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Faith

A day for shriving, for making shrift

Tuesday, 13 February, 2018 0 Comments

It’s Shrove Tuesday. It’s the day when many people get ready to sacrifice something they enjoy for the next 40 days and nights so that their lives will be filled, perhaps, with something different. The extravagant Mardi Gras feasting of today will be replaced tomorrow by Ash Wednesday’s cold embers, a reminder that so much of what we treasure is momentary, that the things we want to keep forever cannot be kept forever. T. S. Eliot addressed this, and much more, in his poem The Four Quartets, specifically in the fourth section, “Little Gidding“, from which this passage is taken:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.


The Magi for the Epiphany

Saturday, 6 January, 2018 1 Comment

Something unexpected took place in Bethlehem and the otherworldly magi, who “appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky”, are doing their best to comprehend the incomprehensible. It’s a long way from Bethlehem to Bloomsbury, but that was where William Butler Yeats was living in 1914 when he wrote The Magi. In a mere eight lines, he follows the journey of the three wise men with “ancient faces” that resemble “rain-beaten stones”, who are forever watching and waiting, “all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more” the thing that will satisfy their search for meaning.

Is Yeats saying that the world has yet to discover the meaning of Christ’s brief time on earth? Is it so that we cannot be fulfilled until “the uncontrollable mystery” is decrypted? Today, the quest for the secret of “the uncontrollable mystery” is increasingly fervent. Anthony Levandowski, for example, is the “Dean” of a brand new Silicon Valley religion called Way of the Future that worships artificial intelligence.

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

William Butler Yeats

Yeats uses a series of “s”-sounding words — stones, stiff, still, silver, side by side, unsatisfied — to paint a picture of the mysterious Magi, who wear “stiff, painted clothes” and “helms of silver”. His use of alliteration and repetition underpins the characteristics of the “unsatisfied ones”. On this Feast of the Epiphany, let us hope that they, and all of us, find some satisfaction this year.

The Sacred Heart Lamp


Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017 0 Comments

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


The lamb and the wolf on 8 December

Friday, 8 December, 2017 0 Comments

The increasingly oppressive commercial Christmas begins on 1 October and then bludgeons consumers into submission with an incessant drumbeat of shopping commands and mawkish carols all the way until midnight on 24 December. The Christmas of the faithful, on the other hand, starts on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on 6 January, the feast day that commemorates the visit of the Magi.

But there is another date, and it’s to be found in the calendar of popular piety: 8 December. Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it once marked the point when Christmas began in earnest. For my mother, the 8th of December was a serious shopping day and many essential “messages” were purchased in “Town” in preparation for the festivities.

Note: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was officially defined as an article of the Catholic Faith by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and the dogma professes that Christ’s Mother was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception. Traditional belief in the Immaculate Conception long preceded its formal definition, however, which is evident in this 16th century Spanish villancico:

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank protects it.
God kept our lamb
From the wolf.
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God knew
How to defend her.
Riu, riu, chiu

The lamb there is a stand-in for the Mother of Christ while the wolf is the devil. The words “riu, riu, chiu” are meant to evoke the call of the nightingale — a bird whose call has traditionally served as a muse to poets down the ages.


All our Souls’ Day

Thursday, 2 November, 2017 0 Comments

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

All Souls' Day

All Souls’ Day

Let’s go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.

This day draws no breath —
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves — in their death
brilliant as never before.

Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth —
you’d say. And I’d be wondering why
a summer never seems lost

if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year’s night…

The slow-worm stream — how still!
Above that spider’s unguarded door,
look – dull pearls… Time’s full,
brimming, can hold no more.

Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.

So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.

Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
through the bright leaves you walk.

And yet — touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
for it seems as if a mist descends,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.

Frances Bellerby (1899 – 1975)


All our Saints’ Day

Wednesday, 1 November, 2017 0 Comments

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
— Saint Francis

Our saints

Note: All Saints’ Day was initiated by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs on 13 May 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints. The choice of the day may have been intended to co-opt the “Feast of Lemuria,” which the Religio Romana used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. The Christian holy day was established on 1 November in the mid-eighth century by Pope Gregory III as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics.


Michael Fitzgerald: who would have been 99 today

Sunday, 17 September, 2017 0 Comments

“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas

Michael Fitzgerald (17 September 1917 – 2 April 2011): He was a farmer and he was a thinker. He loved the land, its history, its substance, its moods and its meaning. He knew why people had fought and died for it and he understood the passions it generated. His hands were shaped by decades of wresting a living from the soil. Possessed of a sense of chivalry that has all but disappeared; he was one of the last representatives of a culture that had its roots in an ancient, a simpler, a lost world.

Father


Fortitude in a time of suffering and Twitter

Friday, 7 July, 2017 0 Comments

Our thoughts go out today to our favourite Benedictine nun, Sister Catherine Wybourne, the Prioress of Howton Grove Priory in Herefordshire. In her ongoing battle with cancer, she has shown grace, dignity, wit and humanity. Here’s an example of her thinking and writing that offers an insight all cancer suffers will appreciate:

“Anyone with small children or a debilitating illness such as cancer will understand when I say there is a kind of tiredness so complete that any effort seems impossible. One wakes tired; one goes to bed tired; and in between times one just is tired. In my own case, I have more or less given up pretending it can ever be otherwise. I have even stopped snarling when people tell me to rest! Because, of course, the reason one is tired is that one cannot rest or rest itself is no longer restful. I refuse, however, to allow this state of apparently perpetual tiredness to be entirely negative. I bumble along quite happily until I simply flop — a sudden loss of energy, an overwhelming desire to close my eyes for a few minutes, you know what I mean. One doesn’t have to have children or be ill to know such moments, but they are probably more frequent if one does/is. At such times one can moan and groan a little, lament what one can’t do, or one can learn — painfully slowly in my case — that they are a moment of grace, to be treasured rather than railed against.

When one is very tired, life becomes much simpler. There is no need to pretend, no need to argue, no need to worry about what others think. What one cannot do, one cannot do — and that’s an end of the matter. One cannot plan ahead and one’s memory of the past is defective, so one is forced to live in the present moment. Jean de Caussade wrote beautifully of the sacrament of the present moment, but I must admit that until I became ill myself, I had never really appreciated the richness of meaning behind the phrase.”

No day here is complete with a tweet from @Digitalnun. Each one is a gem. The juxtaposition of faith and charity, the local and the global, is unique:

#Praying for all tweeps on the feast of St Irenaeus, esp all who love scripture, & for those battling the latest global ransomware attack.

Praying for all tweeps, esp those killed/injured outside #FinsburyParkMosque last night, and those involved in #Brexit negotiations. #prayer

Praying for all tweeps, esp those affected by the floods in Uruguay, and those who are moving house. #prayer

The Digital Nun


Light and high beauty for ever

Wednesday, 5 July, 2017 0 Comments

Remembering those who are no longer with us and thinking of those today, who are in need of our prayers, candles and reassurance.

“For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Our candles


Courage, faith and hope

Tuesday, 20 June, 2017 0 Comments

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” — The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

Courage, faith and hope


Unboxing Millie’s Easter cake

Sunday, 16 April, 2017 0 Comments

Great neighbour, great friend, great baker! Happy Easter! Beannachtaí na Cásca! Boa Páscoa! Frohe Ostern! ¡Felices Pascuas! Buona Pasqua! Joyeuses Pâques!

Cake 1

Cake 2

Cake 3

Cake 4