The Enemy Within

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents.

I could probably end this sermon right now, because I’ve said all that needs to be said. Except… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Usually when I preach, I try and say something for everyone. But there are times I share a message which won’t apply to everyone, but will be really important for those who need to hear it. Today is one of those times.

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

Many of us will never be clinically depressed, but will go through low periods in our life where we struggle with a poor self-image. This week, our parish Connect & Explore groups watched a video where a Catholic mother, Giovanna Payne, spoke about a kind of prayer which lifted her spirits during difficult seasons in her life. Some of us, too, might find it a useful exercise to use the kind of prayers which remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,
I hope by your grace for the pardon
of all my sins
and after life here to gain eternal happiness
because you have promised it
who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,
and merciful.
In this hope I intend to live and die.
Amen.

As I said at the start of this sermon, what I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!pubenemy

Even if our own feelings don’t drag us down, sooner or later, our bad habits will. We’re less then two weeks from the start of Lent, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

 

 

Into the Unknown

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of St John the Baptist, 2016.

There are days in history when the solid ground on which we stand is thrown up in the air. This morning, with the UK having narrowly voted to leave the EU, is such a day.

Whichever way we voted, we now face a period of uncertainty. Negotiations will take time and the timing and outcome of many things cannot yet be known.

Yet… there is nothing new in this for God’s people.

In ancient Israel, at the end of the age of the Judges, the people called for a king. The prophet Samuel warned them that a king would take their sons for his armies, and their daughters for his harems, but the people clamoured, and God allowed Samuel to anoint Saul as king.

To anoint a king means stability. To anoint a king is to found a dynasty, to accept that his son and his children’s children shall reign for generations to come.

But a day came in the history of Israel when the solid ground on which they stood was thrown up in the air. Samuel was divinely instructed to anoint the boy David as the next King of Israel. It was David’s lineage, not Saul’s, which provided the reign of Solomon and ultimately the heritage of Joseph, husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Christ.

Or take an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, well past the age of childbearing, and looking forward to their retirement. Yet one day, an angel appeared to Zechariah, with the news that his wife was to bear a son. Nor would the son take any name traditional in the family, but would have an entirely new identity. The people asked: “What will this child be?”

In the same way, as Britain today gives birth to an unknown child, an ex-EU member state, we can only watch and wonder what will unfold in the negotiations of the months and years ahead. But remember, there is nothing new for God’s people in having our expectations radically challenged.

There are days in history when the solid ground on which we stand is thrown up in the air. Two such days were the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, marked by inconsolable grief and indescribable joy. The one who was with his disciples then is with us now. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have encouraged s to pray Cardinal Martini’s Prayer for Europe in this time of transition.

May Feelings

Reflection for the May edition of the Catholic People Cardiff Diocesan Newspaper.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, not a single Catholic prayed the Hail Mary, let alone a rosary. The prayer simply hadn’t been composed, at least as we know it today. But we do know that from the earliest times, Christians asked the Mother of God to pray for them. The most ancient surviving text comes from the 3rd Century, and says: “Beneath your compassion, we take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”

As the Christian Faith became well established across Europe, monasteries were established everywhere – the Cistercians were a particularly strong presence in medieval Wales. Lay brothers, who had never learned to read, could not join in with reading the 150 Psalms. Instead they offered the Lord’s Prayer 150 times, using a string of beads to keep count. By the 12th Century, it had become common to pray the Hail Mary on the beads, and we know that English hermits had a rule breaking the prayers into five groups of 10. Lay men and women adopted the practice too.

At that time, the Hail Mary simply consisted of the words of the Angel Gabriel – “Hail Mary, full of grace…” and the words of St Elizabeth – “Blessed are you among women…”. By the end of the 15th Century, it had become customary to add: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Legend has it that Our Lady appeared to St Dominic and taught him the rosary, but the first written claim of this appeared 250 years after St Dominic lived. What we are more sure of is that, in Lourdes in 1858, Our Lady was carrying a rosary when she appeared to St Bernadette, and at Fatima in 1917, she asked that many people pray the rosary daily for the intention of peace in the world.

In 2008 a young Spanish film producer, Belomásan (Santiago Requejo) decided to promote the rosary. He asked 50 of his friends – all young adults – to state a reason why they prayed the rosary and filmed them saying so. This video went viral, so the following year he produced another with the fifty young people in T-shirts proclaiming “I Pray the Rosary!” coming together. Each year since he has released an annual May video, each with a different focus – praying for the world, remembering the Pope, praying for priests, asking forgiveness – and by the time this newspaper goes to press, “May Feelings 9” will likely be revealed to the world. You can see these on YouTube by searching for “May Feelings”. More recently he established a social network to share prayer requests: www.mayfeelings.com

Anyone can be a Catholic in good standing and never pray a Hail Mary. It’s not part of the official Missal, though in the UK we do have a custom of including it in the bidding prayers at Mass. There are things we do because God commanded us to do so – praying the Our Father and celebrating Mass. But the best acts of love flow from the human heart as a freely given offering. Praying a Hail Mary or a rosary is such a gift of love. We don’t have to – but we can. So call your mother – she’d love to hear from you!

Pray for the Living and the Dead!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?woman-praying

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over these few weeks, we are considering the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I prayed for the living and the dead?

This sounds quite straightforward. But who are the living and the dead? The Bible shows us that God doesn’t always see things the way we see them.

Our first reading takes us back to ancient days, to Abraham himself. In those days, God had not spoken to human beings about heaven, and Abraham believed that when he died, he would “live on” only in his descendants.

Jesus saw things differently. The God he called Father was the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and all people are alive to him!” Not only that, but on the mountain of transfiguration, the apostles saw Moses and Elijah, men who had lived centuries earlier, alive and speaking with Jesus!

Jesus wanted those apostles to see that in death, life is changed, not ended. We do not get reincarnated as a new person with no memory of the old. We are not dissolved into some spiritual essence which is remixed and remade. No, because each one of us is loved by God as a unique individual, we continue as persons – and we profess in our Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. This means that one day, in God’s future, we will be restored to a life which never ends, in bodies free from sickness, and reflecting the glory of God.

The Bible also speaks of a connection between death and sin. “Death came into the world through sin!” said St Paul. That makes no sense if we think of the material world – plants and animals were dying for millions of years before the first human beings lived, and only humans are capable of sinning. But perhaps a different kind of death is meant. Jesus once said “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Bible also says “there is a sin that leads to death” – which is why in the Church we sometimes speak about “mortal sin”. By committing certain sins and not asking God’s forgiveness, we risk being raised to a new body only to be sent, with all the goats at the last judgement, to eternal separation from God, which is Hell.

Priests in an earlier generation would have readily taught you a list of mortal sins. Now the Church takes more care in the way we explain things. I could give you the same list, but I would call them “SERIOUS sins” or “grave matter“. If you commit one of these, it could be mortal, but only if you commit the sin KNOWING how serious it is, and acting in full FREEDOM – that is, without being in the grip of addiction or mental illness, or forced by other circumstances beyond your control.

The trouble with defining some sins as mortal is that we can be drawn into the trap of asking: “Was my sin really mortal or only venial? Do I really need to go to confession?” The better question is simply: “Have I committed a serious sin?” If the answer is yes, celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and you can be utterly sure that it has been forgiven!

Today is the day in Lent when we pray in a special way for those adults who are already baptised, but will make their First Communion and be confirmed at Easter. Soon they will make their First Confession. As a community we will be praying for those who may be dead through sin to receive life through the great sacrament of mercy. We must also remember to pray all the more fervently for those who have not heard, or are resisting, the nagging voice of God who is continually inviting his children to be come to great sacraments of mercy – baptism and reconciliation.

We are all called to pray for the living and the dead. We are called to pray for those who are spiritually alive, followers of Jesus who come faithfully to Mass and dedicate some of their time and energy to raising their families, to the work of the church, and to their employment. We are called also to pray for those who are spiritually dead, who need to find new life through the sacraments. When Our Lady appeared at Fatima, she taught us that a powerful way to do this was to pray a decade of the rosary and add the following prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”

There are other ways of praying too – but what is important is that we pray for others and not just ourselves.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I prayed for the living and the dead?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin your new life of prayer!

Do You Love Me?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.The front cover of the book "Do You Love Me?" with a red sky and a fishing boat on a shore

“Do you love me?”

Don’t worry, I’m not suffering a moment of insecurity – I’m quoting the title of a quiet best-seller which is trending in Catholic bookshops across the UK.

Earlier this year, our bishops produced an excellent little book which leads the reader on a guided meditation. It’s best followed in bite-sized chunks, and allows you to explore many aspects of Christian prayer.

Each of today’s readings teaches us something about prayer, too.

Hebrews reminds us who we are praying to, and through, in Jesus – he is our Great High Priest, and as human as we are. Prayer is a conversation, and speaking with Jesus is rather like being one of the pilots in the same squadron as Prince William. Behind closed doors, you can treat a Royal Heir to the Throne as one of your mates, and share a laugh and a joke with him. On the parade ground, it is right and proper to bow and show the utmost respect in the presence of His Royal Highness. If you are part of the squadron, William is at one and the same time your friend and your prince. It is just the same with the relationship we are invited to have with Our Lord.

One kind of prayer is simply telling Jesus about what’s going on in our lives. He doesn’t need us to say it for the sake of Information – as Lord of Creation, he knows already what we are doing and thinking. But as our friend he loves to hear us confiding it to him in our own words. St Faustina, who had the rare gift of hearing the Lord speak clearly to her, once heard him say: “My daughter…why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details? Tell Me about everything, and know that this will give Me great joy.” She answered, “But You know about everything, Lord.” And Jesus replied: “Yes I do know; but you should not excuse yourself with the fact that I know, but with childlike simplicity talk to Me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to Me.” So have no doubt that speaking to Jesus of the ups and downs of your daily life is a perfectly worthy form of prayer!

Blind Bartimaeus, in the Gospel, is looking for Jesus. He knows the Lord is near, but needs some help finding him. So he cries out: “Lord! I need you! Have mercy on me!” Jesus hears him and responds, but doesn’t come directly to him. Rather, Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him. Now Bartimaeus faces a harder challenges – unable to see, he must abandon his protective cloak in a crowd, and set out towards the voice of Jesus. This takes courage! So when Jesus declares “Your faith has saved you!” he means that Bartimaeus is being rewarded for taking a risk – leaving behind his security, and stepping towards Jesus. Blessed Newman showed the same courage in his poem Lead Kindly Light, not asking to see the final destination, but only the next step.

Jeremiah points us to yet another kind of prayer. “Shout with joy for Jacob!” he declares. When we gather for Sunday Mass, we are invited to take part in a joyful celebration of and with the God who loves us. Pope Francis has warned us not to look like sourpusses when leaving church – the Spanish word he used translates literally as being “vinegar-faced”! Right here, right now, we might have come to Mass burdened by many problems, but we are invited to look not at our burdens, but towards the Lord who has the power to rescue us from all distress. We do not cry out with joy at Mass because everything in our life is a bed of roses, but because we trust in Jesus. Just as Bartimaeus trusted that if he abandoned his cloak, he would receive his sight, so we must trust that praising God when we don’t feel like it, will lead us to new blessings.

In ancient Israel, Jewish worship services involved cymbals and rams’ horns – imagine celebrating Mass with vuvuzelas! Jesus’ 12 apostles sang psalms at the Last Supper. For centuries, monks and nuns sang chants in their chapels. But we lost the habit of joyful singing when we became an underground church in the British Isles – when we were celebrating secret Masses in English mansions or on Irish rocks, there was no question of making a loud noise. Now it’s time to rediscover our voice. We sing at Mass because we choose to make a joyful noise to the Lord. It’s not a question of how we feel, but of giving to God the praise that God deserves!

Prayer doesn’t happen by accident – it happens because we choose to pray. We might be motivated by our own needs – for forgiveness, for help, or for health. Or we might pray harder for a friend who is sick or dying. But hear the words of Jesus, “Do you love me?” – and in love, choose the highest form of prayer, to give praise and thanks to God, to begin a conversation with Jesus, because he is the Lord who loves you. If you need some help praying, or if you want to explore forms of prayer you might not have tasted before, give this book a try. Over the last few months it has certainly enriched my prayer life, and I know it can bless yours, too.

So: Courage! Get up! Jesus is calling you! What would you like to say to him?

Our Lady of the Most Blessed Trinity

ol1Homily at St Philip Evans on Trinity Sunday, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Mary is Mother, Daughter, Spouse of God.

Miryam, the daughter of Anna and Joachim, loved to listen to the great stories of what God had done for her people. The God of her ancestors has spoken to Moses and revealed his Law for the whole people of Israel. With mighty deeds, he enabled them to escape from Egypt and enter the land long-ago promised to Abraham and to his descendents for ever.

Miryam knew that many times, God had allowed his power to work through great heroines – it was written that “God’s spirit” had come upon them. Sarah, in her old age, had conceived a son for Abraham. Deborah had been a great prophet in charge of all Israel. Hannah, barren for many years, had been granted a child in answer to prayers in the Temple. Judith tricked and defeated the military commander of Israel’s enemies.

On the day appointed by God, Miryam’s life was transformed forever. An angel appeared and declared she had been chosen from all women for a task unique in human history: the God of the Universe was to have a Son on Earth. But for a son to be born, a mother’s womb was needed, and this could not happen without a woman’s consent. The same divine spirit which came upon Israel’s heroines of old, now fell upon Miryam; the words of scripture struggle to express it adequately, that she was filled with the utter fullness of what God could offer.

We know that although all human beings are made in God’s image, it is not correct to say that simply being human makes you a child of God. No, it is when the Holy Spirit comes into the heart of a person, that we are adopted as a Son or Daughter of God-the-Heavenly-Father. Miryam, filled with the fullness of God’s Spirit, was most truly of all people a Daughter of God-the-Father. And because of this utter fullness of the presence of God’s spirit, it has become traditional to speak of Mary as “Spouse of the Holy Spirit”.

“The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary – and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.” In these familiar words of the Angelus prayer we affirm that Mary bore a child by the Spirit’s power.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord” – Mary made an act of utter obedience to God.

“The Word Became Flesh” – in her womb, the Word of God, a co-equal spirit begotten by the Divine Father before the beginning of time,* irrevocably took on human flesh. A spark of life, an embryo, a child, grew in the womb of Mary. From the moment of the Spirit’s overshadowing, it was true to say that that human life was God-the-Word-made-flesh. Mary’s child was God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Mary did not give her son divinity; and yet his divine nature is so inseparable from his humanity, that we must recognise that Mary was, from that moment, Mother of the child-who-is-God, and so, inescapably, Mother of God.

On the day when the Christ-child was presented in the Temple at Jersualem, a prophet, Simeon, was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak these words: ‘this child will be a sign for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and a sword shall pierce your own soul, too’. So from the earliest days of her child’s life, Mary knew that she would suffer because of Him. The words of St Paul remind us that if we share the suffering of Christ, we shall share his glory. The poet who composed the Stabat Mater well understood what Mary suffered on Calvary: “At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last.”  Mary did indeed share the pain of Christ’s crucifixion; and we believe that, assumed body and soul into heaven, she now shares Christ’s glory in a unique way.

In this month of May, we have honoured Mary by sending her statue around many homes in this parish. Each evening, as the statue was handed on, two families had the opportunity to pray together. We pray to Mary because she dwells in heaven, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Holy Spirit. She is not God; she must never be worshipped as God. But in ancient Israel, it was the mother of the reigning King who was honoured as Queen of the Kingdom, and in the same way, we regard Mary, Mother of Jesus, as Queen of Heaven. Just as Queen Bathsheba of old could appear in the throne room of King Solomon to ask for some favour, so we trust that Mary can, if we choose to invoke her aid, pray for us before the throne of God.

On the Day of Pentecost, Mary was gathered with the Apostles when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Could she, already filled to the uttermost, receive any more of God’s grace? She could, and did, receive with the Apostles the commission to make the teachings of Jesus known unto the ends of the earth. And from Heaven she has continued to do this, appearing as a pregnant princess in Guadalupe, as the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, and as the bearer of the Immaculate Heart in Fatima. She appears not to bring glory to herself, but always to point us towards Jesus. When she bore her son, at the angel’s command, she gave him the name ‘Jesus’, meaning the one who saves us from our sins. At Fatima, she requested us to add to the rosary, that great prayer invoking the intercession of the Mother of God, a petition to her Son, our Divine Saviour: “O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy.”

So on this great feast of the Most Holy Trinity, I invite you to look at the God we worship through the eyes of Mary. For surely Mary wants us to know God as Father. With us, she prays “Our Father”. She invites us to know Jesus as brother, Saviour and Lord. As at Cana, so in our church family, she says, “Do whatever he tells you”. She invites us to know the Holy Spirit. She was filled with Spirit from the Annunciation, and longs for us to know the Spirit’s touch, too. Mother of God, Daughter of the Father, Spouse of the Spirit, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.


* As a physics graduate, of course, I acknowledge that this statement is physically impossible. But here we are dealing with a truth so profound only poetry can even begin to express it adequately!

The Pursuit of Prayer

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A.Stylised image of kneeling person at prayer.

Today’s Gospel separates the HAVES from the HAVE-NOTs.

Some of us here present today have experienced a deep inner sense of God-the-Father’s loving presence.

Some of us here present today have experienced Jesus being so close to us, that we would readily agree from our own experience that He is in us and we are in him.

Some of us here present today have experienced God’s Spirit of Truth dwelling within us, making sense of what we believe.

If we HAVE experienced any of these things, we will struggle to put the experience into words. We know something happened, but what I have just said might feel like a pale echo of this kind of deep experience.

If we HAVEN’T experienced any of these things, everything I’ve just said might sound a bit airy-fairy. But don’t panic! Jesus was pointing to a day in the future when his hearers would experience these things. For the Apostles, that day was the first Christian Pentecost. For the Samaritans who heard the Gospel from Philip, it happened on the day when the apostles Peter and John blessed them. For those of us who haven’t yet experienced it, we still can – on the day when God grants us that gift.

The funny thing is, if we HAVE experienced such things, we probably don’t talk about it. We might have a thought in the back of our minds that there is such a thing as “spiritual pride”. We shouldn’t make ourselves out to be “holier than other people”. If we have sensed God being close to us in prayer, we daren’t say so! What would people think of us?

Relax! Any deep experience we have in prayer is not a reward for our good behaviour, but a gift from God. It is given because God loves us, not because we deserve it. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at shrines like Lourdes and Fatima, Beauraing and Banneux, it was not because the children there were especially good, but because they had the simplicity to pass on her messages honestly.

When I was a student in seminary, we took part in many kinds of discussion groups. Every weekday morning we had classes where we discussed theology and philosophy. Once a week we had “human development” groups where we were encouraged to share our innermost thoughts to help our psychological development – on pain of strictest confidence. We also met in groups to practice giving sermons and to review the pastoral placements we had been on. The one thing we didn’t have a group for, was talking about what was going on in our personal prayer. What a strange omission for men-of-God in training!

Then one of my classmates arranged to run a short, voluntary course, using video material called Knowing God Better – some of you might have seen it locally. The content was very basic stuff for men doing degree-level theology. Yet the course had a wonderful effect! For the first, and only, time in my seminary experience, men from different year groups started sharing together about their own experience of God’s presence. It helped me to understand better how God speaks to different people in different times and at different ways.

I know an American woman called Sara who became a Catholic a few years ago. She spent a year following the RCIA programme in the parish, and a few weeks into the course, she asked the catechists about what they experienced when they prayed. Sara didn’t get much of an answer, so she assumed the catechists were just being modest. A few weeks later, she tried again, but made no progress. By the end of the course she had made a startling realisation – what she was already experiencing in her own prayer time was a much deeper experience than anything tasted by those who were trying to train her in the art of being a Catholic!

When we are beginners in trying to pray, God offers us many “spiritual sweeties”. We are likely to enjoy the experience of praying. But as we become more mature, we will often find that prayer gets harder. God has taken the sweetie-jar away and is now feeding us with our spiritual “five-a-day” – better for us, but less enjoyable. Eventually, in the darkness and dryness, we might get a glimpse of this wonderful nearness-of-God which today’s Gospel points towards. Some people break through to an even deeper kind of prayer, contemplation, where they can easily “spend time with God”. But may people, even saints, will live out the later years of their life in darkness and dryness with only the occasional consoling glimpse of God’s presence. After Blessed Teresa of Calcutta died, and her diaries were read, many people were shocked to learn how for the second half of her life, she experienced the absence of God. Yet this isn’t unusual as part of spiritual growth.

In two weeks’ time it will be Pentecost. There is a longstanding tradition of preparing for Pentecost by keeping a novena – nine days of prayer asking for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo XIII and St John Paul II have affirmed this tradition. There are different kinds of novenas. Some of them pray for the church at large, or use traditional language to pray for the gifts of the Spirit. Today I would like to share a very simple novena which uses everyday language, and which you can use to ask God to draw close to you.

I cannot make any promises about what exactly God will do, or when God will do it. When the Apostle Peter preached to a Roman soldier called Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came into the hearts of everyone in the house even while Peter was still preaching. When Philip the Deacon preached to the Samaritans, their hearts felt hungry for more but the Holy Spirit did not come until Peter and John arrived and blessed them.  Medieval coin with design of dove descending and tongues of fire.It is God who decides when he will change us from being HAVE-NOTS to being HAVES. But I know that Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel that if we human beings know how to give good things to our children, how much more will God send His Holy Spirit to those who ask!