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Expect Nothing

Fr Richard Rohr OFM, whom I regard as a modern prophet, says these stark words about Catholics attending Mass:

I’ve been a priest for over forty five years now; sometimes when I look out over the crowd at Mass, I can see a passive resistance over much of the congregation’s faces. Even when I’m giving what I take to be a risky and life-giving message. They are conditioned to expect nothing. They’ve got so used to these gatherings not being meaningful that they no longer know how to allow them to touch their heart or change their mind.” The Divine Dance, pg 192

As myself an ex-priest and someone who has never given up on weekly Mass attendance, or indeed of being a Catholic, Rohr’s words strike me as entirely true and hugely concerning.

Over the last fifty or so years – my adult lifetime – the numbers attending church have massively decreased. It’s easy to categorise these folk who have either rejected the Church’s teaching and moral example, and perhaps even faith in God, or just simply ‘lapsed’ – it’s easy to categorise them as selfish and uncaring people: the ones Jesus referred to in his parable of the Sower (Matthew 13: 1 – 23) as those who never had any heart investment in their faith. And while that analysis may be true of some of those who have left the practice of their faith, I think we need to consider just how well the seed was actually sown by the Church. This brings us back to Rohr’s incisive comment because I cannot deny that the quality of much of the Church’s liturgy and celebration is desperately poor.

A typical Sunday Mass, certainly in the UK, is often a lack-lustre event with little ‘celebration’ of the Good News of the Gospel. We say ‘alleluia’ without really any feeling or meaning behind it. We may give the ‘sign of peace’ but it often seems to be a ‘going through the motions’ before receiving communion. The standard of reading of God’s word, both by lay people and clergy, is awfully bad. But perhaps the biggest deficiency is the dreadful standard of preaching – the almost exclusive preserve of the ordained (male) clergy.

I belonged to an order whose entire raison d-etre was preaching. And yet, my fellow confreres – and myself – while good and decent individuals, were often as sadly deficient in the quality of their preaching as many other priests. At seminary, I think lip-service (no pun intended) was given to what was called ‘homiletics and communication’. Personally, I like to think my preaching content was prepared and reasonably good, but my style was certainly very flat indeed.

The upshot of this dire standard of preaching is I think captured powerfully by Rohr’s sentence: “They are conditioned to expect nothing.”

Wow. I can only agree. Even as someone now sitting in the pews, and perhaps because of my experience as a preacher and celebrant, I often know when the congregation – who may start by listening – effectively switch off. The preacher is ‘droning on’ and it doesn’t take long for the congregation to start shifting in their seats, looking around and generally being distracted, if not despairing of any spiritual riches. How sad. How very sad.

Perhaps the most amazing fact is that so many folk – at least here in central Scotland – still attend Mass. But maybe that’s down to a lingering fear of going to hell – which was drummed into us as children all those years ago.

Expect nothing… And, as Rohr suggests, even when someone tries to impart a deep spiritual truth, the congregation may be so conditioned to expect nothing that they are not even listening! They may well be thinking about their Sunday roast because they – expect nothing from the sermon. I know some folk who basically only attend Mass because they know that they will receive Jesus in Holy Communion, but who despair of any other grace from the event.

And yet – the Gospel of Jesus is good news, the greatest news of our eternal destiny and our unshakeable identity as beloved children of God. Perhaps the Catholic Church has to largely die out in the western world before it might possibly revive? Certainly it will never disappear entirely.

Let’s each of us make the effort to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying and asking of us today! And pray for priests!

Martin

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

One of my earliest memories is of a travelling salesman who called to our home and spent some time trying to persuade mum and dad to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica. At that time, back in the early 1960s, this wonderful treasury of knowledge came in twenty four large volumes and cost a considerable amount of money. My parents would have loved to buy it to help their children in our learning but sadly couldn’t afford it and the salesman had to admit defeat and leave without a sale and without his commission!

Fast forward to today and the World Wide Web (internet) is a truly amazing thing. Thousands of powerful computers, located across the world and storing inconceivably huge amounts of information, are all interconnected with each other, and anyone who has access to a suitable device can plug in to this massive treasure trove of knowledge, pretty much for free.

Of course some of this vast store of information is dodgy to say the least, and sad to say there are malicious individuals and groups who purposely proffer false ‘facts’ and dangerous advice that can and does cause harm. We all need to be careful what we visit and view on the web, but in general there is so much valuable and interesting content at our fingertips that the web is a magnificent development of modern technology that has in many ways changed our world and even how we interact with one another.

I have always had a sense of God and a deep need to express the truths of the Gospel of Jesus. That’s why I became a priest many years ago and since having left the active ministry I have struggled to find any release for this ‘fire in my heart’. It’s perhaps a reflection on the clericalism of the Catholic Church that few apart from priests are given the opportunity to preach the Good News of the Kingdom. No wonder then that for me the internet, and my website poemsforpilgrims.com, have given me a platform and an outlet for this fire in my heart. I constantly pray that my website, its poetry and blogs, are all according to the mind of God and will never ever mislead or cause someone to turn against God.

My website has given me the possibility of sharing the things of God with others, and yet there is a catch: partly because the web is so vast but also because to find something in the web you have to know how and where to search. While setting up and maintaining a website is relatively cheap, the process of making it well known and well visited can be complex and quite costly. My attitude has been: if there is anything of God in my website and God wants to make use of it then God can take the lead. I admit that that sort of attitude can often be a cop-out!

I’ve called this short blog “A voice crying in the wilderness”, borrowing John the Baptist’s description of himself, itself taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (John 1: 23 and Isaiah 40: 3). In saying this I acknowledge that my poems have gone from being hidden in a cupboard to being effectively hidden in the vast ‘wilderness’ of the internet and that therefore my voice – which I hope is also the voice of God – has been isolated and ‘crying out in that wilderness’.

The home page of my website gives my mission statement:

a small website that seeks to combine two tremendous forces:

~ the Good News of Jesus

~ the power of poetry.

I do think my website is fairly unusual among the countless myriads of websites because there is no commercial aspect to it – there is nothing to buy or sell. And another thing which I do believe is pretty well unique – I certainly haven’t found another website that carries this – is a ‘website blessing’. While many websites contain prayers and specific prayers of blessing, my site has a specific blessing for everyone who visits, whether they actually alight on that page or not. And that means you!

People reacted to Jesus in different ways: some loved and adored Him while others hated and rejected Him. Few I suspect were ever left unmoved by Him. My hope is that through my website the Good News of Jesus is proclaimed and that visitors to the site are left hot or cold, but never lukewarm.

Martin

Why Creation? Why Us?

The Christian revelation in Jesus is that God is a community. A community of perfect love.

The Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – can be likened to a water wheel with three buckets, that perpetually spins and in doing so constantly fills and empties itself with love. An unending giving and receiving of perfect love. This perfect community is eternal relationship, completely self-sufficient – otherwise it would not be God, for God needs nothing outside of Himself (we of course have no precise pronoun to describe God! He – She – It – They, all fall far short of God’s reality). If you think about it, if God’s nature is love, then God could never be just a single ‘person’, devoid of any relationships: God would not be self-sufficient! God must be a community.

The point of these statements is simply that God never needed anything outside of Himself. Not angels, spirits, planets, or… people. Surely that begs the question: why Creation? Indeed, why humanity?

Why do we, and all of our beautiful world and the entire universe, exist? For the simple and humbling fact is that God never needed us to exist. The only possible answer then is that God freely chose to inaugurate and maintain Creation. But that still begs the question: why? After all, Creation – life – entails not just joy but also suffering. And if God is truly love, then He cannot be untouched by Creation’s sufferings, from the death of the smallest worm to the betrayals and evil of mankind.

The only answer must be framed by God’s nature: love. Creation is therefore the overflowing of God’s love. It’s as if the buckets on the water wheel were more than brim full: a superabundance of love. And God decided – a conscious act of His will – to create a multitude of other buckets to join in the eternal circle of love. We, and all of Creation, are born of love. We begin in and through love, we are maintained in and through love, and we will find our eternal destiny in and through love. The divine circle has room for all of us – it is utterly inclusive!

And this love that God has shared with us is not stingy. It is not limited or even just sufficient. It is absolutely superabundant, overflowing, unending. This knowledge, this “good news”, really is too much for us to take in. We cannot ever contain this with our minds, but we can perhaps experience it to some degree with our hearts. Do you know how much you are loved by God? ‘Know’ is perhaps a poor word here – have you ever experienced anything of His great love for you? If religion has any purpose it surely is to bring us to personal and collective experiences of His love for us. Sadly religion can often descend into mind games and tribalisms. There is so much divine love that we don’t need to find our true worth in competition, achievement, self-justification or merit.

So total is His love for us, that it is eternal – never-ending. When God thought of us, you, me, and all of Creation, He took a radical decision, a permanent commitment. He will never revoke His decision – to do so would be a failure of love, a failure of God. And God never fails in what He does.

You, me, and all of Creation are held in an unending embrace of love. Death will not break that embrace. Nothing can separate us from His love. Truly, all will be well.

Eternity will be an inexhaustible and ever-new journey into that great Love.

Martin

Silence is – Hard

Silence is a fundamental and crucial aspect of discovering the living God. Equally, silence is a fundamental and crucial aspect of discovering one’s self. But to practice silence is… very hard. If you are like me, someone who tends to “live in their head”, with a mind that is always churning and churning, thoughts after thoughts, then any attempt to quieten down and rest in silence is… near impossible!

When we speak of silence we are really speaking about contemplation or meditation. This is something which – certainly in the Catholic tradition – we have been very bad at doing. In my lifetime, and certainly when I was young, Catholics were expected to do certain religious acts such as going to mass on a Sunday, but the focus was always on the action, and not a lot of emphasis was put on a deep relationship with God. For so many people it was a case of “going through the motions” – a numbers game in fact. As long as the churches were packed, and the money was put in the plate, then all was well with the Church! Perhaps not surprising then that, as societal mores have loosened and authority figures have lost their power, that many folk have just stopped going to church: there never was any real spirit behind what they were doing. If there is a positive nowadays it is surely that folk who go to church go because they really want to.

There is today a wonderful teaching helping us to rediscover the value and importance of silence and of a deepened spiritual relationship with God. Teachers such as Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr are stressing the critical importance of both action and contemplation. One without the other is a poor way to try and follow Jesus. Both matter, and perhaps because we’ve always tended to stress action, we now desperately need to stress and practice contemplation.

One technique as a way into silence is what is called Centering Prayer. This consists in being quiet and still for a period of twenty minutes or so, ideally twice a day. The point is to try and be present to God in the silence, not saying anything and trying not to focus on thoughts which will inevitably cross your mind. We cannot really stop thoughts coming into our mind but we can try to just let them go past and persist in focusing on – silence. We can use techniques such as a ‘sacred word’ to assist us to return to focus. As I say, this is not easy, especially for someone like me.

What is the benefit of trying to remain in this silence? Perhaps best to google “centering prayer” and follow some of the many links to find out more.

For me, I know that silence is the key to a deeper experience of the God of love. Without silence, my faith is largely an intellectual affair, expressed in such things as blogs! As such, I tend to be “all talk”, and hours and days can go by without any real contact with the living God, and His will is not something that really touches my daily life. I want more than that! I want to know His love for me. I want to live with a spring in my step because I know I am loved and I know that “all will be well”, both for myself and for those I love.

Silence is the key – it is the way into the inner life of the Trinity. It is the practical way to accept God’s grace as power in daily life. But it is so very hard!

In my day job as an IT manager, we often speak of “best endeavours” when we try to progress projects and keep the organisation functioning. I think this can apply to any meaningful practice of religion. We sincerely make the effort, our best endeavours, and even when we fail, if we persevere, God will bless and make use of our poor attempts.

So when I sit down in the quiet of my room and try to quieten my mind and rest in the silence, I struggle, but God delights in my paltry efforts and will transform my spiritual poverty. I just need to believe in silence and persevere.

Martin

The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He speaks always in eternal silence,
and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” – St. John of the Cross

Loving Without Limits

In my poem The Corral of Kin, I tried to express what is a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ teaching – namely that our love must be like God’s love for us: utterly inclusive with no barriers or limits, even for our enemies. Love is only really authentic when it excludes nothing from its embrace. Any limits on our love effectively debases our love.

A corral is of course an enclosure, usually for keeping livestock in one confined place so they don’t roam and get lost or stolen. It was also used in the pioneer days of the American West when the wagon trains formed a defensive circle to ward off attack by Indians. Inside the corral and protected by the wagons the settlers could best repulse attacks. Inside the corral the folk could feel reasonably safe and secure.

I’m using this image of the corral to try and express how many of us effectively corral our love. We love those ‘inside’ but not those ‘outside’. As Jesus himself put it: “If you only love those who love you… “ (Matthew 5: 46). It is of course relatively easy to love people who love us – often, though not always, our close family and friends, but this can also apply to our clubs, ethnic groups and nationalities. While all love is essentially good and positive, the real danger with only loving those we like or are close to is that our attitudes to others, such as strangers and enemies, are at best indifferent and perhaps can verge on dislike, prejudice and even hate. These non-loving feelings can be very subtle because most of us would not want to admit that we don’t care.

One way of defining love: when we love someone we sincerely want the very best for them. We are involved in their lives and we care what happens to them. In terms of those we don’t love – and love is always pro-active – if we’re honest, we really don’t care what happens to them.

If for example a war is going on in a far away place, and there is terrible suffering being inflicted, and we even see graphic images on our TVs and media, we perhaps don’t lose any sleep over it – precisely because it is far away and we don’t know these folk and likely will never encounter them. We maybe don’t hate them as such but we are untouched by their suffering and largely indifferent to their outcomes. We’re even secretly glad that the violence and suffering is far far away.

What does it mean then to say that we must love all people – no ifs, no buts – everyone, past, present and still to come, friend or foe? We will never meet most of the people who are alive today but we are nonetheless called to love them all. I think it means that we do in fact care about them and are prepared to put ourselves out if the occasion arises when it is appropriate. But the acid test of our love is surely that we refuse to hate, even when people are causing us direct harm. We are not called to always like them, but we absolutely must want the very best for them and work towards that goal come what may. This is not easy and is the ‘cost of discipleship’ if we want to follow Jesus and are honest about calling ourselves Christians.

Why is it that there is never a legitimate reason for not loving someone or some group, tribe or nation? Simply because God never stops loving. God is love – total, constant and unconditional love. As I have said before: there is nothing you can do that will stop God loving you! Even if by some horrible chance you were to end up in hell itself, God would still love you. That’s what God does, that’s what God is. And we are called to embrace this unconditional love, to join in what Richard Rohr calls the ‘circle dance of the Trinity’, giving and receiving love in a dynamic and perpetual flow.

Life is all about relationships, and relationships are all about love. Inclusive, pro-active love that has no limits, no exclusions, no corrals. Period.

In His love, Martin