Month: March 2013

Resurrection Sunday

Up early on Easter morning and to Mass — sat in the warm stillness of the  little facebrick church on the hillside, the  candles burning, lingering smell of incense. To my left the  portrait of St Martin de Porres, the little white plaster statue of  Our Lady. Others kneeling in pews, weary from the long walk. The priest late and rushed, needing to say Mass several times today and travel long distances.

The Easter Vigil message of Pope Francis I had read earlier echoing and glowing within, filling me with hope. Looking up from prayer at the red beads of incense on the paschal candle, the  glowing red glass light  of the tabernacle. Leaky roof, scuffed floor tiles, shabby altar cloth: but warmth and sanctuary here.

Fine a cappella singing in isiXhosa and  Sotho.  Afterwards the small children ran to  get their  chocolate and marshmallow Easter eggs in the basket Fr P held out at the door. Sticky fingers,  choc-smeared grinning  little faces. Greetings and good wishes exchanged in a wind rattling with eucalyptus leaves, the  rustling pine trees planted in a row to shelter the  church from the wind that rushes up from the valley in a cloud of dust.

So much that speaks of poverty, carelessness, indifference. Waste paper and  discarded plastic bags blown up against  wire fences, the potholes in the tarmac, the  small houses with  peeling paint and  roofing of patched corrugated iron. How might hope be nurtured here in the absence of beauty or awe?

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Dawn on Good Friday

Gritty black dawn, sun behind cloud and  a hard wind blowing. Before prayer and meditation this morning, I sat reading a passage from Dom Chapman on prayer and then paragraphs from Karl Adam’s opening chapter to The Spirit of Catholicism, such penetrating beauty and affirmation. Reminders of what has gone before, the  insights and  continuity amidst rupture in our post-modern societies. What will endure, what is bedrock, the deep organic life hidden in the Body of Christ.

 

Last night’s footwashing ceremony in Rome, such a moving ceremony. During this intimate service, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees to replicate the Bible’s account of Jesus Christ’s gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he was crucified.

I’m not someone who has ever had much time with the ‘personality cult’ that sometimes develops around Popes (as a convert in the early 1980s, I was baffled by the huge popularity and celebrity attention given to the younger JPII) and as yet we know little of who Pope Francis is and what he might do in office. But what an edgy, challenging and inspiring start to his papacy! And I feel (especially from here in Africa) that the poor are hearing him, they know he will speak for them, try to encourage the priests to come out to them in the slums and refugee camps. He is a Pope for everyone, but with a burning love for the outcasts.

A Shepherd who doesn’t mind afflicting the comfortable even as he comforts the afflicted.

Maundy Thursday in Africa

Dusty autumn winds in Holy Week, dry thoughts on a barren hillside. Continuing with fasting and prayers for metanoia.

 

The poet William Blake:

Holy Thursday

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

Pope Francis on Palm Sunday

No shroud has pockets. From his homily in St Peter’s Square to mark the beginning of Holy Week:

 

“Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person. We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders.”

 

Let us look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money, which no-one can bring with him, my grandmother would say, no shroud has pockets! Greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation!

 

Dear friends, we can all conquer the evil that is in us and in the world: with Christ, with the force of good! Do we feel weak, inadequate, powerless? But God is not looking for powerful means: it is through the Cross that he has conquered evil! We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us: you can do nothing to counter violence, corruption, injustice, your sins! We must never grow accustomed to evil! … And we must not be afraid of sacrifice. Think of a mother or a father: what sacrifices they make! But why? For love! And how do they bear those sacrifices? With joy, because they are made for their loved ones. Christ’s Cross embraced with love does not lead to sadness, but to joy!

African saints: St Deogratias of Carthage

I was only able to spend two days in Carthage and  the light hurt my eyes, the knifing brilliance on the sea, the  beaten gold dazzle of the coastal places. The city made holy by Augustine and the desert monastics. On the  street I paused between a withered fig tree and clattering palms, disoriented by the  light snapping down hard as a metal shutter. City of crumbling brown and white rubble, stone eroding to dust, an ancient city eaten away by time and successive wars.  In the late afternoons we would go  down and walk through the broken stones, looking at the pillars and  stone walls of the ruins,  dusty and  echoing remnants hammered by brazen light.  To Carthage I too came burning, burning.

The Feast of St Deogratius meaning ‘Thanks be to God’, Roman Catholic Bishop of Carthage who died in 457. He lived through the  tumult of the invading Arian heretics, the Vandals, Slavic and Germanic tribes tearing apart the older Christendom, the City of God  that Augustine has dreamed of as a living reality. In 439 the Vandal war lords  swept across Spain and took Carthage in North Africa, sacking the city.

After Gaiseric, the Vandal war lord, sacked Rome, he returned to North Africa with many enslaved captives, including family members, whom he sold apart from each other.  Bishop Deogratias, filled with compassion, sold much of the material wealth of his diocese to raise funds to ransom as many of these slaves as possible and to distribute food daily.  He also converted two large Carthaginian churches into shelters for the refugees. There  were at least two attempts to assassinate Deogratius but he  survived, to die later of exhaustion from overwork and  battle fatigue. According to the old accounts, he was deeply loved by Christians, pagans and heretics.

Opening Prayer

O God, Father of all nations,

in St Deogratias you have given to your people

a wonderful shepherd and an apostle of charity.

We pray that

inspired by his example

and strengthened by his intercession,

we may minister to our brothers and sisters

with care, love and compassion.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.

carthage ruins

Morning prayer on an African hillside

African iibis

End of a  dry hot summer. The hadeda or African ibis stalking across bleached grass. Wind shaking the  small tree thick with foliage, Halleria  lucida or UmBinza, known  by local Xhosa people as  the ‘all-food tree’ because of its nectar, bark, seed pods, medicinal values. I sit in the shade  reflecting on The Book of Privy Counsel, an exceptional guide to contemplative prayer that was written in the 14th century. It has been my companion both here and in Angola these last years.

Contemplative prayer is the naked and blind intuitive perception of God’s being as our own being and our own source, without words.

When you withdraw to be alone for prayer, remove from your mind everything you’ve been doing or planning to do. Rejects all thoughts, be they good or be they evil. Do not pray with words, unless you’re really drawn to this; or if you do pray with words, pay no attention to whether they are many or few. Do not weigh them or their meaning. Do not be concerned about what kind of prayers you use, because it is unimportant whether or not official liturgical prayers, psalms, hymns, or anthems; whether they are for particular or general intentions; or whether you say them inwardly, by thoughts, or express them aloud, in words.

See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God. Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God, what He is like in Himself or in His works, and keep only the simple awerness that He is as He is. Let Him be thus, I pray you, and force Him not to be otherwise. Search into Him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground. This awareness, stripped of ideas and deliberately bound and anchored in faith, should leave your thought and affection in emptiness, except for a naked thought and blind feeling of your own being. It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God and said:

That which I am I offer to You, O Lord, Without looking to any quality of Your being, But only to the fact that You are; This, and nothing more.