Yesterday was a very long day and last night correspondingly short. It’s 05.30 as I start to write this. Yet, the busy-ness has been worth it! Yesterday evening there was the pleasure of seeing the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch together, enjoying each other’s company and trying to outdo each other in friendliness and respect. It was a beautiful historical moment.
Because I do so many commentaries for papal ceremonies, it’s not surprising that I’ve become very familiar with Pope Benedict’s facial expressions. It was, therefore, easy to see that when he arrived at the Patriarchate, he was very, very tired… and who could blame him? He’s not only had a packed schedule: it’s also been critically important and therefore a strain in itself.
The Pope and the Patriarch were to pray together, according to the official timetable, but it was more than that. The Pope is himself a patristic scholar and so it was obvious from the start that he was comfortable in surroundings which, to the vast majority of Catholics, were unfamiliar.
We were fortunate insofar as the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches have been so concerned that this meeting, described as ‘supremely important’, should be successful, that the Orthodox Church has sent six of its top people to help us with the commentaries. For the English commentary, we’ve been privileged to work with Rev. Dr. John Chrissangvis, the Advisor on the Environment to the Ecumenical Patriarch. It’s been fascinating. He’s been describing the setting, symbolism, music and events in a way that we, as Catholics, could never have done: the Orthodox Church is his life just as much as the Catholic Church is ours.
As last night’s prayer service began, it was interesting to see the change in the Pope. Two of the hymns had been especially written for the occasion by the monks at Mount Athos, but one of them was in honour of St. Benedict. It was lovely to see the genuine appreciation of this hymn by the Holy Father, who could, of course, understand what he was hearing. There was the combined appreciation of the theologian and the musician and so he forgot his tiredness. The familiar little discreet smile of enjoyment of moments when he can’t just grin was lovely to see.
What struck me about the whole of the proceedings was the equality between the Pope and the Patriarch. They walked in together, recognised each other’s equal authority and were perfectly comfortable and unostentatious in their regard for each other. The papal entourage and that of the Patriarch were just as much at home with each other, as was obvious the moment that the service finished and they had a few moments to come together and chat. There was laughter and ease: people who know where they are going and are serious about wanting East and West to come back together again. In fact one beautiful little touch to the occasion was that the cardinals and bishops had been positioned on the Patriarch’s side of the altar, whilst the members of the Holy Synod were on the right-hand side of the Pope.
We were simply conscious that we were watching history unfold. A commentary is not the easiest of things to do because there are so many things to be done at once: watching the ceremonies, do the commentary, explain everything for a vast international audience on both radio and television (which need very different approaches) and keep control of the huge assortment of bits of paper… yet there was a real sense of privilege, of “it is good for us to be here”. East and West can come back together and with Pope Benedict and Patriarch Bartholomew, we’re a lot closer to that moment of joy.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Yesterday was a very long day and last night correspondingly short. It’s 05.30 as I start to write this. Yet, the busy-ness has been worth it! Yesterday evening there was the pleasure of seeing the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch together, enjoying each other’s company and trying to outdo each other in friendliness and respect. It was a beautiful historical moment.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What can I say? This evening’s messages from the Pope were excellent and seemed to strike all the right chords. He really tried to reach out to everybody and although it was easy to see that he was tired after a long day…which we shared… his smile was as warm and genuine as ever. How does he manage it? When the rest of us are ready to drop, he somehow manages to keep on going…and does so with a smile. He’s an incredible person. Yes, he must have been apprehensive about how the day would go. That would be normal… but he still smiles and is courteous. It’s a privilege to be associated with him even at a distance. We do the commentaries and wish we had a little longer so that we could think about what he is saying. We read his words and think that we are watching a brave man who is unafraid to speak out at moments when a voice…even a lone voice… needs to be heard speaking of peace and understanding. In a world that is often concerned with the politically correct, he says what is, perhaps, politically incorrect, because he speaks of the Gospel “in season and out of season”.
Congratulations, too, to Lebanon’s Ambassador to Turkey, for saying so much in such a short time. May we all work for justice, peace and reconciliation. May we all see that, above all that earthly governments might plan, is a loving God, who sees all and directs all things according to his own law of love.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:33 pm
Monday, November 27, 2006
As I write this, it’s late at night and, as with many of my colleagues at Vatican Radio and many others “up the road”, life at the moment feels as though it has one main focus: the Pope’s trip to Turkey tomorrow.
The amount of preparation for a papal visit is amazing, and I’m just speaking on the part of Vatican Radio. There are so many little details to be considered, whether it is those who will accompany the Holy Father and send their reports back to us, or those who will stay behind in order to literally “keep the show on the road”.
There seem to be non-stop meetings in various parts of the building and even just in the office which I share with four others, there is a great deal of comparing notes. Linda will have the programme on Friday and so, as well as the latest report on the day, wants to look at Catholic-Orthodox liturgy. My programme will be on Wednesday, the day that the Pope goes to Ephesus, so my interest includes a look at the reason why Ephesus has been so important to the whole history of Christianity and ecumenism. Veronica is preparing a feature about the previous papal visits to Ephesus. Carol keeps control of all the bits of paper we and the rest of the English Programme are generating as the hours tick by.
Tomorrow’s schedule for me is already prioritised. At the end of the day, the Pope will be addressing the Diplomatic Corps in Ankara, so there is the background material to prepare for the radio and television commentary I’ll be doing. It’s to go out across the world via satellite, Internet and ISDN, so that in itself calls for an extra dimension of care if the commentary is to be equally relevant for every Continent, whether the audience is following events by radio or television. In preparation, “someone” has produced a little booklet, with every event for the whole week timed down to the last minute, with a good deal of background information (all in Italian!) and all the readings for each of the religious ceremonies that will take place.
As I commented to someone earlier on this evening, because Vatican Radio has so much involvement with all that the Pope does, it’s amazing just how personal it all becomes. It’s so important for all of us that every single detail of his visit to Turkey, as with any other event, takes place as perfectly and as meaningfully as possible.
No doubt we’ll hear the Holy Father set off for the airport tomorrow. I haven’t a clue whether he’ll be travelling by car or by helicopter, but in true Italian fashion, there will be the maximum amount of sound accompanying the short trip. Bon voyage! Come back safe and sound on Friday. May God be with you, bless you and keep you during the next few days and may you touch many hearts. Our prayers go with you.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:23 pm
Sunday, November 26, 2006
When I was working as a midwife, I could guarantee that the best way of starting off a day well would be when I could help a new baby be born safely into the world. Sometimes I would have been up for several hours before the birth actually took place. Sometimes it might have been a very difficult delivery. However, I truly believe that the most beautiful sound in the world is when a baby cries for the first time.
There were a number of occasions when a new baby did not breathe as soon as it was born. Sometimes it was hard work trying to encourage the infant to take its first breath. There was always a special moment when tiny lungs began to fill with air for the first time and a tiny chest began to move. Until then, everybody would be waiting anxiously. Often the mother would be lying watching and waiting to see if her baby would live. Then there was that special moment, that very special moment, when suddenly the silence of waiting was over and there was a cry, weak at first and then becoming stronger and stronger. The louder the baby cried, the happier the smiles of the mother and the midwives.
For me, as I left the labour ward and went in search of a well-earned cup of tea, it always seemed that the birds would be singing loudly and celebrating the safe arrival of a new baby. It was always as if the sun was shining more brightly and the world was celebrating the new life. It was as if the whole world were shouting out its welcome. For me, I always felt like dancing.
I believe that the safe birth of a baby is always a cause for rejoicing. A baby is a gift from God to its parents. A baby is an invitation from God to a husband and wife, asking them to share in his sacred work of Creation. God is love. He created the world and everything in and on the world as a sign of his love. Every baby, therefore, should be created out of the love of a husband and wife for each other. Every baby should be born into a family where it will find love, acceptance and understanding.
Some years ago I was talking to a young woman who had many serious problems in her life. She was finding it very difficult to cope and was severely depressed. As I listened to her, I discovered that her mother had tried to abort the girl, but had not succeeded. Knowing this had made such a serious impact in the girl’s life that she had never been able to find peace or happiness. Always in the back of her mind was the knowledge that her mother had tried to kill her before she was born.
God did not intend that anyone should be in this position. God created our world and welcomed us into his Creation. He made the world with us in mind. That is why Jesus instructed us to knock at the door of his heart because it would always be open to receive us. He told us to look for him and we would always find him. Every moment of every day, God is welcoming us into his world. He is inviting us to listen to him, to trust him and to love him.
Lord, you are my Creator and my God. You are so great and I am so small, and yet you love me. You created your world for my benefit. Every tree, flower, blade of grass, animal and bird was created for me to love and enjoy. Help me, Lord, to respect and love your world. Help me to treat it with the same tenderness that you show to me. Help me to preserve your world’s loveliness for those who will live after me. Thank you, Lord, for welcoming me to your world. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:24 pm
Friday, November 24, 2006
“The Devil attacks parents through their children.” Somebody made this comment recently and, whereas I agreed with it at the time, I’ve done some more thinking since then.
It seems to me that those people who are good, loving, individuals are, in a very real sense, more finely tuned than those who are not. Of course, the politically correct will not agree with me on this one and will point out those who do evil as being programmed because of something that happened to them whilst eating their Cornflakes or polishing their shoes…that might or might not be correct. It seems to me, however, that people who are good are tuned towards goodness and towards loving and being loved, towards sensitivity, empathy, kindness, generosity and self-sacrifice. That is why, when bad things happen to good people, it comes as a bombshell and often they are unsure how to cope. Being kind, they are unprepared for cruelty. Committed to relieving pain, they are unable to stand by and watch suffering that is inflicted for no reason. Loving, they do not understand absence of love.
It seems to me that, in order to be a good parent, extraordinary heroism is required. Children bring joy, but also suffering. There are the long nights when a little one’s cough keeps Mum and Dad awake, wondering if it’s more serious than a cold. There are the squabbles at school that cause little Johnny or Jane to come home tearful and complaining that he or she is “never going to go back to that horrible place”… sound familiar?
Throughout history, parents have been made to suffer by being forced to watch their children suffer gratuitous violence…and people across the world shudder in horror because the perpetrators are doing something that is so unnatural, so contrary to all that is loving, so contrary to everything that humanity instinctively regards as sacred.
That is why, it seems to me, that when the Devil acts, he does so by attacking good people through their greatest point of vulnerability: their ability to love. That is where he can do the greatest amount of damage and inflict the greatest amount of pain.
Yet, he also fails in his determination to destroy. No matter how hard he tries, someone has been there before. Good people might feel that their hearts are being broken, but, through faith, they are being broken open. Even the worst of all possible scenarios can be turned to something good.
I look at the Cross. Mary must have seen her innocent son and thought of him as a helpless tiny baby, when she could protect him and defend him with her life. Yet, on Calvary, she could do nothing except be there. Her heart must have been breaking. It couldn’t have been otherwise. To hear Jesus complaining of thirst must have nearly torn her apart. To be given John as her son instead of the Jesus whom she wanted was a poor second. However deep our pain and suffering might be, Mary has already been there.
In spite of the resurrection, the life of Mary was changed forever. Nothing could ever eliminate all that she had seen and experienced. The sword that pierced her heart couldn’t have struck more deeply. Yet, look at what happened. She became, for billions of people afterwards, their role model and support, the one to whom they could turn when they needed a shoulder on which to shed their tears or a hug of encouragement and love.
The Devil might attack parents through their children, but he doesn’t have to succeed in destroying them. However painful it might be, they are being given an opportunity to become parents, not only to their own children, but to other people’s who are in need of their love and understanding. God is able to turn even the deepest agony into an opportunity for even greater feats of love. To make sure of that, he’s even given his own mother to make sure that we are not alone and unsupported. That is why Jesus, on the Cross, gave us Mary. He knew we’d need her when our hearts are breaking…
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:12 am
Thursday, November 23, 2006
There was an interesting seasonal discussion at Vatican Radio yesterday morning. Workmen have begun to construct the scaffolding for the massive Crib that will soon appear in St. Peter’s Square. This year it is to be sponsored by Bavaria, so I’m really looking forward to seeing the results, which will only be made visible on Christmas Eve. (Mind you, a good number of people will try peeping through the canvas screen surrounding the construction, and tiny peepholes will gradually grow and the security guards will be increasingly attempting to keep tourists and other curious people away from the work in hand.)
The discussion at our daily editorial meeting concerned whether or not we should speak of a Crib, a Crèche or a nativity scene. As one of my English colleagues pointed out, a crèche is somewhere “to dump your kids before continuing to work”. An American colleague pointed out that in the States, ‘crib’ doesn’t have the same meaning as in Britain…so we sort-of settled for a universal ‘Nativity scene’ whilst recognising that we’ll probably use our own terminology anyway.
It seems to me that it was a far more sensible discussion than some of the silly debates over whether or not Christmas should be re-named as the Winter Holidays or Winterval, to use two of the expressions being bandied about. For some crazy reason, there are some politically correct individuals who think that whereas Christians happily exist with others as they celebrate Hanukah, Id, or any of the other non-Christian festivals, Muslims and Jews are going to be offended by Christians celebrating their own feasts. Surely, if they were to use a bit of commonsense, they would see that there is a very pragmatic recognition of religious differences and perhaps a sense of ‘letting them get on with it’.
Last night four of our students at the Beda were recognised as Candidates for the priesthood, and will therefore be ordained Deacons in June next year. At the celebrations, both for the Mass and the ensuing meal, there were people from England, Ireland, America, Canada, India, Bangladesh, Korea, Singapore, Macao, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Iran, Russia, France, Italy and some whom I didn’t meet and whose nationality I couldn’t identify at a distance. Amongst that crowd, as well as the Catholics, there were, as far as I could identify, Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East and Methodist Christians.
Doesn’t that say something about the nature of God? Doesn’t he transcend differences of culture, language, nationality and religion? Aren’t we, at the deepest level, united if we turn towards him?
Posted by Sr. Janet at 5:02 am
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The other day, as I listened to a programme on the radio, there was an interesting remark made by its presenter. She is, apparently, a well-known theologian, although I’d never heard of her. As she talked, she made the point that, although the mother makes the child in her womb, in a very real sense, it is the mother who is made by the child.
I had to stop and think about that. “The mother is made by the child”. It sounds a complete contradiction of ideas. Then I realised that a woman only becomes a mother when she has a child. It is true, therefore, that her child makes a mother. Mary only became a mother because of her son, Jesus.
I often stop to think what Mary must have been like. We know she lived in a small, insignificant town in Galilee. People in Jerusalem despised Galileans. They had a strong accent. They lived in an area where they met many foreign traders. Many people were uneducated.
Mary was a village girl. She was probably unable to read or write. She lived an ordinary village life, so she knew all about the problems of fetching water from the well, looking for firewood for cooking and all the other daily concerns of village life.
Just as in any village anywhere in the world, the people of Nazareth knew everybody else’s business. They knew Mary was engaged to a carpenter by the name of Joseph. They knew that Mary was pregnant before she was actually married to him. They probably gossiped about Mary and Joseph without knowing the real story about the visit from the angel.
Mary probably heard some of the whispering as she went to the well. She probably wished she could put the record straight and tell everyone her wonderful secret: that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God. However, if she had told the people of Nazareth the truth, would they have believed her? If Joseph had let them know that an angel had also appeared to him, encouraging him to marry Mary, would his neighbours have believed him?
Very often we believe what we imagine we see without taking the trouble to find out if that is the full story. How often have we believed the gossip someone has whispered to us? How often has the gossip seemed more interesting than the truth?
In the case of Mary and Joseph, the truth was far more interesting than the gossip. There are many young women in the world who become pregnant before they are married. There has only ever been one who was pregnant with the Son of God. There have been many young men who have wondered whether or not they should marry a woman who has been found to be pregnant with someone else’s child. There has only been one man who was asked to marry the Mother of God and to become the foster-father of the Son of God.
Today let us pray for all those who are the victims of gossip, who are not believed when they tell the truth to their families and neighbours. We pray that they might have the courage and strength of Mary and Joseph. We pray for all mothers, especially those who, this Christmas, will be expecting their first baby. Grant them, Lord, a safe birth. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:31 pm
Monday, November 20, 2006
Saturday morning held an unexpected treat.
I went across to St. Paul’s basilica on my way to the market, only to find that there was unusual activity around the area of the ‘confessio’, or sunken area that encloses the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles. There has been a collapsible wooden screen propped up in strategic places for the past couple of months, plus some unexplained planking in front of the altar.
When I approached the tomb in order to pray for a few minutes, I discovered that the screen had been removed and so had the planks. There was a woman in a red overall, carrying a bucket of hot water so that she might begin to clean the very dirty marble floor. (Isn’t it intriguing the way in which workmen never clean up after themselves?) Turning towards the altar so that I could pray, I discovered that there is no longer any marble there! Instead, a large sheet of very heavy plate glass gives an uninterrupted view down to the actual tomb itself!
Okay, in one sense, the view is not very exciting, but it wasn’t meant to be. St. Paul was buried in the same cemetery as uncounted numbers of his contemporaries, predecessors and successors.
The wall of any grave is not meant to be special or exciting. What makes it precious is its connection with the person inside. Even a brick wall can be a focus for reverence, for prayer and for love. We visit graves probably long after there are either any or many remains of the one who was buried there. That doesn’t matter. They are sacred by association. That is why we treasure them and spend time beautifying them.
Visiting the English cemetery in Rome recently, I wondered why it is commonly known as the English cemetery when, in fact, apart from such people as Keats and Shelley, there is a surprisingly wide range of nationalities represented. Some of the tombstones are very beautiful: there’s one, for instance, of a little boy sitting on a stone. I’m sure that each and every site could tell a unique story of the individual who rests there. Yet, what strikes me is that, in the midst of the tangle of weeds, bushes, trees and headstones, there is peace.
A graveside is not meant to be a place of sadness and despair. It is a place of peace, whatever the story might have been.
In 1982 I stood at the grave of an elderly Jesuit, who had achieved his ambition to travel to Australia, but who dropped dead as he reached the front door of the house where he was to stay. It must have been a terrible shock for those who had been intended to be his community. Yet, as I stood at his grave, one of, I think only two or three people in the whole of Australia who knew him, the sense was not one of loneliness… except for me because I’d been looking forward to seeing him… the grave was bare, except for a single red flower, a scarlet pimpernel.
In the midst of death, there is life and there is hope. Resurrection and new life are fact, not fiction. We might shed tears because we are the ones left behind, but those whom we have loved are enshrined forever in our hearts. Nobody can take them away and our own death is only a reunion and a presence that will last for all eternity.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 3:12 pm
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Sometimes my father wrote very beautiful thoughts in his letters to me. I think he didn’t realise just how memorable his thoughts could be.
Not long before he died I received a letter from my father in which he was speaking about memories. He said that a happy memory is like a rose in a vase. It can always be taken out of the vase, held and admired for its loveliness. It can then be replaced with a prayer of thanksgiving to God and brought out again on another occasion when we need its beauty.
I think that’s a beautiful idea.
Just think, for a moment, that, within each one of us, our happy memories are a collection of beautiful roses. What colour are they? My favourite colour is pink, so I think I’d have a good number of pink roses. To me, pink is a happy colour. I can’t imagine anything sad if it’s pink.
For a start, I think I’d have a collection of pink roses to celebrate the births of my brothers and sisters. I don’t remember all of them being born, but I do remember dancing around my mother’s bed singing, “We’ve got a baby brother! We’ve got a baby brother!”
My First Holy Communion would be a very precious white rose. I remember my headmistress saying that the Emperor Napoleon, before he died, said that the most wonderful day of his life was the day of his First Communion. I made mine on 30th November 1958 and ever since then the anniversary has been a very important date in my calendar. Yes, a white rose for my First Communion.
What about our unhappy memories? Are they roses? Perhaps they are. Someone once wrote that there are two ways of looking at a rose: we can say isn’t it a shame that roses have thorns or we can exclaim that it’s wonderful that thorns have roses. Even in the middle of our most unhappy moments, there will be something, however small, that is good. That is the rose carried by the thorns.
Kahlil Gibran says that our joys and sorrows come from the same root. We are happy because the sorrow is not there and we are sad because the happiness is missing. That makes sense. In other words, everything, whether it is a happy or a sad memory, is a rose. It’s only the colour of the rose that makes it different. Every day of our life, from the moment we were born, we’ve been planting roses in our hearts. Every single one of us has been creating a garden of our lives. No matter what our advantages or disadvantages in life might have been, we’ve all had the possibility, every single day, to make our life a beautiful garden. Every single one of us has been planting roses.
Do we ever take the time to sit in our garden to enjoy the roses? Do we think to invite God into the garden of our hearts so that, together, we can enjoy the roses that are our memories? Do we share our memories with God and ask him to make sense of the painful ones?
Lord, ever since I was born, I’ve been planting roses in my heart. There is quite a garden inside me by this stage in my life. I’d like to invite you into my garden today. Some of my roses need pruning. Some of them need your gentle care. All of the roses of my memories need your blessing. Come, Lord, into the rose garden of my heart. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:18 pm
Thursday, November 16, 2006
My career as a jogger lasted from Monday until the following Friday morning. My jogging endeavours came to an abrupt halt because it was raining and I didn’t want to get wet. That was in 1982. Since then, I think I have only jogged for a bus, and that, only if it’s almost on top of me and I can reach the bus stop without too much effort. Of course, not wanting to be soaked by the rain was just a convenient excuse. I’m from England…isn’t it almost a surprise that we are not born with fins and flippers?
There are many joggers around Rome, and I have not the slightest inclination to join their number. My latest excuse is that a couple of days ago, as I approached the entrance of Vatican Radio, a young woman tripped on the uneven road surface and the next thing I saw was that her feet were waving in the air in the way that a jogger’s feet are not intended to do.
I was concerned because she must have had quite a nasty fall and probably hurt herself, yet, to my surprise, far quicker than I would have managed, she was upright and running once more.
During the course of life there are many times when we fall. Sometimes it’s an actual physical tumble that leaves residues of skin and blood in just the places where they are not meant to be, with bits of gravel creating patterns on rather sore knees.
Some falls leave little damage. I remember being told of a friend’s 9 year-old son, who fell 100 metres over a cliff edge that had been hidden by snow. The father expected to see the child’s broken body far below him. Instead, when he looked over the cliff, he found his son had fallen into a small pool of water. He survived with only a cracked elbow to show for his fall!
The falls that cause most harm are the ones that hurt us inside, often where nobody can see. Those are often the most difficult ones. They are the ones when it can take great courage to stand up again. Yet, without that strength, it will not be possible to walk.
When I was based in Australia, I had the privilege of watching a paraplegic walk for the first time. A cumbersome experimental gadget was strapped around his waist, whilst electrodes from that black box extended to his leg muscles. An electric current stimulated muscles that everybody had thought were dead. The man was exhausted and dripping with perspiration from the effort, but he had walked against all odds. He had been told he would never again achieve that one simple act. Yet he went against all predictions. We who watched, also wept for joy.
It is wonderful to see someone convert failure into success, but the conversion doesn’t necessarily have to be something that the rest of the world will measure. The jogger pulled herself up and continued running. The paraplegic walked for about twenty paces. One of my successes was that I learned to eat tomatoes. It’s not significant to the universe, but it was to me.
There is a Chinese proverb that says that a journey of one thousand miles starts with a single step. It is that step that takes the courage, strength and determination, but after that, we’ve all learned to walk. A toddler falls many times. Sometimes it laughs. Sometimes it cries…but it learns.
As the saying goes: Don’t walk ahead of me: I might not follow.
Don’t walk behind me: I might not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Remember the ‘Footprints’ story?
God bless,Sr. Janet
Posted by Sr. Janet at 1:50 pm
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Many years ago I heard someone say that stories are very important for children if they are to learn the correct values in life. Whoever it was gave the example that in fairy stories, good people are usually beautiful and bad people are ugly. The intention was not to talk about physical beauty or ugliness, but rather, to teach that goodness is something that is very attractive and badness is repulsive. Well, I think there are limitations to the theory, but in general, it seems to be saying something important because every civilisation has and has had its own mythology. The details of the stories are not important, but the message that they carry is supremely valuable.
It reminds me of the story of the Little Red Engine. Do you remember it? Of course it goes back before the days of electric and diesel trains and I can’t remember the full story, but the tale is something to the effect that the Little Red Engine was despised by the other engines in the shed because it was so little and insignificant. They used to make fun of the Little Red Engine and would sometimes make it cry. If I remember correctly, Big Blue Engine was the cruellest of the taunters.
One day the Little Red Engine was puffing its way along the railway lines when it realised it would have to climb a steep hill. The only way it could tackle the hill would be if the Little Red Engine sang its special song. It took a deep breath and started to chug in time to the words of the song, “I-think-I-can. I-think-I-can. I-think, I-think-I-can …”
Partway up, it saw Big Blue Engine completely stuck and unable to move backwards or forwards. Little Red Engine was too heavy for the step climb. It wasn’t very happy when it saw the Little Red Engine succeeding where it had failed.
Little Red Engine was a kind little engine and stopped to ask if it could help. Somehow it managed to fix itself to the front couplings of Big Blue Engine and told it to take off its brake. This was going to be difficult. Little Red Engine needed a very special song this time! “I-know-I-can. I- know -I-can. I- know, I- know -I-can …”
With a great deal of effort, the Little Red Engine started to pull Big Blue Engine. Gradually Big Blue Engine’s wheels began to move. Little Red Engine sang all the harder. “I-know-I-can. I- know -I-can. I- know, I- know -I-can …” Inches became yards. Soon the top of the hill came into view. “I-know-I-can. I- know -I-can. I- know, I- know -I-can …” The two trains reached the summit.
Big Blue Engine was very happy to be safe and sound. The couplings between the two trains were released and Little Red Engine chugged happily on its journey, singing a new song. “I-knew-I-could. I-knew-I-could. I-knew-I-knew-I-could.”
I don’t know how many years have passed since I first read that story and heard it as a song by, was it Burl Ives? But do you know something? After all this time, I still sing those songs to myself and thank God for the Little Red Engine! I’ve achieved some big things in life thanks to that little train!
Posted by Sr. Janet at 5:11 pm
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
There are times in life when answers are hard to find, when they seem to slip away from outstretched hands. There are times when it is difficult to know why God seems to say ‘no’ to prayers that have been unendingly asking for ‘yes’. When the ‘no’ comes, it is so easy to ask “Why? Why me, Lord”?
This morning, one of the Jesuits at Vatican Radio told me a story, not knowing that he was answering some of my own questions and searching. I don’t remember all the details, but it was about a man who nearly drowned. When he managed to climb out of the river, he noticed a flower growing on the riverbank. It was exquisite.
As the man walked home, he realised that the grass was greener, the sky more blue and the world so much more beautiful than ever it had seemed before. Because he had almost died, the man suddenly realised that, in the space of those few minutes, he had learned to appreciate life.
Eventually, the man reached home. His wife opened the door and suddenly he saw her as lovely and hugged her in gratitude.
Every one of us goes through hard times. Sometimes they are expected, sometimes unexpected. It is easy to be angry and to be bitter. If the cause of the misfortune is another person, revenge would be so sweet. It would be so good to cause as much suffering as that which has been received… or would it? Isn’t it better for having done the right thing and to go to bed with an easy conscience than to spend the rest of one’s life knowing guilt and remorse that can, perhaps never be entirely put to rest?
The proverb says that every cloud has a silver lining. It’s almost become a cliché, but look more closely. In the darkest hours, wasn’t there a chink of light to cause even a momentary smile? Wasn’t there a moment of togetherness in the midst of isolation, of peace in the anger, of beauty in the horror?
At lunchtime today, I walked around the base of the Castel Sant’Angelo and, as I approached Vatican Radio, a cloud of soap bubbles floated into the air from one of the vendors at the roadside. Each bubble reflected the light and was transformed into something radiantly beautiful. Mere soap and water became transformed into a jewel, a rainbow, suspended momentarily against the deep blue sky.
In the midst of pain, there are jewels if only, instead of closing my heart and eyes, I keep them open. The choice is mine. Do I let my heart be broken, or do I break it open to love? Perhaps the question, “Why me?” sometimes has an answer, “Why not?”
Suffering can be a golden opportunity to learn a lesson that could not have been learned in any other way. The man in the story almost drowned, but in so doing, he found the value of living. He found the loveliness of the wife to whom he had been married for many years and yet had, as time passed by, taken for granted. The learning is tough. It is painful. It would be good to escape it, but, in the midst of it all, there is God. He
Will keep me safe. He will help me to find the treasure he placed in my heart. Even if it is a treasure hidden from the rest of the world, he will find it and make the darkest night shine like the day.
Stars can be seen at their clearest from the top of a mountain, but the mountain has first to be climbed.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 1:19 pm
Monday, November 13, 2006
One day there was a knock at the door. The husband opened the door but found nobody there. Instead, he found a plant in a pot. He brought the plant into the kitchen to show his wife. He put it on the table where, to their amazement, the flower began to open. Inside was a tiny little girl. She was so small that she was no bigger than the old man’s thumb!
At last the elderly couple had a child! They named the little girl Thumbelina.
There are many stories about Thumbelina, but the one I like most has been made into a song. It talks about an occasion when Thumbelina was feeling very sorry for herself. She was so tiny. She wanted to be as tall as everyone else around her. She wanted to grow, but she didn’t know how she could make that happen. All her efforts to grow were complete failures. Thumbelina remained the same height as her father’s thumb.
In the song, Thumbelina is given some very good advice. She’s told to cheer up, to dance and to sing. Although Thumbelina might have been only very small, when her heart is full of love she’s nine feet tall.
I love the story of Thumbelina. As for the song, I’ve been singing it since I was a child. It’s a lovely story with an important message.
What the story and song are saying is that it doesn’t matter what advantages and disadvantages I might have in life, what is important is that I am a loving person.
There was a time in Primary School when I was feeling very lonely. I complained to my mother that nobody wanted to be friends with me. She then asked me an important question. She asked me if I wanted to be friends with the other children. Until then it had never occurred to me that liking and loving another person is a two-way process. If we look for something likeable in another person, we’ll usually find it. Very often, in looking for something we like in someone else, we will also let him or her look into our own hearts for something that they also like. The effort usually ends up in friendship.
There is a beautiful saying: “There is no such thing as a stranger, only a friend whom we have not yet met.” Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So, if today, I happen to be feeling like Thumbelina, a bit miserable because I’m not like others, let me celebrate my difference, my uniqueness. There is nobody in the world quite like me. Isn’t that wonderful? God made me just to be myself. He did not want me to be a carbon copy of anybody else in this world. He loves me as I am. In the same way, nobody else can love God in the same way that I can. Nobody else can give my love to my family and friends. When my heart is full of love, then there’s nobody else in the world quite like me. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? When I see other people, am I really seeing Jesus, the stranger, the friend, whom I can welcome into my life?
Lord, fill me heart with love today. Let me celebrate the fact that you made me uniquely yours. Lord, there’s nobody quite like me. That means it’s really important that I love you with all of my heart and soul. Teach me to love you more and more every day of my life. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 4:59 pm
Friday, November 10, 2006
There are some advantages (not too many) to being in an overcrowded train hurtling through tunnels.
This morning, on my way to work, a group of about 15 men boarded and, because there was no other space, were all crowded into ‘my’ part of the carriage, which was already full. There’s no such thing as ‘no room’ on Italian transport. With no room to move my arms or to turn away and no outside view other than darkness, I was restricted to looking at the people who were similarly trapped immediately before me. There were Italians, Bangledeshis and others whose nationality I couldn’t identify in the absence of anybody holding a conversation. As the train continued its journey, I couldn’t help looking at their features. Some were dark and others fair. Some were white and others brown or olive-skinned. Hair colour ranged from jet black to grey, and from wavy to straight, thick to balding. Most people had dark brown eyes, at least, as far as I could see.
Really, God can do an amazing job of work with two eyes, a nose and a mouth!
A couple of days ago, I stopped at a market stall to make a couple of purchases and, without thinking, automatically spoke in English. It had registered, subconsciously I suppose, that the stallholder was from Bangladesh, so it was no surprise that the discussion was in English. We ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves because, as I pointed out, having lived in Africa and working with Indians, I’ve learned to bargain rather than pay the ‘best price’ that is at first on offer.
Within a very short time, the first stallholder had been joined by two others, also Bangladeshis, and the bargaining continued in earnest. Fortunately I’ve had plenty of chances to see that pleading, on one side, enormous poverty and possible destitution if I don’t produce the money, whereas I will be reduced to penury if I do, is all part of the process. The truth was that they and I knew that and just enjoyed ourselves. In the end, both the Bangladeshis and I parted in good humour, all of us thinking we’d struck a good bargain and had outwitted each other!
It saddens me that nationality can sometimes be divisive and that skin colour and language can be a cause for discrimination. The beauty of living and working in a multi-national environment means that differences don’t have to be important except that they indicate the possibilities for sharing culture, traditions and experiences.
When I was home in England during the summer, after visiting some Indian friends of mine, I found myself on an unfamiliar station. I wasn’t sure how to reach my platform, so I decided to ask for directions. Living in Rome, I’ve become accustomed to many different languages amongst people who are obviously all Europeans. I suppose that there must have been an underlying feeling of still being in Rome because I automatically approached a woman in a sari because I knew she would speak English. It was only afterwards that I realised what had happened. In fact, the woman was as pleased that I had spoken to her as were the Bangladeshis at the market. They were a very concrete example of just how, if we are not careful, we can be drawn into our own self-made ghettos and never break out of them to learn and value each other.
God does wonders, not only with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but also with tongues and voices!
Posted by Sr. Janet at 7:12 am
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Have you met a saint and martyr recently? I haven’t, at least as far as I know, but I did have a very interesting opportunity this morning. I interviewed a Franciscan friar who has been asked to begin collecting information about John Bradburne.
If you’ve never heard of John Bradburne, don’t worry. I hadn’t until I found myself living in Zambia. Time and again I heard his name mentioned and even the most unlikely people spoke of him with respect and something approaching awe. I was intrigued. They spoke of him as if he were just down the road.
It turned out that Bradburne was, in a manner of speaking, down the road. He’s buried in Zimbabwe. I wasn’t very impressed by the photos that I saw. He looked like a hippie with his long hair and a sweatband tied around his head…but then I began reading and heard of a dreamer who spent his life praying and looking for deeper meaning. He was a poet who ended up in Zimbabwe looking after people with leprosy. He refused to give them numbers and called them by their names. In 1979, guerrillas who didn’t want him to return to the village and his patients shot him from behind.
The more I hear of John Bradburne, the more am I convinced that there is something very special about him.
As a result, this morning’s interview was both fascinating and moving, so much so that I decided to walk part of the way home. As I crossed a ridge over the Tiber, I passed a young couple. The girl had several rings and studs piercing her face. The young man had dirty-looking dreadlocks, an unkempt appearance, the inevitable paper cup for donations and four dogs. Dogs (especially puppies) are the current number one way of attracting funds. Frankly, even if his rottweiler DID have a shiny pink ribbon around its neck, it didn’t look any the less fierce and its owner didn’t receive any money.
Yet, as I walked away, I wondered. I probably wouldn’t have put money into John Bradburne’s hand had I met him begging on the road, and yet I’d have turned away a saint. Might there not be just a possibility that there could be a few more ‘hippie saints’ along my road? As the song says, “Sometimes saints don’t look like saints at all!”
Posted by Sr. Janet at 4:55 pm
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Remembrance Sunday began after the first World War and is a very sacred occasion. I learned this morning that the Americans have a counterpart, in Veterans' Sunday and, whilst I had a cup of coffee with my community, we racked our brains trying to remember the dates and names of similar celebrations across the world.
For those of us from Britain, we see red paper poppies appear in increasing abundance as the Sunday closest to 11th November, Armistice Day, approaches. They recall the poppies in the fields of Flanders, where so many young men of so many nationalities died in the horrors of trench warfare. On Remembrance Sunday itself, there will be wreath laying and special ceremonies at war memorials and prayers in all places of worship throughout the country for all those who have died in war.
The music traditional to Remembrance Sunday are Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations and 'I vow to thee, my country' from Holtz' The Planets. There is also a lengthy poem, but the final verse and sometimes the one before it, are read, generally with the background of Nimrod. Very often, before the reading of the poem at war memorials, a bugler plays the Last Post followed by a minute's silence. Finally, the bugler plays Reveille, symbolising that, after death, there is the resurrection.
In England, the entire Royal family goes to the Cenotaph in Whitehall in order to lay wreaths with a representative of every Commonwealth country. There is a procession of veterans, bands and representatives of the Armed Forces, who also lay their wreaths. Religious leaders pray for the souls of all those who have died in war and then after the above little ceremony and the minute's silence, that's it. It's carried live on all radio and television channels. It's very beautiful and deeply moving. When we were children my father used to insist on us watching it on TV.
Remembrance Sunday is a time for remembering and for giving thanks. We recall the sacrifices, the hopes and the shattered dreams. As we hear so often at this time of year, "They gave their tomorrow so that we might have our today." May they rest in peace.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 4:35 pm
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
I needed some music for a programme I was producing and so I headed to the music department at Vatican Radio. Partway through my request, my colleague stopped and stood, transfixed, in the middle of the room. “Isn’t that perfect?” she asked. I listened. It was awful! I like music, but the particular piece that was playing was so heavy it would have driven me crazy to listen to it for any length of time. Yet my colleague obviously enjoyed every note.
She reminded me of a story about the young David, when he was a boy in the court of King Saul.
Saul had a very beautiful harp that stood in one corner in the palace. Many musicians had tried to play it and had failed.
One day, David approached Saul and asked if he could attempt to play the harp. Saul laughed derisively. “The finest musicians have made the same request. Do you honestly think that you can succeed where they could not?”
David picked up the harp and gently ran his fingers over the strings. Suddenly the instrument laughed and cried. It sang of running streams and sighing breezes, bird song and mountaintops. The music was so beautiful that Saul and his courtiers were reduced to tears.
“How could you bring forth music from this harp?” he whispered, his voice still caught up in the depths of his emotional experience.
David looked at him. “Your Majesty. The musicians all tried to play their music upon this instrument. That is why they failed. I merely asked the strings to play their own tunes. That is why I succeeded.”
We each have our own music. Our lives are a special song, uniquely beautiful, composed by the experiences we encounter each day. Some people’s songs are sad, others happy, but each life is still an unrepeatable melody. God asks us to help each other to play their own canticle. There might be harmony. There might be some discord. It is still uniquely precious.
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:19 pm
Monday, November 06, 2006
To achieve reconciliation is not easy. It takes humility and humility can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow. I don't like to make myself little so that someone else can feel better, even if peace and harmony are the results. It is difficult to say sorry.
Of course we all know the saying "Forgive and forget". That's all very well. Forgiveness can take many years after a big injury or disagreement. It's even harder to forget when someone has hurt me. No matter how hard I might try to forgive, throughout my life there can be occasions when I will remember the time of the hurt or the argument that caused the split in my relationship with someone. Each time I remember the hurt, I find my heart aching and sore once again.
Sometimes it's worth remembering that when that happens, it's only the memory that is painful. The actual occasion that caused the hurt has passed into history. It's over. If I carry that hurt, then I'm the only one who is suffering. Nobody else is. Even if I was innocent, the fact that I have a painful memory does not cause any pain to the one who made me suffer. In fact, in reliving painful memories, I am causing the suffering to myself. If I can't let go, then I am causing an ongoing wound in my own heart and making my own life harder to bear.
It's not easy, but it is possible to let go and to hand over that pain to God. It might be very difficult, but it is possible to try to bring about reconciliation even when the cause of the split has been very serious.
One possible way of bringing about reconciliation is to use the Sign of Peace at Mass. Then, without even saying anything, the effort to turn to someone else and to shake hands can be the start of a new relationship. It can be the first step towards reconciliation and healing.
Another way of bringing reconciliation is to pray for the person who is causing us the difficulties. It is very difficult to pray for someone and to be angry with him or her at the same time. Sometimes, when praying for someone with whom we disagree, we begin to see a situation from that person's viewpoint and our anger disappears.
I remember a time when I was very angry with a priest who was just about to offer the Mass I was about to attend. When it came to saying the 'Our Father', the words "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" hit me. Although I was the innocent party in that situation, how could I ask God for forgiveness when I wasn't ready to forgive someone else? How could I give the Sign of Peace unless I really meant it with all of my heart? That was a lesson I've never forgotten.
Let us pray, today, for the gift of reconciliation. Let us forgive and also allow ourselves to be forgiven.Lord, there are many times when I have not had peace in my heart and have not wanted to be reconciled with my brother or sister. Help me, Lord, to be open to you. Help me to be the first to say 'sorry' when I am in the wrong. Let me be the first to say 'I forgive you' when someone has hurt me in some way. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:23 pm
Thursday, November 02, 2006
I remember an occasion, many years ago, when I was sitting under some trees, hidden from everybody, on a windy afternoon. I was cold but didn’t want to go indoors. I wanted my own company. I was feeling miserable. I was feeling lonely. I had said goodbye to some very dear friends and didn’t know when I would see them again. I was feeling homesick. That afternoon, I just wanted someone who was there for me and had found nobody. It wasn’t as though there were any major problems that I was facing. That afternoon I just needed the company of someone who was a friend and with whom I could simply relax.
That’s probably an experience that each of us faces at some stage in our lives. That particular afternoon, as I was feeling sorry for myself, I started to make a mental list of the names of my friends. What surprised me was that, until that moment, I’d not realised just how many friends I had. Gradually, instead of feeling cold and miserable, I began to feel warm inside. As I thought of each of my friends, I saw their faces within my memory. Gradually I stopped noticing that it was a cold day. I felt warm inside. I felt loved as I remembered all the people whom I loved.
Each of us is born with a basic need to be loved. If we are not loved, our hearts shrivel and die. Of course, when we are small babies, we think that we are the centre of the whole world. We cry and someone feeds us. We cry a bit more and we’ll be given a clean nappy or a cuddle. People bigger than we are will carry us around and will talk to us and play with us. We somehow feel that everybody who sees us, loves us.
Gradually we grow out of being a baby. We look around our world and start playing with other children. We attend school and discover that the world is far bigger than any of us ever imagined. We also begin to realise that we have a great deal to learn if we are to take an active role in the society in which we live….but we still need to be loved.
Many years ago there was a song, “Love Makes the World Go Around”. I can’t remember the tune, but I do remember asking my mother why love is important and that was the answer she gave: “Love makes the world go around.”
There was a young student whom I used to see regularly. One day, there was a complete transformation. Suddenly he was tidy. He was confident. He was smiling and polite instead of grumbling and rude. I asked someone what had happened. The student had a girlfriend. He had found someone who loved him and whom he loved. Love had changed everything for the young man. Loving and being loved had made him realise that life was worth living.
Whom do I love? Who is the most important person in my life? What is the difference that has been made in my own life by loving and being loved? What would happen if that person were to be taken out of my life? How would I survive? Love asks many questions, but it also provides many answers. As the song says, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
When we love and are loved, there is always a third person in the relationship: God.
Lord, you are the love of my life and the life of my love. Thank you for all the special people whom you have placed on my path through life. Thank you for the magic of love. Thank you for the difference that love makes in my life and in the lives of those around me. Lord, you are Love. I love you. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 8:02 pm
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Sometimes one meets a husband and wife whose love for each other is so real that other people do not see them so much as two individuals, but, rather, as one unit. It’s almost as if they have been fused together by their years of sharing with and caring for each other. To imagine one without the other is impossible.
Mr. And Mrs. Ashcroft were a couple just like that. They were short, fat and inseparable. Every day they would come to Mass in their little red car and, after Mass, would stand chatting to their friends. They would go back home and Mr. Ashcroft would work in his garden. He would also look after the garden of the widow who lived next door. I think he was actually older than Mrs. Thierens, but Mr. Ashcroft was determined that she wasn’t going to tire herself out. A perfect gentleman, he hated the thought of a woman doing hard labour!
Mr. and Mrs. Ashcroft loved each other so much that sometimes I wondered how they even managed to be apart during the many years when he had had to go to work. At least now that he had retired, they could be together all the time.
Then came the day when Mrs. Ashcroft died. Her husband still came to Mass every day, driving the same little red car. He still did the gardening for Mrs. Thierens. He spoke about his late wife as though she had been the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. Mrs. Ashcroft had been perfect in every way, according to her husband.
When I went home to visit my mother, Mr. Ashcroft would use my arrival as an excuse to visit me. One evening he came to the house with a big plastic bag that he put on the floor beside him. One by one he pulled out photographs of his wife and showed them to me. Some of the pictures had been treasured for more than 40 years. After the photos came the embroidery that Mrs. Ashcroft had done during the many years of their married life. As he showed off his wife’s handiwork, it was clear that Mr. Ashcroft was finding comfort in being able to talk about the woman he had loved so much. There were moments when he was finding it hard not to cry. It was a very sacred evening as far as I was concerned. For a short time I had been allowed to enter into a marriage that had truly been made in Heaven.
When two people love each other very much and one dies, it can feel as though the surviving partner has lost everything. Mr. Ashcroft’s whole world was centred in his wife. She was his sun, his moon and his stars. When she died, life could never again be the same. If he hadn’t had his strong faith Mr. Ashcroft’s world would have come to an end.
As Christians we are very blessed in knowing that death is not the end of everything. The only thing that makes sense of death is our belief in the Resurrection, our belief that death is only a transition. We believe that, beyond the grave is life. Death is not the end. When someone dies, that person is only a thought away, can never move further away from us than deep inside our hearts.
During the month of November, we pray for all those whom we love and who have died. We pray that God will give them the fullness of life and peace with him. Today let us also pray for those husbands and wives who have been separated by death, that God will give comfort and strength to the one left behind.
Lord, today we pray for those husbands and wives whose love is strong and true. We pray for those who have been widowed, that they will have the comfort, strength and courage needed to carry on living. Grant eternal life to those who have died. Amen
Posted by Sr. Janet at 7:52 pm