The Way of The Heart: a series

Over the next few blog posts, Sr Jennii and Sr Joanna will be reflecting on The Way of The Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henri Nouwen (HarperOne, 1981). Both of us were given a copy of this lovely text for Christmas (with grateful thanks to its’ giver!!), and have been inspired to look into how the lives of the desert Fathers and Mothers, and their wisdom, can impact on our lives. 

The Way of The Heart by Henri Nouwen looks at the modern Christian and how we have changed and what is to come. He asks questions which I think we all should be asking ourselves each day, but he also gives us a way of deepening our own spiritual beings and making the journey that we all share a personal one to us whist still being a community journey.

In the first paragraph of this book Nouwen asks about the future of the church ‘Will there be anything to celebrate?’ This is not to necessarily critique the way the church is being run and to tear it down but more of an observation, he goes on to say, ‘Many voices wonder if humanity can survive its own destructive powers.’ With increasing poverty and hunger; hatred and violence; ‘our world has embarked on a suicidal journey.’ Nouwen states that these days ‘the darkness is thicker… the powers of evil are more visible than ever… the children of God are being tested more severely…’ I find myself questioning if that is really the case or are the ways in which the darkness and the powers of evil are shown just different to before? Is it an increase or just a new way of presenting? Are the Children of God being tested more or does it seem that way because there are fewer people taking an active stand?

So, what does it mean to minister in this environment? ‘What is required of men and women who want to bring light to the darkness…what is required of a man or woman who is called to enter fully into the turmoil and agony of the times and speak a word of hope? This is what we are all called to do: it’s not just the job of the clergy, it’s the role of each and everyone of us, and we may find it easier to separate ourselves from the bad influences and degenerates of our time, but that is not the way of God. God didn’t shout what we should do from a distance; he came as a baby and entered into the turmoil, so we too must share in that incarnational ministry and enter into the world of those we are trying to reach. But how can we enter into these areas without being affected? ‘We who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals and prisons are having a difficult time… making the light of Christ shine into the darkness.’ Our shouts of joy fall onto deaf ears, or more aptly, ears that are tuned into headphones these days. ‘The pressures in the ministry are enormous, the demands are increasing, and the satisfactions diminishing.’ This sentence fills me with such hope for the future I have discerned that I personally am being called to but, for me ministry isn’t meant to be easy, it’s not meant to be smooth sailing.

These are what Nouwen addresses in this book. He mentions that we can turn to the doctors of the church, and the writers such as Thomas Merton and his fellow modern authors. But in this book, we look at the way of the desert fathers, a ‘primitive source of inspiration’. The desert fathers and mothers ‘searched for a new form of martyrdom’ as it was growing less possible ‘to witness for Christ by following him as a blood witness.’ When the persecution of Christians decreased, yet still to this day people are being killed for their faith but it is less frequent than in the first and second century. But even though the persecutions had slowed it ‘did not mean the world had accepted the ideals of Christ and altered its ways’ just merely tolerated us. The desert fathers and mothers sought to become ‘witnesses against the destructive powers of evil, witnesses for the saving power of Jesus Christ.’ They wrote spiritual commentaries, gave counsel to visitors, and Nouwen states that ‘their very concrete ascetical practices form the basis of my reflections about the spiritual life of the minister in our day.’ And after reading this book, I am now also using it to develop my spiritual life and my spiritual growth. In my opinion, we can learn so much from those who come before us and adapt their methods to the world we live in now. ‘Like the desert fathers and mothers, we have to find a practical and workable response to Paul’s exhortation: “Do not model yourself on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.”’

Nouwen gives lots of stories about the desert fathers and mothers in this book which he uses to show how we should care for ourselves and for each other. He looks at why the desert fathers fled to the desert, why they had to escape society, and hat that means for us today. ‘This raises the question of solitude.’ When I saw this I was confused, I didn’t see how I could make solitude a large part of my life and go into public ministry, as the two seemed to be opposite, but the book addresses this in its first chapter. The second is dedicated to silence, a idea that many of us struggle with and finally the third chapter is about prayer, and as in a previous blog, I have said that prayer should be the simplest thing to us and yet many if not all of us struggle with prayer at some point in our lives.

Our reflections on the three chapters will follow over the next few weeks, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts, and hearing your reflections on how solitude, silence, and prayer affect or challenge your faith.

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Like the Star….we are back with a flash

Today was the first day back for Littlefootprints after our Christmas break.

The parent and toddler club was buzzing as we made crowns to mark the coming of the Magi or Kings to see Baby Jesus.

Sr Jennii wore a blow up crown, and even Winnie the Poo wore a Crown.

We had our usual play, snack and story time. Even Fr Tom had time for Coffee and a play.

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Christmas and its 12 days

We are taking a break from December 26th – January 3rd. We will be saying our Offices privately and taking a rest from outreach…

….but here are some pics of us taking out the Christmas message:

 

But before then we have our Nativity & Christingle Service on Sunday at 4pm – do join us!

 

Blessed Christmas from us all!!

The Fuller’s Soap: Evensong Sermon 17.12.17

Sister Joanna preached for the first time at Evensong on the 17th of December. Here follows her sermon, which is based on the first reading from that night, Malachi 3 1-4; 4 . 

 

In our first reading tonight, from the prophet Malachi, we hear a prophecy. See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. Part of the excitement of Advent, for me, is in hearing the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ coming. Our hymns and carols of this season often use the key lines of these prophecies; you may have recognised Malachi’s description of the ‘sun of righteousness’ rising with ‘healing in its wings’ from ‘Hark the herald angels sing’.

The familiarity of this passage initially made it hard to decide what to talk about tonight. Although Malachi is one of the prophets we know the least about – we are not certain that Malachi was even his real name – this passage contains many famous phrases. The words ‘sun of righteousness’ and ‘refiner’s fire’ trip off the tongue without thought. But what can we make of ‘fuller’s soap’? And how do encounter the day ‘burning like an oven’, when evildoers become stubble?

The process of Fulling, as many of you may know, is the process by which rough cloth – usually wool – is cleansed and thickened. To remove the dirt and the grease, the wool had to be beaten and stretched. Fuller’s soap was an alkaline substance made from the ashes of plants local to the area; this would have been used to scrub the wool. Being a fuller would have been a physically demanding job; if you have ever handwashed a heavy woollen jumper, you can begin to imagine how heavy and tiring it would have been. When I looked up the term ‘fuller’ in preparation for this talk, I discovered that the Welsh for a fullering mill is actually ‘Pandy’.

The thing that interested me about both similes Malachi offers us here is that this messenger, who we know to be Jesus, is not placed as the fuller or the refiner himself. In the other names for Jesus given to us by the Old Testament prophecies we are told what Jesus is, given job titles: King, Lord, Messiah. But the coming messenger will not be the refiner or the fuller, operating on us from a safe distance – he is to be the fire itself, the fuller’s soap. And when we think about this, it is strange. Why not describe Jesus as the refiner, or the fuller? Often when we talk about God we draw on images of him as a creator and an artist, and I think it was not without design that Jesus was born a carpenter’s son. But this image is different, and I think it is different for a clear purpose. So why the fire, why the fuller’s soap? A few points: firstly, each of these things is defined by their relationship to the artist. The fuller makes the soap, and the motion of their hands makes work. And without the refiner, the fire is useless. And both belong intimately to their creator, and are tamed into tools for a very specific purpose. It is the intimacy of this relationship which indicates to us that the prophecy concerns Jesus, rather than John or Elijah; this person to come is God in action.

This brings me to my second point. By comparing Jesus to the fuller’s soap, or the refiner’s fire, Malachi is telling us more than just Jesus’ identity: he’s telling us what that identity means for us as Christians. Let’s use fulling as our example. In the fullers’ mill, any material that touches the soap is scrubbed. Going through the mill changes that material; it can’t help but come out clean. Malachi is telling us that when we encounter Jesus we will be changed by the Lord, irretrievably, permanently. And we will come out of that encounter ‘leaping like calves from the stall’. Think of the infectious joy of a herd of cows released from their barn after winter. I think Malachi realised that the people he was writing for had lost sight of that joy. They’re being warned in the strictest terms to let go of their sin, but there’s a promise in there that after they’ve walked through the fire, there will be the greatest happiness imaginable.

There’s a gamble in all of this, for us, a challenge. To encounter Jesus in this way we must let ourselves be moulded. If Jesus is the refiner’s fire or the fuller’s soap, than we are the metal, or the wool, with all its impurities. And it takes confidence and trust to be able to place yourself in God’s hands as material, and say ‘shape me’. We talk about having been formed by God, but I think there is a tendency in many of us to imagine that at some point not long after that, work on us is finished. In this way, we are the only authors of our own lives, but we have to live with the sins and failings we create in ourselves. But here in the Bible is a challenge to believe in our own potential. It’s easy to only hear the words about sin and struggle in this passage, but remember that we are only refined, only brought to God because we are made from the most valuable material. Because this isn’t a message just about destroying sin; it’s also about drawing out love. So we can present the bits of ourselves we find hard to live with, the things we’re ashamed of, joyfully to God and trust that in the refiner’s fire we will become something wonderful. Malachi is reminding us that the absolution God offers is more than just removing sin; it’s the beginning of a new and better life.

So what I want to leave you with is the image of God as the fuller’s soap. Perhaps when you drive past Pandy, it will remind you of this; that God, through Jesus, touches every part of our being. Malachi doesn’t promise that it will be gentle, or comfortable. But at the end, we will go out leaping like calves emerging into the meadow, joyful in the light of the Son.

Ty Mawr Retreat 29.11.17: Stories from El Salvador

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A piece of traditional El Salvadorian pottery depicting the Nativity

It was a cool, damp morning in late November, when the Holywell Community set out across Monmouthshire to the Ty Mawr convent. As Fr Tom, Fr Mark and Sr Jennii tried to remember the way to the house (‘All roads around here lead to Ty Mawr! But I would have taken the other one, Father’), I happily dozed off in the back, missing a gorgeous view of the valley. We were on our way to our sister community’s house, where we’d booked the peaceful Print Room in the grounds to spend a day recollecting and praying together. With Advent approaching rapidly, it felt like the perfect time for some much-needed space before the busyness of the Christmas season began.

On arrival we prayed the monastic office of Terce, and then said Lectio Divina (a practice of slow, prayerful reading, in this case of that day’s gospel). In the quiet comfort of the Print Room, we were able to take a luxurious amount of time to meditate in peace on the scripture. As the time of prayer came to a close we found ourselves in happy conversation about the lives of the disciples, and reflected a little together on the passage we had encountered. One of the great blessings of community life is being able to speak about faith so openly, and learn from each other, and as a new monastic community it’s important that we make time to do this.

At lunch we were joined by our associate Michael Woodward, who has recently returned from a pilgrimage to El Salvador with the Archbishop Romero Trust. Michael took us through Romero’s life, from his training for the priesthood to his eventual martyrdom at the altar of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia. Romero’s death did not bring about the end of the civil war, but the over the following years the example of his devotion to the poor has helped bring about great social change. He was beatified in 2015, and is remembered with great love and reverence not only in El Salvador but across the world.

Romero had been brought up a Christian, and had chosen to pursue his faith, becoming a priest against the wishes of his family. Through his early life and ministry he was an able and dutiful servant of the church, but whilst tensions rose in El Salvador Romero showed few signs of being the powerful social and spiritual advocate that he is known as today. It was in the murder of his friend, the Jesuit priest and tireless social advocate Fr Rutilio Grande (and his companions), that Romero’s life changed. From that grief came a second calling on his life; to the cause of the poor and oppressed. He had at that time been archbishop less than a month, appointed as a safe choice for the church authorities and state, and unpopular with the local priests who faced the daily hardships of poverty and suppression. Romero left Grande’s side with a prophetic insight into the call of the church to fight for the poor; he saw no church, no faith possible without them. In the three short years between this second calling and his martyrdom, he lived and breathed the liberation of the poor of El Salvador, unafraid to criticise the government and military.

In Ty Mawr, thousands of miles and four decades away from Romero’s death, we spread out a bold map of El Salvador and traced his steps across the country. It is easy to place those obviously holy, like Oscar Romero, on pedestals, to imagine that the extremes of both their faith and the suffering they endured put them on a different level somehow to us. But Romero’s life is a testimony against this way of thinking. He recognised the forgotten martyrs, the thousands who died or suffered during the war; he believed in one church of poor and rich, united in one God; he walked away from any honour given to himself to glorify God and raise others. I was struck by one line from the documentary Monsenor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero, where a church activist who had known him spoke of encountering Christ through him; although those that knew him clearly adored him and were inspired by his actions, their deepest and truest love was for the God they encountered through him. The story of Romero’s life is of a man who had served God on his own terms giving God complete reign in his life. The love that surrounded Romero – fierce love, angry for justice, compassionate for the poor, brave for the meek, gentle with the oppressed – is God’s boundless love in action.

There is more to say about the love of God in the life of Oscar Romero than I could hope to cover, but a few details stood out. Firstly, Romero’s greatest work was in the last three years of his life. God didn’t finish calling on him when he became a seminarian, a Deacon, a Priest, or even an Archbishop. Wherever we are, and wherever we have come from on our Christian journeys, God’s call continues. We know from scripture that this call is not a demand for us to act, but an invitation to step further into God’s love. It always begins with our name. Whether poor or rich, Archbishop or tentative believer, we still need to hear God calling our name.

Secondly, our faith must permeate our lives. While faith had guided Romero before Grande’s death, the faith of those three years afterwards was one of total submission to the will of God. I took away the impression of a man who was as much liberated as liberating. God’s love demands to be acted on, and to be let into every part of our lives. Archbishop Romero recognised that his theology was incomplete if it didn’t lead to action, and his political and social activism had to be driven by his faith. We often talk about bringing our faith into the world, but Romero also challenges us to think deeply about the challenges the world poses for our faith. Our faith has to be our best tool for approaching the world; we deserve a theology that does it justice.

After a final cup of tea, we had to leave the comfort of the Print Room and make our way back to Abergavenny. Days together as a community are a great source of strength and encouragement, and our reflection on the life of Oscar Romero has helped me think on how we are inspired to make our faith and our work one. It’s always hard coming away from a good retreat, but there’s always something more to look forward to! This Sunday Fr Tom will be preaching at St Mary’s on Christian Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and so forth) which will be a lovely opportunity to reflect on how we respond to God’s call on our lives, so do come along (and if you’ve braved the end of this blog, ask him questions about Oscar Romero!)

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Our thanks go to Michael Woodward, for a fascinating afternoon discussing Oscar Romero, and the community at Ty Mawr, for their hospitality and use of the lovely Print Room.

Sr Joanna

Taking the Christmas message out

Some of the Christmas outreach stuff we will be involved with.

St Mary's Priory, Abergavenny

We think it is important to take the Christmas message out in action, as well as in song, so we have planed the following programme.

Gifts

We started doing so already!  We have dispatched over 80 shoe boxes containing gifts for the needy in Romania, with the help of Blythswood Care.

We are now collecting gifts for young adults who have recently left the care of Monmouthshire County Council Social Services.

Church without walls Carols

In the week before Christmas we will be taking the good news of Christmas out of our Church buildings:

Saturday, December 16th

Scenes from last year’s Walking Nativity with the Bishop

During the afternoon we will take the Nativity story out on the streets of Aberagavenny as we walk from Holy Trinity Church, Baker Street to St Mary’s Priory Church, Monk Street via  Red Square and the Market.

Tuesday, December 19th

We will be singing Carols in…

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We remember; we trust; we are influenced.

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November is a month of remembrance. We remember the people who have a had a significant influence on our lives, on the 1st of November we remember all of the saints of God, those people who through their lives have shaped our faith; on the 2nd we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, those people who have shaped each of us personally and on the 11th we remember those who help to shape our countries, those who gave their lives in battle and those who still fight for our country today. Having these days however does not prevent us from remembering these people on any other day of the year.

In the church there is a practise of remembering the church Fathers, the early Christians who passed on the message of the Good news, whose writings provide us with a reference point for our faith and traditions. The office of readings is a service that the church provides where these writings are read alongside scripture readings and psalms.

Many Seminaries (theological colleges) offer a module on patristics which is the study of these writings. But why are these writings held with such importance?

To look at who the fathers of the church are, it is first important to understand who they aren’t. The apostles and others from the New Testament age are not church fathers neither are the Doctors of the church from medieval or modern times such as St. Thomas Aquinas, both these grouping have their own classification. Rather the Church fathers are those who wrote spiritual letters, sermons or catechist from approximately 50AD to 800AD. This period contains the first 7 ecumenical councils of the church. This is what is known as the patristic period, these great writers can be split into a variety of groups such as the Apostolic Fathers who were alive within 2 generations of the Apostles and many had encountered the Apostles; then there are 3 groups who take their names from the language they wrote in, those being Greek, Latin and Syriac. Then are grouping based on what the writings are about these include Councils and synods, Creeds, Canons and Apologetics (explanation/ defense of the Faith).

So know we know who they are, why should we read them? simply, to remember; to remember those who made the passing on of our Faith their life’s work. But it is so much more than that. The fathers provide us with invaluable guidance and insight based on their own faith and experience, they interpret the scriptures and other Holy elements and traditions in a way as to educate us about them, many of the traditions coming from so long ago that we, in this age may have forgotten their significance, here we are reminded of these things and they offer us an image, an example of the Christ-centred, self-sacrificing Love that WE are all called to emanate.

There 750 years of writings, how can they all be relevent? They all provide us with a different context, a way of showing how the scriptures have been interpreted over a great period of time, without becoming irrelevant to the society at that time. If the scriptures can span so long without losing relevance that it is only natural to believe that they are still relevant to this day we just have to find that point of common ground, a way of explaining them to our society today. Also another fact to consider is that the bible which contains 66 (73 including apocrypha) was written over a period much greater than 700 years.

faith of our fatherspatristic readings also offer us an insight into the lives of the writers, many of whom are saints that are well-known such as: Augustine in Hippo; Alexander the Great; Athanasius of Alexandria. There are also lesser known saint and some who aren’t formally recognised by the church as saints, such as Tertullian. But saint or not, none are infallible, and given they span three continents and over 700 years, if they agree on anything that is spectacular and so improbable, and yet they do agree on a great many topics, and this is a sign and testimony that they’re writings did not originate with them but with a higher power, influenced by the Holy Spirit, which is passed to us, by studying them but we also get a world-view of their lives through reading them, we learn about the historic significance of that time and we may even come to see, that these writers where just ordinary people like you and me, who made mistakes and fell into temptation but who ultimately gave their lives to follow Christ. It can be so easy to place the saints on a pedestal of unattainable height that we forget they were human just as we are, they felt the weight of being Christian and choosing the right path, they faced difficulties just as we do.spirit inspired.jpg

A lot can be written in over 700 years, St. Augustine alone wrote over 4 billion words, in fact it is reported that a medieval monk, St. Isidore of Sevile, once said (corrupte apud Florezium, Augustine) “Mentitur qui te totam legisse factetur” which translates to Concerning Augustine ‘ who so ever claims to have read all his works is a liar’ or the more literal translation would be, concerning Augustine, ‘He is a liar who confesses to have read the whole’. So where do you begin?

Luckily, you don’t have to jump right in and choose a place for yourself as there are many resources for following a structured reading list, the office of readings would be a great place to start as it gives you the prayerful approach to the readings and there are many resources to provide recomended excerpts from many of the patristics orif you have a discipline of bible study then there are many commentaries from the fathers on most of the new testament and psalms. If you are looking for more than just excerpts from the writings or more than commentries then I personally would suggest beginning with the Apostolic fathers for a few reasons, most obviously because their lifespan overlapped in some degree with the apostles, in some cases such as St. Polycarp there is evidence that they had personal contact with some of the Apostles. Beyond the simple fact that they came first and so provide the groundwork for the later fathers, they have undisputable apologetic values coming from witnessing the unwritten apostolic tradition. Also they are mostly, simple pastoral men and there for are easier to read, you don’t need to take a platonic philosophy to understand what they are saying. And many of them follow the same format that we are used to reading in the epistles and Acts of the Apostles where asthe later fathers are men or great learning and their writings reflect this.

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Sr. Jennii