Friday, December 29, 2006

Looking back

It seems to me that with 2006 rapidly coming to its close, the world’s media is spending a huge amount of time, energy…and probably expense… looking back at the events of the year. There’s also a good deal of speculation as to what 2007 will hold. We’re probably all doing the same thing in our own lives.

What was 2006 like? Well, there were the unforgettably wonderful moments, but there were also those which were horrendous and which I would never, ever, want to repeat. I suppose that most of us can say something similar. Perhaps there are also more people than I personally know who would like to hit out at someone and return as much hurt as he or she inflicted, to return an equal amount of suffering, to have that ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

Perhaps, looking back, there are memories that are painful for completely different reasons. I know that one of my own is saying goodbye to a friend who has developed Alzheimer’s, and who recognised me when I met her, but probably won’t know me when I see her again. I look back with gratitude on the happy moments we shared over the years. I remember with sadness the brief, very concrete, simple conversation we had during the summer, when I would have given so much to sit and talk as we used to do. Yet it is a sadness tinged with gratitude because it gave me the chance to say goodbye, in a sense, to someone I know and love, but who can never again be the amazing person she used to be.

With the end of the year, there is a great deal said about the ‘healing of memories’. Frankly, I don’t think that memories are easily healed. It’s something that is a lot easier said than done. We all have our nightmares and our anger, resentment, fears and irritations. I suspect that, on January 1st 2007, I won’t be very different from who I was on 31st December 2006. However it also seems to me that the Devil is very keen to make sure that there is some negative baggage to carry over into the New Year, something to give him a head start.

Over the years, I’ve done a good deal of thinking about my own memories that needed to be healed. It occurred to me that something is only a memory because the actual event is finished. It’s real, but it’s also not real any longer. It’s history. The memory is only the hangover. Although it’s not easy to let go, the only one who is being hurt when I hold onto the anger, fear, horror and bitterness is me. It seems to me that clinging on to these just turns me into a cowering little puppy in a corner, unable to play and do all those fun things that a puppy is meant to do. I can never forget the sense of liberation when, on one occasion, I took a deep breath and, at the Sign of Peace at Mass, for the first time for many years, willingly shook hands with someone and made a deliberate decision to let go of the anger that she didn’t know was still wriggling its way deep inside. It was as if there had been steel bands around my chest, that suddenly burst and allowed me to breathe freely. The sense of joy and freedom were unforgettable and have stayed with me ever since.

It seems to me that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an ideal opportunity for making a Sign of Peace and a new start. The memory might not go away, but I can give myself permission to let go of the pain. Mary must have had incredibly bad memories after the Crucifixion. Her greatness lay in letting go and in realising that her heart had not been broken irreparably, but had been broken open and sculpted into something even more beautiful.

If I look at my pain, there has always been a positive side, even if I have to admit that very grudgingly. God has used it to make me stronger, perhaps more sympathetic and understanding. Perhaps he’s allowed me to use my own suffering to help someone else in a similar position.

Perhaps, as 2007 dawns, God is giving me a choice: do I allow myself to feel burdened and crushed by the darkness, or do I look up, acknowledge that I’m carrying something I’d rather not, but see the sunrise ahead of me?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Simple pleasures

Rome continues to have its simple pleasures.

Going to the Vatican Post Office this morning was reasonably uneventful, if I discount battling my way through the crowds travelling to St. Peter’s as I tried to make my way through St. Anne’s Gate. I’m not looking for power and position, but I still enjoy the novelty of waving my Vatican Radio ID and receiving a salute from the Swiss Guard: it reminds me of the time when I was based in the retreat centre that my Congregation used to have in Bramley in the south of England. My cousin Angela came to visit me and, seeing the size of the centre and having known me from the time I was born, she looked at the ‘stately home’, looked at me, and the two of us doubled up with laughter!

But, back to the Swiss Guard at St. Anne’s Gate. They were wearing their winter uniforms, complete with a navy-blue cloak, unlike their comrades at the Bronze Door of St. Peter’s and at the entrances of the Papal Household, who were in their famous multicoloured (and impractical) uniforms. They are always so helpful and courteous, but I look back in pleasure at one of their number who, a few weeks ago, was entertaining a girl of about 8 years old, possibly his daughter or a young relative. He was pretending to march, but with her standing on his feet and holding his hands, her blonde hair cascading from side to side down her back as she shook with laughter.

It doesn’t matter who we are or what we do, we need laughter. Nobody is so important that they can live without a smile and a few moments of regular fun. If we put ourselves on pedestals, we deserve to have someone come along and knock us down from our dizzy heights. We all need the humility which will enable us to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.

This fact was brought home to me a couple of months ago, when I took a visiting Jesuit for an ice cream at my favourite gelateria on the Piazza Navona. As we stood enjoying our ices, my companion looked more closely at the shop. “I’m sure that this is the place that Karl Rahner used to visit. He was a real ice cream freak!” If one of the world’s greatest theologians could take a break from his theologising by deciding which three of twenty or so flavours of ice creams he was about to enjoy, isn’t that a good example for all of us?

God bless,

Sr. Janet

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

It’s not often that I’m glad that I’m late for Mass, but this morning was one of those days.

Starting back to work, I planned to go to mass at the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, a baroque church in the same road as St. Peter’s. Normally, it’s not my first choice of venue as the baroque is a bit overdone, but sometimes the times of Mass are convenient. Well, this morning I discovered I’d miscalculated and had 20 minutes to spare, just long enough to nip up to St. Peter’s, to take a look at the Crib. It is beautiful!

This year’s crib is the largest ever in the Square, with the greatest number of figures, increased, I think, from 13 to 20. There’s a fountain, a fireplace and all sorts of details, making the whole thing a complete work of art. Unfortunately some of my photos are darker than I’d thought as they were taken in the early morning, but I’ll try to fix them up and put them on the website at over the weekend.

The lovely thing about a Crib is that the whole focus of attention is on a baby. People understand babies and respond to them. They become gentle and don’t mind looking foolish as they make silly noises and funny faces in an effort to make the baby smile. They aren’t threatened by a baby, not feeling that they have to put on airs and graces. God couldn’t have found a more appropriate way for making his way into human hearts.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, December 22, 2006

Global heart-warming

This morning, on the way to work, I decided that, this Christmas, I would like to contribute to global warming. However, my contribution is not to be of the type that is so publicised at this present time, with the images of melting icebergs and non-hibernating hedgehogs. I can add my own pictures: after all, during my recent retreat I found now, rather than in Spring, catkins on hazel trees, blossom on ornamental cherries. I heard of raspberries still producing fruit… No, I want to add to global heart-warming this Christmas, because I think it is people’s hearts that are in need of attention at this time of year.

Yesterday evening, when I arrived home from work, I found a Christmas card waiting for me, a card that brought tears to my eyes and a lump into my throat. I honestly hadn’t expected a card from Alice and Bill. You see, Alice has recently moved into a care home where she can receive the full-time nursing that she needs. She can no longer help with the writing of Christmas cards, but that hasn’t stopped her husband from sending them even if it means he has double the work involved. When I opened the envelope and saw the message, “With love from Alice and Bill”, I was so touched that I freely admit that I cried.

That is the sort of global warming I want to see: love that extends beyond the actions that are practical and convenient.

This Christmas, I want to see a global warming that extends beyond that which is comfortable and safe for me, and reaches out to support and embrace others, even at a personal cost, a global warming that looks for understanding rather than revenge.

I want to see a global warming that brings a smile into the eyes of the little ones, such as I watched last week, when a ‘magician’ gave a special show to a group of profoundly disabled children. It was wonderful to experience the laughter and delight, expressed in unfamiliar sounds and movements as they extended throughout minds and bodies that were limited in some ways, but which are able to enjoy, to laugh and to love.

I think of a young woman in Liverpool who, although she has Downs Syndrome, has been saving her money “to help the babies” and who regularly appears on the scene with a bag of babies’ feeding bottles that she has brought. She gives them to a parish group that works to offer mothers an alternative to abortion. This young woman doesn’t know what abortion is, but she loves babies. I want to see a global warming that offers love and support even when it is impossible to understand all the implications of loving.

It seems to me that, if global warming is a threat to the planet, global heart-warming is vital to our very existence and is perfectly within our grasp this Christmas.

As Tiny Tim exclaimed in Charles Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’, “May God bless us, every one!”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Mass gathering...

Vatican Radio staff flooded the chapel this morning as we celebrated our Christmas Mass and then had a buffet lunch with all the various nibbles that I thoroughly enjoy and which leave me wishing that it could have been possible to eat more without being just plain greedy!

The Mass was beautiful. Just out of curiosity, I counted 19 concelebrants, including Cardinal Tucci, whose office is only a few yards away from the Chapel of the Annunciation on the second floor of the building. That there were ‘only’ 19 was because that happened to be the number who could conveniently fit around the altar and the first row of seats. I’m not actually sure how many other priests were present, because the congregation spilled out into the corridor. However, there were at least five priests of the Latin rite, two of the Byzantine and also two who are of one of the Rites from the Middle East, but I’m not sure which.

The people gathered in the chapel represented most, if not all, of the 46 languages in which Vatican Radio broadcasts and, therefore, a good proportion of the 59 nationalities of the radio personnel.

Not for the first time, I thought how fortunate we were to be able to celebrate Mass freely and with such beauty. We were a microcosm gathered around the altar, some of the people representing their countrymen and women who actually risk their lives in order to attend Mass. Some of those peoples are engaged in fighting and bloodshed, yet there we were, in peace and in prayer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, even for five minutes this Christmas, we could have world peace?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

For the less than happy Christmas

Not everybody has a happy Christmas. For some people Christmas is, for one reason or another is a time for a few tears, either because of their memories or because of the situations in which they find themselves as the day draws closer. Perhaps someone they love is sick, or it's an anniversary... There are many reasons why the season that should be full of joy is actually tinged with some sadness.

There are no easy answers. It's impossible to completely identify with another person's pain, precisely because each of us is a unique individual. Everybody's circumstances differ: no two people have identical experiences.

For those whose Christmas will not be the happiest time in their lives, I'd like to offer something that I personally find helpful and comforting in the hopes that it you might also see it as valuable.

There are several pictures of Our Lady that I particularly like. Our Lady of Divine Providence is one of them.

When I have someone who is in special need of prayers, I try to imagine that person as the Infant in her arms, speaking to her and receiving her love, attention and care.

There are times when I myself am that baby. If I can't sleep, then I see myself as still in her arms, listening as she sings me a lullaby, telling me that there is no need to worry or be afraid, because she is there and I am in her hands. No matter what has happened or will happen, she is my mother and is there for me, protecting and defending me and everybody whom I love or for whom I have concern.

On the occasions when all is going well, then I am in her arms telling her how good life is and how much I love her... and she listens to all my babbling because, to a mother, even the incoherent sounds of a small baby are beautiful and precious.

If Christmas is not going to be the happiest time in your life, then turn to Mary, your Mum, and ask her for a hug.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas trees

Rome has changed in the two weeks that I have been away.

This morning, as I emerged from the train at Colosseo, in addition to the magnificent profile of the Coliseum, there was, etched against the dawn sky, a massive Christmas tree, laden with lights and decorations. To keep it secure, there are four cables, each fastened to the ground, but the fastening embedded in a veritable mountain of plants, carefully selected so that their colours blend together and do not distract from the loveliness of the tree.

At lunchtime, I headed to St. Peter’s to view the progress there. This year’s tree has, I’m told, been donated by Calabria, and what a wonderful specimen! It is not quite as tall as the obelisk beside which it stands, but it is absolutely dripping in white lights, silver and gold ornaments, tinsel and other decorations. It is beautiful! The lights will not be switched on until Christmas Eve, but even in the daylight, the tree is a sight to be seen!

At the foot of the tree, the preparations are well under way to ensure that the Crib, also to be unwrapped on Christmas Eve, is bigger and better than ever before. Apparently this year’s Crib, sponsored by Bavaria, is the biggest that has so far been seen in St. Peter’s Square. That is something I can’t judge for myself, but the little bits that I could see above the canvas screen surrounding the construction, indicate a great deal of work. It looks as though the massive stone blocks that characterize so many of Rome’s ancient ruins, have been recreated for the occasion, presumably not in stone, but certainly looking realistic enough to keep anybody guessing. Some of the blocks have carved ‘stone’ friezes and capitals, again looking extremely realistic.

With a true Italian flair for the artistic and for lighting, the Christmas trees on the Via Nazionale and at Piazza Partigianale are a delight to behold…even from the bus on the way home this evening. Again, they are festooned with hundreds of white lights, shining brilliantly in the darkness.

One of the beauties of Christmas is that God and human beings work together to create something lovely for everybody to enjoy. Of course there is a personal satisfaction in doing a good job and in producing something that many thousands of people can admire, but it is still a willing partnership between God and his Creation.

Christmas is not an easy, joyful time for everybody. Inevitably there will be those who, for one reason or another, will shed a tear or two within the next few days, but it would be wonderful if the lights of Christmas could also kindle in their eyes, even if only for a few moments.

Some years ago, when I was based in London, I went to Westminster Cathedral on the way home, intending to make use of the opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I must have sounded as under the weather as I felt because the priest, when it came to giving me my penance, asked me if I had seen the Christmas display in a nearby shop window. I hadn’t. For my penance, he told me to find the shop, to spend some time looking at its lovely Winter Wonderland and to thank God for giving such creative talents to his people. I tell you, I felt an entirely different person afterwards and walked home praising God. Try it for yourself.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, December 18, 2006

Back to base!

A retreat is a wonderful opportunity, but as almost all good things come to an end, so do retreats. I’ve now been back in Rome for approximately 8 hours. My bed is loaded high with the remains of the unpacking, but it will have to have ‘something’ done to it before tonight or I can’t go to bed. Normality…if the last few days before Christmas can be called normality, beckons urgently, which means a return to work tomorrow.

I don’t normally manage to return to England for my retreat, but unusually cheap fares gave me such a blessing this year, which also made it possible to return to the wonderful Franciscan friary in Pantasaph in North Wales. Not many people can legitimately claim to be associated with a place since before they were born, but my links with Pantasaph were forged when my parents went there for a day of recollection and prayed that ‘Terence Michael’ would be a priest and a Franciscan. Well, I turned out to be a girl, have not achieved ordination, but still ended up as a Franciscan.

These days, as well as being a Retreat centre, Pantasaph is also the national shrine of Padre Pio for England and Wales. What a place to have such a shrine, with views of the Welsh mountains on one side and Liverpool Bay on the other! It’s more than worth a visit.

It seems to me that Christmas is a wonderful time of the year for getting back in touch with one’s roots. After all, the conception and birth of one little baby, 2000 years ago, is the absolute bedrock of Christianity. When our increasingly secular society tries to change Christmas into Winterval or Chrimbo and sends ‘Seasons Greetings’ and ‘Happy Holiday’ greetings, it misses out, not only on the incredible idea that God could become a simple human baby, it also misses out on all the joy that is associated with Christmas. The word ‘Winterval’ reminds me of ‘interval’. Well, we all need an interval in which to wonder at the Christmas message.

If you are as busy as I am expecting to be for the rest of this week, do make a tiny ‘interval’ for yourself and the Baby who is waiting to be born in your heart.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Temporary break...

I am just about to leave for my annual Retreat and a couple of days' break. As a result, I will not be back in Rome until 18th December. In the meantime, it is unlikely that I will have the chance to update this site. It will continue on my return.

Although I can't answer all the prayer requests, yours will be in my thoughts during my retreat.
May God bless you and yours.
Sr. Janet