I was staying with my sister so I went to the Chilworth Friary, Surrey for Sunday Mass. Sadly the Friars are leaving at the end of the year because of a lack of vocations. This is a beautiful church where we held the funeral for my mother.
The homily of the priest stuck in my mind.
The Passion of the Lord, which of course was read out to us, emphasised the meekness, obedience and love of Jesus. Obedience because at the start of the Passion Jesus says in his anguish, Father, “if you willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.”
Meekness because when insults are being hurled at him and he is asked for an explanation as to his conduct he says simply, “It is you who say it.”
And love because despite his suffering, he says, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 22:14-56
I thought on these three qualities a lot – Obedience, Meekness, and Love and how much we fall short of them.
I started the week by reflecting again on how a single entity – God – could create the universe. I was watching a programme about Jupiter’s moon – Titan – an extraordinary place where lakes of methane gas have been discovered. And this week scientists have discovered a galaxy whose light takes over a billion years to reach us! Who or what could ever create this?
But then I thought that God may not be part of this physical universe at all and no less existent for all that. We know that just as love exists as well as justice and peace, so hatred and pride and jealousy and envy exist, although they have no corporate form. So if God is love, he exists no less than the methane lakes of Titan.
But how could a non-corporate God create a corporate universe. Perhaps the words of Jesus regarding how if one had faith the size of a mustard seed one could move mountains is the key. Could God, whose faith is obviously huge, because he alone knows for certain that he exists, have by sheer will created or started the process of a physical universe, even though he is nowhere a part of that physical universe?
This was a busy week for me and it was difficult to get to mass. On Tuesday I couldn’t really be bothered. However I made the effort, but then couldn’t get a feel for the service in the allotted tiny chapel where we had been squeezed in like sardines because of a concert being prepared. It didn’t matter that I could hear little and see nothing. There is no need to intellectualise the process, it just is. One is in the presence of the communion and therefore it is almost not necessary to see or hear anything.
On Thursday the process was reversed. I went to a huge mass taking an hour and with the full works of sung glories. Until I had communion it made no more impression than the Tuesday’s.
And on Saturday I had time only for a three minute visit to a county chapel in Lincolnshire, but even that was useful.
What I can draw from all of this is that intellectual conundrums are fascinating, but they ultimately prove little by the way of experience of God.
I had about an hour to kill before going to Mass and I stupidly read a newspaper which, being a newspaper, was just depressing. This was a mistake because I should have spent more time at the Brompton Oratory.
When I arrived at the Oratory, Quarant’ Ore was taking place. This is the Catholic practice where there is forty hours continuous worship to the Blessed Sacrament. The alter this week was ablaze with candles and looked utterly beautiful. It was St Patrick’s Day and the reading from The First Letter to St Peter was apt.
Each one of you has received a special grace, so, like good stewards responsible for all these different graces God put yourselves at the service of others. If you are a speaker, speak words which seem to come from God; if you are a helper, help as though every action was done at God’s order. (4: 7-11)
Oh dear, how horribly I have fallen down on this. Unfortunately it is all too easy to sit in front of the blaze of candles and simply think!
The reading from John 5: 1-3 5-16 is about the miracle of the invalid man at the pool at Bethesda. The spot alongside the pool was populated with the paralysed, blind, and unwell who would enter the pool in an attempt to get better. For thirty-eight years the invalid man had lain alongside the pool, but had never succeeded in getting in when the waters had been stirred, despite the fact that he believed that entering might cure him.
I thought a lot on this, how we wait for “the waters to be disturbed” for belief to come. It may indeed take a lifetime and we never have the time or the courage or the opportunity to jump in.
The BBC are currently running a wonderful series about the solar system, aptly titled Wonders of the Solar System. These are the type of programmes which I think the BBC do very well. In the series there was a piece about one of Saturn’s amazing moons, Enceladus, and its extraordinary geysers which shower out ice particles into its atmosphere, thus helping to create one of the rings which makes Saturn instantly recognisable.
When I survey this extraordinary universe, I know that I should marvel at God’s creation. Instead I doubt how one intelligence could ever have created all this. I should have the faith of the court official whose son was close to death in the reading from John 4: 43-54:
‘Go home’, said Jesus ‘and your son will live’. The man believed what Jesus had said.
Belief is so easy to describe, yet so difficult to implement.
I was at Mass and we were read the demanding passage from Matthew 18: 21-35:
Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.’
I doubt if I can easily achieve this once, let alone seventy-seven times!
The following day I was at Mass in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. The Chapel is situated in the Palace of Westminster, just off and below Westminster Hall and whilst the House is sitting, Catholic Mass is celebrated there once a week. Suddenly I was stuck with a positively horrible thought that I had a rather large bill to pay.
Fortunately at that moment however, Canon Pat Browne was reading the Psalm in his strong and beautiful tone.
Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.
Be with me when I pray. (Psalm 91)
I went to the Memorial Service of Desmond Plummer, Lord Plummer of St Marylebone. It was held at St Margret’s Church, Westminster which unfailingly does Memorial Services very well.
Desmond was my first ever boss; fresh out of Durham University thirty-five years ago I was his political assistant. He had just completed six years as leader of the Greater London Council. A man who got things done in a big way, under his tenure the GLC initiated sales of council houses at discounted rates and invested heavily in the Capital’s transport, in the process demonstrating what could be achieved by local government if given the backing of central government. He was also thoroughly kind to me in a thousand separate ways, given my inexperience.
At the service one of the readings was taken from the beautiful General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales:
There was a Knight, a most distinguished man,
Who from the day on which he first began,
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy …
And though so much distinguished, he was wise,
And in his bearing modest as a maid,
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might:
He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.
It stuck me that the verse could have been written specifically about Desmond and perhaps appropriately he was, along with his various other titles, a Knight of the Order of St John.
I was out walking in the Lincolnshire hills and started talking to an old countryman about where one was and wasn’t allowed to walk. He told me that there was an ancient law that whenever one was in the countryside, when the church bells rang out one could make a direct line to the nearest church. It is interesting to observe that so many of our “rights” are rooted in our Christian teachings.
He then told me another interesting anecdote. When he was young he had spoken to an old shepherd. The shepherd had told him that when he himself was young there were 16 men working on the five-hundred-acre farm which he worked. Now he was the only one. In those days all the shepherds were required to go to church on Sunday by their boss. I made no comment on whether that was a good or a bad thing! It’s just fascinating how these two social customs have changed and how within living memory the countryside was such a different place, with its religious obligations thoroughly embedded. Now the countryside has become nothing more than a dormitory for the cities.
The Archbishop of Canterbury the day before on television had, in his powerful and soothing tone, stressed the value of prayer.
Today, for once, I arrived early for Mass. I had nothing to read, nothing in particular to do and not much apparently to think on. So, perhaps inspired by the Archbishop, but admittedly somewhat reluctantly, I went to the Blessed Sacrament chapel and looked at the crucifix and simply prayed. I tried to concentrate uniquely on the crucifix. The solid gold figure seemed to grow in significance and presence. This powerful feeling brought the Archbishop’s words into my reality. Then disappointingly the moment passed and it was time for Mass.
Recently there was a programme on television about the history of the Reformation. As we know, Luther’s principal contribution was to argue justification by faith. He argued that the giving of indulgences, which was common practice by those hoping to get to Heaven during his time, was useless because we do not achieve salvation by good works, but by faith.
Where does that leave those of us of questioning faith? Often when I look at the night sky I am filled by doubts that no single intelligence could have created a universe of such magnitude. But Luther may have a point. Anyone can do good in their lives. An atheist can be as “good” a person as a fervent believer. By doing good does he get to Heaven quicker than the believer who has done less good? Can we get to Heaven without believing? I do not know. I just know that we just have to go on working on our belief.
I had a dream that I was attending a hearing of the House of Commons Committee of which I am Chairman, the PAC. It was all a bit of a disaster. First I started fighting with one of the other committee members, literally grappling on the floor, for fun!
Then I asked a Catholic priest to say prayers before the hearing began. (Prayers are said immediately before the daily debates in the Commons Chamber, though not prior to committee hearings.) However, he did it in a ludicrously over the top manner, in Latin, with the full works and dress! This inevitably led some of the more atheistic members of the Committee to start grumbling.
I then looked down to my desk and realised I had left my briefing notes in my office. My mind went blank and I had not the slightest idea what to ask the distinguished witnesses who sat patiently before me. There was an awkward silence, but fortunately I then woke up!
All this begs the question; does this dream reveal a deep insecurity? Or is it simply the result of my different thought processes becoming intertwined?
Today’s reading describes the travails of the Ark of the Covenant. It was lost after Solomon’s time and the tablets which had been given to Moses and upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed have never been found.
What would we make of them if they were discovered today? No doubt that we would insist that they were carbon dated. Let’s just accept history as it’s written and be thankful.
I had a dream that I was transported back in time one hundred years to a Victorian church I know well. What was strange about the dream was that I was obviously in the Victorian era, the building was brand new and period characteristics such as horse and carts rolling past outside confirmed this. Yet the internal decoration of the church, its participants and liturgy were aspects and people I knew. It was as if the dream was an allegory, that the church transcends time and can be in all eras at once.
Ask, and it will be given to you;
Search, and you will find,
Knock, and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7: 7-12)
I think today’s reading is my favourite. It always reminds me of William Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World. The painting, which now hangs in a side room off the chapel of Keble College, Oxford, depicts Jesus carrying a lantern and preparing to knock on an unopened door. It is a favourite of mine because it’s not about having faith but seeking it.
I was thinking of today’s psalm.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord hear my voice
O let your ears be attentive
To the voice of my pleading. (Psalm 129)
Three of my best friends, including my two best friends from university, have already died and of natural causes. I was lying awake and thinking of them. I just knew that they were present, not in a spooky, ghost-like way, but in an intellectual and emotional presence.
They may have died and been cremated but they still exist. I just knew it. They are not gone.
I followed the Hunt on foot, walking for over three hours, coming up after them and seeing the field streaming over the distant hills, brought closer and into sharp focus by my binoculars.
Finally, tired I came over the side of the Wolds with the Lincolnshire plains spread before me.
In the near distance, amid the subtle winter greys, greens and browns lay the steeple of Tealby church, beautiful and proclaiming under a blemished blue grey sky.
Today is St David’s day. He is of course the Patron Saint of Wales and he also holds the distinction amongst the other patron saints of the British Isles of being the only patron saint to have been a native of their country. At Mass today we were reminded that St David’s followers were called the Watermen. This was due to their penitential habit of standing up to their neck in freezing cold water and reciting all 150 of the psalms.
Having taken a dip in the Serpentine this morning I can vouch for the arduousness of their task. I only lasted about 3 minutes, scarcely long enough for a Pater Noster, let alone 150 psalms. I think that from this hardly scientific experiment we can safely conclude; 1. that the legend is a bit far fetched; 2. that St Benedict was wise to introduce a more benign routine for his monks. Joking apart, today’s psalm is beautiful:
Happy the man who has placed his trust in the Lord. Happy indeed is the man whose delight is the care of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. (Psalm 1)