Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Seven at one blow

There is a famous children’s story about a tailor who was working in his shop one day. It was a hot day and the flies were a nuisance. They kept landing on him as he tried to sew. Eventually the tailor became so irritated by the flies, he picked up an old rag and swotted them as they crawled across the table.

When the tailor looked at the table, he saw that, with one swipe of his rag, he had killed seven flies. He was immensely proud of his achievement. To kill seven flies at once: that was something really wonderful!

In fact, the tailor was so proud of his achievement that he made himself a special belt. On it he embroidered the letters “Seven at one blow”.

I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I do recall that the tailor boasted to everyone that he had killed seven with one blow. He just ‘forgot’ to tell his audience that he was talking about killing flies. I also remember that the tailor gave up his business, just so that he could travel around boasting of his success. Even he forgot that he had only killed seven flies.

Gradually the tailor’s reputation as a fighter spread throughout the countryside. Never before had he commanded so much respect. However, the day came when some dangerous robbers threatened his village. People came looking for the tailor. They demanded that he protect them from the robbers. They insisted that he go to fight them.

The tailor was terrified. After all, he had only killed seven flies. He’d never fought another human being in his life. He had to compare the consequences of telling the villagers that he had lied to them with the danger of meeting the robbers and of being killed by them. In the end, the villagers were told the truth and the tailor was disgraced.

The story shows that it is very silly to lie about one’s abilities and achievements. ‘Pride comes before a fall’. Sooner or later the truth is discovered and the liar is disgraced.

It is also wrong to tell the truth only because one is afraid of being found out or to tell the truth only in order to escape punishment. That is childish. The adult, mature way to be truthful is to be honest purely and simply because it is the right thing to do. That is living with integrity. That is living with courage. Someone who tells the truth simply because they fear punishment is a coward. A really honest person is truthful and lives with the consequences of their honesty. Such a person might have to suffer for their integrity but so did Jesus.

The story of the tailor also shows how silly it is to be vain. Someone who is proud only makes himself or herself look ridiculous. Jesus calls us to be humble. Jesus calls us to be truthful. Would we prefer to be as silly as the tailor in the story?

Lord, sometimes it is difficult to be completely honest. It is difficult to be humble. It is pleasant to feel important. But, Lord, if I make myself out to be important, I am not following your example. You made yourself humble for my sake. Help
me to remember that, in my life, you must increase and I must decrease in importance.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Into the New Year

Workmen were gathered around the Christmas tree in the darkness of the early morning. Their large truck, parked beside the Coliseum, was already laden with plants that, a few minutes earlier, had been positioned around its base. Before long, it was not only the plants that had vanished, the massive tree had also been denuded of its hundreds of lights. This evening, it still soared skywards, but was bare of decorations. Within the next day or so, the tree itself will have gone. Christmas is over.

Yet, in St. Peter’s Square, the tree is still shimmering in the sunshine and ablaze at night. The Crib is there in all its loveliness and will stay intact until 2nd February, for such is the custom in Italy. Not all the signs of Christmas are taken down as soon as the Feast of the baptism of the Lord is celebrated and the Christmas Season finishes.

Yet, although the evidence of the Nativity was in the process of removal around the Forum and the Coliseum, there were several gypsy women around, carrying very newly-born infants, begging and declaring that they are hungry. It’s not true for the most part. A surprising number of these babies are rented out for the day and will have several ‘mothers’ during the course of a single day.

The market stalls around Rome are laden with goods that were left over from Christmas. It’s easy to buy all sorts of items at cut prices, whereas, even a few days ago, their cost was inflated, sometimes beyond belief. Everywhere, there are sales.

The New Year is in progress already. It’s almost as if Christmas never happened…yet, whatever might or might not happen in the course of 2007, at its core was a young woman who had a baby, whom she called Jesus…..

God bless,

Sr. Janet

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sistine Chapel Baptisms

There were a couple of extra-interesting moments this morning when the Pope baptised 13 babies during Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

For a start, we’d been given instructions to make sure we’d reached the Hall of Blessings by 09.30 because our passage was likely to be impeded by all the families and friends of the babies as they made their way towards the Sistine Chapel. Well, we weren’t quite blocked because the Hall of Kings, which separates the Sistine Chapel and the Hall of Tears, might have been full of visitors, but the Swiss Guards and the Vatican security personnel did a good job of directing them in one direction, whereas those of us heading to the Hall of Blessings, where we do the radio and television commentaries for papal ceremonies, waved our IDs and ploughed through the crowd.

The Hall of Tears is a simple, relatively unadorned area in which a new pope is given a chance to catch his breath before going onto the balcony for the first time. This morning, however, it might possibly have been a place of tears of a different variety because it had taken on a new identity: that of a parking place for prams! There were two rows of them!

Mass was beautiful, but the babies added their own special flavour. Once again, I blessed the expertise of the cameramen of the Vatican Television Centre (CTV) for their quick thinking and skill. Because of quick observation and good work, the camera moved from the face of Pope Benedict as he gave his homily, speaking about the joy of the new life that was about to be bestowed on the babies in Baptism, to one of the ‘older’ infants (3 months old?). Was it coincidence or Providence that, as the new life was described, the face of this particular baby was wreathed in smiles again and again? It was a truly lovely moment on film that I’m sure the family will treasure. Yet it also had, unknown to the baby, its own theological significance since the occasion was genuinely joyful.

As far as I could see and hear, only one of the infants cried when the water was poured on its head. Twelve of them were quiet, one apparently sleeping through the proceedings.

Of course the Sistine Chapel is incredibly beautiful. With the ceiling depicting Creation and the whole of Salvation History, and the wall behind the altar covered with the magnificent fresco of the Resurrection, anybody would be justified in feeling dazzled by its splendour… But one of the babies was fascinating and fascinated as it lay in its godmother’s arms, staring fixedly at the ceiling. Did we have a future Michelangelo in our midst? Who knows?

The Offertory Procession was also a special occasion, composed as it was, of some of the brothers and sisters of the newly-baptised. The younger members of the procession couldn’t have been holding the gifts more carefully if they had tried. They were shy as they approached the Pope, but the studied concentration as they held each item was lovely to see. I could just imagine that their parents had instilled in them the importance of what they were doing, and so, as is only possible with very young children, the intensity of their grip was amazing: I could almost see white knuckles!

Yet the solemnity of the occasion was also unique. As soon as the Holy Father had received each gift and blessed each child, they turned back towards their parents…and most of them ran back to their places! Well, he did say that it was a family occasion.

When Mass was over, it was also interesting as we headed back towards the exit. The congregation was spilling out of the Sistine Chapel into the Hall of Kings, and it was just like any Sunday morning outside any church anywhere in the world. There were groups of people chatting to each other, children running around and babies deciding they needed a feed. So what if they were surrounded by priceless frescoes and standing on brilliantly polished marble floors beneath a breathtakingly beautiful ceiling? There’s a lovely similarity in the Church across the world, whether it’s in St. Peter’s or in the smallest church in the most remote regions of the world. It’s family.

Welcome to our family to all the newly-baptised.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, January 05, 2007

Unexpected places

There is loveliness in the most unexpected places!

Yesterday, after work, a friend and I went to the Piazza del Populo, not too far from Vatican Radio, to see the annual exhibition of 100 Presepi (100 Cribs). It was fabulous!

I’ve never been to this exhibition before, so I don’t know if the Cribs that were on display are the same as those of last year, or different. I suspect they are new creations, especially as a high number of the contributors were Embassies to the Holy See and to Italy, as well as primary schools.

I also suspect that some of the items could not have survived from one year to the next… such as the lovely Nativity scene created by a class of young children from uncooked pasta. I would never have imagined that the different shapes of pasta, from the shells to the long, spaghetti-like strips, could have been so perfectly positioned that they resulted in a delicate, fragile and very beautiful Crib. Similarly for another youthful endeavour, but with coffee beans! Other children had managed to create equal loveliness from eggs and even from bits of rope!

Amongst the tremendous variety of contributions was an ingenious and very attractive Nativity scene built out of discarded plastic bottles, one of the substances I would have least considered capable of ending up as something so beautiful and reverential.

Completely unforgettable was a larger-than-life Crib made from cellophane, plastic bags and wire. It was magnificent! The oxen, the donkey and the sheep were amazingly true to life, whereas Mary and Jesus could almost have spoken. One of the Magi was particularly splendid. Never, ever, would or could I have imagined that such simple substances could have produced such loveliness! It really made me think that my eyes have never really been opened to the full potential of the world around me, that even materials that I would have classed as rubbish can speak to me of beauty and of God.

But not all the Cribs were of recycled materials. In Italy, the Crib is an art form, with countless hours being spent in transforming basic materials into scenes of everyday village or town life, with the Holy Family inserted into the ordinary daily lives of the people around them. The results are exquisite and amazingly complex. Of the many scenes in the display, one that remains in my memory was created from the root of an ancient olive tree. Such panoramas are really a theology of the Incarnation in themselves.

The Embassies were not to be outdone. I loved the Native American tepee, with Mary carrying her Papoose on her back and Joseph beside her with his spear. Then there were the scenes from Bolivia, Guatemala, Chile, Peru and other parts of Latin, Central and South America, complete with their traditional clothing and artefacts. The French contribution was carved from a single piece of rock.

…and there was a simple Italian scene in which the Holy Family was merely two stone carvings curled up in the middle of the medieval passageway in which the whole exhibition was sited…

…and what of the two contributions in which every single figure was hand knitted?

… and the Crib made from sharpened pencils and a Bible?

Truly, there is loveliness in the most unexpected places and wherever there is beauty, there is God!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, January 04, 2007


“The scholar asked the Buddha: How might I ensure an early and active start to the day after Christmas?
The Buddha replied: Make yourself a cup of coffee and then knock the full cup to the floor, smashing the cup and spilling its contents everywhere. Then go downstairs and, after making a second cup of coffee, knock that over your book as you sit quietly reflecting on its contents.
If that doesn't get you moving, nothing will!”

No, I’m not suddenly taking up a different type of mysticism. I’ve just discovered an e-mail I sent to my family part-way through the morning of 26th December, having just knocked over my second cup of coffee and causing my second hot, brown deluge of the day. The first disaster was at 06.00. The last thing I wanted was to be mopping up pools of coffee, moving books and sticking floor mats into the washing machine.

I seemed to set the ball rolling because one of my sisters had two similar disasters, but with tea, one of her drinks cascading over a rug that could not go into the washing machine.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every day could be well-ordered and peaceful? If I could plan every moment of every day, with a place for everything and everything in its place, so that the day would be divided into neat little packages, each one conveniently timed and located, would I be happy? There wouldn’t be any disasters, but neither would there be any pleasant surprises.

Imagine what it would be like to wake up in the morning to see an identical sunrise at precisely the same moment every day, with the weather predictable and unchanging. When there is non-stop sun, don’t you wish for an occasional cloud that would allow you to use your imagination with its shapes and colouring?

Birthdays and all other celebrations would be regulated, all happening in exactly the same way with, perhaps differences in the presents and the cards, but all pre-ordained according to my express wishes.

Basically, we’d all be living in “boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…and they all look just the same.

On the bus home yesterday evening, I sat looking at some of the people who were waiting for their stop but couldn’t remember if it should be the next one or the one afterwards. I found myself thinking that each of the people before me was and is, uniquely loved by God, but, just looking at the complete strangers, I couldn’t see anything lovable about any of them. Not on the surface, at any rate. In order to love someone, I need to know what is inside them. I can’t judge a book by its cover. Who knows? Some of those individuals on the bus last night might have been some of the most wonderful people on this earth, and I will never have known that I was in contact with greatness….but God would know because he sees what is inside. He knows that some of the most unlikely characters would also be some of the biggest surprises to their neighbours, if only they would open their eyes and their hearts.

Perhaps that is the meaning of the saying, “There is no such thing as a stranger: only a friend whom I’ve not yet met.”

Perhaps spilling my 6am cup of coffee was opening up the day to a vast, undreamed of experience even though it appeared to be nothing other than a mopping-up exercise.

It’s good to leave room for surprises… even the unpleasant ones!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Patient restoration

Work can be a joy or a sorrow.

I’ve just had the privilege of watching two young women whose work is obviously a labour of love and so they gave me joy.

In actual fact, they are restoring a beautiful fountain in the courtyard of the Pontifical Biblical Institute here in Rome, but the transformation they have wrought in approximately two months of concentrated effort has made it even lovelier than before. Suddenly the grey pedestal is not a uniform colour, but is a gentle whirl of different shades that makes me want to just stand still and feast my eyes on its harmony of shape and texture. At the top of the pedestal is a large marble dish, no longer white with lime, but in its original pristine beauty.

Around the base are four, dark grey, stone lions with fish-like tails, curled up over their backs. Thanks to the ravages of four hundred years, the beasts had been missing several curls from their manes, whilst the flowing water had gradually worn away their noses. Thanks to the painstaking work of the two girls, the lions have noses once more and their manes flow in undulating curls.

It was fascinating to watch the youngsters. At the same time, I really admire their patience, because the lions are sculpted from soft volcanic rock. With very tiny paintbrushes, the girls are going over the whole surface of each creature, filling in tiny holes with some sort of silica preservative material. I would have thought them justified in choosing larger brushes because of the length of time their task will take, but no, with the patience of any saint, the smallest possible brushes are being used… and the result will be exquisite.

These two young girls really made me think as I made my way back to the office. A Jesuit friend of mine is fond of saying that a hobby immediately becomes a burden once I t is given the name of work. Perhaps the restoration of the Biblicum’s fountain is a paid hobby for those who are spending so much of their time and energy on it, but precisely because they are involved in creating and re-creating something that is beautiful, it brings beauty into the lives of others.

When I worked in the Accident and Emergency Unit of a large hospital in central London, there were many days when I left work feeling soiled as a result of some of the things I’d seen and heard. Tragically, some people have lives that are quite sordid and devoid of anything that might fill them with peace and joy. It was on days when there had been a father beaten up by his son, a wife who feigned illness so that she wouldn’t have to return home to her violent husband, a 3 year-old whose father had already broken almost every bone in her body at one time or another, I used to leave work feeling that I needed to be cleansed, to immerse myself in something lovely in order to find the balance once more.

We all need beauty, but to appreciate it, we also need patience. If I want to see an open flower, it doesn’t help if I force open the bud, however gently I might prise open the sepals and petals. I can’t force a caterpillar to become a butterfly. Yet the bud and the caterpillar hold all the potential of the flower and the butterfly.

God works gently with us, using a tiny paintbrush instead of a broom, a chisel instead of a pickaxe (although it might not always feel that way!) Why am I not patient with myself and with others? Why do I expect miracles?

At the start of this New Year, may God open my eyes to see the beauty in the world around me and the patience to nurture it to its full flowering.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! May God fill every moment of every day with his love and care for you and for everyone whom you love, foe all those with whom and for whom you work.

I had every intention of writing something for New Year’s Day, but the first of my resolutions was knocked on the head before the bells from St. Paul’s-outside-the-walls managed to strike the first chime of 2007, or before the fireworks from every corner of Rome, which I was fortunate to be able to watch from the terrace of the Beda, had finished their colourful (and noisy) display.

Every spare moment of the whole weekend has been spent trying to create a completely different look for the Pause for Prayer website (, which has never behaved exactly as I would have wished. Things that look perfect on my own computer appear in all sorts of shades and shapes on the community’s computer. I really wanted to do something different for 2007, so spent the whole of Saturday and most of Sunday creating perfection… and the programme crashed. Not to be outdone, I downloaded a free template from the Internet and spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday, New Year’s Day, still wanting to have something new for the New Year. Believe me, it is very difficult to combine concentrated work on a website with the various liturgical and community celebrations associated with the wonderful, incredibly beautiful feast of Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Still, I tried, and managed, by late last night, to be about half-way through the process. Better than nothing, I suppose, even if there is still a great deal to be done.

My website resolution was not the only one to be thwarted. On New Year’s Eve, we had a Holy Hour before welcoming in 2007. I’m not very good at staying up late, so, to keep awake, I took with me an excellent pamphlet that a Capuchin friend of mine has printed. It gives a different theme to every Hail Mary in the Rosary and is wonderful for concentrating the attention… except that I fell asleep.

Even yesterday, I made a wonderful resolution to always look for the best in people, for those beautiful qualities that God has placed in them and nurtures, perhaps unseen by the rest of the world. It was such a beautiful resolution that, five minutes later, I found myself wishing that so-and-so could do likewise instead of always seeing the negative. Ouch!

Every New Year carries a crop of resolutions, some of which survive and many which don’t. Some of them fall by the wayside for no concrete fault of my own. Some of them don’t survive just through sheer physical weakness and an inability to see them through in spite of the willing spirit. (Even Jesus contrasted the willing spirit and the weakness of the flesh!)

There are other resolutions that are real, necessary and are going to take a step-by-step, day-by-day, minute-by-minute approach and will involve many stumbles along the road. Yet these are the ones worth pursuing, the ones that will make me a better person, however slowly. There will be no instant results. Even by the last breath of our bodies, we might not be able to see the difference, but others will and, more importantly, God will also see them. These are the resolutions that involve perseverance, faith and commitment. They are the ones that will mark me out as trying to live my life to the best of my ability, as trying to become the person God intended me to be and whom he knows I can be with a bit of effort on my part. After all, as someone once said, “The saint is the person who kept on trying when everybody else gave up.”

God doesn’t expect us to succeed with all our New Year resolutions. He just wants us to attempt to keep those which are worth keeping, in spite of the struggle. He will supply whatever is lacking, and will love us in spite of our failures. Happy New Year!

God bless,
Sr. Janet