Our Sweetness and Our Hope

“Hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope; to Thee do we cry..”

– from the ‘Salve Regina’

The world awoke today to the sad news that we have reached what is being called ‘a grim milestone’ – we have now passed one million deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus pandemic, with more than 33 million official cases recorded.

Each one of these is a person, a human being, and this number should touch all our hearts. Every one of them has a family and loved ones who are mourning their loss. And there are all those who are presently ill, and those who are fearful for themselves, their loved ones, their livelihoods and their futures.

There is more than a little irony that humanity – with all it’s intelligence and ability, it’s skill and it’s science, it’s self-reliance and it’s pride – has been brought low and humbled by the smallest living organism, a simple virus.

Perhaps this realisation will teach us someting – that we do not always have the answers and that we ourselves are not all powerful, neither individually nor collectively.

Perhaps it will remind us that we need to look far beyond ourselves and toward God, Who alone is all powerful.

There is no doubt that this pandemic has been terribly destructive for human life and for the economies of many nations; and it is making us see that we need to determine what our priorities are, and to make decisive choices based on what we decide. Perhaps it will make us see that we are in the best state when we all work together for the common good, even whilst certain nations have decided to go it alone.

In the Catholic prayer of the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen), we ask the Mother of God to help us, reminding Her we have confidence in Her maternal love for us and in Her powerful intercession before the Lord. Perhaps today is a good time for all of us echo this beautiful and ancient prayer and to ask Her help for all of humanity –

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to Thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.

At His Request

“God wishes to establish in the world the devotion to My Immaculate Heart..”

– Our Lady at Fatima, 1917

I have often heard Catholics say that devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is something they can take or leave – but not something they necessarily need to have.

In one sense, this is true; God always allows us free will and will not trample on our ability to choose, regardless of the matter at hand or the consquences of the choices we might make. Such is the case regarding devotion to the Mother of God – we can choose to live out such a devotion, or not. We have that choice.

But in another sense, God has made it fairly clear that He desires that we do have such a devotion – the Lord came to us through the Blessed Virgin, after all, and this is most certainly a very prominent part of God’s plan for humanity. The Lord could have come to us in any way He chose – yet He came through Mary. God does nothing without a very good reason. And She is mentioned so often, at all the crucial points of the Scriptures – Her place there clearly stated for us. It’s pretty evident, then, that She is important.

We have the history of the Church herself – from it’s earliest days, the Church has had Mary very close to the centre but never in such a way that She obscures the place of the Lord Himself. And over the centuries, the theology of the Church has expressed increasingly clearly what the role of Mary is in the life of the Christian and of the Church itself. Along the way, the Saints have consistently been devoted to the Mother of the Lord and recommended Her to us.

Appearing at Fatima and revealing the purpose of Her visits there, the Blessed Virgin said – “God wishes to establish in the world the devotion to My Immaculate Heart”. Note carefully those first two words – ‘God wishes’. The place of the Blessed Virgin, at Fatima as in the entirety of the history of salvation, is at the express will of God. He has given us this most heavenly Mother and He desires that we come to Her. She has a very singular place in the economy of salvation, a place occupied by no other – and She has duties towards us (given by Her Son upon the Cross), as much as we have duties toward Her.

Perhaps today, we might take a moment just to say ‘thank you’ to the Lord, for this gift of the Blessed Virgin Mary and for Her presence in our lives; and to ask for the grace of a true devotion toward Her in all things, that She might lead us ever closer to Her Son.

Heavenly Tenderness

“Mary is also the one who obtained mercy in a particular and exceptional way, as no other person has.”

– St John Paul II, ‘Dives In Misericordia’  

Icons are said to be ‘written’ rather than just drawn or painted. This writing of an Icon expresses, in a visual way, particular themes or truths of the faith, depending on the particular Icon in question.

One very famous Icon is known as ‘Our Lady of Tenderness’, although it was originally called ‘Our Lady of Vladimir’. I have a copy of this Icon, which I bought in Oxford, England, and it is pictured here. In it, the Child Jesus is seen gently touching or stroking the cheek of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin.

It is a very beautiful and touching moment that is captured or written in the Icon. Such a normal and every-day thing – a child reaching out to the mother, touching her, and the mother responding accordingly. It is something we see all the time. Here, of course, the Child is Jesus and the Mother is Mary.

I said that an Icon visually expresses a theme or truth of the faith. And so it is here.

This particular Icon says something about the relationship between the Lord and His Mother, that deep intimacy which exists not only at the human level but also at the mystical level. This Mother and this Son are entirely inseparable in the work of Redemption – the Lord achieveing it, His Mother united perfectly to Him and supporting Him with all the love of Her Heart and with the perfect fullness of Her will.

But there is something more.

The place taken here by the Child is our place, too. We are called to have that deep and intimate relationship with the Blessed Virgin, for She is our Mother in the order of grace, as certainly as She is His Mother in the order of nature.

Believing this, let us place ourselves in Her arms and with all the love in our hearts, gently come close to Her Immaculate Heart with the perfect confidence of little children.

St Pio and Fidelity

“He was a man of prayer and suffering.”

– Pope St Paul VI

There is no doubt that Saint Pio of Pietrelcina – popularly called Padre Pio – is one of the great Saints of our era.

At the mention of his name, perhaps the first word we associate with him is ‘stigmata’ – for Padre Pio bore the wounds of Christ upon his own body. And yet, the stigmata – and other such mystical phenomena – are external and observable and while they may suggest some clues about the person who experiences them, they are not in themselves proof of sanctity.

Of course, for Padre Pio, his sanctity is now far beyond question. But it was not always so.

Padre Pio suffered terribly – while many revered him as a saint even during his life, there were also a great many more who called him a fraud and a charlatan, who said his stigmata were hysterical or self-induced, and his other mystical phenomena were equally mistrusted. Indeed, Padre Pio himself, in the early days, mistrusted these experiences and – aware of their very visible nature and all this would bring him – he asked the Lord to remove them, or at least to allow him to suffer them invisibly.

For various reasons, the Vatican also greatly mistrusted Padre Pio and placed stringent sanctions on him – he was not allowed to publicly celebrate Mass or the Sacraments, nor to show his stigmata to others; and he was even forbidden from communicating with his spiritual director.

And in response to all of this mistrust from the very Church he loved so deeply, how did he respond? He did precisely what he was asked to do, without so much as a murmur or a complaint, even though he knew perfectly well that his experiences were authentic. Without murmur or complaint.

And this fidelity and obedience to the Church, the authentic voice of Christ in the world is – I would suggest – the real mark of Saint Pio’s deep sanctity, not his stigmata.

It is interesting that in the present day, there are many self-proclaimed visionaries who do not follow his example. Their very claim to be visionaries should generally be enough to set alarm bells ringing for any good Catholic; but where there is the least murmuring or lack of obedience to the Church, to the local Bishop or to the Holy Father, then you can be fairly certain that what they claim does not come from Heaven and is the product of delusion, self deception of the activity of the Deceiver.

In these days when we protest our rights very loudly, when we decide what we accept from the Church and what we do not, and when we lack humility and obedience to those the Church places in lawful authority over us – the example of Padre Pio stands as a testament to what real sanctity looks like.

The Place of Suffering

Beholding the Mother of Sorrows at the foot of the Cross, cradling the dead Body of Her Son, Her suffering was all within Her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart; this was Her place of suffering. And it is ours, too, regardless of the cause of our suffering.

When we think about the Crucifixion of Christ and speak of ‘the place of suffering’, you might think we refer to Golgotha or to the Cross itself. This, however, is not the case. For the human person, there is one single place of suffering – the human heart.

Beholding the Mother of Sorrows at the foot of the Cross, cradling the dead Body of Her Son, Her suffering was all within Her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart; this was Her place of suffering. And it is ours, too, regardless of the cause of our suffering.

The devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary offer us these images of the heart – not just a pump, this particular organ is the one we identify with emotions and feelings. We speak of a ‘broken heart’, although the heart is anything but broken – and yet, it is there that we feel the stabbing pain of grief, of loss. We speak of giving someone our heart, as though that were possible – we mean, of course, the heart as the seat of love. The human heart, then, is both the place where we love – and it is the place of suffering.

All of us will encounter suffering deep within our hearts at some point in our lives – that is the common lot. Whether through illness, loss, grief or something else, none of us can escape it. But we can do something good with it. We can turn our little hearts from places of suffering to places of love. How? By doing what the Blessed Virgin did at the foot of the Cross as She held the Body of Jesus – offer it up. Give every ounce of that suffering to God, asking Him to unite it to the sufferings of the Crucified, and in this way, to make it redemptive.

In doing so, we will not find our sufferings lessened – but we will find ourselves supported by divine grace and able to bear them just a little better than before.

Sacred Space

Every one of us needs to make space – a sacred space – where we can listen to the voice of the Lord. The Blessed Virgin is our example – Her Immaculate Heart is an enclosed garden, reserved for the Lord.  

Such noise, such distraction throughout all the world! So many things which take up our time and our attention – and which, in the process, gradually whittle down the time we are able to make available for the Lord. And before we know it, all that precious time has been used up and nothing is left.

And yet, every one of us needs to make some time available for the Lord.

It is in these moments, most usually, that we are able to hear His gentle voice, if only we will listen for Him and then listen to Him.

After this, we need to do as the Blessed Virgin counsels us – “do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

What is important is for us to create an interior space – a sacred space – where we can listen to the whisperings of the Lord.

This may be a few minutes spent in Church in the presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle, or it may simply mean taking a few moments out of our normal routine; in those moments, we need to practice becoming still, quiet, and receptive. This is where we will hear the voice of the Lord, speaking gently within our hearts. Vocal prayer is good, but should be brief and simple – this is a moment for listening rather than speaking.

Our goal is to gradually cultivate our hearts, so that they become an enclosed garden, where the Lord is free to walk and to rest a while, remaining with us and conversing with us.

Our Blessed Lady is the best example here – She knew how to be still and quiet; Her words were always few, but crucial when She did speak. Her Immaculate Heart is the most perfect enclosed garden, reserved entirely and exclsuively for the Lord.

We cannot emulate this completely, perhaps, as the duties of our state in life may well get in the way. But we are able to look to Her example and to follow it as best we can, even if only briefly, just for a few minutes.

Once we begin to practice this, we may quickly find that these moments become the most precious of our day.

 

Lost In The Rosary

“Pray the Rosary every day”

– Our Lady of Fatima

I have written on many occasions previously about the prayer of the holy Rosary, looking at it from a number of different perspectives. It is the most exquisite of prayers, the one the Mother of God repeatedly asks us to pray.

Why does She do this?

The answer is very simple. Whilst the Rosary is a very simple prayer, suitable for both children and adults alike, it is also incredibly deep and profound. It is like a deep well of prayer, the depths of which we will never really reach – there is always somethine new to be found there.

In praying the Rosary, it is not just about us and what we bring to the prayer – more importantly, it is about the grace of God acting within us; that divine grace enlightens us and helps us to meditate deeply on the Mysteries of the Rosary.

This meditation is what really brings the Rosary to life. We meditate on the life, mission, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus – and by doing so, we come to know Him better. We are not alone in our prayer – His own Mother helps us, obtaining this necessary divine grace for us, and none knows the Son as well as His own Mother.

The Rosary is a pathway; to achieve it’s benefits as fully as possible, we need to walk that path repeatedly, and this is why the Blessed Virgin asks us so very often to “pray the Rosary every day”. In doing so, our meditation becomes deeper and fuller, assisted by that divine grace. The Mysteries take root in our souls, as seeds do in fertile soil – they germinate there, producing beautiful flowers whose fragrance will never fade.

As this occurs, we may find that we become ‘lost’ in the Rosary in a sense – our recollection increases, our prayer deepens and it becomes more interior and more profound, such that we are thinking less about praying and simply praying. Saint Francis of Assisi used to say that when this happens, we ‘become’ prayer.

And in this sense, the Rosary begins by being vocal prayer, moves into meditative prayer and may lead us into contemplative prayer if the Lord wills it and grants us that grace.

The Saints throughout the centuries have greatly recommended the Rosary, because they have known that it is indeed a path to true sanctity when it’s Mysteries begin to take root within us; even the little children of Fatima, responding to the requests of the Mother of God, found the Rosary to be a path to holiness. You will be doing well to find a Saint who was not dedicated to this heavenly prayer.

All that said, the only thing that remains is that we take up our Rosary beads, and pray.

 

Mary At The Cross

“At the Cross, Her station keeping
Stood the mournful Mother, weeping.
Close to Jesus to the last..”

– ‘Stabat Mater’

It’s easier for us to imagine the joys and the glories of the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than Her immense sorrows. And yet, it was through Her intimate correspondence to and participation in the sufferings of Her Son, that She gained for Herself a never-fading crown of glory in Heaven.

I suppose this should not really surprise us; after all, in the Gospels, Her Son tells us very clearly that if we wish to follow Him, then we must take up our own cross first. In all of human history, no-one picked up their cross and carried it as faithfully as the Mother of the Lord. No-one, then, ever followed Him as perfectly as She.

Having given Her ‘fiat’ at the moment of the Annunciation, She repeated this constantly throughout Her earthly life. In every moment, Her will was so perfectly attuned to the will of God in everything, even to the point of consenting to the death of Her Son upon the Cross – this was, after all, the very reason for His coming into the world. It is near impossible to fathom the intense suffering this must have caused Her, standing there beneath His Cross, constantly repeating in Her sorrowing Heart a silent ‘fiat’ over and over.

And yet, we celebrate the ‘exaltation’ of the Holy Cross; the feast reminds us that terrible though the event of the Crucifixion was, it was – it is – the means of our redemption. The Blessed Virgin knew this, too. This allowed that terrible pain to be bearable – knowing that because of His Death, the gates of Heaven were opened again to all of us, and His Resurrection would shortly follow.

That is why we celebrate the exaltation of the holy Cross – it is not the tree of death, but the Tree of Life; and from it, the possibility of eternal life flowed down abundantly for every one of us.

Mary’s Birthday

“Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, announced joy to the whole world, for from You has risen the Sun of Justice, Christ our God..”

– Benedictus antiphon, feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

There are really two broad reasons for celebrating the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The first is a very human reason. We celebrate the birthdays of those we love, because it is a special day for them, and a day of joy for us – because of their birth, we have those we love in our lives and they enrich us with their presence. These people give our lives meaning and value. Celebrating their birthdays is a simple but lovely way to express all of this. The Blessed Virgin is the Mother of Our Lord and we love Her very much; She is kind and She loves us and helps us, and She brings us to Her Son. So how much more will we celebrate the birthday of this sweetest of mothers.

The second reason is a spiritual one, and that reason is captured in the quotation above from the Benedictus antiphon from Morning Prayer. The birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the second glimmer of divine light falling upon the world – the first was at Her Immaculate Conception. In these two events, a ray of light from Heaven begins to pierce the darkness of the world, and that light is a sign of something wonderful to come, that the promnise made long ago by the Lord is ready to be fulfilled – the moment is at hand. The Blessed Virgin is the means but not the end; and so Her birthday is a step along the way to Her Son’s coming – He is the Light, and She is the first sign of His dawning; “from You arose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God”, as the Church puts it. Now that She is born into the world, we know that He is very close to coming into the world, also.

It is customary to give a little present to the one who is celebrating a birthday – who doesn’t love to receive such a gift? And so that leaves us wondering – what will I give today to the Blessed Virgin Mary, on this Her birthday? What prayer, what sacrifice, what little act of devotion can I offer Her, that it might please Her?

Little Things

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”

– Mother Teresa

Sometimes it can seem to us that the Saints were great individuals who always accomplished the most amazing things; performed miracles everywhere they went; were adored by everyone thye met; and always spoke as though a poet had written all their words, such that they always said exactly the right thing at the right moment. And lovely though all of that might be, there is a downside – it can make them seem very remote from us, and this places them out of our reach as models in the spiritual life.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta bucks that particular trend.

Part of the reason for this is that she is a Saint from within our living memory, and not some ethereal figure from centuries ago – in other words, she is still very real to us. We remember her appearing on the evening news, speaking in interviews, and proving herself to be a remarkable and feisty lady, whose small stature could not hide the stregnth and resourcefulness within.

Another part of the reason is that in being reasonably well acqainted with her, we could see for ourselves that she really did have absolutely nothing – nothing at all. Despite this, she achieved a great deal for so very many poor people. She did what she could.

I think we also remember Mother Teresa fondly because of the quotations we have now and which came from her. Amongst them, there is one which really stands out for me – “We cannot all do great things; but all of us can do little things with great love”. For all of us living in the Twenty First Century, this is a salutary lesson – it is not about what we have or don’t have, it’s about how we live in relation to others.

Every single one of us is capable of achieving good – even a diminutive nun with not a penny to her name – and of treating others with great love and respect, doing for them whatever we can because we see the Face of Christ in them. This essentially sums up the message of Mother Teresa; I think it also expresses succintly her legacy to us in the present age.

May all of us learn this lesson from her and put it into practice.

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