Archive for April, 2007

Anointing the Sick

First, something from a safe distance: I wrote the homily that follows as part of a class in Celebrational Style (that’s a course in leading worship) while I was at JSTB. The assignment was to create, preside at, and preach for a service of sacramental anointing outside a Eucharistic context. To do that I had to get to grips with the sacrament’s underlying theology and found Jake Empereur’s book Prophetic Anointing: God’s Call to the Sick, the Elderly and the Dying to be really helpful.

The Sacrament of the Sick can’t promise healing–indeed for a long while it was only offered to the dying!–but it must pray for it confidently. How do you handle that? Empereur’s argument (as I recall) is that anointing recognises the prophetic vocation of sickness. I remember the homily divided the congregation (of classmates) right down the middle. Some thought it was powerful; other’s hated it. Luckily the professor fell in the first group…

As I re-read it today I am hearing me preach to myself. Does it ring true to my own experience since? I do find it encouraging right now. It speaks to my experience of God in all this but possibly not to my actual experience of Church or even of community. Or perhaps it points up the unstable edginess of prophecy… the sacrament might assert the central place of the sick in community life but it does so against a constant marginalising pressure. One of my unspoken fears is that if my condition worsens seriously I will have to leave my present community for somewhere able to give more care. Marginal or central? Both.


It is easy to be eloquent about sickness when we are in the best of health but even something as a simple as a minor headache can leave us speechless and confounded. There is a mystery here: the Christian community both attempts to find a meaning in suffering and to pray for it to end.
Jesus healed the sick in body and mind but eventually was reduced to pain and suffering; he raised the dead to life but finally succumbed to death, a most violent death. His enemies scorned him with this very taunt: “You saved others, why don’t you save yourself?”

God’s word of comfort and life is so utterly opposed to all diminishment yet is diminished, so completely proclaims freedom yet is bound.

The nasty truth is that sickness can destroy us, can eat at us, can make each miserable moment an effort. In sickness we know pain, and defeat, and emptiness. Our glorious notions of the ennobling power of suffering fade faced even with a headache.

And our culture adds another layer to the pain of sickness. Because when health and fitness become twin Gods, sickness becomes sin; when productivity becomes paramount, the passivity of pain becomes failure. In the harsh sunshine of this world it seems that sickness can only alienate us from our community, from our friends and family, even from our own selves. It seems that to be sick is to be on the margin, on the edge, on the way out.

But . not . for . us , not in the church, not in the community of Jesus. That is why we gather: to undo the power of illness. To recognise its evil and to pray for life and health and joy. But also, and perhaps above all, to take you who are sick into our midst. To reveal the lie that sick people are peripheral to the pulse of life. Because, no matter the appearance otherwise, you are the heart of this community, our community.

Jesus whispers to you with a call, a challenging vocation: “Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-burdened — and I will give you rest” Jesus has invited you to exchange the “yoke” of alienation for the “yoke” of companionship, and has made a promise: “this yoke is easy, this burden light.”

In this sacrament, it may seem that the Church gathers to try to give you something you lack. But the reality is different. We who appear healthy are here to receive from you. You have something to give to us. A word to speak to us from the margin, from the edge, from our centre, from our heart. You are gift to us, you are a hard poem telling us of life and death, of the mystery at the heart of all life.

That is why we celebrate today: we need you, we need to learn from you, we need to see you tread a path in Jesus’ footsteps, a path that we will each in our own way follow.

This is the mystery: we anoint you as prophets, pilgrims on our common way, that we may all be prophetic to a world that so fears both life and death; and yet we anoint you that you may be healed, that we may as community be made whole.

We have good news for each other, we have the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, because we hear the Lord’s invitation and the Lord’s promise:
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

5 comments April 14th, 2007

The Appealing of the Passion

I don’t know whether this will be a lone post, the first of a coherent series, or just the start of some jottings but I thought in the shower this morning that it is about time I tried to write about the experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a person of faith and, indeed, an erstwhile theologian.

Suffering is an important issue for Christian theology. All religious belief systems hold out some kind of promise of some kind salvation from suffering; but Christians have had to contend from the beginning with the fact that the founding figure of our faith suffered, died, and was buried. We have had to make sense of the Passion and Resurrection. How do we say that suffering can be the locus of God’s own activity without making God a monster or an incompetent?

The title of this post comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘Wreck of the Deutschland‘–a fellow Jesuit’s reflection on suffering, in his case the conspiration of natural disaster and human persecution as ‘five Franciscan Nuns exiles by the Falk Laws drowned between midnight and morning of Dec. 7th. 1875′. The middle section of his long poem is tussling in tortured language to understand the report that one of the nuns was heard calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’. ‘The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best’: this is Hopkins’ problem–what is she doing calling God into her suffering, naming the worst that can happen to her the best? He argues one way and another but in the middle of his flow he writes ‘the appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart’. And he is right: it is easier to be moved by the Passion when you are not in it! In it’s midst suffering can sabotage prayer so that only afterwards can it seem graced. And theories born in prayer apart have little purchase on one’s experience while suffering.

I suppose I want to say some theological things from the heart of my particular experience of suffering–not from ‘prayer apart’. Suffering? I’m not talking about earthquake, holocaust, or cancer. CFS isn’t dramatic, isn’t terminal, and none of its symptoms on their own are unusual in healthy people but their combined effect over time is debilitating, life-changing. Whatever I write it won’t be theodicy. It won’t be anything so grand as a theology of suffering, not even a theology of illness, but I hope it might be a chance for me to make explicit to myself who the God is I have met here in this particular experience.

4 comments April 13th, 2007


A friend sent me a newspaper cutting today–from the The Observer a few weeks back–about the work of Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ in LA with gang members. When I was in California I used to visit Greg’s community and he always impressed the hell out of me.

Father Greg Boyle keeps a grim count of the young gang members he has buried. Number 151 was Jonathan Hurtado, 18 – fresh out of jail. Now the kindly, bearded Jesuit mourns him. ‘The day he got out I found him a job. He never missed a day. He was doing really well,’ Boyle says.
But Hurtado made a mistake: he went back to his old neighbourhood in east Los Angeles. While sitting in a park, Hurtado was approached by a man on a bike who said to him: ‘Hey, homie, what’s up?’ He then shot Hurtado four times. ‘You can’t come back. Not even for a visit,’ says Boyle, who has worked for two decades against LA’s gang culture.

As well as the links above I’ve also included a clip featuring Greg from a Jesuit vocations video from a few years back. The clip is the middle of three if you want to see the rest.

Here’s Greg giving a TED talk:

1 comment April 13th, 2007


In my prayer today I found myself remembering the song ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as it was performed in the film Peter’s Friends. It always moves me.

2 comments April 10th, 2007

Ordinary Beauty

I’ve just read (thanks to Matt) a superb piece of journalism from the Washington Post about a little experiment: put one of the world’s best violinists, with one of the world’s best violins, playing some of the world’s best violin music in a subway station and watch what happens.

The article is fascinating. The accompanying recording is marvellous. And, in gratitude, I’ve been staring out of my window watching spring unfurl.

April 10th, 2007

WordPress Plugins

Coming soon … updates to the posts plugins. Quite a few changes have built up over the last few weeks that I haven’t had time to properly release. I hope I can make sure that the changes cover the whole set of plugins — that should teach me to keep better records rather than rushing out little fixes in response to feature requests.

April 9th, 2007

Enough! the Resurrection

Happy Easter!

With its dramatic transition from darkness to light and fire the Easter Vigil rather betrays by compression the grace of resurrection. In our living of it the joy of the resurrection often has to creep up on us. Ignatius says that the Risen Christ ‘comes in the office of consoler’ and that implies we meet him and find his consolation and share his joy only if we are in the honesty of our need to be consoled.

The Easter Sunday gospels are truer to life–they always focus on the emptiness of the empty tomb. Our Easter begins with an absence. A blank page waiting to be written upon.

Here’s a rich helping of Hopkins:

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ‘ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ‘ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ‘ wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ‘ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ‘ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ‘ treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ‘ nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest ‘ to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, ‘ his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig ‘ nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

April 8th, 2007

Holy Saturday: Nature and Grace

Von Balthasar’s insistence, which I wrote of yesterday, that the Paschal Mystery not be made natural reveals something of his approach to the perennial issue of the interrelationship of nature and grace. He has an absolute conviction of the chasm between the two, between infinite and finite, between Creator and creature, that is only bridged from the other side when God, by grace and gift, makes the move to which we can respond.

How differently von Balthasar’s contemporary Karl Rahner approaches the subject. For Rahner nature is only ever a ‘limit concept’. As we experience the world ‘nature’ is always ‘graced’ and the two can only be spoken about separately on the understanding that they can never be prised apart. It leads Rahner in a somewhat different direction to von Balthasar:

Holy Saturday is a strange day, mysterious ans silent. It is a day without a liturgy. This is, as it were, a symbol of everyday life which is a mean between the abysmal terror of Good Friday and the exuberant joy of Easter. For ordinary life is also mostly in between the two, in the centre which is also a transition and can only be this.

The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter, the persistent hope for the final glory of God. If we live the Holy Saturday of our existence properly, this will not be a merely ideological addition to this common life as the mean between its contraries. It is realised in what makes out everyday life specifically human: in the patience that can wait, in the sense of humour which does not take things too seriously, in being prepared to let others be first, in the courage which always seeks for a way out of the difficulties.

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible and expects God to do the impossible. To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously: the worst has actually already happened; we exist, and even death cannot deprive us of this. Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life, but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.

Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year

2 comments April 7th, 2007


The Independent newspaper has celebrated Good Friday with a pullout of poetry about spring. There’s something very tempting about lining up the rebirth of nature as winter ends and the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Tempting but, I think misleading. I was convinced by von Balthasar that naturalising the Paschal Mystery is a mistake. There’s a natural process, however, we try to be surprised by it, that leads us from winter to spring–we count on it, literally–but there is no natural process to lead from death to life. The Resurrection isn’t a sequel; it’s a shocking gift we could never have foreseen, no matter how much we desired. Our hope in resurrection is precisely that, hope, and not any kind of outcome we can predict, manipulate, or work toward–we trust in the goodness and creativity of God.

Let me undermine my argument with a poem by Hopkins. The Indo used his ‘Spring’. I thought this might be more suitable for Good Friday:

Spring and Fall

to a young child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

2 comments April 6th, 2007

Medical Update

Well my flirtation with new meds was brief. They were supposed to help with my sleep patterns, make the adrenaline anxiety easier to handle and help with the pain. I didn’t get past the first few days of restlessness, racing thoughts, agitation, and insomnia. The hardest part was trying to sit and pay attention in spiritual direction when my concentration was non-existent–though it did take my mind off the aches and pains. Score one for CFS. Maybe the doc will have some other recommendations.

2 comments April 6th, 2007

Previous Posts


April 2007
« Feb   Sep »

Posts by Month