In the dark


In the dark  – the night of Christian faith

I didn’t expect, at age 70, to have to contend again with the dark. Not the dark of my childhood, when I feared a dressing gown draped over the door was an alien axe-wielding murderer, but the darkness of not knowing the God of my Christian faith. 

Each time the darkness comes, I find it is easy to forget all I have been taught. Each time the darkness comes, I feel shame; shame as if the relationship with God I thought I had was sham; shame as if the faith I have taught I no longer experience; shame at the thought of having to profess publicly that I was wrong. 

Along with the shame comes fear. At age 70, my thoughts turn healthily to my coming death and whatever follows. What if there is no “life after death”? What if there is no “beatific vision”? What if there is nothing? What value then do I have? 

So it is good to be reminded by French Franciscan Thaddée Matura, in his essay An Ardent Absence, that darkness in Christian life is the norm, that grand encounters with God are infrequent and fleeting. Matura recalls us to the teaching that God is a fiery furnace, and if we were to encounter him as he is, we would immediately be burnt to nothing. It is due to his grace that we do not see him face-to-face in this lifetime. 

Father Matura also reminds us that despite the darkness, we can continue to follow the paths to God to which we are committed. We are to prepare for the beatific vision, for the great meeting that will raise us to God ’s presence. 

The darkness is hard. As we pass through it, we do not know what we are doing. We experience both fear and boredom. We may encounter the ‘plague that destroys at noonday’ (Psalm 91), the acedie of the desert fathers and mothers, as we question the whole of Christian life; we wonder if this darkness is the normal, then why? Why? 

But I hang on to those fleeting moments of revelation, those traces, hints of reality. A realisation grew through 1969, the year of the Leighton Ford crusade, that friendship with Christ is the heart of Christian living. I remind myself of the dove I saw [in my mind] flying up and expanding its wings over the congregation after we had received communion on the Fourth Sunday in Easter in 1974 in St Mark’s, Fitzroy. I revisit my tears when, meditating in the hard seats in the chapel in Perth’s Wollaston College, I felt enveloped by love. I feel my heart jump when the icon of St Francis behind the chapel of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in Brisbane appeared to move and gaze back at me. 

And I can simply be affirmed by Thaddée Matura, as I am by St John of the Cross, by St Francis, by St Richard of Victor, by a lengthy list of Christian teachers, that we make our way through this world blind, in darkness, and our joy is real — but anticipatory.  

George Appleton, the prayerful Archbishop of Perth during the 1960s, once wrote, ‘I go on in cold faith only because you push me.’ That push from an-Other keeps me going. 

“He Died Singing” – the Transitus of Saint Francis


“He died singing, in the forty-sixth year of his age, and the twenty-fifth of his conversion”.

Today, October 3, we mark the Transitus of Saint Francis. May your Transitus be filled with blessings.

His biographers were keen to show that Saint Francis died happy, and we will repeat this line during the marking of his Transitus tonight. “He died singing.” Joy accompanies the “crossing over” of Saint Francis from this world to eternal life on October 3, 1226.

This cheery approach to dying can be off–putting. A Jesuit admirer of Saint Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was heard whispering throughout the day of his death, June 9, 1889, “I am so happy! I am so happy!” Even my dear friend Father John Wardman with whom I spent hours in the weeks before he died, was inspiring in his eagerness to step into the next page of the adventure God had for him.

For most of us, our own Transitus will not be so uncomplicated. We are circled with images of difficult dying: Will we die lonely in a nursing home? Will we die in pain? Will we die in an instant in a terror attack? These ways of dying are statistically unlikely, but even so it is hard to avoid these negative predictions of the way in which we will die.

But the cheery approach shown by saints to their death also has its problems. My main sadness about my dying is the break that it will mean with my beloved wife, children, grandchildren and others close to me. While I am dying, I am sure the disruption of my loves will cause me much grief. While I am convinced that dying is a door to a wider life than this present one, free from pain and full of praise, it is not unmitigated joyfulness.

The point about the Transitus of Saint Francis, the point about learning from saints how to die, is to restore the balance of our expectations about death. Because we love, we will grieve, but St Francis, poet Hopkins, John Wardman, and all the other happy deaths keep reminding us that we can make a good death.

When I was eight years old, I sang “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky”, and believed that heaven was just above that blue dome. [Or was it just behind the blue altar curtain in St Mary’s, Tambellup?]  Now I think of heaven in more existentialist terms, a state of being in the presence of God eternally, and I look back and see the many ways in which my concept of the afterlife has grown more sophisticated. The sense of mystery about it has also grown. The more complex my conception of it, the more it is shrouded in a sense of unknowing.

StainGlassFranClareSo part of making a good death is constantly interrogating one’s picture of the afterlife and updating it as we update our understanding of God and how completely his love covers our existence.

Practising for a good death includes taking now every opportunity for joy and praise. For me as a musician, singing must be part of my preparation for dying.

Preparing for a good death also includes being conscious of those we love and continuing to work at those relationships, not to increase our grief, but to celebrate the great love which God shares with us.

So while it may be true that I will die in some sadness at leaving behind those I love, I also dare to hope that those with me in those last hours will also be able to say, “He died singing”.

In marking the Transitus of Saint Francis today, we can resolve to turn our attention, however old we are, to preparing to die singing, held by love.

The mystery of love


Now love is primarily a sharing: letting oneself be hurt by someone else’s distress, putting oneself at their side, living with, suffering with, begging with. She naturalises herself as one of the poor: this is where love works. And this process of sharing liberates the power of love to change the world; by her astonishingly fruitful activity, she contributes to changing the world. This is the very mystery of Mercy.

  • Paul Milcent on Saint Jeanne Jugan, founder and first Sister of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

St Jeanne Jugan

Beloved Daughter, Beloved Son


Mark 5:21-43 – Gospel for Sunday 28 June 2015 (Pentecost 5)

Preached at St George’s, Dunsborough

These stories are partly about two women’s ability to have children. The girl is twelve years old. On her next birthday she would have been old enough to marry and bring a baby into the world. As modern Western people we recoil from this whole business of treating a girl as a commodity to be sold. Bride price, dowry, physical attributes, and then the sheer hard work of bearing babies and keeping house – and keeping to the house – for the rest of their lives. To us, the customs of those times were as repugnant as the Taliban’s are now.

But her age is mentioned for that reason. Jesus restores her to her life prospects as wife and mother.

The older woman has had a bleed for 18 years. It doesn’t specify what sort of bleed, and that leads most scholars to suggest that it was related to her womb, not a stomach ulcer. With the medical care of those days, there is no way she could have children. There is no way she could be a wife under the Jewish Holiness code. Her life as a wife and mother was on hold at the least, probably finished, dead.

Jesus restores both women to life; and that includes to restore the possibility of their cultural role as wives and mothers. Whatever we think would have been best for them, being wife and mother was what they would have known and wanted, and certainly better than being dead!

But as Mark tells us the story, he insists on two words which take the restoring of these women far beyond those cultural expectations. The two words:

  • life
    and
  • daughter

The woman has spent everything she had on cures. ‘Everything she had’: the Greek work is ‘bios’ which we know in English words like ‘biology’. She had spent her whole ‘bios’, her whole ‘life’, her whole ‘living’ on doctors and cures. At one level, it just means, she had spent all she had chasing a cure. But if you’ve ever had a complex medical problem, you know it’s not just the monetary cost. We are so blessed in Australia with Medicare, cost is not usually the problem. But we can find ourselves with so many appointments and treatments, visits to the pharmacist and physio as well as to the GP and specialists, not to mention waiting on the phone to make those appointment, that our whole life starts to revolve around our medical issues. Our life is in danger of becoming our medical impairments. There are times when we could easily spend our whole life on chasing a cure. It’s not good. That’s where this woman was.

Jesus healed her. Jesus gave her her life back.

Jairus’s daughter was dead. The professional mourners were already in place, and laughing at Jesus for thinking he could achieve anything. Her life was gone. There was nothing left but her pious burial. Jesus raised her from the dead. He gave her her life back.

Of course, both of these resuscitations are prefiguring the resurrection. And they are also mirrors to us. If we reach out to Jesus, just touch the hem of his robe, just taste his power in the Eucharist, then he may give us our life back. That’s what Jesus wants to do. There is no person, no thing, so far from God, who cannot be restored, who cannot receive their life back.

What that will mean will vary from person to person, just as it was different for the woman with the bleed and Jairus’s daughter, so it will be for you. But Mark is telling us the Good News that Jesus considers every person – even women in his society – should be able to live her life to the full, and that she can do that if she allows Jesus to restore life to her. Or him.

That’s more than the cultural script of being a wife and mother. That’s a gift of life that is wide open to all good possibilities.

The second word that Mark uses is ‘daughter’. Each of the women healed in these stories is called a daughter, because each is unconditionally loved. Jesus calls the woman he heals by the name of ‘Daughter’: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (Mark 5:34). And then immediately follows the rest of the other story. ‘While he was still speaking there came from the house some who said, “Your daughter is dead”.” (5:35) Whose daughter? It is ambiguous, because she is both Jairus’s much loved ‘little daughter’, and a daughter to Jesus too.

I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter. I remember the day in 1983 when she was born. I remember a lot more of her childhood than she might like me to. I am so proud of her now as a young mother of three, working at an interesting job part-time. She is a lovely and accomplished young woman. Everyone knows that. But only Rae and I can call her ‘Daughter’. We have the privilege of loving her especially. The love that I have for Clare, and the love that I know is returned, is a real joy.

Jesus emphasises with the women in these stories that the Father loves each daughter just like, and even more, than a human father loves his daughter. Daughters, you are loved, you are loved by God, with a love that gives you your life and goes on giving you your life back. Sons, you are loved, you are loved, too, by the Father, but sometimes, even in this 21st Century after Jesus, the daughters need to be told more intensely, more Intentionally, that God’s love is for them in this way of deep joy.

But for all of us, daughters and sons, can we in reality imagine what Jesus is offering to us?

  • the fulfilment of our lives up to our expectations so that we can do what God wants us to do in this world, as the two women were given the opportunity to be wives and mothers;
  • secondly, to get our lives back richer than we can imagine and better than we can imagine: this is Christ’s gift to us. As we open ourselves to Christ, so we are being transformed into new people, leaving the old one behind, becoming the person God intended us to be from the beginning, and discovering more and more joy in that. This is why for me being fed with the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is so important, as it feeds us on that journey of transformation.
  • and thirdly, knowing ourselves deeply loved as God’s children. God has loved us from the beginning and will love us eternally.

This is good news. It takes time to seep into us. It can be hard to hear this good news. God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to show us what God is like. And this is what God is like. This is what God delights in doing for people.

Sin is when we refuse to let this love, the love of Christ penetrate more and more deeply into our hearts and lives, when we refuse to connect to Christ. Christ for his part continues to offer us our lives back, renewed and better than before.

Out of our poverty, we become rich, as Paul said in this morning’s epistle (2 Cor. 8:9) – and what wealth it is. What Good News it is! And what good news we become for others as this transformation takes place.

If you think I am being too idealistic, I plead with you to go back to the reading and see again what the gift is that Jesus gives to the woman and to Jairus’ daughter, and then to resolve to go about your lives knowing that it is true. God loves you through and through for eternity. Let him change you into his glory bit by bit.

****

No wonder he chose the name ‘Francis’.


Speaking to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a Vatican-sponsored group n October 28′, the pope said social justice also requires peace and environmental protection, both of which the global economic system inevitably threatens. “There are economic systems that must make war in order to survive,” he said. “An economic system centered on the god of money also needs to plunder nature, plunder nature, in order to maintain the frenetic pace of consumption inherent in it.”

– source Catholic News Service

The Last Words of Clare of Assisi


The body of St Clare in her basilica in Assisi

As she lay dying, St Clare of Assisi spoke to herself:

“Go securely and in peace, my blessed soul. The One who created you and made you holy has always loved you tenderly as a mother her dear child. And you, Lord, are blessed because You have created me.”

Legend of St Clare in Regis J. Armstrong, Clare of Assisi – The Lady: Early Documents, New City Press, 2006, 46.