Sunday, December 30, 2007

Closing and opening

2007 is drawing to its close. Probably you are also looking back over the year that has almost passed. It is natural. We all feel a sense of closure at this time. We all feel ourselves to be standing on the threshold of the unknown.

Of course, it is entirely possible to make some predictions. Day will follow night. There will be clouds and sunshine. There will be winds and breezes, showers and downpours. There will be some mornings when it will feel hard to face another day, hard to climb out of bed rather than to curl up and go back to sleep. On some occasions there will be late nights and very early mornings, perhaps with sleeplessness and anxiety. On other occasions, a sense of excitement and anticipation might mean that the dawn cannot come soon enough.

It is possible to make other predictions: the year will incorporate mealtimes, conversations, journeys (if only into the next room or in a dream), washing and dressing….

The year that is closing has held these same qualities that can be anticipated for the next twelve months. Similarly there will be the unexpected joys and sorrows, just as much as those that could be foretold. There will be some things that we regret just as much as those for which we will remain ever grateful.

As St. Augustine said, “Leave your past to the mercy of God; leave your future to the providence of God; and leave your present to the love of God.”

Yesterday, I visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Revelation, a 7 minute bus ride from here, plus Tre Fontane, just opposite, where St. Paul was beheaded. (I’ve mentioned the Shrine of Our Lady of Revelation before: it’s a spot where Mary appeared to an Italian Communist who was planning to assassinate Pope Pius XII but changed his mind after seeing her. I’ve never yet found the Shrine empty: its prayerfulness is profound.)

In both places I prayed a Rosary for all those who will read this message, for yourselves, your families and all those whom you love and for whom you care, for all your needs. May God and his Mother be with each one of us as we move from the old into the new year. May he strengthen those who need courage, gladden the hearts of those who need joy, give companionship to the lonely, healing to the sick, bring home those who are lost and be with us at every moment of every day in all that we say, think and do.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas in St. Peter’s Square

The attention to detail is spectacular. No wonder it took from the beginning of November until Christmas Eve in order to finish the Crib in St. Peter’s Square!

Unusually, this year, instead of locating the Holy Family in a stable in Bethlehem, they are firmly ensconced in Joseph’s house, complete with its carpenter’s workshop to the right and the ‘eatery’ to the left. Large, jagged cracks run between the bricks on the outside of the building and, on the inside, crumbling plaster on the walls show the poverty of the village carpenter even if the faded green curtains separating the house and the workshop haven’t been noticed. Outside, a hen and a rooster, several sheep and two goats and, yes, the ox and ass, are clearly visible, as are, inside, Simeon and Anna.

In the ‘eatery’ (did whoever wrote the description intend to use that word or another?), whilst one person kneads and rolls out the dough, a man with a long-handled shovel (for want of a better word) turns to put a loaf into the oven for baking. A woman carries out a small tray with a carafe of wine and a cup to a man sitting at the table.

The carpenter’s shop is beautiful with its workbench, tools and a wooden stool. The occupants are hard at work. What are they making as the curtain billows in the breeze? How many hours did Joseph and Jesus spend together as the Boy learned his trade?

Within the single room of the house, the battered and ancient staircase stretches upwards to a balcony whereon are two angels, whilst a third hovers over Mary and Jesus, protecting them from harm. Only slightly beneath their feet is the start of the road that will take them to Egypt. It is green and flanked with plants of all shapes and sizes: olives, palm trees, poinsettia, cyclamen and others…

Yet it is not only the front of the house that has been lovingly created. At the back, a small wooden veranda and steps support large bunches of rushes, drying in the sun…

Towering above the Crib, the magnificent tree, the gift of the Tyrol, shimmers in the sunlight, laden with silver and gold baubles, tinsel and other decorations. As is the custom in Italy, they will remain until 2nd February, the feast of the Presentation, for everyone to see and enjoy. Behind them, hidden amongst the wonderful Bernini colonnade, an exhibition of Cribs from the town of Trentino is nothing short of captivating. Not all of the figures within the various scenes are expertly made: in one of them, Jesus looks about 10 years old as he lies in the manger! Yet what exquisite pieces of driftwood! How perfect they are in creating stables and caves! Where on earth did people manage to find such beautiful pieces of wood?

…and the carvings! So much love went into their creation…

The beauty about the Nativity is not only the story of God becoming a human Baby. It is the involvement of a family and real people. Most of us can identify with a mother and child. Most of us can admire the generosity, love and fidelity of Joseph, who took on a baby who wasn’t his, but became his child through adoption. The story of Christmas is the story of a family. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why so much love is expended in recreating the events of that night so long ago.

God bless,
Sr. Janet
PS Check out my website at I have added some recordings that you might find of interest. Eventually there will be a page of podcasts, but for now, you can have a taste of more to come….

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Prayer

Within a few hours, it will be Christmas. Around Rome, there is a tremendous sense of waiting. Just a couple of yards away from me, one of my Community is busily arranging the Nativity scene under the altar in our chapel. Downstairs, in the main chapel, one of our seminarians is likewise engaged. Both will be beautiful. Both will be peaceful and silent.

There is a special peace about Christmas Eve, even in the midst of all that needs to be done for the Feast. Yes, life is busy, but it is also purposeful. Wrapping gifts is also beautiful: it is people centred, other-centred. Christmas is not about ‘me’, but, instead, is about ‘you’ and ‘us’. As I walked through the market this morning, it seems that the entire population of Rome will receive stalls.

For my own part, I have been deeply touched by the e-mails I have received as a result of breaking the news of my forthcoming move. Even as I write, my room is littered with the inevitable sorting of papers, books etc….and I think of a young couple who travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with no more than could be conveniently carried on the back of a donkey.

What were their feelings? Did they panic as Mary realised that she was going into labour? Did Joseph worry that a slight stumble on the part of the donkey would hasten the birth, so that Jesus might be born on the roadside, with no shelter other than the love that he and Mary would shower on him in abundance?

Fortunately, their worst fears were not realised. Jesus was born in a stable, but it was a shelter from the cold and dark. There was a fire and some degree of comfort. There was joy and peace.

…and I think of those people for whom this Christmas will be a time of anxiety, loneliness and, perhaps, despair. May they find some peace, companionship and hope.

May those who are hungry and thirsty find food and drink, those who are searching, find the object of their search, those who are homeless, find shelter.

For so many families, Christmas is a time of togetherness. May those who are divided by discord, or by illness, or by death, know comfort and unity. May those who are waiting at the bedsides of their loved ones be at peace.

Where parents have lost a child, may they be comforted and may their child come home to them, at least in their aching hearts if not physically.

May those who are happy know even more happiness.

May the Christ Child be born in our hearts, in our lives and in this beautiful world that is sometimes a little bit crazy. I can never forget that, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II, when so many world and religious leaders turned towards each other and offered the Sign of Peace, for a couple of minutes, we truly had world peace. May that peace spread throughout the world this Christmas.

God bless you and all those whom you know and love,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Arrivaderci a Radio Vaticana

Well, the title is written with apologies to whoever it was who wrote the original song, which was saying goodbye to Rome rather than to Vatican Radio, but it has a certain appropriateness in the circumstances.

My piece of news for today is that yesterday was my last working day at Vatican Radio as I finished four wonderful, fulfilling and very precious years there.

As of 11th January, I shall also no longer be living in Rome, because I shall be heading back towards England after working outside the country for the past sixteen years.

On 28th January, I will be taking up a new position as Communications Coordinator for the Pontifical Mission Societies, (PMS) also commonly known as the Association for the Propagation of the Faith (APF), and will be based in London. (Check out the website at )

That sounds a very ‘bald’ statement, but in fact, I am tremendously excited about the opportunity the new job. There will be enormous scope for working with all the Catholic and secular media within the UK, the dioceses, Catholic organizations… and you name it!… in order to promote the mission of the Church to reach out to the whole world and to proclaim the Good News.

It has struck me on so many occasions that most people do not see the amazing work that is done in their name by the PMS. So often, people collect money ‘for the missions’, making an act of faith that their hard-earned cash will be used wisely, and not always seeing the schools and hospitals that they build, the textbooks and medicines that they buy, the hungry whom they feed, the thirsty to whom they give a fresh water supply, the boats, vehicles and motorbikes that make it possible to reach the most remote places on earth, or the students they train for the priesthood. Hopefully, through my new job, I’ll have the opportunity to tell people even a fraction of all the good things that they are achieving on behalf of others through the work of the PMS.

Hopefully there will be the possibility of saying that in this day and age, where there is so often pain and suffering, there are also tremendously good people, giving of themselves to others. It will be an opportunity to proclaim God's goodness from the rooftops and to tell the world that it's not always easy, but that knowing God is there gives total meaning to everything in life.

Of course, it was sad leaving Vatican Radio yesterday, and leaving Rome will also be painful. It has been a wonderful experience working so closely with the radio station that is ‘The Pope’s Voice’ reaching out to the world. During those four years, I’ve had the privilege of presenting more than 100 live radio and television commentaries on papal ceremonies, including the Mass offered only hours after Pope John Paul II died, his funeral, the opening of the Conclave, the closing of the Conclave, the inauguration of the papacy of Benedict XVI, and so on. It has been an amazing and deeply humbling experience to know that my own voice could be, not only an instrument of the Church, but one that could touch people whom I would never meet in ordinary daily life.

Leaving Vatican Radio and heading towards the Pontifical Mission Societies does not mean that there will be an end to the website, the prayer board, the blogspots or the daily e-mails, as I’ve set these up in such a way that they can continue.

May I take this opportunity of thanking you for your support, your faithfulness and your prayers. Please pray for me as I launch into a new era, as I will continue to pray for you and yours, and for all your special needs.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From Zimbabwe

The message which follows came from someone I would prefer not to name for his own safety. Just take it that he is someone who risks his life in order to speak out. To me, his message of love in the midst of suffering is the true message of Christmas.
God bless,
Sr. Janet

When a child is born you wish the little one all the best: the journey through life is hazardous. Even the most loving parents cannot protect it from war and violence, from disease and catastrophe. This world is beset by evil and full of hatred.

The Child born in Bethlehem was to meet evil and hatred head-on. Precisely because he was utterly good and loving he would be hated by the proud and arrogant whom he would challenge. Precisely because he would make the love of God present in this world the forces of evil would rally against him, and in his life and in his very person clash with God’s goodness. He narrowly escaped the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem - for the moment. The forces of evil would eventually catch up with him in Jerusalem. They would destroy him physically, but his love would triumph over their hatred.

Zimbabwe has become a DANGER ZONE. Its leaders are driven by hatred for their enemies, not by love for their own people. Hatred is a destructive force. It does not build anything, it only tears down and demolishes. The potholes on the roads, dead traffic lights, power and water cuts, patients left without treatment, empty shelves and empty stomachs, empty spaces where Murambatsvina demolished homes, witness to this. Fear of police brutality and torture is all-pervasive and ever-present.

Christ showed up the irrationality of hatred. That is why he did not meet hatred with hatred, releasing a lethal virus and starting a doubly destructive pandemic. He saw the humanity even of his opponents, though damaged by sin, and restored it by reaching out to them, in other words by love.

Our ears are ringing with the din of hate speech, and yet love is not dead. There are people caring for HIV positive babies, and others resisting torture and healing the tortured, there are thousands toiling away in foreign lands for their destitute loved ones at home, there are some left speaking the truth in the midst of lies and deceit.

Hatred shouts and screams, love is quiet and inconspicuous. But the outcome is certain: love will overcome. Perhaps not fully in our lifetime, nevertheless love will overcome. That is the message of Christmas, of Christ, of this Child, vulnerable and yet unconquerable.

Monday, December 17, 2007


God is so good! Who could ever think that his attention to detail would encompass even the beautiful, golden-ringed eye of a seagull and who would think that he would make it possible to watch its snowy-white head, first at one angle and then at another as, in turn, it watched me, hoping for some food?

Jonathon, for we have named him after Jonathon Livingstone Seagull, has begun to stand on the window ledge of our office at Vatican Radio, peering through the window. He’s much larger at close quarters than he would appear when his broad wings suddenly spread and lazily take him over the buildings on either side of the Via delle Conciliazione. Sometimes he soars over the Tiber. Sometimes he merely circles before our admiring gaze. He is beautiful.

On occasion, Jonathon will even take food from an outstretched hand. For sure, we all know that, as with other seagulls, he is greedy, but there is something almost magical in the way he waits, judging his security before he stretches out his beak for a piece of bread or a biscuit. Yes, we know that bread and biscuits are not the normal food for a seagull, but the food is offered almost in grateful homage for the unique privilege that Jonathon offers: a completely wild and free bird coming to share our lives for a moment. Even as he stands for our admiration, he makes sounds that none of us knew to be part of a gull’s repertoire. There are not only the high-pitched cries so typical of the species, but also gentle noises that cannot be heard from a distance: a soft, mewing that has its own beauty and peacefulness.

This morning, Jonathon had a companion, an immature bird still marked with some of the dusty-brown freckles of youth. The newcomer tried to take its share of food, but was driven away by the older, stronger, Jonathon. It was a treat to watch the brief squabble. Neither bird was hurt and, as they overbalanced from the narrow ledge, we were rewarded by the sight of a double beauty circling and soaring before the window.

God is so good! There is such beauty around us, if only we can be patient. Jonathon would never have come into our lives had it not been for Linda’s gentleness that made the first overtures. Gentleness and beauty can transform the mundane and the ordinary into the exciting and the extraordinary if only we have the patience.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ready and waiting

The Christmas tree looks wonderful in the early morning. Emerging from the station at the Coliseum early on Friday morning, whilst the rest of Rome was still in darkness, the blaze of white light against the dark silhouette of a massive pine tree was unmissable. Behind it, the terracotta-coloured magnificence of the Coliseum created its own unique and unforgettable scenario.

As with the rest of the world, Rome is accelerating towards Christmas. Streets are festooned with beautiful arrangements of white lighting and increasingly ornate shop windows. Laden with bags of pre-Christmas shopping, people scurry backwards and forwards. Adverts in prominent positions on the public transport announce free ‘shopping buses’ in central Rome during the last few days before the feast.

Hidden from the rest of the world, finishing touches are added to the Cribs in churches throughout Italy. In many places there will be competitions and exhibitions where, hidden in scenes of towns and villages, the Nativity is set in the midst of a bustling humanity, firmly locating the Incarnation in the midst of everyday life. Often, just as in real life, it is necessary to search before, tucked away in the corner, the Holy Family comes to view.

Amazingly, some confectioners have, in their shop windows, cakes that are surely, too perfect to eat, with their cascading chocolate-covered ‘rocks’ and tiny plants made from icing sugar providing a wonderful shelter for, not only the traditional Nativity scene, but also shepherds, Magi, animals and villagers. Were they not on display in bakery windows, anybody would feel justified in thinking that the base had been created from wood, clay or some such material rather than a very edible sponge cake.

What preparations am I making for Christmas? Am I feeling frazzled because there is just too much to do and too little time… or is there a little place in my heart that is ready and waiting?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cry, my beloved country

Many years have passed since my last opportunity to wander down Oxford Street in order to enjoy the Christmas decorations…Hah! What a change! Selfridge’s window, where once there was a magnificent display of the history of the Christmas card, is, this year, festooned with sexy models in colourful if rather scanty clothing. Nowhere in the street was there any reference to the real meaning of Chrsitmas and, thanks to political correctness, not only is there nothing to offend the Muslims, there’s also nothing to delight the Christians!

Liberty’s, at Christmas, is usually a magnificent sight to behold and, sure enough, a huge amount of trouble had gone into the decorations even if, once again, instead of the beautiful décor I once associated with the shop, there too, the model lying across a counter with her back arched and legs in not-very-ladylike positions, rather spoiled the tastefulness of the rest of the shop….and then, just as I was marvelling at the Christmas card for £295 and the crackers costing £150 for two (containing, for him, socks and a sleep-shade and for her, a sleep-shade and jewellery roll), a Japanese girl really did buy a handbag for £850!

Hamley’s, the largest toyshop in the world, was, as ever, filled to overflowing with all sorts of toys. Beautiful hand-made teddy bears (not one of them named Mohammed!!!) emerged with exciting regularity within the skillful hands of the young girl who received the empty shell from an eager child. Everywhere, toys had been laid out for the adults, as well as the children, to test. Just like everybody else, I enjoyed hearing Winnie the Pooh laugh and chatter in time to music, watched a salesman demonstrate a sort-of illuminated bolas and played on a laptop computer designed for five year-olds.

…and then I saw a young couple, thin and worried-looking as they wandered around Hamley’s. It was difficult not to see some of the gifts that they had bought. How on earth would they manage to pay for them? Are they to be in debt for the next year because of their spending-spree at Christmas? Did they really need to pay £19.99 for some coloured pens? Why not buy similar ones for 99p at the local market?

Where is Christ this Christmas? Has He been lost altogether? Do people have more money than sense?

Cry, my beloved country. You are letting Jesus be hidden in the Christmas rush. Bring him back! Then, you will laugh.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Travelling down from Liverpool to London yesterday was an experience.

Torrential rain and cold weather did its best to make sure the journey had a good chance of being miserable: it was long, but not really a source of misery. Roadworks stretching for several miles, slowing traffic to a snail's pace lengthened the trip considerably. Then, on a Saturday afternoon, there is no congestion charge operating in central London. The congestion charge might be a pain for motorists, but it is a wonderful invention for some of us commuters, especially those of us who were stuck in long traffic jams and gridlocked crossroads. Christmas shoppers bustled to and fro, inseperable from their umbrellas as the torrential rain became even heavier.

Arriving at Victoria Coach Station was something of a triumph. When the bus driver apologised for the delays which he said were none of his making, everybody agreed with him. Still, much as the passengers staggered from the coach, there was something exciting about emerging, even in a torrential downpour, into the sights and sounds of a London evening with only a few days to go before Christmas. There was a thrill about being warmly wrapped with an effective umbrella, the inconvenience of the bus journey a thing of the past.

...and then there were the homeless along the way: a woman tucked up in a soggy blanket, a man pushing a trolly laden with plastic carrier bags of belongings...

Inconvenience is relative. Does a long wait in a warm, dry,bus compare with a longer wait through the night in a shop doorway, a wait that is continuing from one night to the next because there is no home at the end of the road?

Spare a thought and a prayer for whom 'inconvenience' has become a way of life.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, December 07, 2007


Have you ever met people who leave you with the feeling that you would love to spend some time with them in order to learn more about what it is that they are doing?

During my time in Rome, I’ve discovered that my colleague’s father is the one who invented striped toothpaste. Then there was the young computer programmer who is designing a programme for butter packs in which the butter is already cut into four segments. There was the woman who works as an engineer for NASA and designs spaceships…

People are interesting. Every one of us has something that is fascinating to others. Are we not silly when we don’t open up to others and miss out on seeing the wonderful beauty within them? What would happen if God were to decide that we were boring? What would it be like if we truly thought God could be bored by our requests? Are we not fortunate that God thinks that each and every one of us is fascinating?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hold His Hand

Ever been frightened by somebody else’s reaction to a situation?

Yesterday I flew from Rome to London and found that, as we travelled across southern England, there was a great deal of turbulence. Yes, I was frightened and, yes, out came my rosary, prayed ever more urgently as the plane bobbed around in the high wind.

The trouble was that a group of youngsters, a couple of seats in front of me, were thoroughly enjoying the ups and downs of life at that moment and made strange whooping sounds with every bounce of the plane. It was scary! The more they shrieked, the more urgent my prayers became. They made what was probably unimportant something of danger and immediate threat to life.

Of course, we landed safely. Had that not been so, then I would not be writing at this moment in time.

When we are in danger, it is very normal to immediately start to pray and to have God’s help uppermost in mind. Everything else disappears in the attempt to reach out to Him and hold his hand.

When the danger is over, is there the same urgency to say ‘thank you’? He deserves it!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The journey

There were thousands of them: migrating birds flying too high for identification as I ran for the bus this morning. Where were they going? From where had they flown? When did they begin their journey and who long would it last? How many would last the distance and how many would die on the way?

Their flight was silent and in unison. There was a determination to their movement, very different, for example, to the swallows that circle, soar and dart in the last couple of weeks before their long voyage to Africa commences. When they test their wings before setting off, there is almost playfulness in their flight. Still full of energy and a good diet of insects still in the vicinity, they can afford to have time to play, full of loveliness as the setting sun creates its own silhouette of their arrow-shaped bodies.

Not so the flock of birds above Rome this morning. They flew quietly and purposefully, still with huge distances and vast expanses of land and ocean yet to be crossed before they could land to take a rest once more. Not all of the birds would reach their destination. At least some would perish on the journey. Perhaps some would find a watery grave.

Yet fear of predators or a long journey did not deter them. None of them had held back, debating whether or not to take the first flap of countless wing beats into the sky. Admittedly they did not have the ability to ponder their courage. Admittedly, instinct played its part, calling them to distant lands. Yet courage there was, and perseverance.

Sometimes we find ourselves setting out on our own journey through life. It might be hard. It might be full of joy, but at the very first step, we do not know what lies ahead. All we know for certain is that, from the moment of birth, to the instant that our eyes close for the last time, we are on a journey, travelling through every moment of every day. Sometimes there is solitude and, on occasion, loneliness. Companions might or might not offer their support. There might be moments of hope and moments of despair. Sunshine and clouds will appear and disappear on the path. Perhaps there will be occasions of fear as well as those of hope. At times, courage will seem to have flown in the opposite direction. At others, over-confidence and a certain brashness might disguise the need for humility, listening and the ability to learn.

Lord, be with us on our journey. Be at its start and at its end.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pain and laughter

Out of curiosity, I recently counted the number of cheerful news items in the top seven headlines this evening. There was one. There were images galore of men, women and children caught in the midst of terrible and undeserved suffering…but then one story led to another.

There are days when one is led to wonder what is happening to the world. Is it all collapsing into mayhem?

…and then, without intending it, the newsreader injected her own little bit of normality into the scene as she moved her head and shoulders. The studio lighting revealed that she had probably ironed her own jacket and hadn’t done the best job of it. The seams were, somehow, irregularly shiny, possibly the result of an iron that had been too hot for the material.

It is very easy to be media-led into believing that the world is ruled by crime and violence. War is just around the corner. Our earth is on the verge of devastation, to be obliterated by ourselves in the course of our daily lives. Even cows chewing the cud in their fields are blamed for their supposedly terrible contribution to global warming.

During the summer I watched a wonderful television programme that followed the growth and development of twins, triplets and quads in their mother’s womb. I don’t know how the images were obtained: perhaps there was a microchip inserted into the lining of the uterus. I don’t know. However, one beautiful scene showed the unborn twins moving closer to each other and even though it had to have been just a question of position and not of intent, it looked as though one twin was kissing the other through the membranes that enclosed them both.

Even from before we are born, we are made for love and for togetherness. We are not created for death, tragedy and destruction. For most of us, life is composed of the mundane details of washing and ironing and of controlling the temperature of the iron with which we make our clothes look presentable. Most of us are not faced with the horrors that accost us through the media.

A recent radio programme described a book written by, I think, an economist. It was filled with so much doom and gloom as he looked at the world’s future that he couldn’t stand it and threw himself from the 30th floor of a skyscraper.

There are tragedies. There are nightmares. People are living through indescribable horrors and deserve our sympathy, prayers and support. But there is also goodness, beauty, love, generosity, compassion, understanding, laughter and all the other lovely things that make life worthwhile. Let us not lose sight of them.

God is a God of laughter as well as a God of love. He has to be. If God could not laugh, neither could we. His is a special laughter. It is the joy of a small child, the giggle of a shared secret, the deep belly laugh of a good joke, the smile of contentment and satisfaction, the grin of inspiration after a struggle, the delighted yell of a pleasant surprise or of an encounter with a long-absent loved one, the serenity of a good night’s sleep.

As we pray for all those who are facing any difficulties, we also pray that they will know laughter.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It is logical, if you think about it. The people who live in some of the coldest parts of the world tend to be blonde and have blue eyes. Those who live in the hottest areas usually have black hair and are many shades of brown.

Scientists decided that the percentage of melanin in our skin helps to protect us against heat or cold. There's no question of whether or not one is better or worse for having a high or a low proportion: it is merely a difference that has developed over the centuries so that we can live more comfortably in our natural environment.

When I was teaching in Australia, I decided to test this theory and asked my class to, first of all, put a hand in hot water and to time for how long they could keep it there. I also asked the youngsters to take an ice cube, hold it as tightly as possible for as long as possible and, once more, to time themselves.

The result was fascinating. Making allowances for those who were in the middle group in which many of the peoples of Central Europe origin would find themselves, the blonde students were able to hold an ice cube for much longer than those with dark hair and vice versa with the hot water. Now the results were in no way statistically significant, but it was intriguing.

Another interesting phenomenon concerning weather arose in a report on television. Apparently a town in Finland, I think it was, has the highest rainfall in Europe and so children are trained from their earliest days, to cope with rain. I could identify with that because, coming from England, I find that I am a better weather forecaster than many Italians living in Rome, where life is not nearly as soggy and there is nothing like the pressure to live a normal life in spite of constantly varying weather patterns. In fact there is a saying that "Other countries have climate. In England we have weather and it is so varied that it forms an unending topic of conversation."


...but aren't we not amazingly fortunate that our bodies are programmed to cope with differences in our surroundings?

Isn't the world incredible, that we do not have an unchanging environment and have the opportunity to glory in the pink dawn of a beautiful day just as much as the angry red clouds of an impending storm? Are there not some days when a breeze is a blessing and others when a wind that whips up the leaves into a frenzy of autumn loveliness?

Thank God for differences. They are what make this world our home!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

La Bocca

In the centre of Rome, in a corner of a very old building, there’s a stone carving of a face, surrounded by wild hair. The eyes of the carving are wide open and staring into the eyes of the person who approaches it. The mouth of the same carving is stretched wide, almost as if it was laughing, but the mouth is a wide-open hole, just big enough for someone to insert his or her hand.

The carving is called ‘La Bocca’ or ‘The Mouth’.

Two thousand years ago, La Bocca was in regular use, and not just as a tourist attraction. People who were thought to be telling lies, or those who wanted to prove that they were telling the truth, would come to La Bocca, surrounded by a crowd of witnesses. Once they reached the carving, the person concerned had to extend their arm and put their hand inside the mouth. The understanding was that if someone were telling a lie, that person would not be able to withdraw his or her hand from La Bocca. It would be stuck. Everybody would be able to see for him or herself that they had met a liar.

I don’t know how reliable La Bocca was in sorting out the liars and the truth-tellers. It seemed to me that anybody whose hand is reasonably slim could easily put their hand into and pull it out, of the mouth of the carving. It looked as though anybody with a big hand might have difficulty, whether or not that person was a liar. Perhaps the liars were so afraid of La Bocca that they confessed their lie before having to put it to the test.

There are times today when something like La Bocca would be very useful. There are times when we are faced with someone who is telling a very plausible story that could be true. Yet at the same time, we might have a slight doubt that what we are hearing is the truth. It would be so useful to be able to know for certain whether we are hearing the truth or a lie.

We depend a great deal on truth in our daily lives. Without truth there cannot be trust. There cannot be unity and cooperation between individuals, between families, between countries. Each of us has had the experience of being disappointed when we have discovered that someone we trusted has lied to us. Each of us has, at some stage in our lives, been found out telling a lie. Sometimes the lie is obvious. We’ve all seen children who, for instance, are adamant that they did not eat a piece of bread and jam, but have the marks of jam all around their mouths. With good guidance, children grow out of that sort of lie.

Truth and falsehood can have serious consequences. What about the liar who occupies a position of importance? What happens when a patient lies about his symptoms? What are the consequences when someone in public office lies about corrupt practices, or a husband lies to his wife about his unfaithfulness?

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he didn’t want to hear the answer. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Am I prepared to listen?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, November 19, 2007

It is only a foot

It is only a foot, but it is my foot. It is not painful, but it should be. The fact that there is no pain sends a shudder of terror down my spine. It is my foot and all too easy to see that it is red and blistered. There is a terrible scald down my ankle and the length of my upper foot, but there is no pain and it is not as if I have taken a painkiller, because I have taken nothing.

The frightening thing is that I know what this absence means: I have leprosy. I have truly become identified with those for whom I care here on Molokai. That thought gives me sheer joy, but the realisation that this identification is so complete that I, too, have leprosy is, at this moment, almost more than I can bear.

Although there are scientists searching for the cause of this deadly disease and perhaps they will, one day, discover a treatment, at the moment, there is nothing. It is a death sentence. That is why they, we, are here on Molokai.

My beloved lepers were sent here, away from their families and friends, abandoning their homes and all that they loved, so that they could be isolated and that the spread of their contagion to another person. It is the only thing that society knows at this point in time: condemnation to a life of loneliness and increasing isolation, cut off from the world and damned to a life of increasing sickness for which there is no cure. Yes, they help each other, but they are limited.

At one time the Church prescribed a funeral Mass for someone with leprosy. That person had truly become dead to the world. How can I forget the image of the ship setting sail from the harbour with its tragic cargo of lepers? How can I forget the misery on the faces of the patient and also on the faces of those who stood on the quayside, bidding farewell to someone they would never see again? Occasionally one of the inhabitants of Molokai would escape back to the mainland, unable to bear the loneliness and sadness of the colony, longing to see a beloved person one last time, for the escapee knew the penalty: to be shot on sight. It was an attempt to safeguard the general population, but one misery compounded another. What guilt was there in loving so much that life became worthless by comparison?

It was because of the sadness that I saw in the faces of people who were good and innocent of any wrongdoing that I volunteered to come to Molokai. I could help them, bring them the comfort of the Sacraments and of a daily Mass which all could attend as equals, regardless of their disfigurement and former life. Surely our loving Father would have removed the sins from the souls of our beloved lepers…I use the word ‘our’ because if I love them, how much more does God have a special place for them in his heart.

I knew that, when I came to Molokai, sooner or later, if I behaved as a priest towards the inhabitants of the island, I would, one day, become one of them. I knew what I was doing. I just had not expected the dread that fills me now that I can see that I have caught the disease. Of course, others might have suspected it earlier. I can never forget my anguish when I wanted to obtain absolution from a priest who was travelling with the ship that brings us supplies and was forbidden to board. Instead, he stood at the side of the ship whilst I remained in my boat, confessing my sins aloud to the world’s hearing. He was as embarrassed as I to pronounce the words of absolution at high volume. We both wept when it was over, but we could offer each other no quick hug of understanding and comfort. The Captain merely weighed anchor and started to head back to the mainland.

Well, now is the beginning of the end for me, too. I have seen the sores that often cover the entire skin surface of my beloved lepers whilst inside they are as pure and innocent as a newborn. Now I am one of them. I know the course of the illness and I am afraid, yet, at the same time, I am filled with a deep joy that God has granted me the grace to be one with them in suffering. Perhaps my own suffering will help and encourage them. Who knows?

“It is the memory of having lain under the funeral pall twenty-five years ago--the day of my vows--that led me to brave the danger of contracting this terrible disease in doing my duty here and trying to die more and more to myself… the more the disease advances, I find myself content and happy. The work of the lepers is in good hands and I am no longer necessary, so I shall go up yonder.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Teresa of Avila receives a soaking

Lord, this is just far too much and I am not at all happy with you! You might have an infinite sense of humour, but I do not. You may be laughing, but I am not! I do not appreciate the trick you have just played on me! I do not enjoy standing beside a muddy stream, soaked to the skin, whilst the Sisters and I have to decide how to retrieve our overturned cart from the water. Even the donkey appears to be laughing, but I am not!

First of all, I am cold and wet. Secondly, as I have no change of clothing, it means continuing on my journey still cold and wet whilst waiting for my clothes to dry on me. Thirdly, you gave me a fright when the cart tipped over into the stream: until then I had been, alternately, peacefully thinking about you and dozing. Would you like it if you were to be suddenly catapulted into mid-air into muddy water? You would not be best pleased and neither am I!

In fact, thanks to you, I have grazed my knee and stubbed a toe into the bargain. My wrist is also sore where I banged it on the stones that form the bed of the stream into which you have thrown me. Yes. I am blaming you and not the donkey! You knew that the donkey would stumble. You knew that the cart would overturn and you did nothing, absolutely nothing, to stop it happening.

If this is the way you treat your friends, it is no surprise that you have so few of them!

Well, Your Majesty, I have now had my say. I am not asking that you should have performed a miracle for my benefit. I know that you do not work in that way, but life is hard enough without you sending extra difficulties to accompany me on my journey. It is not easy having to travel between all the convents, encouraging and exhorting the Sisters to adhere more strongly to our Carmelite way of life. Yes, I do receive a great deal of support from people such as Fr. John of the Cross, but he, too, receives opposition from the members of his own Order. Why is it, Lord, that people are reluctant to change their ways and cling to you more closely?

Of course, I do know something of the answer. I was 40 years old before I realised the enormity of all that was expected of me if I were to truly live the life of a Carmelite nun. I admit that my youth, even inside the convent, was frivolous and given to finding pleasure. I enjoyed all the visits from the young men of Avila even if I put a religious construct on their appearances for ‘spiritual advice’. Yes, I know that I was good-looking and that my Carmelite robes somehow enhanced that, but it was so difficult for me to really and truly put away the pleasure I had found in dancing and singing before I left my home. Yes, Your Majesty, I did live my life at a superficial level and it was no wonder, really, that I was not happy.

It was then that I began to find you even amongst the pots and pans in the kitchen. I began to sense your presence everywhere and, little by little, I fell in love with you. Eventually, but only after a struggle, I was able to place my heart in your hands, knowing that I need not be afraid.

…but perhaps I would have been afraid if I had known that you would tip me into this stream!

Well, Lord, even if I am very cold and dripping wet, I still love you. Help me to love you more.

"Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing afright you.
All things are passing.
God alone is changeless.
He who has patience wants for nothing.
He who has God has all things.
God alone suffices."

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Scholastica foils Benedict

I love my sister, but this is beyond a joke!

Of course, it was good to see her and I was as happy to be with her as she was to be with me. We had so many things to discuss because it was quite some time since we were together.

It was inevitable that we should begin to talk about heavenly matters because it is something we have done since we were small children. Neither of us noticed that the time was flying past, so captivated were we at the thought of all that God has done for us.

She is a very holy woman, Scholastica, so that she has had many insights that have touched my soul and have guided my path. Not that I would necessarily tell her exactly how impressed I am with her goodness. A brother has never done that for a sister, has he? In any case, it is sometimes embarrassing to know how highly she regards me and so I do what I can to bring her down to earth. On other occasions, when I think I am progressing quite nicely, she cuts me down to size with the sort of commonsense comment that only a truly loving family member can level at another.

This afternoon, Scholastica came to visit me. I did not mind too much that I was drawn away from my customary period of prayer because our conversation was so caught up in things of God that we broke off from time to time in order to reflect on the words of each other. If that is not prayer, then I don’t know what is.

The trouble came when we realised how late it had become. The sky was becoming dark and so I suggested to Scholastica that it was time for her to leave. She refused, so I insisted. After all, I did not want her to stay overnight in the monastery. What would the monks have said?

Scholastica decided to take things into her own hands. She can be incredibly stubborn, you know.

My sister sat where she was and prayed for a moment. Naturally, I did not want to stop her. I half-thought she might be praying for me before we parted. Hah! If I had known she was actually asking God to keep her here for the night, I would have called a halt, even to prayer. There are some acts of God that are downright inconvenient…such as this one.

Scholastica’s prayer was answered immediately. The sky suddenly became as light as day and there was a massive clap of thunder. Rain began to pour from the heavens in torrents. How could I possibly allow her to leave?

Scholastica looked up from her prayer with a grin that I can only describe as triumphantly wicked! She and God together had foiled me! She could not return to her convent tonight. My sister was not ready for us to terminate our conversation and it looks as though God had the same idea. What do I do when confronted by their joint determination?

I give up!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Margaret Clitherow anticipates her execution

My dearest husband and children, who would have ever thought that our greatest fears would come true and that I would be facing death within three days from now, even though I have made no plea either of innocence or of guilt.

I could say nothing. You know that. If I had declared that I had been hiding priests in the house, then not only would they have been at risk, but so would you, whom I love so much. Could I have even thought for one moment of endangering you? Never! Those who had attended Mass, however secretly, would also have been put in peril of a brutal death. You would have been forced to testify against me and I could not have you faced with the dilemma of either being untruthful or, instead, condemning your wife and mother to death.

Neither could I myself say that I had not harboured priests and have sent them safely on their way, for that would have been a lie. Even if it means that I will die a death which chills me to the bone with fear, I will not lie.

I took the middle path and refused to testify in court, even though the lawyers tried to frighten me with the consequences. They succeeded in one thing: they truly terrified me. The consequences of my silence are as severe as an admission of guilt.

Peine forte et dure. That is the penalty. Tomorrow I will be removed from this prison cell and will be forced to lie on the ground, where they will fasten me so that I cannot move. The judge showed a little leniency because if he had adhered to the strict letter of the law, I should be naked, but he has relented and has allowed me to wear a light cotton shift that I have made in anticipation. He has also allowed that, on alternate days, I will be allowed to drink a little puddle water, but will be denied food. On the second day, I can eat some bread, but cannot drink.

“You must return from whence you came, and there, in the lowest part of the prison, be stripped naked, laid down, your back on the ground, and as much weight laid upon you as you are able to bear, and so to continue for three days without meat or drink, and on the third day to be pressed to death, your hands and feet tied to posts, and a sharp stone under your back.”

My dear family, the words of the judge are engraved in my soul. Is it any wonder that I am afraid? I would have loved it so much if I had been allowed to continue serving in our little butcher’s shop in The Shambles. I enjoyed that work, you know, because it gave me so many opportunities for meeting and helping people. It was easy to pass on messages about the dates and times when a priest would be available for Mass and the Sacraments. I suppose it was also the way in which I was discovered. There was a young Flemish boy who passed on information to the authorities when they intimidated him and promised to kill him. I cannot blame him for showing them where I had hidden the vestments and the chalices.

John, my dear husband, I have been so proud of you. You have been good to all of us. You know as well as I do that although I reverted to Catholicism and you chose not to do so, your brother was one of the priests who found safety in our home. You were so good not to admit that our son is himself studying for the priesthood.

Henry, William and Anne, as you can see, I have taught myself to read and write whilst I have been in prison awaiting my trial. There is so much that I would say to you, my dearest children, but just know this, that however much your father and I love you, God loves you even more. "I know of no offense whereof I should confess myself guilty. Having made no offense, I need no trial." This was my message at the trial and it remains my defence. Be strong. Give your lives to our beloved Lord.

I now take my leave of you all. I love you with all my heart. Pray for me that I might be strong to endure the death that I must soon die.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thomas More receives a visit from his daughter

Meg! Meg! My darling, beloved daughter, has any father ever loved and admired his child as I love and admire you? My pride in you is boundless. I know that your love for me is every bit as great as mine for you, but can you not see that your words are foolish? I know that they are spoken from the depths of your heart and that all you are doing is to try to save me from the executioner’s axe, but even though I do not want to die, I cannot go against my conscience. It is in my conscience that I am at home with my Lord and, whatever the cost, I cannot deny my God.

I cannot say aloud that the determination of the King to marry Ann Boleyn is wrong because if, in court, you are asked if you ever head me criticise Henry, you can then, with your own clear conscience, say that I have never spoken any criticism of the King in your presence. I must carry my own condemnation of his intentions in the silence of my heart and let the law take its course.

You say that the law is an unjust law, but I cannot allow you to say even that. Without the law, where would we be? It is a protection and a freedom and, even if it cost me my life, I stay within the law. I have said none wrong. I have done none wrong, and if this is not enough to save me from the gallows, then so be it.

But, my darling Meg, you look so worried as you sit there speaking about a possible way out of this cold cell. I could sign the document allowing the King to marry his mistress, but deny my consent in my heart. That is dishonest. What would people say? That Thomas More had finally given way on the very subject that had led to his fall from office and that had led to this cell in the Tower of London? What example would that be? Even if others have signed, I cannot. Neither could Bishop John Fisher. It was just this morning that, as I looked from this tiny window, I saw him being led out on his journey towards Tyburn. I watched him leave through Traitor’s gate, and as the barge disappeared from view, I reflected that never was there a man who was less of a traitor than he. My heart is breaking that, in this country of England, such a saintly old man is put to death for following his conscience.

I, too, will die, but I am far from being a saint. I am afraid of death. I would choose any loophole if it would save me from the executioner’s block whilst not denying my conscience. It is an agony beyond anything that I can bear to see my beloved family reduced to poverty simply because I cannot find that loophole that would allow me to sign the document without denying my God. One man. One wife. That is the way God made us. He did not create us to drop one wife when convenient in order to take up another. That is why I cannot sign.

My dearest Meg, do you remember when you were a child and had committed some misdemeanour, that I would beat you with a feather? I could not bear to cause you hurt. I could not bear to see you denied an education merely because you were a girl. I know of no other woman who can speak and write Latin as fluently as you. You are a highly intelligent, wonderful daughter, so please use a bit of your cleverness now and see that what you are asking is impossible. It is causing me more pain because I must deny you when, God knows, I long to be back with the family.

Leave me, Meg. Go and marry Will Roper. I know that you have given your hearts to each other. He is a fine young man even if he still has some growing-up to do. He is still a bit hot-headed, but with your unwavering love and support, he will make you a good husband and will be a loving father to your children.

Leave me, Meg, even if it breaks my heart to see you go. I appreciate that your words are an attempt to save my life and I know that, deep down, you knew that this would be a vain attempt but one you would make in any case. Deny Him, Meg, I cannot, even though it leaves me faint and afraid.

Go, my beloved daughter, live your life as I must lay down my own.

"Mistrust him, Meg, will I not, though I feel me faint, yea, and though I should feel my fear even at point to overthrow me too, yet shall I remember how Saint Peter, with a blast of wind, began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray him to help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand unto me, and in the stormy seas, hold me up from drowning. Yea and if he suffer me to play Saint Peter further, and to fall full to the ground, and swear and forswear too (which our Lord for his tender passion keep me from, and let me lose if it so fall and never win thereby): yet after shall I trust that his goodness will cast upon me his tender piteous eye, as he did upon Saint Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh, and abide the shame and the harm here of mine own fault.

"And finally, Margaret, this I know well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall therefore with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he suffer me for my faults to perish, yet shall I then serve for a praise of his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy. And therefore mine own good daughter, never trouble thy mind for anything that ever shall hap me in this world. Nothing can come but that that God will. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet

PS The last two paragraphs are taken from St. Thomas More's final letter to Meg

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bernadette looks back

I honestly was not thinking about appearances as I walked back from the grotto. My mother was annoyed with me, saying that people had laughed at me, making made rude remarks, but I did not hear a single thing. That is honestly true. My mind was just so caught up in everything that had happened that nothing else registered. I cannot even remember walking through the town. I suppose I must have done so because I found myself at home and I certainly did not fly!

So much has happened since we went to the grotto at Massabielle. I was feeling breathless and so stayed behind whilst my sister Toinette and her friend Jeanne gathered firewood. We did not want me to have another asthma attack, especially away from home, so none of us wanted me to wade through the bitterly cold waters of the River Gave.

That was when I first saw the Lady. She was so beautiful: slim, dressed in white and wearing a blue sash of such an exquisite blue it might have been cut from a piece of the sky itself. She spoke to me with a voice that reminded me of the breeze sighing through the leaves, or of a lark soaring into the heavens and signing as it flies. The time passed by in an instant and suddenly, there was the bare rock once again.

I saw the Lady eighteen times in all. The Abbé told me that I must ask her name, but she would not tell me that immediately. He was afraid that I was seeing an apparition of the Devil, but I knew that the Devil could never fill me with such a sense of peace and happiness. In any case, can you imagine Satan wanting to pray the Rosary? Never!

It was when I saw the Lady for the ninth time that she told me to drink from the spring near the river. I knew that there was no water there, that there was just a bare rock upon which I had sat on many occasions, but there was something about her words that made me long to obey her.

I remember climbing up the rock and then scraping the ground with my finger. A little water welled up, which the Lady instructed me to drink. It was rather muddy, so I discarded the first three handfuls and only drank the fourth. It was rather muddy. I have no idea for how long afterwards that I remained at the grotto. It seemed as though it was only a moment. The Lady disappeared and I went home. It was as simple as that as far as I was concerned, except that people saw my muddy face and laughed. I was completely unaware that I had mud on my face. My only thought was of the beautiful Lady. I love her so much.

It was exactly one month later that, in response to my repeated requests on behalf of the Abbé and from the bishop, the Lady finally told me her name. They seemed overawed and were speechless. “I am the Immaculate Conception.” I really do not understand the importance of those words. How could I? I am just a simple peasant girl from Lourdes. Whatever she calls herself, she will always be my Lady and I will always love her dearly.

My Lady, I love you so much.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Francis reflects on the Lady Clare

Her hair lies in my hand. It is beautiful: long, blonde and gently curling. It was both a joy and a pain to cut it. Yet now, her hair is in my hand and her shorn head covered with a veil. It is a sign to all the world that the Lady Clare has chosen to dedicate her life to God, that she has rejected the wealth and the nobility that were hers until a few minutes ago, and still could be should she regret the step that she has taken.

Yet I believe that something very rare and beautiful has happened, something that I find hard to put into words. I truly believe that God has touched her heart and has called her to himself. I truly believe that God has asked her to count everything as loss compared to the true riches of knowing and loving him.

Clare’s heart is like a garden filled almost to bursting with beautiful flowers. I can think of no better description, for what is more lovely than a flower…or birdsong…or the sun…or the moon…? It is difficult to draw an exact comparison because if I reflect on one aspect of Creation that speaks to me of my Lord, I think of another which is just as beautiful in its own way. Is it not amazing the way in which the whole of the Universe is merely a reflection, and a poor one at that, of the Father who made them?

I confess to feeling somewhat confused. How could I have dreamed that in my own following of the Crucified and in falling in love with my dearest Lady Poverty, that others would be drawn to a similar path? I had never planned to attract followers, especially not someone like the Lady Clare, and yet, if I think of the magnetic wonder of the words of my Lord, how could others not feel drawn to him? If the Lord is choosing me as an instrument, then so be it, but he has certainly chosen the weakest, humblest, smallest and most unworthy tool in his entire collection.

Lady Clare. If I think of her, I also think of my beloved Lady Poverty. Are the two one and the same? No, for Lady Poverty was with Jesus even on the Cross. When he was fastened there, so was she. If anybody was truly Lady Poverty, then who could match his mother? Yet Lady Poverty was even more than she, much as she was uniquely blessed. Whereas Mary’s heart was with Jesus on the Cross, Lady Poverty was holding her in her embrace and, at the same time, was entirely nailed to the Cross with her Lord, pierced by the same nails, experiencing the same sense of destitution and rejection by the very ones whom he had loved so dearly.

Yet Clare also has a feeling for Poverty. If she did not, then how else could she have left her family and all the comforts of her station?

Now, as I kneel before the Crucified here, in the little church of San Damiano, I remember the moment when he spoke to me and told me to rebuild his Church, which, as I could see, was falling into disrepair. At the time, I thought he meant only to find stones to replace those that had fallen to the ground or had been carted off for other purposes.

If the Lord is sending me followers whom I have not sought, is he perhaps asking for something different? If he is calling others to search for him in the company of Lady Poverty and has even called the Lady Clare, what is he saying? Is he inviting us to something beyond a physical building? Is he calling us to a deeper union with him through the Gospel? How do we find out what he is saying? How do we follow him on a path that is untrodden but on which he has also blazed the trail?

Lord, teach me what I should do. Teach us to be open to all that you are telling us in our hearts.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clare considers her future

He is just a young man from the other side of Assisi, a failed soldier, a youth who has helped to build the defensive walls around the city in order to protect us from the attacks of the Perugians. We have never even spoken to each other. We are of a different class altogether: he, the son of a merchant and I, the daughter of an ancient noble family. Yet why do I feel so drawn to all that he says and does? Why do I find myself listening to the gossip of the servants and of the visitors who pass by our house? Why do I find myself hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he walks through the town, dressed as a beggar and asking for stones to rebuild the ruined church of San Damiano, some distance down the hillside? Why do I find myself walking in that direction, often without planning to do so, but my feet seeming to have a will of their own?

The tapestry needle has fallen still in my hands, which are also now motionless on my lap. My thoughts are far from the design that I have been creating for so long.

It is strange. Even a young girl such as I, hidden within the care of my family, could not but hear of the young man, Francesco Bernadone. I heard the story of how he went out to fight a battle, dressed in costly armour, and then returned without even drawing his sword to fight. There were so many critics who called him a coward and bade him to put his money where his mouth was, for before he set off, he had long been boasting of his aim to become a famous knight.

Yet he did put his money exactly where his mouth was: he stripped himself naked in the Square and returned his fine clothes to his father. “Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernadone ‘father’. From henceforth I have only one Father: God”. I heard of how the bishop covered Francesco with his own cloak.

The townsfolk were scandalised. Even Bernadone’s enemies felt pity for him when they saw the anguish in his face. As for the Lady Pica, there was not a woman in Assisi who did not want to embrace her to soothe her heartbroken sobbing.

Yet, although I also felt the agony of the parents, there was something about Francesco’s gesture that made me long to follow him and do the same. Not, of course, to stand in the Square in my nakedness, but, yes, for my heart and soul to be naked, open before the Lord who also seems to be calling me to something I cannot yet define. There is something about the actions of Francesco that fan to a burning brightness the little ember that has been burning inside my own heart.

What should I do? I cannot follow Francesco into the woods. What would people say? Yet, at the same time, when he speaks of having fallen in love with Lady Poverty, he makes me think of my Lord, who was truly poor and who was so tender and caring to all those who were suffering.

I have tried to do all those things that I feel my Lord would be asking of me. I take food from the kitchens in order to feed the lepers. I send food down to Francesco and his companions as they work at San Damiano. I try to be kind and charitable to all. I spend long hours in prayer and yet I still feel as though I have done absolutely nothing with my life. Somehow it is as if God is not satisfied with my efforts. It is as if, until now, I have only given him a part of myself whereas he wants my whole heart and my whole soul.

What should I do? Would it help if I were to speak with Francesco? Would he accept me as a follower as he travels towards the Lord? How would he advise me? He has fallen in love with his Lady Poverty and has divested himself of everything except his desire for total unity with her. Francesco would understand. My heart belongs to God. I want my body and soul to also belong totally within the loving embrace of my Lord.

Will Jesus speak to me through the words of Francesco?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The last lotus

This following story, taken from the poem ‘Fruit-Gathering’ by the Indian poet Tagore, is something I found so beautiful that I had to share it. It might not be Christian, but as with so much of his work, it is so easily Christianised.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sudâs, the gardener, plucked from his tank the last lotus left by the ravage of winter and went to sell it to the king at the palace gate.

There he met a traveller who said to him, "Ask your price for the last lotus, -I shall offer it to Lord Buddha."

Sudâs said, "If you pay one golden coin it will be yours.

The traveller paid it.

At that moment the king came out and he wished to buy the flower, for he was on his way to see Lord Buddha, and he thought, "It would be a fine thing to lay at his feet the lotus that bloomed in winter."

When the gardener said he had been offered a golden coin the king offered him ten, but the traveller doubled the price.

The gardener, being greedy, imagined a greater gain from him for whose sake they were bidding. He bowed and said, "I cannot sell this lotus."

In the hushed shade of the mango grove beyond the city wall Sudâs stood before Lord Buddha, on whose lips sat the silence of love and whose eyes beamed peace like the morning star of the dew-washed autumn.

Sudâs looked in his face and put the lotus at his feet and bowed his head to the dust.

Buddha smiled and asked, "What is your wish, my son?"

Sudâs cried, "The least touch of your feet."

Monday, November 05, 2007

Still the same

Its ceilings and walls are covered with symbols that would be recognised only by the Christians who slipped into the villa from the street. From the outside, nobody would know that the house was used as a church. Images of twisting vines, baskets of bread and fish, doves carrying olive twigs, dolphins and anchors, a banquet, a typically Roman matron with her son on her lap, a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders, flowing streams, men collecting rainwater as it poured down in torrents from the sky, a group of seated people eating an al fresco picnic of bread and fish… who would know that each was a symbol with a meaning that today, two thousand years after they were first painted, we still have not plummeted to the depths?

Situated on the perimeter of the Forum, was this house church active when Peter and Paul were imprisoned in the Mamertine, literally only a seven-minute walk away? Might the owners of this house have been amongst the very first recipients of Paul’s letters, written in that same prison? Might they have been responsible for preparing and delivering food to the incarcerated Apostles? Was this a house where the Apostles themselves were familiar guests? Did Peter and Paul drink water from the two wells still clearly visible (and functional if their protective covers were to be removed)?

Before ever there was the freedom to build churches, this was one of the houses where the remains of martyrs were brought and kept with love: Philip, James, Denis… That is why the church that, today, houses the villa is more than worthy of its name of The Most Holy Twelve Apostles (Sanctissimi Dodici Apostoli), for how many left this house only to find themselves prisoners and the intended victims in the Colosseum, a mere half-mile away? How many came here to find some comfort after their friends and relatives received a death sentence and were executed after unspeakable torture?

How many non-Christian visitors to the house would have realised that they were seeing scenes of the Good Shepherd, whose death on the Cross was too horrible for the early Church to portray? Would they have known that before their eyes was a scene of the feeding of the Five Thousand, or the Living Water that had come down from Heaven? The Last Supper, especially with only seven men gathered around the table (seven being a ‘perfect’ number with mystical significance) would have been beyond their understanding.

But what about the woman and the baby? That was easy even for a pagan to understand – or was it? There are two images in which the woman and her son are identical except for size. Both are clad in white robes on which a broad blue band extends vertically from shoulder to hem, and yet, even then, there is a difference. These are not mere pictures: they are statements of faith in the Incarnation. It is not a coincidence that the smaller of the two scenes shows the mother and child receiving caskets of gifts from three foreigners… the Magi? This is a very, very early Nativity scene!

Neither is it a coincidence that the larger picture is merely a handspan above the altar under which were placed the remains of the martyr, Denis, in an alcove in which one or two of the tombstones are marked with the strange (to an outsider) markings of a palm, a dove or a chi-rho.

The artists died centuries ago, never knowing that their devotional images, providing not only decoration but also instruction to the illiterate, would also teach us, the continuity of all that we believe today. The Gospel stories are unmistakably there for us to see in freedom and without fear of our lives. Their narratives also show us something else that is intrinsic to life today.

From the very earliest days of Christianity, a woman was honoured only in second place to her Son. A woman was deliberately painted over the tombs of martyrs even if they were men who had died. A woman is shown receiving tribute on behalf of her Son, a woman who, in a marginally older fresco on the other side of Rome, is shown, again over an altar in her honour, receiving food and drink from the midwives who had just helped her give birth to a Son.

Mary, you were there, at the very beginning of the Church, giving hope and courage in the face of unspeakable risks. Be with us today. Two thousand years later, we still need a mother.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Walk on the path and look upwards, through the branches, through the leaves of the trees along the way. See the blueness of the sky pierce the gaps, the sun reflect on the leaves as they shimmer in the breeze and there is the mirrored face of the Lord who created them. Watch as, through the year, the stark twigs gradually become green, slowly mantled in loveliness, a beauty that changes as the days and the months go by. The colour of early Spring is not that of Midsummer, or even that which hints at the forthcoming hues of Autumn. The russet and gold that, sun-kissed, set the hillsides on fire with their majestic tones, themselves give way to the bareness of Winter once more.

Yet, in each tree, is God. The tree is not God, but it is his messenger.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Listen to the silence, the real silence, born through a quietened heart. It is not without sound. There is the melody of the birdsong, each species with its own unique melody. Sometimes it is a chorus, occasionally, a solo. It is always a harmony, so that even the raucous crow plays its part. In the silence is a quietness that grows ever deeper until it pierces the soul. The universe becomes the song of feathered minstrels, most of them unseen.

In each bird is God, yet God is not the birds, which are merely his creations. Their orchestra is his messenger.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Stroll down to the water’s edge and watch the ripples catch the sunlight or the moonlight. Sunbeams and moonbeams dance on the surface, so utterly free that they fill the vastness of the sky, yet can still be trapped by a ripple and thereby bring heaven to earth. The sun and the moon both create their pathways on the water, and yet, if a foot is outstretched to tread their gold and silver, they disappear. Their roads are intangible, but they lead, unwaveringly, to a distant horizon by a path that always travels from the very point at which you stand, gazing at their loveliness. A moonbeam and a sunbeam can never appear together. One is of the night and the other of the day. One is gentle, the other pulsing with energy. Both embrace their own truth, touching the heart in their own unique way.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

Look inside, past the clutter of daily life, to all that is most real. There, in the midst of your deepest longings, the loveliness of your beautiful qualities and talents placed there by a loving God, nurtured in the silence and solitude of stillness, that is where God is to be found. Perhaps you have had your difficulties in life, but whereas there have been the failures, there have also been the successes, perhaps unseen even by you. Yet God has witnessed them and has, through the stumbling and the efforts to make a new start, has drawn you even closer to himself.

Who would have thought that God could be found so easily?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Friday, November 02, 2007

Right to life, right to die

Many people used to stop by my computer to look at the picture I had on the desktop. I was not surprised. I liked it myself, which is why I put it there in the first place.

The black and white picture showed a very new baby, held up in the air by two hands: that of its mother and father. The infant sucked its thumb, even in its sleep. Just above its little chest, a light glowed softly. The hands and the light seemed to say that there were three people involved in the little life, curled up in peaceful sleep: its mother, father and God.

Yet sometimes the wonder of life is trivialised in a world where so much is disposable that human life can also be put onto the rubbish heap.

Working as a midwife, mine was the privilege of being the very first person ever to have seen the baby emerging from its mother. There was a uniquely special feeling of being ‘in’ on the act of Creation. One of the most unforgettable joys of my life was when an unborn baby took hold of my finger and refused to let go.
Unfortunately, I had to release my finger from the tiny hand. After all, the baby had to be born and its hand was in the way, even if infinitely precious and in spite of my wanting to treasure that moment of closeness.

We hear a great deal today about the “abortion issue” and “the right to die debate”. Life is not an issue or a debate. Those who are doing all the talking can sometimes forget that they are only able to voice their opinions because they themselves are alive and that someone loved them into being.

Thank God that there are those who are willing to stand up for the defenceless.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, November 01, 2007

‘Viva Christo Re!’

It was a chance remark that was not a chance. A Cuban Jesuit remarked that one of the 498 martyrs beatified last Sunday was a Cuban seminarian studying in Spain at the time when approximately 7,000, including two bishops, were killed in the country’s convents, religious institutions and seminaries.

“He was given the chance of returning to Cuba, but he said that he wanted to stay with his professors and fellow students even if it meant being killed. As he died, he flung up his arms and shouted, ‘Viva Christo Re!’”

“Long live Christ the King!”

This seminarian, whose name I do not know, was so young. How was it that in the few short years that were given him, he reached the point of welcoming martyrdom, turning down the possibility of safety in favour of staying with others whom he knew would also be martyrs? In the inevitable fear of the last few moments of his existence on earth, how did he possess such complete confidence in his Lord that his final words were a declaration of the importance of Jesus, not only in his own life, but, as Christ the King, also important to the whole world?

The decision to remain in Spain during a period of religious persecution, especially when given the chance of freedom and security in his own country, was one that was made in the cold, clear light of reason. Nobody makes such a choice on the spur of the moment. Nobody in their right mind chooses to throw away their own life when it is full of meaning and promise.

Did the young man not think that, if he were to return to Cuba, he could reach his already declared goal of priesthood? Did he not, even briefly, visualise the day of his ordination and imagine himself offering the Eucharist to the people who would attend his Mass? Did he not think of his family, friends and those whom he loved, whom he would not see again in this life?

Of course all those thoughts went through his mind, because if they had not, then he was no martyr: he was a fool who discarded his life in somebody else’s cause. If he were not fully aware of the consequences of his choice, then it was mindless. It was a waste, not a sacrifice, of his young life. He would have stayed with his companions, not because of solidarity in faith and commitment, but because he had followed the herd instinct that we see in cattle or sheep. He did not stay because he was unafraid because courage does not mean fearlessness. Courage means doing what is right in spite of fear. The reckless are not brave.

The decision to stay and face death was made in the cold, clear light of day. The young man did not choose to die, but if death were the consequence of a life given to his Lord, then so be it.

The new Blesseds died such a short time ago in 1936. Their relatives and friends were amongst the 70,000 in St. Peter’s Square. What were their thoughts? How many of the thousands present would have chosen to act in the same way as the young seminarian? We do not know. The vast majority of us will never be put to that sort of test. We are, however, all called to give our lives for Christ the King. That is why today is the feast of All Saints, those living and those who have died and have gone home before us.

‘Viva Christo Re!’

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

5th Glorious Mystery: The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven (Mary)

I am still only a young girl from Nazareth. I never sought any honour for myself, never looked for any of the honours that have been heaped upon me.

Never will I forget the days of my youth, of the laughter around the well as my mother drew water or chatted with her friends. It was a task that was soon to be my own for no household can survive without water and those brief moments in the middle of the village are the precious times for all women. They are the opportunities for a short rest from the daily routine of caring for the house and family, an occasion to meet friends, exchange news and share a lifetime of togetherness, for every woman knows every other woman in a small village such as Nazareth. Our lives are inextricably entwined. That is why village life is a wonderful strength and support, but when something goes wrong, the gossip can be unending and unendurable.

I felt great sorrow for my mother in that brief period before Joseph and I married. The women could see that I was pregnant, but if it was something that my mother had found hard to accept at first, so did the people in the village. There was the inevitable gossip. There were the snide comments that both my mother and I found hurtful. After all, neither of us could say what had happened. I could not tell the world that I had been visited by an angel. Joseph could not face the menfolk of Nazareth, telling them that he was not the father of my baby. I would have been stoned to death as an adulterer because, as Joseph and I were already betrothed, we were as solemnly bound to each other as if we were married.

Life became easier once Joseph and I were married. People then presumed that my baby was also his. The gossip soon died away as we lived the life of an ordinary married couple, with me looking after the house and Joseph continuing his work as a carpenter.

…and then Jesus came along. Yes, the journey to Bethlehem was difficult, especially as I went into labour and gave birth to Jesus in a stable, but the innkeeper’s wife was very kind to us whilst we were there. Even as we escaped into Egypt, knowing that we were trying to escape from Herod, as we passed by the inn, she ran out, pressing food into Joseph’s hand.

Joseph and I were happy to return to Nazareth from Egypt. By then, Jesus was walking. He was such a happy child, a real treasure. We loved watching him take his first steps, stumble and fall, and then pick himself up again. Yes, there were tears if he hurt himself, but what toddler learns to walk without a few bumps and bruises?

It was not long before Jesus was a boy, playing with his friends, accompanying us to the synagogue, ‘helping’ Joseph in his workshop, finding countless ways to satisfy his lively intelligence and abundant energy.

Then Joseph died. Jesus became the head of the household and so it was his job to lead the mourning for the man who had been everything that a father should have been to him. Nobody would ever have known that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. He was such a caring, loving, wonderful, man. We loved him so much. I thought I would never come to terms with not having him at my side…

I had always known that Jesus would grow to manhood and would move away from Nazareth, following the path that his Father had chosen for him. My life was often lonely in his absence, especially when I heard of both, the joys and the sorrows of those three years. I cannot begin to describe what his arrest, crucifixion and death meant to me, cannot begin to express the agony of that day, an agony that left a lasting mark even when I had seen him after his resurrection.

…and now, Jesus and I are together again, forever. Joseph and I are together again, forever. Heaven is togetherness.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

4th Glorious Mystery: The Assumption (St. John)

I am not sure what I should think. I was present on the top of the mountain when Jesus, having talked to us for some time, gradually began to ascend towards heaven and, slowly but surely, disappeared from view. An angel asked us why we were staring into the sky after One who was no longer with us on the earth, but I ask you, what would you have done in the same situation? You would have been staring, too. Nothing in the whole history of the human race has ever equalled the event that we witnessed.

…and now, there is something else that has happened that is just as strange.

Mary has been living in my house ever since Jesus died on the Cross. She has looked after me as a mother, and I have cared for her as a son. That was what Jesus asked of both of us, but I am very certain that we did not need to be asked. We would have cared for each other in any case because of our special relationship with Jesus. How could I not take his mother into my home and do for her all that Jesus could not? Knowing that I was bereft at the death of Jesus, Mary, as the wonderful mother that she is, saw that my pain was merely an echo of her own. No mother wants to see a child die as hers did, and so she took it into her head that she would ease my own suffering by taking it upon herself.

Then there was that amazing moment when we saw Jesus in the Upper Room and heard him speak once more. That was a delight beyond anything that I can ever describe. He had been truly dead. Mary and I had both seen that and we were there as he was placed in the tomb, so we knew that we were not losing our minds or imagining things that were merely products of our fevered imaginations. Jesus was really and truly with us and stayed with us for the following forty days.

Of course we felt lonely when Jesus left us and ascended into heaven. You would have felt just as we did. You would have been as reinvigorated and changed as we were when the Holy Spirit came and sat upon our heads in the form of parted tongues of flame.

Mary lived in my home for some years. We moved from time to time, but that was inevitable, especially when it was necessary to avoid some of the persecutions that were inflicted upon those of us who chose to follow Jesus. I was perfectly prepared to suffer the same fate as the other Apostles, but I wanted to keep Mary safe and so I avoided some of the worst troubles. Not that I escaped without any incident. After all, they did try throwing me in boiling oil at the Porta Latina in Rome, but I was unhurt and managed to escape yet again.

…but I am digressing. My confusion is because having seen the ascension of Jesus into heaven, I think I have just seen something similar insofar as, a few minutes ago, Mary was plainly dying. It was peaceful and serene, but she was dying. I watched as she drew her last breath. Yet now, instead of her beloved body, there is an empty bed and the fragrance of roses. Just as I watched Jesus ascend, so I have just seen Mary imitate her Son, even in this.

Is it any wonder that I am confused?

God bless,
Sr. Janet