obligation by the revelation of their humanity. So I prayed for them.

The humanity of the subjects concerned in most debates over abortion usually involve one casualty, if not materially, then always notionally. Abortion is ‘the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth’ (Evangelium Vitae #58). This is no more than a strict rational and scientific definition of the act, no judgment is yet implied. From facts, we can move to judgments of the moral quality of an action. Thank God, most people today deem the death penalty for criminals to be morally unjustifiable, and even those who don’t would hold that ending innocent life is wrong. Seeing as the human being in the womb could not be more innocent, there would seem to be no category of person for whom the killing of an unborn child is morally justifiable. And yet… 500,000.

For such a number to die (the global annual figure is around 50 million), a state of collective, mutual forgetfulness must take place, of many of those who champion the right to choose abortion and those who champion the right to life of the unborn child. The opposed views can both agree – I’m not saying that they always do, but they can – that there are two subjects directly involved in the question of abortion, the mother and the unborn child, and that they are both human beings. Reason dictates that they do. What can be so easily forgotten is the humanity, so to speak, of the human beings in question. The unborn child is in a more precarious situation because he or she lacks even the simplest form of defense: ‘He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears’ (Evangelium Vitae #59). I’m sure that legislation for abortion is defended by many good hearted and compassionate men and woman who can visibly see and experience the suffering of women who have been made pregnant as a result of rape or long term abuse. The humanity of these victims is evident, their suffering is evident, and compassion for the one who can be seen takes over. We want to take the problem away, or ease the pain of suffering. However, if we take too long to meditate on the humanity of the person in the womb, helping the person before our eyes becomes more difficult, because now we assume the moral obligation to care for both equally. From the ‘pro-life’ perspective, the noble desire to defend the defenceless can often lead us to forget or at least sideline the concerns and needs of the vulnerable mother, often alone, abused, and afraid. It is easy to bemoan the immorality of present society, or a consumerist culture which allows abortion for even the most trivial reasons, but do we weep for the abused, the unloved and afraid? Do we give of our own resources, do we give of our own time and convenience, engaging with the fragile human face of the mother? If not, can we truly say that we are pro-life?

The extreme cases do not justify the morally unjustifiable, but unless our response is extreme love, love which sacrifices all to save both lives from oblivion, then a true culture of life will never be fostered. We need to feel the pain of those who suffer, the broken heart of the mother who mourns her child but feels she has no one to turn to. We need to surround with love the 11-year-old rape victim who cannot even comprehend what is happening to her. God created the world in an eternal act of love and redeemed it with a supreme sacrificial gift. How can life be won if it is not borne of self-sacrificing, compassionate love?

One of the hurdles that a young man has to leap in his application for seminary is to have a psychological examination. Mine consisted of an interview with a psychologist from Brighton. The dilemma he presented to me that day still resonates. He asked me:

“What would you do if a woman came to you and told you she’d just had an abortion?”

“I would try to help her to think on it and ask if she wanted to go to confession”

“No, no. She has thought on it. She is convinced it was the right thing to do”

“Then I would have to try to convince her otherwise.”

“That’s not going to work. She is crying, she is distraught. She has come to you. What are you going to do?”

“…. I guess I’ll just hold her”

He had forced me into a corner. I was trying to solve a problem, but the doctor would not let me escape the human face of the person so desperately in need of love. I would not be able to save the life of the child already dead, but I could be part of the redemption of the life of the one I held, and those she bore in future. We all have a chance to be a part of such privileged moments. On those moments, a culture of life is built.

The Son of God Became a Man for Me

I think I’m going to make an annual habit of coming to Rome for the 6th of January. This morning – with my fellow pilgrims Roisin and Aisling, I was at Mass over the tomb of St Peter with Pope Francis for the feast of the Epiphany, and in the evening, I concelebrated Mass over the tomb of his holy namesake, St Francis of Assisi. Quite a day!

You might well ask, “Gosh Father, haven’t you had enough religion over Christmas?” My answer would be a flat no. Christmas is a busy time for everybody, in one way or another, and I’m sure many of my brothers will understand what that means for a priest. Congregations swell over Christmas Eve and Christmas day as people add that final Christmassy tingle to their festivities before falling in a heap on Boxing Day and wanting it to be over. So just as Christmas has finally begun, its life has been sucked out. It’s sales time, after all.

Christmas – the celebration of the Birth of the Word Made Flesh, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – has been literally consumed, in England, by CHRISTMAS: a big fat mouth that just wants to eat your wallet. The increasingly pathetic attempts by our advertisers and TV producers to manufacture ‘that Christmas feeling’ without Christ makes for depressing viewing. It’s boring, and the Christian air in this country has become so thin as to be unbreathable. Thank God for good friends of faith.

I remember the story of Cardinal Basil Hume, approached by a Television reporter. The reporter asked him, “so Cardinal Hume, what does Christmas mean for you?” to which he simply responded “the Son of God became a man for me.” That is the awe-filled mystery of Christmas. A thousand lifetimes of contemplation could not do it justice. Thank God we have at least twelve days a year to feast our minds on it.

Shamefully, I rarely do. But this year was a bit different. New Year’s Day began with a midnight celebration of Mass on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, preceded by a Holy Hour before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament – I was pleased by the turnout; it’s a keeper – and then a flight to Rome at the crack of dawn. In the intervening days, we have climbed the Scala Sancta (the staircase of Pontius Pilate’s palace, where Jesus was tried) on our knees, prayed at the four major Basilicas, the shrine of St Paul’s martyrdom, at a newly discovered Marian Shrine (Our Lady of the Revelation, she deserves her own blog!), before the true Cross of Christ in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme…. way too much stuff to keep on listing! This has been crowned by the daily celebration of Mass at the Altar of the Crib in Saint Mary Major. Above the altar, encased in glass, is what is believed to be a relic of the Sacred Crib, in which the child Jesus slept his first nights on earth. Who knows? However, the fact that this sacred relic had carried the prayers of so many men and women over the centuries, that they had pinned their hopes on the one who became a man for them, really moved me as I looked forward at the elevation of the host. My hands, the sacred crib, both holding the Word Made Flesh. Simply awesome.

A great crowd was gathered on the main square of Assisi this evening, as we walked to the Basilica of St Francis for Mass. Befana, the Epiphany Witch, was climbing down the tower, cheered on by children and filmed by the adults with their ‘selfie-sticks’. Befana is bigger than Father Christmas in Italy, and her origins are entirely Christian. Legend has it that she bumped into the Magi a few days before they found Jesus. They asked her where they might find the infant king, but she had no clue. However, being a good host, she invited the Magi to rest at her home that night. The next day, they set off, and invited her to join them on their quest. She refused, but later had a change of heart and set out in search of the wise men and Jesus. She’s still looking today, and pops by every Epiphany eve to fill the stockings of children with sweets. A cultural icon, still ‘in cammino’ – to quote our Holy Father’s homily this morning – toward the child Jesus, like all of us who love him. How much more ‘Christmassy’ can Christmas get?

Today is the last full day, and we set off to the tombs of St Francis and St Clare. Brother and sister in Christ, joined more closely than any fleshly bond will allow, they found their true life bound up in the Christmas mystery, in the one who became exceedingly poor on earth so that he may make us exceedingly rich in the things of heaven. I’ll be back next year!

Lord, Have Mercy

About two weeks ago, I had a new prayer experience.

Prayer has been difficult this year. There have been days when I felt that I would rather do anything else in the world than pray. This is quite hard to hold in tandem with the compulsion I feel to actually pray. It’s a bit like putting the positive ends of two magnets together: the more that little (frankly bloody annoying) voice calls me to chapel, the further I run. YouTube, Facebook and FIFA 15 have been the beneficiaries.

Problem is, things fall apart without prayer. I mean, seriously. That’s the benefit of having had a regular prayer life, you see the difference, and most importantly, you feel it in your soul like a big anchor hanging around your heart. Things really have fallen apart this year, for me, and I have avoided God like the plague. Thus the vicious cycle: one ceases to pray, and things fall apart from the inside and the outside, but then we’re too afraid to return to the source, in case we fail again. Worse still, we don’t return to the source because we’re too ashamed, thinking that we have to make things right before we can speak to Him again.

So I eventually dragged myself into the Church, heavy hearted. I sat there, and as usual when nothing happens, I picked up a book. I opened on this paragraph:

Love consists in the fact that we do not love. As long as we haven’t grasped this by experiencing our own incapacity to love, as long as we aren’t at home with this truth, charity won’t be able to find a home in our hearts or flow freely within us. First of all, we have to accept the fact that we do not love, that we are incapable of breaking the circle that closes us in on ourselves. We must be absolutely convinced of this; otherwise, charity will remain for us just a good desire, a sterile seed incapable of producing genuine fruit.’

It really hit me hard, so much so that I began to squirm in my seat. At that moment, I didn’t know what it was that had hit me, only that the words I had read were true. I wanted to lay down, I felt heavy and depressed. I found that the gap between the altar and the tabernacle was just a few inches longer than my body length, so I lay there, still squirming. Then like the whistling steam from a stovetop kettle, these words left my mouth: “have mercy”.

The same pattern repeated itself over the next few days. It felt like a relief, and yet I was still sad afterwards. I carried my heavy heart into the session with my spiritual director. I told him what had happened and that I didn’t quite understand my response. He asked me how I felt now and I said “I feel like I’m mourning”. That was the nail on the head.

“What are you mourning?”

“I don’t know… I feel like I’m failing as a priest”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, in every area of my life, I’ve been falling desperately short of the ideal of the priesthood….”

“Is that your ideal?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.”

“And the image you set up is dead?”

“Yes”

“Good”

It all started to click into place. I had been spiralling further away from God as I tried desperately to hold on to my own graven image of what I wanted to be for him. After every failure, I would pray for him to restore me to that state. But why would he, if he loved me? The image had to die, the sarcophagus had to be torn open. Brutally exposed to my total need and dependency, of my nothingness before him, I realised that I had to offer him precisely that, nothing. I did not love. I mean I did, obviously, in the human sense of the word. But not in the way I thought I was loving, not in the way we’re all called to love. I can’t love with the love God wants me to love. Only he can do that in me. Something has to die, and it is hard to let go.

That was why I was relieved at the words of Bishop Alan today, at our Mass for vocations. I expected the same old yarn about how you get happier every day as a priest, how it’s an exciting wondrous adventure. It really doesn’t attract vocations. Just tell the lads the truth, they’ll lap it up! Tell he did. He said, “as a priest, every day you should feel empty. You should remain empty so that God can fill you”. No glittering pitch, only a truth-laden gauntlet, filled with real redemptive suffering. If a man wants to be happy, there is no happiness greater, as long as he lets go of what he thinks happiness is or should be for him. If a man wants to love, there is no love greater, but he is called to be possessed of an eternal love not of his own making. To know mercy, something has to die. God became a man so that the old man, the graven image set up by sin, could die. From the tomb rose the new God-man. Only by this supreme act of mercy can the new man live, love and rejoice.

So I get to the end of the year renewed. I’m not under any illusions, I’m only at the beginning of God’s project. So much has to die. But I am so relieved, there is a crack in the tomb, light is peaking through. At the Mass today, while Bishop Alan pronounced the words “Behold the Lamb of God…” I looked down at the host in my hand and thought “bloody hell, what am I still doing here?!” and then I smiled. It was a moment of sheer gratitude. Lord, you are merciful, so tender and understanding, so gentle and kind. Have mercy on me, a helpless sinner, and thank you for calling me to be your priest.

An Evening with Bishop Alan

Last night, I went along with the Walsingham House youth retreat team to “a conversation with Bishop Alan”, our new Bishop of Brentwood. It was hosted by Fr Dominic Howarth, the vocations director, and up to 60 young people were in attendance. I had the honour, along with Mr Andy Lewis, head of RE at Sacred Heart of Mary School in Upminster, of “live tweeting” the event. It’s the first time I’ve live tweeted, and it will teach me to be merciful; no more will I think a person is being rude as they surf their phone while I speak, they are clearly just live tweeting what I say… Anyway, if you’d like to read in tweet form what was said last night, check out the link below put together by Andy, or click on the hashtag #vocalan. As you read, I’m sure you will agree, Bishop Alan is pretty awesome!

https://storify.com/iTeachRE/bishop-alan-in-conversation

Mary Immaculate

This is a blog I wrote a couple of years ago for the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service web page blog. It’s a little late for the feast, but I hope you enjoy it anyway:

 

I imagine that many who read the posts on this blog will cite their mothers as the person of prime importance in their lives. If we could ask God who the most important person in his divine life is – outside of the communion of persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit of His own life – he would also say his mother. Just think, God created the very woman who was to bear Him into the world. It is no wonder that she should be in possession of certain favours that no-one else is in possession of. It is the supreme favour of God to Mary that we celebrate today. We believe that from the first instant of her conception in the womb of her mother, Mary was preserved from original sin.

Original sin is the state into which each of us is conceived. Destined for holiness from the beginning by God, we have this tendency to turn away from His plan, to wrestle against it in an attempt to be kings and queens of our own castle. It is a mystery which the story of Adam and Eve attempts to elucidate; Adam, tempted by the serpent and encouraged by Eve, takes of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, from the one tree God had forbidden him to take. This disobedience, this attempt to take by right that which was destined to be a free gift from God, is a mark or a stain which has passed itself down to every generation of man since the beginning. While its origin belongs to storytelling, its evidence can be traced throughout history in the actual sins of men and women.

As genetic anomalies spread and mutate over time, so has sin. From the beginning, however, God – the Supreme Doctor – had a healing plan. He would send his son, who would reverse the course of our inherited condition. By his teaching, he would teach us how to live with it and struggle against it. By offering himself at the Last Supper, he would give us a healing medicine and a food of spiritual nourishment when our condition overcame us. By giving His life on the cross, he took the disease down into the grave on our behalf By his resurrection, he presented our humanity back to us, cured, free and redeemed. To live the life of a renewed humanity is the gift and responsibility of everyone who has been baptised.

Mary is the guarantee of the promise which awaits us in heaven. She is free from the mark of sin, it has no power over her. We might ask ourselves why God didn’t just do that same job on all of us and be done with it. Surely he could have, but Mary is not an exception to the rule of our salvation. She is, rather, proof that the effect of Jesus’ death and resurrection do not just reach forward in time; it touches all ages, past present and future. Mary was preserved from the sinful condition of humanity because of Christ’s sacrifice. She is the key part of the story, the drama of our salvation. As man and woman first cooperated from a state of original holiness to turn away from God, so Mary’s “yes” is humanity’s response to God’s original offer as it should have been. She is the Mother of the Redeemer, and the first of the redeemed.

It is a sign of God’s love and respect for us that he would not force us to turn to him. As he did with Mary, he invites us to accept his offer of life and love eternal. As he did for Mary, he provides the conditions upon which that life is possible, in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary is our model, Mary is our hope, and thanks to her “yes” to God, the effects of original sin which we bear need no longer be a fatal wound, but rather the battle scar of victory.

Need

The following is actually meant to go in the homilies section, but I couldn’t load the picture up on that page. Happy Advent!

1st Reading: Is. 63:16-17; 64:1.3-8
Psalm: 79:2-3. 15-16. 18-19. R/v.4
2nd Reading: 1 Cor. 1:3-9
Gospel: Mk. 13:33-37

“What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!”

Well, staying awake certainly wasn’t a problem for shoppers early Friday morning. I’m sure many of you will have seen the scenes broadcast on the BBC – crowds of people piling into shops at 6am, trampling over one another and fighting over a stack of discounted items. Since when did the so-called ‘Black Friday’ become a thing in this country anyway? Just another opportunity for our retailers in this spoilt, possession-possessed, materialist culture.

Many shoppers will have commented on how they ‘needed’ to get out shopping on Friday: “I need that TV, my son really wants it, and I can’t afford the top whack price”, “I need that extra lamp, other side of the living room is just a bit too dark”. Now I know there are exceptions, and that there may have been a few cases of genuine need which may have been met. However, I don’t remember the news reporting a scrum for discounted food.

Need. Really? I was struck by this picture which was posted on Facebook on Friday. Take a look (shows picture).
Define Necessity
Who is truly in need here? Perhaps next time we go to utter the word need in context of something we intend to buy, this image might come to mind. These children – members of the 1 billion who live below the absolute poverty line in the world today, who would have full bellies and content smiles merely feeding off the food we don’t bother to use – they know what need is. They do not want us to buy things for them, a gift at Christmas is not the latest PS4. They want what we already have, food, time, love.

Or do we? We have plenty of food, and yet obesity statistics in this country would suggest that we are enslaved to it. Oh the panic when I realise that the 24 pack of Walkers Crisps might not get us through Christmas Day, that I might actually have to, y’know, walk to the shops for some more. Time: People are so busy these days. Many a discussion I have with people where I tell them that they need to come to Mass every Sunday. A common response is, “oh I try Father, but sometimes it’s just so busy.” I know, I went to Pipps Hill retail park last Sunday to buy a wire for my computer. The place was full, and I was one of the new worshippers at the Church of Spend. Love: what does it say about ourselves if we panic over acquiring products in order to satisfy the wants – not the needs – of another? When I look at this picture, I see freedom and I see slavery. We are slaves, thinking that by acquisition we can acquire the immaterial. This boy is free. He knows his need, and he asks for it.

We need a Saviour, someone who can save us from our deeply sinful self-centredness, who can show us what our true need is, so that we may learn how to truly give. We enter the season of preparation for the coming of God who stripped himself of heaven, who became poor by assuming a human identity, and who lived in poverty with the poorest of the poor. He was the happiest man alive; possessing nothing, he was – and is, literally – the Lord of Creation. His joy was complete when he succeeded in giving everything of himself completely away, on the Cross. Acquiring nothing, he gave up his life, and with that act, ‘bought back’ (Redeemed) the whole of his creation. Please – and I am speaking mainly to myself – let’s not give to others what we feel we must acquire – we already have the gift, given to us when we were conceived, renewed when we took our first breath, and increasing in size every time we give it away. God gave himself to us to show us that we are a gift, and the gift is free. The lesson of divine love is simple: Give away what you have, give away what you are, give away what you know you need deep down. The return is rich indeed, and there’s enough to go round.

November Hope

Below is something I wrote for the front page of the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service November newsletter. Hope you like it.

November is the month of the Holy Souls. As days get darker, leaves fall from the trees and everything starts to look a bit stark, it’s only natural that our thoughts turn to the sadder aspects of life. There is nothing more sad than the memory of loved ones who have died.

However, for us who live in Christ Jesus, even the darkness is infused with hope. We don’t believe that auntie, uncle, nan, granddad, mum or dad, brother or sister just went straight up to heaven (unless they were actual Saints, in which case, awesome!!). Most of us, when we die, go to God as an unfinished article. We love Him, but we are not quite ready to behold the full weight of glory he won for us on the Cross and by his resurrection. Our souls need polishing, they need to be purified and prepared. We wouldn’t go to a party dressed shabbily, and we certainly can’t enjoy heaven unless we’re completely ready.

That’s where we, still living on earth, come in. Jesus conquered death and filled it with his own indestructible life. That means that even though you can no longer see and hold the one you loved so much, you can do things for them. What you do, how you live, has an effect for them even now. Their souls await the vision of God, they can’t do anything for themselves, but we can. By our sacrifices, our prayers, by offering up our daily sufferings for them, we speed them along on their process of purification and get them to God more quickly.

If that sounds a bit weird, think of it this way: When you made your mum a present or a card as a small child, did you buy the material? Did you even put it all together yourself? Probably not. Maybe dad helped you or one of your older siblings. But when you gave it to your mum, it was all yours and your mum accepted it as all yours, didn’t she? So it is with our Father in heaven. He sees his Son in every act of charity we are able to perform. Jesus gave his life for us and on our behalf, so that we would be able to offer this perfect act of love to the Father as if it were our own. How could he not see the connection between what we do now for the loved one who has died, and the goodness of the life of that person?

Give it a go, pray daily for your loved one, and tell God that whatever setbacks you face, whatever niggles and annoyances you have during the day, will be offered up on behalf of them. What a wonderful thing to know, that even the shadowy parts of our lives have meaning and can be transformed into love. Such is the life of one who belongs to Christ Jesus!

All of You

Those who know me will verify that I have a somewhat eclectic taste in music. On too many occasions have I leapt for my phone when, for example, I’ve realised that the beautiful Latin plainchant I am playing for my guests is to be followed by the slightly more vivid poetry of Ice-T or Tupac Shakur. Music for every mood, I suppose. As youth chaplain, I’m exposed to a lot of the popular music that is currently on the market, though in true Sun newspaper “old man doesn’t know who the Beatles are” style, I can never remember who is singing the song. One of the things I’ve noticed is just how much better the music is that they are listening to than I was listening to 20 years ago. I mean, at least objectively, after all, we all must retain an affection for the music of our youth, no matter how dire we accept it to have been; Chaka Demus and Pliers will never be up there with Beethoven, but guess which one makes my 25 most played.

Firstly, there seems to be a greater care of the music of the song, if that makes sense. The band or the soloist often play their own instruments as well as sing. This is a sign of authenticity and a declaration of ownership over what they produce. The music is often simpler and more clearly structured, a world away from the synthesised junk which seemed more popular in the 1990s. The music supports the song, rather than overwhelms it, providing a stage for the message of the singer. This brings us to the second improvement, the lyrics. The lyrics are heartfelt, they are real. I believe the singer, what he or she sings touches me and moves me to another place. Remember Adele’s performance of ‘Someone like you’ at the 2011 Brits? These beautifully crafted songs speak to our own experiences and fill us with a longing at once painful yet paradoxically desirable. We all need fun and inconsequential music, just as we need fun and inconsequential moments in our lives, to lighten things up, but if these become the chord that runs through all we think and do, it is a sign that we have given up on finding true fulfillment. It is a sign of deep-seated, numbed despair. So I am happy for our younger generation, the music they bring into the mainstream reflects dissatisfaction with the immediately pleasurable and a desire for a love as yet unfulfilled. We are made for more than that which we can perceive with our bodily senses. Imagine music, art, literature without desire for the immaterial, it just wouldn’t be.

The media by which our souls are opened are often the means God uses to further his own search for us. What more beautiful a selection of songs have we than the Psalms, unparalleled in the depth and range of emotion, revealing of God’s loving involvement in every aspect of our story? Many Psalms start out as a search of man, whether it be for forgiveness, for justice, or the cry of one who feels abandoned or hopeless. One in particular that I love is Psalm 72. It is the hymn of the man who shares with God how close he came to losing Him. He looks on the good fortune of those who have abandoned God, those to whom no trouble seems to come, blessed with the best and occupying the seats of power. No wonder that the psalmist thinks to himself…

‘How useless to keep my heart pure

and wash my hands in innocence

when I was stricken all day long

suffered punishment day after day’

Yet the envy aroused by the good fortune of the evil-doer is precisely the thing which caused the psalmist to recoil on himself, and to remember a deeper desire…

‘Then I said: “If I should speak like that,

I should abandon the faith of your people”’

He recounts how he returned to his senses and saw anew how slippery the path of evil-doers is. Reliant solely on finite persons and perishable goods for happiness, they dangle perilously and unwittingly over the precipice of destruction. So for us too, when we make a god of the thing over the One for whom it is meant to be but a medium, a signal to something more. When the psalmist recounts his near miss, he confesses:

‘I was stupid and did not understand,

no better than a beast in your sight…

Yet I was always in your presence;

you were holding me by my right hand.

You will guide me by your counsel

and so you will lead me to glory’

Notice the shift. ‘I’ secedes to ‘You’, ‘My story’ has become ‘His wisdom’, and the psalmist who was lost in jealousy and anger is found, in the embrace of the all-loving God. The longing aroused by the music of life has brought him to the point where he can say to God…

‘What else have I in heaven but you?

Apart from you I want nothing on earth.

My body and my heart faint for joy;

God is my possession for ever.’

Oh to remember this amazing truth on a stress-filled day, with a broken heart, when filled with anxiety, or when deeply betrayed. We are made unhappy because we are so often led to believe that the happiness we desire is somehow attainable – or at least retained – by our own efforts. Our desires are spot on, we desire the Kingdom of heaven, we want it all, we want a consoling embrace, to be satisfied, to receive mercy, to be called Sons of God, to see God…., but the means are beyond our reach, because they are a gift, a grace, and they need a mediator.

Truth is beautiful, and beauty leads us to truth. It took a moment of graced beauty, a stirring of the heart, to lead me to understand where I had been going wrong in this search for happiness. I was listening to ‘All of Me’ by John Legend on the train back from Buckfast Abbey last Friday. It’s my favourite song at the moment and like anything I’m into, I do it to death (usually driving others crazy in the process). I’d just finished an excellent course on catechetics with the School of the Annunciation. Processing what I had learned, the chorus line of the song caught my ear:

‘All of me loves all of you,

love your curves and all your edges,

all your perfect imperfections.

Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you…’

Now, I doubt that Mr Legend’s intent was to bring me closer to Christ – in fact, the song is dedicated to his wife – but a moment of beauty had enabled The Lord to sneak something into my heart which I had known only previously in my mind. God loves all of me with all of himself, to such an extent that he sent his only Son to take flesh like mine and to offer that life in sacrifice so that I might share in his divine life by the grace of the Holy Spirit. I already knew that, of course, I’ve meditated on it, studied it, staked my life on it, but it took that ridiculous moment for me to realise that it is not I who achieve this blessed life, but God who achieved it by coming to live within me in all his triune glory. I’ve so often despaired at my own sinfulness as a lack of gratitude towards the one I love – “how could I do this when I know what to do?” – and in this had been my mistake: I had set myself up as the protagonist of my own salvation, responding dutifully rather than being drawn by his love. Convinced by the truth alone, I’d lost the sense of his beauty, by which he draws all men to himself. The great French spiritual writer, Jean Lafrance, puts it like this:

‘To love is not first of all to be heroic in selflessness; on the contrary, this perfection comes only at the end. To love is to be first attracted, seduced, seized; it is to have discovered the face of the tenderness of God. The first free and meritorious act that is asked of us is to yield to this attraction, to let ourselves be taken in, to let ourselves be “had”, to let God have his way.’

God has placed in each one of us a deep desire for him, so deep that mere words are not enough to arouse that desire. A chord must be struck, which awakens and identifies the goal of our longing, of hope that we may one day be truly satisfied. There are many notes, but there is one which is uniquely our own. Try as we might, we can never play that tune until we allow ourselves to be seized by the beautiful music of the one who created us, the composer and conductor of the great symphony of salvation.