Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sand castles

A large group of people was standing, looking over the wall to the shore. It was low tide and a narrow strip of sand had emerged from underneath the black waters.

In a sheltered corner, five young people had sculpted the sand into a three-piece settee, complete with cushions and detailed upholstery. Not far away, a man working on his own had produced a lovely array of butterflies. All had worked so hard to produce something for others to enjoy.

Four small boys aged about 10, sauntered towards the onlookers. “Hey! Look at this!” exclaimed one of them in an American accent. His friend, with the disdain only found in children, sniffed and, in a broad Northern Irish accent declared, to the amusement of all, “Trust me. I’ve seen better!”

Yet, for all his scepticism, the verse carved into the sand had its own message:
“Dig a hole.
Make a pile.
Make one million people smile.”

True…and how many people had enjoyed what was, basically, adults making sand castles?

We all need to be childlike. Even adults need their playtime!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Different abilities

People are all shapes, sizes, colours and have an amazing range of abilities and disabilities.

That might be something of a truism, but face a rush hour in a busy city and it is amazing what God can do with two eyes, a nose and a mouth! It is equally fascinating to see how it is possible to manoeuvre in the most confined spaces and achieve things that others would find extremely difficult.

Waiting at a busy station yesterday morning, in the space of about ten minutes, two people passed me in their electric wheelchairs. Both were in their late 20s-early 30s and both were seriously disabled…or, perhaps in their case, ‘differently abled’ was the more appropriate term. These days, the politically correct devise expressions that tend to be long-winded ways of saying the same thing. However, for these two individuals, their courage was impressive. Whatever might or might not have been their physical strengths and weaknesses, they were brave to manipulate electric wheelchairs in the early morning rush. I would have been scared, but they were as seemingly carefree as anybody on their two feet at that time of the morning.

On the opposite side of the scale, where on earth do skateboarders find the courage to skim into mid-air, turn somersaults and still land on the ground on their skateboard?

Perhaps we should be glad of those who have different abilities: in that way we do not need to feel too ashamed of our own cowardice!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, January 28, 2008

Smile at the difficulties

I don’t normally reproduce the contents of a press conference for this reflection, but I was impressed at what the new Father General of the Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, had to say, so I reproduce it below.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

“First of all, I want to thank you for the interest you have shown in the Society of Jesus, in this General Congregation, and the positive view that you are taking of me.

I understand the difficulties you have in finding information. I am an unknown. Spanish journalists look for treasures where are there are none; they ask people, hoping for a small bit of drama, if I actually am the third of three brothers – in reality I am the third of four; if I studied in the Balmes Institute – I did but only for one year when I was 10 years old and I was suspended from two or three subjects…

I hope that in the future it will not be so difficult to find information, since we will be able to leave aside this less interesting material and inform you about what is more important: what we do in this present world, this church, this moment in our history.

These days I have found things in the press which are helpful, but also things that are not helpful. Among those that are least helpful, for example, is the search for conflict between Jesuits and the Holy Father, between Jesuits and the Vatican. I do not believe this to be true. The Society of Jesus has always been in communion with the Holy Father and we are happy to be so. Between spouses there are always difficulties; if any of you who are married say there are not I would not believe you. Only people who love each other can hurt each other. When as part of that relationship there is an effort to work together, difficulties can arise and that is normal. If any of you are married you know of what I speak. The Society of Jesus wants to work with the Holy See and obey the Holy Father. This has always been the common understanding among us. It has always been so, it has not changed nor do I believe it will change.

Some in the press have said that there is a theological distance between myself and Benedict XVI, which some wish to sensationalize. When I was a student I studied the works of Professor Ratzinger; in Tokyo we studied his books because he is a great professor. His books were interesting, they had creativity and inspiration which we all appreciated at that time. I speak of the years 1964-1968, when I was studying in Tokyo, and the works of Ratzinger were common among us. Later, when I came to Rome it was the same. The name of Ratzinger was that of a great teacher. And in Germany – although he did not teach in Frankfurt – all read his books.

Thus the distance is more something theoretical in people’s imagination. This is about a continuing conversation, because I think that theology is always a dialogue. What is most important is the search for the truth, the search for the truth inspired in the Word of God, in the life of the Church, in the life of Christians. In this dialogue one might perhaps find differences in some matters, but always part of the mutual search for the truth.

Some journalists say that I am like Arrupe, or like Kolvenbach, half and half, up to fifty percent; it would not be a surprise if someone said I am 10% Elvis Presley. All of this is false. I am not Fr. Arrupe. I love Fr. Arrupe, I admire him, he has influenced me, I had him as my Superior for four years in Japan, and in fact I had know him earlier, in studies, when he talked to us about the atomic bomb in Hiroshima…..but I am not Arrupe. So, who am I? If you ask I will say that I have been created for the reality in which I find myself, I am in process, in fieri, until I become what God wants of me, as with all of us. This applies to the relations with the Holy Father or to what comes out of this General Congregation. All depends on the ability I have to respond or not to respond to that reality and those who are around me and that which the General Congregation asks of me. This is always the open question.

Something of interest to the press has been my relationship with Asia. Here you can see a map which we put together a month ago in Manila, in the region where I have worked in recent years. This is a region that extends from Japan to China to Australia and to Micronesia in the Pacific. The greater part of my life has been lived in Asia, where I arrived when I was 24 years old, after I studied philosophy in Alcala. And Asia has been a challenge, a real challenge, in many ways.

The first years in Japan were not easy, not so much because of the raw fish – the Japanese diet is good – nor the language with which there was not much difficulty, nor even writing in Japanese characters. These are external things. The difficulties were more profound. The world was not as I thought of it in Spain, nor was it my way of seeing things, including the faith. Things that I considered commonly understood in Spain were not as they were in Spain. The encounter with a world so completely different put into question matters that I had considered givens. This became a normal experience, but it was difficult.

In this context I had to study theology, and it was most interesting. The task was one of reformulating faith itself not only in the context of Vatican II but in the context of Asia, of Japan, in a context where Buddhism and Shintoism and other religions have had a profound influence.

I believe that Asia has changed me, I hope for the good – the Japanese will have to decide that – it has changed me and has helped me to understand others, to accept what is different and try to understand why it is different, in what lies the difference and how I can learn from that difference.

And then it has taught me to smile at the difficulties, at human imperfection, the human reality. In Spain I was a little intolerant, thinking in terms of order, of commands, because I thought of religion as fidelity to religious practices, and in Japan I learned that true religiosity is more profound, that one must go to the heart of things, to the depths of our humanity, whether we are speaking of God or we are speaking of ourselves and of human life. This is a way of entering into a diverse world. I have learned that I could smile before the difficulties, something that in Spain would have made me very nervous. Human life is this way, we people are this way; imperfections are so natural that it is necessary to accept them from the very beginning.

The Japanese have the reputation of working 24 hours a day; yes, but they do it slowly, slowly; they don’t work like Americans, the French or much less like Spaniards, who perhaps work one hour, but very intensely. It is a different kind of rhythm, and this applies not only to work but to the way of understanding people, without imposing on them. It scandalizes them that we are so strict, intolerant, and incapable of accepting diversity; this is a scandal to them.

This was truly a challenge for us who came with the naivete of those born and educated in a country like Spain. Because of this I believe that Asia can enrich the universal church a great deal. Unfortunately we Jesuits are few in Asia and we have written little about this. Japan can contribute a great deal with her culture and her way of confronting problems with depth. If we look at Buddhism we see that it itself has changed a great deal throughout Asia; from India to Sri Lanka the south has one Buddhist tradition, but the north has another, the Mahayana which was open to a variety of situations and arrived in Japan where it found a way of entering deeply so that Zen took on Japanese citizenship. Questions were as deep as possible; all was questioned. We can all learn from this world, maintaining our own calm while facing the other as given to us.

Then there is China. China is a world with such a breadth of cultures and diversity of language, with more than 27 ethnic groups in the south of China where they speak Chinese mixed with Arabic, a world for which it is incredible to imagine a way to provide some kind of administrative unity. Then there are Korea and Vietnam, with their great diversity; the Philippines, which is sometimes called the Italy of Asia, because they have that same sense of humor and of life, and a sense of law that is a little broader that that of other countries. There is a saying that for them traffic laws are not laws but recommendations. his understanding of life I believe is good for the rest of Asia, as a kind of profound Asian humanism.

Indonesia is part of this same tradition. I also should include that Australia, with its Western character, has taken as its mission to be a bridge between Asia and the West. I have found great assistance and cooperation in Australia in the development of programs. Then we have new missions, like Burma, East Timor and Cambodia, new because they were closed; Jesuits had been expelled from Cambodia and from Burma by the military government. In Timor there had been a small group which has changed a great deal since independence. Now we have new vocations, but all is beginning anew. All of these nations bring new challenges and tasks.

About the future there is little I can say. The reason is simple: I have just begun. When in the Congregation meeting they speak of Father General, I always think they mean Fr. Kolvenbach; I do not yet realize that it is me. My current attitude is to listen, listen and obey. As you know, the General Congregation has authority over Fr. General. During the General Congregation I am subject to the Congregation. If the Congregation tells me what needs to be done, what direction to take in the future, I should obey, that is my mission. Therefore what is important to me now is to know what the General Congregation wishes; as well as how to respond to the challenges that the Holy Father has sent us, about which we are reflecting very seriously, so as to give a response that can help the Church, not ourselves. I hope to meet with the Holy Father soon whenever he calls me to have an initial meeting. After all this, when the Congregation Fathers have gone, I will begin to work, to see how to respond and make all of this into reality.

I hope that then we can have a meeting to respond to your questions. Now I have no answers; I can only respond “this depends, that depends….” In the dialogue which we will have I hope to follow the principles of Ghandi, who said that when we speak, it first must be true, because if it is not true it is not interesting; second, it must be charitable, and do good; and third, it must do good for others. Thus, news that, although true, does not do good but creates misunderstandings will not be interesting, and if it does not help people I think it is worthless.
I intend to be transparent. I have learned this in Indonesia, from a couple who were not Christians. In a context where there is fear of evil spirits, this couple took transparency as their spirituality to defend themselves against those threats, so that any evil that came passed on without leaving a trace and the good that arrived was passed on to others. I think this is a symbol we should keep in mind. Transparency is an attitude of responsibility for the good of others, not for ourselves. It is not so important what people think of me; more important is the good of others.”

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Treasures for sharing

Many outsiders would not expect a Community of Religious Sisters to be sports mad, but, believe me, it happens! I have lived in communities where the football results achieve almost a sacred status on a Saturday evening. I have frequently been amazed by the ease at which scores and performance can be analysed and mentally recorded for the subsequent occasions even if they are years ahead.

By way of a change, I’ve now moved to a household where the gentler scenes of natural history are more popular than haring around a patch of ground after a ball that refuses to go where the bystanders would choose.

This evening, we’ve been watching some magnificent images of India as a cameraman from this country was invited to join a famous Indian who, after 17 years of filming tigers, had never succeeded in filming one hunting and catching its prey.

The programme was beautiful, with superb images of landscape, birds and animals. The genuine love of the camera crews for their subjects was very real and tangible. It was sad when, after 17 years of trying, the Indian just missed by seconds, as a magnificent tigress caught a deer, Although I do not like to see animals killed, I was saddened to watch him cry in disappointment. I shared his joy when he eventually succeeded.

It is a strange thing that the media so often portrays a limited scenario. Those of us who have never seen India are familiar with pictures of overcrowded streets and the Taj Mahal. How often do we see the real beauty of the subcontinent? How often is people’s image of Britain confined to London, which, although fascinating, is not the whole country? How many of those who have never visited Italy have been limited to scenes of Rome, Pisa, Naples, Venice and Siena?

People and countries have their own beauty and riches, treasures that are there for the sharing. We are all who we are thanks to a cultural heritage that has been fashioned through many centuries. We are all the recipients of ancient wisdom and loveliness.

Thank God!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, January 24, 2008

For or against

I would have switched off the radio had I not been at a crucial point in something on the other side of the room. Before listening to what he was about to say, I had already decided that the words of one of the world’s best-known scientists would be sheer rubbish. I rarely hear of him saying anything sensible, but he seems to be beloved of the media because of his controversial points of view. As a very vocal atheist, he seems to lose touch with the scientific method when it comes to speaking of anything that touches on religious matters.

The radio was not silenced, mainly because I do not have three hands and so could not spare one of my two to reach over to the on-off switch. It was also at that moment that I suddenly realised my prejudice and, yes, my arrogance, in deciding that this same scientist could say nothing sensible about anything. Thus it was that I heard quite an interesting discussion on bacteria that I can neither prove nor disprove. Even though I would still enjoy seeing Dr. Know-it-all cut down to size, perhaps my prejudice will be a little less the next time that our paths cross.

Many teachers find that, in addition to teaching Religious Education, they must also teach a secular subject in order to prove that they do not have a one-track mind, to demonstrate to the world that teaching religious subjects does not mean that they are incapable of offering anything else that is worthwhile.

Take the example of the Pope, for instance, who describes himself as having “a passion for piano”. When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, a great amount of media time and energy was taken up with commenting on his love for the piano and on whether or not his piano would be moved into the Apostolic Palace. Almost an equal number of comments have been passed about his subsequent enjoyment (or lack) of concerts, liturgical music, rock music and so on. As one who has done many live radio and television commentaries of papal ceremonies, I promise you that there were many occasions when the musician was present every bit as much as the Pope. It was easy to see the sudden alertness and attention to the music, a concentration on a totally different level to the event that had occasioned the music. Should he not, then, be well-qualified to speak, not only on matters of faith, but also on Bach, Beethoven, Liszt and so on? Yet, as soon as he became pope, the world immediately confined his authority to the Church. Would the world be sceptical now of his ability to speak of music? Would there be prejudice, either favourable or unfavourable?

How often do I compartmentalize people and decide in advance whether or not they are worth hearing? How often do I reject someone else’s point of view simply because of one particular group to which that person belongs?

Someone once said that there are only two people who can tell the truth to a despot: the courageous and the imbecile. Where do I stand? Does my own prejudice put those whom I oppose in the group of the courageous or the imbecile as they declare something that, perhaps, I should hear?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Remembered by God

“Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty lived here.” It is a modest house, literally just around the corner. It was in darkness this morning, but this evening, the open curtains and bright lights indoors display a carved wooden screen and numerous portraits. The house looks cosy, if cluttered, and quite attractive.

Quite amazing, really. Someone whose name has gone down in history for his brutality to those who served under him, lived in a terraced house almost indistinguishable from those on either side of it. How many of his neighbours would have been able to visualise the creaking wooden ship, the masts with their rigging and the ‘crow’s nest’ for the lookout to perch regardless of the weather? The black waters of the Thames and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean could scarcely be compared.

Life at sea was one of hardship, but apparently Captain Bligh took things to extremes on the Bounty, virtually making rebellion inevitable.

It is a long story, immortalised by the cinema. Yet, although more than a century has passed since that mutiny, time has not erased the fact of today’s hardship for many thousands across the world. A poster fixed to hoardings throughout Rome shows a small boy, perhaps aged about 8 years old, working away at a sewing machine, making luxury goods that he will never enjoy.

Not far away along the Thames Embankment is an exact replica of another ship, the Golden Hinde of Francis Drake. It is tiny, and yet its crew braved the Atlantic, even bringing back the humble potato to England…and therein lies another tale. It is a story of courage and perseverance, admittedly also at cost to others, for thus began some of the plunder of the riches of South America.

How often does it happen that a person achieves greatness on the backs of others? When, for instance, David Livingstone ‘discovered’ so many parts of modern Zambia and the magnificence of the Victoria Falls, his name will be carried from the past into the present and on into the future. Apart from in his own family, was John Mumpa’s name recorded for his achievement in organising Livingstone’s abundant baggage and supplies? Mumpa himself was rewarded for his efforts with an empty and rather battered metal trunk (once it had been emptied of all useful articles, of course).

Some of Captain Bligh’s crew had their names recorded for posterity, but in shame, not in glory, because they rebelled against injustice. The names of Francis Drake’s crew are long forgotten. John Mumpa? Well, I know of him only because his great-grandson told me of his exploits and showed me the trunk, still being used to protect household belongings.

Fortunately, in reality, the little ones are not forgotten. Jesus immortalised them in promising that even the humble sparrow is precious to his Father. It is rather more useful to be remembered by God than by the newspapers!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The little bakery

Once upon a time, the little bakery was a very different place.

For sure, it stood at the corner of two roads: one, a busy thoroughfare between the many wharves along the riverbank, and the other, merely one of a number of streets wherein lived the poor.

The dark streets housed large families, sometimes clustered in groups of two or three, together in one room. There were no indoor toilets, so that the gutter outside, running the length of the street, ran foul, a very hotbed of disease and pestilence waiting to break out. Rats were a normal part of the scene, for they, too, had to live somewhere, so why not alongside the poor, feeding from the crumbs that had been carefully hoarded for the next meal?

Some of the men had work in the factories and the warehouses. One or two had a barrow that, very early in the morning, they would push to a market, perhaps to Covent Garden for vegetables, or to Smithfield for meat. Then, laboriously, the barrow would be wheeled through the streets of London in a desperate attempt to earn money to feed hungry families.

The women had a hard time of it: one baby after another, many of them not surviving beyond the early years. It was hard to make ends meet. Often, in the effort to keep some money from their husbands who would like to while away the hours at ‘The Mulberry Bush’, drinking away their abject misery, wives would swallow the coins that came into the house, retrieving them in the solitude of the ‘privy’.

Children had no hope of education. They were essential breadwinners if the family were to survive. ‘Oliver Twist’ was only one of countless youngsters born into poverty, encountering squalor and deprivation, hopelessness and abandonment, turning to crime in order to survive.

Yet, the little bakery, for all that it catered for the meagre needs of the poor who surrounded it, also knew a different clientele. Only a few minutes’ walk away were the houses of those who were quite comfortable. Nobody could have called them affluent, but there was a regular income and a predictable meal on the table. Children could attend school. They would have some good clothes, able to keep some as their ‘Sunday Best’.

The indigent, the comfortable and the affluent lived side-by-side. Each knew his or her place. Not many realised that they had not been born to their station in life. Poverty was the result of sin, affluence the effect of virtue…and yet the vices of some of those with money were all too obvious for anybody with eyes to see and a brain to think.

Yet still, the little bakery continued to provide bread, continued to feed the poor and to sell loaves to servants on behalf of their employers, knowing that some of the servants were themselves not far from starvation and were often victims of incredible brutality.

This evening, the bakery is bright and shining, cosy in the darkness, painted a comfortable dark red, attractive and tempting. It has a story to tell. Who will listen?

You, who walk by, do you know that this place is sacred? Hovels are now attractive (and expensive) homes, no longer housing poverty and suffering. It is good, but spare a thought for those who went before, who lived and died in order for you to enjoy your today. Spare a thought for those who, today, in their poverty and pain, are also preparing a bright future for their children and their children’s children. Just because the little bakery knew the times of Dickens, it also knows the hardships of many people in many countries across the world.

Lord, give the poor bread, but occasionally, give a rose of hope.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, January 21, 2008

A cold, wet, evening

It is a cold, wet, evening. The threatened rain is falling, running down the window in a steady trickle. It is not quite dark in spite of the heavy black clouds and the street lighting. In the distance, a tiny patch of almost-blue is trying, vainly, to stop the onset of night. The steady roar of traffic and the occasional sound of a plane or a police car rise above the pitter-patter of raindrops, whilst a slight wind nudges the branches of the tree outside, creating a waving silhouette against the buildings.

Across the road and on, into the distance, lights are appearing in windows as people return home from their various occupations. In the apartment opposite, someone has dumped a large black holdall, perhaps in relief after a long day? Is he or she planning a quiet evening at home, or is there something rather more active and exciting on the horizon? Whilst others hurry past, hidden underneath multi-coloured umbrellas, is someone else curled up with a hot drink and a book, luxuriating in a few moments of peace, quiet and solitude?

We really know so little of the lives of those around us. We pass in the street and perhaps offer a greeting, or perhaps we just walk by, oblivious of each other’s presence. Is that why one young man whom I saw this afternoon had chosen to have his face heavily tattooed? It wasn’t a cultural thing. Was it merely to attract attention and make a statement to the world? “I am here. I exist. Look at me and do not pass me by.”

Two little girls chattered on their way home from school. Afro-Caribbean, their curly hair lovingly plaited by their mothers, their giggles sounded above the adult murmurs of those they passed. What was the source of their merriment? How much do we really know of the things that bring happiness into the hearts and lives of others?

I sat in the Internet café in a fruitless effort to open my e-mails. The connection was so slow that, after several attempts, I gave up. Nothing would open. The content of my e-mails remains a mystery, but not so the cheerful helpfulness of the Muslim owners of the business. Were they Bangladeshis or Pakistanis? I do not know because I cannot tell the difference between their languages. How much do we understand of the words of others, even when they speak the same language? How often do we listen only on the surface, oblivious of the deeper thoughts and implications? How often do we see those who figure in our daily lives, or perhaps, on the news, and see human figures, but not human persons with hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, successes and failures?

It is a cold, wet, evening. Yet, in the darkness, there are people laughing and crying. There are people who are full of hope and who are full of fear. There are people who are simply ‘getting on with life’, whatever it might hold for them.

Lord, be with each and every one of us, whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we are. Guide us. Bless us. Draw us closer to you.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Burning hearts

He wore a wide, leather belt over his tunic and short leggings that came to just below his knees. His sleeves were hidden by arms that extended across his chest and face, a futile act of self-protection that ended in his inevitable death almost 2,000 years ago when Vesuvius erupted and buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He wouldn’t know that, in Herculaneum, as the population sheltered, safe, or so they thought, in the warehouses dotted along the shore, the first wave of hot air, escaping from the volcano crater, would sweep down the slopes, dessicating everything in its path. Scientists two millennia later, would conclude that it took less than five minutes to kill and skeletelise more than four hundred people as they slept, unaware of their impending doom.

Not so in Pompeii. Even today, the figures, carefully excavated by archaeologists, show the horror of those who had tried to escape but couldn’t avoid the torrent of hot ash and stones that hailed down upon their thriving city. For sure, the unexpected end of a heavily populated, affluent centre of commerce that housed the rich, the very rich and the very, very rich just as much as those who lived at the opposite end of the economic scale, preserved the records of daily life. Visit the museum in Naples and glory in the vivid colours of mosaics that might have been created this morning. See the magnificent sculptures, enshrined forever in newness and it is hard to visualise the contorted bodies of their creators, huddled over, vainly trying to save themselves from the volcano’s wrath.

Pompeii, Herculaneum and London are far apart, but are they?

Yesterday, I stood on the Thames embankment, across from St. Paul’s Cathedral as the sun was vainly attempting to break through impossibly heavy layers of grey clouds.

To the left of Wren’s masterpiece, the memory of our first three martyrs of the Reformation live on, Carmelite friars, who went to a horrific end in …. because they refused to accept Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, Ann Boleyn.

Yet, looking at St. Paul’s, there is also another story, one that dates back to a bakery fire in Pudding Lane and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

What was it like for the people of the time to stand exactly where I stood yesterday, across the river, watching the conflagration on the opposite bank? Were it not for the Thames, Fleet Street and St. Paul’s could be reached within a few minutes. How many watched from the embankment, knowing that there was little or nothing that they could do to help those whom they knew and perhaps loved, who were caught in the fire? Were they also showered with dust, hot ash and scorched splinters of wood from the burning buildings? Were the flames reflected in the sluggish waters of the Thames? Did they feel helpless, not knowing that the fire led to the end of the Plague and the establishment of the first fire insurance? Would that knowledge have mattered in any case? What value did the later benefits hold in comparison to the lives of people they loved and for whom the bystanders had responsibility? Samuel Pepys could write as an eyewitness, to some measure dispassionately and with some humour, but for most of his contemporaries, they were watching the end of their lives as they knew them to be.

But there is no need to go back in time to understand the feelings of helplessness of individuals who must watch the sufferings of those who are precious to them. It happens today and in situations that are not confined to nationality, culture, creed, gender or religious belief.
There are also people today, across the world, who are helpless in the face of violence and threat to their lives, whether from natural causes or from others who cannot find peaceful ways to eliminate conflict.

Helplessness is not limited to ages past. That is why, in the hymn, we sing, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come…”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The God of surprises

Domes and towers! It is quite spectacular to look out of my window and, on my left, is the dome of the Imperial War Museum. To the right is the towering splendour of the Houses of Parliament and the clock face of Big Ben, partially obscured only by the corner of a building opposite. From the window outside my room is the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the stunning London Eye, which, at night, is lit with a beautiful blue light. It is, after two days, still a novelty to be woken by the chimes of Big Ben. Will things change? I hope not.

Having arrived in London only the night before last, my e-mails may be rather erratic for the next few days as I’ll be dependent on an Internet café and the generosity of others who allow me to use their office connection after they have finished work, so please excuse me if I am sporadic in my efforts until I have my own connection.

Yesterday I had my induction into my new job with the Pontifical Mission Societies. Wonderful! I can definitely see plenty of opportunities for seeing the care and attention paid by the people of my own country to those in need elsewhere in the world. It is to be a real privilege and one to which I am looking forward, however much I loved Rome, Vatican Radio and the Beda College where I was able to treasure the opportunity to walk alongside so many students for the priesthood from all over the English-speaking world.

Today? Having spent so long packing, I am now unpacking and trying to find places for such boring things as plugs and cables, adapters and USB leads. Life is not always exciting. There are the mundane tasks that must be done. The floor has to be cleared of the bits and pieces that have been conveniently dumped and then moved around.

If life were always exciting, it would soon become boring, or else so stressful that we’d never cope. God is good. There are the moments of disorder, but there are also the times of order and accomplishment, when it is possible to look back, even at such a small thing as an emptied suitcase and feel a pleasant glow of achievement.

It is in the little things that we have time to appreciate the goodness of God. For sure, we can look at the big events and thank him for being there, but he is also present in the mundane details of daily life. It is there that he is truly the God of surprises, making himself present at the most unexpected moments.

Thank God!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, January 13, 2008


It is early on Sunday morning. The grey sky, heavy with clouds, is only just starting to reveal the waking world. Trees are still silhouetted, almost black, as their branches wave in the wind.

Beneath the window, a horse grazes in the field. Is it the same Shire colt that, yesterday, threatened to bite a Sister who tried to clean its sticky eye? A few months ago, it was a small foal. Already, much grown, it is larger and considerably heavier, than many an adult pony. Yet its silly little tail is still that of a baby. One day soon, perhaps, it will be lovingly and colourfully plaited, the dusty coat groomed, the untidy mane carefully combed and entwined with bright ribbons for an excursion to the showground and the gaze of admirers, gathered around the perimeter of an arena to see the once commonplace gentle giants.

Yesterday, a very different but rather frightened child found itself led through the small town of Godalming. It is just not the sort of town that expects to witness a bullock in its streets. People stopped and stared at its frazzled female companion as she held the halter and tried hard to keep the animal on the road rather than in the shops. The heavy black animal did not like the shops, the traffic or the 16th century, black and white buildings that form the centre of the town. Its owner was also unhappy at having to take responsibility for the beast, appearing increasingly worried as the minutes passed by. Who was she? What was the story behind the unfamiliar journey? Where did they begin ad where would they end?

We all have our own journey. Mine from Rome to England has already passed into history (except for the mountain of not-yet unpacked luggage which must, somehow, accompany me to London on Tuesday).

Who is with us on our travels? Do they bring us happiness or pain? What effect does my presence have on others? Am I able to bring joy into their lives?

Someone once wrote:
“Do not walk ahead of me: I might not follow.
Do not follow me: I might not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, January 11, 2008


Strange as it might seem, there are advantages to insomnia!

Today is D-Day and in four hours time, I will be leaving Rome for England on the next stage of my journey in life. The packing is done. (The washing was in the machine before 05.00.)

Inevitably, with the busy-ness, the first casualty has been sleep, at least, this morning, with a mental list of jobs still to be done before departure.

Knowing that 03.00 was much too early to be bustling around a silent house, I switched on the radio and heard a beautiful programme about gratitude. People were brought face-to-face with someone to whom they wanted to say thank-you.

What was striking was that the benefactors had not thought that they had done anything special and were both pleased, but also surprised, to know that they had changed the life of another person: one Good Samaritan was a teacher, another an orthopaedic surgeon and a third, a busy Mum who found a missing dog.

Yesterday, during a similar bout of wakefulness, another radio programme interviewed people with terminal illnesses, talking about how they had come to terms with their condition, what they had learned, and the advice they wanted to leave for those who are not coming to the end of their time on earth. Interestingly, there was one theme: be grateful. Appreciate every moment of life, every sunrise and sunset. Notice all the little things for which there was never time to look and see their loveliness.

At the end of the day, no matter who were are, ‘thank-you’ or its equivalent in whatever might be a person’s language, is such a small word, but is there anything that can hold the same vastness of meaning? I don’t think so.

It would be wonderful if the whole of life could be one great act of thanks to the One who loved us into life in the first place.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Husband of Mary

The girl whom he was to marry was pregnant and the baby was not his. He could have spoken to others. He could have dumped her. He didn’t.

He could have had his revenge. It would have been so easy to kill her or to arrange her death. He didn’t.

He married her and made a home for her child. When the child’s life was in danger, he and his wife escaped from their own land and walked many miles to safety, crossing national borders and becoming a refugee, returning to their own land only when the political environment was safe.

He taught the boy his own trade, gave him the possibility of caring for his mother and of leading an independent existence. Nobody in the town knew that the child wasn’t his and he wasn’t the one to divulge the secret of the youth’s paternity.

The bare facts of the life of St. Joseph are very few, so few that people have speculated about him for centuries. Was he old or young? When did he die? Was he around to see Jesus grow up? Who was Joseph of Nazareth, the carpenter?

In actual fact, the few things we know about Joseph are all the biography that we need, albeit not as much as we would like. There are, of course, conclusions that can be drawn. He must have been a thoroughly decent person and someone who was so dependable and reliable that God could entrust Mary and Jesus to his care, knowing that Joseph would not let him down.

It was only from about the 12th century that the Church began to formalise a devotion to Joseph, only creating a feast in his honour in the 15th century. Great saints such as Bernard (1123), Thomas Aquinas (1274), Gertrude (1310) and Teresa of Avila (1582) have long been associated with his name, but it was the Franciscans, followed by the Dominicans and Carmelites who, at the end of the 14th century, actually introduced a feast into their liturgical calendars. This was only then extended to the Universal Church in 1847. In 1870, Joseph was made the official patron of the Universal Church. After all, he had looked after Jesus and Mary, so he would be sure to take good care of the Church also.

Throughout the world, people depend on Joseph for their practical needs. He was a carpenter, a builder, a husband, a foster-father, a traveller, a refugee, persecuted and poor, someone who, according to tradition, died in the company of Mary and Jesus. He knew what it is like to face opposition and hardship. It’s not surprising, then, that many see him as a protector and a guardian.

If God can trust him, so can we!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, January 07, 2008

Communicating with the Divine

How do they do it? The panpipers on a Sunday, standing on the road alongside the Forum, merely blow into hollow bamboo pipes. That is all. Yet, effortlessly, they create the sights and sounds of the Andes and the Amazon. The magnificent ruins of Rome are transformed into dark green, steamy jungle and dizzying mountain heights. Ancient music, carried on the wind, permeates every nook and cranny, bringing its own loveliness, a loveliness that is beyond anything that the Senate and the Roman People could have ever imagined. It is the sheer beauty of the heights of the condor and the depths of the Amazon basin that makes it such a joy to visit the Forum on a Sunday.

Yet there is also a different music. Switching on the radio in the early morning, I learned of a different musical instrument: the Maori pipe and again, as soon as the first notes issued forth, I was no longer in Rome. There were the boiling mud pools of Rotarua, the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, warriors paddling decorative war canoes, women dancing in traditional robes made from feathers. It was magical!

The interview was fascinating. Apparently the Maori pipe was banned by the first missionaries to New Zealand, not understanding the sacred significance of the instrument. They probably also objected to the fact that the pipes were fashioned from human bones!

Today, three men, experimenting with emu bones, have resurrected an instrument that had almost entirely disappeared from its culture. They described whole communities sitting in tears of nostalgia as the men toured the villages, giving back to the Maoris a means whereby their ancestors had been in communication with their ancestors.

Perhaps the most significant part of the whole interview was towards the end when the interviewee described a conversation with a very old man. “When the pipes are blown, it causes my hair to stand on end. When that happens, I know that I am in the presence of the Ancestors. It is sacred.” The instrument was nothing more and nothing less than a means of going beyond the immediate and thereby communicating with the Divine.

How do I find God in my life? Am I touched by music or by nature? Does God speak to me in the sunlight or in silence? How does he touch my heart? If a Maori could know the presence of God by feeling his hair stand on end, in what way does God let me know that he is there? Is he carried on the breeze, or in laughter?

Somebody sent me the following in an e-mail:
I asked God for water, He gave me an ocean.

I asked God for a flower, He gave me a garden.
I asked God for a friend, He gave me all of YOU...

If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.
Happy moments, praise God.
Difficult moments, seek God.
Quiet moments, worship God.
Painful moments, trust God.
Every moment, thank God.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Real Epiphany

The world seems to be made up of witches of every shape, size and colour, some on broomsticks and some not. All of them are artistically arranged on every street corner, shop window and market stall. Even the salespeople are dressed as witches. Visit a restaurant and the chances are that the waiters and waitresses are similarly clad…although I must ask whether or not a bright green face and false, hooked, nose helps the digestion.

In Piazza Navona, the market stalls which, prior to Christmas, had sold Crib figures and sweets associated with Christmas, a few days later are groaning under the weight of witches, many of them made of straw and each one more improbable than the one before. Instead of sweets, fist-size (and larger) blocks of jet black sugar charcoal form mountains which, as soon as they are sold to the many thousands of teeming customers, tourists and children, are replenished so that the whole process begins all over again.

Why witches and sugar charcoal for the Epiphany? Well, it is because in Italy, children do not receive their presents on Christmas Day, but, rather, on the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. Very early on in life they learn that, if they are not well-behaved during the course of the year, then instead of gifts, the witch (La Befana) will come and will leave them a lump of coal.

Of course, it is all good fun. Even the children wear masks, cloaks and black pointed hats. Sugar charcoal is apparently good to eat, although I have not had the courage to try.

For the feast of the Epiphany, it seems that the entire world meets at Piazza Navona, especially in the evenings. Rome becomes absolutely thronged with families, in an exuberant, noisy, impenetrable, moving procession towards the Piazza. People come from every part of Italy, apparently merely to walk through the city streets, enjoying themselves. The city suddenly feels like one huge family, with children of every age, shape and size filling every available centimetre of space.

Enter the Piazza Navona at night and it is almost impossible to move. Does every child in the world HAVE to be brought here and be given a balloon? Yet the balloons themselves are beautiful, amazing and memorable in their own right… especially if one escapes from a hot sticky hand to soar into the sky, catching the bright lights above the howl of disappointment of its erstwhile young owner.

Meanwhile, in all the churches and homes, the Magi have appeared at the manger, carrying their gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrrh. Because of the din outside and the magical atmosphere of happiness, the Magi’s coming is silent and unspectacular. They stand or kneel in reverence beside the Infant, wordless and adoring. They are there on our behalf. The noisy, colourful crowds only have meaning apart from La Befana. It is deeply within the heart that there is the real Epiphany: the real manifestation of a Baby who was born for us.

The Coming of the Magi ~ T.S. Elliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A hug

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church.

What does it mean to be a mother?

One of the biggest lessons I ever learned was when I was faced with a dead baby and his grieving parents, when I had not a single word of their language with which I could offer comfort. It was then that I did the only thing I could: I hugged the mother.

It was then that I learned that motherhood is knowing when and how to give a hug, whether it is of sympathy in suffering, encouragement in difficulty, of support in weakness, of love in loneliness, of happiness in joy, of pride in achievement.

Mary was at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth. She was there for his successes and failures, his joys and his degradation on Calvary. Mary knew when Jesus needed a hug.

She also knows when her hug is exactly what we need. After all, she’s our mother, too.

Happy New Year!

God bless,
Sr. Janet