Thursday, June 29, 2006

A taste of Heaven on earth

If you want some Italian that is easy to translate into English but is also immensely worthwhile, try working on the homilies of Pope Benedict. Admittedly I’d like a little more time than is available prior to doing the radio and television commentary for a Papal Mass, but they still manage to pack a powerful punch even watching the seconds tick by mercilessly. He has a great gift that enables him to see things that nobody else would notice and then to explain them in words of one syllable.

This morning, being the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, there was a special Mass from St. Peter’s, in which two cardinals and twenty-five archbishops received the pallium from Pope Benedict. This is a white woollen stole that is a sign of their authority, a symbol dating back to before the year 366. Vatican Radio’s live commentary for both radio and television across the world was in five languages. The ceremony itself was old, beautiful and a privilege to present to the English-speaking world.

The celebrations at St. Paul’s this afternoon were a complete contrast: equally beautiful but much more informal. However, just as the Pope this morning managed to convey so effectively in his homily that none of us is alone in our struggles through life and that the Cross and the Resurrection go together, there was an accidental foretaste of Heaven in St. Paul’s this afternoon when the Austrian choir and orchestra who will accompany this evening’s Mass had a few moments of practice. The basilica was suddenly filled with music that was so beautiful it was almost exquisitely painful to hear. As the notes of the instruments burst into the sanctuary, surrounding the tomb of St. Paul, I wanted it to go on for ever and never to stop.

It struck me that this is exactly what Heaven and Eternity will be like: so amazingly wonderful that it becomes all-important and beside which, everything else pales into insignificance.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


It wasn't necessary to watch the football yesterday to know that Italy scored the winning goal in its game.

As if the referee had given his signal to the whole of Italy, there was a sudden eruption of sound. Even the bus drivers blared their horns as they hurtled down the road and slammed on the brakes in order to avoid yet another motorcyclist weaving dangerously through the traffic, the flag fastened precariously to the bike. Police merely smiled and waved them on, trying half-heartedly to keep some form of order but failing miserably. In fact some of the constables blew their whistles in time with the sirens, car horns and megaphones that had miraculously appeared.

Less noisy but still conspicuously Italy supporters, youngsters wandered backwards and forwards, carrying or wearing the tricolour. Where possible, some of them carried two flags. Many vehicles had at least two and preferably three or four, banners stuck into the partly-open windows.

There must be few places in the world so joyfully noisy as Italy when there is something worth celebrating. Complete strangers grinned from ear to ear and congratulated each other as though the goal had been theirs. The rejoicing continued until late at night. No matter that the winning goal was not quite a classic (!)... it was Italian and that sufficed.

It makes quite a change these days when the media carries good news, when a whole country can celebrate its identity, when there is, even for a short time, unity.

Thank God for good news!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, June 25, 2006

At the beach

The sea at Cristoforo Colombo yesterday was magnificent. Admitedly I'd have been happier had the beach been deserted, but it was good to watch people relaxing in the hot sun, with the waves dancing in the brilliant sunlight. A small crane lifted boats to and from the water's edge. Sails bobbed up and down on the horizon. Games of beach tennis made noisy, but peaceful interludes as children armed with buckets and spedes made their sandcastles. All very lovely.

I was struck by a very pretty little girl of about three years old, whose blond ponytail hung onto her bare shoulders. She was fascinated by the water, stamping up and down in the waves that lapped at the edge of the beach, protected by her mother from going out too far. She was having such a wonderful time that, as I paddled towards the spot where I was heading in order to exit the beach, I enjoyed watching her play. It was only when her mother moved aside that I realised that 'she' was a 'he'.

Some parents create problems for their children, and it makes me very sad. I knew a woman once who, whenever her son was naughty, he would be clothed in a dress and forced to play outside under public gaze, the house locked to him for several hours. I've wondered about him on so many occasions: what is his relationship with his mother now that he is an adult? Does she regret her foolishness? How does he relate with others?

There is a saying that 'boys must be boys'. The context is sometimes perjorative, but there is a sense when it is absolutely right. In justice to their children, parents who might be disappointed that instead of giving birth to the son or the daughter they wanted so much, the new baby was of the 'wrong' sex, but that does not mean that they have the right to pretend that the birth did not happen. Boys must be allowed to be boys. Girls muust be allowed to be girls.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

On the bus

One woman was sitting immediately behind me, the other on my left. We sat together on the bus for approximately 20 minutes and, by the end of our journey, I was almost ready to scream for relief.

They were speaking quietly, but Italian women have what they call 'a field voice', used whenever their normal speech is likely to be drowned out. Without needing in any way to raise the volume, the pitch is so penetrating that it can cover considerable distances. Well, it seemed that the couple of feet separating them was a sufficient distance this morning for the 'field voice' to be used. The only difficulty was that my ear was in very close proximity to both women so that I had the full effects of both their talents.

I couldn't complain. The women were completely innocent of any wrongdoing. They were speaking quietly about ordinary everyday concerns and had no idea that, in order to hear each other, they were causing problems to anybody else. Was I glad when my stop arrived and I could leave the bus!

There are many occasions in life when, without any ill intentions and without doing anything wrong, I can cause problems for someone else. It's simply the effect of living together with different personalities. There are some with whom it is easy to relate and others who nearly drive me crazy even though I have to admit that it was unintentional. There are some whom I instantly like and others in whom, when we meet, I find little interest... but that doesn't mean that I have an excuse for ill-treating them in any way. I don't have to like everybody, but that doesn't mean that I can therefore be rude or selfish or unfeeling.

There was an occasion when a Hindu diplomat said to me that he could not, as a Hindu, turn anybody away from his door without at least giving them a drink of water because God comes to people in different forms. In turning someone away, he might have rejected God.

Quite a thought!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Buds bursting

I was distracted during Mass by the flowers in front of the altar. Very, very gradually, the long white buds were opening to display a long yellow pistil and stamens. They reminded me of the Spider Lilies, so common in Zambia, for a short time at least, and also of the Evening Primroses in England. With patience, it is possible to watch their buds open, at first slowly and then suddenly, with such apparent force that the whole plant shakes.

When these flowers open, for a short while, the petals hang, limp and bedraggled, yet, within the space of perhaps one hour, they fill out and stand firm, beautiful and bearing little resemblance to the tightly-closed bud that gave birth to such loveliness.

It can be frustrating watching these flowers open. I’ve stood in front of a plant for long periods, trying to predict the exact moment when the next bud will burst open, but whilst watching one, another blooms instead, and again, I’ve missed that instant of glory.

Patience is not an easy virtue to practice, but it has its rewards. There is always so much to do, so many things to fill my time, but can my jobs really match the importance of watching the birth of a flower?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Live and let live?

A Saturday morning is not the time to be in a hurry anywhere in the vicinity of St. Peter's! The roads leading to the basilica are crowded with people of every shape, size and colour, most of whom have all the time in the world and who are not trying to return to work. They block every possible access point, spreading across roads in cheerful, colourful groups, determined to make the most of every minute of their stay in Rome.

My problem was that, unlike everybody else, I was in a hurry. I had slipped out of the office, as I thought, for a few minutes, on behalf of someone else. Instead, it took a full hour to obtain a signature that should have taken a few seconds to write, had it not been for the combined effects of Italian and Vatican bureacracy plus about thirty others who also wanted documents to be signed. I was about the twentieth in line.

Being English, I was born knowing how to queue. Not so some of the others who appeared late and jumped to the number one position. A Korean Sister ahead of me was concerned when an Irish monk came, saw that he had lost his place whilst absent for a cup of coffee and said he'd come back on another occasion. She tried to call him back. "But it was his own fault!" I exclaimed, looking at my watch. A Polish priest frowned at my lack of sympathy for the coffee-drinking monk ... but then, I could see the mountain of work on my desk, waiting for my return from a job that had already taken far longer than I had calculated.

At last it was my turn. With enormous courtesy, the paper was signed and I was directed to the next line of people looking for documents to be signed and stamped.

As the saying goes, "Man proposes but God disposes". Even in the best-ordered societies, with the most meticulous planning, things don't always go as I would like. If all my projects were to go as I had planned them, would I leave space for other people? Do I make room for others, or does my efficiency trample on them, perhaps crushing something beautiful? Do I 'live and let live'?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, June 15, 2006


It's fascinating to see the way in which complete ignorance becomes wisdom when watching a crucial football match. From the comfort of the armchair, I had just as many instructions to the England team as anybody else in my Community. It was so easy to talk about players who were or were not making an effort to score goals, and yet, if the truth be told, every player on the field was putting his heart and soul into the game.

It's very easy to be an outsider looking in, making judgements about others when, in fact, I know nothing about what is actually happening in anybody's heart and soul other than my own...and I might not always be too clear about my own motivations.

There is a Native American prayer, "Great Spirit, let me not judge another person until I have walked in his moccasins."

It might be worth applying to my attitudes towards others. It might also make me a much nicer person!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

In the heat of the day

The Forum was hot and sunny this afternoon as I stood beside one of the fences, watching the archaeologists at work. Two young men were wielding pickaxes, but how they had the energy, I don’t know. At one point they stopped to discuss the different levels of the wall they are currently excavating, their hands moving upwards and downwards as they pointed out details that, from where I stood, were invisible. One man stooped to pick up two, similar, small pieces of stone. One piece was dumped, the other placed in a plastic tray for later examination. A few yards further on a young woman scraped away at the joint between two large stone blocks. She stood in the shade provided by the scaffolding, but in today’s heat, even the small brush and a cement trowel were too much hassle, I would have thought.

There are moments when the most exciting job in the world can become little more than hard labour, needing willpower and perseverance to keep on going. At other times, even the most mundane tasks are quickly and easily accomplished. Why else would I have been cleaning windows at 06.30 yesterday morning, singing whilst I worked?

Isn’t there something about motivation that energises even when everything is working against me? In spite of the heat, if the archaeologists had suddenly made an important discovery, wouldn’t they have suddenly begun to move quickly and energetically? Wouldn’t tiredness and thirst have been forgotten in their eagerness to explore?

When I was a small child, I found it difficult to understand why, when my parents took us to the park, they wanted to sit on the grass and rest instead of running around and playing. Nowadays I have no difficulty in understanding them…I’m only amazed by the energy of children who can keep on going, seemingly endlessly.

What is there in my life that gives me energy and helps me to keep on going? Who helps me to find interest in life and the enthusiasm that will take me from today into tomorrow? Do I try to do everything on my own, or do I operate in partnership with God?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lord, for tomorrow...

Job done! Finished! Now to abandon any thoughts of sewing until the next emergency...such as a button!

It's not that I couldn't be good at needlework. I've an eye for beauty and infinite patience with all sorts of fiddly jobs that require prolonged's just that I have never developed any interest whatsoever in sewing.

I admire people who can sit for hour after hour with pieces of embroidery or making fabulous clothes. Me? I try, as far as possible, to restrict myself to buttons, and to them as rarely as possible. Every so, for instance, I'm forced by circumstances to extend my activities. With a mounting sense of despair, I sat down at the sewing machine, only to discover that it was doing all sorts of things it wasn't supposed to do. What a waste of a Sunday morning!

...except that with perseverance, patience and starting all over again (several times until the sewing machine decided to obey), the job wasn't complicated, didn't take long and now I've a sense of achievement.

Procrastination is always so easy. It is so much less of a hassle to put off until tomorrow all those things that really could be done today if I put my mind to it. Could I be a better person today if I put some effort into those parts of my life that I know need some care and attention? Could I be kinder, more patient, more loving today rather than tomorrow?

Tomorrow never comes. All I have is today!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, June 09, 2006

Too busy!

Rushing makes for some crazy results.

There was one time, when I was in Australia, when I dashed over from school, intending to have a quick lunch and then continue working. The trouble was that I was in such a hurry that I didn’t think what I was doing until after I had looked into my room to see if I was there!

One morning in Zambia, I rushed out of the house to the car, only to find that it wouldn’t start. As my heart sank and I wondered what next to do, I looked downwards. There, on the passenger seat, were the car keys. I was actually trying to push a banana into the ignition!

Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace.
Give me, amidst the day's confusion,
the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles
with the soothing music of singing streams that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking "minute vacations"...
slowing down to look at a flower,
to chat with a friend,
to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me of the fable of the hare and the tortoise;
that the race is not always to the swift;
that there is more to life than measuring its speed.

Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak
and know that it grew slowly and well.
Inspire me to send my own roots down deep into the soil
of life's endearing values...
that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Life issues

I’ve been watching the television news and am left with a couple of questions as a result of the two top stories. What is it like for families to lose someone who has caused so much death and destruction that, instead of showing sympathy, people are demonstrating satisfaction? How does it feel for a family to know that one of their number has committed such a terrible crime that others are saying that a life sentence is too short?

Moving away from crime, just take a look at some of the homeless beggars on the streets, or some of the individuals who should really be in some sort of psychiatric institution could one be found that would actually manage to keep them on the premises without them wandering away. Once upon a time, they were children looking forward to a birthday, to school holidays, to Christmas or some other celebration and never imagined that a future of no hope and no home awaited them.

Some of life’s questions have no easy answer, or at least, have no answer that is without pain and suffering. There was a time when I worked in an Accident and Emergency dept of a London hospital, a hospital in one of the roughest areas of the city, where weekends were often marked by attempted suicides, drug overdoses and so on. Quite often I would leave the hospital feeling soiled by some of the sordid stories I’d heard and witnessed and would have to deliberately immerse myself in something beautiful to counteract the effects of the day. During that period, I read and listened to so much poetry, luxuriating in the intricacy and meaning of words positioned in such a way that they created loveliness. I emerged feeling cleansed, invigorated and strengthened by my contact with greatness.

We all need beauty. C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘human beings cannot bear too much reality’. Every day has its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows. It occurs to me that we are really very fortunate because there are ways, even during the most difficult days, of taking ‘minute vacations’. Wherever life is hardest, that is where God’s strength is most truly there for the asking.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Fact and fiction

A well-known film actor used to come for daily Mass to the Motherhouse of my congregation. He was so much ‘a part of the furniture’ that his presence was quite unremarkable. Then there was the Sunday evening when one of the films in which he played a major role was screened on television. Of course most of the Community gathered to watch his performance, which was a real tear-jerker. Handkerchiefs discreetly emerged from pockets, noses were blown and tears unashamedly ran down the cheeks of several Sisters when our friend ‘died’. From the back of the room, a single voice raised itself above the sniffles. “I don’t know why you’re all crying,” she remarked. “You’ll see him at Mass tomorrow!”

Through the media and through literature, it is possible to enter the world of fantasy and unreality. Most times, it’s not a bad thing. We all need a bit of escapism into a good story, but what happens when it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction?

It seems to me that a reason for the level of violent crime that we see at the moment could be, not only because of social instability, but also because there is so much violence portrayed on television and in the cinema. It looks clean (relatively) and easy to pull out a knife or a gun. The difference between reality and unreality only emerges when it is a real person who drops in front of an assailant, shedding real blood. It is a real person who stands before the judicial system and learns that, instead of a long, happy and productive life, there’s a loss of good name, a home and a family, and the gain of a long prison term. It is a real family that sheds tears at the loss of one of its members.

My Poor Clare friend complained this morning that vandals had climbed over the monastery wall and had stabbed her pet fish to death. I can remember seeing beautiful Golden Pheasants minus the tail feathers, plucked out by vandals. Why is there cruelty? Is it because in a world where so many things are disposable, people and Creation as a whole is also seen as disposable?

God doesn’t make disposable people. Creation is not a throwaway. That is fact, not fiction.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Seeing is believing

I have always wanted to visit Canada, ever since I was a small child and we obtained our first television, a small, secondhand, black and white set that died during the first programme we were able to watch on our own set. It was something about baby bears, but what, I don't remember. Uncle Frank repaired the television... regularly ... and so we soldiered on. In those days, even a secondhand television was a privileged item in most homes.

The dream to visit Canada came as a result of the Corn Flakes ad. The background music was 'The Big Country', but the image on the screen was one of unending miles of corn fields, with a combined harvester almost disappearing in its vastness. I did not believe that any country on earth could be so vast and so beautiful.

Perhaps, one day, my dream might come true. I might be able to see Canada in reality. Yet, looking back, it seems to me that every place on earth has its own particular beauty, a loveliness that isn't transferable to any other location.

The first time that I saw Victoria Falls, during my twelve years in Zambia, I stood, speechless, watching thousands of tons of water cascading with incredible force to the Zambezi River beneath. My only reaction was one of incredulity: "How could anybody see this and not believe in God?"

We don't actually need to travel to be captivated by beauty. We don't need expensive equipment to experience the presence of God in his Creation. All we need is a listening heart. God is beauty.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, June 05, 2006

The crane

The load on the crane currently outside the Castel Sant’Angelo is 24 tonnes. I know because I have just walked past it and happened to look upwards at its big circular base. High above the ground, the long arm of the crane is transferring valuable works of art from the exhibition inside the Castel to a waiting furniture van. Meanwhile another parked van waits for its own precious load to be moved in the opposite direction, and so a new exhibition will start its life.

Life is a continuing sequence of new beginnings. Looking backwards in time to Saturday and the beautiful Pentecost Vigil in St. Peter’s Square, it is hard to believe that the whole event was only the day before yesterday. In fact 48 hours ago I was battling through a thick crowd, telling anybody who objected to my efforts to move forwards that I was doing the English commentary for Vatican Radio and was already later than I’d actually intended, precisely because it was so difficult to make my way through the moving mass of people. It’s surprising how much space is needed by 350,000 people!

Yet that Vigil is already in the past and the world has moved onwards. Although it can be quite easy to live in the past, there’s little point in so doing. Today’s joys and sorrows are not the same as yesterday’s. Hopefully I have learned something from yesterday that makes me better and stronger today. Today will carry its own lessons for tomorrow. I don’t need to carry around a heavy weight of sadness, responsibility and guilt because I can make a new beginning today.

Today, as the saying goes, is the first day of the rest of my life.

Don’t worry about tomorrow: God is already there!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Infectious happiness!

A large group of young people were leaving the bus that stopped in the road outside Vatican Radio this morning. They were bright, happy, enthusiastic and chatting about anything and everything. It was a joy to see them. They will, no doubt, be amongst the anticipated 300,000 in St. Peter's Square this evening, where they will join in the Pentecost Vigil with the Pope.

Looking at the youngsters, who gave so much this morning just by being themselves, I couldn't help looking back to a girl who happened to be travelling on the same bus as I headed homewards yesterday afternoon. She was the same age as the group this morning, but as she laughed and talked with her friends, I couldn't help noticing the bag on her lap, expensive and with an obscene message printed onto it. What a contrast!

In an age when we hear so much about environmental concerns, why don't we hear anything about verbal pollution?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the young people who have come to Rome to meet with the Pope this evening could cause an epidemic of joy? Happiness is infectious!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, June 02, 2006


Estimates vary. Tomorrow evening there should be anything between 100,000 and 250,000 people heading towards St. Peter’s Square. Tomorrow evening’s Vigil for Pentecost will last for four hours and, judging by the programme that I have received as one of the two commentators in English for Vatican Radio and Vatican Television, it’s going to be a very beautiful, prayerful event. I just hope that the weather will be rather warmer and brighter…and dryer… than today’s has been because a prayer vigil in a downpour is not an encouraging prospect.

This morning there was a gathering of a different type altogether. Italy has been celebrating its foundation as a republic. There was a big military display past the Forum and the Coliseum. An air force fly past of a fighter jet display team was high enough to be easily seen from my office window. The planes trailed smoke in orange and green in a most impressive manner, but then I’d already had the very real pleasure of watching the practice flights over Rome, flights where approximately ten planes soared, circled, dived and performed other complicated movements with exquisite symmetry and coordination. Less than perfect timing would have meant the difference between life and death.

…but back to the military display this morning. There were massive preparations underway for several days, with big trucks offloading tents, scaffolding and seating for thousands of bystanders. The end result was precise and artistic. Italy excels at organizing big events with a unique artistic panache. Probably no other nation on earth has quite the same ability.
Yet, it seems to me, that if thousands can gather to display military might, isn’t it rather more remarkable to know that tens of thousands will have travelled the world to show their commitment in faith?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Good Samaritan

He was Danish, Lutheran, a stranger and was trying hard to give me comfort and strength only minutes after, in 1979, I had learned of my father’s critical illness. I don’t remember much of what the pastor said. I know he mentioned Jesus, the Apostles, the Cross and the Resurrection, but we happened to be in a very remote area of Nigeria, with no phone, no public transport and no way of sorting out a plane ticket for me to dash home. I tried hard to be polite, knowing he was being kind, but I really wanted to be on my own, to pack my suitcase and to collect my thoughts… and then again, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The news had come as a terrible shock, with no prior warning whatsoever. I really didn’t need a complete stranger sitting opposite me and saying things that I could have worked out for myself had I the time to think.

Yet, 27 years later, although I can’t remember anything that was said, I still have the warm and comforting memory of a complete stranger making time for me and trying to bring sense into the sudden collapse of anything that was orderly and predictable. Whilst I tried my best to panic(!), he continued speaking in a low, soothing voice, gradually helping me to think rationally. I still have no idea who that Danish Lutheran pastor was, but I have always remained very grateful to my Good Samaritan and have wished that I could say thank you.

We don’t plan our Good Samaritans. They find us on the wayside at the moment when they are most needed. They pick us up, bathe our wounds and carry us to a safer place. They are God’s gift, a sign of his love at the very point in time when his love is needed more than anything else in this world. They are human comfort when we don’t know where to turn. May God bless them!

God bless,
Sr. Janet