Sunday, 27 June 2010

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Gal 5:1,13-18.
How do I know what the Holy Spirit is saying to me?
In our 2nd reading we heard St Paul talk about being “guided by the Spirit”, and people often wonder what this means in practice. I’ve been pondering this a lot recently; one very useful book I’ve read is listed in this week’s newsletter: Jacques Philippe, In the School of the Holy Spirit (Sceptre Press, 2007).

To talk a simple example from my daily life: in trying to plan what to do this Saturday afternoon, does the Lord want me to pray for an hour, or visit the sick for an hour?
Does He want me to call my Mother on the phone, or write a better sermon?
-These are all good things, but doing one means I won’t do the other. Which does the Holy Spirit want me to do?

Now, pondering these things can get taken to extremes. I’ve heard pious young ladies (in particular) ask whether God wants them to wear a red shirt or a blue dress today?
For me, that’s an easy answer. He wants me to wear a black shirt, again.
But generally speaking, it’s not really meaningful to ask what colour shirt the Holy Spirit wants you to wear.
-to ask a question like that is a misguided piety
A mis-directed piety, but basically starting with the right premise: I should want to do God’s Will, and He has a Will for every detail of my life.

However, for most details of my life, the way He speaks to me is much more mundane. He has given me a brain, the ability to reason. If He has not given me any other reason to think He has a specific answer to a question, which with many questions He hasn’t, then He just wants me to use my reason to decide which colour shirt to wear.

But there are ways we can discern what the Lord wants us to do:
First, is it a matter of sin, a matter that the Bible or the Church clearly teaches me? For example, I don’t need to pray about whether I should sleep with another’s man wife –we just know that the Bible and the Church tell us that this is the sin of adultery.
Second, it is a matter that my state of life makes clear? Like a duty as a parent or a worker or a boss?
Third, is there some other matter that indicates it is a matter of sin?
None of these cases need much sophisticated analysis, but all of them DO show me what the Holy Spirit is telling me.

And, to be open to the Holy Spirit in subtle things, I need to be in the habit of being open to Him in those more basic things.
Having that spirit of openness to His Will is what will enable me to be better able to detect His promptings in more subtle things –but that, in many ways, is a later skill.

What do I mean? Well, we heard St Paul contrast the promptings of the Holy Spirit with those of “self-indulgence”(Gal 5:17). Let’s consider the self-indulgence of laziness: If the entire goal of my day is to get to that TV show at the end of the end. If the entire goal of my afternoon is set on that cake with my tea. Then I am not going to let other things get in the way of ME, my priorities, my pleasures.
These might not be big pleasures, often they might not be sins –at least not sinful in themselves, only in how I might be attached to them.
But if my priorities are such that these things mean more to me than anything else, then I am not going to be open to the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
And so CONTRASTING within ourselves the promptings of self-indulgence with those of the Spirit, and seeking to DETACH ourselves from self-indulgence, is a key way that will led us to be in that “liberty”(Gal 5:13) that St Paul spoke of, a liberty where we are not enslaved by the desire of the flesh.
So, if I want to grow in my ability to be able to discern what the Holy Spirit is prompting me to do, that detachment from self is a key place to start.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Gal 3:26-29
Most of us tend not to think about the Old Testament part of the Bible very much, we certainly don’t tend to read it and identify ourselves with the Israelites there. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as Israelites, or as Jewish, or as children of Abraham.
However, in our 2nd reading St Paul says that we “are the posterity of Abraham, the heirs he was promised”(Gal 3:29).

Now, this raises a few questions: Why would I WANT to be a heir of Abraham?
To answer that question we need to go back to almost the very beginning of the Bible, the beginning of the Old Testament, i.e. the Jewish, Scriptures, to encounter the person of Abraham.

Abraham wasn’t anyone special –and this is a key point.
He was no-one special and yet God chose him, chose him to bless him.
Abraham was a wandering nomad (Dt 26:5), as the great creedal statement of the Old Testament says: “My father was a wandering Aramean “(Deut 26:5)
Abraham had no land, he was no-one special, but God chose him to bless him.
And God made him three promises (Gen 12:1-7):
(1) “I will make you a great nation”(12:2); with descendants as many as the stars of the heavens (Gen 15:5)
(2) The Promised Land: “To your descendents I will give this land”(12:7)
(3) His name would be great: “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you”(12:3).

In our modern world we are so used to think of ourselves as complete individuals that much of what was promised to Abraham may not seem very relevant.
But, for most of human history people have not just viewed themselves as individuals, but have considered the family, the tribe, the nation that they belonged to as something incredibly important –something that they depended on for their existence. Without this sense of belonging a person would be weak and vulnerable and fearful.
In such a context, to be promised a land, and be promised a great number in your tribe, and to belong to such a great body, would be a great thing.

Even today, though modern people give much less thought to their nation or group, even today we often worry about our weakness, our vulnerability and our lack of security.
And so to have the promise made to Abraham be something we share in is important.
What was true of Abraham physically is true for us spiritually.
He was promised an earthly home, a land.
We are promised a spiritual home, heaven –this is an even greater promise because unlike an earthly land it will not suffer physical ills like drought, and will be eternal not temporary.
He was promised a physical family.
As the Church, we are part of the spiritual family of all those in Christ.

To be an inheritor of the promise made to Abraham is to inherit the promise of the Promised Land.
We, as Christians, follow Christ the Jewish Messiah. And Christ was not just the Messiah but as such was THE great descendent of Abraham, THE offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:16)–the promises to Abraham were realised in Christ.
By being baptised into Christ WE were re-born as one with Him in inheriting all that He has promised as the seed of Abraham. Including the Promised Land of Heaven, the eternal security it will bring, and the glad fruits of that happy land.

And that is something that every reasonable person should want to share in, should want to be a child of Abraham.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Shaftesbury

Lk 7:36-50; 2 Sam 12:7-10,13
Friday was feast of Sacred Heart of Jesus, this month of June is month of Sacred Heart. Our readings today pick up on SacHrt themes: love, sin, forgiveness, repentance, acts of love, acts of reparation.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart comes us to largely via visions to St Margaret Mary in 17th Century France. These visions were signs of the love God bears towards us.
SIGNS of Gods love for us are very important. We all have such signs, but we can either see them or fail to see them.

St Thomas Aquinas says that to love someone means to wish the good of that person, in particular, to wish specific goods for that person.
I fail to see the signs of God’s love for me when I focus instead on the things that seem to indicate that God does not love. I can want better health, better appearance, more money. And, if God wanted to, I could have a body like Rambo, a face like Brad Pitt, an IQ like Einstein, and I could win the lottery, tonight, and even England could win the World Cup.
God could give me all these things. He has given me none of them.

If God loves me, why has He not given me the goods I have just listed?
This is not a stupid question. It’s a question people ask in many different forms.
The reason God has not given me a good like possessing an IQ like Einstein is that He wishes to give me DIFFERENT goods, goods that FOR ME are incompatible with being Einsteinian (if that’s a word). I’m pretty sure that if I had such an IQ I would be insufferably arrogant and proud, that my pride would be an insufferable and impenetrable barrier for me loving God, that I would spend eternity in the blazing fires of Hell. So if God gave me such a gift, it would hardly be a sign that He loved me.

St Thomas Aquinas also says that the most important goods are spiritual goods. These are most important because they last forever.
But even such spiritual goods are not all equal. Some are more pivotal than others.
The greatest good is Heaven itself. I don’t possess that, but I hope to one day.
There is another good, a good we witness twice in our readings, a good that is the precondition for getting to Heaven: and that is the good of forgiveness.

I do not deserve Heaven. I often think I do. But the simple truth is that I have often sinned, and each sin makes me unworthy of Heaven.
But God has offered me that great spiritual good of forgiveness. A good that makes the possession of Heaven possible. A good, more than any other good in this life, a good that shows me He loves me.

The gift of such a good from God calls for us to give something in return.
David, after he repented of his sin, knew he needed to make amendment for his sins.
The woman with the alabaster jar, she had sinned, sinned so much that scripture simply recorded her as “a sinful woman in the city”. Yet Jesus forgave her. And she wanted to do some small thing back to Him, to anoint Him. Why? Because she loved Him.
Jesus pointed out in that parable that she loved much because she had been forgiven much. She KNEW the greatness of her NEED to be forgiven.
ALL of us NEED to be forgiven, even though our awareness of it varies. Love follows that awareness, love seeks to return the love God has shown us in the tenderness His Sacred Heart has revealed to us.
We each need to think of that woman known only as “a sinful woman in the city”, and realise that that is how the angels in Heaven could be looking at us. Unworthy wretches. It is only if we see ourselves in that woman that we can see the greatness of the gift of forgiveness.

To come back to the question of the SIGNS of His love for us. Its very easy to get distracted by thinking of other goods we’d like. But the ONE real good we need is on offer to each of us. The love of His Sacred Heart as manifested in His forgiveness.
In His vision to St Margaret Mary, Jesus said, “I will bless the home I which my heart is exposed and honoured”. The honour He calls us to pay is to love Him back.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

On Genuflecting, Corpus Christi, Shaftesbury

On today's feast of Corpus Christi I want to say a few words about something very dear to my heart , namely, genuflection. A genuflection, I want to tell you today, is simple thing that getting it right or failing to get it right makes a big difference: many of the problems in our spiritual lives can be resolved by a good genuflection because making a good genuflection re-orients us properly to the Lord and helps us regain focus.

The popular Cardinal Hume, shortly before he died, issued a pastoral letter in which he called for the rediscovery of the practice of genuflection. Now on one level this was all rather odd thing to him to say, because genuflection had never been abolished, yet it had somehow drifted out of practice in many places, or when it is done it somehow feels that it's not being done as well as it used to be. And so he called for us to restore the practice of genuflection.

To get back to basics, what are we talking about we talk about a genuflection? A genuflection is the “act of bending the right knee to the floor”, to quote the Catholic Encyclopaedia (Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1991). Or, to quote the post-Vatican II Ceremonial, “A genuflection, made by bending only the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and is therefore reserved for the Blessed Sacrament” (Ceremonial (1989) n.69). This is a very ancient form of doing homage. And in order that this act of homage may be a religious act it is customary to make a brief little prayer when we move our body in this way, for example, to say St Thomas’s words, “My Lord and my God”(Jn 20:28).
Now, there are some people who come in to church but don't bend their knee all the way down to the ground, they do a kind of wiggle thing instead. While there are other people who bend their knee fully, but do so while not looking at the tabernacle but rather looking at someone else, maybe saying "Hi Joe!" etc. This raises the question of why its important to do this properly, which is the same as asking why we do this at all.

Now, we don't live in a society where people normally get down on their knees to anybody! So, for us to think about what a genuflection means involves was thinking a bit more broadly.
Let me make a comparison. How would you behave if you went to meet the Queen? This is probably the only place left in our secular British culture where an act of reverence is made to a person. When you meet the Queen you bow to her if you are a man or courtesy if you are a woman. That said, not everybody would bow to the Queen: if you are a republican and are opposed to the monarchy you might well refuse to bow to the Queen. Whereas, if you believe in the value of a constitutional monarchy, and if you've feel that Queen Elizabeth in particular is a very admirable lady, then when you bow to her you are expressing your belief in the monarchy and your personal affection for her.
In such an act, much like bowing or curtseying to the Queen, in such an act your body expresses what you feel in your heart and what you believe in your mind.

So how should our body behave before the Tabernacle? If you are a militant atheist or if you hate God then your body will express your heart and mind by refusing to make any act of reverence to Jesus before us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Tabernacle. We, however, if we have come to Mass, have come here because we are not militant atheists and we do not hate God. If we have come here to Mass, then it is proper that our bodies should express, by genuflecting, by getting down on one knee, to express that we (i) love and respect the Lord Jesus, and that we (ii) believe that Jesus is here in the Tabernacle.
Quite simply, we should genuflect to Jesus because it is a form of worship that we as His creatures owe Him.

To address a couple simple practicalities: WHEN should we genuflect?
I think that some changes in the rubrics in recent decades have led to some confusion, in that the new rubrics mean that there are now some times when the altar servers DON’T genuflect, and that has confused some people. To help clarify matters I’ve put those quotations in the newsletter, but let me spell it out:
First, ALL of us, unless physically incapacitated, all of us should genuflect to the Tabernacle when we enter the Church before we enter or leave our pew, or when walking across in front of the Tabernacle before or after Mass. “No one who enters a church should fail to adore the blessed sacrament least by genuflecting. Similarly those who pass before the blessed sacrament genuflect.”(Ceremonial (1989) n.71)
Then, for behaviour during the Mass itself: Here I am going to correct what I may have said to some of you previously, and I’m correcting myself on the basis of that recent text I’ve quoted in the newsletter:
We should genuflect on entering the sanctuary and on leaving the sanctuary. This includes readers, and because we use the old pulpit as our lectern that means that our sanctuary actually includes the area leading to the pulpit, so readers should genuflect when they come up to read and when they leave after reading. Similarly, Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers should genuflect on entering and leaving the sanctuary. “If the tabernacle is located on the sanctuary, the celebrant, deacons, servers, lectors etc, genuflect when approaching the altar at the beginning and leaving at the end of a liturgical celebration. But they do not genuflect during the celebration itself. Otherwise, all who pass before the tabernacle genuflect, for example lectors [readers] and extraordinary [Eucharistic] ministers on entering and leaving the sanctuary. Only those who are physically incapacitated should substitute a bow for a genuflection.” (Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (2004) n.199)
Some of the confusion, I think, stems from the fact that servers, during the Mass but not outside the Mass, are now not to genuflect every time they pass in front of the Tabernacle but only the first time they enter the sanctuary and the last time they leave the sanctuary –this is confusing because people see the servers not genuflect and think that genuflection has somehow been abolished, but it hasn’t been.
I hope I’ve been clear, if not, hopefully re-reading the newsletter entry will help.

But, I want to tell you that genuflecting to Jesus in the Tabernacle is not merely something we should do because we are obliged, but it is also something that is good for us to do, something that benefits us by doing it.
One of the major problems we have in life is that we lose our proper focus, we lose our direction, we get stressed and worried because we're not looking where we should be looking, we don't have that calming and strengthening focus that being focused on the Lord God gives us.
This is one of the very simple but crucial ways that an act of genuflection benefits us. When we genuflect properly, not just casually looking over at somebody else waving hello while giving a kind of mechanical genuflection before the Tabernacle, and not just physically making the genuflection perfect, but making a genuflection where we are thinking of what we are doing and meaning what we are doing: a genuflection where my body is pointed towards the Lord in the Tabernacle and my heart is thinking of the Lord in the Tabernacle and I get down on my knee before Him as an act of loving reference to Him.

For myself, I know that one of the things that makes the biggest difference to my day is how I make my first morning genuflection. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I do is I come down to this church and I genuflect Jesus in the Tabernacle before I go to kneel and sit and pray. There are times when I genuflect properly and that simple action has a big effect: my prayer is better focused, and my day is more directed and structured. There are other times when I'll finish my first half-hour of morning prayer and realise that the reason my prayer was all distracted was because I didn't make the effort to make the initial genuflection properly focused.

When YOU come into this church how you genuflect will affect how well you are focused during the Mass. As a consequence, how you genuflect will affect how well you are focused on God for the rest of the week. It's a simple thing, but it has huge consequences.
So, when you genuflect look ahead to Jesus in the Tabernacle, when you genuflect do it wholeheartedly so that your knee actually touches the ground, don't do the wiggle thing, and when you genuflect focus your heart and mind in love and reverence to the loving and all-powerful God who is here before you.
And if you get that simple thing right it's a simple thing with big consequences.

“No one who enters a church should fail to adore the blessed sacrament least by genuflecting. Similarly those who pass before the blessed sacrament genuflect.”(Ceremonial (1989) n.71)

“If the tabernacle is located on the sanctuary, the celebrant, deacons, servers, lectors etc, genuflect when approaching the altar at the beginning and leaving at the end of a liturgical celebration. But they do not genuflect during the celebration itself. Otherwise, all who pass before the tabernacle genuflect, for example lectors [readers] and extraordinary [Eucharistic] ministers on entering and leaving the sanctuary. Only those who are physically incapacitated should substitute a bow for a genuflection.” (Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (2004) n.199)