Advent, Week One

Isaiah 26:1-6

Today’s text from Isaiah is a song of hope where Jerusalem is imagined as a strong and fortified city, defended by God.

That day, this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
to guard us he has set
wall and rampart about us.
Open the gates!
Let the upright nation come in,
she, the faithful one
whose mind is steadfast,
who keeps the peace,
because she trusts you.

The people of Judah lived in precarious circumstances with the threat of Assyria looming. Isaiah preaches a message of trust in God alone and warns against alliances with other nations.  Walls, ramparts and gates are the physical signs of God’s protection. The would-be invader or attacker needs a strategy to get through these protections. Judah can feel safe with these things in place. Isaiah imagines the triumphal entry of Judah into the safe and protected city. It’s the upright nation and the faithful one who will walk through the gates and be assured of God’s presence. It’s those ‘whose mind is steadfast’ and those who ‘keep the peace’ who now walk through the gates. ‘Upright’ and ‘faithful’ are short-hands for living in relationship with God, for following the Law in word and deed.

Over the past two years we’ve had to learn the hard lessons of what it means to ‘stay safe’. We’ve had to face the hard fact that it means different things to different people. We’ve learnt that my safety and the safety of others are intricately connected. Perhaps you have longed for walls, ramparts and gates?  Can you look back and see how you have been ‘upright’ and ‘faithful’. Can you bring to mind the times when your mind was ‘steadfast’ and you were able ‘to keep the peace’?

Are there phrases of Scripture which you can hold on to in this season of Advent?


Advent, Week One

Is 25:6-10

When I made my Solemn Profession in 2000 our artist, Sr Regina, made me a card with the text;

‘On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.’

 I think this was her way of linking my job as kitchen manager with eschatological vision of the kingdom. I’ve always loved this vision of God’s abundance and generosity. There’s no portion control in God’s kingdom.

After giving us an assurance of limitless food provision, the text then moves to an image that is equally powerful. God promises to ‘wipe away the tears from every cheek.’ As a teacher I’ve sat with many a small child breaking their heart over something which has overwhelmed them. Isaiah’s image is human and deeply re-assuring. We need the visions and poetry which acknowledge our human condition.

Grief has swept our world these past two years. We have had scenes of anguish of every kind. In so many situations people experienced a powerlessness that paralyses. Probably for many it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when tears will be wiped away. Isaiah’s vision invites to yield in some way to our present circumstances, while holding fast to God’s promises for the future. This is not a once and for all thing. It’s something we do daily.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash


Advent, Week One

Just as Advent begins, we step off the Advent path to celebrate the Feast of St Andrew the apostle.  We have to make a quick liturgical gear change.

Matthew’s account of the call of Andrew is short and offers us the minimum of details: ‘And they left their nets at once and followed him.’ We are left to imagine the scene. Had he heard the stories of Jesus’ teaching and miracles? Had he heard him speak in person? What was it that attracted him? How could he be sure? Did something just shift in Andrew’s heart?

It’s easy to envy Andrew’s certainty and willingness to make a very huge leap of faith. I’ve often wondered if his life as a fisherman actually prepared him to be able to step out into the unknown. Fishing is all about timing, reading the signs of the natural world and the energy to act on your intuitions. You need patience for the times of inactivity and a rush of adrenalin for the big catch.

As Advent unfolds we will hear the story of salvation and God’s promises to his people. Through every twist and turn the message is the same: put your full trust in God and his promises and new life is assured. Let’s pray that we have the patience to wait and the adrenalin when needed.


Advent, Week One

Isaiah 2:1-5

When I was 17 I had my first chance to study the Book of Isaiah as a whole. I was doing A Level Scripture and we were covering the Prophets. I remember being completely bowled over by the poetry of this passage.

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways…’

It was fairly easy for my mind and heart to imagine the mountains, the invitation ‘Come’ and the desire to be taught God’s ways. But what stopped me in my tracks was the vision of the implements of war being re-formed as tools that till the land.

‘He will wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples; these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles.’

Daily we have news of countries where there is unrest and people bear the aftermath of war and long term conflict. These images can haunt us. But they can also seem far away and absolutely out of our control. So, what is Isaiah’s invitation to us today? Perhaps the invitation is for us to identify our own ‘swords’ and ‘spears’. Then maybe we can imagine their transformation into tools that cultivate and till the soil of our hearts. Maybe we can imagine the peace we desire as starting in our own hearts, here and now.

Advent Sunday 1

Advent Sunday 1Luke 21:25-28.34-36Over the years I have become used to the fact that our first Sunday of Advent opens not with words of comfort, but with an apocalyptic vision. These words have a poignancy in 2021 when we look back and think of the things that have ravaged our world. So many things have required our urgent attention in prayer and in action.

The hearers of Luke’s Gospel lived too with a sense of urgency. They believed that the Second Coming of Jesus would take place in their life time. It’s fairly hard to think ourselves into this place today. Aside from slightly extreme groups, we don’t usually live on this level of alert in our spiritual lives. Luke paints a rather frightening picture.

‘There will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.’

However, what always strikes me is that the advice is not to run and take cover, but to stand still and tall. ‘…stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.’ Standing still and holding your head high will ground you and potentially prepare you for what is ahead. On a physical level we know the effect of standing straight and having every thing in alignment. We feel better all round. So too in our journey of faith. We stand tall because we are baptized and beloved children of the Father.

How can you stand tall and hold your head high this Advent?

Synodality in pictures

I made a photo thread on Twitter to illustrate one sentence from the Vademecum for the forthcoming Synod.

In this sense, it is clear that the purpose of this Synod is not to produce
more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the
Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate
trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn
from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and
restore strength to our hands for our common mission.

This process will hopefully be the start of something that is life changing.

Synodality and Vulnerability

I have followed the work of Brene Brown for at least 10 years. A social worker by profession, she has spent the last 20 years studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. To date, her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, has had 16 million views on YouTube. On her website she describes herself like this: Reasearcher. Storyteller. Texan.

Her research story is an interesting one:

‘As a doctoral student, the power of statistics and the clean lines of quantitative research appealed to me, but I fell in love with the richness and depth of qualitative research. Storytelling is my DNA, and I couldn’t resist the idea of research as storycatching. Stories are data with a soul and no methodology honors that more than grounded theory. The mandate of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.’

She shares in her TED Talk her experience of gathering stories:

‘… when you ask someone about love, they tell you about heartbreak; when you ask people about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating examples of being excluded; and when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.’

I can certainly relate to this experience when asked to share on certain topics in a retreat situation or spiritual direction.

There is one idea in Brene’s work that stands out sharply for me: ‘vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.’ Her TED talk was so popular that she got many invitations to speak at large companies. Some of the initial phone calls followed a pattern. The company would say they loved her talk and would love to hear her speak to their company. And then they would add, ‘But don’t mention vulnerability, because we don’t so that stuff here.’ Often these companies had hit a block with innovation and creativity, but hadn’t made the connection with vulnerability.

As we begin our synodal process in preparation for a Synod in 2023, I wonder if it might be worth taking some time to look at vulnerability? I have started to read the Vademecum and this section took my attention straight away:

In this sense, it is clear that the purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.’

What strikes me is that it is all framed in relational concepts and this gives me great hope. However, if we take any one of the clauses, there is vulnerability writ through the whole process. The Synod will ask us to look at three key concepts in being church: communion, participation and mission. There is a very credible anthropology and theology underpinning all of this. However, I am fairly certain that once we start to discuss communion, what will emerge are stories of how people have felt outside of communion. Likewise, with participation and mission. I think we need to prepare ourselves for the fact that this will happen.

The synodal process is a good deal more radical than we might realise at the moment. It’s a fundamental shift from a top down, hierarchical model, to a bottom up, grass roots model. Already in the conversations that I have had there is concern as to how we might include those who find themselves outside the formal structures. On this issue alone there is considerable vulnerability involved on both sides. It strikes me that the vulnerability of the laity is a given in this process. But I wonder if the cardinals, priests and bishops have any sense of the importance of their own vulnerability in this whole process? The majority of our Church structures and much of our language tend to guard against anything that might appear vulnerable. If we truly want to walk together (Gk, syn) on the same path (Gk, hodos) then perhaps we need to acknowledge the need for vulnerability in the whole Church?

Engaging in a communal process is not going to be easy. So often our desire for connection and communion flounders when we hit sizeable barriers. Perhaps two quotations from the Rule of St Benedict can help us here. The first comes from the Prologue of the Rule of St Benedict:

Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.

I quote this for several reasons. St Benedict has laid out his vision of monastic life in the Prologue and ends with a bit of a rallying cry. The monastic path is a serious undertaking, so too is the synodal path. I think St Benedict speaks here for anyone who has ever said ‘yes’ to a large undertaking and then got cold feet. His answer when we are daunted is not to sit on the edge of the path and get our breath back, but rather to run! I hope it’s not too grand a hope to see in the synodal path a chance for our hearts to overflow ‘with the inexpressible delight of love.’

My second quote comes from Ch 64, On the Election of an Abbot:

he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.

I hear in this short phrase the wisdom of a man who had guided his community through the good times and the bad. I hope that something of St Benedict’s words may be experienced by all of us in the synodal process. We will surely feel weak at times. Hopefully we will feel strong too. We are on the threshold of a process that has the power to transform. Let’s hope we all have the grace to be vulnerable and to allow the work of the Spirit.

Becoming the Body of Christ

Part Two of Sr Michael RSM’s guest post on her experience before and after Vatican II. You can read Part One here:

In 1954, I entered a pre-Vatican 2  religious community though at the time neither I nor anyone else knew that it was pre-Vatican2! That was the only way we knew. I was ready and willing to give my all- very zealous, very pious. I embraced all the religious exercises (even added to them); I accepted without question all the traditions and customs of the community ( and did not then think that many of them were ridiculous, demeaning and infantile); I absorbed the spirit of the congregation  – Mercy – and longed for opportunities to put it into practice.

But first came postulancy (a trial period), and then novitiate, (a time of testing, training and purification) – all a steep learning curve. We were a novitiate of 22 Irish and English late teenagers – probably too much of a handful for our Novice Mistress. I was a bit older and more mature than most, so never suffered the rigours of discipline and sometimes harsh treatment meted out to some poor souls. We laughed and cried together. Many left, most stayed. The prevailing attitude was ‘grin and bear it’ until we were professed and then things would be different! Many were studying for ‘O’ levels , some for ‘A’ levels and because I had all my exams, I was put to helping others and being portress until it was time for University. I was told to apply for History (though my desire was for English) because our Grammar School would soon need a History teacher. I didn’t mind too much because I loved History too but when I left for University, I did not know who the Prime Minister was -we did not have newspapers, radio or TV in those days – or that we were in the midst of the Suez Crisis which I was asked about at my interview!

I can’t say I enjoyed my University years because we (two of us) were bound by the rule of silence and unable to mix with other students. We never joined any social or extra-mural activities, simply attended lectures and tutorials and then returned to the convent where we were staying. Gradually, the strain told: I found myself ‘enduring’ life, frustrated and joyless.  Spiritually, I was starved. The annual 8-day Retreats left me anxious and unfulfilled. There was no opportunity for spiritual development and I found less and less satisfaction in the usual devotions and rigid life-style which once was so meaningful. I knew I was ‘stuck’ and yet I made final vows, assuring myself that this is what God wanted of me and I was prepared to live a life of obedience which would eventually be blessed.  So I thought!  I must say I was more than tinged with Pelagianism – thinking everything depended on me, so I was prepared to show God I could take it and possibly become a saint!  What arrogance! What stupidity!  

My first release was when I began to teach in a Grammar School. This was 1960. I found I had a natural aptitude for teaching and keeping the interest of older pupils with whom I had a natural affinity. This fulfilled me and led to many friendships which have lasted and have brought much joy. Of course it was hard work but very rewarding,  especially getting involved in the cultural, artistic and dramatic life of the school plus all the projects I initiated and threw myself into under the aegis of Justice and Peace, Cafod, YCS and Youth Impact activities. These early years also saw a beginning of my interest in pastoral work in a neighbouring parish which I loved, especially involvement in adult formation.

Meanwhile religious life became increasingly stultifying. The two parts of my life were clearly in conflict and for the first time, I began to experience real doubts about persevering in religious life when it had become empty, arid, a real endurance test. I was still faithful to all the religious exercises and spent more and more time in prayer but felt ‘caged’ and un-free.

It was at this point that Vatican 2 burst upon the church and religious life like a tornado and thus came about my second release and real saviour. I can’t express the excitement when I heard that the Bishops had thrown out the agenda and prepared texts!  There were no computers then but daily and weekly reports somehow got through – it was like awakening a sleeping giant!  Gradually, we saw the dismemberment of the pre-Vat 2 church: most immediate were the Liturgical reforms which impacted every Catholic. To ‘see’ the priest face to face, to dialogue in what were called initially Dialogue Masses until we got used to the English and learned the words of the responses, to pull people out of their comfort zones of Rosary and familiar prayer books – this was hard work for both priests and people. This was bad enough but to see the removal of statues, altar rails, pulpits and the re-ordering of sanctuaries and churches grieved so many and caused not a little anger.  Many hankered after the old ways of attendance with nothing required except presence. Now we had to participate actively in plain churches –almost Protestant. What on earth was the church coming to?

Gradually, as other documents emerged – Lumen Gentium with its view that the hierarchy was at the service of the people, us the people of God; Dei Verbum on the central role of Scripture, the Bible as such, having been a closed book to Catholics; the Decree on Ecumenism stressing the unity of the church and above all, Gaudium et Spes on the whole new vision and thrust of the church in 20th Century – we realised that this was not just a tinkering with externals but a revolution, making the church fit for purpose and relevant to the needs of the faithful in 20th Century. It was heady stuff. I was teaching Sixth Form RE at the time and every week shared the excitement with eager teenagers. Then imagine my surprise when the then Headmistress told me to teach ‘A’ level Biblical Studies of which at the time, I knew no more than Old Testament stories and the Life of Christ studied for ‘O’ level. It was the best thing that ever happened to me and opened up a new world of scholarship and spirituality that quenched my thirsting spirit and gave me a life-long love of scripture which it has been my delight to impart to generations of Sixth Formers and parish groups. So many riches that the faithful had been deprived of for so many years!.

As the years went on and the church settled into the ‘new ways’, new riches unfolded. While still immersed in education, I involved myself more and more in parish work through programmes like Alpha, RCIA, Liturgy groups, catechist training etc until I was asked to work in the diocese full-time, so left a headship to be the Co-ordinator of Evangelisation in the diocese – a most enriching and ground-breaking experience.

Meanwhile, how did Vatican 2 impact religious life? For a few years there was little change except slight adaptation of the 19th Century habit and more freedom for family visits and even a holiday at home but gradually, ‘liberal’ ideas made further inroads and the sacred, time-worn hierarchical structure and customs were quietly dismantled. Rigid rules of silence disappeared; we no longer had to process to chapel and refectory in strict order of seniority while chanting Latin psalms or sit in the same place at meals and recreation till death. During this time I spent a year’s study in London and was exposed to the wonderful contribution made by Hubert Richards and Peter de Rosa in the sadly short-lived Corpus Christi Institute. It was such a liberating year for me that I found it difficult to return to the strictures of community life.  However, one great unexpected development was a move towards voluntary missionary activity in the 70’s and I was in the first group of volunteers to go to Africa for four years. Eventually, more spiritual freedom came with freedom to choose one’s confessor and spiritual director, freedom to go elsewhere to make a retreat, to buy reading material etc. More lenient and understanding superiors eased the road for me and needless to say, I was further released and found purpose and satisfaction in all the new developments. The Charismatic Movement came and went, affecting some very deeply. We had freedom to pursue our own interests (within reason and always with permission) but the heavy weight of oppression had lifted and as time went on and things eventually settled, I was in a different and more life-giving spiritual place. On the way, many sisters had left but I was never tempted once I had found my forte in teaching and achieved some sort of spiritual equilibrium, punctuated of course by many challenges but also blessings.

Do I hanker after the old ways? Definitely not – neither in the church nor in religious life. As I look at the church today and while regretting  the many abuses of authority and freedom especially in sexual matters, I stand solidly with Pope Francis, God’s gift to the church, and move forward with him in hope  through the synodal process and journey (envisaged by Vatican 2 but sadly repressed)  towards renewal and maturity. I fully share his vision of a church at the service of the world. For those who wish to return to a non-existent Golden Age of mystery and majesty, pomp and incense, clericalism and privilege, I would wish for a more realistic appraisal and realisation that the church does not exist for itself but to serve the people of God near and far, worthy and unworthy, rich and poor, Christian and non-Christian.

And my hope for religious life?  Numbers have dwindled dramatically, apostolates have been overtaken by the state, missionary work (old style) is no longer fashionable.  It would be easy to think we have passed our ‘sell-by dates’. But the core of consecration and commitment remains, however expressed, and prayer especially sacramental and scriptural is the fuel that gives energy to new forms of service as we move into unchartered waters towards a future known only to God.

Becoming the Body of Christ

As part of my exploration of the issues underlying Traditionis Custodes, I am delighted to share with you a guest post from Sr Michael RSM, one of the Sisters who taught me at St Anthony’s School, Sunderland. Sr Michael writes about her experience of growing up in Durham and Sunderland in the 1950s.

A Personal View

For many, living in the pre-Vatican church was a golden time, or was it?  Growing up at that time, I remember so much with nostalgia and gratitude: the packed churches for Sunday Masses; the social life built around the church, with social evenings, dances, concerts, exchange visits with neighbouring parishes – the source of many a marriage; Benediction with its incense, hymns and walk afterwards ‘en famille’ round the village back home to a fry-up supper and the Palm Court orchestra on radio; above all, the processions – May, Sacred Heart and Corpus Christi – with banners and statues carried aloft and white dresses and red sashes and singing and even ‘poor Protestants’ standing outside watching longingly, poor things!  as we, the chosen ones processed round the church garden.  We had it all – our own beautiful churches, beautiful church grounds, our own parish hall, our own graveyard and above all, our own priests whom we all knew and loved and were there for us in good times and in bad. There was a structure a hierarchy, a certainty, an assurance. Who wouldn’t want to be a Catholic? This was the way to live, this was the sure way to heaven. 

True, most of the services including Mass were in Latin which we rattled off without understanding,  but many had Missals with the English translation alongside, so where was the problem?  True, the priest had his back to us and many said the Rosary or even lit candles during Mass but it had always been thus – we attended and prayed but did not participate. True, one could say that the packed churches were due to habit and fear in equal measure (with one eye on the Mass Register in schools on Monday morning to check attendance), but during and after the war the Church was a refuge and much needed consolation in times of worry and anxiety. True, the Parish priest was a control figure, even a tyrant, but so was the doctor, the local policeman, the teachers, the old men in the village who would “tell our parents what we were up to when they saw them.” That was the social structure of the time and we ‘paid, prayed and obeyed’ without question. True, the Church wielded harsh and severe authority in moral matters (long queues for  weekly Confession) and could excommunicate for what today would be minor infringements eg mixed marriages were anathema but by and large, families agreed with Church laws – I remember many a family break-up because of a recalcitrant member who had ‘gone astray’ God help them!  True, unbaptised babies and suicides were not given a Christian burial (I remember visiting the forbidden edge of the cemetery with their anonymous graves) but “that was the way things were and it was not ours to question why.” True, we paid door pence, altar money, collection money, Holy Souls box, SVP basket, every Sunday but the Church depended on our generosity so who were we to complain?

In other words, to be a pre-Vatican2 Catholic, was to live in a safe, isolated world with its own laws, traditions, practices, and outlook. We had to be careful not to be contaminated by the world – one of the enemies of the soul, along with the devil and the flesh. Even adults held on the the faith of their fathers as expressed and learned in the Catechism (brayed into them at school as they said – sometimes gratefully, sometimes grudgingly) and this would keep us safe!

In my family and parish, much of this was second and third generation Irish piosity which was still very strong. Prayer books of the time – The Garden of the Soul and The Kingdom of Heaven which many clung on to instead of the new-fangled Missals -attest to this personal  piety and devotion.

Who of my generation, does not remember the Nine First Fridays, the Five Saturdays in honour of Our Lady, the Seven Tuesdays for St Anthony and all the indulgences attached thereto. Not to mention the 30 Days’ Prayer, the Litanies, the Novenas, the Holy Hours? And let’s be honest- I loved it!

In mitigation too, one must say that English and Irish history with its years of persecution had a huge effect on the Catholic mentality and the kind of church we had become. We were a defensive church and had to fight for recognition against prejudice and discrimination (still much in evidence in my childhood). Passing the ‘Proddies’ on our way to school led to regular battles and name-calling. My father had established a business against all the odds – green grocery, a dairy, milk business, a small-holding growing and selling what we now call ‘organic.’ vegetables. We had a sense that he had ‘made it’ and that we were accepted and respected.

What does all this say about our theology and ecclesiology? Only in retrospect do I see the church as stuck, narrow, out- of- date, in dire need of reform. We lived in a ghetto, top-heavy and closed. Converts had to join us, we didn’t reach out to them. But this was the church I loved, in which I chose to enter religious life. Who would or could have thought then of Vatican2? Who would have thought that 50-60 years later people who never experienced this church would hanker after the trappings?

What made us perfect little Catholics?

I came from a very Catholic family, grandparents on both sides coming from Ireland. My father had 6 brothers my mother 4 and all my aunts, uncles and cousins were catholic. So my first influence was from family and then re-inforced by school. Growing up, all my friends and acquaintances were catholic.

I loved my primary school – St Bede’s. We had morning prayers and a hymn together and the the Religious lesson. I drank in everything from ‘black babies’ (half a crown a time ) to learning the Catechism. It was no effort for me. I used to come home and play schools with my dolls and younger brother, teaching them all about why God made me, the Supreme Spirit (the soup-green spirit), sanctifying grace etc enough to make St Thomas Aquinas proud! My brother’s Sign of the Cross was ‘In the name of the Father and of his Son and of his holy goats and hens.’ I was a star at Religious Inspection time and even knew all the explanations!

I vividly remember First Communion and Confirmation (at 6 and 7yrs respectively.) but must admit was more interested in my white dress .  At processions I never carries the statue (too small) or crowned Our Lady, the height of my ambition but I sang my heart out and showed off to all and sundry as we processed around Church and grounds. We had prayer books galore, my favourite being Little Brother Jesus and the books by Fr Daniel Lord.  I devoured the lives of the Saints and imitated each by turn, my favourites of course being St Therese and St Bernadette, the names of my dolls too.

Was this an idyllic religious upbringing? In many ways, yes. In Secondary School it was more of the same for the first few years. I never questioned method or content, practices or traditions – not until I entered religious life and then not for the first few years, in the 50’s. I was at the stage of grinning and bearing it, or, as my mother had taught me, offering it up, until Vat 2 came (out of the blue as I thought then) and rescued me.

And there begins a new chapter in my life.

Becoming the Body of Christ (6)

“What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?”
― Godfrey Diekman OSB


Emerging Adult Faith

I’ve come to realise that I make very strong attachments to people and places. Moving to London to study held a great deal of trepidation for me. My Father assured me that it would be one of the most exciting things I could do. Studying at Heythrop college was, of course, no ordinary place to study. The intake was very mixed with school leavers, mature students, post graduates and Jesuits doing their very lengthy formation studies. My year group bonded together very quickly and I think this was in no small part due to the fact that we all felt at sea with the content of the degree. There were also several Religious, male and female, at various stages in their ministry. I will be forever grateful for all that they brought to my time at Heythrop. There was such a lot of laughter and genuine community.

My first essay was a bit of a crunch time and I really wanted to go home. Trying my best to ignore the rising panic, I took refuge in the college chapel. I don’t remember it as a particularly beautiful place. It was in the basement, with wooden floors that creaked and the minimum of natural light. I sat there hoping for some confirmation that I should go home. None came. What came instead was a sense that I was on the threshold of something potentially life-changing.

There was Mass each day at College at either 12.30 or 1.00. This fitted with the various lecture schedules. Here I at least I felt at home. In the Heythrop environment it was the most natural thing in the world to go to daily Mass. It’s only with hindsight that I see how personally liberating this was for me. There was something very grounding for me about breaking the day by celebrating the Eucharist. No one would think I was odd. When feasts were celebrated the music would be provided by the students. I loved these celebrations. This hymn, more than any other reminds me of those days

Yahweh is the God of my salvation:
I trust in him and have no fear.
I sing of the joy which his love gives to me,
and I draw deeply from the springs of his great kindness. 

Open our eyes to the wonder of this moment,
the beginning of another day.  

Be with us, Lord, as we break through with each other
to find the truth and beauty of each friend.

When evening comes and our day of toil is over
give us rest, O Lord, in the joy of many friends.

Take us beyond the vision of this day
to the deep and wide ways of your infinite love and life.

Weston Priory

Looking at the words now I can easily imagine this text being slated by certain quarters of Twitter. Probably words like ‘saccharine’ and ‘banal’ would be used and there would be questions as to the theological content. Its focus on connection, friends and the depths of God’s love and kindness are easily parodied. In 1984 these were very much the words I needed to sing. These words and many others like them, began the journey for me from what was largely a personal piety to a sense of community and the power of shared witness.

My experience at the Catholic Chaplaincy in Gower St was key to my growing awareness of community and what I would later come to recognise as Eucharistic theology. Sunday evening was the big gathering time. I can’t remember how I filled my Sunday mornings, but I remember the anticipation of Mass in the evening. The Chaplaincy drew a huge crowd of people from all areas of the university. There were always Royal College of Music students on hand to lead music and some of us formed a slightly informal choir. I had a sense that there was room for everyone at these gathering. As soon as Mass was finished a couple of us would act as sacristans, clearing the altar to make way for the disco equipment. The sense of community and connection that we found as a Eucharistic community continued on the dance floor. Often past students turned up on a Sunday evening and they’d get such a welcome from the chaplains. There was genuine interest in how their lives were going.

The White Fathers and the Mill Hill Missionaries sometimes sent their deacons to the chaplaincy for some pastoral experience and they brought a huge enthusiasm to any group they joined. In the summer term they’d host BBQs in North London and we’d sing and dance together. These gatherings for me were the very best of what it meant to belong to the Church. Occasionally we’d talk theology and any very cerebral notions of what we might mean by Eucharist or Church were laid alongside the pastoral needs which these men were preparing to meet in their mission postings.

From time to time the chaplaincy would host an African Mass. There is something about the ‘call and response’ form of African songs and hymns which touches my heart and soul most deeply. Add to this a drum rythym and perhaps dance and I experience a very powerful sense of the sacred. I had never experienced anything like this growing up in the North East.

The chaplaincy team was large and diverse: a lay woman, a Dominican Sister, a Sister of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, two diocesan clergy and a Jesuit. They were able to offer a variety of activities and support, but mostly they were a presence. Fairly early on in my first term at college the chaplains offered us the opportunity to follow the 19th Annotation Retreat. At first I couldn’t even grasp what the words meant. I’d never heard this type of technical language. A small group of us showed interest in making this retreat and we met together. I found it all thoroughly confusing. I imagine the chaplains will have started by explaining the The First Principle and Foundation.

People are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their soul; the other things on the face of the earth are created for people to help them in attaining the end for which they are created. Consequently, people are to make use of them in so far as they help them in the attainment of their end, and they must rid themselves of them in so far as they prove a hindrance to them. Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius

The formality and technicality of the language almost put me off from the very beginning. Up until then my personal prayer had involved sitting quietly in churches and not doing anything in particular. I wasn’t sure that I would cope with this structured format. Once we were assigned spiritual directors things shifted a little for me. I was assigned Sr Trinitate Dullmann, a German Dominican who had lived in Zimbabwe. This was a very smart move on God’s part.

Week by week I became accustomed to the format of the retreat and despite the fairly alien language, I began to find that a way of prayer was opening up for me. What surprised me was just how much hard work was involved. Gone were the slightly day dreamy experiences I had had sitting in the back of churches and instead I was faced with the deep challenge of engaging with the Biblical texts and the text of the Spiritual Exercises. Thankfully we weren’t given the straight text from the Spiritual Exercises. I remember being given the prayer material on sheets of coloured paper, with line drawings and pieces of poetry. A vital part of the 19 Annotation is meeting weekly with your director. I wasn’t quite ready for the rigour that this involved. And I wasn’t ready at all for the fact that my first instinct was to analyse any text that I was given. Without realising it I was bringing the tools that I was learning in Biblical Studies to my prayer. Gently and subtly my director nudged me along. Little by little I learnt to make space for God to work. One thing that was a tremendous help to me was having two different Bibles: NRSV for exegesis and the Jerusalem Bible for prayer.

I can look back now and see how God was leading me. I can look back now and see that my faith was maturing. It didn’t feel particularly re-assuring at the time and I did wonder just where the retreat was leading me. One of my abiding memories is of hearing my director say: ‘Birgitte, don’t analyse.’ She was right, of course. This was a matter of the head and heart coming together.