Sunday 28 September 2008

My Voice

Today, on the way home from an emotional journey, I read a poem. It melded with my thoughts about many different things; I loved it for what it was, and for what I could make it to be.  

I come from a distant land
with a knapsack on my back
with a silent song on my lips

As I travelled down the river of my life
I saw my voice
(like Jonah)
swallowed by a whale

And my very life lived in my voice.

Kabul, Dec 1989.

My Voice: Partaw Naderi (b. 1953), translated by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Sounds of Silence

Sitting in darkness on the balcony of the flat in Guejar Sierra, Andalucia, the sound of cicadas, crickets, bats, dogs and the odd car on the mountain can be heard from the landscape. The moon is full and shines down on the mountain casting strange shadows on the trees. Leonard Coen is singing from the ipod in the front room where Gemma is reading. 

The first night of our holiday and already, quietly, everything is beginning to stop. There is a quietness here, and a stillness that many people search for in hustle and bustle. But, it is not a physical stillness; this place is alive. The steady release of everyday concerns, and a break from worrying about the working treadmill allow other delights to call for attention.

People say there is no such thing as silence. Perhaps they are right, but paradoxically, taking time to note the sounds of silence projects stillness into the landscapes of our holiday retreats. People say: 'It is so beautiful here; so quiet, so still'; very rarely is that true, but it speaks volumes about what happens when everything stops long enough to hear your own heart beat.

Here are my top five sounds of silence:

1. Buckden Towers - The fens of Cambridgeshire
You could hear the A1 from the retreat centre I used to work in; not close, but in the distance. There were always groups of children running around the grounds; people ringing the doorbell or calling on the phone. The heavy oak doors slammed. Outside there were birds in the trees, and creatures rustling in the undergrowth. Sometimes the local farmer grazed his sheep on the field.
2. Creeping off the street - The Blessed Sacrament met
In Salamanca the busy city was always wide awake, but tucked between the shops and the cafes were Churches whose doors opened during the hours of business. Nipping into the coolness of the twilit chapel the sounds of the street become muffled, not absent but separate. New sounds are present, the creak of old wooden benches, the scrape of their movement on stone; sometimes you can hear the breathing of others in prayer, the footsteps of someone walking. When the door to street opens all the hustle and bustle floods in, ebbing back out as the door slowly re-closes.
3. Parish Church - The community prepares
At 9.05 the Church is full; there is only one mass in my Parish of a Sunday. Everyone is talking, the children are meeting each other in the aisles, the ushers are welcoming people to their seats, a few brave singers are gathering to form the choir; the organist practices a few notes. Some people kneel to pray, some read the newsletter. Then with the sound of a bell at 9.15 a silence descends, and the community stands to celebrate the mass.
4. Camino dawn - The pilgrims watch sunrise
The crunch crunch crunch of heaving boots walking on gravel scraped to halt as the sun peaked over the tip of the mountain ridge; a dawn sunrise. The birds, jumping through the wheatfield trebled their chorus to greet the day. Crickets and cicadas chirrup and hop across the pathway. Stillness. Then, the thud of a rucksack hitting the ground, and the sigh of a pilgrim hunckering down to watch this spectacle of nature in more comfort. People breathing heavily after walking the first few kilometres of today's pilgrimage towards Santiago de Compostela - a long day ahead. Expectation.
5. Lourdes - The bustling town
The sound of a million people talking in different languages, shouting out, singing, laughing, joking. There are cars, lorries and buses squeezing through small crowded streets sending pilgrims in wheelchairs and pedestrians into tacky shop displays to escape from the crush. Here the hustle and bustle is equal to a city going home of a Friday; everything smells -  food, drink, people, petrol. Stopping to watch; everything and nothing - all human life is here.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Old Soul

It has happened again - someone has commented that I must have an 'old soul' to continue believing when everything is marching onwards towards a 'new secular reality'. In this instance it was my new venture to study for a DPhil Theology that brought about the remark.

What does it mean to have an 'old soul'? I have heard the expression many times but never really understood it. Perhaps people are referring to traditional religious beliefs. In this context I could identify myself and many of the people I love best as 'old souls'.  I have sometimes lovingly thought of people with more conservative views and preferences in Catholic liturgy as 'old souls', perhaps because many of them are young, similar in age to myself. 

I was thinking about the Tridentine rite the other day, as you do. I had been listening in on a conversation at school. Someone dismissed the Latin mass as 'holy mumbo jumbo', and then later as debate hotted up as 'dangerous goobledegook.' I do not like stepping into these debates about preferences or 'tastes' in liturgy; I am not qualified, and anyway I feel comfortable in most settings be they charismatic, evangelical, traditional or tridentine. Putting aside my conviction that a mass faithfully celebrated cannot be regarded as either 'holy mumbo jumbo' or 'gobbledegook' without causing grave offense, such strong opinions as these often strike me as divisive.

I am not able to appreciate the Latin mass in its fullness because I lack the education. Latin was never taught at school, it was not part of my religious upbringing and I did not choose to study it at university. Therefore, for me, going to a Latin mass is a bit like watching a film that I know very well dubbed in a foreign language. I can only be moved by it if I can remember the lines. Some parts seem unfamiliar or new, some I have forgotten, and some parts I would recognize no matter what language was spoken. They say that boredom is a lack of imagination, but sometimes it is also a need for education. It is quite likely that, were I to attend a long Latin mass, I would be bored; not because I lack the imagination to enter into the sacred mysteries, but because I lack the education to understand how they are being reflected upon.

With all of this in mind, I think I will learn Latin this year, and then when someone calls me an 'old soul' again I will be able to give them another reason for doing so.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Chasing after grace...

There are conversations that stay with you and repeat in  your mind, gaining greater significance as you think about them. Lourdes is a place for those conversations, and although they rarely seem important at the time, they come back to you in prayer, in dreams and in reflection. The Wednesday of Lourdes is always a special day for me; I try to make it to the baths, confession and the Blessed Sacrament Procession all in one day. I do this for two reasons; firstly because once I have found the courage for the baths, confession seems a doddle; secondly, it means I am free for service to others every hour of every day at all other times. I have my day, and that is all I need. 

On Wednesday evening this year I joked with a friend. When he commented: 'You made it to confession?' I replied: 'I am surprised you cannot see my state of grace! I have been bathed, confessed and blessed today.' He replied something like: 'There is no such thing as cheap grace, and you, of all people, should know that.' I may not be accurate but, it is this thought I would like to consider because, whatever the comment of my friend, he set me thinking about the first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

'Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack's wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price, grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance, and since it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?'
Bonhoeffer goes on to explain passionately that the cost of grace was the death of a son, and that this cost, if it were anything, was not cheap. Costly grace, he responds calls people to follow the teachings of Christ, to change. It has very little to do with the processes and ceremonies of religion. His tone is echoed in the writing of Herbert McCabe OP:

'The only true God is the God of freedom. The other gods make you feel at home in a place, they have to do with the quiet cycle of the seasons, with the familiar mountains and the country that you grew up in and love; with them you know where you are. But the harsh God of freedom calls you out from all of this into a desert where all the familiar landmarks are gone, where you cannot rely upon the safe workings of nature, on spring time and harvest, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring. The God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the old traditional shrines and temples of your native place, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way.'

In the light of the religiosity and traditional piety of Lourdes, it seems difficult to make sense of what these two great thinkers are getting at. Do the religious traditions of Lourdes mean nothing? Teach us nothing? And what of the sacraments of the Church? For me the answer is found in the revelations of a woman in love, Catherine of Sienna. In her Dialogue with God, she describes grace as the fruit of a desirous heart for union with God, the Infinite good. He replies to her:

'No virtue can have life in it except in charity, and charity is nursed and mothered by humility. You will find humility in knowledge of yourself when you see that even your own existence comes not from yourself, but from me, for I loved you before you came into being. And in my unspeakable love for you I willed to create you anew in grace....

Pressed by my servants prayers I look on them (sinners) and give them light. I rouse the dog of conscience within them. I make them sensitive to the perfume of virtue and give them delight in  the fellowship of my servants....

The eye cannot see, nor the tongue tell, nor the heart imagine how many paths and methods I have solely for love. and to lead them back to truth that my grace may be realized in them.'
I have seen and written of Lourdes: 'At communion...people seek out priests from whom they should receive the eucharist....I was touched by the need in the faces of the crowd, they were chasing after grace.' Of my own experience 'part of being in Lourdes is about taking the time to stop hiding from yourself. There is a call to pay attention to who you are, and attention to the eyes of God looking upon you.' Costly grace is caught up in a desirous need for God, revealed in the love of our neighbour, the most vulnerable, the poor and the sick. The sacraments of the Church, so readily available, are not cheap. They are tools for the expensive grace of self discovery and atonement in its truest sense; to be honest, they can be a bit of a shock. Wednesday in Lourdes is about rediscovering a desire for God in my life, and having made that discovery, resolving to change my pattern of living to be more in tune with the Gospel, whatever that may take.

Photo: Incense Bearer at the Blessed Sacrament Procession taken by Bro. Lawrence Lew OP