William P. Young’s 2007 novel, The Shack, is a book which has caused somewhat of a divide in the Christian community. It has been embraced enthusiastically by some for its depiction of a Holy Trinity who, rather like the God who revealed Himself to Julian of Norwich, is all love, goodness and mercy, and denounced as heretical by those who are more comfortable with the idea of a God of wrath, judgement and condemnation. It follows the story of a very ordinary man called Mack, who, having lost his young daughter in tragic circumstances, finds himself plunged into what the book calls ‘The Great Sadness’. It’s in the midst of all this tragedy and sorrow that God unexpectedly shows up in an encounter which will change Mack’s life forever.
I’m unashamed and quite happy to say that I’m in the former camp – I loved the book, and one of the things I appreciated the most was the insight it gave me into how our background and childhood can negatively tint our perception of God.
It’s a phenomenon which is well-documented in modern psychology. Children who’ve been raised in happy, stable, loving home environments find it far easier to believe in a God who loves them unconditionally, whose approval and attention they don’t have to earn. It’s not that these people believe that they’re perfect or that they don’t make mistakes – it’s just that they understand, intuitively, that when they invariably fall short, this won’t change how God feels about them. His love is not a reward for good behaviour but a part of who He is; therefore, stumbling or making a mess of things will not cause that love to be withdrawn.
The other kind aren’t so lucky. Raised by parents who were emotionally or physically absent, critical, narcissistic or just plain abusive can leave a person feeling like they’re on shaky ground. Constantly feeling that they have to prove themselves worthy of love and approval, they may become workaholics or ‘over-achievers’, collecting degrees and promotions in the hope that doing so will quell their persistent feelings of unworthiness. In their spiritual lives, they’re more likely to perceive God as distant and angry, withdrawing His love as soon as they commit the slightest sin, His hand always raised and ready to smite them if they don’t perform correctly.
The Shack was later adapted into a film. One of the scenes which really struck me was that in which Mack, having found himself in the company of the Most High, confesses that he’s not really sure what he’s supposed to be doing. You don’t have to do anything, is the Lord’s reply. That’s not how this works. Later, when taking a walk by the lake with Jesus, Mack talks about the pressure of constantly trying to be “a good Christian”. That sounds like an awful lot of hard work, is Jesus’ reply. I want friends. Family. People to share life with.
I can’t help but wonder if the reason so many people are finding lockdown challenging is that, in our society, we’re so much more comfortable with doing than being. We’ve bought the lie that our worth lies in what we can achieve rather than being intrinsic to who we are. But it’s not just that. Doing allows us to avoid intimacy – with our spouses, families, friends, selves and God. How many people do you know with whom you can simply sit and do nothing, and be quite happy? My guess is that they are probably pretty few and far between.
I suspect that might be part of the reason many people say they prefer animals to humans. Animals are experts at just being. They can’t talk, so there’s no pressure to try and make interesting conversation or sound intelligent. They don’t care how rich, good-looking or well-educated we are. Nor do they hold our faults against us or judge us as being less-than because of some arbitrary human standard. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that all creatures bear some resemblance to their creator, and I think that this may be one of them. God is also an expert in just being. His divine name – I AM THAT AM – should tell us as much.
But we don’t have time for that. There’s work to be done. Even our relationship with Him can become a check list. Read the Bible for fifteen minutes. Check. Say the Rosary. Check. Attend Mass. Check. Intercede, sing, say that novena. Check, check, check.
Why are we so reticent to stop doing and just be in His presence? What are we so afraid of?
Being is scary because it involves a loss of control. If I’m not doing things to influence how You feel about me, I have to accept that it’s not something that was ever within my control to start with. Worse, I might have to accept that everything I’ve been taught about You, and myself, is wrong. You’re good. You’re not angry. I’m worthy and lovely in Your eyes. Change is frightening. Yet to take steps in this direction and tentatively take our hands off the wheel is so necessary if we are to allow ourselves to be fully loved by God.
Just being involves bringing yourself, fully, as you are, into the present moment and letting God lavish His infinite love on you. It means not merely tasting but drinking deeply of His sweetness. That’s too much, you protest. Good! It’s meant to be.
Just being involves taking the time to fully notice and appreciate the love-tokens present in every second of your existence. The morning sun on your face. The wind in your hair. A perfect cup of coffee. Bare floorboards under your feet. The spring flowers. The ticking clock. A cosy blanket. Do you believe at last?
Just being means allowing ourselves to be reparented by the One who has called us to be His children. It means unlearning the bad theology which has wounded the Church and caused her to wound so many others in return. Just being might cause us to start seeing God, ourselves and the whole world in a radically different and more loving light.
It’s a terrifying thought.
And a wonderful one.
By Lucy Stothard
The readings for the Mass this week tell the story of the apostles persecuted and imprisoned for preeachning and performing miracles in the name of the risen Lord. As we read today - and as illustrated by Jan Hearn - they were released by an angel. Many of us also wait to be released from the temporary prisons of our homes and long to meet Christ again in the Most Holy Sacrament.
As you know, your priests have been offering Mass every day and there are many possibilities to watch a Mass online. This is a contemporary way of accomplishing what St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) did, when during an outbreak of plague in Milan during his tenure as archbishop there, he ordered the celebration of the Mass to take place outdoors so people could watch from their homes, although they were prevented from receiving the sacrament.
In this connection it’s noteworthy that frequent reception of Holy Communion is in fact a recent phenomenon, commonly tied to encouragement of the practice by St. Pius X (Pope from 1903-1914). For many centuries, regular reception of holy Communion was not very regular at all. For instance, St. Louis IX (1214-1270), the French monarch renowned for his own sanctity, who received holy Communion only six times a year — and that was thought to be frequent at the time.
Some of you may be already familiar with the act of Spiritual Communion, a traditional practice of expressing to the Lord our longing for him and our desire for him to enter our hearts.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.”
St. Thomas Aquinas defined this Spiritual Communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament and in lovingly embracing Him as if we had actually received Him.”
St. Jean-Marie Vianney, a French priest famous for converting countless souls to Christ in his parish of Ars in the 19th century, once said “when we feel the love of God growing cold, let us instantly make a Spiritual Communion. When we cannot go to the church, let us turn towards the tabernacle; no wall can shut us out from the good God.”
St. Peter Julian Eymard, the French “apostle of the Eucharist,” suggested the following: “If you do not receive Holy Communion sacramentally, receive spiritually by making the following acts: conceive a real desire to be united to Jesus Christ by acknowledging the need you have to love His life; arouse yourself to perfect contrition for all your sins, past and present, by considering the infinite goodness and sanctity of God; receive Jesus Christ in spirit in your inmost soul, entreating Him to give you the grace to live entirely for Him, since you can live only by him; imitate Zacheus in his good resolutions and thank our Lord that you have been able to hear Holy Mass, and make a spiritual Communion; offer in thanksgiving a special act of homage, a sacrifice, an act of virtue, and beg the blessing of Jesus Christ upon yourself and all your relatives and friends.”
There is no formula prescribed by the Church to make an act of Spiritual Communion, but one of the more popular acts of Spiritual Communion comes from St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787):
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament.
I love you above all things and I desire to receive you into my soul.
Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace you as if you were already there, and unite myself wholly to you.
Never permit me to be separated from you.
By Fr Tomas
Illustration © Jan Hearn
Bernice is a parishioner of S Giles, and a nurse with the NHS, at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Although she usually works in the Orthopaedic department, like many nurses, she is continually called in to handle the Covid crisis.
Image via Shutterstock
About a year ago I watched a film called Novitiate. Set across the 1950s and 60s, the film stars Margaret Qualley as a young girl called Kathleen who comes from a non-religious (and really quite troubled) home. Wanting the best for her, Kathleen’s mother enrols her in a Catholic school. It’s there that she encounters nuns for the first time and finds herself caught up in a whirlwind of teenage romance – only it’s not with a boy, but God.
Accordingly, Kathleen decides she wants to enter a convent at the age of sixteen, much to the dismay of her poor mother, who is left wondering where she’s gone wrong. The convent in question is depicted as a sort of nightmarish girls’ boarding school from which one can never graduate (or leave – unless you put a whisker out of line and end up getting sent home in disgrace, of course). One is likely to be struck by how egotistical and thoroughly un-Christlike many of the main characters seem to be, in particular the megalomaniacal Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), under whose auspices the sisters live and work. The film is rich with the clericalist and elitist sentiments which characterised the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. When Kathleen enters her novitiate after a period as a postulant, she and her fellow novices are shown dancing exultantly around a bonfire in the wedding dresses they’ve worn for the day, with one girl exclaiming: “we’re so special!” (in an earlier scene, the same girl ponders aloud to her friends: “maybe I’ll die young and be made a saint!”).
Undoubtedly the most powerful aspect of the film is its depiction of the Reverend Mother’s world unravelling in the wake of the changes introduced by the second Vatican council – in particular by the papal encyclical Lumen Gentium, or ‘light of the people’, which asserted that sanctity is the universal call of all Christians, not just an elite few. One can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the sisters as they receive the announcement that they are “no more special to God than ordinary, faithful Christians”, a revelation which is enough to make some of them break down in tears.
The film is thought-provoking, and it set me pondering over this idea that Christians can be divided into “first” and “second” class. It’s an insidious false belief which seems to have pervaded all wings of the Church at one point or another. In Roman Catholicism, it takes the form of clericalism – perhaps best summed up by the following quote:
Clericalism is the appropriation by a clerical caste of what is proper to all the baptized. More simply put, it’s a club mentality which renders the baptized subservient to preening priests…It’s a hangover from tribal forms of priesthood – where castes were set aside for temple service – found in the Old Testament, and which morphed into a culture of “superiority” or entitlement, or as Jesus himself put it: “lording it over others”. (Bishop Charles Drennan)
Lest we be tempted to think of this as a problem of the past, one need only look at certain Catholic Instagram feeds (invariably Traditionalist and based in the USA) where young seminarians show off their vestments in smartphone mirror selfies, to a chorus of digital adulation. Some have even coined the tagline, “chalices, not callouses” as a way of expressing the exemption from manual labour to which they believe their vocation entitles them.
In Protestantism, it’s marriage which is exalted as the highest state – with those who are left single or without a brood of children, particularly women, often feeling as though they’ve been overlooked by God. The rise of purity culture (not to mention the disturbing balls at which young girls are encouraged to pledge their virginity to their fathers until they are married – ew, ew, eww), has left Christians (again, usually women) feeling like they can never measure up. Some even give up trying.
All of this is rotten fruit, and it’s symptomatic of a deeper spiritual sickness: believing that how God feels about us is dependent on what we do or don’t do rather than who He is. I have spent the last few months meditating over and over on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The following verses are especially resonant:
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless, and to live through love in His presence,
determining that we should become His adopted sons, through Jesus Christ
for His own kind purposes, to make us praise the glory of His grace, His free gift to us in the Beloved, in whom, through His blood, we gain our freedom,
the forgiveness of our sins.
(Ephesians 1: 3-7)
If you aren’t bowled over by how wonderful this is, please read it again. We’ll just wait here.
God chose you. He did so before the beginning of time, meaning that He already knew everything you would ever do – good or bad. He knew, and He chose you anyway. And He didn’t choose you to live a half-life cloaked in shame and guilt, feeling like second-best, but to be holy and spotless, living and breathing in His love. He has blessed you with all the spiritual blessings of heaven – not just some. He’s not stingy. And you’re His child – a member of the Royal Family and a prince or princess by your adoption.
And through His blood, we gain our freedom. Freedom from the slavery of sin, yes, but so much more besides. We gain freedom from having to work for our Father’s attention or approval. We gain freedom from needing to be praised or thought highly of by human beings. The freedom of a child of God is truly glorious.
Why has He done all this? Why this almost gratuitous generosity? Paul tells us, and this is key – to make us praise the glory of His grace. The glory of His grace, not my good behaviour or special status in the Church. If we ever catch ourselves patting ourselves on the back for being such good boys and girls, or self-flagellating because we made a mistake, we’re pouring our energies into the wrong things and completely missing the point.
My Lenten word from the Lord was this: let your mouth be filled with praise and thanksgiving. This glorious Eastertide, let’s pray that the Lord would help us know, really know, who He says we are and what Jesus has accomplished for us. Then our mouths will indeed be filled with praise and thanksgiving as we proclaim, with one accord: “My God – how great thou art!”
by Lucy Stothard
There are few people more loved at S Giles than Gordon. He's one of those human beings towards which it is impossible not to feel a genuine affection. Even though he can't boil an egg. In good British fashion, he seems to be making the best of a difficult situation.
In April of 2000, St. John Paul II established this second Sunday of Easter as the Sunday of Divine Mercy. Doing so, he recognized the private revelations given by Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938).
St. Faustina Kowalska was a young Polish nun born at the beginning of the 20th century. Over the course of several years she had visions of Jesus, whereby she was directed to create an image and to share with the world revelations of Jesus’ love and mercy. St. Faustina received her first revelation of the merciful Jesus in February 1931. At the time, she had made her first vows as one of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.
In her diary, St. Faustina recounted Jesus’ request: “My daughter, tell the whole world about my inconceivable mercy. I desire that the feast of Mercy be a refuge and a shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of my tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy.”
She saw Christ with His right hand raised as if giving a blessing, and the left touching His chest. Two rays, one pale, one red – which Jesus said are to signify water and blood – are descending from His heart. St. Faustina recorded all of her visions and conversations with Jesus in her diary, called Divine Mercy in My Soul.
Reflecting on this vision and Christ’s statement, St. John Paul II wrote, “Blood and water! We immediately think of the testimony given by the Evangelist John, who, when a soldier on Calvary pierced Christ’s side with His spear, sees blood and water flowing from it (cf. Jn 19: 34). Moreover, if the blood recalls the sacrifice of the Cross and the gift of the Eucharist, the water, in Johannine symbolism, represents not only Baptism but also the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 3: 5; 4: 14; 7: 37-39).” In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (On the Mercy of God) (1980) — St. John Paul II wrote that Christ “makes incarnate and personified mercy. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy.”
This divine mercy involves the sacrificial self-gift that God offers to us, flowing from the heart of the Father, demonstrated in the death of the Son, and given by the power of the Holy Spirit.
St John Paul II inserted today’s feast into the Church calendar on April 30, 2000, the canonization day of St Faustina. It was no incidence that St Pope John Paul II was also canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2014. And so the Church’s third millennium was launched with a new devotion, a beautiful new piety rooted in the most ancient truths.
Divine Mercy, do not hold our sins against us. Be a merciful Father who judges us in the fullness of Your power, punishing when needed, but granting mercy when we need it more, most especially when we are too saturated with pride to request it.
By Fr Tomas
Original painting of the Divine Mercy, by Eugeniusz Kazimirowski in 1934. Wikimedia Commons 4.0.
One word appears today in the Psalm, in the second reading and in the Gospel: joy.
The psalmist speaks of “shouts of joy and victory in the tents of the just”, in 1 Peter we read about God’s power guarding us until the salvation which is “a cause of great joy although we may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials” (how timely!). While St. John writes of disciples “filled with joy when they saw the Lord”, the epistle knows that we are already filled with “a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because we believe”, without seeing Christ.
But we may be asking ourselves – is there really a place for joy in our lives these days? It has been reported that so far in the global coronavirus pandemic, death have passed 160,000. This news comes as the total number of deaths in Europe approaches 100,000. The lockdown threatens to temporarily take at least 6.5 million jobs out of the economy – around a fifth of the national total. Can we be joyful?
I would like to share with you words of Pope Benedict XVI who was elected exactly 15 years ago, on 19 April 2005. Cardinal Josef Ratziner decided to take the name of his favourite saint, Benedict, the founding father of Europe and a great civiliser of the West, and to continue from Benedict XV, who led the Church during the difficult years of the Great War. At his first appearance at the central loggia of St Peter's, the new Pope greeted his followers defining himself as a "humble worker of the vineyard of the Lord".
He wrote on joy:
“Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don't have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice.
I can understand that. There is a moral attitude at work here. But this attitude is nonetheless wrong. The loss of joy does not make the world better - and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good. Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on. In this connection, it always strikes me that in the poor neighbourhoods of, say, South America, one sees many more laughing happy people than among us. Obviously, despite all their misery, they still have the perception of the good to which they cling and in which they can find encouragement and strength.
In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.”
By Fr Tomas
Illustration © Jan Hearn