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Wednesday, 10 August 2016


St Lawrence is thought to have been born in Huesca, a town in the region of Aragon in Spain. He encountered the future Pope Sixtus II, who was of Greek origin, and eventually, both left Spain for Rome. When Sixtus became the Pope in 257, he ordained St Lawrence as a deacon, and though Lawrence was still young appointed him first among the seven deacons who served in the patriarchal church. He is therefore called "archdeacon of Rome", a position of great trust that included the care of the treasury and riches of the church and the distribution of alms among the poor.
Roman authorities had established a norm according to which all Christians who had been denounced must be executed and their goods confiscated by the Imperial treasury. At the beginning of August 258, the Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. Sixtus was captured on August 6, 258 at the cemetery of St Callixtus while celebrating the liturgy and executed forthwith.
After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that St Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. He worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, and said these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, "The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor." The prefect was so angry that he had a great gridiron prepared, with coals beneath it, and had Lawrence's body placed on it (hence St Lawrence's association with the gridiron). After the martyr had suffered the pain for a long time, the legend concludes, he made his famous cheerful remark, "I'm well done. Turn me over!" From this derives his patronage of cooks and chefs. He was martyred on August 10, 258.
St Lawrence is one of the most widely venerated saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Legendary details of his death were known to Saints Ambrose and Augustine. The church built over his tomb, San Lorenzo fuori le Mure, became one of the seven principal churches in Rome and a favorite place for Roman pilgrimages. Devotion to him was widespread by the fourth century. Since the Perseid meteor shower typically occurs every year in mid-August on or near his feast day, some refer to the shower as the "Tears of St Lawrence."

The image above is a detail from Fra Angelico's "Lawrence before Valerianus."
Thanks, as always to St Matthias' Church, Somerset NJ.

Friday, 5 August 2016


Muslims attending Mass at St Ouen, North of Paris, after the murder of Fr Hamel
(NB: white is the Muslim colour of mourning)

I was asked the other day why on this blog I hadn’t written anything about the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel, the old French priest stabbed to death at the altar by two ISIS-encouraged 19-year-olds. I thought about it, then answered that I wasn’t sure what sensible things I could say that hadn’t been said already a hundred times by the media, social or otherwise. Outrage, horror, grief. One Facebook meme had his picture with the overlay “MARTYR DE FRANCE”. I wasn’t happy with that: “martyr for Christ” would have been nearer the mark. However, two things happened – one big, one small – that persuaded me to write something here, if only to give them wider and encouraging publicity.

In the first place – and this is big, really big --, on the following Sunday when Masses were said in his memory, thousands of Muslims all over France spontaneously went to the Catholic churches to attend the service, many if not most of them for the first time. It was an extraordinary deed of solidarity and should have been given far more coverage. All those who were interviewed said that they had come to support their Christian neighbours and to show the world how appalled they were at what these young thugs had done. Many added that they were impressed with the closeness of the two faiths, and convinced that we serve the same God.

I find this, as we say nowadays, beyond decent; a genuinely noble gesture that I hope will be amply repaid by Christians. A few more visits to mosques during prayers might be a good beginning.

The small thing that I found extremely encouraging was that at a small local talk-plus-prayer-service I heard the visiting priest – and to me this was a first, I’ve written about it – praying, and urging us to pray, for the murderers and their families. I’m not sure how much this will directly touch the brainwashed, but in the context of my last post more intensive intercessory prayer for our enemies is urgently needed.

I remember, only a few years ago, reading a number of Collects and Psalm texts about “the assaults of our enemies” and thinking that nowadays, mercifully, we should perhaps learn to take them as part of a spiritual war. But no: the enemies are back, they are real, they are armed, they are intelligent, and they hate us. We can start rereading a lot of those texts (taking some care to apply Jesus’ teaching to some of the more vindictive Psalms), and looking at the ways they teach us to react. Note, for instance, that in the case of the Anglican Church’s Second Collect at Matins at no time do we pray to God to take away our enemies and their attacks: “defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries.” And in the Second Collect for Evensong: “that we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness.” What we ask God to do is take away our fear. Perhaps, if he does that, we can become like St Stephen who, as he was being stoned, prayed that God might forgive his murderers. And pray at once for the soul of Fr Hamel and for the souls of Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean; for  their families and for their neighbours who have done us the honour of attending Mass.

PS: I have been reminded that the Muslim attendance at Mass was in response to a call by the CFCM, the French Council of Muslims; so not technically spontaneous -- but the response was huge, and deeply moving.

Sunday, 31 July 2016


"Human freedom is an essential, aspect of God's creation and as such [J.R.] Lucas argues that there must be an infinity of possible plans. He likens God's providence to the Persian rugmakers who start at one end of a carpet while their children start at the other: the skill of the father is able to accommodate the children's work to create a rug of great beauty." (James Wood, "The Theology of Prayer and Intercession")

 I have written earlier on what to me is the perennial problem of intercessory and petitionary prayer: what can one properly ask for, and what is the meaning of praying for others? The answer to the second question must depend on the way the first is answered; and both, as Lee Rayfield suggests, depend on one’s concept of, and one’s relation to, God. Several theologians have pointed out that early in the Old Testament, petitions to God played out in the language of commerce, of the market-place: the great example is the irresistible story of Abraham’s bargaining with God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha. (What is sometimes left out is the sequel: even though God acceded to Abraham’s final request to be merciful if even ten just men were found there, the cities did end up being destroyed. Clearly there was no minyan. But more relevant is the fact that Abraham did stop at ten, and did leave the decision up to God.)
            Since the coming of Jesus, however, the language of petition has been the language of love. Jesus taught us to call God Abba, Father: not obvious, when you think of Him as the Creator of the entire universe now revealed by Hubble. He taught us how to pray, how to ask, and suggested we do it as simply as a child asks its father for a bun. He also told us that if and when we ask, and ask insistently, we will receive (though he did not go into detail about what and how we will receive). Moreover, he showed us how he himself prayed: and, as one theologian pointed out, the most relevant of his prayers for this question is in Gethsemane, when he prayed God to let the cup of the Cross pass from him – “yet not as I will but as Thou wilt”.
            Which, of course, leads us to micro-management, and to Huck Finn’s fish-hooks. Does God micro-manage the world? In one sense I don’t think so. Jesus tells us that He sees the fall of every sparrow; but He doesn’t prevent it. Magic may stop the arrow dead in its flight; but God does not. On the other hand, I don’t think God stays aloof from the beautiful watch He has made and wound up. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and theologian, has reminded us that the Deist (and sometimes atheist) view of God is based on a mechanistic universe, and that in a quantum universe, where uncertainty plays a major role, a far more dynamic and subtle view of God is possible.
            We do not, usually, receive fish-hooks if we pray for them, though sometimes we do – which should make us think seriously about the relation between petitionary prayer and thanksgiving. But what interests me more today is prayer of intercession for others. We pray for a sick acquaintance. What do we pray? The simplest version is, “God, heal Anastasia (or Mrs X) and make her well again.” This may or may not happen. If it does, we give thanks, usually without questioning what that implies. If it doesn’t, there are several explanations: our faith wasn’t strong enough; or her healing at this time was not part of God’s will for her. The former, though in some places Jesus seems to sanction it,  almost reduces prayer to magic. The latter is very hard for us, with our love for the patient, to understand.  Some theologians solve the problem by saying that God’s sense of time is not ours; others, that God moves in mysterious ways.
            Yes, well, did we think we would grasp God and His ways? Does the child understand all its father’s circumstances and considerations? We are told that the great theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Love. So why not apply those to our prayer of intercession? We pray that she may be healed. In that prayer, we do not attempt to bind God’s Will. We do apply Faith – we trust in God’s love, we trust Him to act out of the love He has for her. We do apply hope – the true Hope, which is itself a form of faith, a faith that points to a future, to an outcome. And we do apply Love, for the very fact of our praying for her is a putting into motion of the energy of Love. And that is enough. We cannot do more; we need not do more. As my mother, old and deep into Alzheimer’s, said to me one night before going to sleep, when I asked her what she thought about death and after: “I don’t think we’re meant to know, or to think about that. That’s what faith is for. You go into the dark, trusting.”
            But we have a restless and a questing mind, and some things I think we are allowed, indeed encouraged, to think about. If intercessory prayer “works,” how does it work? If a hundred people pray for Anastasia, what happens? And a couple of things I read recently gave me an idea about that. First, a sermon I heard said that God’s love for us is poured out constantly – not only at certain times of His choosing or our asking. It pours down upon us like the sun’s light. And if it does not efficaciously reach us, it is because we are blocking it. So what we can and should pray for is help to stop blocking God’s love. My second reading was the interview with Jean Vanier, and his insistence that we regard those unregarded by everyone else or the world in general.
            Those two ideas produced, in my mind, a third: that apart from my blocking the flow of God’s love for me, there may be more general and/or objective blocks that prevent that love from reaching me – or you, or Anastasia. And that praying for her, by one person but especially by more persons, may create a metaphysical energy that helps dissipate those blocks. What sort of blocks might they be? Well, as Vanier says, in a class, look at, regard, the kid everyone else makes fun of. Or, he mentions a 40-year-old paraplegic who has always so far been treated like something thrown out with the garbage. So one block might be the world in general, a person’s environment. Or a person’s circumstances. Or, indeed and startlingly often, a person’s own nature and its idiosyncrasies. I know several elderly women living alone, of varying prosperity but none of them poor. All of them have the physical problems that come with age. Three of them live rich, satisfying lives; two are profoundly and enduringly miserable, in spite of intelligence, education and talent. 

            Intercessory prayer for such people may create or fuel and augment an energy, deeply pleasing to a loving God, that helps to remove the screens blocking His love from pouring into their hearts and souls. We can only ever pray that He may lead them to the knowledge and love of Him, and that His will be done; but we are asked to do that often and insistently and also, I believe, smilingly (on His part) allowed to wonder, and ponder, how.


Jean Vanier: “Hope lies in the true encounter”

I recently put on Facebook a link to an interview in Le Figaro with Jean Vanier, perhaps the greatest living Canadian and winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize. In the context of a summer examination of the classic virtues, the Figaro's journalist, Guyonne de Montjou, asked him to comment on Hope. Vanier is such a remarkable man that it seemed worth while translating the interview into English, which herewith. NB: unlike English, French has two words for hope: espoir and espérance. The latter is slightly more formal and grand. So I have used the capital H to express it.


The work of Jean Vanier, 87, shows and expresses his Hope. “L’Arche” which he founded more than 50 years ago, counts 150 communities in 38 countries. In those homes, mentally handicapped persons live together with those who accompany them, for six months, for a year, for a lifetime. Via the daily routine, Hope is established and consolidated: hope for a world in which no one will feel excluded. 

When we speak of Hope, who comes to your mind?

First of all Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty-seven years in prison, most of them at hard labour. Maltreated, threatened, he knew – in his body, in his bones – that one day he would come out. Why? I don’t know. Where does that knowledge come from? That’s the real question. What I see is that he had the certainty that in the end justice would prevail. For him, it was inconceivable that evil would have the last word. That gave him the strength not to resign himself. Beyond evil there is always something else that draws us. That’s what Hope is. I strongly believe in that little inner voice that calls without ceasing and encourages us to see far.

Why do you say that Nelson Mandela’s Hope was rooted in his body?

 Because we are spirit AND body. At the beginning we spend nine months inside a body, in security. And then our life begins with that cry that also expresses the anxiety toward the infinity opening out before us. We cry because we no longer know what to do. For me, Hope lies in that cry of the newborn who calls for the arms, the security, who looks for communion. And so, for a bond, an encounter, tenderness.  Something in human life is marked with the seal of the Infinite, with that hunger for the Beyond. And also with the need for relation.

You describe Hope as “the little inner voice”. Charles Péguy, in his poem “The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue” (1912), speaks of “little Hope”. Why is Hope so discreet? How would you define it?

The “little inner voice” is not a feeling. It’s deeper than that. It is an attraction to justice. To Truth. To Love. It’s a pull, a drawing, it’s not the fruit of discernment. The Second Vatican Council defined the place where we hear that little voice: in the individual conscience, that holy and intimate sanctuary where God speaks to each human being to help it to orient itself toward justice and truth. To turn it away from evil. The little voice is an attraction.

Is Hope the same as optimism?

No, optimism is a psychological attitude. One is optimistic because one feels too vulnerable to contemplate the glass as being half empty. Optimism, I believe, is less profound than Hope. Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant’Egidio, an association of more than 50,000 people in the service of the poorest and of peace, writes in his book on Pope Francis that every community is rooted in a history and is oriented towards “the hope of a utopia”. For example, at L’Arche, we help the shattered ones, the persons who are handicapped, to grow. We know that relationship lies at the core. As we live together, the mission is clear. We welcome people like Pauline, a 40-year-old paraplegic who all her life had been treated as garbage, to give them confidence in themselves. We do not want to change them, we simply want to encounter them with tenderness. We are filled with the utopian idea that the world is changing; instead of arming for war and showing that one is stronger than one’s neighbour, we feel that another world is possible. Each day we discover that communion is what’s important: a bond, via bodies, eyes, hands. Here we receive people who have been humiliated. And they begin to dance, to live, to grow, and to fill us with joy simply because of a bond of listening. But it is difficult truly to describe what is so small, so intimate, so discreet. I am convinced that the bond of communion between mother and child is the beginning of the red thread of the whole of life. We are always looking for that bond of understanding. Communion is linked to littleness, to humility. In order to obtain it, you say to the other, “At bottom, I’m no better than you. I need you.”

Someone else who, to you, incarnates Hope?

A man who I think incarnates Hope today is Pope Francis, precisely because he listens to that little inner voice. He doesn’t know where it will lead him, but he knows one thing: that we are healed by the poor. To go to the periphery, to the edges, means to listen to the way the marginal people, the poor, the burdened evangelise us and lead us to their wisdom. That is his essential message and it seems to me to carry Hope with it. The wisdom of the poor is the opposite of that of the world which always invites us to move up. Moving up is, somehow, pushing others aside in order to win. Going toward the wisdom of the poor touches humanity at its earthiest, its fleshliest and its most bodily. It is a cry. A cry to be recognised. I am moved by every story of humiliation. The humiliated cry out to be recognised. The great problem of our time is the separation between rich and poor. A billion and a half people live in shantytowns. And each day, another 100,000 people in the world join them, drawn by the big city’s ideal of consumerism, its materialist model. What do those humiliated people need? Someone who sees them and who believes in them.

Why to you does the cry of the humiliated, the poor, the handicapped represent a call, a plea?

Because it awakens something in the depths of my heart that gives me life. St Francis of Assisi tells how when he came out of prison, when he was barely 24, he found himself mysteriously attracted by a group of lepers even though previously he had found lepers repulsive. Something had changed in him. So he moved in with those lepers and shared their life. When, after two years among them, he continued on his way, he wrote, “I found a new gentleness in my body and in my spirit.” Finally, that experience of shared living had let him see the leper within himself. Often, when our heart is hard, if we protect ourselves and refuse to hear the cry of the poor, it is because we are afraid to reveal our own poverty. Recognising one’s limits allows one to enter into communion with the other.

In the midst of a society like ours, where the prime objectives are performance and success, where does one learn humility?

By not knowing. I knew a man who was perfect, who was successful in his marriage, in his career, in his family. One day. one of his daughters was born with a mental illness. He was completely lost. It was that little sick girl who taught him that there is something more to life than success. I think one learns humility when one looks for simple and true relationships. When one visits prisons, or the sick, one discovers that those one thought worthless are in fact terrific people. Everyone can do that. One doesn’t need a degree for encounters.

Do you think you have acquired a certain wisdom?

Not at all. I learn every day. A pharmacist, a woman, taught me something. Sometimes people come to her who suddenly say something very important. She told me that one of her clients came with her young son, and explained to her that he had lived through something dramatic and tragic. She was at once sad and furious. The pharmacist listened to her with great attention without saying a word. She showed her, with her regard, that she empathised with her suffering, that she felt compassion. But she said nothing. I asked her, what is wisdom? That woman answered me, “wisdom is the space, the time of silence, the regard which explains that you have understood the other’s suffering without necessarily speaking.”

In these times of families in mourning and where terrorism creates a desire for revenge, do you think that every man, the most radical of ideologues or a sanguinary criminal, is capable of amendment?

Of course. Who am I to judge him? I believe that each human being contains a seed of innocence.  It is buried inside him and functions as a base. I call it the seat of conscience, which goes deeper than the person himself. It is the inner place where one’s being is not shaped. That is why I think we should sometimes become like small children again, and touch the other’s innocent side. I believe that each true encounter between two people implies that virgin point, a certain humility, an attitude that can say, “I am no better than you.” When we help someone up who has tripped and fallen in the street, it changes us. Every human being is capable of that. Each man, whatever his way in life, whatever his suffering, hopes that someone will regard him with tenderness, without judgement, to discover the place of his innocence. One simply has to learn to welcome the other. And then one changes the world.

An example?

In the United States, a friend of mine, a doctor in a palliative-care unit, was called to care for a mafia boss who had throat cancer. All his life this man had wanted to be strong. And now, suddenly, he discovered someone who touched him with tenderness. Vulnerable now, he saw this doctor coming to his aid with goodness and gentleness. All his life he had believed that adults were bad and that one had to defend themselves from them. That was why with all his strength he had constructed a shell: deep down he must have had a fear of suffering. I believe that this story helps us understand the role of the encounter: it is the ingredient that nourishes Hope.

Doesn’t your sense of Hope for man sometimes come close to a certain naiveté?

 Perhaps. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ve been wrong. For example one time, I was working in a prison retreat in Winnipeg in Canada. They had seconded to me a pleasant prisoner, agreeable, near the end of his sentence, to help me. He was my secretary and was indeed devilishly efficient. He wanted to do his rehabilitation in the East of the country. So I recommended him to friends of mine to welcome him and help him with his first steps. I gave him their address. A few weeks later I had a call from my friends thanking me for the contact . . . the man, the ex-prisoner who had gained my trust, had disappeared with their stereo! Trusting is not always simple. There is always a risk. If I had listened more to the prison staff, I would have been more on my guard. They had warned me that this prisoner knew just how to inspire trust.  

What circumstances taught you about Hope?

What helped me most was the confidence of my father [Georges Vanier, diplomat, later Governor-General of Canada – RK]. I’m a Canadian, but I spent part of my childhood in England where my father was a diplomat. At the age of 13 I expressed the wish to join the Royal Navy. My father who had spent three years in the trenches near Amiens in World War I, said, “If that’s what you want to do, do it. I have confidence in you.” If he had said no, my life would have been different. The confidence he had in me was decisive, his greatest gift. I remained in the Navy for eight years. When I left it, I knew I had to go. Then I started L’Arche with the same conviction that this was my way. The little inner voice, still, that profound, intimate pull toward justice. Today, it seems to me that the most important thing is helping children to have confidence in their desire. That isn’t all that simple. To teach them how to trust that pull toward what is good. One can make mistakes, certainly, but time will tell.

What do you want to say to the young?

The other day I hosted a group of young people. They all had their smartphones in their pockets! I told them, “Here we don’t need experts in communication. What we are looking for is experts in presence.” Being present: it seems such a little thing! And it takes time . . . I spend time with you and I can’t spend it with someone else. But it is the only way to communion. Once one has tasted it, one can’t do without it. I still hope that when one person has changed, others will change. Deep down, that’s what my Hope is. “Encountering, meeting” is the keyword of Hope. It is the poor who will lead us to peace. In our world we need to create places where people can meet, play, live, experience something together. Once everyone has had a taste of that, everyone wants it to recommence. In a class, we need to pay attention to the student others make fun of; in society, we need to care for the person suffering beside us. Rather than in moving up, it’s in coming down to the humblest that we find ourselves transformed.