My son’s term ended with a prize giving and benediction. The service was so beautiful, the boys voices so pure in the Tantum Ergo Sacramentum that tears rolled down my cheeks.
I am sorry if this week is a lot about my children, but so be it. Is there anything more important than one’s children? No.
It was the last rugby match of the term and they remained unbeaten. They were very happy. I asked the Foreign Secretary about Libya again and again urged caution and against regime change. How many of the world’s miseries are caused by people believing they have a superior moral view about how other countries are run? We should stick to humanitarian assistance.
My son’s school had a Lenten Mass and I went along and my son was reading from the prophet David.
Azariah stood up in the fire and prayed aloud:
“For your name’s sake, O Lord, do not deliver us up forever,
or make void your covenant.
Do not take away your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham, your beloved,
Isaac your servant, and Israel your holy one,
To whom you promised to multiply their offspring
like the stars of heaven,
or the sand on the shore of the sea.
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received;
As though it were burnt offerings of rams and bullocks,
or thousands of fat lambs,
So let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.
And now we follow you with our whole heart,
we fear you and we pray to you.
Do not let us be put to shame,
but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy.
He read it loudly and clearly and slowly. I was bursting with pride.
My daughter had fallen off a horse and hurt her head. It was taking hours and tree tries to get through to A&E, to tell her that she had concussion. I was praying Hail Marys in the middle of the night when suddenly I felt an extraordinary sense of connection like a wave of pressure. It was almost as if solid water or a strong mind was connecting me and my thoughts to the Virgin Mary. It was a very intense feeling.
With prayer we can briefly, for an instant, feel a sense of connection to the divine. I am reminded of today’s psalm 41:
My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life, when can I enter and see the face of God.
Today, to finish a week of glorious readings, there is the Return of the Prodigal Son, from Luke 15 1-3, 11, 32.
As I woke in my house, I marvelled again at the truth and poetry and the father’s words.
‘My Son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it is only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life. He was lost and is found.’
I had several chores to do, taking a friend to the airport before a family celebration. I ended up calling in at the end of the High Anglican service at Chiswick, where my father-in-law lives, then heard the sermon at the Russian Orthodox in Gunnersbury. Walking through central London that evening, I came across an evangelical service in Chester Square and ended up finally with mass at the Cathedral.
The sermon in the Russian church, translated for us by the deacon, struck me.
We all have our cross to bear, however young, wealthy, prosperous and successful. The point is to learn to live with it. We feel we will only be happy if we are free; if we do what we like. In fact, true freedom is found in not doing what we like.
So the sermon sticks in my mind.
But at the end of my journey this day, through the many different churches, I was struck by the central power of the Eucharistic prayer of the mass at the cathedral.
There was another lovely reading today, from Matthew 21: 33-43, 41-46
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes
Today’s reading from Luke 16:19-31 is one of my favourites. It is the story of the poor man Lazarus dying and going to heaven and the rich man going to hell.
Apart from the fact that I wonder if a similar fate does not await me for not having bought all those copies of the Big Issue, I think telling phrase is at the end.
The rich man says:
‘If someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said to him:
‘If they will not listen to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
Someone I know has been burgled for the fourth time.
Having long lost anything of sentimental value (or, indeed, of any value), this time the burglars stole the little lead from the roof and the copper boiler tank. Ripping the pipes from the wall, hundreds of gallons of water cascaded through the house – destroying it.
Christianity teaches us we should ‘not condemn or we shall be condemned.’ ‘Pardon or you shall not be pardoned.’ But to have this sort of attitude, you have to be a saint.
Today’s reading, is from Jeremiah 18:18-20
Listen to me, Lord; hear what my accusers are saying! Should good be repaid with evil? Yet they have dug a pit for me. Remember that I stood before you and spoke in their behalf to turn your wrath away from them.
Normally my dreams are, frankly, boring. But today I woke in the middle of the night with a lovely one.
I turned off a road in a strange town. I walked in to a square (I had never been there before or knew what awaited me). There, on the far side, was a most glorious Cathedral.
It was neither Gothic, nor Classical nor Modern, but had a strange form of beauty. Great buttresses and pillars, not just of stone, but of polished wood, rose tier on tier, balcony on balcony, into the sky. I had never seen so beautiful and intricate a structure. Everywhere were towers, turrets and wondrous arches.
A huge feeling of happiness diffused me.
But hard as I searched, I could find no entrance or door of any kind, open or shut, locked or unlocked.
Entrance into this cathedral was not for this dream or this life.
I can only wonder at what it must be like inside.
We had our great debate on bombing Libya. I won’t repeat here what I said, but this and similar operations raise an interesting debate on notions of Just War.
Thomas Aquinas was keen on this subject. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out the conditions in which an act of war is acceptable against an aggressor:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
To my mind, most of the World’s miseries over the centuries have been caused by people invading other people’s countries to enforce what they consider a superior moral right.
Clearly Gaddafi has no morality on his side, but do we have the right to prescribe what we see to be a just solution upon another country? I think not.
We only have a right to impose a ‘humanitarian solution,’ protecting civilians from a massacre in Benghazi.
We do not have a moral right to go further – to overthrow a dictator by force.
I went to Mass in my local church in London. It is not a sung mass, but because of this the words the words of the hymn stuck in my mind. It is the only one which I have managed to learn by heart. It is by Isaac Watts.
When I survey the Wondrous cross, on which the prince of Glory died
My greatest gain, I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
In my own mind, I accept the first verse, but replace the last two lines with:
My greatest loss I count but gain and pour contempt on all my sorrow.
It seems to me that the message is at first for success and good times, but also for difficult ones.
I was walking across Paris and rested in the Madeleine Church. There was a concert on so I sat awhile to listen.
Eventually, I had to get up. My train was leaving soon. Before leaving, however, I went to the Lady Chapel and stared for a moment at the candles and at the statue of the Virgin. At that moment, the choir struck up Gounod’s Ave Maria. It was a moment of inexpressible beauty.
I was in the Louvre museum in Paris and came across a picture by Domenico Ghirlandaio from 1490. It was ‘Un Portrait d’un vieillard et d’un Jeune Garcon cet Emouvant Portrait d’un Jeune Garcon et s’un Patricien Florentin Age Defigure par une Acne Rosacree.’
I looked at the picture for a long time. I felt for the old man (he is pretty ugly with a very bumpy nose), because I also suffer from Rosacea. But what was lovely about this picture was the tenderness between the old man and the child – between experience and innocence. They look at each other with much love.
It is almost like a Madonna and Child – perhaps all the more moving because in the Louvre the conventional image is so abundant.
I went to a vigil for the feast for St. Patrick. There are two interesting things about him. He went back to convert the people who had enslaved him and he prepared himself with long, lonely years in the wilderness.
I always like today’s Gospel. It is just Jesus advising his disciples to concentrate on the Lord’s Prayer.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
I was doing an Adjournment Debate on the BBC’s decision to cut back the Hindi radio channel. It is of importance to some of the poorest Indians who cannot access television or internet.
I began to wonder how we confront our relationship with the poor. Are we unknown for wanting to help them with other people’s money?
Of course not, and we must we help others even when we have less to spare than usual. I feel a conflict between cutting services and our current season for giving – Lent.
The story of the choice between Good and Evil in Genesis and Christ’s choice between temptation and right in the desert always seem so pertinent.
But I am a doubter.
Despite the undoubted authority of what I read in the Gospel, I still struggle to understand how it relates to the vastness of the universe. The inflexible laws of gravity and the great mass of billions of stars and galaxies seem hugely distant. How can the creator of all that is be begotten as a preacher in Bronze Age Palestine?
Lying awake, I took refuge in the thought of the Trinity. What at first seems the most impenetrable of mysteries is actually a clue to truth that Jesus is not the whole God but part of God.
As we walk in the present, it is no bad thing to feel echoes of the past.
I was on a long would walk north of Thorganby – the name itself perhaps an echo of Viking raids.
I came upon a valley that seemed particularly inviting and well shaped.
Looking at my map, I saw marked at the far end: ‘REMAINS OF PRIORY (PREMONSTRATENSIAN)’, where Priory Farm can now be found.
I wandered what history had happened there five hundred years before.
If you go to the Ancient Egyptian galleries in the British Museum, you will find examples of the ‘False Door.’ There is one there belonging to the Egyptian courtier Tjetji and his wife Debet. The ancient Egyptians believed that through these false doors in the middle of their elaborate graves, their spirits could pass through to the afterlife.
They buried their dead on the West side of the Nile – the side of the setting sun. The dead passed with the God of the setting sun down into the West before passing underground and rising again in the East.
To us, this seems absurd. To them, our concept of a God born of a virgin might seem equally absurd.
Surely, three or four thousand years ago, they were just trying to find a spiritual way. And surely, the seeking of a spiritual way is valid in itself.
The important thing is not to give up but to go on seeking.
What is the point of giving up something for Lent?
Does it achieve anything?
Of course, it is a statement. It says I care enough about Lent or God to give up chocolate or Alcohol. I have often dreaded Lent because of this moral pressure.
But it can be better put this way:
We should try to give up something, or things, which separate us from God. That, of course, is a tall order, like giving up all one’s possessions. It is easier to find a symbol – something mildly inconvenient but useful in itself.
So I am giving up dairy products – cheese, or milk in my tea and coffee and milk, (not dark) chocolate – which I prefer anyway.
But it is part of a slow, modest statement to myself.
This is a good day to start thinking about essentials. I had Question No. 6 to the Prime Minister. I had one question in mind, but the Prime Minister’s people wanted me to ask something else.
Then I thought: this is a direct clash with the Ash Wednesday Mass at my son’s school. He is only at that school for a year. It’s more important to do that – and I did.
Allegre’s Miserere was sublime. This is just a small personal experience, but you will have many other examples.
One of the ways I find belief comes is to assume that it is true.
I was sitting in Mass and as usual it was passing me gently by. Not an unpleasant experience. But then I decided to ‘assume’ that it was all true – that something extraordinary was happening now, just a few feet from me. That God was manifest in the bread I was to eat. I still don’t have the absolute belief that this is indeed the case, but a wonderful experience made the whole thing come alive. Of course, one can only keep this up for so long.
But you need to persevere.
One of the ways we can be inspired in our search, of course, is to look at people in the past.
A person I find quite attractive in the Bible is Tobit. He seems an ordinary kind of bloke. He was sleeping outside when a pigeon dropping blinds him. He had all sorts of other misfortunes, but overcomes them – mainly through perseverance. He seems determined to have faith. Finally, his sight is resolved.
I can see, my son, the light of my eyes.
As Lent approaches, it is a good time to look at one’s faith. If, like me, you are a natural doubter, it is an even better time for reflection. Of course, we would all like to believe and would all like to be saved from death.
But how do we achieve this?
Is it though faith and good works?
In the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 4:18-25, we read that Abraham’s faith in God ensured he could become a father despite his great age.
This is the faith that was considered as justifying him.
My problem – and it might be yours – is that we neither have this monumental faith, nor do we ‘justify’ ourselves by our paltry good works. So, we are neither one thing nor another.
But of course, the thing to do is to persevere. And that is a good point at which to start.
The tiny church was alone.
An early morning dawn enveloping.
But unlocked I sat awhile
In my sight one bowl of daffodils
The first of this year
Very still. Perfect.
And behind the planed leaded window
A glimpse of white sky and free.
No sound, a distant call.
No sight, no movement.
Time stopped still.
But I could not resist
And move forward
Now each flower, petal, stem stood and sharply focussed.
But beyond through the window
an ancient tilting gravestone.
Now time moved forward again
The moment of still peace gone.