Month: April 2013

God ran with us

Catechist Bruna Maloal writes about trusting in God amidst the violence of Abeyei, south Sudan:

“We prayed the rosary as we ran from here. We prayed for the bullets to miss. God ran with us, and were it not for the power of God, we couldn’t have come back,” Maloal said. “The church is always with the people. The people here have survived because the church supports them. As a catechist, I gather them, pray with them, and preach the word of God to them.”



south Sudan


Random thoughts in the Easter Octave

For some reason the joyfulness of the Easter season is bound up for me  with the exuberance and shrewd, jovial insights of English Catholic writer and thinker G. K. Chesterton. From Twelve Types:

“Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.”

The difficulty of empathy, a wordless touching of the heart that moves beyond reason — something I  I have been reading about in Edith Stein’s The Problem of Empathy.

The hard-won credo of poet and cancer survivor Christian Wiman:

Writing against those who might call themselves spiritual but not religious and those whose experience of religion is without creed or community, Wiman affirms: “Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God.”


Stanley Hauerwas arguing against war (the quotation taken from a critical review of his  book War and the American Difference:  Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity in First Things):

We are fated to kill and be killed because we know no other way to live, but through the forgiveness made possible by the cross of Jesus we are no longer condemned to kill. A people have been created who refuse to resort to the sword, that they and those they love might survive. They seek not to survive, but to live in the light of Christ’s resurrection. The sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We can now live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.

If only.

Somebody whose thinking has become increasingly important to me in recent years, Marilynne Robinson, a great Christian novelist and lay theologian of the 21st century. From her essay ‘Imagination and Community’:

I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

Empathy and the  appeal to the heart; a vision moving beyond war as necessary evil; the dream of community.
Edith Stein writing as Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross in the context of the Nazi tyranny:

Edith stein




African saints: St Benedict the Black

St Benedict il Moro

Benedict was born in 1526, the son of Cristoforo and Diana Manasseri, an Ethiopian couple who had been taken as slaves to San Fratello near Messina in Sicily and given Italian names so that we  don’t know their  African names.  He is known as St Benedict the Black or sometimes St Benedict the Moor (il Moro, Aethiops or Niger) and his family of origin came from Ethiopia in Africa.

When Benedict reached the age of 18, he was set free and after a while he joined a hermit called Jerome. His reputation for holiness was spread throughout the area and people flocked to him all the time. Eventually he moved to a Franciscan monastery where he spent the rest of his life serving his brothers as a cook. Even though he was a lay brother and without education, he was chosen to be their Superior and, at the end of his term of six years, he went back to the kitchen. People kept on visiting him seeking his advice and the help of his prayers.

Benedict corrected the friars with humility and charity. Once he corrected a novice and assigned him a penance only to learn that the novice was not the guilty party. Benedict immediately knelt down before the novice and asked his pardon.

In later life Benedict was not possessive of the few things he used. He never referred to them as “mine” but always called them “ours.” His gifts for prayer and the guidance of souls earned him throughout Sicily a reputation for holiness. Following the example of St. Francis, Benedict kept seven 40-day fasts throughout the year; he also slept only a few hours each night.

Benedict died at the age of 65 and, it is claimed, on the very day and hour which he had predicted. At the entrance of his cell in the Franciscan friary of St. Mary of Jesus, there is a plaque with the inscription: “This is the cell where Saint Benedict lived”, and the dates of his birth and death — 1524 and 1589. Other sources suggest he was born in 1526.

Humility, spirit of service, wisdom and powerful intercession were the special gifts bestowed on Benedict. After Benedict’s death, King Philip III of Spain paid for a special tomb for this holy friar. Canonized in 1807, he is honored as a patron saint by African-Americans. Veneration of Benedict is spread throughout Latin America, from Mexico through Argentina. In Venezuela, particularly, his devotion is spread through the country’s various states, and his Feast is celebrated on many different dates, according to the local traditions.


The question of John Bradburne


How  does the making of a saint take place on the margins,  so far from any Catholic authority or community, a life only transmitted  via hearsay and rumours, what might have been overheard on a road passing through the old blackwater fever territories between msasa or mopani trees and  burned-out huts? I think here too of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and the mission church,  overlooked, disparaged,  forgotten, out in the wilderness.

The country that was not yet Zimbabwe, still a colony and  torn apart by a war of liberation. Elsewhere I was living through this war, sometimes called the ‘bush war’ and more accurately the Second Chimurenga.

The white minority government of Ian Smith still kept all main roads open and patrolled by soldiers in armed vehicles, but the guerrillas of the Patriotic Front controlled much of the hinterland by the late ’70s.

By August 1979, there were only two white men left in the area of Mutoko, a trading post about 70 miles from Salisbury (now Harare). One was Fr David Gibbs, a priest at All Souls Mission. The other was John Bradburne, an Englishman who looked after lepers at their settlement in Mutemwa. On the night of 2 September, Bradburne vanished from the tin-roofed rondavel that was his home.

In the early hours of 5 September 1979, Fr Gibbs found John Bradburne’s body beside the main road. He was wearing only his underpants and had been shot.

So many deaths back then, and most of them black civilians. Those  that  got publicity  were white farmers and white security force casualties in this so-called ‘terrorist war’. The Church  of my  childhood was divided — those priests or parishes who supported the white settlers, those who  sided with the  black majority and ‘freedom fighters’ .  Looking back, I recall the deportation of Bishop Donal Lamont and other clerics from  what is now Mutare for their support of  black guerillas.

Those  newspaper photographs of so many naked bodies dead by the roadside. So much death, such fear, a brief exultation at the end of the war and then the tyrannies that came after Independence. How do we wrest meaning from  some insignificant death in a brutal war somewhere in Africa?

John Bradburne was born in 1921 in Cumbria, England, son of the Anglican rector of Skirwith. His cousins included Terence Rattigan, the playwright, and Christopher Soames who would become the last Governor of Rhodesia.

During World War II, Bradburne was assigned to the Gurkha Rifles. After the fall of Singapore, he and a brother officer had to survive for a month in the Malayan jungle before managing to escape. He was awarded the  Military Cross. Later, he served with Orde Wingate’s Chindits in Burma. During the war he began a lifelong friendship with his fellow Gurkha, John Dove, later a Jesuit priest, who has been the key guardian of his memory.

Somewhere in the tropical jungles of Malaysia, Bradburne had a kind of  transformative conversion experience.  In 1947, back in Britain, he converted to Roman Catholicism after staying with the Benedictines at Buckfast Abbey. . He wanted to become a Benedictine monk but the Order would not accept him because he had not been in the Church for two years.

In the ensuing 16 years, he tried to become a monk, twice in England and once in Belgium, but gave it up. He fell in love and came close to marrying. He wandered across Europe and the Middle East with only a battered Gladstone bag. He made a penniless pilgrimage to Jerusalem, wandered round England as a species of minstrel, became caretaker of the Archbishop of Westminster’s country house in Hertfordshire, and while living for a year in southern Italy, made a private vow to the Virgin Mary that he would remain celibate. He was clearly holy, but equally clearly in the eyes of many, hopeless at sticking at anything, an impractical daydreamer. He joined what is now called the Secular Order of St Francis in 1956.


When he was nearly 40 years old, Bradburne wrote to Father Dove — by this time a priest in then-Rhodesia — and asked him: “Do you know of a cave in Africa in which I can pray?’ He came out and joined his old friend.

Even there, he did not find a niche. “I’m a drone,” he would say. He felt superfluous.

[‘Indecisive, a dithering sort of bloke,’ was how one Francisan priest  described him to me. Another said, ‘Oh he was a a lost soul, the poor man, drifting through life with his nice accent and  no idea about life.’ ]

One day in 1969, almost a decade after Bradburne’s arrival in Africa, his friend Heather Benoy, who used to play the guitar to accompany his recorder, suggested they go to see the leper settlement at Mutemwa, near Mutoko north-west of  Harare. They arrived to find a scene of dereliction.

The lepers were dirty and hungry, the thatch of their tiny huts falling in. “I’m staying,” said Bradburne, and  meant it literally — that he would stop there and then, and for good.

Mutemwa‘ in Shona means ‘You are cut off’, a name that originally referred to the high granite-domed mountain nearby. A leprosarium had been established there by the colonial government in 1937.

John Bradburne became the warden of the settlement and gave the lepers the care they had never had before. He improved their hygiene and housing, driving away the rats which used to creep in and gnaw their insensate limbs. He bathed them himself, cut the nails of those who had fingers and toes, fed them, and cared for them in bouts of sickness.

He wrote a poem about each one of them (there were more than 80 patients). With his encouragement, a small round church was built at Mutemwa, where he taught Gregorian plainchant to the lepers. When they lay dying, he read them the Gospel.

Mutema Catholic chapel

After about three years, the Rhodesian Leprosy Association, the body responsible for Mutemwa, fell out with John Bradburne. They seem to have had a narrow view of their duties, and felt that Bradburne was extravagant. He was criticised, for example, for trying to provide one loaf of bread per leper per week. And he infuriated the Association by refusing to put numbers around the necks of the lepers, insisting that they were people with names, not livestock. The Association expelled him from the settlement. Friends of  John Bradburne admitted he was  stubborn, unreasonable at times and could be ‘quite unsaintly’. As difficult in his own way as the remarkable Arthur Shirley Cripps, another Christian and poet who had caused trouble for the colonial government.

But Bradburne would not go away. from his lepers. He lived in a tent on Chigona, the mountain hard by Mutemwa on which he was accustomed to pray. Then a friendlier farmer gave him a tin-roofed hut, with no electricity or water. There he lived for the next six years, and ministered to the lepers as best he could, often by night.

He was more or less a hermit, praying long and regularly, writing religious verse, bathing in a pool on Chigona, living without cash or a salary and wearing the brown habit of a Franciscan. As a lay member of the Third Order of St Francis, he obeyed its Rule, singing the daily office of Our Lady. He rose at dawn for Matins and ended the day with Vespers and Compline. This discipline provides the context for many poems written at the turning-points of the day.

Through this period, the war intensified. Bradburne was uninterested in politics (his naivety, said friends) and only concerned with the welfare of the lepers. Friends tried to persuade him to leave, but he refused.

At midnight on 2 September, 1979, about ten youths came to John Bradburne’s hut. They were “mujibhas“, not full-blooded guerrillas, but the local messengers, the eyes and ears of Robert Mugabe’s soldiers. They were probably acting on a tip-off from a worker at Mutemwa who hated Bradburne because he had reprimanded him for stealing the lepers’ rations, and so denounced him falsely as a Rhodesian spy.

The guerrillas were in an uncomfortable position. They had been inundated with local reports that their prisoner was a good man, and they were angry with the mujibhas for kidnapping him, but they were nervous of taking him back to Mutemwa now that he had seen so much. They interrogated him, some taunted and tortured him. He seemed quite unconcerned, and after about ten minutes he knelt and prayed, which infuriated the guerrilla commander.

The guerrillas set off with John Bradburne and made for the main road. Just before they reached it, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the security commander ordered Bradburne to walk a few places ahead and then stop and face him. He did so, and fell on his knees and prayed for about three minutes, again showing no sign of fear. Then he rose to his feet, and as he did so, the commander shot him dead. (His killer is now a businessman in Zimbabwe.) John Bradburne was 58 years old at the time of his murder.

Bradburne had told a priest that he had three wishes — to live with and serve lepers, to die a martyr, and to be buried in his Franciscan habit. In all the agitation following his death, this last wish was not properly fulfilled.

Fr David Gibbs, who had taken Bradburne’s habit from his hut for safe-keeping turned up with it at the funeral in Salisbury placing it on top of his coffin.

Also on the coffin were three white flowers, placed by a friend of Bradburne’s to symbolise his devotion to the Trinity. In the course of the funeral, three drops of fresh blood fell from the bottom of his coffin to the floor. After the funeral the coffin was opened and the body inspected. It was dry and there was no sign of any issue of blood. John Bradburne was then dressed in his old brown habit, and buried at the Chishawasha  Mission Cemetery.

[And I heard stories over the years about the noise of bees that came from the coffin, as if a swarm of wild African bees were in there, a thrumming and  din that alarmed the funeral-goers.]

The character of John Bradburne’s life and manner of his death naturally gave rise to the idea that he might be a saint, with the story of the three white flowers, the three wishes and the three drops of blood. Iconic symbolism.

People began to attribute miracles and cures to John Bradburne’s intercession.

[The  elderly  Shona woman on the road to Penhalonga who said that she had been cured of  incessant nose bleeds after she  asked  Brother John for help.]

A steady trickle of pilgrims from Zimbabwe and many other countries makes its way to Mutemwa. On  a recent anniversary of Bradburne’s death, over 6 000 people paid tribute to his memory with a candle-lit procession and an all- night vigil. Increasingly, Mutemwa and, in particular, the overlooking rock, Chigona, are becoming an international site of pilgrimage — a holy place where prayers are answered.

Fr John Dove SJ, Bradburne’s closest friend, has written a biography called Strange Vagabond of God, which is available through the John Bradburne Memorial Society, as is a privately published anthology of John Bradburne’s poems, along with prayer cards and other items.

In July 2001, the Franciscan priest Father Paschal Slevin, presented a petition to Archbishop Chakaipa of Harare for an inquiry into Bradburne’s canonization. Father Slevin commented: “I have no doubt that John died a martyr in his determination to serve his friends, the lepers. If his martyrdom is accepted, his cause for sainthood could go quite quickly”

John Bradburne 2

Blindness and insight

Those long periods of  my life when I was not able to ‘see’ with the eyes of faith, when I  could not understand what was going on, when there was no inner light. Stumbling in darkness and I could not ‘will’ myself to  recognition or  vision. What was hidden from me because (perhaps) I was not ready to receive it, the time not right. Something too to do with the pervasve sceptical secularism in which I live and  move, disbelief everywhere, indifference and heartlessness in workplaces,  homes, even churches.

Straining with dimmed eyes to catch a glimpse of hope.

From this morning’s Gospel reading, Luke 24:13-32:

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’


Smell of woodsmoke at dawn, heaped dead leaves and pruned wood burning somewhere nearby, the debris of  summer’s end. Our little sluice gate on the irrigation canal stolen during the night, so that means welding a drain cover. Brief moment of  near despair, sense of increasing hardship. Looked over the fields streaming  light, sun breaking between the mountains and  noticed that  the foliage on the young pin oak across the road is reddening. The farm workers passing with woollen caps pulled down low to ward off the mornings chill.


The online hullabaloo of Easter with a new Pope over and perhaps we might find more thoughtful and  appreciative  commentaries. How much those piercing and tender homilies from Pope Francis have moved me, what is authentic and touches the heart.


For some reason though, I keep thinking about a painting from the French surrealist Max Ernst.ernst.kindness



Delicacy and dryness in contemplation

The wisdom that comes from recollected prayer and colloquy. Edith Stein, as Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, from The Science of the Cross:

The peace God produces in the spirit through the dryness of the sensory being is “spiritual and most precious” and its “fruit is quiet, delicate, solitary, satisfying, and peaceful, and far removed from all earlier gratifications which were more palpable and sensory.” So one understands that only the dying of the sensory being is felt and nothing is experienced of the beginning of the new life that is concealed beneath it.

It is no exaggeration when we call the suffering of the souls in this state a crucifixion. In their inability to make use of their own faculties they are as though nailed fast. And to the dryness is added the torment of fear that they are on the wrong path. “The live in the belief that they will have no more spiritual blessing and that God has abandoned them.” Then they strive to act in the former manner, but as unable to achieve anything and only disturb the peace that God is working in them.

They should do absolutely nothing other than “perservere patiently in prayer without any activity whatsoever; all that is required of them here is freedom of soul, that they liberate themselves from the impediment and fatigue of ideas and thoughts, and care not about thinking and meditating. They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel him.” Instead of doing this, because they lack competent guidance, they strive in vain, and possibly plague themselves with the thought that they are only wasting time with their prayer and ought to give it up.

Were they to remain peacefully surrendered to this dark contemplation they would soon experience what the second line of the song of the Night calls the inflaming love. “For contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love.”

Fragrance, a mysterious command

Unable to sleep last night, listening to the  autumnal drizzle in the darkness.  Into Resurrection season, joy a little clouded with  anxiety, the wait for the Ascension. The slow Ascent of Mount Carmel, thinking about Elijah in the cave, about St John of the Cross writing poetry in his prison cell. The beauty of Marian prayers and the  growing influence of Carmelite spirituality in my life, the love I have had since teenage years for the Little Way of  St Therese of Lisieux and the vision of the  great Teresa’s Interior Castle.

As I was praying, the sudden warmth and invitation of a loved memory amidst the aridity and  darkness, recalling the  woman drying Jesus feet with her hair, that alabaster jar of  sweet nard poured out and  the house filled with  perfume, such fragrance and intimacy in the anointing of the Loved One’s body for death, this always to be told in memory of her. The fragrance of which I have so long dreamed, since the  weekend at G seven years ago. That mysterious command: ‘Let your faith be like a fragrance, so delicate and not floral but dry, the sweetness all interior,’

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”