Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Little boxes...and stamps!

The Vatican Post Office has some of the most beautiful stamps that I have ever seen. They really are a stamp collector’s delight…or were until this morning when I wanted to post two letters. I passed the Swiss Guard at St. Anne’s gate, waving my yellow and white ID and receiving a smile and a salute in return. The weather was warm and sunny as I strolled past the Vatican Bank and looked towards the supermarket and the clinic. Straight ahead was the massive arch leading through to the courtyard where those who are entitled (and that includes the Vatican Fire Brigade) park their vehicles around a massive bowl-like fountain….but I was actually heading towards the Post Office.

Putting stamps on two letters should have been easy. Buying them, certainly, was simple. Sticking the stamps on the envelopes was another matter. They didn’t stick. No glue! It can’t have been a new problem because it was all too easy for the man behind the counter to pull out a pot of glue and a brush. Seconds later, the letters went into the sack as the postman emptied the box.

However impressive might be one’s surroundings, there are some things that are a normal part of daily life and don’t change too much, regardless of the setting. Every single one of us wakes up in the morning and faces the day ahead, not knowing what it will bring, but most of us are fairly sure that it will start with soap, water and a brush and/or comb. There’s a certain amount of security in routine, just as much as it can also stifle and suffocate.

Do you remember the song about the little boxes? It could be fixing you in a particular era if you do…. It went,
“Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.”

Isn’t it sometimes rather pleasant to dare to be different? What would be the reaction of others if, instead of dressing normally in the morning, you decided to go to work with your clothes on back-to-front. Would others think you mad or refreshingly different? Does it really matter? It was inconvenient that the stamps wouldn’t stick on the envelopes this morning. They weren’t doing what they were meant to do.

The ‘penny catechism’ used to say that our purpose in life is “to know, love and serve God in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.” …but we are allowed to thoroughly enjoy him in this world too!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A sign of hope

It was a deeply moving and unplanned moment during the Pope’s visit to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Grey clouds and a shower of rain accompanied his arrival at the gates of Birkenau, a sign, it seemed, that even the skies wept as they recalled the sorrow and the suffering undergone by so many hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.

Pope Benedict prayed at the 22 slabs at the International Memorial to those who had died in the prison camps, slabs written in 22 languages. Youngsters brought forward blue glass bowls, each containing a lighted candle, to be placed, one by one, at the foot of each slab.

As the pope prayed, the camera panned the area of the camps, resting briefly on the railway lines that had brought so many goods wagons, filled with those condemned to die. The camera moved, showing the chimney of the crematoria…and there was the miracle. The grey clouds parted to make way for a rainbow. Tragedy made way for hope.

A few minutes later, the prayers in several languages made way for Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor’s beautiful voice soared above the area of the memorial…and there, too, was the unplanned moment with the camera, a moment that was poignant, beautiful and unforgettable, a moment that allowed Kaddish to travel, with the camera, over every hut, crematorium, remnant of death and allowed the dead to rest in peace.

The visit of Pope Benedict to Auschwitz and Birkenau at last brought together in peace German and Pole, Christian and Jew. The rainbow, the sign of God’s hope to humanity, Kaddish and the words of a German Pope made a new beginning, a new unity and understanding. May all those who died rest in peace.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Give me yourself

Give me Yourself, O my God,
give Yourself to me.
Behold I love You,
and if my love is too weak a thing,
grant me to love You more strongly.
I cannot measure my love to know how much
it falls short of being sufficient,
but let my soul hasten to Your embrace
and never be turned away until it is hiddeen
in the secret shelter of Your presence.
This only do I know,
that it is not good for me
when You are not with me,
when You are only outside me.
I want You in my very self.
All the plenty in the world
which is not my God is utter want.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Friday, May 26, 2006

On the wings of song

Two of my colleagues have fabulous voices. The only problem is that there are very few chances to hear them singing. Today, however, as I made myself a cup of tea, one of them walked into the room, singing away to herself and probably oblivious of the fact that others could hear her. Alas, it all came to an end too soon once she sat down at her computer and resumed working. For those few seconds, however, she had given me, at any rate, a good deal of pleasure to hear her beautiful voice. Her contentment radiated out to include me, so that I, too, returned to my computer feeling brighter and happier for having shared those few moments.

I have a feeling that Pope Benedict had a similar feeling this morning as he celebrated Mass in Warsaw. The music was beautiful throughout the Mass, but particularly so at Communion. The television cameras briefly showed him sitting back in his chair with quiet appreciation ‘writ large’ as the congregation sang the ‘Ave Verum’. It was a personal moment, shared by thousands who had braved cold weather and lashing rain in order to be present. In spite of the downpour, people sang.

There is nothing that we experience that cannot be expressed in music, as far as I can see. Music is like poetry: it picks up the mundane and holds it in the light until it sparkles with a unique brilliance, all the richer and more beautiful for its exposure.

It seems to me that we are extremely fortunate in some of life’s simple gifts. Life would be so much poorer without music. Our own voices are a magnificent instrument that we can use at any time. Admittedly some people’s voices are more finely tuned than others, but even the tone deaf are often overheard singing quietly to themselves. As someone once remarked, "Music is God's gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven."

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, May 25, 2006


One of my e-mails this morning made me sad. A spammer was trying to take advantage of a horrendous complication of malnutrition in order to make money.

The e-mail contained sufficient factual material to look authentic, including a photograph of a very small child with its cheek eaten away as the result of one of the results of prolonged lack of the correct foods. The child looks dreadful, but at least the wound is clean, which means it is more fortunate than some of the other children I saw with the same condition whilst I was living and working with desperately poor people in some of the most remote areas of Zambia.

The contents of the e-mail are factual, but the address seems suspicious. The website included in the letter ‘feels’ wrong: no solid information, one or two photos (mostly of healthy children), no authoritative references, references to the WHO without supporting evidence of WHO backing…the list of discrepancies continues. Because I’ve no concrete evidence that this is a hoax, there’s nothing much I can do. I feel sorry for those who will be swayed into signing cheques for the requested $1,000 for the surgery needed by each child apparently amongst the many being cared for by the same organisation.

It’s a sad fact that there are unscrupulous characters around who will prey on the goodwill and generosity of others in order to line their own pockets. All sorts of schemes come to mind: the person who is dying and wants to make a gift to the Church, the exile who wants to dispose of his/her wife’s/husband’s fortune but needs a safe bank account where the money can be temporarily lodged, and so on. Every appeal for help is accompanied by an assurance that any assistance will be repaid with huge sums of money…all provided that the recipient of the request sends his or her bank details so that the transfer of funds might go forward more efficiently. Sound familiar?

Such hoaxers make a complete mess of all the genuine efforts of those who are trying desperately hard to raise awareness and funds for authentic and urgent needs. I spent six years hoarding cardboard boxes for use as coffins by families who couldn’t afford a wooden one, but who wanted to give someone as good a burial as they could manage. There was the head teacher who spent a weekend on the phone trying to find anti-rabies vaccine for his daughter. He failed. There are houses in shanty compounds that are totally devoid of furniture because everything has been sold to buy medicines for someone dying of AIDS. There are thousands of similar examples.

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Flights of the imagination

Multicoloured plastic fish were one of the best Birthday presents I ever received. There was nothing spectacular about them, looking back. They certainly were not expensive. The novelty lay in the thin length of fishing line that stretched from the abdomen of each fish to a small round weight. I borrowed an empty jamjar from my mother, filled it with water and then, following the instructions on the packet, transferred the fish to their new home. The length and positioning of the line ensured that the fish floated upright at exactly the depth they would have occupied had they been real. I was absolutely enthralled. Of course, once in the water, the fish did absolutely nothing, but that didn’t matter. To me, they were as real as could be. I sat staring at the jamjar and its contents for hours.

To a 9 year old with a vivid imagination, expensive presents are unnecessary. Just give a spark to the fire that’s already laid and it will burst into flames. Adventures beyond anybody else’s conceiving are there for the enjoyment. Walt Disney’s most spectacular animations have nothing of the colour, the excitement and the fantastic surroundings and events of a child’s private world. All things are possible: no mountain that can’t be climbed, no sea that can’t be swum, no planet beyond reach.

I’ve long thought that one of the greatest gifts parents can give to their children is the possibility of learning to read and write. Open a book and there is the direct entry to worlds within the minds of others. How many of us have been so absorbed in a good story that we’ve been oblivious to everything else. Minutes and hours have ticked by, but only the clock has seen them. Even food has become irrelevant compared to the last few pages of the book. Brothers, sisters, friends have come and gone, poor seconds to the story that has so totally taken hold of the imagination.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God were to be just as attention-catching as a book? What would happen if he were to take hold of my imagination?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

God of my love

A children’s hymn begins with the words, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild…”, but I have to admit that the children don’t know what it is that they are singing. Neither do some of the artists who try to portray a meek Jesus and instead end up with something sentimental and effeminate.

There is nothing weak about meekness. The meek Jesus was able to stand up to the opposition of the scribes and the Pharisees. He stood before Herod and Pilate. He stretched out his hands and allowed himself to be nailed to the Cross. Meekness means immense strength and courage, not defencelessness and timidity.

“Blessed are those who let God be God…”

What does it mean to let God be God in my life?

For a start, I trust that God knows what is best for me. I learn to follow him in the good times, but also in the bad, knowing that whatever route he leads me will be for my ultimate happiness. It’s so difficult and wearying when I try to do all the planning and to organise everything according to my own ideas. I become trapped inside my own head and within my own surroundings. I can’t escape from my problems or myself. Every day is an endless struggle to put things right.

Life is turned upside down when I let God be God. Suddenly I’m not alone. I become little, but he is great and powerful. He is the strong one who can carry me in my weakness and inadequacy. He can carry me and I won’t fall.

It takes courage, but it’s so much easier to put everything in God’s hands and to trust that he knows best, whatever will happen. Sometimes the way ahead will be obscure and frightening, as frightening as anything can be. There will be sleepless nights. I will sometimes wonder if God really does know what he’s doing because if I were God I would do things differently. But that’s the whole point. I am NOT God. I don’t know best. He does. If I can take a deep breath and trust in him, life is not so frightening. I’m no longer alone.

God of my love, be the God of my life.

God bless,
Sr. Janet Fearns

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hopes and dreams

Vatican Radio has a huge collection of beautiful music, available for the use of the 39 language programmes of the radio station. Early on Saturday morning, I borrowed a CD and sat at the computer to listen to it before embarking on making a programme for broadcasting at a future date.

I’ve grown up with “The Skye Boat Song”, but never until Saturday morning had I ever noticed its utter loneliness and the misery of dashed hopes and dreams that resulted in this piece of music. As its haunting melody filled the office I could see, in my mind’s eye, a young prince arriving in Scotland, full of hopes that he might put his father on the throne of his native land. He failed. A battle-weary warrior later fled to the Isle of Skye, dressed as a female servant in the hopes of escaping his pursuers.

Every single one of us has had the experience of disappointment in life. Sometimes it might have been as small and unspectacular as not finding an expected favourite dish included in the day’s menu. On other occasions, the disappointment can be devastating, turning the world upside down and calling for a complete readjustment of priorities. Imagine what it must be like for parents to discover that their beautiful new baby has an incurable medical condition that will prevent it having a normal life. Imagine the effect on a new bride who hears that her husband has just been killed in a road accident. There are the hopes of a youngster for a particular career, whose exam results make it an impossible dream. There’s the family whose home is destroyed in a bush fire… There is no end to the real-life examples we can give of people who have suddenly lost absolutely everything for which they had hoped and dreamed, everything that gave them purpose and made life meaningful.

Fortunately, for most of us, life is not normally cataclysmic, but let’s spare a prayer for those whose hopes and dreams are torn apart, that God will be with them.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Marian Prayer of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta

Give us a heart as beautiful, pure, and spotless as yours.
A heart like yours, so full of love and humility.
May we be able to receive Jesus as the Bread of Life,
to love Him as you loved Him,
to serve Him under the mistreated face of the poor.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Blessed are the gentle

Lazaro was one of our staff in Zambia, an ex-soldier who had no idea of his own strength. He was immensely friendly, willing and eager to do whatever he could to help. The only trouble was that because he was so strong, he broke almost everything he handled. In theory, Lazaro, with his abundant self-confidence, could repair anything, could do anything, could achieve anything. In practice, the bill for his breakages was big and growing bigger. With the best will in the world, he had an amazing ability to break things…until the day I saw him with his 12 year-old daughter, who was suffering from malaria. He was sitting on an upturned bucket, holding her in his arms…and she might have been made of the most fragile of cut glass. Never did I imagine that my good friend Lazaro could be so tender and gentle. It was beautiful to see.

…and that reminds me of an old story about an argument between the sun and the wind as to who was the stronger of the two. In the end, they agreed that whoever could encourage a passer-by to remove his jacket would be the stronger.

First the wind blew as a gentle breeze. The man ignored him, so the wind blew more strongly. He pulled his hat more firmly on his head and continued walking. The wind blew stronger and stronger. The man buttoned up his jacket, wrapped his arms around his body and bent his head into the wind. He refused to remove his jacket.

Then the sun took its turn. He shone very gently. The man relaxed his tensed-up walk. The sun shone more strongly. The man unbuttoned his jacket. Within a few minutes, the man was smiling. He removed his jacket, slung it over his shoulders and carried on his way, whistling and looking happy.

“Blessed are the gentle…” Gentleness is far more powerful than brute force. How many times have I turned away from a bully but turned towards someone who has been gentle?

God bless,

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Digging up the past

Yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, so, walking home through the Forum, it was a wonderful opportunity to watch some archaeologists at work. With small trowels and soft brushes, some young women crouched uncomfortably, gradually unearthing stones and fragments of pottery from around the base of one of the temples, placing them, one by one, in small trays at their sides. Nearby two archaeologists twisted and turned a piece of Roman marble pavement, trying to fit it into the jigsaw of fractured segments that had already been put back together after hundreds of years underground. Elsewhere, another young woman stood over a bowl of muddy water, scrubbing earlier discoveries clean with a nailbrush.

Rome’s archaeologists have done a wonderful work of restoring the remains of the city’s past, but as was only too obvious yesterday, it is often in uncomfortable conditions and demanding a considerable expenditure of time and energy.

Last night’s television showed more archaeologists at work, this time on Salisbury Plain in England, where they were uncovering two Iron Age forts and a Roman villa. Within the single hour devoted to the programme, it all looked so simple, relatively clean and really quite straightforward. Yet there had to be the same meticulous attention to detail shown by their colleagues in the Forum yesterday.

Recreating the past is something that can bring great joy. It can also bring great pain. It’s all a question of what I want to remember and what I’d like to forget. A senior member of my own Congregation used to say that a bad memory is not one that can’t remember, but is, rather, one that can’t forget. It’s all too easy to think about past hurts, failures and misfortunes, but unless I deal with them appropriately, they will hang around and ultimately lead to bitterness and self-destruction. It’s all too easy to think of those who have hurt me and to devise ways in which I might give back the same degree of hurt in full measure….but who is really injured in the process? Only me as my mind twists and turns in nasty little pathways whilst my opponents might be completely oblivious of the pain they have given, absolutely ignorant of the wound that I carry festering inside me. Isn’t it much better to simply let go of the hurt, however difficult the process might be, and to start a new life, unfettered, free and counting my blessings?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mass practice

The chapel door was firmly closed and fastened…from the inside??? ... A piece of paper, stuck on at an angle, bore two words: ‘Mass Practice’. Shortly afterwards, one of the students emerged, looking exhausted. “I didn’t know that Mass could be so tiring!”…but then as far as he is concerned, he’s on countdown. Within a very few weeks he will no longer be a deacon, but a priest. Being present for Mass is a very different matter from learning to preside at it!
Last week thirty-three members of the Beda Association visited the college, all of them former students, some of whom were ordained to the priesthood only last summer. It was a real thrill to see them concelebrating at Mass, rather than merely participating as deacons.
Living in a seminary can be an interesting experience. My Congregation has had a convent inside the Beda for more than forty years and so the Sisters have seen many changes in that time. Once created as the seminary for late vocations to the priesthood for England and Wales, the students now range from across the world, wherever English is spoken. Just at the present time there are representatives, not only of England and Wales, but also of Ireland, Gibraltar, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, India, Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, the Philippines, Canada, Russia and Iran, but over the years there have also been other nationalities. It’s interesting to see the way in which each student adapts to a multi-cultural environment, living within Rome, frequently having to eat the food of unfamiliar countries, perhaps studying for the first time for many years and yet with the same question, “Is the priesthood the direction in which God is calling me?” Sometimes the answer is no.
Yet, for those who are on the path to the priesthood, this time of year is busy, full and, perhaps, anxious. There are exams in a range of subjects, but also, something most people don’t realise, is that the deacons have their ‘faculty exam’, an essential before they will be allowed, as priests, to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Within a few weeks, seminaries across the world will be giving birth to a new generation of priests. Students will suddenly find themselves responsible for the pastoral care of many people of all different shapes, sizes, interests, backgrounds, talents and cares. Let’s pray for them.
God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dreams come true

When most teenagers decorated their bedroom walls with pictures of pop singers, film stars and footballing celebrities (usually Everton and Liverpool players!), my own pin-ups were photos of the archaeological sites and splendours of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. I read every book in the local library and sent applications to other libraries to borrow more. Tudor history filled every moment that was not already crammed with the ancient world. Then, when I discovered the ‘real’ Richard III rather than the parody portrayed in Shakespeare’s play (my only bone of contention with Shakespeare and St. Thomas More), I could defend the last of the Plantagenet kings with the best of them. I still remember my whoop of delight when a court in the 1980s exonerated Richard of the responsibility for the murders of the two princes held in the Tower of London. I cannot forget my first experience of entering the hallowed halls of the British Museum with the awe and reverence normally due to a church. Even today, I look at the Tower of London and consider it ‘mine’!

This morning, as I walked alongside the River Tiber on my way to work, looking at the magnificence of the Castel Sant’Angelo and musing on its history over the centuries, it occurred to me that, never in my wildest dreams would I have dared imagine that, one day, I’d be in the middle of Rome. To stroll along the banks of the Tiber, to wander around the Forum on my way home “just because I felt like it”, to debate whether or not I have the time for the 20 minute trip to Ostia Antica (which I’ve visited at least eight times), is nothing short of a dream come true.

There’s no harm in having a dream or two…or three…or four. They are a sign of hope for the future, of joy that can unfold, of interest that can inspire and of excitement that can change mere existence into living life to the full. To have a dream is a gift from God in itself, a sign that there is a possibility beyond the immediate needs and situations of daily life. To have a dream come true is also a gift from the same loving God, a cause for thanksgiving and a song in the heart.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, May 15, 2006

Past, Present and to Come

Most people living in Britain know the name of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Many have an image of an iconic figure, fighting for Scotland against the English, and eventually failing in his struggle. Many will know the name of Flora MacDonald, an equally romantic figure, deeply embedded in 17th century history, dressing her prince as her maid in her effort to help him to reach safety.

Fewer will know that the building that is currently the Pontifical Biblical Institute, (Biblicum), here in Rome, was previously the home of the Stuart family.

Although some sources claim that the adjoining building, known as the Balestra, was the main living quarters of the palazzo, and therefore the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie was both born and where he died, it seems to me that the 'feel' of the place is wrong. The windows are too small and suggest servants’ quarters rather than royalty. What is clear is that both Bonnie Prince Charlie and his brother were baptized in the adjacent church of the Twelve Apostles, the church that houses the tomb of the Apostles Philip and James.

The building that is now the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and is in the care of the Jesuits, has an impressive doorway, is underneath what was a terrace overlooking the piazza which had direct access from the ballroom, and a main staircase. A gallery leading from this area has beautiful original frescoes showing rural scenes and typical of the Jacobean period, if not slightly pre-dating it. Windows from that same gallery overlook a magnificent courtyard of an ideal size for carriage access and as a 'grand entrance'. The ceilings are ornately carved and decorated in a fashion typical of the period. It is easy to imagine beautiful carriages and splendid period costumes on the people driven to the huge wooden doors… and so the story continues.

History is a strange thing. We are all a part of it. Our today will be the past of those who follow on after us, will help future generations to make sense of their own present. We look back and wonder what it was like to live in magnificent surroundings, whether as royalty or as servants, and yet can forget that there was no central heating in cold weather, no air conditioning or fans in the heat. There must have been times when candle glow was frustrating rather than romantic, when flicking a switch to make a cup of tea would have been so much easier than lighting a fire.

When Flora MacDonald lent her maid’s clothes to Bonnie Prince Charlie, they must both have been frightened. It all sounds easy and tidy with the hindsight of a couple of hundred years, but a grisly execution would have awaited both of them had they been caught. Probably, going back even further in time, when they were executed, Sts. Philip and James had no clue that their names would be in any way associated with a Scottish prince and were also afraid for their own lives and safety.

All of us, past, present and to come, know fear. To be afraid is not cowardice. Fearlessness is not bravery. Courage means doing what is right in spite of being afraid.

Lord, give me the wisdom to see the truth and the courage to put it into practice, at whatever the cost. Help me to make sense of my present and to create a good future for those who will come after me.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Prayer of St. Benedict

Father, in Your goodness grant me the intellect to comprehend You, the perception to discern You, and the reason to appreciate You. In Your kindness endow me with the diligence to look for You, the wisdom to discover You, and the spirit to apprehend You. In Your graciousness bestow on me a heart to contemplate You, ears to hear You, eyes to see You, and a tongue to speak of You. In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end,Your holy presence.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Let me know you and love you

My God, let me know and love you,
so that I may find my happiness in you.
Since I cannot fully achieve this on earth,
help me to improve daily
until I may do so to the full.
Enable me to know you ever more on earth,
so that I may know you perfectly in heaven.
Enable me to love you ever more on earth,
so that I may love you perfectly in heaven.
In that way my joy may be great on earth,
and perfect with you in heaven.

O God of truth,
grant me the happiness of heaven
so that my joy may be full in accord with your promise.
In the meantime let my mind dwell on that happiness,
my tongue speak of it,
my heart pine for it,
my mouth pronounce it,
my soul hunger for it,
my flesh thirst for it,
and my entire being desire it
until I enter through death
in the joy of my Lord forever.

St. Augustine

Friday, May 12, 2006

Homes, not houses

I stood beside an advertisement for furniture as I waited for the train this morning. The picture showed some very attractive settings for kitchens and bedrooms, boasting that the company’s strength is its low pricing.

The kitchens displayed in the poster were immaculate. Every part of every surface of the cooker, microwave, dishwasher and cooking utensils gleamed spotless and undented. Unblemished cupboards, newly-painted and pleasing to the eye, flanked equally pristine working surfaces. There was not an item out of place: the food mixer must have been positioned using a ruler. The uniformly white cutting boards were unscratched and symmetrically positioned on the working surface, obviously for the expert cook.

Looking at the bedroom furniture, items were strategically placed to maximise space. Delicate bedside lamps bent gracefully ‘just so’. Bedsheets showed the perfect creases of the newly-unwrapped-from-the-packet. Perfectly-fastened wardrobes and cupboards proved that the householder believed in absolute tidiness and order…

…and the posters gave the impression of vacant houses, where people might exist, but in which nobody actually lives. No dumped mugs or magazines. No scuffed doors where small children came into collision with hard wooden surfaces. No evidence of meals shared, of work accomplished, of ventures started. No sign of ‘family’.

The posters were beautiful…and sterile.

Many years ago, I escorted a wealthy Arab couple who were interested in the possibility of buying the millionaire’s house near the convent. The millionaire was away at the time, so the gardener acted as tour guide. Showing us around the garden, equipped with pinewood sauna and teardrop-shaped swimming pool, he stopped at the rose garden, which had been planted within the two or three days before the owner brought his wife to see their new residence. “Do you know which is the best rose bush here?” he asked, extending his hand towards the exquisite £2,000 worth of perfectly pruned roses. “That one”, he indicated, “And do you know how much it cost? It was free with four gallons of petrol!”

Tidiness is a very valuable aspect of life, but there is something about the actual process of living that is not tidy and does not go according to plan. Anybody with small children has to cope with crumbs on the new carpet, shoes anywhere but on the feet of their owner, piles of dirty washing waiting for attention and plates of leftover food in the fridge. Bedroom cupboards are valuable dumping grounds for all sorts of items waiting to be put away ‘when there is time’. The parents of small children have to cope with the unexpected shock of little ones trying their best to be good, but rather unconventionally so. (One of my sisters found her 3 year old ‘helping Mummy’ by cleaning the bathroom with my sister’s toothbrush!)

Living is not tidy and compartmentalised. If it were, it would be boringly predictable, utterly sterile and with no opportunity for personal growth, for appreciation of others, for fun, or for relaxation. Ask any mother if she really needs to put in pride of place the wilted weed she’s just been presented by her toddler. She will ensure that it goes exactly where she and the little one can see and enjoy it, even if it’s the most public place in the home. Most fathers will be oblivious of the mess (or more oblivious than usual!!!) as they help a child to fix a broken toy.

God doesn’t expect us to do everything right all the time. He’s a father. He knows that our days are sometimes a bit messy in spite of our best efforts…but then, he has made this world, not a house, but a home.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Flowers and Nightingales

There are eight different types of flower in the arrangement in front of the Vatican Radio altar at this present moment. I can’t name them all, but they include white lilies and gypsophylla, purple orchids and other flowers in white and pink. They really do look lovely. There’s something so complete in the one display that if only one bloom were to be removed, the whole display would be spoiled. Whoever arranged the flowers was considerably more expert than I am, able to imagine wonders, but unable to execute them.

In the chapel with me, there were Italians, a Korean, a Spaniard and two Indians. I am English. We still only accounted for five of the sixty nationalities represented amongst the staff of Vatican Radio. During the course of a single year, perhaps at least one person of almost every one of the world’s nationalities must come through the doors of the building. Considering many of these will speak one or more local languages in addition to whatever might be the country’s official tongue, then there is a massive range of possible communication within just the one building. Sometimes the one word will have the same meaning in different languages. ‘Mutakatifu’, for instance, means ‘holy’ in both Swahili and Cibemba so that there is an unexpected unity in diversity. It really is pretty amazing.

Yesterday evening I had the privilege of taking part in a Mass at the Pontifical Beda College, where I live, where seventeen first year students were admitted to the Ministry of Lector, as part of their journey towards the priesthood. All five Continents were present amongst the students, staff and former students of the seminary. The Mass itself was celebrated in eight languages, including Cantonese, Konkani and Tagalog. It wasn’t a clutter. It was beautiful. It was a celebration of life, culture, language and the utter goodness of a loving God who gives such variety to our world.

People are like flowers, each one beautiful and irreplaceable. The world would be a poorer place without its wealth of languages, cultures and traditions. Imagine what it would be like if there were no traditional dress: if Japan had no kimono, Indians no sari, Scots no kilt, and so on. Discrimination because of skin colour, language, nationality or culture is as pointless as deciding that one flower has more value than another simply because a snowdrop cannot live in Africa or a mango doesn’t grow in England. Nobody is more or less important than anybody else: we are only different, and differences are wonderful.

As the saying goes, “If every bird in the wood were a nightingale, even a crow would sound beautiful.” Another version says, “If every bird in the wood were a nightingale, we’d soon tire of nightingales!”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

All I need to do is to love

Damian of Molokai died of leprosy on April 15th 1889, having spent sixteen years working on the island of Molokai, off the coast of Hawaii, four of those years watching the disease spread in his own body. In those days, leprosy was incurable and virtually untreatable, a terrible disease that was so dreaded that even the Church could only perform a requiem for someone who was still living, before sending the patient to live in solitude and isolation for the rest of his or her life.

Francis of Assisi claimed that his own conversion dated back to the time when he found the courage to dismount from his horse as he rode towards Assisi and to kiss the sores of the beggar at the roadside. The man covered his mouth and rang a bell, calling out “Unclean! Unclean!” Had he not done so, he could have been stoned to death for violating the very strict law of the time. For all his stomach-churning fear, Francis approached the man and kissed his sores. As he continued his journey, Francis glanced backwards and found that the man had disappeared.

To the end of his days, Francis spoke of having met Christ on that road to Assisi. He wrote in his Testament,
“This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to m e was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.”

It is difficult to spend a long period of time in Africa without seeing people with leprosy. The first ones I met were in Nigeria in 1978. Treatment was not readily available and, in those days, few could avail themselves of the opportunity, especially if they were poor and lived in remote areas. Nowadays, thanks to medical advances, the disease is readily diagnosed and the drugs are free of charge. There is no need for isolation. Leprosy patients can live at home, in the local community, carrying out their normal occupations.

Yet leprosy still carries a stigma. Much of the world associates the disease with horrendous disfigurement and, indeed, the hard, dry skin, missing fingers, toes, nose, lips and eyelids are still seen in those who are described as ‘burnt out’, in whom the disease is no longer infectious. Yet there are fewer and fewer who have had their lives so changed.

To be honest, my memories of people with leprosy are of great courage, ready smiles and some anxiety lest their outreached hands are scorned, not shaken in greeting. There is huge ingenuity as crippled hands and feet manage daily tasks the rest of the world takes for granted.

I often wonder what it was like in days gone by, for a leprosy patient to tell people to keep at a distance when, probably, in their loneliness and isolation, those same individuals must have longed for some human touch and comfort.

Yet, if I’m honest, although there is nobody in my immediate vicinity who has leprosy, nowadays known as Hansen’s Disease, it is all too easy to treat someone as though he or she were to be held at a distance. I can bar someone from love and communication, make them unable to share my joys and sorrows. I can be unwilling to bear some of that person’s burdens, to give comfort and hope instead of isolation and despair.

Could I become a Francis of Assisi or a Damian of Molokai? All I need to do is to become a loving person.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

He Knows What He is About

We all have times in life when everything seems hectic and there are too many things to do in too short a time. One job piles on top of another and there doesn’t seem to be too much breathing space. There can be those panic-stricken moments when I think that there is only one of me, not fifty million, and that I have only two hands, not several, one brain, not many, and only 24 hours in one day, not infinity.

Today was to be “one of those days”… and then God sent along two beautiful male mallard ducks that perched on the wall alongside the Tiber. Outlined against the black sky of the impending downpour, their shining dark green heads looked beautiful. It occurred to me that, even at the busiest moments, God sends along a moment of light relief. Then, tagged along at the end of an e-mail, was the following famous reflection, written by Cardinal Newman (1801-1890). Whatever is happening, God is there if only I open my eyes.

He Knows What He is About
God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.
I have my mission.
I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught.
I shall do good, I shall do His work;
I shall be an angel of peace,
a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it,
if I do but keep His commandments
and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore, I will trust Him.
Whatever, wherever I am,
I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him;
in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him.
He does nothing in vain.
He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends.
He may throw me among strangers.
He may make me feel desolate,make my spirits sink,
hide my future from me--still He knows what He is about.

God bless,
Sr. Janet