Desperately Seeking Fruitfulness

Hannah was barren. She longed for a child. As a Jewish wife, she knew her God-given calling was to be a mother of children. She knew her husband loved her – more so, we’re told, than his other wife who had borne him children. But for Hannah, it wasn’t enough to be loved – she longed to be fruitful, and she was depressed because she wasn’t.

What about us? Are we fruitful or barren?

The fruit that God is looking for, is the fruit of healings and prophecy.

In these last four days, Fr Pat has taught us much about what prophecy can achieve in the Church. We must put his teaching into practice. It seems to me that we are not totally barren, but we can be pruned so that we bear grater fruit. In our prayer times, we often seem to receive pictures without clear application, or give words that are generally encouraging. That’s a good start – we are like Hannah, receiving her one share of her husband’s sacrifice. Like Hannah, we know that we are deeply and profoundly loved, by a Divine Spouse who gave his life for us.

But we’ve barely begun. How often do we receive a word which leads directly to a miracle taking place? How often do we speak a prophecy which is specific information about another person’s life? How desperate are we to see this happen?Hannah didn’t want to settle for a single portion. She wanted to bear life, and rightly felt hurt that she hadn’t fulfilled her calling.

I want us, this morning, to feel as dissatisfied as Hannah. I want us to lament, to cry out to the Lord that we are not prophetic enough. And I’d like to offer us three steps which will lead us to be more fruitful in our prophecy.

Purification

Fr Pat has suggested that we lack openness to the prophetic because we lack sufficient unity with one another. Michelle gave us much to think about yesterday, about how we share responsibility in the community. If this community is our place of work, then we might imagine going somewhere else for our day off. But if this community is where we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, then a ‘rest day’ is about how we renew ourselves while spending time with our family.

I want to invite ourselves to ask one question which will help us see how far we have grown in love. In recent days we have had guests among us; guests from Slovakia and guests from Milton Keynes. How many times did you choose to go and speak to these guests – not waiting for them to approach you first? If the answer is ‘none’ then ask the Lord to increase your love for the stranger in our midst.

Desire

Next, ask yourself, “Do I want to prophesy?” Don’t you know that Scripture says that you should “eagerly desire the gift of prophecy”? Don’t you wake up every morning, bounce out of bed, and pray: “Lord, I’m desperate that you should give me a word today so I can bless someone else?” Don’t you? So you aren’t eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy.

There was a Protestant minister called John Wimber who studied the Bible and realised that to be faithful to God, we must pray for people to be healed. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. But John was desperate. The members of the congregation thought he was foolish an fruitless: six months offering healing prayer at the end of his services, and no-one got healed. Then he got one amazing result. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982. As John Wimber learned to co-operate with God, it was about learning to listen; most of his healing ministry was by declaring what God wanted to heal. Sometimes God spoke clearly; other times Wimber had to press in for an answer. The struggle itself is a witness that prophecy and the power that flows from it comes not from ourselves but from God: prophecy can be like listening for the voice of the one you love on the other side of a crowded room.

Ten years ago, I spoke to about 200 members of an Irish Prayer Group. On the last day I challenged them to be open to God’s prophetic word, and asked them to pair up and pray silently for two minutes, asking God to show them what to pray for, for their random partner. Then they were asked to share with their partner what they had prayed about. At least half the people present felt God had inspired a very relevant prayer! Even allowing for the reality that some will just be feeling good because of vague affirmations, I think that’s significant. But I also want to put in a word for honest feedback. Let’s affirm accurate prophecy for being accurate but generally upbuilding words with gratitude. Always be grateful for goodwill and prayerful care. But only affirm accuracy for accuracy.

Obedience

We can never be fruitful ministers of prophecy, and the healing which flows from it, without obedience to God’s will. Obedience means being willing to listen, and following the instructions.

Think back to Mass last Wednesday. For the bidding prayers, I invited us to seek a word from the Lord and pray into that word. Now most of the prayers I heard at that Mass were the things I would expect us to pray for – personal friends in need, and things in the news headlines. But if we truly open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, we’ll be following God’s agenda, not our own. I didn’t get the sense on Wednesday that many of us had tuned into God and received an unexpected word.

Prophecy comes at a price. Hannah is begging God from a child – but if her prayer is granted, she will not only pay the usual price (the care a mother must give to a newborn) – but also the greater sacrifice of giving her son away to the Temple. To make room for God’s spirit to work, we must sacrifice our own agenda. Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to be fishers of men – but they had to lay down their nets, put aside their familiar way of doing things. It is the same with us. If we want to be used by God, we must leave behind our own agendas.

I think I must speak a word to those among us who today begin Exodus 90 or Fiat 90. Why are you doing this? Is it about your will or God’s will? Is it about recognising that God has called you to offer a deep sacrifice, which would be excellent? Or is it about using your own human will to do something challenging to prove you can do it? Remember that the Pharisees were experts in setting up super-hard religious exercises and encouraging each other to fulfil them. Jesus was not impressed. If you have a spiritual director, have you discussed this with them? If not, have you discussed it with your prayer companion? If, together, you agree that God is personally inviting you to 90 days of penance, blessings upon you! But if not, may you have the courage to offer God the sacrifice of stopping!

Now we are going to enter into a time of prayer, like we did last Wednesday. But today, I am going to be strict. I do not want anyone to pray for your own agenda. Think about what the people and situations you would like to pray for today – good, the Lord knows it is on your heart. But I forbid you, at today’s Mass, to speak this aloud. As a sign that we are opening ourselves to the prophetic, you may ONLY speak if God inspires you to pray for something you wouldn’t normally pray for. Now, as Fr Pat has taught us, let’s sit in a still posture, pray in tongues for a few moments, and then enter that inner prayer in tongues – I mean the kind where your tongue is moving but your mouth is closed, or your mind is asking God for the gift but you don’t allow your muscles to move. You have permission to speak out ONLY if a word or picture leads you to pray for something you wouldn’t normally have asked for. Now come, Holy Spirit, come!

Jesus is Passing By

Homily to members of Sion Community on the Wednesday after Epiphany 2019.

I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength! (Phil 4:13)

Would you rather be asked to do something you know how to do, or something that you don’t know how to do?

In this gospel Jesus asked his disciples to do something they should know how to do … at least four of them are experienced fisherman so taking a boat and crossing the lake should be easy. It wasn’t!

Even their own strength and experience wasn’t enough. The weather was wild! A literal translation of the Bible would say that the weather was even torturing them!

And now something strange happens. The Bible tells us that Jesus could see that his disciples were worn out. They had been rowing all night and now it was past 3 o’clock in the morning. Jesus walks on the water towards them… and is about to pass them by!

Why doesn’t Jesus stop? We are given a clue in the last verse. Jesus talks about feeding five thousand people with a few loaves – it’s a direct follow-on from yesterday’s Gospel. “If you understand the bread,” he says, “you’ll understand me.” I think we are meant to read this Gospel as a sign that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Because we see Jesus doing what God does!

There was a time when the prophet Elijah ran into the desert. The king had not only rejected his message, but threatened to kill Elijah. Elijah fled for his life! He was in the desert, and hungry, so God sent bread by a miracle. Elijah ate the bread, walked through the desert for 40 days, climbed a mountain, and hid in a cave. God sent a mighty wind and then himself ‘passed by’ Elijah – but God was in the stillness, not the rushing wind. (I Kings 19:1-14) Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as his successor, and then causes the River Jordan to part so he can cross to the place where he will be caught up into heaven. Elisha receives Elijah’s mantle and himself parts the river to return. (II Kings 2:8 & 2:14)

There was a time when the great Moses asked to see God’s presence. God had already provided manna from heaven, and sent the sign of his Presence in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. But Moses asked for more – to see God’s glory. God agreed – but Moses would have to hide in a gap in the rocks, while God ‘passed by’. (Exodus 33:22) Moses had already crossed the Red Sea, which was held back by a strong east wind, and met with God on the top of Mount Sinai. Later, his successor Joshua would stop the River Jordan so the chosen people could enter the promised land.

Do you see a pattern here? God uses the signs of a strong wind, a high mountain, and bread from heaven to say ‘I am with you’. God’s people pass safely through water and the student takes over from the teacher. God himself is present, not in the mighty wind but in the ghostly silence. And so it is in this Gospel. Jesus chooses his words carefully – “It is I” – another way of saying “I am who am” – the Divine Name. So the message is not only that God is with us, but Jesus is God. This is another epiphany. The message is not that Jesus rescues his disciples, but that he shows himself to be the presence of God!

St Mark does not tell us the story of Peter trying to walk on water. Why not? Mark was Peter’s assistant, and is writing the Gospel the way St Peter himself would tell it to the crowds. I think Peter might not have wanted to tell the story of how he lost faith and nearly sank!

Moses and Elijah had clear missions from God. They didn’t feel up to the task. They wanted reassurance that God was really with them – they asked, and they received.

We also have a mission from God – but we find ourselves wondering if God is really with us. In 1994, I spent a gap year as lay chaplain to Nottingham University. For two terms, I tried to run a prayer group. Eight people came at the start of the year, but the numbers went down and down. At the end of the second term, I had to decide whether we could continue after Easter. I told God that if no-one came that night, I would cancel the prayer group. For the first time, no-one came. I spent that evening having a good shout at God. What was the point of putting all this effort into asking people to come and pray if He wasn’t going to bless it? My decision was made. No prayer group after Easter!

The next morning, there was a knock at the door. The newly elected President of the Catholic Society was there. “Gareth, we’ve been thinking. We probably should have a prayer group next term, but we want a different kind of format, and we want to run it ourselves.” So they did – and praise God, it kept running after I left Nottingham at the end of the year. Typical God – keep me working until breaking point and then provide a sign that my work had not been useless after all.

We are weak. We get discouraged. We try to do things on our own, and God doesn’t rush over to help us. We are in a storm of our own making – and in the stillness alongside us, with the quietness of a ghost, when the night is nearly over, Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. In our inadequacy, or in our fright, we call out, “Lord, I need you!” And then, from that quiet place, our Lord cries out, “I am with you!” and climbs into our boat – or perhaps asks us to try walking on the water.

Yes, I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength! But not by my own strength – I must ask him to take my hand, climb into my boat, give me his strength and refocus my vision.

So as I return to a new season of mission, what am I afraid of? Punishment? Failure? Difficult tasks? With the love of my community supporting me, and with the love of God who is walking near me, unseen, I can do all things through Christ – so Lord Jesus, give me your strength and send me on my mission!

Looking for Jesus

Homily at Our Lady, Queen of Peace (Llanelli) for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2019.

The Wise Men were looking for Jesus. It took some doing, but they found him, and they honoured him.

The future St Paul wasn’t looking for Jesus – but Jesus found Saul of Tarsus and turned him into an apostle.

Herod was looking for Jesus, but only to destroy him. He didn’t succeed.

When Jesus was 12, his earthly parents went looking for him. They found him debating with scholars in the Temple.

When I was 11, I wasn’t looking for Jesus. I was growing up perfectly happily and accepting scientific explanations of why and how the world around me had come to exist. But then, in a time of sadness, I said the first serious prayer of my lifetime and discovered that Jesus was there for me.

Later, after hearing lots of sermons, I became puzzled. So many preachers talked about people having a ‘God-shaped hole’ and a kind of dissatisfaction in their life which went away when they met Jesus and invited him in. But that didn’t match my own experience. Once I’d gotten over my grandmother’s death, things could have gone back to my previous happy existence. But now I had discovered Jesus was really there, and that discovery was going to change the entire course of my life.

Just a few years ago, I was in Manchester and popped into a weekday Mass where a priest said something profound. The Gospel that day declared the the Kingdom of Heaven was like a fine pearl that a merchant went and bought – or like a treasure that someone stumbled over in a field. Some of us, said the preacher, know we’re looking for something of immense value, and recognise Jesus as the answer when we find him. But others, like the person walking in the field, are going through life quite happily when they trip over the treasure which is Jesus and recognise his value. Eureka! At last, here was a priest who understood my journey. Not all of us suffer from a God-shaped hole. But all of us can receive the Gift of Jesus when we find him!

Now, the Gift of Jesus is not a convenient, comfortable gift. Yes, it brings satisfaction – of seeing the value of who Jesus is, if not how he answers the deep questions some of us have been asking. But when we receive this Gift, it comes at a cost!

For the Wise Men, the cost was a long and difficult journey, an awkward encounter with Herod, and the riches which they left at the manger.

For the Blessed Mother, the cost was giving birth far from home, exile in Egypt, the stress of her Son lost in the Temple, the worry caused by Jesus in his days of preaching, and the pain of Calvary.

For Saul of Tarsus, the cost was a temporary loss of his vision, a humble admission that he had been wrong to reject Jesus as God-made-man, numerous beatings and stonings in the cities where he preached, a shipwreck, and his execution in Rome.

For me, the cost was turning away from the first plan I had made for my life, of a career as a research scientist, and retraining for another seven years to become a priest; and then the cost of priesthood, where a man sacrifices the chance to have a social life at weekends and evenings so that others can feed on the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ.

The prophet Isaiah encouraged God’s people not to look at the difficulty and darkness which surrounded them, but to look up, and see the light of God leading them on. Are you wise enough to look for Christ leading you? When you see him, you too will grow radiant, your heart “throbbing and full”!

Wise Catholics look not at the darkness around them, but at their guiding star – and that star is Christ himself. Today is all about gifts; perhaps it is a good day to ask Christ to renew the gifts of confirmation, which include the courage and fortitude we need for our journey through life.

The question is, have you found Jesus? If you are in pain, anxious, searching, have you said a prayer asking Jesus for what you need? If you’re not in any special need, do you recognise the value of this Holy Child whose birth we celebrated at Christmas? Have you allowed this child to make inconvenient demands of you? Can you rejoice, with St Paul, that you have shared in a message from God about who you are and what God wants you to inherit?

St Peter, in his second letter, encouraged us to think about God’s message ‘until the morning star rises in your hearts.’ This year, 2020, is one which our Bishops have dedicated to the ‘God who speaks’. If to you, the message of Jesus doesn’t feel like a pearl of great price or a buried treasure, then maybe this is a good year to take a fresh look at the Bible, and maybe read one of the Gospels from beginning to end.

Was Jesus really God’s Son?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus real heal sick people and cast out demons?

Did Jesus mean it when he told us we must eat his body and drink his blood if we wanted to enter eternal life?

Are you looking for Jesus? I believe that if you lift up your eyes and seek the answers to these questions, as Isaiah prophesied, your hearts will grow ‘throbbing and full’ and Jesus himself will become your heartthrob.

Have you found Jesus? Good. But don’t leave him in the pages of the Bible or locked in the tabernacle here in Church. Take him home with you and share him with your friends.

When the wise men set out on their journey, there were many foolish voices trying to persuade them against it.

Some of the foolish voices suggested that the journey wasn’t worth taking at all.

The wise men knew that this King deserved their personal attention. Will you be wise enough to give him yours?

Can I eat meat on Friday?

Over the recent Christmas season I’ve been asked a few times whether it’s OK for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays “because it’s Christmas”. There isn’t one simple cut and dried answer to that question. How you resolve it depends on the approach to Friday abstinence that you adopt for yourself and your family. Ultimately it depends on where you choose to place the authority for determining your course of action – solely with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with other people who you are called to evangelise, or with yourself as head of your domestic church.

The Law

You can choose to obey the rubrics of the Catholic Church rigidly. The Canon Law applicable to Western (Latin Rite) Catholics states:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Canon 1251

The Bishops of England and Wales reinstated this as binding on Catholics in England and Wales in 2011, after a period of some years when Catholics had been free to choose their own Friday penance. Abstinence from meat is binding on all Catholics from their 14th birthday (Canon 1252), unless there is a medical reason why this would be unwise. Younger Catholics are not obliged to abstain but their parents should encourage the spirit of Friday abstinence in an age-appropriate way.

Solemnities are days of the highest rank in the Church’s calendar. Christmas Day and the 1 January celebration of Mary, Mother of God, rank as solemnities, as do all Holy Days of Obligation. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity which always falls on a Friday. Other saints’ days which are solemnities, such as the Birthday of St John the Baptist (24 June) or St Joseph’s Day (19 March) can fall on a Friday. Each diocese has its own liturgical calendar which might include some local solemnities, and the observance of the patron saint and the anniversary of dedication of an individual church could be solemnities in that parish, unless moved to the nearest Sunday.

The days between 26 and 31 December inclusive are celebrated with the rank of Feast, an important day with a Gloria at Mass – but not as high ranking as a solemnity. (The exact ranking is given at the end of the General Norms on the Liturgical Year.) The Friday of Easter Week (seven days after Good Friday) does, however, rank as a solemnity.

The Rigid Approach

It would be perfectly reasonable to choose to live rigidly according to the rubrics of the Church. Except in rare medical cases (e.g. anaemia, pregnancy), avoiding meat is not harmful or burdensome. Society generally respects those religions that avoid a particular meat absolutely (Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, Hindus won’t eat beef). You can choose to live your life by declaring “I’m a Catholic and because of my religion, I don’t eat meat on Fridays except those days that the Church has waived.” If you are invited out on a Friday, there would be a strong moral obligation on you to make it clear to your hosts well in advance that this is the case, in order to avoid embarrassment.

The Responsive Approach

When Jesus sent his apostles out to preach, he told them to “eat what is set before them” (Luke 10:8) – though since they were sent to Jewish territory they could expect to be served kosher food. We are all called, by our baptism, to be missionary disciples – and that means building trust with people we want to share faith with. So it would be perfectly reasonable for a Catholic who chooses to practice strict Friday abstinence, when presented with circumstances beyond their control, to respond flexibly. If someone else has chosen to serve you meat, and refusing would give offence, it is quite reasonable to accept it with good grace.

Now here, we must recognise that two principles are in tension with one another. “Eating what is set before you” is as authentically Catholic as “obeying the law of the Church”. One Catholic might choose the witness of accepting hospitality while another might decide, in the context of a particular relationship, that it was more important to witness to keeping the discipline of the Church. This applies with less awkwardness when accepting a Friday night invitation in advance, allowing plenty of time to ask the host to avoid meat. There are sound moral principles behind both courses of action, and Catholics should avoid judging their co-religionists for reaching the opposite conclusion in a particular circumstance.

The Responsible Approach

When the Bishops of England and Wales restored Friday abstinence in 2011, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference wrote a pastoral FAQ. That document is no longer available on the Bishops’ Conference website (but is preserved within this page at Birmingham’s cathedral); it included the following advice:

  • There is no requirement for us to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday. Our act of abstinence does not mean that we have to eat another particular type of food as the regular substitute for meat on a Friday.
  • If we are invited out for a meal on a Friday, then we should make the most of an opportunity to witness to our Catholic faith. If our friends and colleagues value us they will not be offended or upset if we tell them, ahead of time, that we do not eat meat on Fridays.
  • Our Bishops wish us to focus on the importance of observing penance as a regular and necessary part of our spiritual lives as a whole. If we make it our practice to do penance during the prescribed penitential days and seasons of the Church’s year, then failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin.

The deep question here, therefore, for each Catholic as an individual or as a leader in their domestic church, is how penance fits into the rhythm of their weekly life. Abstaining from meat was never meant to be a mere badge of identity (“We’re Catholics, that’s what we do on Fridays.”) Rather, each Catholic individual and family should pause on Friday and remember how Christ sacrificed his life for our salvation. The choice to abstain is a choice to experience a small hardship in solidarity and gratitude for Christ’s saving death. The very fact that a Catholic is asking ‘Do I have to abstain today?’ is a sign that the penance is noticeable. It should make a small but significant inconvenience to our daily life for it to be what it is meant to be.

The pastoral guidance says that “failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin”. For unplanned failures (absent-mindedly making a ham sandwich on Friday) this means that a careless Catholic should be reassured that they don’t have to rush to confession on Saturday; this lack of perfection is of the kind where an “Oops! Sorry Lord!” in one’s personal prayer is quite adequate rather than a sin requiring absolution. Does this, however, give Catholics latitude to plan to fail on the occasional Friday?

What is not negotiable is the need to observe Friday penance. The pastoral guidance was based on a clarification from the Vatican that missing an individual penitential act is not a grave sin, but failing to practice penance in the course of one’s Catholic life is.

As long as Friday penance is observed in some way, then the spirit of the law is being kept. Personally, I would view it as quite reasonable for a family celebrating some special occasion (wedding anniversary, birthday, patron saint’s day) on a particular Friday night to choose to have a simple ‘abstinence meal’ on Thursday night and keep their penance that week from dusk on Thursday until dusk on Friday – this would also be in keeping with the ancient tradition of ‘fasting before feasting’. Alternatively, a family which didn’t feel comfortable taking this decision on their own authority could ask their parish priest for a dispensation from the rule of abstinence on that occasion. But care must be taken so that a ‘special occasion’ doesn’t become ‘any occasion’. The place of Friday night at the start of the Western weekend makes it a prime time for social gatherings; too casual an approach to excusing oneself from the Friday discipline would be against the spirit of the law.

The Fridays after Christmas

In 2014, Boxing Day fell on a Friday. An unnamed spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales was asked whether Catholics could eat meat that day, and said that it was “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential”.

Strictly speaking, the spokesman was misinterpreting liturgical law. In the current Liturgical Calendar, there are two octaves (special periods of eight days). The Easter Octave does indeed have the rank of a solemnity and its Friday cannot be considered penitential. The Christmas Octave, however is assigned a relatively low rank – below saints’ days which are mid-ranking ‘feasts’. (Loosely the word ‘feast’ can indicate any saint’s day but in technical church language a ‘feast’ is an observance ranking below a solemnity and above a memorial.) Friday penance is not waived on feasts, only on solemnities – so it is clearly not the intention of those who drafted that current liturgical calendar to designate the Christmas Octave as a day free from penance. On the contrary Canon 1250 designates ‘every Friday of the year’ as penitential, and that surely includes Fridays in Eastertide as well as the Christmas season.

In the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendars, Friday abstinence also applied during the Christmas octave – though in 1952 and 1958, explicit exemptions were granted by the Holy See when Boxing Day fell on a Friday.

It could be argued, however, that in popular understanding, most Catholics regard the days after Christmas as a season of celebration and aren’t aware of these liturgical niceties. There is also the practical problem of using up Christmas leftovers – Pope Francis has warned against a casual approach to throwing out waste food, both at personal and corporate levels. So I think it would be fair to say that a Catholic who generally practiced Friday penance but relaxed their discipline in the holiday season after Christmas wasn’t doing anything concerning. However, a Catholic concerned enough to have read this article as far as this point will probably want to plan their Christmas season to avoid meat, insofar as it’s under their own control, on Fridays which do not fall on 25 December or 1 January.

Abstinence as a lifestyle

Finally, we should acknowledge that for many Catholics, abstinence is more than a penitential discipline. Some Catholics, out of concern for cruelty to animals or the limited resources of the global ecosystem, have chosen not to eat meat at all. The Bishops of England & Wales have asked such Catholics to choose another suitable penitential act on Fridays. More recently, in promoting awareness of Pope Francis’ ecological teaching in Laudato Si, the bishops have asked the Catholics of England & Wales to consider reducing, if not eliminating, their consumption of meat (especially red meat) altogether. This, of course, is about how we choose an ethical lifestyle rather than observing a penitential discipline. But while we’re thinking about how eating meat interacts with our faith, it’s good to remember it here. Bon appetit!

Blessed Beyond the Curse

Homily at Sion Community for the close of the 2019 Core Members’ Retreat on 16 December 2019.

Before the First Reading:

Today, we are going to hear a prophecy by Balaam son of Beor. But who was Balaam, and when was he prophesying?

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they camped in the desert south of the promised land. About 38 years after they left Egypt, they decided to enter Canaan from the north. This meant they would have to pass through the lands of the Ammonites in Edom and then the Kingdom of Bashan, using the travel route known as the King’s Highway (on the map shown, the solid black line running parallel to the River Jordan). They asked for safe passage, but the local kings were not comfortable with half a million refugees – or an invading army – passing through their territory. (Think of what happens today when thousands of migrants want to pass through Mexico on the way to the USA, or a military jet wants to refuel in a third-party country on the way to a strike.)

The Israelites took the highway anyway. Sihon, King of the Ammonites came with his army to stop them – but the Israelites won, and occupied the northern part of Moab, the plains (shaded orange in the second map). They went further north and Og, the King of Bashan came with his army. He too was defeated and the Israelites occupied Bashan (shaded purple). They were able to cross into the Holy Land and camp on the east side of the River Jordan (yellow circle).

Balak, king of the southern part of Moab, calls upon the most powerful prophet he knows, Balaam son of Beor, to come and curse Israel. Balaam is not an Israelite, but the Bible tells us his gift of prophecy comes from the God of Israel. So Balaam is taken by King Balak to various high places (red triangle), where perhaps they can see the Israelites camped on the far side of the Jordan, and instructed to curse them. Here’s what happened next…  (Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a)

Homily

Lord, make me know your ways!

It’s not easy, coming out of a wilderness.

Today we stand on a threshold. The first part of Advent, up to December 16, looks forward to the Second Coming, and the Gospels ask us to recognise who Jesus really is. Tomorrow we enter Advent II, when the Gospels will recall how Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, were prepared for the First Coming.

Today we stand on a threshold. We’re about to exit our retreat, and will soon exit community living for three weeks. Until we gather again in January, we will have to take more personal responsibility for our life of prayer and missionary discipleship.

Today we stand on a threshold. The Israelites are about to exit the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. Balaam was asked to curse Israel, but the only words the Lord would allow him to speak were blessings. He spoke of a King in the distant future. Now, it would be 400 years before David sat on the throne of Israel, and another thousand years after that to the birth of Christ, so Balaam was a ‘far-seeing’ prophet indeed. Like the Magi, he was not an Israelite yet he was given a glimpse of the Messiah!

What actually happened to the Israelites after Balaam blessed them?

They did not stay in the Promised Land, but camped in the plains of Moab. There, many of the Jewish men were tempted by the local women and invited to worship in the local temples. For these crimes, many Israelites were executed.

Some of the tribes asked if they could simply stay living in Moab and Bashan. Moses said that all the fighting men would have to help take the Promised Land, but those tribes could leave their families there and return to live there when the fighting was done.

Sometimes, it seems to me like the Church at large is living in Moab.

At best, the Church in Moab makes occasional visits to the battlefield, with moments of intense prayer, but mostly dwells in the comfortable territory of social work, youth work, fundraising and building maintenance. These things are easy to do. Why bother crossing to the land of Jesus when it’s comfortable in Moab? The Church in Moab settles for maintenance, not mission. (But Ruth left Moab and dedicated herself to the God of Israel.)

At worst, the Church in Moab is tempted astray by the surrounding world. Reiki and reflexology in retreat centres? Yoga in parish halls? And when does compassion and understanding for those struggling with their sexual identity or failed relationships need to give way to reaffirmation of moral boundaries?

(Not included in the sermon as delivered, for brevity.)

Eventually, under Joshua’s leadership, Israel does enter the Promised Land.

Balaam prophesied about a distant future. I am going to attempt the same – the kind of prophesy not based on a revelation from beyond time, but from reading the signs of the times.

Can we imagine what the Catholic Church will be like in Britain, in Europe, in the year 2050?

I can imagine a future where the Church has been forced underground, as it was in the days of Henry VIII. Perhaps Governments will have made it illegal for a religious organisation to exclude women from any of its leadership positions – or at least to exclude a woman who insists she is really a man. Perhaps it will be a hate crime to teach that abortion is wrong in all circumstances. Perhaps it will be against the law for a priest to guarantee total confidentiality to anyone who speaks to him under the seal of confession.

Even if the law still respects religious organisations’ right to do their own thing behind closed doors, state-funded schools might not be allowed to give time to religious activities or promoting the Catholic understanding of healthy sexuality.

Maybe the law of the land will not have come down so heavily on churches – but the law of economics will. If our congregations continue to shrink at their current rate, many of our church buildings will be closed, and we will be worshipping in hired rooms in school halls or leisure centres.

I take no pleasure in being a prophet of doom, but I am taking my example from mother Church herself. In articles 675 and 677 of the Catechism, she says this:

Before Christ will come again, the Church must pass through a final trial. This will shake the faith of many believers.

The trial will be some kind of rejection of God’s truth in the name of solving humanity’s problems.

The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.

Why does the Church say such things? She is drawing from the words of Our Lord himself, who said that even God’s chosen servants will be deceived ‘if such a thing is possible’. In times of confusion we must make our own the response to today’s psalm: Lord, make me know your ways.

Friends, I don’t know whether the final trial of the Church is near at hand, or far away. Many say we are already living in a post-truth society. If you believe you should have had a different kind of body, or if President Trump wishes something had happened differently, all you need to do is keep proclaiming the untruth until people start treating it as a fact.

Some worry that Pope Francis has already brought us to the final apostasy, because he has compromised on truth by his approach to divorce and remarriage. In fact, it seems to me that he has been careful not to CHANGE church teaching, in fact refusing to set down new norms and precedents, but instead has tried to draw attention to how we need to bridge the gap between the messy reality of human life and and the clear-cut statements of Scripture and Canon Law.

Pope Francis calls for discernment. What’s another name for discernment? “Lord, make me know your ways!”

As long as it is possible to follow the Vicar of Christ in a way in keeping with what has been revealed, we must do that. But there will always be a strand in the church which rightly questions innovation because our own teaching says one day Mother Church will fall into apostasy, and even many of her preachers and scholars will be deceived! So a good dose of self-criticism is also healthy! But the Catechism, drawing on Scripture, also says that the final trial will happen when Christ has been recognised by ‘all Israel’. Now it is true that Messianic Judaism is a reality which didn’t exist 50 years ago, but it would be too big a stretch to say that ‘all Israel’ has come to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Among Jews, Jesus as controversial today as he was in his own lifetime!

Lord, make me know your ways!

In today’s Gospel, too, Jesus – like Pope Francis – avoids giving a direct answer to a question. He knows very well that if his critics are going to embrace the truth, if they are capable of a conversion of heart, they have to weigh up the arguments before them at their own pace, free of pressure. So he answers them with questions they have to pause to ponder and process.

We can do the same thing. We have a Gospel to proclaim, but sometimes the best way to help others hear it is to ask them the right questions. Questions like these:

  • If anyone can choose to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, how can we know what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is in the first place?
  • Do I have human rights because I can survive without the support of another person or because I am human?
  • How can we find out whether Jesus wanted women to preside and speak his words when his followers gathered to break bread?
  • Do you want to live in a society where a vulnerable person can be given the assurance of absolute confidentiality by someone who doesn’t know what they’re about to say?
  • Will accompaniment and discernment cause a person to disregard Christ’s teaching, or come to appreciate it?

We are now leaving the wilderness and entering the very place where Christ calls us to be disciples – the world of men and women, friends and enemies. This is the place, this is the time, where each one of us is personally called by Jesus to proclaim his Gospel. Whether we face a great apostasy or merely a chastised church, Christ is sending us out to proclaim his love and mercy. Let us keep praying, persevere unshaken, and seek His presence. Lord, make us know your ways!

The Enemy of Israel is worried. God’s Chosen People are coming out of the wilderness, and God will not allow us to be cursed. Let us cling to Balaam’s prophecy. I leave you with the words of St Peter:

We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power… We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things – prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

2 Peter 1:16-21 (abridged and rearranged)

A star WILL rise for us from Judah. Come, Lord Jesus! Marana tha!

(Recommended reflection music: Edge of the Age, by the Maltfriscans!)

Sex without Dæmons: the true teaching of the Catholic Church

Why should we sever children from their dæmons? Because at puberty dæmons bring troublesome thoughts and feelings! The Dust which settles on the dæmons condemns us to the tyranny of sin, guilt and regret!

Phrases from Episode 6 of His Dark Materials – BBC/HBO – broadcast 8 December 2019

It’s the old, old story. Religion says that sex is bad! Sexual thoughts are best avoided so that no-one should be led astray by lust. Philip Pullman’s Magisterium – that chilling organisation combining the worst aspects of the Protestant Puritans and the Catholic Inquisition – wants to make sure no human ever has a lustful thought again. The logical conclusion, if an unhappy one for the future of the human race, is that children should never be allowed to grow up, and certainly not desire sex. If the price is that each and every person becomes a soulless automaton, then so be it… but who then will operate the dæemon-severing machines for the next generation?

Instead of the old, old story let me tell you a new one, a story you might not have heard a Catholic priest tell before. Are you sitting comfortably? Good! Then I’ll begin! The short version goes like this:

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, an advanced ape became the first living being to consciously realise that s/he was becoming sexually aroused. Our first parent missed out on receiving, and passing on to us, the divine gift of conscious control over our sexual and other appetites, because they failed to accept God’s offer of being Lord over their sense of Right and Wrong. Today, that creature’s descendants are invited to enjoy and celebrate the gift of sexual arousal within heaven-blessed marriages, and to shrug off the sense of shame which falls upon them when they experience unbidden attraction at inappropriate moments.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because we’re become used to an ancient telling of the Catholic faith, which goes like this:

Once upon a time, God created perfect human beings. Their willpower was supreme over all aspects of their bodies. No human being would ever become sexually aroused unless two of them decided it was time to make a baby together, and then they would simply choose to become aroused, and engage in the conjugal embrace. They took ownership of their fair share of what the Earth produced and ate exactly the right quantity of food, knowing what is best for their bodies. But then Eve, and by her urging, Adam, broke God’s Law. As a punishment they were cursed with concupiscence – from that day onwards, human beings would experience unwanted sexual arousal in the presence of beauty, irascible anger, covetous desire for material objects, and gluttonous greed for food beyond what the human body needs to sustain itself. The cosmic consequence of their sin was that death and corruption entered the world, for until that moment, no living being had ever died.

The Catholic Church proposes that the above account is fundamentally true, but must be understood as using figurative language. The Church does not prescribe verse-by-verse whether statements in Genesis 1-11 are factual or metaphorical, but does say that science should explore truth using its rightful autonomy to find factual answers to testable questions. The best scientific evidence available points to a cycle of birth and death of plants, animals and microorganisms stretching more than three billion years before the first mammals existed. Whatever the symbolism of the story of the Fall, it’s not an explanation of how biological death entered the world. It might, however, be a revelation about miraculous gifts of longevity and self-control God was willing to embed in each human soul, but which the first humans forfeited by their free choice. That being the case, I think it’s time to tell a new story.

The Fall (as told by a Catholic scientist)

For as long as there have been distinct sexes among animals, evolution has ensured that there are mechanisms to bring breeding pairs together. Attraction and courtship are responsible for many beautiful sights and sounds in the animal kingdom; in other species, a primal instinct may urge a creature to force himself, or herself, upon an unwilling mate, occasionally resulting in the death or devouring of the unwilling parter!

Millions of years ago, the age-old process of evolution resulted in the first proto-humans with brains not unlike ours. These more powerful brains were able to think and reason using rudimentary language. The power of introspection allowed these creatures to realise that they were becoming sexually attracted or aroused, requiring them to accept or reject the course of action urged upon them by their baser instincts.

Together with the ability to think in terms of Right and Wrong came the gift of an immortal soul. These creatures were no longer doomed to return to the dust of the earth, but rather would have their essence preserved by God for a future day of bodily re-creation. It was God’s intention to endow each new person with two preternatural gifts: first, that of diminishing to insignificance their bodily appetites for sex, food or other material pleasures; and secondly, freedom from bodily death.

The very first ensouled humans, however, failed a significant test. This was not a trial of their bodily appetites, suppressed by grace, but of their intellectual freedom to choose. Were they willing to accept that God would be the author of Right and Wrong? The symbol of this test is an arbitrary tree, singled out by God from the others in the garden as the sole bearer of verboten fruit. Not because it was especially luscious, but because there was no obvious reason to refuse its goodness, our first parents chose to eat the fruit and thereby failed the test. (This is a symbol of some actual moral trial, the details of which are lost to us in prehistory, but where our first parents freely and wilfully failed to heed God’s directives, made sufficiently clear by their nascent conscience.) In return, God withheld from their offspring the preternatural gifts which would have forestalled death and suppressed the concupiscence which is a natural part of the animal kingdom.

Ever since that day, the human race has inherited what has come to be know as ‘original sin’ but would be better labelled ‘the heritage of our sinful origin’. Every newly conceived child, save for the Virgin Mary in her mother’s womb, and Jesus Christ in Mary’s, receives the natural burden of concupiscence which is part of our animal nature. The Catholic Church has long feared that original sin could have been sufficient reason to prevent the soul of a deceased infant from entering heaven, and for centuries entreated parents to baptise the newborn as soon as possible; in the 21st Century, however, we have the assurance of Pope Benedict XVI that the Bible does not in fact affirm this doom, and we should rather hope in the goodness of God when it comes to the souls of the innocent.

God’s friends on earthly slowly learned of the Almighty’s desire for faithfulness in their sexual relationships. Jacob, renamed Israel by a mighty angel, was blessed to father the Jewish nation through two wives and two concubines. Moses gave a law to the Israelites setting out how they were to manage divorce, yet the later prophet Malachi declares that God “hates divorce”. St Paul allowed a new Christian to be parted from an unbelieving spouse for the sake of being paired with a believer. But Jesus Christ insisted that to take a new partner, once a marital bond existed, was an act of adultery contrary to God’s will for his faithful people. It was also the clear understanding of the first Christian leaders that God’s plan was strict monogamy – nowhere is this spelled out explicitly in the Christian Bible, but it is another implication of Jesus quoting Genesis that a man should be united with his (singular) wife.

Throughout human history, men and women have been burdened by the full animal reality of sexual arousal. All people of goodwill at least accept the sexual intercourse is not appropriate without consent, and will likely feel ashamed when their emotions or sexual organs involuntarily respond to the presence of an attractive yet inappropriate person. Not a few have fallen into the pitfall of believing that arousal is sinful even within marriage – a teaching with St John Paul II strongly refuted in his corpus of writings known as Theology of the Body. In the early 400s, St Augustine of Hippo offered his scholarly opinion that there was something lacking when a married couple celebrated the conjugal act without the desire to beget a child. It took until the 1980s for a Pope to affirm that it was right and proper for a married couple to enjoy sexual intimacy, for the sake of deepening their mutual relationship, even when they knew they were temporarily or permanently infertile.

Catholics today can rejoice in the gift of their sexuality, and be relaxed about the fact that arousal happens. It is part of our animal heritage, and we inherit it for that reason. We will be judged not on what arouses us but on how we respond to this reality, accepting it as a gift with the potential to bring great joy. All people of goodwill must surely recognise that there are many occasions when desires should not be acted upon: where there is no consent, or even no possibility of mature consent; where the action would break a solemn promise or harm an existing relationship. The Catholic Church goes further in its understanding of other circumstances where God asks us not to pursue our animal instincts but declares the right context to be within the security of a marriage blessed by God.

This story is consistent with the “God who can, but doesn’t always”. Just as God has the power to grant miraculous healings but does not do so in answer to every prayer, so God also has the power to shield every human from concupiscence but has not used it save in the case of Adam and Eve, Blessed Mary and Christ Jesus. Since empirical evidence rules out a God who always grants these boons, the only remaining options are the Sometimes God, or no god at all.

Why should we sever children from their dæmons? Because at puberty dæmons bring troublesome thoughts and feelings!

Philip Pullman got one important thing right. The true source of these troublesome thoughts and feelings is our ‘animal nature’, the biology we share with other mammals. Whisper it quietly, but the true Catholic Church, far from Pullman’s Magisterium, does not want to sever humans from their animal nature; in the right context, it blesses them to enjoy being very animal indeed!


A postscript

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language to tell the story of something that happened at the beginning of human history. I have used the same figurative language above to speak of our ‘first parents’ to make my narrative easily consistent with Genesis; but there is a tension which must be acknowledged with the narrative in Romans which contrasts Christ with the first Adam without mentioning Eve. I have argued elsewhere that there is a way to reconcile evolutionary biology with Catholic teaching which strictly requires a singular original sinner. You could rewrite the account above in terms of ‘Adam alone’ rather than ‘Adam and Eve’ for what I believe would be strict historical accuracy; but above I have employed the figurative language of Genesis 3 for my own purposes too. My aim is to be no more confusing than the Word of God!

The Rosa Mystica Devotions

Image result for pierina gilli

The Context

The Rosa Mystica devotions are a series of spiritual exercises proposed by the Italian laywoman Pierina Gilli (1911-1991). They honour the Virgin Mary under the title “Mystical Rose – Mother of the Church” and have a special concern to invoke God’s blessing and protection for priests and members of religious orders. On 7 December 2019, the Diocese of Brescia inaugurated a diocesan sanctuary where these devotions take place regularly.

Signorina Gilli claimed that the inspiration for these devotions came from apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1947 and 1966. Nothing in her claims is contrary to the Catholic Faith, but successive Bishops of Brescia have sought to downplay attention to her claims, and have found no positive reason to believe she received a heavenly visitation. Nevertheless, the proposed devotion to Maria Rosa Mystica has quietly spread among Catholics across the world.

The Catholic Church judges claims of apparitions in two ways: the content of the messages, and the spiritual fruits which flow from them. Bishop Tremolda of Brescia acknowledged in 2019 that the fruits were ‘no less important’ than the contents in reaching a final judgment. For this reason, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception in 2019, he saw fit to inaugurate a diocesan sanctuary where pilgrims can be welcomed and the fruits monitored. The Diocese of Brescia and the Holy See will continue to review Signorina Gilli’s claims; in the meantime the official policy is that in the course of promoting the devotions, no reference should be made to Pierina Gilli’s alleged apparitions.

Since it is impossible to explain the Rosa Mystica Devotions without making some reference to the claimed apparitions, what follows should be read as coming from Signorina Gilli’s imagination without taking a position on whether these thoughts were prompted by the Virgin Mary – the same stance being taken by the official Foundation managing the shrine.

Image result for rosa mystica swords

The Imagery

Pierina’s initial meditations were on the sorrows which Our Lady experiences because of the failings of representatives of the Church. She imagined Our Lady robed in purple with three swords piercing her breast. The first was the pain caused by those priests and religious who abandon their vocation. The second sword represented priests, monks, and nuns who live in deadly sin. The third sword was a symbol of priests and religious who while giving up their vocation, often lose also their faith, and become enemies of the Church. She understood that she was to offer prayer and sacrifice for these souls and practice penitence for her own sins.

This sorrowful image soon gave way to what has become the popular image of the Rosa Mystica – Our Lady veiled in white with three roses upon her breast. The white rose represents our call to pray. The red rose represents the sacrifices we can make in atonement for the sins of others, especially clergy and religious. The golden rose represents penitence – our own willingness to examine our lives and repent of our sins.

The Exercises

Pierina suggested that religious communities and secular priests should mark the thirteenth day of each month as a “Day of Mary”, and these prayers would bear fruit by invoking Mary’s special protection, an increase of spiritual vocations, few betrayed vocations, and great sanctity among the servants of God. The suggested forms of prayer are not radical – Holy Mass, Holy Communion, the rosary and an hour of Eucharistic Adoration. The first twelve days of the month could be days of preparation for this.

No specific contents are suggested either for the preparatory prayers or for the 13th day itself, but when there are no obligatory observances in the Church’s calendar, votive Masses and Offices of Our Lady can be offered. The 13th is also, of course, the day of the month on which Our Lady of Fatima appeared to the shepherd children between May and October 1917.

The 13th July each year could be kept by religious communities and by clergy as Rosa Mystica Day to celebrate Our Lady under this title and invoke God’s protection on their own particular vocation. (There is no Votive Mass in the Roman Missal or the additional collection of Marian Masses invoking Mary by this title so some suitable Marian Mass from the existing collection should be chosen. Alternatively, given Pierina spoke of “Mytical Rose – Mother of the Church” the votive Mass of Mary, Mother of the Church could be used.)

The 13th October each year could be kept as special day when the faithful everywhere could receive Holy Communion as an act of penance and reparation for the sins of the Church. The votive Mass ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ might be particularly appropriate.

Only one proposal by Pierina does not involve the 13th day of any month. She proposes that the hour commencing at noon on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, should be kept as an “Hour of Grace” marked by prayers and penance. The hour could begin by praying the 51st Psalm three times while holding one’s arms outstretched. Each person keeping the hour is free to complete the hour with any other way of praying they see fit.

A leaflet is available for those who wish to practice these devotions.