Sunday, 23 May 2010

New Age, Pentecost, Shaftesbury

I don’t think I’ve ever told you all this, but I once went out for a drink with a witch. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a witch and a priest out together for a drink, it’s not a common sight. But a few years ago I stumbled across an old school friend of mine I’d not seen in 20 years, and we went for a drink. Now, admittedly, you wouldn’t have recognised her as a witch, she’d left her hat and broomstick at home. But she nonetheless attempted to convince of the pagan art of Wicca: crystals, magic numbers, and star signs. And I explained that at best that was all a lot of baloney, and at worst it is an invitation to devil to enter your life, and that either way anyone who had been to a Catholic school the way we both had should have known better. I explained that I believed in Jesus instead.

When most of us were growing up, the only place you heard of witches was in fairy tales. But now, much the amazement of many of us, the old pagan superstitions are very much on the rise. Any bookshop will offer you a large range of such occult books and products, even if they fail to provide a single Bible. It’s all a perfect example of G.K. Chesterton’s old saying that: when people stop believing in God, it’s not that they come to believe in nothing, but that they end up believing in ANYTHING.

Modern witchcraft and the occult has a big attraction for many people today, in part, I think, because it offers a type of religion without any commitments, no demands.
We, however, as Catholics, need to be clear that this is not OUR religion, it’s not the truth. And we have to choose between superstition and the one true God.
Faith is in a person: Jesus Christ, not in numbers, stars and dates –Scripture condemns all these –they all attempts to control God, rather than trust in Him to control things for us.

Jesus is not like superstition –He is rational, sensible, trustworthy. And the Church puts forward rational reasons for us to have faith, reasons like the empty tomb to prove the Resurrection, like the design and order of the cosmos to prove the existence of God.

But what, you might be asking, does this have to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is what we celebrate today? Well, it’s about the type of God that we believe the Holy Spirit to be.
A lot of the New Age books that you’ll find for sale among the New Age ‘Crystals’ will speak of spirits, and even of “The” Spirit. But it’s nothing like the Spirit we believe in. It is not the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit that Jesus taught us about, that He promised to send, is not just some vague thing flowing here and there. Yes, the Spirit blows where He wills, but that does not make Him some vague entity. It does not make Him vague, or unsure about what He is, or what He does.
Jesus referred to Him using quite concrete terms: “another helper”, “an Advocate”. The Holy Spirit is a definite person, one of the three persons of the Trinity, and because He is a person He can help you, love you, care for you, strengthen and guide you.

Now, if you are a Satanist explicitly worshipping the Devil, then you too have a ‘personal’ god, albeit a false god.
However, most modern witches don’t claim to worship the Devil, but they do have a problem with prayer, because for them prayer, ultimately, for them, is just navel-gazing, looking inside, stillness:
You cannot have a personal encounter with the God within –because that it’s just yourself. There is no personal God to pray to.
For a Christian, prayer is a personal ENCOUNTER, with the living Lord. The Holy Spirit does come and dwell INSIDE you, but He is a person distinct from you, who comes from outside of you. An encounter that He promised especially in the sacraments He gave us, like Holy Communion.

My friend, may not fly on a broomstick, but she is a witch nonetheless, and they are many like her. Followers of a restoration of the foolishness of the pagans.
We, need to be on guard not to be influenced by their ideas. The Christian God is very different. He is a rational, personal God –the Holy Spirit whose coming we pray for today.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

40 Years Old, Death as friend, Ascension, Year C, Shaftesbury

40 years old! I recently celebrated my 40th birthday. I say ‘celebrated’ with qualification, because being 40 is not really something I’m happy about. In fact, it’s something of a problem.
Strictly speaking, I don’t mind being 40, it’s the things that come with being 40. Now, like many mid-life men, I have sought to fight the decline of my body, and this year I have taken up running, lowered my blood pressure and shed over a stone in weight. But, nonetheless, when I look in the mirror I see bloodshot eyes surrounded by wrinkles that no longer go away with a good night’s sleep, I see hair falling out, and the hair that's left being interspersed with increasing flecks of grey.
There is no denying the fact that my body is not what it used to be.

In fact, it seems to me, that the worst thing about turning 40 is that 50, 60, and the grave, seem increasingly close. And looking at my family history, being 40 is being half-way dead. Some people throw big PARTIES when they reach this milestone, when they become half-dead. I, however, walked down the road to the cemetery and checked that there is space for me in the grave with the other dead priests who have served Shaftesbury.
I am dying. Not in hurry. Probably not any day soon, but I am dying, and this is what is all the clearer to me on turning 40.

But I can say all this with a smile on my face, and I want to share with you a thought about dying. Obviously, especially in a parish where over 5% of the congregation is over 90 (and that’s only those of you who have told me your age), there are many of you who could add a thought or two yourselves. But I want to tell you that the older I have got the more I have come to see death as a “friend”, and a friend TO ME. And today’s feast of the Ascension gives us a very clear reminder of why death is a “friend” –because of the hope of Heaven.

Admittedly, Heaven is a hope not a certainty, because none of us can say for sure whether we will go there. Jesus warned that the way to enter is by “the narrow gate”, along the “hard” path, and that “few” find it (Mt 7:13-14). But, nonetheless, living a life that repeatedly seeks to re-orient itself to that goal, that knows the mercy of God and calls on the mercy of God every time we realise we have fallen, living a life in the hope of heaven is living a life that sees death as a friend.

Let us note for a minute the way that the disciples responded, at an emotional level, to the fact that Jesus had ascended. We might think they would be sad that Jesus had left them. Instead, the Gospel tells us, they were “full of joy”(Lk 24:52) -Because the ascension of Jesus into Heaven was the DEFINITIVE sign that Heaven exists. We know from the Gospels that some of the Jews, the Sadducees, doubted that there was life after death. But the fact that Jesus not only rose from the dead but was ascended, in a bodily manner, into Heaven, is THE sign that Heaven exists as a permanent, bodily, transfigured and glorified place. To know this, to know this with such certainty –it is hardly surprising that they were “full with joy”.
And this must be our joy too. The prayer of the Preface for Mass today says, “where he [the head ] has gone, we hope to follow” –but IS this our hope?

I have said that death is a “friend”. But, some of our friends make us a little uncomfortable. Death can be an uncomfortable friend because he, or she (because St Francis called her “sister” death), can be an uncomfortable friend because she reminds us of where our hope lies. If our hope lies in this world, in possessions, in the beauty of the flesh that blossoms today but fades tomorrow (or, in my case, faded some years ago) –if our hope lies here then death is not the friend but the enemy. But she can BECOME our friend by forcefully re-focussing us on what lasts, on the goal that is a WORTHY goal for living: Heaven.

Growing old is no fun, no “joy”, at least not the physical process of decay –it’s a result of Original Sin.
But if we approach the process of approaching death with faith, remembering, as we heard in our second reading, that “the one who made the promise is faithful” (Heb 10:23), then even a 40th Birthday can be something to give us “joy”.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Our Lady, fear and trust, 6th Sunday of Easter, Year C

Jn 14:23-29
May is the month of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ. She can seem like a remote figure to some people, she is someone little spoken of in many churches these days, someone little loved. And I know that I myself do not pay her the love, respect and affection she deserves, she who is my Heavenly Mother and always looking out for me.
Yet, the Church gives two months of the year to her: May and October. And so I want to say a few words about her in this month, in particular, about how she exemplifies two of the things Jesus spoke about in that Gospel: peace and fear.

Jesus said, “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give to you”
And added, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid”

There are different kinds of ‘being troubled’, different kinds of ‘fear’, and of ‘peace’.
Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace, at its root, is about peace with God, because He is the basis of everything.
If we searched the Scriptures for the perfect example of this we could come to none other than Our Lady. Our Lady had peace because she was without sin, she was ‘full of grace’.

But what of fear? Was she ever afraid?
We know she suffered, and suffered much. She suffered on Calvary, at the foot of the Cross. She suffered at other times, like when she lost the child Jesus in the Temple for three days.
But this does not mean she feared.

To suffer without fear involves being able to trust, and Our Lady trusted.
At the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel told her she was to be the Mother of God, she might well have had reason to fear. Yet the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid’; and shortly after her cousin Elizabeth said of her, ‘Blessed is she who believed the promise made her by the Lord’. Our Lady believed, Our Lady trusted, and Our Lady had no fear –certainly, she did not have fear as we have fear.
At the foot of the Cross, she still trusted in the words that her son had said, when He said that He would rise again, ‘After three days…’ (Mk 8:31)
At Pentecost, Scripture tells us the Apostles were gathered around her in prayer. While they were bereft, she trusted.

What of myself? I do not so easily trust. I try to run my own life; I often say I believe in God, but I behave as if I believed just in myself. Whether it’s in refusing to admit I’ve got a flu bug and need to rest, or refusing to accept that I can’t master the events of my day or the timing of my life.
Who can I turn to, to trust better? No one better than her, Our Lady, Our Heavenly Mother.
Her EXAMPLE can show me how to trust: in the events of life, she held on to the faith, she held on to the promises made by the Lord.

But even more, I can ENTRUST MYSELF TO HER, knowing she is the Mother in heaven that God has assigned to watch over me, and watch over you. Her powerful intercession can grant me the grace to trust more in the Lord, to have more calm and peace in my heart. When she asks, God dispenses. He denies her not in heaven, because she did not deny Him on earth.

The peace that Jesus promised, was manifested in the life of His mother, and if we turn to her, it can be ours too.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

5th Sunday of Easter, Year C, Shaftesbury

Jn 13:31-35
Everyone, I think, knows that Christianity is about ‘love’ –but love is often seen as something for the weak, or something vague and meaningless. But if we think of the context in which Jesus told us to ‘love’ we should see that it is neither of these.

Jesus gave His great commandment, ‘love one another’, on the night before He died. As we heard in that passage, it was just after Judas had gone out from the Last Supper to betray Him. His death is intimately connected with His commandment: He said, ‘love one another, as I have loved you’ –and He loved us unto DEATH. And this is what His love means.

Some people speak as if love was just a cosy feeling. And the saints of the Church do speak of “affective love” –what wells up in our affections, and what we need to foster and encourage within us.
But if love was ONLY a feeling then it wouldn’t be something that would lead us to death.
Love, in what the saints call “effective love”, is a decision of the will. A CHOICE to love someone.
“Effective love” does not mean liking, does not merely mean being attracted to help those I like.
Such love means choosing to act in the best interests of another person, even to act in the best interests of someone I don’t much like.

Jesus said, ‘By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples’. We might ask ourselves if this holds true for us: would the love we have make others say: ‘That is a follower of Jesus Christ’.
What would such a person look like? One who loved?
He would think of the needs of others before his own
He would he willing to be interrupted in his tasks in order to help someone
He would be patient with people, ‘Love is patient’ (St Paul, 1 Cor 13)
He would be willing to do difficult things, not just easy things

When people look at me, I know they often do not see such things.
They do not see a perfect disciple, a perfect sign of Christ.
And the same might be said of you.
Sometimes when we deal with our family, or friends, or others, we can try to love, but struggle. It is hard to love a child when he is screaming and throwing a tantrum. It is hard to look like the loving Christian who is a sign of Christ.
Are we therefore hypocrites?
Being a Christian is not about being a hypocrite, it’s about aspiring to standard that is above us, above us because it comes from above, from God.

But two final points: if it’s hard to love: WHY love? And HOW can I even attempt it?

In terms of WHY, it must be acknowledge that there are many in our society today who have abandoned even the attempt at loving, abandoned the attempt at LIVING FOR OTHERS: Living for SELF is the explicit goal of many.
But it does not take much analysis to see that this is not a NOBLE way of living, or a worthwhile way of living.
We should love because love is something we see as desirable to be.
But even more fundamentally, we should want to love because Christ FIRST loved us, and chose to die out of love for us.

And that last point also explains HOW I can hope to have the power to love:
Through Him
JC called His command to love a ‘new’ commandment, and it is new because we seek to love after His example, and by His power –the power of the resurrected Lord whose grace enables us to do things that by ourselves we cannot!
A command for the tough, not for the weak, but a command that is possible, because of Him.