My Homily for the 1st Week of Advent

 

We are now in the season of Advent. It is a time when we look forward to Christmas, and all that that entails: buying presents, writing Christmas cards, taking the children to see Santa Claus. But what does the word Advent mean? I like looking up a dictionary when I am not sure of a meaning or simply to see the origin of the word. Anyone who knows Latin or Italian or even Spanish or French will know where the word Advent comes from. In my ‘Collins, Complete and Unabridged’ version, it says: Advent: ‘an arrival or coming, especially one which is awaited. It originates from the 12th century Latin adventus, from advenire, that is: ‘ad’ meaning ‘to’, and ‘venire’ ‘to come.’ Having satisfied myself with this explanation my curiosity got the better of me and I began to look down the page and see other words connected with the word ‘advent.’ There was ‘advent calendar’, which I won’t explain, but the next word was ‘Adventist.’ This I found interesting,because though I have heard of them I never really knew what they believed in. This is what my dictionary says: ‘Adventist: a member of any of the Christian groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists that hold that the second coming of Christ is imminent.’ Interesting, so now I knew. I expect you all knew what they believed in: the imminent second coming.

It is easy to make jokes about such people but I shall refrain, and I do so for a good reason, because the Gospel today tells us to prepare for the second coming. Christ tells us to ‘stay awake’ and to ‘stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ Ok this isn’t to say that the Second Coming is imminent, like the Seventh-Day Adventists, but it does warn us about the Second Coming, that we should be ready for it. The question is: how do we get ready for it.

The prophet Isaiah gives us a clue in the first reading. Like Martin Luther King, the prophet Isaiah also had a dream, only a much longer time ago. In that dream he sees a time in the future when people will not go to war any more; only, Isaiah puts it more poetically: ‘many peoples will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.’ What a lovely dream to have of the future. Sadly, today, there is still lots of training for war. Good young men and women are volunteering all the time to train for war; they go off to Iraq or Afghanistan and some of them don’t come back, at least not alive. We are all too familiar with scenes on our TV sets of dead soldiers in coffins being mourned by their families.

Is Isaiah’s dream then what we call a pipe dream; in other words, pure nonsense? Or is it a real prophesy from God as to how things will turn out sometime in the future? This is what we Christians believe. We also believe that we are to prepare for that future today; we are to do what we can now to see that ‘there will be no more training for war.’ War is not inevitable, it can be avoided. And though the Church accepts that there can be a just war, such wars are rare. Most of the wars we see today are due to our sinfulness; often fought in third world, or developing countries, because of our greed and desire to possess what belongs to someone else.

As long as the human heart continues to live in the dark then wars will continue. St. Paul, in the second reading, tells the Christians in Rome to arm themselves and appear in the light. ‘Let us live decently’ he says ‘as people do in the daytime.’ This is how to end wars by living in the light; in other words, by trying to live good not selfish, greedy lives. Those who live selfish, greedy lives, are those who perpetuate wars. War is the triumph of sin over grace, of selfishness over kindness and, to use Paul’s word’s, of darkness over light. Those who try to live in the light will be opposed to the darkness of sin and of war.

Someone once said that, ‘war begins in the human heart.’ If you control the heart then you control the person. The Gospel message today, this first Sunday of Advent, is to prepare the way for the Lord; and we do that most effectively by changing the human heart, beginning with our own. Today, Christ challenges us to face up to the darkness in our lives: to our selfishness, greed and pride; don’t let your sins control your hearts: easy to say but not so easy to do. However, have you noticed how easy it is to sin? But have you noticed how difficult it is to change your sinful ways? There is a battle raging in our hearts. St. Paul tells us, ‘Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.’

And so, as we begin Advent we do not believe, like the Adventists, that the end of the world is imminent. However, we do believe that we are to do what we can to make this world a better place, to free it from all wars, so often caused by sin in our hearts. And we do this by trying to make our own hearts better, to be generous and kind and thoughtful to others. We know that on our own we can’t do this, but we have Christ at our side to help us, and that is why we say at Advent, ‘Come Lord Jesus, do not delay!’

Reflections on the Meeting of National Vocations’ Directors, London, 5th Nov.

I was unable to be at this meeting, which was a pity, as it was something I had been looking forward to, but someone kindly forwarded on the notes of her talk. I remembered last years and enjoyed it; the talk was good but above all I enjoyed meeting those engaged in vocation’s work throughout this country.

Someone kindly gave me the notes from one of the speakers: Sr. Margaret Taylor FMM. The ‘FMM’ means, in case you don’t know, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. And they do great work throughout the world. I remember meeting them in Jerusalem, where they had a community close to Damascus Gate in the Old City. Our own monogram is O.C.D. or O.D.C., depending on whether it is in English or Latin. I prefer the latin, as we are an international Order, hence I write after my name O.C.D. = ‘Ordinis Carmelitanum Discaltorum’. In English it would be: O.D.C., = ‘Order of Discalced Carmelites’. People often ask me what ‘Discalced’ means. Well, it literally means without shoes. In the 16th century, when we came into being, thanks to St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), there were other ‘Discalceds’: Franciscans and Benedictines, to name but two. There is a joke between the two Orders of Carmelites in this country: The Calced (or more properly: the Ancient Order of Carmel) and the Discalced (the newer Order). The joke is that they are shod [Calced] and we are slipshod [Discalced]!

Back to the National Vocations Directors Meeting. I just want to highlight a few lines that jumped out at me. The title of Sr. Margaret’s talk was: ‘Called into Being for the Kingdom’. She began with a quote from the famous Jesuit, writer and palaeontologist, Teihard de Chardin, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience”.  I like the way she starts and the line: ‘In Genesis God resolutely set out our Universal Calling as human beings to be Life Givers and Lovers’. And goes on to say, ‘[we are] called primarily to live as God has determined and love as God Loves’. That last phrase is awesome, ‘Love as God loves’, no less. We can ponder that for the rest of our lives. What it shows is the great dignity that is ours. If only we could become more aware of this dignity; this call to love as God loves.

I also liked this sentence: ‘If you know your own great story [the story of God that informs your life] you are less likely to sell yourself short, become confused with inessentials, or to let others manipulate you into being less than you could be. When we accept ourselves we are more compassionate with others.’ That’s very profound and true. There is a lot to dwell on and pray about. We are called to greatness, not to mediocrity; to A* not C-. And if we let God work in us and through us, then this will happen; it will be all His work. Just ask St Paul, St Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, or any of the Saints. These were not supermen and women; they were ordinary people like you and me but who had great faith in God.

Another profound insight was in the sentence: ‘To open our lives to Transformation and so live from our true self, as Paul prayed that he no longer lives but Christ lives in him. We can then bless as we have been blessed, heal as we have been healed, liberate as we have been liberated…’  Such is our dignity, that we are called to be like Christ, to become like him. This is our raison d’etre; our mission in life: to become other Christs. All very profound, but true.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from Sr. Margaret’s talk: ‘…as we focus on our raison d’etre our personal development follows and we move toward our purpose, and God will lead us on the path He wants us on.’

Homily for Feast of Christ the King 2016

Feast of Christ the King (c) 2016

Today we celebrate the last Sunday in the Church’s year, and for this reason, to crown the year, the Church is unashamedly triumphalistic; today it chooses to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. In the preface that we shall hear later are the words: ‘As king he claims dominion over all creation, that he may present to you, his almighty Father, an eternal and universal Kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.’ These are beautiful words, a lovely image of the future kingdom, the place where we are all destined. But this kingdom was gained at a terrible price: it cost Christ, the son of God his life on a cross.

Now if God is all powerful, someone who literally can do what he likes, why did He prepare the kingdom in this way? Why did Christ have to die on a cross? He not only died painfully and slowly but also died the death of a common criminal. What a strange way for a loving Father to behave. And yet He did. Have you ever thought sometimes that Christianity is somewhat strange?

On a purely human level it doesn’t make sense. Our world would find it hard to accept the truth of our faith: that it was by suffering that Christ redeemed us, by his death that he brought us new life. It’s not easy to believe: how do we appreciate a faith that sees value in suffering and sees life in death?

It was not only Christ who suffered, all of us suffer in one way or another, and at every age. As a child I suffered. As a teenager I suffered again; what teenager hasn’t? Over the years, like most people, I have had my share of physical aches and pains; and recently I suffered the loss of two siblings, that was indeed suffering. But my life isn’t so different from others. In fact, I know people who have suffered much more in life, by comparison my own sufferings are nothing.

No one gets through life living a fairy tale. No one. It’s hard in the midst of some trial or illness to step back and see the hand of God; to see in faith that this is meant to be. And yet, this is what we Christians are expected to do, if we are to make sense of our lives.

We are to see in his suffering and death our own suffering. We are to believe in faith that our pains and sufferings are all part of life’s rich tapestry. Of course, it is not easy to see this. When you are in the midst of pain and suffering you don’t see very far.

Tapestry is a good image. I like the image of a carpet very much. You see on the underside of a carpet there is not much to look at; it’s pretty messy; there are loose bits of thread, and no colour, just a mish mash, there is no pattern. And that is how we often see our lives: without any pattern, a bit of a mess. But, turn the carpet over, and you see beautiful colours, and a distinct pattern. And this is how God sees our lives. What seems to be a mess to us is all part of God’s design for us. For you and me.

Today the Church celebrates the feast of Christ the King. It is celebrating his victory over death and the establishment of his kingdom. It is a day, therefore, of triumph and victory. His victory is our victory. Today, we should rejoice, and give thanks to God the Father.

A book about a great Spaniard and friend of St Teresa of Avila

Recently I translated a book about a great Spaniard whom most people have never heard of. What makes someone great?  Among others things I would suggest the way they cope in the face of adversity. Here was a man who was blessed with a good family, a comfortable upbringing, and an exceptional brain. He was also gentle, kind and likeable. However, in spite of these qualities and maybe because of them he made enemies within the holy Order of Carmel.

Gratian, born in the 16th century,  could have been many things, such were the opportunities given by his upbringing and education. He chose to become a simple friar, much to the surprise and disappointment of his father who wanted him to work in the Court of King Philip II. However, Gratian was attracted to Carmel. After much thought and prayer, and not a little heartache, he opted to join the Order of Carmel, in great part because of his love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the Order is dedicated. He was already a priest by the time he entered the novitiate. After this initial year he rose rapidly in the hierarchy of the Carmelites. Too rapidly, some would say. No sooner had he finished his novitiate than he was given a position of responsibility, to supervise the other friars in the south of Spain. This caused both jealousy and resentment. He met with open hostility and difficulties of various kinds which were to remain with him for all his time in Carmel. He was subject to lies and slander of the worst kind; even accused of fathering children with nuns. It got so bad that he was forced to leave the Order. I cannot begin to imagine how he felt the day he took off his habit for the last time. It had cost him so much to join the Order, to go against his father’s wishes, to overlook other more prestigious Orders that would have snapped him up, all because he wanted to join an Order dedicated to Our Lady.

He left Spain for Rome where he hoped to see the Pope and ask him to restore him to his beloved Order. However, before this was to happen, and indeed while on his way by sea to Rome, he was captured by Turkish pirates, who kept him locked up in a prison in Tunis, where he was to remain for 18 months until he was ransomed. His Order never lifted a finger to help him. Eventually, he met the Pope, Clement VIII. Gratian explained how he had been expelled unjustly from his Order, but without resentment or bitterness. The Pope was so impressed that he declared there and  then , “This man is a saint”. This is Gratian’s greatness: his ability to forgive those who did awful things to him.

He remained in Rome as his Order would not have him back, even with a Papal Bull telling them to do so. After some years he returned to north Africa on behalf of the Pope to help ransom captured Christians. He then settled in Spain before moving to Brussels for the last ten years of his life. During much of this time he helped to promote the beatification of his great friend, Teresa of Avila. What must have been his delight when, in 1614, he heard she had been beatified; he died some months later.

Because he was formally expelled from the Order his name had almost been forgotten, at least formally within the Order. No one was encouraged to write about him. I say almost forgotten because anyone who reads Teresa’s book ‘The Foundations’ will know just how much she valued him, and saw him as a ‘godsend’. In 1999 he was formally reunited with the Discalced Carmelite Order. The official wording apologises for the way he had been treated during his life but also for the way his name has been besmirched over the years. Now the process of his beatification has begun.

The book is a good read. It is interesting to see what life could be like in 16th century Spain within a religious Order. Some of it is quite shocking; we don’t expect so called holy men to behave so badly towards one of their own. The ending is uplifting, as the truth has at last been revealed. I can see him, Jerome Gratian, becoming a really influential figure within the Carmelite Order, on a par with Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. For he truly was a great man; one who overcame adversity and who refused to be embittered by those who treated him badly.

IMG_0046

This is the cover of the book I translated. 

My homily for the 32 Sunday of the Year

32nd Sunday of the Year (C) 2016

At this time of the year the Church focuses on death and afterlife. Not the most cheerful of subjects but the Church knows what it is doing. Death is the one certainty in life. Do you remember the old song, ‘Che sera sera’? Many a mother used to sing it to her children before they went to bed, or when the child asked them what will I be when I grow up. ‘Che sera sera, what ever will be will be, the futures not ours to see, che sera sera’? The song tells us that the future is uncertain, no one can tell what it holds. And this is true, life, especially for young people, is full of possibilities and uncertainties. However, there is one certainty in life and that is death. So, the Church chooses these four or five weeks at the end of its year to talk about something many would rather not talk about.

We live in a secular and materialistic society where death is a taboo subject. In the past when you went to diner in people’s houses they often said, ‘we don’t talk about religion and politics here.’ They were considered taboo subjects. Today though its death; not that anyone will tell you at a dinner, ‘we don’t talk about death here.’ But it’s not discussed in polite circles. And why is this? Well, it’s partly to do with the world we live in. It is, as I said at the beginning, a materialistic and secular world. Now, in this kind of world what is real is what you can see, and touch and feel. We live in an age of supermarkets, and departmental stores, we shop till we drop. Our priorities can often be the things we own: a house, a car or two, or three. Our work can often become the be all and end all of our lives; and success is often seen as getting to the top of the ladder. Heaven is seen as two or three weeks holiday beside the sea. In our secular world the TV and with its 7 day a week soaps and wall to wall sport have for many become the staple daily diet. And in a computer age we can inter connect with the universe from the comfort of our living rooms; we chat with others and surf the net; for many reality becomes cyber reality.

This is a crude snapshot of modern life, and obviously not everyone sees life in such materialistic terms but a lot of people do. In our modern society it is becoming increasingly ‘uncool’ to talk about God, never mind death and resurrection. It is more acceptable to talk about Richard Dawkins than it is about God. So, our society, focuses our attention on what it considers real, what you can see, and touch and feel. But that is only one dimension of life, there is another far more important one.

The Church does not mind being ‘uncool’. And it makes no apology to anyone for focussing at this time on death and the afterlife. Yet, even for us Christians it is not easy to believe in the resurrection from the dead. I remember my father saying things that surprised me; after the death of a life-long friend of his he said, ‘once you are dead you are dead, and that’s it’. It was unlike my father to make such statements, or any statements for that matter. He was in many ways a typical Irish catholic; his faith was second nature, he had been brought up to believe in God and the Church and all that the church teaches about life and death. But, as he clearly showed, it is not easy to believe in the resurrection of the dead. What we think of death is the acid test of our faith. It is, in a sense, ‘easy’ to believe in God, because we don’t see him, even though we know He exists. But when someone you know dies, someone whom we have seen and loved all our lives, then it is not so easy to believe that after we die we shall be raised from the dead. We want to believe this, of course, but in our more doubtful, reflective moments we can ask ourselves: how much of this is wishful thinking.

You see the Church has a lot of work to do if it is to convince even her members to believe in the resurrection. But this is precisely why the Church chooses these special readings about death and resurrection at this time of the year. In the first reading we heard about the heroic Maccabee family who underwent torture and death, one by one, rather than deny their faith. The youngest and last to die cried out, ‘Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him.’ That happened about three thousand years ago. Down through the centuries there have been men and women who have died a cruel death rather than deny their faith. And even in our own day there have been many people who have died for their faith; you know there were more martyrs for the faith last century than in all the other centuries combined. These people are our inspiration; they are the saints and martyrs.

Do not expect to get much help in this regard from modern society, on the contrary. Its attention is soley focussed on this present life; and we are being taught that what is real is what you can see and touch. But this is why we have the church and its sacraments, to help and support us in our faith. If we are faithful to the Church and are regularly nourished by its sacraments then our faith will not fail. We have God’s word for it. Pray always, especially in moments of difficulty and doubt. Know that it is not wrong to doubt only to despair, from which God will protect us.

If our lives were for this life only we could agree with modern secular society; we could nod our heads every time Stephen Dawkins speaks. But we believe we were created for a life after this, that this is just the beginning of our real lives; so that when we die it is not the end. On the contrary it is the beginning of our real lives. This is our faith, based on the risen Christ, and testified by thousands of martyrs and saints throughout the centuries.

How Do I know if God is calling me to Carmel?

This is a good question and one that some people ask themselves. Though, I suspect, it doesn’t begin like that. It can begin with a feeling; always trust your feelings. That feeling can be nagging at your for some time, even years. It can begin with a feeling of dissatisfaction with what you are doing. At least that is the way it was for me. I left school and began working in a shipping and forwarding office in London. For a while I loved the job. The novelty, the introduction into an adult world, where I got paid and called adults by their first names. It was a great place for making friends and for having fun. However, after a while I wanted more. At that stage I thought it was just the company I was working for, so I changed companies. Five times! I even worked in Paris for a year. In the end I didn’t know what I wanted except I didn’t want to remain in this business. It was a time of reflection and frustration.

Not everyone will have this experience. People come to Carmel from all kinds of backgrounds and reasons. Straight away I have to say that not everyone who joins necessarily has a vocation. I joined with seven others; three of them left in the first year. We finished with three. My thoughts on this subject of discernment are my own, based on my own experience and from what I have gained from listening to others and reading the odd article.

Before I joined the Discalced Carmelites I had just come back to the Church after an absence of several years. But now that I was back it was with a vengeance. I focussed on the Church for the first time in a long time, and became happy and motivated. So, one of the signs I would be looking for in someone discerning their vocation is: how important is the Church in your life?  I would expect a candidate to be very familiar with their local church, to know the parish priest, to be involved in some activity in the Church; be that reader, Eucharistic minister, music liturgy, catechist or working with youth. This would be an important sign. A religious is dedicated to working in and for the Church.

I would expect support from the family and friends. When I first had the idea of  vocation,  I must admit, my parents were not aware of how deeply I felt, though my mother wasn’t surprised when I told her I wanted to become a priest. My brothers and sisters were happy as long as I was; but my footballing friends were surprised. One of them said to me in a pub just before I left “John, don’t change”. I’ve never forgotten that. Was it advice?  I can now say that I haven’t changed, though hopefully in some deeper ways I have. So, those closest to you, those who know you best, should not be surprised at the way you are thinking.

If you are joining a religious order like mine, then you will be living in community. So, it is important to be the kind of person that likes being with others, who is fond of people; not necessarily gregarious but has a deep love for his or her fellow man or woman. Most religious tend to be introverts rather than extroverts but that doesn’t mean they don’t like living with others; just they need a bit more space. In my Order, privacy is sacred. My experience is that most religious are discreet and kind and generous. Good qualities to have when you are with others.

You don’t necessarily have to be pious or prayerful. This can come later. That said, prayer should be considered important, and should be part of someone’s life. It is through prayer that God normally calls people. This is a good time to remind you that vocation is a calling: it is God calling us, not the other way round. And if God is calling you then He will make this known to you in His own good time.  The waiting can be important. It has a purifying effect. I waited for at least two years for God to show me what He wanted me to do. In the end, after all the waiting, the frustration and soul searching, I knew what I wanted.

So important at such a time of discernment is to find a spiritual director. It can be your parish priest, or a religious you know. It needs to be someone you know and trust; someone with lots of experience and intelligence. This is key in your process of deciding if God is calling you or not. Remember that most people who think they are being called are not. I am judging this from being in the novitiate with eight others; only four finished. Then in the seminary, we were over thirty at the beginning, but less than half that number went on to be priests. Those who left would find their true vocation: for when one door closes another opens. A director will be like a mirror reflecting back to you your thoughts. He should be a good listener. His or her role is not to tell you what to do, but to guide you. Only you can know if you have a vocation. It is between you and God. Once God makes it known to you then there will be a certain certainty.

You must be patient. Wait upon God. Keep praying. I was advised to pray a certain prayer before going to bed at night: “Show me Lord your way, so that I may walk in your truth”; it’s from the psalms. A holy bishop taught me this. The Lord will not keep you waiting too long.

Nowadays people look up religious Orders and Congregations on the internet. This is a good idea. However, you have to visit to get a fuller picture. How often have I heard religious tell me that when they joined their congregation they felt at home as soon as they walked in the door, or soon after. A gut feeling can be a good one. Remember to trust your feelings. Then back to the spiritual guide to share with him/her your impressions. With the combination of prayer, guidance and research something will happen eventually. It is a question of waiting. Don’t become anxious. Nor, think, that you are not doing God’s work. Today, right now, you are working for God.

I could go on but let me finish with something St Teresa of Avila would want to say to you. She would stress the importance of knowing yourself. This is so important. Be honest with yourself and be open. The more honest you can be the easier it will be for you to hear God calling and know what it is He is asking you to do. Don’t pray telling God what to do but rather, listen to Him, wait upon His word; then, say “fiat voluntas tua” (“Thy will be done”). If God is calling you to Carmel you won’t want anything else.

Just one last word, if you are called to Carmel, then you should be attracted to Carmelite spirituality, to one of our great saints, particularly Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, or Therese of Lisieux. Or, you may be ignorant of these but love to pray. This too can be a good sign. Carmel has a wonderful tradition of prayer and spirituality. We are blessed with several Saints and even more Blesseds. We need more Teresas and Johns.