Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of St. George, the patron saint of England. (The image depicted, however, is to be found in my home town, within the Prague Castle, and dates back to 1373.)
Very little, if anything, is known about the real Saint George. Pope Gelasius said that George is one of the saints "whose names are rightly reverenced among us, but whose actions are known only to God."
He was born in Cappadocia, an area which is now in Turkey, in the 3rd century; his parents were Christians and when his father died, George's mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her. George became a soldier in the Roman army and rose to the rank of Tribune. The Emperor Diocletian (245-313) began a campaign against Christians at the very beginning of the 4th century. In about 303, George is said to have objected to this persecution and resigned his military post in protest, tearing up the Emperor's order against Christians. This infuriated the emperor, and George was imprisoned and tortured - but he refused to deny his faith. Eventually he was dragged through the streets and beheaded. It's said that Diocletian's wife was so impressed by George's resilience that she became a Christian and that she too was executed for her faith. The famous story about St. George slaying a dragon while saving a princess is, however, most likely just a beautiful legend.
The earliest known British reference to St. George occurs in an account by St. Adamnan, the 7th century Abbot of lona. The saint is also mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede. From the 14th century, Saint George was regarded as a special protector of the English and English soldiers were called to wear "a signe of Saint George" on chest and back. George's reputation grew with the returning crusaders. A miracle appearance, when it was claimed that he appeared to lead crusaders into battle, is recorded in stone over the south door of a church at Fordington in Dorset. This still exists and is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to Saint George. The Council of Oxford in 1222 named the 23rd April Saint George's Day.
When Edward III (1327-77) founded the Order of the Garter (c. 1348), the premier order of knighthood in England, he put it under Saint George's patronage. The magnificent St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle was built by Edward IV and Henry VII as the chapel of the order. The badge of the Order depicts St. George on horseback slaying the dragon. In 1415, Archbishop Chicele promoted the Feast of St. George to principal status after Henry V's speech at the Battle of Agincourt invoking St. George as England's patron saint.
Finally, in 1940, King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for 'acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger' as an award usually awarded to civilians: St. George slaying the dragon is depicted on a silver cross.
Let us pray.
O GOD, who didst grant to Saint George
strength and constancy in the various torments
which he sustained for our holy faith;
we beseech Thee to preserve,
through his intercession,
our faith from wavering and doubt,
so that we may serve Thee
with a sincere heart faithfully unto death.
Through Christ our Lord.
By Fr Tomas
“We don’t always get the pope we want,” said my sponsor* as we discussed the state of the Church over a cup of rooibos tea in her kitchen, “but we always get the pope we need.” Pope Francis continues to shake things up and ruffle the feathers of the Church’s hyper-Traditionalist population, and today’s doodle was borne out of my musings on his recent instruction on the Rite of Consecrated Virginity. The instruction is controversial precisely because it states that actual, physical virginity (whatever that even means) isn’t necessarily required if a woman wishes to enter the ancient Order of Virgins.
Many members of the Order welcomed the Pope’s instruction gracefully, acknowledging that it merely clarifies what they already understood: that the call to devote one’s life to Christ in a sponsal commitment is a spiritual vocation which does not rest on one’s past sexual history. Others, sadly, were nowhere near as charitable in their responses. Can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.
The instruction only affirms what is written in the Scriptures, that everyone is a new creation in Christ and that: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8: 1). To condemn something or someone is to criticise them harshly on moral grounds, to force them to suffer, or to declare them forever damaged and unfit for a particular purpose. The Greek word translated as ‘condemnation’ is κατάκριμα – katakrima. Interestingly, the Greek word ‘krima’ can also mean ‘dividing out’, ‘sifting’ or ‘judging’. In other words, there are no distinctions based on arbitrary human rules and, as I’ve emphasised in previous posts, no first or second class members of the Body of Christ.
Our first Pope was a man who knew this well. As we explored during the Triduum, Simon Peter, overcome with fear, virulently denied Jesus three times. When they finally came face to face once again on the shores of Lake Galilee, however, Jesus wasn’t interested in giving Peter a hard time over what had happened. I’m sure He knew quite well that Peter had already spent enough time beating himself up over it. Instead, Jesus wanted confirmation of only one thing: “Do you love me more than these others do?”
Around this time last year, my parish priest in Newcastle pointed out that the word Jesus used for ‘love’ was ‘agape’, meaning the perfect, infinite love of God. The best Peter could manage in response, each time, was ‘filia’, meaning brotherly love. It wasn’t quite what Jesus was looking for, but He understood that it was the most Peter could give at that time, and still went on to make him the head of the Catholic Church. Evidently, He didn’t view Peter as damaged goods, either.
And what about the story of the prodigal son? In Jesus’ society, to ask your father for your inheritance was to wish him dead, to his face. The son then went on to live a life of debauchery and, at his lowest point, was living among pigs and ready to eat the scraps of their food – a level of disgrace and shame which would have been simply unimaginable to Jesus’ Jewish audience. The point the parable makes is that the son simply couldn’t have made himself more filthy or defiled, and it was only self pity that motivated him to seek his father’s mercy – not love for his father or sorrow for having hurt him.
The son doesn’t for one moment imagine that he’ll be allowed to resume a life of sonship – he’s been ceremonially cut off from the family and would have lost all of his legal rights. Yet, perhaps his father will be merciful and let him take up a role of servitude. Anything would be better than his current situation.
And what does the father do? He runs to meet his son before anyone else can get to him and drive him away. I once read a midrash on this parable which pointed out that men in the middle east do not run. Running involves hitching up your robes, exposing your legs and humiliating yourself in the process. The father doesn’t care. He takes his filthy, ceremonially unclean son into his arms and kisses him tenderly. He isn’t interested in the son’s carefully prepared speech, instead beckoning his servants: “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandles on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we are going to have a feast, a celebration, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15: 22-24)
This is huge! The son is not merely forgiven but restored to his previous state - as signified by the father's command that he be given the best robe and a ring. The reaction of the dutiful son is telling, and sadly reminiscent of the way that some have reacted to the Pope’s aforementioned instruction:
Now the elder son was out in the fields, and on his way back, as he drew near the house, he could hear music and dancing. Calling one of the servants he asked what it was all about. “Your brother has come” replied the servant “and your father has killed the calf we had fattened because he has got him back safe and sound.” He was angry then and refused to go in, and his father came out to plead with him; but he answered his father, “Look, all these years I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed your orders, yet you never offered me so much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends. But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we had been fattening.” (Luke 15: 25-30; emphasis mine)
Again, looking at the cultural context of the story, the dutiful son’s refusal to go into the party would have been a source of great embarrassment for his father – hence the pleading. His peevish reaction is really quite natural for someone who believes they’ve earned something, and then sees it being given away for free to someone who they feel hasn’t. It’s not fair, or so we think – yet I’m quite sure that none of us would like to be treated ‘fairly’ by God. As evangelical preacher Todd White so eloquently puts it: “You want fair? Go to Hell!”
Pope Francis instruction, then, though offensive to many, stands as a bold affirmation of Biblical Truth: that God’s love for you is greater than the worst thing you’ve ever done. He really can – and will – do infinitely more for us than we could ever ask or imagine.
by Lucy Stothard
* when an adult converts to Roman Catholicism, their sponsor is a person who acts like a Godparent and is responsible for instructing them in the faith. Mine is awesome.
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.