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Lenten Reflections published in the catholic Herald Lent 2014
1 - When you do it to the least of my Brethren: Published 7 March 2014
The Spirituality of the Middle Ages was deeply influenced by a story that everybody knew from their childhood. It was the story of a Roman soldier and of his act of compassion for a fellow human being. The Roman soldier was later to become St Martin, Bishop of Tours, who was born at the beginning of the fourth century. He was still only a Catechumen when, on a cold winter’s night, he cut his cloak in half to clothe a half naked man, who was starving to death outside the city gate. When the story was told that the poor man was in fact Christ, its impact was immense and lasting. It inspired every one from the humblest of subjects, to the kings who ruled over them. Clovis and the Frankish Kings who followed him, carried the other half of that cloak with them wherever they went, even into battle. It helped keep the story of St Martin’s act of charity alive, becoming the inspiration for countless works of charity in one of the most cruel and barbarous periods in the history of Christendom. When St Francis of Assisi was moved to jump off his horse to help a poor leper, he ‘kissed him on the mouth’ and gave him everything that he had, it was yet another example of the profound truth that had kept charity alive through the Dark Ages. When the story was told that the leper was in fact Christ, it became yet another reminder of those unforgettable words from St Matthews Gospel :-
“When you do it to the least of my brethren you do it to me”. ( Matt 25:40)
Both St Martin and St Francis were deeply changed by their meeting with Christ in the neighbour in need. Pope Francis had a similar experience when he became ‘Bishop of the poor’ from which he learnt something deep and profound that he has since tried to convey to others. On the Vigil of Pentecost last year, for instance, he asked his audience a rhetorical question – “Do you give alms to the poor?” Receiving the expected answer, he said, “Very good, but when you give alms to the poor, do you look them in the eye, do you touch their hands?” St Francis had always given money to lepers before, but only through others, or by tossing his purse to them from a safe distance, until that fateful day which, as he said in his final will and testament, was to change his life irrevocably. We are not changed just by giving, but by the way in which we give. This is the insight that Pope Francis discovered for himself. It is in the way in which we give to the poor that we can discover Christ in them, and through this experience be changed ourselves, as others have been change before us. (David is giving the Lenten course on Prayer at the Church of SS Anselm and Cecilia, next to Holborn tube station every Monday in Lent, beginning this Monday 10th March at 6.45 pm)
2 - Without me you have no power to do anything: Published 14th March 2014
When I was a student I spent some time working with ‘down and outs’ through the Simon Community, and later through the Saint Mungo Community. The work was so difficult, so harrowing, both physically and mentally, that nobody was allowed to work for more than six months. After that you were told to leave, rest, and then get on with the rest of your life, leaving the work to newcomers . The acts of charity performed by St Martin, St Francis, and Pope Francis continued long after they had first discovered Christ in the neighbour in need. This was possible not because they were endowed with a superhuman strength of will power denied the rest of us, but because they repeatedly turned to God to have their weak human strength continually surcharged with the divine.
To do this St Martin became a hermit and eventually founded a monastery where others could find the strength that he received. St Francis became a hermit too and then founded a religious order where his followers would be inspired in deep contemplative prayer, to serve the poor as he did. Bishop Bergoglio became a hermit in his own home, as he began to spend more and more time in the prayer that would alone enable him to continue being the Bishop of the poor without the compassion fatigue that afflicts the best of us. In choosing to become Pope of the poor, and in choosing the name Francis to remind himself and the church that he is committed to serving the poor, he redoubled his time for prayer. If any engagements, particularly those that take up his time in the evening, threaten to prevent him having quality space and time for prayer in the morning, then his ‘minders’ have been ordered to cancel them.
Jesus said quite clearly, “Without me you have no power to do anything”- so those who feel that they are inspired to help the poor will inevitably suffer from compassion fatigue unless they follow the example of Pope Francis. If he is going to make the church into the church for the poor, then he can’t do it alone. And if those who feel inspired to follow his example and join him, forget to seek help from the same person to whom he turns each day, then the great enterprise will end up no more than a pipe- dream. Who is busier than Pope Francis? Yet he finds the time each day to go into the inner room to pray. What better Lenten resolution can we make then, than to follow Pope Francis to find in prayer what simply cannot be done without it. (David is giving the Lenten course on Prayer at the of Church of SS Anselm and Cecilia, next to Holborn tube station every Monday in Lent at 6.45 pm)
3 - Where all virtues are to be found: Published 21st March 2014
Even immediately after his election Cardinal Bergoglio still hadn’t thought what name to choose. Then,a good friend of his ,Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of Sao Paolo whispered in his ear, “Don’t forget the poor!” It was whilst thinking about the poor that the he immediately thought of St Francis, and how he would like to preside over a Church that was poor, and which worked for the poor.
However you cannot suddenly acquire all the virtues that were embodied in St Francis, even if you are elected Pope, if you have never practised them before. Yes, he already was a shining example of the virtues of simplicity, humility, poverty, and care and the compassion for the poorest of the poor, there is no doubt about it. But let there be no misunderstanding, nobody can acquire these virtues merely by desiring them. If this were so then we would already have our heaven on earth. It is impossible to generate these virtues for oneself. They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in deep prayer. If there is a secret to the inner spiritual life of our Holy Father then, it is to be found here, as it was found in the saints whose name he has chosen to bear. St Francis makes it clear in his Praises of the Virtues that all the virtues are gifts of God, given through dying to self in prayer.
‘In all the world there is not a man who can possess anyone of you without first dying to himself.’
As a person learns how to remain open to the action of God’s love in prayer, then God is able to pour out his love into them, through which all the virtues are transmitted. Just as all the colours of the spectrum are sheathed within a single shaft of light and become visible when it passes through a prism, so all the virtues are contained in a single shaft of God’s love and become visible when they pass through an open heart and are made visible in Christ-like human behaviour.
All this tells us something about our new Pope that hasn’t, as yet, received the emphasis that it should. He is a man of deep prayer, where, through the Holy Spirit he has received the Christ- like virtues that everyone has learnt to love in the Poverello from Assisi, whose name he has chosen to take for his own. If we too want our lives to be characterised by these same virtues then it is essential that we find time, as he does, for the prayer without which, we will never be anything other than, a caricature of the man in whose footsteps we would like to follow. (David Torkington is the author of ‘Wisdom from Franciscan Italy’)
4 - Quality Space and time for Prayer: Published 28th March 2014
Two years before he was elected Pope Francis gave an interview to two Argentinean journalists, Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti in which he said – “I don’t want to mislead anyone – the truth is that I’m a sinner. From a young age I was pushed into leadership roles. I was made Novice master, and two and a half years later I was made Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. I had to learn from my errors along the way, because the truth is I made hundreds of errors. I not only made errors but committed sins too. It would be wrong to say that I now ask for forgiveness for sins that I might have committed, for I now ask for forgiveness for sins that I did in deed commit.” This is why the need for forgiveness and for God’s mercy became and always will be a dominant theme in his preaching.
The major change in his life came for Fr Bergoglio, as it did for St Francis, when he began to pray like never before. It was when, after holding high office in the Jesuit congregation that he was exiled to Argentina’s second city Cordoba that the pattern of his prayer life deepened. He realised that the past can only be redeemed in the present, so he began to get up early each morning, not just to pray for forgiveness, but through prayer to prepare himself for the day ahead, in such a way that he could make reparation for his behaviour in the past, by his behaviour in the present. One of his famous forbears Père JeanPierrede Caussade SJ had written about what he called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. For it is only in the present moment that we can encounter God and pray to him, in with and through Our Lord Jesus Christ. It was in Cordoba then, that the future Pope began to do what he does today. Each morning he rises early to spend as much as two hours in prayer. In his prayer he reviews the day ahead asking for God’s help not just to show him what he ought to do, but to send down upon him his Holy Spirit to give him the power to do it. This is the way he continues to make reparation for the past by consecrating every moment of every day, in such a way that all he says and does becomes the new offering in spirit and in truth that Jesus had promised to the Samaritan woman. Following his example means doing likewise, it means doing something that so many of us have long forgotten. In short, finding some time each morning for what used to be called the morning offering. The practice is so important that I will return to the subject once again next week.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from Franciscan Italy: the Primacy of Love
5 - The Morning Offering: Published 4th April 2014
On the day when Pope Benedict first used the Internet ‘to tweet’, he was asked by one of his respondents, how married people living such busy lives could find time for prayer? His reply was –“By offering everything that is said and done each day to God.” This is precisely what Pope Francis does each morning. As he has said on so many occasions, this is how he prepares for the forthcoming day. He goes through his diary for the day ahead asking God to give him the help he needs , not just to see what he should do, but to give him the strength to do it. If we want to follow his example it means that we should do likewise.
First thoughts on waking each morning should be to offer the forthcoming day to God . Whether we use a set and well tried formula, or our own words, it will help transform what would otherwise be just another humdrum day, into something special, a place where time touches eternity. In this way we can practise what Pierrede Caussade called the sacrament of the present moment using all and everything that we do each moment of every day, to offer ourselves up in with and through Christ to the Father. This morning offering can be made in our own words or by using a traditional formula. The best of them all contain the ingredients that you will find in this modern version, if you choose to use it :- I offer you the prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, in union with the offering that Jesus made and continues to make in the Eucharist. I offer them with all who are alive in him, whether they are living or dead. May I draw strength from those who have already proved their faith and become the instrument of giving strength to those who haven’t.
This is the sort of prayer my mother taught me to say the moment I woke up in the morning. But above all she showed me how to put it into practice by her own example. When the family went to Mass each Sunday, they saw their mother totally absorbed in what they took all too easily for granted. Their selfishness meant that they had too little to offer, while she was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice made for them during the previous week. It was here that she received the help and strength she needed to go on giving in the forthcoming week. When she first taught me to say the morning offering, she told me that it would enable me to change even very ordinary things, into something special, just as Rumplestiltskin had changed common straw into gold. The Curé d’Ars put it this way – “All that we do, without offering it to God is wasted.” Why waste a moment when every moment can be offered to God. Pope Francis doesn’t so why should we?
(David Torkington is the author of How to Pray – A practical guide to the spiritual life.)
6 - Resolutions: Published 11th April 2014
When, in our morning prayer we try to review the forthcoming day, to consecrate everything we have to do, it might seem trivial compared to the decisions that Pope Francis has to make. But in the spiritual life it is not so much what is done or what is achieved that is of such importance, but the love with which it is done. There is nothing that is so trivial that it cannot be transformed from dross into pure gold as my own mother taught me. It might be to do humdrum tasks that we keep putting off, like changing the sheets on the bed, putting air into the car tires, defrosting the freezer, or something that’s more important. There’s always that friend or relative who’s sick or in need, who we should ‘phone, or write to, or even visit for a few minutes. Alternatively, perhaps we should make a resolution to apologize to one of the family, a friend, or someone at work, for the way we behaved towards them the previous day.
It is very difficult to stand up for someone who’s been abused by authority at work, or elsewhere, or to speak the truth when no one wants to hear it, or to make a stand for what we know is right. But nevertheless these are some of the more important things that could occupy our minds as part of morning prayer. Perhaps we could end with the most important resolution of all, to try and make the forthcoming day, a day when we try as best we can, to enable God’s love to draw us up, not just into the life of Christ, but into his love of the Father. It is only there that we will be able to love God as we should, by offering him all that we are and all that we do, but most of all by offering him the way we have tried to serve him through the neighbour in need. In this way every day is a day in which we spend every single moment trying to observe the New Commandments, firstly by loving God, and then in loving him in the neighbour in need, just as Jesus did.
One of the most important truths of the spiritual life, that we neglect at our peril is that we won’t ultimately be judged by the wonderful feelings that we’ve experienced in prayer. We won’t be asked how many ecstasies we’ve had or even how many miracles we’ve worked, or people we’ve healed, but how we’ve served God in the neighbour in need. If we have done this, even if we have failed in so much else, we will be invited to share in his glory, because he will say to us:-
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”(Matthew 25:31-46)”
7 - The Mystical Meaning of the Resurrection: Published 18th April 2014
The Resurrection pinpoints the moment in time when Christ is so possessed by Love, that he is raised up outside of time into a new form of existence, beyond all the laws and limitations of the space-and-time world to which we belong, and into which he was born. Before the Resurrection he was subject to all the restrictions that bind the rest of us. He too could only be in one place at any given moment. Contact with him therefore was necessarily limited to where he happened to be, how long he was going to stay there, and how many other people wanted to see him. Once Love had lifted him out of the world of space and time, however, he was freed from all those limiting laws and restrictions. Now he can be present to countless numbers of people at any given moment simultaneously, because he can be present to them, not from the outside, but from the inside, through Love. Since Christ can come into contact with everyone through Love, then everyone can contact each other in him. Just as the spokes of a wheel automatically come closer to one another as they draw nearer to the center, so everyone automatically comes closer to one another as they draw nearer to Christ. When we say ‘Our Father’ for instance, we don’t just mean that we pray with Christ, and in him, but also that we pray together with all humankind who are alive in him. We pray, not only with Mary and Joseph, with Peter and Paul, with Francis and Dominic, but with loved ones now dead, who have been reborn in Christ. Our prayer can reach out and unite us with other Christians who are now languishing in the prisons of the world for the faith that we can so easily take for granted. It can enable us to bring strength and comfort to innocents, victims of vicious regimes, who are about to be tortured at this very moment.
The daily newspapers and even the news on the television can be used as an aid to prayer. When we hear about those, whose suffering makes us feel so helpless, we can try to remember them too. For this is the time when they can be included in our morning offering, in with and through Christ , and with the love and support of all with whom we are united in his mystical family. This means that those for whom we pray are included in the ‘prayer without ceasing’ that we try make as we endeavour to transpose all that we have offered to God at the beginning of the day into practice through all we say and do throughout the day. I say ‘try’ because God judges the quality of our prayer, not by what we have achieved, or think we have achieved, but by how best we have tried, no matter how many times we have failed. As Simone Weil put it, “A person is no more than the quality if their endeavour.”
A New Franciscan Spring - Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Once Cardinal Bergoglio had obtained two thirds of the votes, he was according to time honoured tradition, asked two questions. The first was, did he accept the awesome office to which his peers had elected him. After answering in the affirmative, he was asked what name he had chosen for his future pontificate. His answer would be the first indication of the sort of pope that he aspired to be. Choosing the name of a previous pope would have indicated that he primarily wanted to continue the work of his namesake whether it be a John Paul, or a Benedict. The new pope’s choice must have surprised the conclave as much as it obviously delighted the crowds in St Peter’s square.
It would be wrong to suggest that his choice signalled a massive departure from the teaching of his predecessors, but it certainly suggests a difference in the way that teaching will be taught and implemented. The essential teaching of the Gospel always remains the same, but the way that the Gospel is taught is crucial. In order to understand what I mean, let’s go back over 800 years to a little church just outside Assisi called San Damiano. A rather undistinguished little man, who had recently been released from prison after the Battle of Collestrada, was praying beneath a cross when he heard the words of Christ speaking to him, telling him to rebuild the church that was falling down. Francis’s experience was so limited, that he assumed that Christ was speaking about the tumble-down church in which he was praying. Far away in Rome, Pope Innocent lll would have known precisely what the words of Christ meant. The Catholic Church at that time was in turmoil. At the fourth Lateran Council that Innocent was soon to call, he did not shrink from detailing the laxity, the greed and the sexual depravity of priests, religious and bishops. He had already encouraged new religious movements to help restore the Church, but they had all failed.
Four years after Francis had heard the words of Christ speaking to him, he found himself standing before the great Pontiff to ask if he and his eleven brothers be allowed to live the life that Jesus and his Apostles had lived when he was on earth, and preach the Gospel as he had done. Innocent lll had heard it all before from firebrands and fanatics who had let him down in the past, so Francis, was dismissed for aspiring to an ideal that was beyond him. However, that evening one of the Cardinals told Innocent that by refusing Francis and his followers the way of life to which they aspired, he was in effect saying that no one could live the Gospel on which the teaching of the Church was founded! That night the Pope had a dream in which he saw the Church that was about to fall down, being held up by the unkempt little man he had just turned away. The next day he gave Francis and his followers permission to live the gospel way of life, and to call others to do likewise.
Innocent lll died shortly after what was perhaps the greatest reforming Council the Church has ever known, with the possible exception of Trent. St Francis of Assisi accomplished more than anyone else in spreading the spirit and the teaching of this Council amongst ordinary people, who were hungry for the pure and simple teaching of the Gospel that had been denied them for too long. However, the way Francis and his followers went about spreading that message was crucial. “There are two ways of spreading the gospel.” St Francis insisted, “The first is by the example of your own lives, and the second is by preaching.” Without the first, words would be no more than ‘gongs booming and cymbals clashing’. In other words it is what you are that matters, long before you even open your mouth.
One day whilst walking through Siena, a theologian stopped Francis and asked him to settle an argument that had been exercising the minds of his peers. The argument had arisen from reading a text from Ezekiel, which stated that we must call whosoever we meet, to repent and change their lives. And if we fail to do this, then we will one day be answerable for the sins into which they fall. The theologian said that it was not only impossible, but unfair. How can we call everyone we meet to repent and change their lives? St Francis answered that only Jesus can call a person to repentance, but so too can they, who try to embody the simple loving goodness that characterised everything that Jesus said and did. We all saw such a person on the balcony of St Peter’s in Rome that Wednesday evening. All that we know about the way he has lived before, and how he has since been acting, confirms why he has chosen to call himself after St Francis of Assisi. Combine the learning and the erudition of a Jesuit with the simplicity and the humility of a Franciscan, and what do you get, the Holy Father, for whom we have all been hoping and praying. Long may he continue, and long may we continue to follow his example, for only the humble can speak to the proud and hope to be heard.