Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Martyrs of Korea

They are slightly dusty, but perhaps that is inevitable, neatly folded in a cupboard as they are. The scarlet tunics are not quite as red as they should be. What would be seen were they to be unfolded for all to see?

The ivory-coloured tunic is slightly grey. Does the patina of dust come through the locked cupboard door, which was never made to be air and dust proof? Who wore those tiny shoes? Did they belong to a child, perhaps only four or five years old? Was the same small individual the owner of both the slippers and the ivory satin tunic with its mandarin collar? Did they belong to St. Peter Yu Tae-chol, strangled in prison at the age of thirteen on October 31st, 1839?

What about the ‘much-loved’ rosary, tired and grey, heaped in one corner? At what stage was it separated from its owner?

...and the two ropes, carefully wound into a tidy knot. They look as though they were new...perhaps only used on one occasion? The dark brown shackles say nothing. Were they witness to more than we can ever imagine? What of the ring made of thick rope, the hole in its centre little more than the width of my clenched fist? Its greasy appearance is ominous, but in what way was it used?

These few mementoes, treasured in the chapel upstairs as I write, are tangible contacts with some of the Korean martyrs. The Catholic community suffered major persecutions in the years 1839, 1846 and 1866, producing at least 8,000 known martyrs. Among them were the fervent Korean priest Andrew Kim Taegŏn and the Korean lay catechist Paul Chŏng Hasang. The vast majority of the martyrs were simple lay people, including men and women, married and single, old and young. 79 martyrs of Korea were beatified in 1925 and 24 more were beatified in 1968 and the combined 103 martyrs have been canonized as saints, in 1984, with feast day September 20. Many of them experienced horrific torture before their equally agonising executions. Currently, Korea has the 4th largest number of saints in the Catholic world.

St. Andrew Kim Taegŏn wrote his last letter to his parish as he awaited martyrdom with a group of twenty persons:

"My dear brothers and sisters, know this: Our Lord Jesus Christ upon descending into the world took innumerable pains upon and constituted the holy Church through his own passion and increases it through the passion of its faithful....
Now, however, some fifty or sixty years since holy Church entered into our Korea, the faithful suffer persecutions again. Even today persecution rages, so that many of our friends of the same faith, among whom am I myself, have been thrown into prison, just as you also remain in the midst of persecution. Since we have formed one body, how can we not be saddened in our innermost hearts? How can we not experience the pain of separation in our human faculties?
However, as Scripture says, God cares for the least hair of our heads, and indeed he cares with his omniscience; therefore, how can persecution be considered as anything other than the command of God, or his prize, or precisely his punishment?...
We are twenty here, and thanks be to God all are still well. If anyone is killed, I beg you not to forget his family. I have many more things to say, but how can I express them with pen and paper? I make an end to this letter. Since we are now close to the struggle, I pray you to walk in faith, so that when you have finally entered into Heaven, we may greet one another. I leave you my kiss of love."

...but some of them left behind tangible links in the form of clothing, ropes, shackles, a rosary...

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On Marriage

One of my best-loved poets is the mystic, Kahlil Gibran. His book, ‘The Prophet’, is one that I have carried in my heart for many years. It is not one that can be read in one sitting: it has to be savoured and treasured.
Today I thought I would share with you one of his many beautiful reflections, that on marriage. Whether or not one is married, this poem has a loveliness that can still be cherished.
God bless,
Sr. Janet

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The place of the possible

“The place of the possible” That might well describe Rome, especially where the roots of Christianity are concerned. All that is needed is a basic knowledge of the way in which human beings function in ordinary daily life.

For instance, if Peter and Paul were together in Rome for a period of time, it is perfectly possible that, at some stage, they said goodbye to each other. It is equally possible that they were escorted by at least one of their early companions. It is equally possible, because it’s the way in which our minds function, that the early Church remembered the exact spot at which the two men parted and also that it was the last time that they were together before their capture and execution. It is, therefore, not impossible that, when it was safe to do so, a small memorial of that event was put in place to remind people, including those of future generations, that ‘this place is special, and here’s why’.

That is why, walking home one evening whilst I was still in Rome, and thinking of nothing in particular, I was brought to a sudden halt. The stone plaque on the wall, too distant to be seen clearly from the bus, even in a traffic jam, commemorated that very goodbye! Apparently there had originally even been a small church on the same site, long since replaced by modern and extremely ugly industrial buildings. Yet, in that small plaque, Peter and Paul embraced each other for the last time, on the very spot at which their paths diverged.

What was it like? Did they know that they wouldn’t see each other again? Were they scared, even though they knew that they were walking in the same steps as Jesus of Nazareth? Did Paul know that he was almost exactly, to the very yard, at the mid-point of two of his future significant locations? One was the start of his chained journey to the Via Appia and subsequent execution at the spot now known as Tre Fontane. The other was his burial site, then the ordinary cemetery on the Via Ostiense and now marked by the magnificent basilica of St. Paul’s outside-the-walls.

When Peter and Paul said goodbye to each other, which road did they take? Did Peter travel along the Via Ostiense towards Ostia and the Christian community in that thriving seaside port, or did he take some other route?

Did Paul retrace his steps back into the city, along the Via Mamorata and Lungotevere, bypassing the Forum and the Coliseum? Presumably he passed through the city gate, now known as the Porta San Paolo because of its associations with him. What were his thoughts as he walked? He must have known that the tide was turning ever more strongly against him and the early followers of his Lord. He knew that, sooner or later, his persistence in preaching the Gospel would create enemies strong enough to demand his execution. As a Roman citizen, he could be beheaded and so wouldn’t suffer the appalling agony and indignity of crucifixion, but was he scared? His faith would see him through to the end, but did he wonder whether or not the axe would hurt him, or whether death would be instantaneous?

As Paul walked past the Mamertime prison, did he remember his time (according to tradition) with Peter, incarcerated in its cold darkness, a cold so penetrating that, in one of his letters, he asked Timothy to collect his cloak and bring it along for him to use? He wouldn’t have foreseen the huge numbers of tourists who would, in subsequent centuries, visit his cell and try to visualise themselves in his place. He wouldn’t have known that, within a relatively short time, Peter, Simon, Jude, Barnabas, Philip, James and Matthias would also be buried in Rome and that pilgrims would visit the tombs in gratitude for the legacy left by the Apostles.

Rome. The place of the possible. Is it possible that, whilst filled with hope and confidence in his Risen Lord, Paul was also afraid of his own Calvary? Wouldn’t that have been very human? Doesn’t this make our own anxieties for the future a very normal part of life?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Golden Oldies

When did you last listen to some ‘Golden Oldies’?

Just by way of an interesting exercise, try listening to some of the many songs that emerged from the days of the Musicals. If you do so, you’ll find that even some of the saddest songs still manage to have tunes that can be hummed or sung at moments when sad thoughts could not be further from one’s mind.

What of the singers themselves? Did they always feel as though they were bursting for joy when singing that ‘June is bursting out all over’ or ‘Oh what a beautiful morning!’ or ‘I’m singin’ in the rain’? Did they sometimes put on an act so that they were actually saying to the world, ‘Smile, though your heart be breaking’? At a moment of proclaiming that ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’, were there also, perhaps, a few seconds when the singer might have felt that ‘Pore Jud is dead’ might have been more appropriate?

There is something about a song that conveys a meaning much deeper than its mere words or melody. If this were not so, why would we have songs that we somehow associate with people and places, with moods and events?

How often do we acknowledge that there are times when it is ‘the singer, not the song’, that is important? On other occasions, the singer is unimportant because of the message that is conveyed in the melody.

What if the ‘Meistersinger’ is God? What is the song that he is singing to me and within me at this moment? Is there is a difference between God and his song? Is not his song also his Word?

Could it be that God’s song is actually Jesus? Do I listen to God singing Jesus into my life?

What song could I sing to him that would speak most truly of who he is to me at this very moment?

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Monday, May 19, 2008

To judge or not to judge?

During my time in Australia, I took several groups of Year 10 students to sit in during a Magistrate's court session, giving them the chance to see justice in action. It was interesting and a bit frightening.

One man, obviously guilty of growing cannabis in his yard, was released because he had a good lawyer and because the police cameraman ran out of film. A young lad was found guilty of carrying a dangerous weapon (actually a hacksaw blade) and was sentenced because, whether or not he deserved his sentence, his lawyer couldn't be bothered putting up a fight. He looked frightened, whereas the cannabis grower really couldn't have cared less and would probably go from one crime to a bigger one.

Then there were those who were guilty of traffic offences. Most of those people were highly embarrassed and couldn't wait to leave the court. It was easy to imagine that their main concern was whether or not their name would appear in the newspapers and tarnish their reputation... and so the sessions continued.

When someone is convicted of a crime, whether or not, in actual fact, they really were guilty, the sentence might be handed down to the defendant, but it is also imposed on the family, who go through their own private hell, especially if they are innocent of any crime. Such people do not have the experience of the genuine criminals and therefore have no resources to call into operation. Where the guilty are devious, the innocent are confused, frightened and alone. The media, in search of a story, turn a bad dream into a nightmare.

Jesus said, "Judge not, and you will not be judged."

How often, in the course of a single day, am I judge and jury? How often do I pass sentence, perhaps without knowing the full story? How often do I gossip about someone's errors, causing the story to grow in the telling? Do I ever leave someone in their misery, precisely because I can't be bothered to defend an action that might not have been as serious as others might believe? Do I ever cause the innocent to suffer, just because they have been associated with a person whom I have condemned? Do I offer support, or do I leave them broken-hearted and not knowing where to turn? Do I ever make excuses for an individual, trying to see their point of view before I pass judgement?

...and if a person really is guilty and deserving of punishment, do I practise mercy?

As Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice we all must see salvation,
We all do pray for mercy
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 18, 2008

We can still pray

The day before yesterday, as I walked home from work, I overtook a couple walking in the same direction. For a brief moment, it was inevitable that I overheard some of their conversation. At the time, I had no idea of what they were talking and paid no attention…and then I saw the news on television. It was then that I realised that the woman had just witnessed a man slip to his death between two train carriages as he tried to retrieve the presents he’d bought for his wife and son and then accidentally left on the train as he jumped from his seat on arriving at the station.

Also, at this time, the news is full of the sights and sounds of China. Gone are the grumbles about human rights, Olympic Games and the countries through which the Olympic flame travelled. Suddenly, we hear of a desperate race against time as the country is mobilised towards the earthquake zone. We see miraculous rescues and distraught families, electricity in Chengdu and rubble outside this important city. There is a tragedy that is too big for the human mind to encompass. We reach a stage when numbers become almost impersonal simply because something beyond our imagination and experience has taken place within the past few days and, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The human mind cannot take too much suffering.”

Not far away, in Myanmar, there are staggeringly high numbers of people who are displaced, starving, homeless and grieving for whole families, entire towns and villages that, only days ago, were thriving and busy. Stories of suffering, frustration, anger, grief and indifference abound. We know so little and can do even less. My own contacts with the country during the course of the week have all ended in the same way: “Please, just pray for us.”

We travel across the globe to Zimbabwe, where injustice, brutality and hardship have become the order of the day…

There are so many people who need our prayers at this present time, so many who need our love. Huge numbers are grieving over the loss of those they have loved and still love, but who have been abruptly taken away or are suffering beyond their capacity. We can do so little, but we can pray, whoever and wherever we are, for people who are in desperate need of God’s comfort and support at this time.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The numbers game

….except that it is not a game. It is a tragedy beyond anything that most of us can conceive.

During the past few days, we’ve heard a great deal about the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. Today we heard that there might be another cyclone heading towards Myanmar.

For most people, it is difficult to imagine 15,000 individuals, never mind 15,000 bodies, as there are in China, or the 40,000 who are missing. It is even more difficult to ‘see’ the 100,000 who have probably died in Myanmar.

For my part, I use St. Peter’s Square as a convenient measure. When the crowds gather to hear the pope for his weekly General Audience on a Wednesday, or for his Angelus Message on a Sunday, there are usually approximately 50,000 people packed into the Square.

If we add the figures for China and Myanmar, however crude an estimate they might be, then we are speaking of a minimum of 115,000 people who have died during the past few days, or roughly three times the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. There are, roughly, ten times that sized crowd who are missing.

Some of the major Vatican Radio broadcasts, such as at Christmas or Easter, might have as many as 40 million potential listeners, so there must be way in excess of that number who listen to, or watch, the news on radio and television at any one time across the world. I am not a mathematician, but that means that the number of people who have been touched by the suffering in Asia at this present time is in excess of 800 times the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, or ten times the massive crowds who gathered for the funeral of Pope John Paul and for the Inauguration of Pope Benedict. That is a vast mass of humanity, far more than the majority of us can possibly imagine. It is an incredible force of prayer, sympathy, compassion and solidarity for the people of China and Myanmar.

There must have been so many prayers during the past few days, offered silently and also publicly for those who have been caught up in such catastrophic circumstances, circumstances far beyond anything they could ever have imagined would become their own experiences. I am sure that those who died must also be praying for those who survived and for those working to alleviate the suffering.

The world really is a global village if we consider ‘the numbers game’. It is a community in spite of differences of ‘tribe and tongue and people and nation’.

May God grant eternal rest to all those who have died and courage, strength, perseverance and hope to those who remain.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bus stop conversation

A conversation overheard at a bus stop earlier on today, between a young girl, Ashley, aged about 16, and a couple with a baby, went like this:

Girl: How is your little sister?
Ashley: She is 11 now and she is already smoking.
Girl: 11 and already smoking?
Ashley (laughing): Yes. She went out with some friends last night and only came home at 2 o’clock this morning.

Pause for a few moments and some inconsequential chat.

Girl: Every time I hear of you, you have been fighting again.
Ashley: Oh yes, it happens all the time.
Girl: What has happened to your hair? It used to look different.
Ashley (pulling her hair to one side): Look at what it looks like underneath.
Girl: It is missing!
Ashley: Yeah. I was in a fight with a boy and he grabbed a whole clump and pulled it out.
Girl: Wow!
Ashley: Yeah. We were over there (pointing)…. a group of us. We started to fight and he knocked me to the ground and kicked me in the face. My face was all swollen. It was out here (indicating an improbably massive degree of swelling).
Girl: So what did you do?
Ashley: It was okay. One of my friends caught him and pulled him to the ground. I stood on his face because he had trodden on mine…

That was the moment at which the bus arrived, so I heard no more.

Compare this conversation with another that I had recently with a young woman who, with the help of her partner, had found my lost purse containing about £60 which actually was not my money. After a complicated process of locating me, they returned the purse and its contents intact. When I rang her to express my gratitude, she seemed surprised. “But that was the way we were brought up by our parents,” she said. “I know what it is like to lose a purse and so I am just glad that we were able to return it to you.”

Parents would seem to have very different values to pass on to their children. In all probability, most people would prefer to have a daughter or son known for their honesty rather than an ability to stay out at night or to kick someone in the face.

Perhaps some youngsters have not had a chance in life. It is one thing to have a pocket full of money for drink and cigarettes and an entirely different matter to have, perhaps, little money, but an abundance of a love that knows how, on occasion, to be tough.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended

A few minutes ago, three fighter jets flew by the house in close formation. Hopefully, within a few minutes more, there will be another fly past. Will they be the Red Arrows, I wonder? The iconic RAF display team is wonderful to watch, and, at sunset, if they trail the red, white and blue smoke, they will look wonderful as they dart over the Thames, past the Houses of Parliament and circle Buckingham Palace.

There will also be a gun salute which, in the quieter atmosphere of evening, should be in hearing distance, even if the guns will be fired from the battery stand close to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Hopefully, within the space of a single hour, Princes William and Harry will have helped to raise £1 million for those military who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan and who are being treated at the special hospital and rehabilitation unit south of London.

It is a special event, to be sure, but would it not be even more special were it to be declared this evening that war, fighting and bloodshed were to be abolished throughout the world and for ever?

This morning, I had occasion to interview a priest in Myanmar about the terrible tragedy that has devastated the country during the past few days.

Hearing a firsthand account over the telephone was considerably more real than listening to reports on radio or television.

Would it not be wonderful if the world could change and, instead of the power and greed of a few, there could be the generosity and courage of the many leading the way?

Prince of Peace and King of Love, may your kingdom come and not mine.
May your will be done, and not mine.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Repairing roads

Why bother about sleeping? Underneath the window, the Council has come to dig up and repair a road that seemed okay to me less than three hours ago.

The first vehicle was fascinating. It sucked up the tarmac as though it were a starving beast, spewing out the road surface into the truck immediately ahead (and successfully dodging a tree in the process).

Then a second contraption, this time with a large bucket affair to the fore, scraped up any tarmac that had missed its massive predecessor.

Four men, each wearing a luminous yellow jacket marked ‘safety inspector’, performed their inspections. Were they the dreaded Health and Safety Executive? I have no idea, but their eventual departure to the side of the road made it possible for the pneumatic drills to begin working.

The sequence continued with a motorised vacuum cleaner winding backwards and forwards, ahead of a truck laden with rolls of blue-something…

…and then the process began all over again as a second strip of tarmac was removed from the previously intact and innocuous road.

The whole business would be fascinating were it not already quite late at night.

Why is it that some people’s work is never convenient to others? There would be complaints were the road to be closed and resurfaced during the day. There are different complaints when it happens at night. There are some battles that are never won even though they must be fought.

It is all rather like the chiselling away that God does. He does not always mould me into the person he wants me to be at a time that is convenient to my own schedule. He works according to his own timetable, which seems interminable on some occasions and then rather too rapid at others. The trouble is that he is dealing with eternity, which is rather different from our concepts, which are limited to time.

Yet, just as surely as the noisy contraptions outside my window will have, presumably, laid a new road surface by tomorrow morning, even at a measure of cost to those of us who are trapped in its immediate vicinity, so God will work steadily and unendingly until I have become exactly who he knew me to be from all eternity. He does not sleep either!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Cans Festival

Standing at a bus stop one day, I was distracted by a painting on a nearby wall. I did not agree with the theme, but I had to admit to myself that the image of an irate husband and his anxious wife looking out of a window whilst the dishevelled lover dangled by his fingertips from the window ledge, was extraordinarily well drawn. Who on earth had spent the time necessary to paint such a scene, in such an inconvenient location and without being caught?

Unknown to me at the time, I had just spotted a piece of work of the famous and never-seen artist, Banksy.

This weekend, graffiti artists from several countries and, yes, Banksy himself, (or herself??) have exercised their skills on the walls of a short tunnel near Waterloo Station. Cans of spray paint have given birth to the name ‘Cans Festival’ (with no apologies to Cannes!)

Graffiti can be unsightly, but it can also be beautiful.

It was amazing to see a lengthening line of people waiting to see the graffiti for themselves. Some of them would never dream of visiting an art gallery, and yet, there they were, standing patiently and happily for their turn to enter the tunnel. There must have been thousands of photographs taken of images that would otherwise perhaps been dismissed in a different context.

Everybody, in the right context, is an artist capable of creating something beautiful for others to enjoy.

Each and every one of us is God’s own work of art.

That is definitely worth celebrating!

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mayoral musings

Today, London elects its new mayor.

Last night, as I hurried past the Houses of Parliament, through the heavy rain, one of the two men walking towards me, was one of the mayoral candidates. On this occasion, he was not electioneering and was merely deep in conversation with his companion. He appeared exhausted, bedraggled and very human. He had no umbrella and was merely becoming increasingly wet.

Recently, a friend who is ‘in the know’ remarked in a conversation that “Gordon Brown is a thoroughly decent person” but that “it’s not fair because the media does not give him a chance.”

Regardless of Party politics and policies, what is it about our society that automatically puts up someone in public life as one to be pilloried? Somehow there is a tendency to criticise, sometimes cruelly, sometimes unjustly, politicians and celebrities in a way that we would never dare with those who are in our immediate circle. It is almost as though, once an individual ‘goes public’, they lose their humanity and their right to a good name or to personal privacy. If, on the other hand, we are denied the right to criticise, then somebody, somewhere, is acting against ‘our right to free speech’.

When does our exercise of ‘free speech’ become merely a gross lack of charity?

Why do we sometimes allow the media to direct our thinking and acting, so that we, albeit unconsciously, assume their bias as our own without stopping to evaluate the reality of the situation? We speak of a ‘media bandwagon’, see the damage it does, and yet, somehow, fail to push that same media to use its power for good.

In a few minutes time, I will join the large number of people at the polling station. In one sense, it is free and fair. There has been an enormous effort made to portray each candidate in a balanced fashion, such that most voters can list all the good and the bad points of each candidate. I do not intend staying up tonight in order to hear the election results: they will, no doubt, be exhaustively covered by all the media tomorrow morning.

Yet, as I go to cast my own vote, my thoughts are turning back towards one very wet, very tired, mayoral candidate who, whatever his chances, has exhausted himself in the election process. The media did not portray a human being like the rest of us, trying his best to persuade the voting public. He will be covered in glory should he win, although his will be an unenviable responsibility, but, should he lose, who will be there to ease the disappointment and to inspire him to ‘keep on going’?

When does our exercise of ‘free speech’ become merely a gross lack of charity?

God bless,
Sr. Janet