Ponder this question and by the end of the post it shall be answered; If Jesus were to come to your home tonight for dinner, what would he be looking for, or what could he expect to find?
Today I spent a beautiful frosty brightest sunshine day on retreat at a convent in Chigwell in Essex, in the diocese of Brentwood. It really was a very special day. I seriously have considered moving to another diocese; but in my heart I can’t, for reasons I shall tell you about.
This was an annual retreat for all members of the St Vincent de Paul Society across the Brentwood diocese. I have to be honest I did not want to go. I have struggled with my commitment to being a fully active SVP member, and of giving so very much of myself to others, when at times I feel as if I have nothing more to give.
My prayer is so strong, but so is my hurting, so strong that it leaves a physical aching putrid knot above and to the left of my abdomen. It is a deep hurting that aches and swells in my stomach and travels up through my rib cage to behind my chest, where without conscious recall it chokes in the back of my throat and then spills out of my eyes, when I least want it too. It’s a silent then guttural pain, which is fierce and unrelenting. That pain be my apartheid.
I have never known this pain before.
I was obliged to come on this retreat. It was a pre-booked affair. People were dropping out like flies and not committing themselves, numbers were required for the minibus. In the distant past it was an easy blasé commitment to make, and one that meant that now after so many defectors I could not break. So I went . . . . reluctantly.
Icy cold glittery pavements led the way to the pickup point. The sunshine so bright on this early February morning, a welcome burst of much-needed tonic for the spirit. As of today the snowdrops are all so beautifully radiant and pure, like snow dripping from strong healthy green stems, all bowing their heads for the seasonal blessing.
It was a gentle Sunday, and an hour and thirty minute long journey. I am usually the driver on similar journeys but today I was quietly the passenger, observing the sugar frosted countryside kissed by the not yet melted frost. The beautiful gleaming fields accompanied us for much of the way, as did the sunshine.
We came off the main road at an unexpected junction having passed under bridges which 20 years ago I walked over on my way to work. This part of the land now a stranger was once so familiar. As we passed by I could see some tower blocks (three) in the distance and then the minibus turned off the main road and double backed on itself. Within a short distance from the tower block landmark, I spotted the little row of shops, and then the side road leading to the private houses behind.
And all at once I was sharing with my friends the place where I was born almost 43 years ago. Flat number 7 Chalford Walk, Woodford Green. This for the first year of my life was my home. This flat was the very place where I was conceived and received into this world when I first left my mother’s womb. This is the Bethlehem that saw me come into being. So there it is, me, Essex through and through. I may come from East End stock, but God first brought me to life in Essex. So you see, this be my belonging and my home. It is part of me.
We came to the convent by sat-nav the long way round, but going home the right way, it’s just about a five/ten minute drive to my mother’s home, this home is where I spent most of last week in solace, whilst she is in India. It was a peace filled very still week. I spent 24 hours of it hardly moving, being comforted by a beautiful fresh white bed, watching the odd film, praying, thinking, crying, and being close to God. Had I been aware that the Catholic Chapel was so close I would have spent some time there too, but I had never been to the convent before, and I didn’t realise that the public could attend Mass there.
The church was beautiful, the colours in the stain glass were electric, the reds and blues were penetrating, intense. There was a beautiful soft carpet in the church with reds and creams and pinks, and I visualised myself being able to worship bare foot on the softest threads. And to feel the prayer coming through my feet, purifying and cleansing my body and my sin, as it washed upwards beyond my physical posture, leaving behind any scratch or trace or shard of thorn, before weightlessly transcending through my form to the air above, where all heaviness is forgotten. Prayers given this way are a little like going fine weather sailing on a little day boat, leaving behind all worries and cares on the land, and watching that land recede into the distance as one heads towards the horizon, forgiving any time wasted fretting over things earthed. Free like birds perched on an electric wire, and not being electrocuted because they are not grounded.
By default because of another priests sickness we had a beautiful elderly wise Franciscan friar lead the retreat. Fr Austin took us on three talks, each talk a spiritual journey in its own right. Gentle, humble beautiful soul. He talked about sin being only a small part of the incarnation, for before there was Original sin there was Original grace. He gave us the metaphor of a giant white board and in the tiniest corner he described writing the word sin barely visible, such a small part of the message, the whole of the white board being left pure white and unblemished after the sin was atoned for. He said that because Jesus came for sinners, wherever you find a sinner, it is an entitlement to Jesus Christ. Thank God. Wherever there is helplessness, there is God waiting. He described God like a helpless baby clinging to the human breast.
He talked about purgatory being like a box of tissues to take away with ourselves, until we have regained our self-respect and can come back to the fold, tissue less. He said to refuse to be forgiven is to sin against the Holy Spirit. Jesus never pointed the finger at anyone, he never looked for someone to blame, and what a waste of time it would be for us to do so. He said like us Jesus made mistakes, he said Jesus choosing Judas was not a good move, but that each mistake made is a lesson whereby we learn not to make that same mistake again. He said Jesus had no chance of survival on this road, because when people don’t go quietly they are removed, so Jesus was removed. But not before he had freed us from fear, for fear can stop us being fully alive.
Fr Austin said that God did not send Jesus to be killed, but man killed Him by sin. He also said that Jesus did not ‘only’ die and then rise, but that Jesus is at once dead and risen, and that by His self-giving and resurrection, death has been emptied of its power. We see this when we are desperately grieving the imminent death of somebody we love, and yet when our loved one (who is ill) has accepted their imminent death, by their very acceptance they become the comforters of us in our grief. It is then something that in the world of translation becomes evidence in Love. A new kind of humanness, an otherness. Grace. We came into existence without our consent; we can only go back with our consent; we do this by the way we live. This is grace.
Grace is Love.
I spoke to him on my own for a short while about all the different inspirations and how they inspire and differ. Apparently St Dominic and St Francis were friends, he said that different orders have different structures, and they often view God from a different view-point. The Order of Preachers looks from the point of view that ‘God is Truth’. The Franciscans look from the point of view that ‘God is Love’. This resounds with me. For me God is Love . . . and spirit and truth.
I have always lived by an acute truth, so I have often in contradiction wondered whereby that truth was ever distorted, and then Fr Austin hit the nail on the proverbial head. He said providing you are honest you may not be right but you wont be wrong, he said if you genuinely walk up the road to reach your destination the wrong way, and you believed you were heading the right way, even if it were wrong, you were doing what you genuinely believed to be right. He said conversion was then turning the right way. The way of honesty and truth equals the way of conversion.
He said God doesn’t make copies, there was no blueprint, we are all unique, every life is unique never lived before, never to be lived again. Apartheid means different – apart, we are all infinitely different, and we are to celebrate, respect and enjoy those differences. Every aspect of otherness must be a reflection of the supreme otherness of God. Every single person has a part of God in them, don’t let it lay dormant.
He talked about having this eternal empty space within each of our beings that our nature constantly tries to fill up with vocations, work, study, activity and the like, but this space is infinite, it can never be filled, only the spirit will come upon us and fill us full. And when the spirit has filled us full, then we are to bring others to God, not by being a signpost, but by being a living example of the beloved of Abba. St Francis said ‘goodness is Godness. Whenever you find goodness and celebration; enjoy it. Whenever you see goodness is broken; mend it. Whenever you see goodness is missing; bring it.’
He told us he did not believe, else agree with people when they tell us ‘Not to follow our hearts desire’ because they fear our selfishness. Instead he told us with great humility and authority to go into the deepest depths of our heart and try to locate our hearts desire, and to centre our life around this, for this be the transplant that our hearts desperately need. To live life with this transplanted heart is to feel like the sunshine, the brightest white light, warming right through us. I go into the deepest depth of my heart and there it is . . . . Love . . . . in spirit and truth.
By knowing and living this way, we are called to be the beloved of Abba by grace. We are assured that through being One with Him in His humanity, that we may share in His Divinity.
If Jesus came to your home tonight . . . .
He would be looking for a bowl of water with which He could wash your feet.