Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15:9-17 

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends
if you do what I command you.

Few of us will be called upon to lay down our lives for our friends. Though we probably all hope that if a big sacrifice of some sort is asked of us we will have the courage to respond.

During the pandemic and now in the ongoing areas of conflict in our world, we witness the love that is prepared to put others first. Some will have had little choice over their working conditions and others were prepared to take the risk.

At the heart of our Christian story we have not a philosophy or a set of principles, but a human being who embodied selfless service and self-emptying love. Christ is our pattern for every part of our lives. Often on the feast of a martyr we sing ‘The Martyrs Living now with Christ’, a hymn written by Stanbrook Abbey. This verse always stands out for me:

No one has ever measured love
Or weighed it in their hand,
But God knows the inmost heart
Gives them the promised land.

It’s God who knows the depth of our love and our willingness to give. It’s God who sees the bigger picture of our lives and how we try to image Christ.

Let us always remember the people in our lives who quietly and unobstrusively have shown us this self-emptying love.

The English Martyrs

Matthew 10:17-20

At baptism when we were anointed with chrism these words were said:

‘God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.’

The English Martyrs whom we celebrate today lived their baptismal promises to the full. They imaged Christ so completely that they gave their lives for him. Few of us will be asked to make so great a sacrifice, but what we can do is reflect regularly on what it might mean for us to be anointed Priest, Prophet and King. Anointing strengthens for all that lies ahead.

In the Gospel text for today we are reassured that should the time come for our faith to be tested, then the Spirit of the Father will speak in us. We take this on trust.

We pray today for all those in our own lives who have shown us courage and fortitude and been prepared to carry what we could not.

How can you be open to the Spirit of your Father speaking in you today?

Saints Philip and James

John 14:6-14

‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’

If you Google this famous quotation you’ll get quite a few pictures of roads and paths. It is the easiest of the three concepts to illustrate. We know where we are with a clear path. When Jesus says he is the Way we have a reasonable idea of what this means. The earliest followers of Jesus were called followers of ‘The Way’. Implicit in this is word is the idea that every part of your life is orientated to Christ. Christ informs the manner of your life, the choices you make and the company you keep. It’s a whole package.

In a lyrical flourish in the Prologue to his Rule St Benedict too uses the image of a path:

‘As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commands, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.’ (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue v 49)

This is a grand vision, but one which is certainly worth the effort. The whole of the Rule could be understood as guidelines for expanding the heart and growth in love. St Benedict knows that it won’t be easy and that we are bound to stumble. One of the ways in which the monastic is strengthened for running on the path is by learning to listen to God, to the superior and to others in community. This three-fold listening is how St Benedict understands obedience.

The disciples too are being schooled in love and obedience. Philip’s plea: ‘Let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied’ comes from the deep desire to understand what Christ is saying and to follow him.

How can you follow Christ more closely today?

Thursday, Fifth Week of Easter

John 15:9-11

‘If you keep my commandments
you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and remain in his love.
I have told you this
so that my own joy may be in you
and your joy be complete.’

By this stage in Eastertide we have heard a good deal of John’s Gospel. There are some overlaps and repetitions between the weekday and Sunday liturgies. We’ve heard parts of today’s Gospel already. The themes of keeping Christ’s commandments and remaining in his love weave in and out of each other. Today the element of ‘joy’ is added.

I associate pure joy with small children and this in turn reminds me of this passage from the Tales of the Hasidim:

Said the maggid to Rabbi Zusya, his disciple: “I cannot teach you the principles of service. But a little child and a thief can show you what they are:

From the child you can learn three things:

— He is merry for no particular reason;
— Never for a moment he is idle;
— When he needs something, he demands it vigorously.

Being merry for no particular reason is one of the special gifts of childhood. The joy of one young child spreads so easily to others and to adults too. I remember as a child feeling that I might burst with joy and excitement. When you reach adulthood that joy takes on a different shape. It isn’t nearly as frequent and there might be some foreboding mixed in too.The idea Jesus might find his joy in us is something that I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about. That Jesus wants our ‘joy to be complete’ speaks to me of the depths of the Paschal mystery: every joy and every sorrow that we experience unites us ever closer to Christ.

How can you live in Christ’s joy today?

Image: Senjuti Kundu, Unsplash

You can read the full extract from The Tales of the Hasidim here:

Wednesday, Fifth Week of Easter

John 15:1-8

I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me, with me in him,
bears fruit in plenty;
for cut off from me you can do nothing.

I chose today’s Gospel passage for my Solemn Profession in 2000. It weaves together several themes that can all be found in implicit and explicit form in the Rule of St Benedict. At its simplest the Vine is an image of community: a disparate group of people, in various stages of growth, all bound together and nourished by Christ. The pruning that the text speaks of happens in so many ways in ordinary monastic living. You don’t know it at the time, but every branch of self-will that is being cut away, is making room for something new to grow.

When you embark upon monastic life you have offered your life to the vinedresser. At his disposal he has the tools of Scripture, the Rule of St Benedict and every member in your community. With these tools he sets about cultivating the vine of your life. There will be days when the baking sun of monastic life just feels too much and you are convinced that you will wither. Then will come the gentle rain of the wisdom and kindness of others and some growth looks possible. Tiny fruit grows. All of this is possible when you have the courage to root yourself in Christ.

How can you root yourself in Christ this week?

Tuesday, Fifth Week of Easter

John 14:27-31

‘Peace I bequeath to you,
my own peace I give you,
a peace the world cannot give,
this is my gift to you.

‘Oh, sister, it’s so peaceful here in the monastery.’ We hear this very often and, of course, there is a good deal of truth in this. We are a low stimulus environment, with things ordered as well as they can be. The rhythm of the liturgy plays a very important part in creating the peace that people feel when they visit. Hail, rain or shine we gather to pray the psalmody. Monastics have this remarkable ability to carry on with the liturgy even if there has been some ‘outside’ disturbance; loud rain, a low flying aircraft or even a power cut won’t put us off. It’s almost as if we have a collective inner equilibrium.

St Benedict puts a great deal of store by the peace and good order of the monastery. In his Chapter On the Cellarer he urges his monks to make their requests to the cellarer reasonable and at the proper times. The job can be demanding and touches all areas of monastery life. St Benedict makes wise provision:

If the community is rather large, he should be given helpers, that with their assistance he may calmly perform the duties of his office. Necessary items or to be requested and given at the proper times, so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.

What Benedict seems to be saying is that everyone has a part to play in creating a peaceful environment.

When Jesus speaks of peace, he speaks of it as a gift. This gift is to be internalised. You can’t force someone to receive a gift. A person needs to pick it up and make it their own in some way. Jesus waits for us each to do this. Much like Benedict’s monks, we can help each other ‘so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.’

How can you bring Christ’s peace to others today?

St Catherine of Siena

Matthew 11:25-30

Today we celebrate the feast of St Catherine of Siena. You’ll see her depicted wearing the habit of a nun, but she was in fact a Third Order Dominican. She’s of particular note for her fearless resolve and ability to speak truth to power, and especially to Popes. The Church has recognized her as a Doctor of the Church. She stands alongside Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen. All four women are recognized for their holiness, depth of insight and contribution to Catholic teaching and thought.

There’s one thing which unites these women and that’s the intimacy of their relationship with God. Our Gospel text today speaks too of intimacy. The Father chooses to make himself known not to the learned and the clever but to ‘mere children.’ What is required here is an open heart and an ability to be in the moment. This is what we mean by being contemplative. We are each born with this capacity. It’s not the preserve of Religious or even of mystics.

From an open heart flows the desire to collaborate with and work for the things of God. All four Doctors of the Church did this in a unique way. Each of the women suffered in some way as they drew closer to God. They held fast and were able to respond to the invitation:

‘Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’

Recognising someone as a Doctor of the Church is the Church’s most formal way of acknowledging the power of God at work in a person’s life. This is for the few. There are, however, so many women who have given us light for our paths by their depth of insight and quiet holiness.

Thank God for those women who have walked with you along the way and shown you the face of Christ.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15:1-8

Every branch in me that bears no fruit
he cuts away,
and every branch that does bear fruit
he prunes to make it bear even more.
You are pruned already,
by means of the word that I have spoken to you.

It took me a while as a novice to learn the difference between cutting away and pruning. I’m not a natural gardener and could never really see the bigger picture of what was needed. I felt safest with weeding. I realise that for many things I need to physically see an outcome before I can really understand what is needed to get there.

The time of monastic formation is an experience of pruning like you would never imagine. Everything that gave you identity before you entered is stripped away. It takes a good deal of trust to even imagine that what remains of you will bear fruit. But it does.

When Jesus speaks of us having been ‘pruned’ by the word I am reminded of those times when suddenly a very familiar text has spoken directly to my situation and pretty much demanded a course of action. There’s no turning back when this happens.

How have you been pruned by the Word?

Saturday, Fourth Week of Easter

John 14:7-14

Philip said, ‘Lord, let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?

We can perhaps quite easily put ourselves in Philip’s position and hear these words addressed to ourselves. If I think back over all the overtly spiritual input I have had over the years it has been quite considerable. If I add to that all the sorrows, joys, and variety of human experience, then I have much draw upon. But do I really know Jesus? Like all relationships, there are times when I need to make more of a conscious effort. It takes time and a willingness to put that relationship first.

I am reminded again of my favourite verse from Godhead Here in Hiding:

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But I plainly call thee Lord and God as he:
This faith each day deeper be my holding of,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

Each day we can take a small step closer in our relationship with Jesus. We may not even notice these small steps, these small in-breakings of grace.

Look back over your week? Where were the moments of grace?

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

Friday, Fourth Week of Easter

John 14:1-6

Our experience of the pandemic brought the reality of death very close to us. We remember the heartbreaking stories of people dying alone and of families not being able to be at the hospital bedside of a loved one. The idea of someone dying alone is something which haunts and troubles us.

It’s into these very situations that Jesus speaks his words of comfort, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God still and trust in me.’ However agonizing the circumstances this promise holds true. Added to these words of comfort is a promise that is easily overlooked:

There are many rooms in my Father’s house;
if there were not, I should have told you.
I am going now to prepare a place for you…

It’s the word ‘prepare’ which always strikes me. It makes me think of the times that I have prepared a room, adding the little touches that I hope will be welcoming. I love the idea of Jesus has prepared a place for each of us. Nothing is being left to chance. The love that brought us into the world now prepares a place for us.

How do you hear Christ’s promise?