Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The journey

There were thousands of them: migrating birds flying too high for identification as I ran for the bus this morning. Where were they going? From where had they flown? When did they begin their journey and who long would it last? How many would last the distance and how many would die on the way?

Their flight was silent and in unison. There was a determination to their movement, very different, for example, to the swallows that circle, soar and dart in the last couple of weeks before their long voyage to Africa commences. When they test their wings before setting off, there is almost playfulness in their flight. Still full of energy and a good diet of insects still in the vicinity, they can afford to have time to play, full of loveliness as the setting sun creates its own silhouette of their arrow-shaped bodies.

Not so the flock of birds above Rome this morning. They flew quietly and purposefully, still with huge distances and vast expanses of land and ocean yet to be crossed before they could land to take a rest once more. Not all of the birds would reach their destination. At least some would perish on the journey. Perhaps some would find a watery grave.

Yet fear of predators or a long journey did not deter them. None of them had held back, debating whether or not to take the first flap of countless wing beats into the sky. Admittedly they did not have the ability to ponder their courage. Admittedly, instinct played its part, calling them to distant lands. Yet courage there was, and perseverance.

Sometimes we find ourselves setting out on our own journey through life. It might be hard. It might be full of joy, but at the very first step, we do not know what lies ahead. All we know for certain is that, from the moment of birth, to the instant that our eyes close for the last time, we are on a journey, travelling through every moment of every day. Sometimes there is solitude and, on occasion, loneliness. Companions might or might not offer their support. There might be moments of hope and moments of despair. Sunshine and clouds will appear and disappear on the path. Perhaps there will be occasions of fear as well as those of hope. At times, courage will seem to have flown in the opposite direction. At others, over-confidence and a certain brashness might disguise the need for humility, listening and the ability to learn.

Lord, be with us on our journey. Be at its start and at its end.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pain and laughter

Out of curiosity, I recently counted the number of cheerful news items in the top seven headlines this evening. There was one. There were images galore of men, women and children caught in the midst of terrible and undeserved suffering…but then one story led to another.

There are days when one is led to wonder what is happening to the world. Is it all collapsing into mayhem?

…and then, without intending it, the newsreader injected her own little bit of normality into the scene as she moved her head and shoulders. The studio lighting revealed that she had probably ironed her own jacket and hadn’t done the best job of it. The seams were, somehow, irregularly shiny, possibly the result of an iron that had been too hot for the material.

It is very easy to be media-led into believing that the world is ruled by crime and violence. War is just around the corner. Our earth is on the verge of devastation, to be obliterated by ourselves in the course of our daily lives. Even cows chewing the cud in their fields are blamed for their supposedly terrible contribution to global warming.

During the summer I watched a wonderful television programme that followed the growth and development of twins, triplets and quads in their mother’s womb. I don’t know how the images were obtained: perhaps there was a microchip inserted into the lining of the uterus. I don’t know. However, one beautiful scene showed the unborn twins moving closer to each other and even though it had to have been just a question of position and not of intent, it looked as though one twin was kissing the other through the membranes that enclosed them both.

Even from before we are born, we are made for love and for togetherness. We are not created for death, tragedy and destruction. For most of us, life is composed of the mundane details of washing and ironing and of controlling the temperature of the iron with which we make our clothes look presentable. Most of us are not faced with the horrors that accost us through the media.

A recent radio programme described a book written by, I think, an economist. It was filled with so much doom and gloom as he looked at the world’s future that he couldn’t stand it and threw himself from the 30th floor of a skyscraper.

There are tragedies. There are nightmares. People are living through indescribable horrors and deserve our sympathy, prayers and support. But there is also goodness, beauty, love, generosity, compassion, understanding, laughter and all the other lovely things that make life worthwhile. Let us not lose sight of them.

God is a God of laughter as well as a God of love. He has to be. If God could not laugh, neither could we. His is a special laughter. It is the joy of a small child, the giggle of a shared secret, the deep belly laugh of a good joke, the smile of contentment and satisfaction, the grin of inspiration after a struggle, the delighted yell of a pleasant surprise or of an encounter with a long-absent loved one, the serenity of a good night’s sleep.

As we pray for all those who are facing any difficulties, we also pray that they will know laughter.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It is logical, if you think about it. The people who live in some of the coldest parts of the world tend to be blonde and have blue eyes. Those who live in the hottest areas usually have black hair and are many shades of brown.

Scientists decided that the percentage of melanin in our skin helps to protect us against heat or cold. There's no question of whether or not one is better or worse for having a high or a low proportion: it is merely a difference that has developed over the centuries so that we can live more comfortably in our natural environment.

When I was teaching in Australia, I decided to test this theory and asked my class to, first of all, put a hand in hot water and to time for how long they could keep it there. I also asked the youngsters to take an ice cube, hold it as tightly as possible for as long as possible and, once more, to time themselves.

The result was fascinating. Making allowances for those who were in the middle group in which many of the peoples of Central Europe origin would find themselves, the blonde students were able to hold an ice cube for much longer than those with dark hair and vice versa with the hot water. Now the results were in no way statistically significant, but it was intriguing.

Another interesting phenomenon concerning weather arose in a report on television. Apparently a town in Finland, I think it was, has the highest rainfall in Europe and so children are trained from their earliest days, to cope with rain. I could identify with that because, coming from England, I find that I am a better weather forecaster than many Italians living in Rome, where life is not nearly as soggy and there is nothing like the pressure to live a normal life in spite of constantly varying weather patterns. In fact there is a saying that "Other countries have climate. In England we have weather and it is so varied that it forms an unending topic of conversation."


...but aren't we not amazingly fortunate that our bodies are programmed to cope with differences in our surroundings?

Isn't the world incredible, that we do not have an unchanging environment and have the opportunity to glory in the pink dawn of a beautiful day just as much as the angry red clouds of an impending storm? Are there not some days when a breeze is a blessing and others when a wind that whips up the leaves into a frenzy of autumn loveliness?

Thank God for differences. They are what make this world our home!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

La Bocca

In the centre of Rome, in a corner of a very old building, there’s a stone carving of a face, surrounded by wild hair. The eyes of the carving are wide open and staring into the eyes of the person who approaches it. The mouth of the same carving is stretched wide, almost as if it was laughing, but the mouth is a wide-open hole, just big enough for someone to insert his or her hand.

The carving is called ‘La Bocca’ or ‘The Mouth’.

Two thousand years ago, La Bocca was in regular use, and not just as a tourist attraction. People who were thought to be telling lies, or those who wanted to prove that they were telling the truth, would come to La Bocca, surrounded by a crowd of witnesses. Once they reached the carving, the person concerned had to extend their arm and put their hand inside the mouth. The understanding was that if someone were telling a lie, that person would not be able to withdraw his or her hand from La Bocca. It would be stuck. Everybody would be able to see for him or herself that they had met a liar.

I don’t know how reliable La Bocca was in sorting out the liars and the truth-tellers. It seemed to me that anybody whose hand is reasonably slim could easily put their hand into and pull it out, of the mouth of the carving. It looked as though anybody with a big hand might have difficulty, whether or not that person was a liar. Perhaps the liars were so afraid of La Bocca that they confessed their lie before having to put it to the test.

There are times today when something like La Bocca would be very useful. There are times when we are faced with someone who is telling a very plausible story that could be true. Yet at the same time, we might have a slight doubt that what we are hearing is the truth. It would be so useful to be able to know for certain whether we are hearing the truth or a lie.

We depend a great deal on truth in our daily lives. Without truth there cannot be trust. There cannot be unity and cooperation between individuals, between families, between countries. Each of us has had the experience of being disappointed when we have discovered that someone we trusted has lied to us. Each of us has, at some stage in our lives, been found out telling a lie. Sometimes the lie is obvious. We’ve all seen children who, for instance, are adamant that they did not eat a piece of bread and jam, but have the marks of jam all around their mouths. With good guidance, children grow out of that sort of lie.

Truth and falsehood can have serious consequences. What about the liar who occupies a position of importance? What happens when a patient lies about his symptoms? What are the consequences when someone in public office lies about corrupt practices, or a husband lies to his wife about his unfaithfulness?

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he didn’t want to hear the answer. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Am I prepared to listen?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, November 19, 2007

It is only a foot

It is only a foot, but it is my foot. It is not painful, but it should be. The fact that there is no pain sends a shudder of terror down my spine. It is my foot and all too easy to see that it is red and blistered. There is a terrible scald down my ankle and the length of my upper foot, but there is no pain and it is not as if I have taken a painkiller, because I have taken nothing.

The frightening thing is that I know what this absence means: I have leprosy. I have truly become identified with those for whom I care here on Molokai. That thought gives me sheer joy, but the realisation that this identification is so complete that I, too, have leprosy is, at this moment, almost more than I can bear.

Although there are scientists searching for the cause of this deadly disease and perhaps they will, one day, discover a treatment, at the moment, there is nothing. It is a death sentence. That is why they, we, are here on Molokai.

My beloved lepers were sent here, away from their families and friends, abandoning their homes and all that they loved, so that they could be isolated and that the spread of their contagion to another person. It is the only thing that society knows at this point in time: condemnation to a life of loneliness and increasing isolation, cut off from the world and damned to a life of increasing sickness for which there is no cure. Yes, they help each other, but they are limited.

At one time the Church prescribed a funeral Mass for someone with leprosy. That person had truly become dead to the world. How can I forget the image of the ship setting sail from the harbour with its tragic cargo of lepers? How can I forget the misery on the faces of the patient and also on the faces of those who stood on the quayside, bidding farewell to someone they would never see again? Occasionally one of the inhabitants of Molokai would escape back to the mainland, unable to bear the loneliness and sadness of the colony, longing to see a beloved person one last time, for the escapee knew the penalty: to be shot on sight. It was an attempt to safeguard the general population, but one misery compounded another. What guilt was there in loving so much that life became worthless by comparison?

It was because of the sadness that I saw in the faces of people who were good and innocent of any wrongdoing that I volunteered to come to Molokai. I could help them, bring them the comfort of the Sacraments and of a daily Mass which all could attend as equals, regardless of their disfigurement and former life. Surely our loving Father would have removed the sins from the souls of our beloved lepers…I use the word ‘our’ because if I love them, how much more does God have a special place for them in his heart.

I knew that, when I came to Molokai, sooner or later, if I behaved as a priest towards the inhabitants of the island, I would, one day, become one of them. I knew what I was doing. I just had not expected the dread that fills me now that I can see that I have caught the disease. Of course, others might have suspected it earlier. I can never forget my anguish when I wanted to obtain absolution from a priest who was travelling with the ship that brings us supplies and was forbidden to board. Instead, he stood at the side of the ship whilst I remained in my boat, confessing my sins aloud to the world’s hearing. He was as embarrassed as I to pronounce the words of absolution at high volume. We both wept when it was over, but we could offer each other no quick hug of understanding and comfort. The Captain merely weighed anchor and started to head back to the mainland.

Well, now is the beginning of the end for me, too. I have seen the sores that often cover the entire skin surface of my beloved lepers whilst inside they are as pure and innocent as a newborn. Now I am one of them. I know the course of the illness and I am afraid, yet, at the same time, I am filled with a deep joy that God has granted me the grace to be one with them in suffering. Perhaps my own suffering will help and encourage them. Who knows?

“It is the memory of having lain under the funeral pall twenty-five years ago--the day of my vows--that led me to brave the danger of contracting this terrible disease in doing my duty here and trying to die more and more to myself… the more the disease advances, I find myself content and happy. The work of the lepers is in good hands and I am no longer necessary, so I shall go up yonder.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Teresa of Avila receives a soaking

Lord, this is just far too much and I am not at all happy with you! You might have an infinite sense of humour, but I do not. You may be laughing, but I am not! I do not appreciate the trick you have just played on me! I do not enjoy standing beside a muddy stream, soaked to the skin, whilst the Sisters and I have to decide how to retrieve our overturned cart from the water. Even the donkey appears to be laughing, but I am not!

First of all, I am cold and wet. Secondly, as I have no change of clothing, it means continuing on my journey still cold and wet whilst waiting for my clothes to dry on me. Thirdly, you gave me a fright when the cart tipped over into the stream: until then I had been, alternately, peacefully thinking about you and dozing. Would you like it if you were to be suddenly catapulted into mid-air into muddy water? You would not be best pleased and neither am I!

In fact, thanks to you, I have grazed my knee and stubbed a toe into the bargain. My wrist is also sore where I banged it on the stones that form the bed of the stream into which you have thrown me. Yes. I am blaming you and not the donkey! You knew that the donkey would stumble. You knew that the cart would overturn and you did nothing, absolutely nothing, to stop it happening.

If this is the way you treat your friends, it is no surprise that you have so few of them!

Well, Your Majesty, I have now had my say. I am not asking that you should have performed a miracle for my benefit. I know that you do not work in that way, but life is hard enough without you sending extra difficulties to accompany me on my journey. It is not easy having to travel between all the convents, encouraging and exhorting the Sisters to adhere more strongly to our Carmelite way of life. Yes, I do receive a great deal of support from people such as Fr. John of the Cross, but he, too, receives opposition from the members of his own Order. Why is it, Lord, that people are reluctant to change their ways and cling to you more closely?

Of course, I do know something of the answer. I was 40 years old before I realised the enormity of all that was expected of me if I were to truly live the life of a Carmelite nun. I admit that my youth, even inside the convent, was frivolous and given to finding pleasure. I enjoyed all the visits from the young men of Avila even if I put a religious construct on their appearances for ‘spiritual advice’. Yes, I know that I was good-looking and that my Carmelite robes somehow enhanced that, but it was so difficult for me to really and truly put away the pleasure I had found in dancing and singing before I left my home. Yes, Your Majesty, I did live my life at a superficial level and it was no wonder, really, that I was not happy.

It was then that I began to find you even amongst the pots and pans in the kitchen. I began to sense your presence everywhere and, little by little, I fell in love with you. Eventually, but only after a struggle, I was able to place my heart in your hands, knowing that I need not be afraid.

…but perhaps I would have been afraid if I had known that you would tip me into this stream!

Well, Lord, even if I am very cold and dripping wet, I still love you. Help me to love you more.

"Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing afright you.
All things are passing.
God alone is changeless.
He who has patience wants for nothing.
He who has God has all things.
God alone suffices."

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Scholastica foils Benedict

I love my sister, but this is beyond a joke!

Of course, it was good to see her and I was as happy to be with her as she was to be with me. We had so many things to discuss because it was quite some time since we were together.

It was inevitable that we should begin to talk about heavenly matters because it is something we have done since we were small children. Neither of us noticed that the time was flying past, so captivated were we at the thought of all that God has done for us.

She is a very holy woman, Scholastica, so that she has had many insights that have touched my soul and have guided my path. Not that I would necessarily tell her exactly how impressed I am with her goodness. A brother has never done that for a sister, has he? In any case, it is sometimes embarrassing to know how highly she regards me and so I do what I can to bring her down to earth. On other occasions, when I think I am progressing quite nicely, she cuts me down to size with the sort of commonsense comment that only a truly loving family member can level at another.

This afternoon, Scholastica came to visit me. I did not mind too much that I was drawn away from my customary period of prayer because our conversation was so caught up in things of God that we broke off from time to time in order to reflect on the words of each other. If that is not prayer, then I don’t know what is.

The trouble came when we realised how late it had become. The sky was becoming dark and so I suggested to Scholastica that it was time for her to leave. She refused, so I insisted. After all, I did not want her to stay overnight in the monastery. What would the monks have said?

Scholastica decided to take things into her own hands. She can be incredibly stubborn, you know.

My sister sat where she was and prayed for a moment. Naturally, I did not want to stop her. I half-thought she might be praying for me before we parted. Hah! If I had known she was actually asking God to keep her here for the night, I would have called a halt, even to prayer. There are some acts of God that are downright inconvenient…such as this one.

Scholastica’s prayer was answered immediately. The sky suddenly became as light as day and there was a massive clap of thunder. Rain began to pour from the heavens in torrents. How could I possibly allow her to leave?

Scholastica looked up from her prayer with a grin that I can only describe as triumphantly wicked! She and God together had foiled me! She could not return to her convent tonight. My sister was not ready for us to terminate our conversation and it looks as though God had the same idea. What do I do when confronted by their joint determination?

I give up!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Margaret Clitherow anticipates her execution

My dearest husband and children, who would have ever thought that our greatest fears would come true and that I would be facing death within three days from now, even though I have made no plea either of innocence or of guilt.

I could say nothing. You know that. If I had declared that I had been hiding priests in the house, then not only would they have been at risk, but so would you, whom I love so much. Could I have even thought for one moment of endangering you? Never! Those who had attended Mass, however secretly, would also have been put in peril of a brutal death. You would have been forced to testify against me and I could not have you faced with the dilemma of either being untruthful or, instead, condemning your wife and mother to death.

Neither could I myself say that I had not harboured priests and have sent them safely on their way, for that would have been a lie. Even if it means that I will die a death which chills me to the bone with fear, I will not lie.

I took the middle path and refused to testify in court, even though the lawyers tried to frighten me with the consequences. They succeeded in one thing: they truly terrified me. The consequences of my silence are as severe as an admission of guilt.

Peine forte et dure. That is the penalty. Tomorrow I will be removed from this prison cell and will be forced to lie on the ground, where they will fasten me so that I cannot move. The judge showed a little leniency because if he had adhered to the strict letter of the law, I should be naked, but he has relented and has allowed me to wear a light cotton shift that I have made in anticipation. He has also allowed that, on alternate days, I will be allowed to drink a little puddle water, but will be denied food. On the second day, I can eat some bread, but cannot drink.

“You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.”

My dear family, the words of the judge are engraved in my soul. Is it any wonder that I am afraid? I would have loved it so much if I had been allowed to continue serving in our little butcher’s shop in The Shambles. I enjoyed that work, you know, because it gave me so many opportunities for meeting and helping people. It was easy to pass on messages about the dates and times when a priest would be available for Mass and the Sacraments. I suppose it was also the way in which I was discovered. There was a young Flemish boy who passed on information to the authorities when they intimidated him and promised to kill him. I cannot blame him for showing them where I had hidden the vestments and the chalices.

John, my dear husband, I have been so proud of you. You have been good to all of us. You know as well as I do that although I reverted to Catholicism and you chose not to do so, your brother was one of the priests who found safety in our home. You were so good not to admit that our son is himself studying for the priesthood.

Henry, William and Anne, as you can see, I have taught myself to read and write whilst I have been in prison awaiting my trial. There is so much that I would say to you, my dearest children, but just know this, that however much your father and I love you, God loves you even more. "I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial." This was my message at the trial and it remains my defence. Be strong. Give your lives to our beloved Lord.

I now take my leave of you all. I love you with all my heart. Pray for me that I might be strong to endure the death that I must soon die.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thomas More receives a visit from his daughter

Meg! Meg! My darling, beloved daughter, has any father ever loved and admired his child as I love and admire you? My pride in you is boundless. I know that your love for me is every bit as great as mine for you, but can you not see that your words are foolish? I know that they are spoken from the depths of your heart and that all you are doing is to try to save me from the executioner’s axe, but even though I do not want to die, I cannot go against my conscience. It is in my conscience that I am at home with my Lord and, whatever the cost, I cannot deny my God.

I cannot say aloud that the determination of the King to marry Ann Boleyn is wrong because if, in court, you are asked if you ever head me criticise Henry, you can then, with your own clear conscience, say that I have never spoken any criticism of the King in your presence. I must carry my own condemnation of his intentions in the silence of my heart and let the law take its course.

You say that the law is an unjust law, but I cannot allow you to say even that. Without the law, where would we be? It is a protection and a freedom and, even if it cost me my life, I stay within the law. I have said none wrong. I have done none wrong, and if this is not enough to save me from the gallows, then so be it.

But, my darling Meg, you look so worried as you sit there speaking about a possible way out of this cold cell. I could sign the document allowing the King to marry his mistress, but deny my consent in my heart. That is dishonest. What would people say? That Thomas More had finally given way on the very subject that had led to his fall from office and that had led to this cell in the Tower of London? What example would that be? Even if others have signed, I cannot. Neither could Bishop John Fisher. It was just this morning that, as I looked from this tiny window, I saw him being led out on his journey towards Tyburn. I watched him leave through Traitor’s gate, and as the barge disappeared from view, I reflected that never was there a man who was less of a traitor than he. My heart is breaking that, in this country of England, such a saintly old man is put to death for following his conscience.

I, too, will die, but I am far from being a saint. I am afraid of death. I would choose any loophole if it would save me from the executioner’s block whilst not denying my conscience. It is an agony beyond anything that I can bear to see my beloved family reduced to poverty simply because I cannot find that loophole that would allow me to sign the document without denying my God. One man. One wife. That is the way God made us. He did not create us to drop one wife when convenient in order to take up another. That is why I cannot sign.

My dearest Meg, do you remember when you were a child and had committed some misdemeanour, that I would beat you with a feather? I could not bear to cause you hurt. I could not bear to see you denied an education merely because you were a girl. I know of no other woman who can speak and write Latin as fluently as you. You are a highly intelligent, wonderful daughter, so please use a bit of your cleverness now and see that what you are asking is impossible. It is causing me more pain because I must deny you when, God knows, I long to be back with the family.

Leave me, Meg. Go and marry Will Roper. I know that you have given your hearts to each other. He is a fine young man even if he still has some growing-up to do. He is still a bit hot-headed, but with your unwavering love and support, he will make you a good husband and will be a loving father to your children.

Leave me, Meg, even if it breaks my heart to see you go. I appreciate that your words are an attempt to save my life and I know that, deep down, you knew that this would be a vain attempt but one you would make in any case. Deny Him, Meg, I cannot, even though it leaves me faint and afraid.

Go, my beloved daughter, live your life as I must lay down my own.

"Mistrust him, Meg, will I not, though I feel me faint, yea, and though I should feel my fear even at point to overthrow me too, yet shall I remember how Saint Peter, with a blast of wind, began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray him to help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand unto me, and in the stormy seas, hold me up from drowning. Yea and if he suffer me to play Saint Peter further, and to fall full to the ground, and swear and forswear too (which our Lord for his tender passion keep me from, and let me lose if it so fall and never win thereby): yet after shall I trust that his goodness will cast upon me his tender piteous eye, as he did upon Saint Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh, and abide the shame and the harm here of mine own fault.

"And finally, Margaret, this I know well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall therefore with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he suffer me for my faults to perish, yet shall I then serve for a praise of his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy. And therefore mine own good daughter, never trouble thy mind for anything that ever shall hap me in this world. Nothing can come but that that God will. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

PS The last two paragraphs are taken from St. Thomas More's final letter to Meg

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bernadette looks back

I honestly was not thinking about appearances as I walked back from the grotto. My mother was annoyed with me, saying that people had laughed at me, making made rude remarks, but I did not hear a single thing. That is honestly true. My mind was just so caught up in everything that had happened that nothing else registered. I cannot even remember walking through the town. I suppose I must have done so because I found myself at home and I certainly did not fly!

So much has happened since we went to the grotto at Massabielle. I was feeling breathless and so stayed behind whilst my sister Toinette and her friend Jeanne gathered firewood. We did not want me to have another asthma attack, especially away from home, so none of us wanted me to wade through the bitterly cold waters of the River Gave.

That was when I first saw the Lady. She was so beautiful: slim, dressed in white and wearing a blue sash of such an exquisite blue it might have been cut from a piece of the sky itself. She spoke to me with a voice that reminded me of the breeze sighing through the leaves, or of a lark soaring into the heavens and signing as it flies. The time passed by in an instant and suddenly, there was the bare rock once again.

I saw the Lady eighteen times in all. The Abbé told me that I must ask her name, but she would not tell me that immediately. He was afraid that I was seeing an apparition of the Devil, but I knew that the Devil could never fill me with such a sense of peace and happiness. In any case, can you imagine Satan wanting to pray the Rosary? Never!

It was when I saw the Lady for the ninth time that she told me to drink from the spring near the river. I knew that there was no water there, that there was just a bare rock upon which I had sat on many occasions, but there was something about her words that made me long to obey her.

I remember climbing up the rock and then scraping the ground with my finger. A little water welled up, which the Lady instructed me to drink. It was rather muddy, so I discarded the first three handfuls and only drank the fourth. It was rather muddy. I have no idea for how long afterwards that I remained at the grotto. It seemed as though it was only a moment. The Lady disappeared and I went home. It was as simple as that as far as I was concerned, except that people saw my muddy face and laughed. I was completely unaware that I had mud on my face. My only thought was of the beautiful Lady. I love her so much.

It was exactly one month later that, in response to my repeated requests on behalf of the Abbé and from the bishop, the Lady finally told me her name. They seemed overawed and were speechless. “I am the Immaculate Conception.” I really do not understand the importance of those words. How could I? I am just a simple peasant girl from Lourdes. Whatever she calls herself, she will always be my Lady and I will always love her dearly.

My Lady, I love you so much.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Francis reflects on the Lady Clare

Her hair lies in my hand. It is beautiful: long, blonde and gently curling. It was both a joy and a pain to cut it. Yet now, her hair is in my hand and her shorn head covered with a veil. It is a sign to all the world that the Lady Clare has chosen to dedicate her life to God, that she has rejected the wealth and the nobility that were hers until a few minutes ago, and still could be should she regret the step that she has taken.

Yet I believe that something very rare and beautiful has happened, something that I find hard to put into words. I truly believe that God has touched her heart and has called her to himself. I truly believe that God has asked her to count everything as loss compared to the true riches of knowing and loving him.

Clare’s heart is like a garden filled almost to bursting with beautiful flowers. I can think of no better description, for what is more lovely than a flower…or birdsong…or the sun…or the moon…? It is difficult to draw an exact comparison because if I reflect on one aspect of Creation that speaks to me of my Lord, I think of another which is just as beautiful in its own way. Is it not amazing the way in which the whole of the Universe is merely a reflection, and a poor one at that, of the Father who made them?

I confess to feeling somewhat confused. How could I have dreamed that in my own following of the Crucified and in falling in love with my dearest Lady Poverty, that others would be drawn to a similar path? I had never planned to attract followers, especially not someone like the Lady Clare, and yet, if I think of the magnetic wonder of the words of my Lord, how could others not feel drawn to him? If the Lord is choosing me as an instrument, then so be it, but he has certainly chosen the weakest, humblest, smallest and most unworthy tool in his entire collection.

Lady Clare. If I think of her, I also think of my beloved Lady Poverty. Are the two one and the same? No, for Lady Poverty was with Jesus even on the Cross. When he was fastened there, so was she. If anybody was truly Lady Poverty, then who could match his mother? Yet Lady Poverty was even more than she, much as she was uniquely blessed. Whereas Mary’s heart was with Jesus on the Cross, Lady Poverty was holding her in her embrace and, at the same time, was entirely nailed to the Cross with her Lord, pierced by the same nails, experiencing the same sense of destitution and rejection by the very ones whom he had loved so dearly.

Yet Clare also has a feeling for Poverty. If she did not, then how else could she have left her family and all the comforts of her station?

Now, as I kneel before the Crucified here, in the little church of San Damiano, I remember the moment when he spoke to me and told me to rebuild his Church, which, as I could see, was falling into disrepair. At the time, I thought he meant only to find stones to replace those that had fallen to the ground or had been carted off for other purposes.

If the Lord is sending me followers whom I have not sought, is he perhaps asking for something different? If he is calling others to search for him in the company of Lady Poverty and has even called the Lady Clare, what is he saying? Is he inviting us to something beyond a physical building? Is he calling us to a deeper union with him through the Gospel? How do we find out what he is saying? How do we follow him on a path that is untrodden but on which he has also blazed the trail?

Lord, teach me what I should do. Teach us to be open to all that you are telling us in our hearts.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clare considers her future

He is just a young man from the other side of Assisi, a failed soldier, a youth who has helped to build the defensive walls around the city in order to protect us from the attacks of the Perugians. We have never even spoken to each other. We are of a different class altogether: he, the son of a merchant and I, the daughter of an ancient noble family. Yet why do I feel so drawn to all that he says and does? Why do I find myself listening to the gossip of the servants and of the visitors who pass by our house? Why do I find myself hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he walks through the town, dressed as a beggar and asking for stones to rebuild the ruined church of San Damiano, some distance down the hillside? Why do I find myself walking in that direction, often without planning to do so, but my feet seeming to have a will of their own?

The tapestry needle has fallen still in my hands, which are also now motionless on my lap. My thoughts are far from the design that I have been creating for so long.

It is strange. Even a young girl such as I, hidden within the care of my family, could not but hear of the young man, Francesco Bernadone. I heard the story of how he went out to fight a battle, dressed in costly armour, and then returned without even drawing his sword to fight. There were so many critics who called him a coward and bade him to put his money where his mouth was, for before he set off, he had long been boasting of his aim to become a famous knight.

Yet he did put his money exactly where his mouth was: he stripped himself naked in the Square and returned his fine clothes to his father. “Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernadone ‘father’. From henceforth I have only one Father: God”. I heard of how the bishop covered Francesco with his own cloak.

The townsfolk were scandalised. Even Bernadone’s enemies felt pity for him when they saw the anguish in his face. As for the Lady Pica, there was not a woman in Assisi who did not want to embrace her to soothe her heartbroken sobbing.

Yet, although I also felt the agony of the parents, there was something about Francesco’s gesture that made me long to follow him and do the same. Not, of course, to stand in the Square in my nakedness, but, yes, for my heart and soul to be naked, open before the Lord who also seems to be calling me to something I cannot yet define. There is something about the actions of Francesco that fan to a burning brightness the little ember that has been burning inside my own heart.

What should I do? I cannot follow Francesco into the woods. What would people say? Yet, at the same time, when he speaks of having fallen in love with Lady Poverty, he makes me think of my Lord, who was truly poor and who was so tender and caring to all those who were suffering.

I have tried to do all those things that I feel my Lord would be asking of me. I take food from the kitchens in order to feed the lepers. I send food down to Francesco and his companions as they work at San Damiano. I try to be kind and charitable to all. I spend long hours in prayer and yet I still feel as though I have done absolutely nothing with my life. Somehow it is as if God is not satisfied with my efforts. It is as if, until now, I have only given him a part of myself whereas he wants my whole heart and my whole soul.

What should I do? Would it help if I were to speak with Francesco? Would he accept me as a follower as he travels towards the Lord? How would he advise me? He has fallen in love with his Lady Poverty and has divested himself of everything except his desire for total unity with her. Francesco would understand. My heart belongs to God. I want my body and soul to also belong totally within the loving embrace of my Lord.

Will Jesus speak to me through the words of Francesco?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The last lotus

This following story, taken from the poem ‘Fruit-Gathering’ by the Indian poet Tagore, is something I found so beautiful that I had to share it. It might not be Christian, but as with so much of his work, it is so easily Christianised.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sudâs, the gardener, plucked from his tank the last lotus left by the ravage of winter and went to sell it to the king at the palace gate.

There he met a traveller who said to him, "Ask your price for the last lotus, -I shall offer it to Lord Buddha."

Sudâs said, "If you pay one golden coin it will be yours.

The traveller paid it.

At that moment the king came out and he wished to buy the flower, for he was on his way to see Lord Buddha, and he thought, "It would be a fine thing to lay at his feet the lotus that bloomed in winter."

When the gardener said he had been offered a golden coin the king offered him ten, but the traveller doubled the price.

The gardener, being greedy, imagined a greater gain from him for whose sake they were bidding. He bowed and said, "I cannot sell this lotus."

In the hushed shade of the mango grove beyond the city wall Sudâs stood before Lord Buddha, on whose lips sat the silence of love and whose eyes beamed peace like the morning star of the dew-washed autumn.

Sudâs looked in his face and put the lotus at his feet and bowed his head to the dust.

Buddha smiled and asked, "What is your wish, my son?"

Sudâs cried, "The least touch of your feet."

Monday, November 05, 2007

Still the same

Its ceilings and walls are covered with symbols that would be recognised only by the Christians who slipped into the villa from the street. From the outside, nobody would know that the house was used as a church. Images of twisting vines, baskets of bread and fish, doves carrying olive twigs, dolphins and anchors, a banquet, a typically Roman matron with her son on her lap, a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders, flowing streams, men collecting rainwater as it poured down in torrents from the sky, a group of seated people eating an al fresco picnic of bread and fish… who would know that each was a symbol with a meaning that today, two thousand years after they were first painted, we still have not plummeted to the depths?

Situated on the perimeter of the Forum, was this house church active when Peter and Paul were imprisoned in the Mamertine, literally only a seven-minute walk away? Might the owners of this house have been amongst the very first recipients of Paul’s letters, written in that same prison? Might they have been responsible for preparing and delivering food to the incarcerated Apostles? Was this a house where the Apostles themselves were familiar guests? Did Peter and Paul drink water from the two wells still clearly visible (and functional if their protective covers were to be removed)?

Before ever there was the freedom to build churches, this was one of the houses where the remains of martyrs were brought and kept with love: Philip, James, Denis… That is why the church that, today, houses the villa is more than worthy of its name of The Most Holy Twelve Apostles (Sanctissimi Dodici Apostoli), for how many left this house only to find themselves prisoners and the intended victims in the Colosseum, a mere half-mile away? How many came here to find some comfort after their friends and relatives received a death sentence and were executed after unspeakable torture?

How many non-Christian visitors to the house would have realised that they were seeing scenes of the Good Shepherd, whose death on the Cross was too horrible for the early Church to portray? Would they have known that before their eyes was a scene of the feeding of the Five Thousand, or the Living Water that had come down from Heaven? The Last Supper, especially with only seven men gathered around the table (seven being a ‘perfect’ number with mystical significance) would have been beyond their understanding.

But what about the woman and the baby? That was easy even for a pagan to understand – or was it? There are two images in which the woman and her son are identical except for size. Both are clad in white robes on which a broad blue band extends vertically from shoulder to hem, and yet, even then, there is a difference. These are not mere pictures: they are statements of faith in the Incarnation. It is not a coincidence that the smaller of the two scenes shows the mother and child receiving caskets of gifts from three foreigners… the Magi? This is a very, very early Nativity scene!

Neither is it a coincidence that the larger picture is merely a handspan above the altar under which were placed the remains of the martyr, Denis, in an alcove in which one or two of the tombstones are marked with the strange (to an outsider) markings of a palm, a dove or a chi-rho.

The artists died centuries ago, never knowing that their devotional images, providing not only decoration but also instruction to the illiterate, would also teach us, the continuity of all that we believe today. The Gospel stories are unmistakably there for us to see in freedom and without fear of our lives. Their narratives also show us something else that is intrinsic to life today.

From the very earliest days of Christianity, a woman was honoured only in second place to her Son. A woman was deliberately painted over the tombs of martyrs even if they were men who had died. A woman is shown receiving tribute on behalf of her Son, a woman who, in a marginally older fresco on the other side of Rome, is shown, again over an altar in her honour, receiving food and drink from the midwives who had just helped her give birth to a Son.

Mary, you were there, at the very beginning of the Church, giving hope and courage in the face of unspeakable risks. Be with us today. Two thousand years later, we still need a mother.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Walk on the path and look upwards, through the branches, through the leaves of the trees along the way. See the blueness of the sky pierce the gaps, the sun reflect on the leaves as they shimmer in the breeze and there is the mirrored face of the Lord who created them. Watch as, through the year, the stark twigs gradually become green, slowly mantled in loveliness, a beauty that changes as the days and the months go by. The colour of early Spring is not that of Midsummer, or even that which hints at the forthcoming hues of Autumn. The russet and gold that, sun-kissed, set the hillsides on fire with their majestic tones, themselves give way to the bareness of Winter once more.

Yet, in each tree, is God. The tree is not God, but it is his messenger.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Listen to the silence, the real silence, born through a quietened heart. It is not without sound. There is the melody of the birdsong, each species with its own unique melody. Sometimes it is a chorus, occasionally, a solo. It is always a harmony, so that even the raucous crow plays its part. In the silence is a quietness that grows ever deeper until it pierces the soul. The universe becomes the song of feathered minstrels, most of them unseen.

In each bird is God, yet God is not the birds, which are merely his creations. Their orchestra is his messenger.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Stroll down to the water’s edge and watch the ripples catch the sunlight or the moonlight. Sunbeams and moonbeams dance on the surface, so utterly free that they fill the vastness of the sky, yet can still be trapped by a ripple and thereby bring heaven to earth. The sun and the moon both create their pathways on the water, and yet, if a foot is outstretched to tread their gold and silver, they disappear. Their roads are intangible, but they lead, unwaveringly, to a distant horizon by a path that always travels from the very point at which you stand, gazing at their loveliness. A moonbeam and a sunbeam can never appear together. One is of the night and the other of the day. One is gentle, the other pulsing with energy. Both embrace their own truth, touching the heart in their own unique way.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Look inside, past the clutter of daily life, to all that is most real. There, in the midst of your deepest longings, the loveliness of your beautiful qualities and talents placed there by a loving God, nurtured in the silence and solitude of stillness, that is where God is to be found. Perhaps you have had your difficulties in life, but whereas there have been the failures, there have also been the successes, perhaps unseen even by you. Yet God has witnessed them and has, through the stumbling and the efforts to make a new start, has drawn you even closer to himself.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, November 02, 2007

Right to life, right to die

Many people used to stop by my computer to look at the picture I had on the desktop. I was not surprised. I liked it myself, which is why I put it there in the first place.

The black and white picture showed a very new baby, held up in the air by two hands: that of its mother and father. The infant sucked its thumb, even in its sleep. Just above its little chest, a light glowed softly. The hands and the light seemed to say that there were three people involved in the little life, curled up in peaceful sleep: its mother, father and God.

Yet sometimes the wonder of life is trivialised in a world where so much is disposable that human life can also be put onto the rubbish heap.

Working as a midwife, mine was the privilege of being the very first person ever to have seen the baby emerging from its mother. There was a uniquely special feeling of being ‘in’ on the act of Creation. One of the most unforgettable joys of my life was when an unborn baby took hold of my finger and refused to let go.
Unfortunately, I had to release my finger from the tiny hand. After all, the baby had to be born and its hand was in the way, even if infinitely precious and in spite of my wanting to treasure that moment of closeness.

We hear a great deal today about the “abortion issue” and “the right to die debate”. Life is not an issue or a debate. Those who are doing all the talking can sometimes forget that they are only able to voice their opinions because they themselves are alive and that someone loved them into being.

Thank God that there are those who are willing to stand up for the defenceless.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 01, 2007

‘Viva Christo Re!’

It was a chance remark that was not a chance. A Cuban Jesuit remarked that one of the 498 martyrs beatified last Sunday was a Cuban seminarian studying in Spain at the time when approximately 7,000, including two bishops, were killed in the country’s convents, religious institutions and seminaries.

“He was given the chance of returning to Cuba, but he said that he wanted to stay with his professors and fellow students even if it meant being killed. As he died, he flung up his arms and shouted, ‘Viva Christo Re!’”

“Long live Christ the King!”

This seminarian, whose name I do not know, was so young. How was it that in the few short years that were given him, he reached the point of welcoming martyrdom, turning down the possibility of safety in favour of staying with others whom he knew would also be martyrs? In the inevitable fear of the last few moments of his existence on earth, how did he possess such complete confidence in his Lord that his final words were a declaration of the importance of Jesus, not only in his own life, but, as Christ the King, also important to the whole world?

The decision to remain in Spain during a period of religious persecution, especially when given the chance of freedom and security in his own country, was one that was made in the cold, clear light of reason. Nobody makes such a choice on the spur of the moment. Nobody in their right mind chooses to throw away their own life when it is full of meaning and promise.

Did the young man not think that, if he were to return to Cuba, he could reach his already declared goal of priesthood? Did he not, even briefly, visualise the day of his ordination and imagine himself offering the Eucharist to the people who would attend his Mass? Did he not think of his family, friends and those whom he loved, whom he would not see again in this life?

Of course all those thoughts went through his mind, because if they had not, then he was no martyr: he was a fool who discarded his life in somebody else’s cause. If he were not fully aware of the consequences of his choice, then it was mindless. It was a waste, not a sacrifice, of his young life. He would have stayed with his companions, not because of solidarity in faith and commitment, but because he had followed the herd instinct that we see in cattle or sheep. He did not stay because he was unafraid because courage does not mean fearlessness. Courage means doing what is right in spite of fear. The reckless are not brave.

The decision to stay and face death was made in the cold, clear light of day. The young man did not choose to die, but if death were the consequence of a life given to his Lord, then so be it.

The new Blesseds died such a short time ago in 1936. Their relatives and friends were amongst the 70,000 in St. Peter’s Square. What were their thoughts? How many of the thousands present would have chosen to act in the same way as the young seminarian? We do not know. The vast majority of us will never be put to that sort of test. We are, however, all called to give our lives for Christ the King. That is why today is the feast of All Saints, those living and those who have died and have gone home before us.

‘Viva Christo Re!’

God bless,
Sr. Janet