Sunday, November 30, 2008

Finishing an era

You have probably noticed that, over the past few months, I have had to change the frequency of the refelctions that I have been both sending as an e-mail and also putting up on my blogspots 'Pause for Prayer'.
The reason is simple: I am doing a considerable amount of writing as part of my normal daily work for the Pontifical Mission Societies and there is a limit to the amount of writing that I can do in one day.
As a result, I have had to come to the decision to bring 'Pause for Prayer' to an end, although I will try to maintain the website 'Pause and Pray' ( for a while longer.
I am sorry that this should be so. During the past four years, I very grateful to God for the number of people who have written to say that they have appreciated and even shared my efforts. There have been many times when I have been privileged to accompany others, even unknowingly, on their journey towards God.
There have been many times when you have taught and enriched me.
Thank you so much for all your support during the past four years.
I will continue to post prayer requests on the Pause and Pray Prayer Board and will also update 'Monastic Meditations'.
Hopefully, from time to time, I will also update the site in other ways.
May God bless and protect you and yours,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

‘A better offer’

Just back from the funeral of a priest who died suddenly last week… There were 75 concelebrants plus the bishop, with several priests not concelebrating, standing amongst the congregation in a church in which even standing room was at a premium.

It seems to me that death can be a wonderful time for demonstrating an amazing degree of solidarity and faith. Death is not the end. It is only the beginning. As Bishop Brain said in his homily, “Death is a sign that God has given ‘a better offer’ than life and has taken God up on that offer, which is to spend the rest of eternity in a loving relationship with him.”

As November draws towards its close, we remember in a special way, all those who have died. May they rest in peace and may those who are left behind be filled with all the comfort and strength that they need.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Back from Nigeria

Well, here I am, back from Nigeria, to find trees that have, in the meantime, turned from green to many shades of gold, from their abundance to their late-Autumn dress of fewer and fewer leaves as the wind blows. By contrast, I have left behind cloudless blue skies, high temperatures and the dust of the harmattan season that carries sand from the Sahara…

It was a wonderful experience and in many different ways. Thirty years have passed since my first visit to Nigeria, so many things have changed and many remain unchanged.

As we checked in online, the day before departure, printing out boarding passes for the plane, there was a sense of amazement that such is entirely possible today (admittedly painfully slowly), something undreamed even a few years ago.

Also, with the collapse of landline telephones, mobile phones are everywhere. Who would ever have imagined that a young man strolling through a remote village would also be speaking into his mobile phone? As the nomadic Fulani herd their cattle through the drying grass towards the rivers for grazing, who could ever have envisaged his phone and a radio accompanying the small bundle of possessions strapped to one of the animals?

In the past 30 years, Islamisation has become an increasingly important factor for the Church to consider in any of its activities. Yet, in spite of visiting churches in the process of rebuilding after their destruction by ‘activists’, there was also the memorable visit, escorted by Bishop Matthew Audu of Lafia, to the Emir where, within the palace, we prayed over the Emir and his court. In return, one of his entourage prayed over us. It was a 2008 re-enactment of the visit of St Francis of Assisi to the Sultan 800 years ago, precious and full of hope for the future.

There was Mass offered in the prison in Lafia, where the innocent and great criminals were herded together and, outside the chapel, a man was shackled, naked, in the hot sun, as punishment for his escape attempt. Yet that Liturgy followed a steady stream of inmates going to Confession and was filled with a deeply-moving mixture of joy and pain. One man wore a light blue t-shirt with a line-drawing of Jesus carrying the Cross. It said it all. Many of the prisoners were there only because they had no money to pay a lawyer. How many years will it be before they come to trial…if ever?

Yet there were also the children, full of smiles, showing off their ability to read, too young to realise that, since time began, they are the first from their villages ever to enjoy that skill…

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the move

Just to let you know that there will probably be no new reflections coming out until after 11th November, as I am to travel to Nigeria on Thursday 23rd October.

The Pontifical Mission Societies helps to support 194,855 schools, 5,246 hospitals, 17,530 dispensaries and 577 leprosy centres and 80,560 social and pastoral projects in the younger Church across the world.

As a result, two representatives from the Scottish office and I are to visit some of the projects in Nigeria that are supported by the people of England, Wales and Scotland.

Many of the places where we'll be travelling will have electricity only if and when a generator is switched on, usually at night, and will have a slow Internet connection at best. As a result, although there will be the potential for many 'traveller's tales', the possibility of transferring them to the outside world will be very few.

Please pray for us as we travel, that our work might be of great benefit and support to a rapidly-growing and developing Church.
God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An act of resistance

At a time when Zimbabwe is in the news, there is also the true story...
Below is something I received this morning.
God bless,
Sr Janet

The genuine poor do not mob you and try to twist your arm. They come up to you very quietly, shyly, embarrassed that they have to bother you, as those three women did who stopped me after the evening service on Monday night, “Father, we have not eaten anything last night. We went to the (black) market, but we came back with nothing. Those prices! We just did not have the money…….”
These were not the usual destitutes, e.g. old widows with orphaned grandchildren to look after who are on our list of needy people and get regular hand-outs of mealie meal, beans and cooking oil.
These were people who are normally self-supporting, even moderately prosperous by Mbare standards.
Afonso is an old Mozambican whose wife has died long ago and whose children too have either died or have vanished somewhere looking for work. He is left with eight orphaned grandchildren. What we give him is eaten by that hungry crowd in a few days, and he asks for more.
Normally he is a very cheerful, humorous old gentleman with a friendly smile, full of little jokes and laughter.
When I shake his hand I am aware that that paw in his day inflicted a lot of damage on anyone foolish enough to argue with him. Afonso is a retired boxer. He used to be known, and feared, as “Tar Baby”. Now he could not hurt a fly.
But today his smile is gone. Those grandchildren and their hungry bellies are a really worry him.

Oskar Wermter SJ

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The old lady has been washing clothes in a wooden tub, balanced precariously on a 3-legged stool. Soap-suds overflow the tub, dripping onto the stone floor beneath. Yet there is no peace. Three small grandchildren, with china mgs and clay pipes have decided that this is the ideal time for blowing bubbles. For a short while, old and young share laughter, conversation and an otherwise boring, mundane job.

Sooner, rather than later, the little girl’s mug has been dipped into the washtub a few too many times. It is time to drive her away. Her grandmother picks up a wet cloth and tries to whack her giggling granddaughter as the little girl runs away. The distraction is just too good an opportunity to miss. Her brother dips his mug into the soapsuds whilst his grandmother momentarily looks away…

It is a beautiful family picture, capturing a moment of intimacy between an elderly lady and three small children. It also happens to be one of my favourites.

Lord, watch over families and allow them to grow in warmth and understanding. Let children feel safe and protected. Grant that the elderly might be a focus of love, wisdom and experience for the younger family members. May parents know the love of their children and be themselves loving and generous towards each other and towards those whom God has given them.

God bless,
Sr Janet

(Washtub … Arthur John Elsley)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Save life!

October 22nd is the date when the proposed amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill go before the House of Lords. They could become law unless our actions and a miracle happen.Follow this link for a range of pro-life videos produced by the Christian lawyers' group, Christian Concern for our Nation (ccfon).

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We pray…

They were a young couple, leaving the hospital hand-in-hand. She was about six months pregnant … and she was crying. He spoke quietly to her as she reached for her handkerchief.

Who were they? What had made her cry? Did they have bad news about the baby, or about one of themselves, or about someone else? Had the bottom suddenly fallen out of their world?

So many people find themselves needing to cope with something that has changed their lives beyond all expectations, to come to terms with devastating events. They need hope. They need care. They need love.

Lord, this evening, we pray for the young couple and for all others like them, whose lives are not full of the life and energy we associate with youth.

We pray for all those who are sick, born and unborn, that they might find healing and all the support and strength that they need.

We pray for everyone who has received bad news, that in the darkness, they might find light and courage.

We pray for those who weep, that there might be someone to dry their tears.

We pray for the misunderstood, that they might find understanding.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find companionship and love.

We pray for all those who grieve, that they might be comforted

….and we pray for those who rejoice, that their happiness might increase

….and we pray that each and every one of us, whatever our feelings and experiences, might find God and his love.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Living martyrs

The year was 1998. The place was Rome and the number 23 bus heading towards St. Peter’s. I was enjoying the scenery along the way when I suddenly realised that the two people standing in the aisle were speaking in English and that they had chosen the language because they had, erroneously, thought they would not be understood. Perhaps they were foolish in their assumption, but, from the closeness of my window seat and under my ‘disguise’ as a tourist, I enjoyed, for a few brief moments, the experience of being a spy and laughed to myself at its unexpectedness.

…except that the conversation between the man and the Sister was deadly serious and deeply moving, which was why I did not feel too guilty for overhearing something that had not included me but which, because of its proximity, I could not escape.

“I’ve just been to see the bishop”, the Sister remarked. “It’s now one week since he was smuggled here from China, but it is very difficult for him. He has spent so long in solitary confinement that he has forgotten how to speak and is having to learn, all over again, to talk and to become accustomed to having people address him. I have tried to interview him, but it took so long for him to say anything. He is really very frustrated because he cannot communicate. In prison, the guards would supply his food, but it was in silence.”

It was at that point that a noisy band of tourists boarded the bus and ruined my chances of hearing more about the unidentified bishop in an unknown location. Who was he? I have no idea. I suspect that, had he decided to recant his Catholicism, he would have been released from jail.

For how long was he in prison? Again, I have no idea. Yet, the mere fact that he had forgotten how to speak suggests that it was for many years.

As the Sister and the man to whom she was speaking moved further along the bus, an image from the cinema flashed across my mind: that of the late Cardinal Mintzenty, on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of his cell, praying aloud the words of the hymn, ‘Dies Irae’ (‘Day of judgement, day of wrath…’) in an attempt to retain his sanity when his solitary confinement would have rendered a lesser man insane.

Was it Dietrich Bonhoeffer who used to preach sermons to himself when he was taken captive by the Nazis?

How does someone, so isolated from the world, in physical and, presumably, spiritual, darkness, survive and emerge more sane than the rest of us? Deprived of books, of human contact and communication, it is all very well to say that such a person can spend their time in prayer, but are there not also times when such an individual would be tempted to lose faith? Quite frankly, wouldn’t such a prisoner, however saintly, be rather bored of saying endless rosaries over seemingly interminable years and would find even a discussion about the weather a cause of boundless pleasure and excitement?

A short time ago, a man was released from prison in Pakistan after many years (25?) of darkness, with no glimpse of sunlight in that time. How did he react when he glimpsed the sun for the first time?

That unidentified Chinese bishop found his new surroundings terrifyingly large and insecure after the cramped confines of his prison cell. Freedom was something that would take time and effort to appreciate. What was it like for him when he stepped from the plane in Rome for the first time and realised that he need never again be a captive of those who sought to destroy everything for which he had faced imprisonment in the first place?

Did he long to return to China, to be with those who were still held in a prison of sorts, even if they were relatively free to roam their own streets? Was there a sense of solidarity and shared experience with the Chinese Catholic community whom he would meet in Rome, exiled for their faith?

Martyrdom is not only a thing of our history. We have living martyrs in our present. Do we pray for them or to them?

God bless,
Sr Janet

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jesus Rediscovered

Do you remember Malcolm Muggeridge? He was one of those media people who spanned the transition from black-and-white to colour television and who always seemed to me to be ancient, but perhaps that says more about my own youthfulness at the time. He made pretty good documentaries, but also earned a reputation as an agnostic. His unforgettable programme was an interview with Mother Teresa, the script of which was later published as ‘Something Beautiful for God’.

When Muggeridge conducted the interview, he did not ask leading questions that forced the desired answers from Mother Teresa. Instead, his enquiry struck me, even as a child, as coming from his own personal search. Yes, as a good journalist, he asked questions on behalf of his audience, but there was more to it than that. He listened and evaluated all that she said in such a way that, very quickly, the interview became a dialogue. He was careful, humble, sincere and honest, so the responses he called forth from Mother Teresa were of the same ilk.

At the time, someone retorted that nobody could conduct such an interview and still call themselves an agnostic. Yet, at the end of the programme, Muggeridge still claimed not to know whether or not God exists.

Mother Teresa’s reaction was that she would pray for him, and, indeed, a genuine friendship resulted.

Muggeridge disappeared from the media, I presume, to retire, but I have often wondered if he found God before he died. Reading ‘Jesus Rediscovered’, I think he did. It was fascinating to see his search for God, wishing he could believe. There were so many times when he felt himself ‘almost but not quite’ there, and continued his pursuit of the God he thought possibly existed, but did not know for sure.

The idea of God was so persistent that, try as he might, Muggeridge could not escape the questioning and the search for answers. Every time he put up a good argument for not believing, he was honest enough to realise that it was because Christianity was, in Jesus, holding out an ideal to which, sadly, some Christians were failing to aspire. (In fact I was reminded of Gandhi’s remark, “I like your Christ but not your Christians!”)

Muggeridge was merely seeing beyond the human to the Divine. He just did not see that he had actually grasped the essence of Christianity and just had to take one small step in order to see for himself that, yes, he had come to believe in God and in Jesus and had become a Christian almost without realising he had taken the necessary step.

A number of people describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics. One or two of them are just spiritually sloppy and have not made the effort to find out about God. However some of them are deeply, deeply sincere people who have faced incredible suffering and disappointment, far beyond the coping abilities of most people.
Pain is a strange thing, whether physical or psychological. It strengthens the faith of some and weakens that of others. Some individuals say that it has only been their faith in God that has helped them through a particular period, whereas others have felt so lonely and overwhelmed that they have asked “Is there a God?” and, as their suffering continued, some have turned their question into a declaration: “There is no God”.

Actually, for these people, both the question and the declaration are statements of faith. They haven’t merely drifted into an apathetic statement, made from indifference and laziness. They have needed God and didn’t feel his presence. They have truly been with Jesus when, on the Cross, he cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” These are the ones who, having experienced Calvary, desperately need help to experience the Resurrection.

Sometimes, those who describe themselves as atheists are not atheists at all. They are merely very angry with God as a result of all that they have suffered but do not realise that, actually, their belief in God is alive and well. They just need an opportunity to let off a great deal of steam in his direction, have a good cry and then feel his arms around them, loving them and healing the wounds. Sadly, for some people, this might take longer than a lifetime.

Could it be, if I know an atheist or an agnostic who is such because of pain, that I could allow myself to be God’s instrument of love and of healing? Could I, in some way, gently help God to reach out through my hands, words and responses? Could I help someone to rediscover Jesus?

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Mary, the first tabernacle

Many, many times in Zambia, I had the privilege of allowing a woman to hear the heartbeat of her unborn baby.

She was always a woman from one of the fishing villages, some more remote than others. The woman was usually illiterate. Sometimes she had children already. Sometimes it was the first baby. It didn’t matter. The reaction was always the same. There was silence, followed by stunned disbelief, and then a slow, radiant smile unlike anything else that I have ever seen in my entire life. The smile was one of wonder, mystery, joy and of sharing in something so deep and so personal that although I was a participant, it was only on the perimeter. The woman, for a few seconds, had gone beyond anything she had ever known or experienced.

If the baby was big enough, I could let the mother identify the head, buttocks, arms and legs of her unborn child. Once or twice we were even able to feel its chin! I always told the mothers that they should talk to their babies; that a baby is born with the ability to identify its mother’s voice from that of anybody else on earth. A local tradition led women to fill the newborn baby’s palm with water for its mother to drink, believing that the baby would protect her from the pains of childbirth.

There was one wonderful, unforgettable occasion when, one baby was still unborn and had scarcely started to emerge from the tabernacle of its mother’s womb, it took hold of my index finger and wouldn’t let go. The mother and I laughed, but it was laughter shared with God. It was an unbelievably sacred moment.

On another occasion a woman gave birth to her first daughter after nine boys. I found her sitting on the edge of the bed, gazing at her infant, filled with wonder that, at last, she had the girl-child for whom she had longed. One word. “Malaika”. “Angel”….and so she named her baby.

Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first tabernacle and the first one to hold Jesus close to her heart.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Our Lady of Aparecida. The story happens to be fact, rather than fiction.

The year was 1717. Three fishermen struggled to net fish and caught nothing. They tried again and again, but still without success. Eventually, continuing downstream on Brazil’s River Paraiba, they let down their nets once more. This time, instead of hauling in a net full of fish, they discovered a blackened, sculpted and headless clay statue of the Immaculate Conception. The next time they cast their nets, they discovered the head.

Legend has it that the three men continued fishing, with the same failure until, in desperation, one of them suggested that they pray to Our Lady, under the title of ‘Aparecida’ (who had ‘appeared’ in their nets). Almost immediately afterwards, they caught so many fish that their nets were almost at breaking point.

Who knows how the statue came to be in the river? Perhaps Frey Agostino de Jesus, the monk who had created it in 1650 and who was renowned for his sculpture, threw it there. Who knows? What is certain is that the statue was repaired and kept in the home of Felipe Pedroso, one of the three fishermen.

Over the years, people prayed to Our Lady under her title of Aparecida until today, when she is the Patroness of Brazil, with a massive basilica in her honour in Sao Paolo. It is to this national Marian shrine that Pope Benedict, made his way during his journey to Brazil. Just as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he reverenced the much-repaired 3ft statue, now crowned and clothed in a stiff, richly embroidered cloak. Because of the enveloping mantle, only a very slim section of the actual image is visible these days, so it is hard to see that there was ever any damage. She appears whole once more.

I freely admit that I only learned recently of ‘the Aparecida’. In fact, it was only on researching the background of this shrine for a programme that I discovered the identity of the beautiful statue in the office of Vatican Radio’s Brazilian Programme. She is positioned perfectly so that she looks down on the Brazilians as they work.

During the Pope’s visit to Brazil, all of a sudden, the Aparecida was on everybody’s tongue. The most Brazilian of devotions to Our Lady spread across the world. The reason was beautifully clear. The broken and repaired statue represents a people who have often been broken by sorrow and pain, who struggle painfully to combat poverty, oppression and injustice. The fact that this little image has been repaired, not once, but many times, symbolises for a deeply spiritual nation, the healing that can take place through persistent prayer.

It is, then, entirely appropriate that in the basilica, there is a mosaic of ‘women who have made a difference’ to the people of Brazil. Neither is it any wonder that, amongst them, is a Sister of Notre Dame. After all, in February 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang was gunned down as she took food and clothing to a poor family, deep in the Amazon basin. She died for the healing of the landless peasants, whose homes are regularly burned down by the logging companies and the multinationals that are more interested in making money than in caring for others. She, who faced her hired killers with her Bible and the words of the Beatitudes, is to be included in that mosaic, as a ‘woman who made a difference’...just like our Mother, Mary.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Tragedy in the mail

‘Dear All,
Urgent Prayer needed now. Holy Cross Convent Thane Gate Burnt. Riots in progress. Please send 2 as many prayer warriors. From,

That was all it said. I do not know the writer of the e-mail, nor from what part of India he was writing. I can only imagine the fear in which that brief message was written and that is what makes it so frightening.

I have never been to India, but I have known many Indians and am privileged to count some of the people of that vast Continent amongst my dearest friends.

Several days ago, visiting England on other business, I met an Indian journalist, who spoke passionately about the country she had left only days previously. She was articulate, very well-informed and eager to speak. There was a marked urgency about her words that matched the many equally urgent e-mails I have received during the past couple of weeks from the Jesuits of the Indian programme of Vatican Radio. Theirs is an attempt to get the horror of all that is currently happening in their homeland out to the rest of the world.

Thank God, most of us will never know what it is like to look from the window of one’s home to see a riot in full swing, with a great possibility of serious injury and even death. Places where there has been no history of conflict between Hindu and Christian are suddenly torn apart. Terrible stories are emerging by the hour, and yet they do not reach the rest of the world where politics and the economic crisis are the lead headlines.

Let us pray, pray, pray for the people of India at this time. May there be healing and understanding. May God bless a Continent known for the depth of its spirituality and religious faith.

Prince of Peace, bring peace to your little ones, regardless of their faith.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

God’s work habits

Why is it that some people’s work is never convenient to others? There are some battles that are never won even though they must be fought, mountains of work to one person that might seem like molehills to another. The tasks that might appear insurmountable to one, might, to someone else, be something that could be left until the tomorrow that never comes….and so the pile of ironing grows until the point when it becomes a late night necessity if there is to be something to wear the following day…

There is, of course, the saying, ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ and ‘Never put off until tomorrow that which could be done today’. It is easier said than done! The theory is much simpler than the practice… There is always a good excuse that can be found to delay the dreadful moment of tackling an unpleasant job.

Yet think, for a moment, of the chiselling away that God does in my life. He does not always mould me into the person he wants me to be at a time that is convenient to my own schedule. He works according to his own unique timetable, which seems interminable on some occasions and then rather too rapid at others. The trouble is that he is dealing with eternity, which is rather different from our concepts, which are limited to time.

And so, God will work steadily and unendingly until I have become exactly who he knew me to be from all eternity. He does not sleep, even if I need to do so!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Our Lady and the Martyrs

Lourdes is only one shrine where there is a long-established tradition of healing. For centuries, pilgrims travelled to the shrine of Our Lady and the English Martyrs at Fernyhalgh in Lancashire. The miraculous cures through the waters at Ladyewell date back to at least the fourteenth century…Of course, then the dedication of the chapel had nothing to do with martyrs.

For many, many years, old and young, men and women, sick and healthy, strode across the open fields of Lancashire, enjoying, perhaps, a brief rest on the banks of the River Ribble which then, as now, flowed through Preston. Even the Romans used this beautiful river, flowing through both Yorkshire and Lancashire and, at one time, forming the natural border of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia.

Time passed and the day dawned, in 1536, when Henry VIII ordered the stripping and destruction of monasteries and chapels across England and Wales. Some of the more remote chapels managed to survive unscathed, but not so Ladyewell. In 1547, it was destroyed.

…and yet it was not gone forever. The tiny shrine survived, secretly cherished by those who needed to keep their commitment hidden from the rest of the world, offering an easy escape across the fells and dark forests of the Trough of Bowland. Risking their lives, heavily-disguised priests, travelling around the country, would make their way to Fernyhalgh and secretly pray there with the beleaguered Catholics of the area.

Secret messages would have been sent around before the priest appeared on the scene: perhaps only an arrangement of washing hung out to dry would be the pre-arranged signal. There was always the danger of spies and blood-money.

The penalties for going to Mass were heavy: fines were the least of the people’s worries. The real threat was the charge of treason, for that incurred the terrible penalty of being hanged, drawn and quartered. There was no problem with being a Catholic. The problem was with practising Catholicism, for that was seen, in those days, as adherence to a foreign power: that of Rome.

The days of the Reformation are past, but the memory lingers on. The shrine of Our Lady has been rebuilt and reinstated, but with an ‘added extra’. Some of those priests of days gone by were subsequently martyred. In their honour, the shrine at Ladyewell is now known as that of Our Lady and the Martyrs.

Around the walls of the church are the names of some of the many Reformation martyrs of England and Wales, some of them probably secret visitors to this tiny shrine ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

Mary, Queen and Mother, grant that your children may be as ready to dedicate their lives to your Son as were our ancestors. However small we might be in the eyes of the world, we know that we are important to him. Help us to live our lives in his presence.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dowry of Our Lady

‘Our Lady’s dowry’. This used to be the description that England applied to itself and that other countries also used of the country that had dedicated itself to Our Blessed Mother. That is why the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, celebrated in England on 24th September, is so important: it recalls a time when, throughout the land, there were shrines dedicated to Our Lady. Every county had its own place of pilgrimage in her honour. Even today, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is also known as ‘England’s Nazareth’.

The feast of Our Lady of Walsingham dates back to 1061, before the Norman Conquest, when Mary appeared in a vision to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout Saxon noblewoman, in 1061 in the Norfolk village of Walsingham. Richeldis was asked to build a wooden replica of the house in Nazareth in which the Annunciation took place. Today, after more than 1000 years, archaeologists have discovered the approximate location of that little shrine which became, not only a place of national pilgrimage, especially during the times of the Crusades when travelling to Rome, the Holy Land and Compostella were highly dangerous, but also the world’s third most important Catholic shrine. Records still exist of the visits of seven English kings, including (perhaps surprisingly) Henry VIII, who also ordered its destruction in 1538.

The original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was burnt in a bonfire in London, but enough miniatures remained for us to know that Mary was seated on a throne, wearing a simple Saxon crown, carrying a lily in her right hand and bearing Jesus, also wearing a crown, on her knee. This was sufficient to reconstruct the familiar image seen today, commissioned in honour of the declaration of the Dogma of the Assumption in 1950, ‘solemnly crowned near the site of the original Shrine on behalf of Pope Pius XII by his Apostolic Delegate’ and installed in the Slipper Chapel in 1954.

‘Our Lady, as she is venerated at Walsingham, is depicted as a simple woman, a mother. She is seated on the throne of Wisdom, in the midst of the Church which is represented by the two pillars symbolic of the Gate of Heaven, with seven rings to signify the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The arched back of the throne reminds us of the rainbow which was set as a sign of God’s fidelity to his creation. Our Lady is clothed in the blue of divinity, the white of motherhood and the red of virginity. In her hand she holds a lily-sceptre with three blooms because she was virginal before, during and after the Saviour’s birth. As the Woman of the New Creation, the New Eve, she crushes beneath her feet a toadstone, symbolic of the power of evil. As the Queen of Heaven and of England, her Dowry, she is crowned with a Saxon crown. On his mother’s knee is the child Jesus who, as the Word of God made Flesh, holds the book of the Gospels. He extends his right arm in a double gesture of blessing and protection of his mother.’

Exquisitely, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is, yet again, a symbol of unity, where Anglicans, as well as Catholics venerate our mother, all of us praying for the day when Mary will, once again, be our Queen, bringing us together in her Son. The tradition has never died out that it is through praying to Our Lady of Walsingham, that unity will be restored. As the hymn says: ‘Be England thy dowry as in days of yore.’

God bless,
Sr Janet

Monday, September 22, 2008


I could neither count nor identify all the flags, fluttering bravely in the strengthening breeze, representing most, if not all of the nations of the world.

Certainly, the International Maritime Organisation offered an impressive sight this evening, situated as it is on the banks of the Thames, almost opposite the splendour of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.

The intriguing thing was that, as the flags of so many nations hung in parallel honour, there was no disharmony of colours, not one flag that dominated over another. Each was given equal respect.

Does that not say something about the way this world should be?

What right does a country have to assume superiority over another?

Why should one country be regarded as ‘superior’ and another ‘inferior’?

Who has the greater right to land … a human being who holds the title deeds or the bird that claims its territory by song, or an animal that marks its borders by its own unique scent? What would happen if the dog or the bird were to tell the human population that the piece of paper that grants title to a piece of land is worthless, for it is only paper that can rot or be blown away by the wind?

Sometimes the shape of a national border is purely arbitrary, and yet it is coveted and protected.

Why have we made it so difficult for some people to move from one place to another? There was a time when there was no need for passport or visa, ID cards or bio-data. People had dignity and status by virtue of their very existence, by virtue of their humanity.

Why do we fight to protect one little corner of land and not see the whole earth as a gift of God to be cherished and shared?

When God looks at the world, does he see the divisions that we recognise, or does he see the harmony of many flags caressed by the same breeze?

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sadness turned to joy

There are times when, if we pay attention to the media, it would seem that the world is full of nothing other than tragedy and despair… and yet…

On Sunday night a 19 year-old was stabbed and killed in London … and his parents forgave the murderer. “I forgive them. My son is with Jesus because he was baptised”, his mother said on camera.

This evening, a friend sent me such deeply disturbing photographs of the violence recently perpetrated in Orissa in India that I’ve been able to think of little else, holding both Christian and Hindu in prayer … and a Poor Clare Colettine friend sent me the following story of an event that happened in 2002, that, as with the parents of the murdered teenager, show that God exists for nobody could show such love were there not an even more loving God…

YEAR 2002- a Catholic nun has gone to a prison to tie a thread around the wrist of a Hindu man who is a murderer OF HER OWN BLOOD SISTER. Her unusual deed symbolically declares she accepts him as her brother. Even more remarkably, she did it for the person who murdered her sister.

Franciscan Clarist Sister Selmy Paul tied a silver-colored "rakhi," lace thread, on the wrist of Samandar Singh on Aug. 13, the hindu festival of siblings known as "Rakshabandan" (knot of protection between brother and sister). During the festival, Hindu women perform the ritual on male siblings to seek their protection and blessings. Singh is serving a life term in a federal prison for the 1995 murder of Rani Maria, the nun's older sister. Rani Maria, also a Franciscan Clarist, joined the congregation in 1980 and inspired her younger sister to follow. The prison is in Indore, Madhya Pradesh state, about 800 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Sister Maria was 40 when Singh stabbed her more than 50 times. He began plunging his knife into her while she was on a bus to Indore from Udainagar-Mirzapur, a village in the state's Dewas district. She was then to continue her vacation journey by train to Kerala, her home state in southern India. Sister Maria jumped off the bus as soon as Singh began stabbing, but he followed and continued to stab her, even after she fell to the roadside.

In those years, Sister Maria was working among landless people in Udainagar-Mirzapur. Upper caste landlords who opposed her work reportedly hired Singh to kill her. A court handed him the life sentence one year after the murder. Singh, now 33, addresses Sister Paul as "didi," elder sister, and the nun, who teaches in a school on the outskirts of Indore and is in her late 30s, calls him "chhota bhai," younger brother.

Sister Paul told UCA News on Aug. 17 she forgave Singh "the moment I touched the severely gashed body of my elder sister." Meditating on the crucifix, she added, "further strengthened me" eventually to "adopt him as my brother."She earlier told reporters she wanted to meet Singh after she overcomes her grief, but she did not know how and when that would happen. Someone suggested that Rakshabandan is the best time to make such an approach, so she decided to meet her sister's killer during last year's Rakshabandan festival.
Singh, a primary school dropout from a poor family, told UCA News he regrets his act. Some Hindu fundamentalists "misled" him to believe, he explained, that his victim was involved in converting Hindus to Christianity and that she was asking her converts to desecrate "Bhagwad Gita," a Hindu holy book.

When "Selmy Didi" came to meet Singh the first time, the prisoner said he experienced inexplicable happiness. As he displays the silver "rakhi" she tied on his wrist this year, he says, "I am short of words to express my feelings. One gets this heavenly feeling when one's sister ties 'rakhi.'"

Sister Paul says her family's seven members have accepted Singh as their own. "Though the death of my sister is an irreparable loss to us," Sister Paul remarked, "we have gained one more member" in Singh.

Earlier this year, Sister Paul accompanied her mother and a brother on a 2,000-kilometer trip to Indore, to meet and show Singh that the family has forgiven him. In a gesture of forgiveness, the nun recalled, her 72-year-old mother kissed Singh's hands, "which were once soaked by the blood of her own daughter." Witnessing that, the nun added, was an "unforgettable experience."

Sister Paul also remembers seeing Singh sob uncontrollably last year when she tied "rakhi" on him. She said he looks happier this year. "He prostrated before me and affectionately welcomed me," she said.

Singh said he feels bad that he can offer Sister Paul nothing in return for her gesture of love and forgiveness. Traditionally, brothers give gifts to sisters on Rakshabandan. "I am a convict and have nothing to offer," he said. "Besides, what could I give her when I am indebted to them for my life?"

Sister Paul said that after she first met Singh, he wrote "an emotional letter" begging for the family's pardon. Since then, he "has metamorphosed into another human being," she said.

Singh says he wants to serve society once he is released from prison. Every day, he looks at a passport-size photo of his victim and begs "her to pardon me." Only now, he said, does he "realize I committed the most reprehensible sin by taking the life of an angel who worked for the poor."

Sister Paul's gesture of forgiveness has won admirers, including Divine Word Bishop George M. Anathil of Indore. He says that she has "upheld the Church principles of forgiveness and reconciliation" and has chosen the occasion well, since Rakshabandan stands for "sisterhood and brotherhood".

God bless,

Sr Janet

Monday, September 15, 2008

Crunching credit

It seems to be one sad story after another. The news this evening began with an announcement of 4,000 jobs finishing in London because of the bankruptcy of a major bank in America.

Of course, there will be the knock-on effect: jobs that are dependent on other people’s work will be affected. One economic crisis will lead to another, and so on around the globe.

But there is a wider angle that does not always hit the news. Four thousand jobs mean a very large number of families that are dependent on a breadwinner. It means a very large number of individuals who, this evening, are probably feeling lost and wondering where to go. Perhaps, because the end of their employment has come like a bolt from the blue, they are feeling stunned this evening, with no idea of what the future holds for themselves or their families. There will be those with mortgages, school fees, bills and other essential expenditure…

We pray for all those who are unexpectedly faced with uncertainty and unemployment. May God be with them at this time, offering the support and strength that they need. May he accompany those families who are suddenly left without a breadwinner and do not know where to turn for help in their sudden need.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On Work

The poet Kahlil Gibran had a wonderful way of describing even the most mundane aspects of life and breathing into them fresh meaning and beauty. Take work, for instance. 'Work is love made visible.' If I stop for a moment and think of the job I dislike most, of the task that I find the most boring, of that which gives a sparkle to my day and a song in my heart, have I ever approached that work, seeing it as 'love made visible'? What a diference it makes!

God bless,
Sr Janet

Then a ploughman said, "Speak to us of Work."
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons,
and to step out of life's procession,
that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream,
assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow,
then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also life is darkness,
and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself,
and to one another,
and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep,
"he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone,
is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man,
is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet."
But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide,
that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;
And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste,
it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing,
you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

Kahlil Gibran

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Children and adults

Some time ago, just as I sat down on a train and looked out of the window, a thud beside me announced the arrival of a little girl who turned out to be seven years old. “Hello. Can I sit beside you? My name is Georgia.” So much for a previously planned peaceful, reflective journey!

The child was delightful. Our half-hour together was fascinating as one question followed another with the beautifully simple curiosity that is unique to the very young.

Knowing that Georgia’s mother was sitting on the seat behind, I suddenly realised, with deep regret, that my own enquiries could, these days, be misconstrued. “Where are you going? What are you going to do? Which are your favourite rides on the fairground?”

The absolutely normal questions that an adult puts to a small child, excited at the prospect of a family day out, are not always as innocent as they might seem. I rapidly altered my conversation and began to describe my own childhood experiences on the Ghost Train, but however much I continued to enjoy Georgia’s conversation, some of my own pleasure had disappeared.

The journey reminded me of an afternoon when I chatted with an elderly man who was passing the time before he could collect his grand-daughter from school. “I used to love to stand by the school playground and watch the children playing”, he said. “It gave me so much pleasure and gave meaning to my day. Now I can’t. I’m afraid that people will think that I’m up to something. I still collect my grand-daughter from school, but I go for a walk first and only approach the school when I know it is time for the children to come out. We don’t hang around….but something has gone from my life, something really precious.”

Certainly, children are to be loved and protected. Any normal person is horrified by the thought of their spontaneity and innocence being damaged in any way.

Yet those who would hurt children have also hurt those of us who love them. In order to ensure safety for the youngest and most vulnerable amongst us, so many adults have been obliged to step backwards and deny ourselves the opportunity of sharing in the joy of childhood for a few moments. Especially those of us who do not have children and who do not work with children are enriched by the freshness and novelty of their outlook. They somehow manage to bring newness into even the most mundane events. How many of us have found ourselves laughing at a comment made in all seriousness by a small child who has succeeded, in a few words, in turning the adult world upside-down?

May children everywhere be filled with freedom and joy...but may they also spread a little of their happiness around them in ever-increasing circles, surrounding those of us who might be bystanders, but who would also like to be participants in their wonder and celebration.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The lost lamb

I really did not know where to go. The thorns were very high and I was tired of being scratched and torn, tired of being hurt. There was nobody around to offer any sympathy and so the harder I tried to extricate myself from the mess in which I found myself, the more tangled I became.

It was tough going.

Recent heavy rain had turned the ground into a marsh, even up on the hillside. As I struggled to free myself from the thorns, my feet sank into the mud. Every time I managed to pull one hoof free, the other three sank in more deeply. It was cold, wet and miserable. I knew that I was becoming filthy dirty, but there was absolutely nothing more that I could do.

I really wish that I had listened to advice.

I wish that I had paid attention when others tried to guide me! Perhaps if I had listened to them, I would not be in this mess. If ever I can escape, I promise that life will be different. I will change my ways. I will not think that I have all the answers. I will become humble… I promise I will change.

But what is the point of making all these promises when I know that they will not be kept? It is all very well to make resolutions in times of difficulty, but things are different when life returns to normality.

Life was becoming unbearable. I could cope no longer. In my exhaustion, my struggles became weaker, but only because I had no energy left to continue the fight.

Just as I was on the point of giving up, he came and found me. I heard his footsteps before I saw him and felt him reach down to the thorns that trapped me. The thorns scratched his hands, drawing blood, but he did not seem to mind. He did not even mind that I was dirty, because he lifted me onto his shoulders and carried me home.

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Monday, September 08, 2008

God was with him

In recent days, we have heard stories of the terrible killings that have taken place in Orissa in India, in which Hindu extremists have murdered both Christians and some Hindus, often with horrific brutality.

Below is a first-hand account, forwarded to me by e-mail, of one of the latest of these attacks, when a Divine Word Missionary priest was almost killed. Whilst indicating some of the suffering that some people are facing at this moment, I think it also shows that God is there in the midst of all that is happening. (I have done some correcting of the English, but otherwise, the account is unchanged.)

Let us join Pope Benedict and the Bishops’ conference of India in praying for a cessation of violence.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Dear Friends
I met Fr. Edward Sequeira (my classmate all through the seminary life) this morning and was consoled to see him in good spirits. Earlier when people used to ask him “how are you?” he used to say jokingly, “I am well in the hell”. But now when the same question is asked to him he says, “I am safe in the hands of God”. He shared with me personally the events that took place on 25th August. What I want to share with you in this mail is his spiritual experience during that time.

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. He came back to his residence to have lunch, after being out on the construction site. He was about to take the first gulp of food when some people came to see him, and asked him, “Who is the priest here”? Fr. Edward thought they must have come for some help, for instance for somebody who was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital. So he said, “I am the one”.

When he looked outside he saw there were about 20 people with sticks, iron bars, shovels, and spades. He realized what was going to happen. So he tried to close the door. But their sticks and iron bars came in between. He could not close the door and bolt it. Whilst this was happening, one of the men shouted, “You twenty people cannot manage one?”

They managed to pull Fr. Edward out and then started beating him all over. With all the instruments they had, they beat him on the back of the head, on the backs of his shoulders and on his hands, fracturing both of his shoulders, his right hand and the back of his skull.

From the front, they punched him all over, including where it hurts most. They slapped him on the face. This went on for 45 minutes and then Fr. Edward collapsed.

Meanwhile others had entered and looted the house. They took away cash, and whatever was useful to them. They piled together everything in the office and in the bed room, including clothes, in order to burn them, spreading chemicals on the floor so that the whole place would catch fire easily. These chemicals made the floor very slippery. They then set the place on fire and came out. The house was full of smoke.

They held Fr. Edward and pushed him inside the house and bolted the door from outside.

Remember Fr. Edward has lost his strength and had collapsed. But at this moment when he was alone inside the burning house he realized he was not alone. There was Jesus with him. He experienced tremendous strength at this moment. He experienced Jesus not as a separate entity from him, but “He in me and I in him”. He experienced Jesus suffering in him.

The floor was slippery, and he could not see anything because the house was full of smoke. The fire had not yet spread to where he was. He held on to the wall and windows on the wall and found his way to the bathroom.

He saw wild flames of fire in his bedroom and in his office. He collected half a bucket of water and went and threw it in his bedroom and the fire went off.

Was this a MIRACLE?

He filled another half bucket of water and threw it in the office and the same result. The fire in the office was put out.

He had a deep sense that God was with him.

He went back to the bathroom and locked himself inside, but all the rooms were filled with smoke and breathing was difficult.

Somehow he managed to remain in the bathroom. The people who attacked him were outside. They wanted to know what had happened to him. They tried to break the window, and managed to make a hole in the glass. Their job became difficult as smoke was gushing out through the hole, but somehow they managed to break open part of the window. They tried to see inside. Fr. Edward was still in a corner. They could not see him and concluded that he was dead, but, wanting to make sure, they went to the roof and broke through to a different room.

Meanwhile Rajani Majhi, 19 years of age, a student and a helper at the orphanage (for the children of the leprosy patients) came to the scene. Fr. Edward could only hear the cry of Rajani, “Father, they are going to burn me”. Then he lost consciousness.

Rajani was burnt alive. Fr. Edward came to know about it only two days later. Rajani was a Hindu girl, very committed and hard working. She was an all-rounder in the orphanage. In the morning she used to go to college, come back around 1.30 p.m. and then help out in the orphanage.

Fr. Edward believes that it is because of the efforts of Dr. Mary Kutty, H.M., and Dr. Rajnesh Samal, a Baptist missionary, he is saved otherwise he would have been suffocated to death. When these two heard the news of what had happened to Fr. Edward they mobilized help though some influential people. The ambulance, fire brigade and police arrived at around 5.30p.m. and Fr. Edward was admitted in the Sub-divisional Hospital at Padampur. His brother, Commodore Valentine Sequeira joined in to help at this stage. From there he was shifted to Burla Medical College, Sambalpur. He says, the Doctors there were extremely good to him.

Fr. Edward is now recuperating in a hospital in Mumbai and is given good treatment and care.

When people come and tell him, “we are praying for you”, he says, “Do not pray for me, I am in the safe hands of God, you go and work for the rights of the minorities”. Fr. Edward believes that God has saved him miraculously and has a purpose for him.Jesus is alive.

Yours in Christ
Fr. Edwin Vas SVD.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

God knew what he was doing

It was an interesting experience of community, regardless of our racial and cultural backgrounds.

I am English and white, but it was an Indian who helped me carry two heavy cases as far as the ticket barrier in the station, an African who, a few minutes later, picked up the heavier of the two and took it to the top of a long flight of steps, a Japanese, who then lifted it on and off my connecting train… This spontaneous kindness came, unrequested, from complete strangers as we travelled our separate journeys on the London Underground.

Those who insist on associating with people of one particular skin colour or racial background are unfortunate. They lose the opportunity to discover that goodness is everywhere and is independent of culture.

Courtesy and kindness are treasures that enrich the whole of the human race. Often they are in short supply. They are to be celebrated wherever they are found and, when they occur across cultures, languages and creeds, there are few things that do more to build bridges and establish a community of understanding.

God knew what he was doing when he made us all different!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The grain of wheat

I am just a small seed in the basket of the sower as he walks up and down the field, dropping my brothers and sisters as he moves. You do things differently in your time. You have machines which plant seeds at regular intervals in straight lines. That is not the way in which farmers work in my time.

You see, my brothers and sisters and I all grew up in the same field and were harvested at the same time. Some of us were kept back for planting for the next crop. It is exciting to think of being reborn, so to speak, as a plant just like my mother. A field of wheat looks so lovely and brings so much hope and life.

It is strange to think that, in a way, I am going to die. If I am to grow, then I will no longer be a seed, so the only way in which I can describe all that will happen to me is that I will die as a seed and will be reborn, first as a tiny shoot, and then into a proud stem. You will not notice my flowers, but the insects will see them and so will the wind. Pollen will fertilise their stamens and there will be new seed formed, for that is the way of life for wheat.

If I die as a seed, I will produce a harvest.

Life is a gift. If I decide to be selfish, I will remain a seed, but I will not experience life. In fact, as I lie in the ground, I will rot. Nobody will regret my passing for nobody will know that I have been around.

If I am unselfish and stretch forth the embryo root and shoot held within me, I become a thing of beauty, weak and tender at first, but growing in strength as time goes by. The more I reach up to the heavens, then all the more do I become a sign of hope and promise. If I open up, dying to myself as a seed, then will I bear flowers. Then will I be fruitful. Then will I bear a harvest.

Life is a gift to be shared!

God bless,
Sr Janet

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Anger into peace

In some ways, Assisi has changed very little from the days of Francis. Walk up from the station, through the fields and, for a moment, forget the large churches built to celebrate the lives of its great saints, Francis and Clare. Listen to the birds. See the nodding grasses and the brilliant colours of the wild flowers under the deep blue, cloudless sky of Umbria. This was the very path that ‘The Little Poor Man of Assisi’ strode towards the city of his birth. These dark green pines and the grey-green olive groves probably knew him. Perhaps as a child, he played hide-and-seek with his friends. These cobbled roads of Assisi, the ancient walls and the towering height of the Rocca Maggiore were his. He helped to repair the walls of the castle, preparing for battle, preparing to protect the people of Assisi.

Look downwards towards the Rivo Torto. Tradition has it that the stable which served as a shelter for Francis and his early followers actually stood on land that belonged to his father, so Pietro Bernadone knew that he still provided a home for his son, even if they were no longer on speaking terms. He did not drive him from the land. A poor man and a donkey did that. Pietro remained a father even if, when they met in the streets of Assisi, he could only curse Francis and curse the day when, in front of the bishop, the mayor and the curious townsfolk, his son declared, “Henceforth I will no longer call Pietro Bernadone my father. I have only one Father, and that is God.”

Pietro would neither forgive nor forget that day. Perhaps he was justified. In deciding to reject everything that his parents had planned for him, Francis had been thoughtless and cruel. He made little effort to explain his conversion and his vocation to rebuild the Church. Pietro and Pica were justified in feeling ashamed as their son, of whom they had been so enormously proud, changed his fine clothes for a robe of rough sacking and walked the streets begging for food and for stones to rebuild the ruined church of San Damiano. They would have done anything for Francis, but he shattered their dreams. Did he apologise? We do not know.

In a town as small as Assisi, it was inevitable that Francis, Pietro and Pica would see each other and would hear of each other’s activities. Pica would have been torn apart by her love for her husband and her son. To whom should she be sympathetic? What could she say or do to heal the rift? Pica was both a wife and a mother. How could she act in this situation?

What would have happened if Pietro, instead of nursing his anger and pain, had tried to replace them with peace? What would it have been like for him if he had told God that, yes, he was angry and felt justified in his reaction, but that he wanted to place his feelings in God’s hands, so that, instead, there could be forgiveness and peace?

I cannot change another person, however much I might disapprove of their actions. It is not my responsibility to change them, although I might have responsibility for creating the situation in which change, for better or for worse, is possible.

Neither do I have the right to condemn someone because I do not like their words or actions. For sure, I can condemn the words or the actions, but not the person, who is made in the image and likeness of God. God always leaves space for someone to turn to him and say “Sorry”. There is no wrong that God cannot forgive. Why, then, do I make myself more judgemental than God, saying, in effect, “God might forgive so-and-so, but I will not”? By taking such a stance, am I, in effect, putting myself I partnership with God, but making him the junior partner, giving myself the last word?

If I nurse anger, I create a hard knot of bitterness inside myself, excluding God from my heart, for he is love, not anger.

When Clare followed Francis, her family members were furious. Yet they managed to replace anger with peace, so that Clare’s mother, her sisters and several relatives all joined her, thereby becoming founder members of the Poor Clares, as they are known today.

Pietro Bernadone was furious and did not replace anger with peace. His family was divided to the end of his days even though one of his sons was also one of the greatest saints this world has ever known.

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love.’

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Together in peace

Some of the world’s bravest individuals are together in my home town of Liverpool for the next few days as the World Firefighters’ Championships take place. It is a privilege to host the representatives of many lands, of many groups of individuals who risk their lives for the sake of others.

Any one of us does not need to think for too long in order to recall acts of incredible courage.

For my part, I can remember, as a small child, seeing a fireman swing down the outside of a ladder as a burning wall collapsed at the end of the road where I lived. Fortunately, he was unhurt, but that is not always the case. Fire can be a good friend, but it is also a deadly enemy. Nobody, even the most seasoned firefighter, can face a blaze without at least a faint tremor of fear. It is for that reason that, in any team, there is not only teamwork, but also an absolute trust that colleagues will give their own lives in order to preserve each other’s safety. As one man remarked, “I cannot go into a fire without knowing, in the back of my mind, that if I find myself in trouble, the others will do their best to save me.”

That sort of courage has nothing to do with nationality, colour, creed or gender.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo has been taking place, this year, representing the military of Scotland, Norway, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, America, Singapore and Nepal in a magnificent extravaganza of brass bands, marching drill and dancing, with even the golden lion of Singapore dancing before a packed crowd of spectators, thanks to the island’s police band.

As the evening drew to a close and the last strains of the ‘Evening Hymn’ accompanied the nocturnal unfastening of the flags from their poles, a lone piper played a haunting tribute to all those who have given their lives in battle during, as, the commentator noted, “a century of war, sometimes marked by peace”.

In our lifetimes, we are unlikely never to need a fire brigade because fire will always be a part of our civilisation. Sadly, our military will sometimes be needed for duties other than marching and making music.

May God grant us peace. May he keep us safe. May he watch over, protect and bless those who work for the emergency services, who risk their lives in peacetime on our behalf. May he be with the military, that they might only be deployed in the cause of truth and justice, that no shot might ever be fired in anger and that human rights might never be abused.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Monday, August 25, 2008

True riches

There is an American expression, ‘bait and switch’, or something to that effect, that describes the business practice used to tempt prospective customers to buy a product, only for there to be a ‘sting in the tail’, some unexpected complication that will inevitably cost money, to the disadvantage of the customer and the advantage of the company.

A spyware programme on my computer, the free accompaniment to a free programme that I temporarily required, pointed out that I had not scanned the computer for the past few days. I agreed. With an excellent, free, regularly-updated programme provided by several universities, I rarely have problems with viruses, especially as I do not open ‘spam’.

Out of curiosity, I allowed the programme (now removed from my computer) to do a scan and examined the results. I do not believe that I had 56 infected files, complete with seven potentially disastrous viruses that could only be removed if I were to pay $19.95 for the full version of the programme. That message sounded the death knell for the newly-imported wonder worker, condemned to wander aimlessly around cyberspace, but not my laptop! Yet I was left wondering why, in the search for money, some people and businesses resort to untruth?

Recently, a man stopped me, claiming to be the victim of muggers who had stolen his money and mobile phone. Apparently he belonged to a wonderful charity that works tirelessly for those who are contemplating suicide. That immediately made me suspicious. The incredibly self-sacrificing, generous volunteers who give up countless hours of their own time would have been there immediately to help one of their own. The man’s story of needing money for his bus fare rang hollow, so he received nothing on that occasion… but did he have to use for his own dishonest ends some of society’s uncanonised saints?

Waiting in a shop the other evening I watched four gypsies sharing out the money they had gained from knocking on the windows of cars that stopped when the traffic lights changed colour. I presume that the women told of their hunger and need to provide food for their families, because this is the usual story, and yet the money that changed hands appeared to be substantial. Each woman held a baby. One also had two small children accompanying her begging. What sort of lessons is she teaching? Will those children grow up with any idea of ‘honest labour’? Will they look beyond begging to some sort of skill that could be usefully employed to benefit others?

There was a morning when I was in Zambia when a man asked for money. On that occasion it happened that even a search of pockets and bags brought forth only enough money to buy one, very small, bread roll that would have been eaten in two bites. He went down on his knees to say thank you.

There were also times when I encountered families with not an iota of food in the house, where, in one home, a full day of trying to sell six tiny bottles of sunflower oil brought in less than $1 with which to feed six children and their desperately ill mother.

Often, those who are in most need do not ask for help, or do so only when they have exhausted every possibility.

There is nothing glamorous about poverty or about working with the truly poor. It is hard, unrelenting and tragic, accompanied by frequent feelings of helplessness in the face of difficulties beyond the normal coping.

In this country, when we speak of the poor and disadvantaged, the children are still able to attend school. Their parents often manage to buy cigarettes and alcohol and go on holiday, perhaps even to another country. There are ways and means of obtaining practical help, admittedly sometimes limited and limiting, but starvation is not usually an alternative.

All the dice seem to be loaded against the truly poor in many countries outside this one, who yearn for education, who long to do a day’s work, but are so weakened by starvation that they become flesh-covered, living skeletons, where ‘poor’ means that children cannot go to school because without their labour, the family would starve. ‘Poor’ means clothes worn until they fall to pieces. ‘Poor’ means having absolutely no food whatsoever in the house, no money to buy any, and with begging, theft or death the only remaining options. Yet these are the very people who are exploited by the unscrupulous, by the multi-nationals and by those who look to their own advantage even if it means trampling on others.

Yet, look at the ‘truly poor’, and in their hardship, they somehow laugh and sing. Are they not the truly rich? They have nothing left to lose apart from their self-respect, and in clinging to that, they find God and make him the source of their wealth, the sustainer of their daily lives.

Perhaps, sometimes, the rich in the eyes of the world are the ones who are the most impoverished.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Lord of the Harvest

Once upon a time, I knew nothing about farming, the result of being born in a city. Then, in my teens, I had the opportunity of a Saturday and holiday job on a friend's farm. It was an eye-opener and ever since, the needs of the farming community have been very close to my heart.

Walking along the road this morning, seeing the fields 'white for the harvest' and knowing that the farmers desperately need a few days without rain if they are to bring in the harvest, it seems to be important, at this time of year, to pray for farmers everywhere, especially those who are facing adverse weather conditions of whatever sort.

May God bless the farmers, their essential work and their crops. May the Lord of the Harvest grant an abundance of all those crops that feed us. May there be enough and to spare.

May God also bless the work of those who depend on their gardens and allotments for food supplies.

...and may God bless each of us.
Sr Janet

Thursday, August 21, 2008

“The “displaced” want to be “placed” again

Driving from Lusaka in Zambia down to the amazing Kariba Dam used to be a journey of contrasts. Flat, dry savannah where goats roamed searching for the non-existent grass of Zambia’s Southern Province made way for hills, sometimes steep, through which the road wound in steep curves and traffic jams behind stalled and slow-moving, heavily-laden trucks of goods bound for Zimbabwe and South Africa. Potholes and frequent stretches of gravel roads gave way, at Kariba, to excellent tarmac and the impression of silky-smooth roads; such was the least, that is, before the increased hardships of the past ten years. Now, the Zambian roads surpass those of Zimbabwe, because where there is no money for food, road maintenance becomes an insignificant priority.

However, the roads of Zimbabwe told their own story. A wide grass verge and high wire fences did more than merely keep wild animals away from the road: often, they told stories of the struggle for independence during the apartheid era, when the Government’s antagonists were described as ‘guerrillas’ or ‘freedom fighters’ depending on one’s point of view. There were occasional discoveries of mass graves, many of them hastily covered over and their finders sworn to silence.

More positively, from time to time, amidst the tall grass, there is still evidence of the ‘strip road’, two parallel tracks of tarmac, just sufficiently far apart as to permit a small pick-up, a tractor or a lorry to drive through the bush. Yet a basic road, in itself, is only a small help to peasant farmers, who, even today, depend on a donkey, a hand-held plough, hoes and relatives in order to cultivate poorly-irrigated land which is continually raided by birds, baboons and, sadly, by other hungry people.

For huge numbers of villages in Zimbabwe, their occupants are totally dependent on seasonal rivers where they dig ever-deeper holes in the river bed in an attempt to find water for themselves and their animals. Water is such an incredibly precious commodity in the seemingly endless years of drought that it is ‘normal’ to see, in a small waterhole, a woman filling her pots with water to carry home whilst using the same pool to bath her children and wash the family’s clothes whilst, a couple of yards away, sheep and goats slake their thirst ... and, of course, water means snakes and, during the rainy season, crocodiles, which regularly claim their victims.

A few minutes ago, I received the following from a friend in Zimbabwe, whose name I withhold:

“This morning two women came to our parish house seeking help, rural women from a village about 70 km out of town. They have been homeless and living rough since April. That is when they were severely beaten up for having voted “wrongly” and had their houses burnt down. They showed me their scars. The elder has not seen her husband and children since then, does not know where they are, and indeed if they are still alive.

For a time they stayed at Harvest House where the police were harassing them, took them to Ruwa, evicted them….They look and smell like street people, have not had a wash for days. They know it and are embarrassed.

Now they want to go home, to see if their families are still there, to resume their old lives if at all possible. But it will not be possible, life never be the same again. These scars and the memories of these last few months cannot be erased. Some human relationships may have been broken once and for all: most victims, I have found, know at least some of their assailants. How can you ever chat casually again and laugh with a neighbour who screamed for your blood?

Some of those who come for help will not take a NO for an answer. They know what they want and they want it NOW! No good explaining that it may take a day or two to get them the help they need. Cash is scarce and hard to come by. Food runs out very quickly, the demand is so high. The helpers and volunteers are only human and can take just so much. Tension rises quickly and nerves are frayed, soon something snaps, and there is an ugly scene. You wanted to be kind and you feel awful you were not….

You had better not read the papers. Do the people who so desperately hang on to power have the slightest idea of all the suffering they have caused, are still causing? Do they care? They have even the cheek to demand amnesty and impunity for the terrible things they have done to this ragged, dishevelled, dirty bit of humanity that lines up at our doorsteps. Better not think about those people too much while you are trying to sort out the mess they are responsible for. Your blood may just boil over.

And yet you wanted to be so kind……”

God bless, and may God also bless the people of Zimbabwe,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A different path

Was it some sort of musical preconditioning? I do not know. All that I know for certain is that when I joined the Sisters for Morning Prayer during my recent retreat, my reaction was one of surprise. “That sounds like sunrise!” At that point, my thoughts moved away from the written psalm in front of me and I simply luxuriated in the beauty of the same words as sung by the Poor Clare Colettine community of Ty Mam Duw in Hawarden, North Wales. That reverie, too, was prayer.

This is the time of year when most Religious manage to escape for a while in order to enjoy their annual ‘holiday with the Lord’, as a Retreat is sometimes called. Not that it is much of a holiday in one sense, because having the opportunity to spend several hours in prayer every day for one week, in silent solitude, has its own demands. It is an opportunity, not only to come face-to-face with the Lord, but also to take a closer look inside one’s own heart, a heart that is his, true, but is still one which, in the course of life’s daily busy-ness, can digress a little from ‘the straight and narrow’. Thus a Retreat is a time for reflection, assessment and redirection.

This year I managed to achieve something that has been a long-held wish and headed to Ty Mam Duw. The Poor Clare Colettines spend approximately one third of their day in ‘formal’ prayer, about four hours of which are taken up with the recitation of the Divine Office, starting at 06.30 in the morning and finishing somewhere around midnight…and then there is Mass, the Rosary and private prayer. Life becomes totally orientated around prayer, totally God-centred.

Such an intensive life of prayer is a special vocation in itself. Not everybody could do it. It means that prayer is the priority of the day, with other tasks, even such things as cooking, washing, ironing…and eating, necessarily relegated to places of lesser importance.

Yet, as St Teresa of Avila declared, “God is found even amongst the pots and pans!” As a Sister remarked in an interview I did for Vatican Radio, “With spending so much time in prayer every day, it is never quite possible to make ends meet as a result of one’s own work.”

Of course, this state of affairs suits the Poor Clare lifestyle to perfection. St Clare pestered the Pope until she was given the ‘Privilege of Poverty’, a document granting that request arriving, literally, as Clare lay dying. It is the privilege of Clare’s followers to throw themselves in utter dependence on God’s generosity … even for their next meal!

Yet speak to any of the Sisters and their sense of joy is real, their inner freedom tangible. There is no sense that the long hours spent in prayer are burdensome. The Sister I interviewed After all, these are the very moments when they can be close to the sick, the dying, those in any kind of need, as one story goes to show…

Not long ago, late at night, the dog started to bark, without any obvious cause. There was a feeling that someone was dying and so the Sisters immediately sprang into action, praying throughout the night hours on that person’s behalf. The dog continued to bark into the early hours of the morning and then, suddenly, stopped, allowing the Sisters a few hours of sleep. Next morning, they learned that the moment of the dog’s silence was the very time at which the mother of a nearby camper, died. Thanks to the dog, the Sisters and a good dollop of Divine Inspiration, the old lady did not die alone… and they have many stories just like that, when they have somehow known that there was somebody in urgent need of their prayerful companionship at a crisis point in their life.

St Francis had a dilemma, solved for him by St Clare. He wanted to spend his life as a hermit, lost in prayer in the wonderful forests of Umbria, but, at the same time, he felt that God was calling him back into the marketplace of the world at large. Which road should he take? Clare, after praying for him, was adamant that Francis’ vocation was not that of a solitary hermit. Yet, to the end of his days, Francis felt the tension between the two ways of life. It was difficult for him, and it is, quite frankly, something that I personally find hard. Coming to Ty Mam Duw, there is part of me that never wants to leave, but there is also part of me that declares that the life of a Poor Clare Colettine is not my calling. Like Francis, I am called to the highways and byways, and, just like him, am called to ‘spread the Gospel and, when necessary, use words’. Perhaps the tension between the dual calls of Francis and Clare is a necessary, and sometimes uncomfortable, part of the Franciscan way of life: the two distinct vocations are only two sides of the one coin. Just as Francis never really overcame the yearning to be a hermit, so also Clare and her ‘Poor Ladies’ shared in the call of Francis and his ‘Lesser Brothers’ and were conscious that their part was to support each other through a path that was, at once, both the same and yet different.

We each have a vocation in life. Each is a unique path to God, a way that will unfold during the course of each day. None of us can see the details of our journey, but we do know that, at every step of the way, God is there, beckoning. That someone else’s vocation is different from mine does not make mine second best. Difference is not a matter of good or better: each of us is called by God. What is important is the way in which I respond to my calling. As the catechism used to say ‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.’

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Prayer Board

I receive regular prayer requests, which I place on the Prayer Board at, where your special intentions become ours.

You might be interested to know that if you also send those requests to the newly-launched Pontifical Mission Societies’ website at , you can also be guaranteed that your intentions will be remembered at every Mass celebrated in the chapel here in the centre of London.

For the sake of the website, we’ve asked that each petition be no longer than 100 words, so if you have multiple intentions, then send multiple requests as there is no limit to the number of people for whom we can pray!

Simply click on or and send your prayer intention.

It makes me think that we are enormously blessed in being able to count on the prayers of complete strangers and form a praying community with people we might never meet in this life.

God is good!

God bless,
Sr Janet