Friday, 6 December 2013
In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don't explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger's features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.
And my attempt at explaining the sacramental imagery for a group of fifteen year olds almost entirely ignorant of the Catholic faith:
The metaphor of a Catholic Mass is central to the poem (Duffy comes from a Catholic background). At the Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, and become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (this is known as the ‘real presence’), who offers himself as a sacrifice. Here, the photographer is the priest, and the suffering people in the photographs are Christ. The developing of the photographs is the consecration – it is at this point that the real presence of the suffering victims begins to emerge, primarily in the memory of the photographer. Those who look at the photographs but have no connection to this real presence are like people who attend Mass without faith, and so do not perceive the real presence of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. They remain unmoved, and the experience of seeing the photographs / attending the Mass fails to affect their daily life.
Saturday, 2 November 2013
All wonderful, no doubt, for the independent, sophisticated and free-thinking folk of today. But it doesn't work for me. I find that as I grow older, I realise more and more just how little I know, and how my youthful omniscience was really just ignorance and arrogance. In my teens, I was more grown up than the grown ups. For most of my twenties, I wandered in the wilderness. But now that I really am grown up, with the real responsibility of four children and professional work, I just know I'm not up to the task. Now I really need to be a child, because I can't depend on myself. I don't have the answers.
And how can anyone be a child without a mother? And where is the mother of all humanity? Right here, in the Catholic Church, jealously guarding her little children, as any good Jewish mother will.
'Let nothing frighten or grieve you, let not your heart be disturbed, do not fear any sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? . . . Are you not happily within the folds of my mantle, held safely in my arms?'
|'An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory'|
by Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619)
The doctrine of purgatory is also essential if we are to understand and make use of our sufferings in this world. God allows us to suffer so that we can become saints, and so that we can offer our sufferings, joined with those of Christ, for our own sins and those of our loved ones, living or dead. At the heart of all of this is Christ crucified. Catholicism is the faith of Christ crucified, as St Paul proclaims, and faithful Catholics obey Our Lord's command to deny themselves and take up their crosses. That means accepting the sufferings which God allows, even embracing them, as Our Lord embraced the instrument of his torture, and our 'Other Christs' in the Catholic Priesthood kiss the altar at the beginning of Holy Mass.
When I understood this, it was clear to me that purgatory is not alien or incomprehensible. One way of describing it is as a continuation of this life: we suffer, we are purified, and we move towards heaven. What is the altar of the lay faithful? It is our daily sufferings, which we offer in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this way we can all participate in the priesthood of Christ.
In his talk on the Stations of the Cross (which you can find here), Fr Hugh Thwaites puts it simply and clearly: if you were keen on tennis, you would watch Wimbledon and try to learn how the professionals did it. We are amateurs when it comes to carrying our crosses, so let's look to Our Lord to learn how he did it, and really start to make use of our sufferings, however big or small they may be.
Charles Wesley puts it well:
O Thou who camest from above,
the pure celestial fire to impart
kindle a flame of sacred love
upon the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return,
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.
Sunday, 15 September 2013
|Blessed John Paul II in 1980|
'For this reason the central word of Revelation, "God loves His people," is likewise proclaimed through the living and concrete word whereby a man and a woman express their conjugal love. Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant which unites God and His people' (FC, 12)
I was so struck by that phrase 'living and concrete word'. In our marriages, in our families, God is speaking his eternal Word of love. He has given us the Sacrament of Matrimony so that this Word might be perfectly expressed. In the very acts of love and faithfulness that make up the fabric of our family lives, the duties which we fulfil every day - making beds, changing nappies, patiently insisting on good manners and consideration - God is communicating through us his Word. In each faithful Christian family the Incarnation is made present.
As I was praying the Angelus, during my preparation for the talk, it struck me with renewed force that God waits on human consent. In the Incarnation, he waited on the consent of Our Blessed Mother. In our families, he waits on human consent for the creation and nurturing of each human soul. As Our Lady's 'Fiat' brought the Word Made Flesh into the world, so our 'Fiat' each day renews and makes present the everlasting love of the Father, his divine fruitfulness and unchanging fidelity, as he carries out his plans through us.
As with all of the wonderful mysteries of the Catholic faith, it is in Mary and through Mary that we can understand the beauty of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Yes, God really does use his creatures to carry out his plans. Yes, he really does expect purity and holiness from his creatures. And yes, he really does give us the means to attain this perfection:
'The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us.' (FC, 13).
Wednesday, 28 August 2013
|St Monica and St Augustine, pray for us!|
I love this picture of St Augustine with St Monica by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858). He holds his mother's hand, and together they contemplate heaven. Her face has a serene joy, his a serious, meditative, but calm look.
God made families, and he works through them for our salvation. I've seen this happening over the last few years. Three years ago there were no Catholics in my family. Now there are six, and another is receiving instruction. Thanks be to Our Lord and his Blessed Mother!
Friday, 9 August 2013
|'The Dream of St Joseph'|
by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779)
The first time this comment was made, I thought of the answer later, as one usually does. So I was rather glad that another man said something almost identical to me not too long afterwards, so that I could give the response:
I didn't learn to be a father by being a teacher; I learnt to be a teacher by being a father.
I've learnt about a few other things in the last decade that the formal education system somehow failed to impart: hard work, self-sacrifice, and true masculinity, to name just some of the most important. Not that I have achieved perfection in any of these things, but at least I know where I'm going, and how much I'm failing.
Fatherhood and family have made me into a man, where endless education and even professional work had failed. No wonder the Devil is so keen to destroy them, and his main tools, at least in the West, are firstly contraception, and secondly the welfare state.
St Joseph, pray for us!
Wednesday, 7 August 2013
|'Skeletal is beautiful'|
'We object to this discriminatory language' commented a spokesperson for Stonefood, the organisation that campaigns for equal treatment for those who choose to starve themselves on three days out of four. 'We do not tell Catholics how they should bring up their children. Who are they to define what is 'normal'?'
A junior government minister, who declined to be named, but identified himself as a practising starver, made a statement hinting that the government might be moving towards legislation to require starver couples to be protected from discriminatory treatment, including equal status under adoption law.
Meanwhile, students' unions were also taking up the cause. One recently held a debate on the statement 'This house would be happy to have starver parents'. Lillian Pettifog, of the SSA (Starver Students' Association) made a passionate appeal to the electorate in a TV interview last night. 'Skeletal is beautiful!' she proclaimed. 'My partner and I both know this is true. We feel it in our hearts, and no-one can deny what we feel. When we receive our first shipment of children from their surrogate parents, we want them to know it too!'
[Image from Wikimedia, from the Deutsches Bundesarchiv. Creative Commons Licence.]