“You must love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
When young men join the Jesuit Order they begin with a two year course called the noviceship. Here everything is very tightly regulated as they are tested for their suitability; one of the many rules being that the novices should talk little during the day, and definitely not at night. The night period from 10pm to 6am is called the great silence, and it is to be strictly observed.
The novices slept in small dormitories of about 8, with each having a cubicle for privacy. One of the 8 would be the leader, and when the bell went at 6am, (a time when it was pitch dark), it was his job to switch on the lights and call the others to get up. One night the leader got the idea it was 6am; he switched on the lights, and called out to the others, who duly got out of bed, and began shaving and dressing; but then our man noticed that it was actually only 2am. At all costs, he thought, I must not break the great silence, so without saying anything, he switched off the lights and went back to bed. The others of course were left helplessly unaware of what was going on.
That mentality of sticking to rules, however pointless, characterised the young Aloysius Gonzaga. He entered the Jesuit noviciate in a rigid and legalistic frame of mind, a nuisance to some, boring to many, and frankly with his narrow zeal, somewhat inhuman. Rules were rules for Aloysius, and that was that.
Fortunately there was a wise elderly man in Rome, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who gave Aloysius guidance. He managed to persuade the young zealot that good religion is more about the heart than the head; that loving our neighbour is achieved through our feelings, not by our brains. Slowly Aloysius began to soften and to learn how to frame his lifestyle on the true principal of loving God above all, and one’s neighbour as oneself.
It is characteristic of any College, this one included, that it tries to develop knowledge and thinking ability. And so it should, but a good human person is more than a calculating machine. Our ability to care, to understand, to listen, to connect with others, must keep growing; and this growth is a vital part of a full education.
By the time of his early death at the age of 23 Aloysius had become a very human personality who gave himself willingly and skilfully to the care of plague victims in Rome. Thanks to Robert Bellarmine he had grown emotionally, and had that attractive character that we associate with a saint. Let us pray and hope that in our time here at Stonyhurst, we will indeed pass our exams and learn well, but that we also become ever more genuinely human, so that we serve God wholeheartedly and succeed in loving those around us.
“God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
Jigsaw puzzles, especially the large ones can be difficult to complete; but they are much more difficult if the picture on the puzzle box has been lost, leaving the pieces to be connected by guesswork.
This is the problem for the human race. The world is a giant jigsaw puzzle; with the pieces jumbled up; we strive to discern some pattern, make sense of all the issues around us. Yet since we do not know how the world should look, all we have to go on is what meets our eyes. We proceed by guesswork.
There are some people, perhaps a substantial group, who have concluded that there is no picture to be discovered, that life has no real purpose, no pattern, no reason. They live from day to day, taking things as they come: the jigsaw pieces remain in chaos, they just leave it that way.
Much more dangerous are the power hungry persons who have formed their own picture of how the world should be and set about forcing it into the mould they have imagined. How frequent such leaders have been in the last 100 years: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, perhaps Kim Jong Un! All had a very definite notion of the perfect human society. It was very clear in their minds; they set about creating a brave new world that would fit their theory. One is reminded of the film Cincinnati Kid where a woman struggling with a jigsaw, resorts to cutting the pieces with scissors to make them fit. One can imagine the results, and we can see all too clearly the effects violent leaders produced by striving to force the world into their self -conceived image.
In Jesus Christ we meet a man who does know the picture the world should form, for he has come from heaven where the plan of creation was first conceived. He is able to show us the way we must live in order to make sense of our world; to discover its true purpose; to reveal its wonder, beauty and harmony. And Jesus is completing the revelation made in the scriptures, in the 10 commandments and other places, of the pattern God intends for his creation.
It is a slow business, but in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling the world back to its original purpose; enabling life to be what it is meant to be. We can be part of the great task of putting the bits of this giant puzzle into their right places, after all each of us is a part of the cosmic jigsaw. When we follow His way, we are certainly not damaging things in the way the violent fantasists do, but neither are we giving up in a sense of helplessness. We are bringing the world home, reconciling it to its created reason. And we are finding fulfilment for ourselves.
“Were you not bound to have pity on your fellow servant.” (Matthew 18:33)
An increasing cause for anxiety for young adults is student debt. A person can fund their attendance at University by borrowing money. With fees of £9,000 per year, and the cost of food and lodging on top, it can well be that today’s student leaves university £50,000 in debt. This does not have to be repaid until a good salary is achieved, but in the meantime interest is added at 6% from the moment borrowing begins. All too easily the situation runs out of control, and the hapless victim finds they cannot access mortgages or credit. They spend their lives fighting their ever-spiralling debt.
And yet this is small beer compared to the situation in some cultures. Imagine inheriting on the death of your parents not a fortune but a huge debt! You will never repay it in your lifetime, but not to worry, you will leave it to your children. Such is the actual situation in some countries, so that individuals live permanently in semi slavery, with most of their earnings hived off to chipping away at a colossal debt.
The people of Galilee where Jesus preached lived under a similar burden. Roman rule was efficient and prosperous, and Galilee was prime farming country; but ordinary people were plagued by heavy taxes, ruthless landlords, and shark like money lenders. Life was lived in an atmosphere of anxiety and depression. The notion of all debts being swept away would seem like a dream.
Yet as Jesus worked miracles and cast out evil spirits, it dawned on the people that God at least was ready to make a new start; to forgive human failings, to forgo his rights, all in order to enable men and women to find freedom and fulfilment. But there is a snag. God’s release of our debts, can only work if we in our turn, forgo our rights, avoid exploitation, support the weak and so on. A great challenge is placed before us: can we break away from lifestyles that work by exploitation, use of power, pursuit of status. God’s action in releasing the 10,000 talent debt (£10 Billion in current terms) will only work if we let go of the little and petty grudges of our own.
And sadly our times are characterised by a fierce emphasis on rights. Each individual is encouraged to demand that they get all they are entitled to, and to compromise on this is seen as weakness, even the betrayal of a cause. And thus those in positions of power are able to insist on their status and the entitlements it brings, whilst others perhaps on zero hours contracts, or as single parent families, or suffering from poor health or disabilities are left to suffer. Jesus in today’s parable reminds us sharply that we are actually in debt to God for Billions. We do not do ourselves credit by aggressively claiming our rights in every small detail.
“Invite everyone you can find to the wedding.” (Matthew 22:9)
King David is always held up as the great hero of Israel: the man who united the 12 tribes, conquered Jerusalem, and finally established the nation as strong and stable. But David was a ruffian: a man who constantly undermined his predecessor, King Saul; who committed adultery with Bathsheba, then made a scheme for her husband to be killed in battle to cover up his deed; who even joined Israel’s perennial enemies, the Philistines, to fight against Saul. He might well have slaughtered Saul, had not the Philistines withdrawn him from the front line before the battle, as they feared he could not be trusted.
And yet this crude warlord is rightly admired for two reasons. First, he lived in violent and chaotic times, when tough fighting qualities were essential: David was up for this. But second because he proved big enough to admit how much he had done wrong and change his ways, as is illustrated by his repentance over the adultery with Bathsheba, and the sordid manoeuvre to get her husband slain in battle.
We do well to notice that the king in today’s Gospel is also a brutal character. He despatches troops to burn the town of the guests who refused to come; then makes a desperate ploy to keep up appearances by virtually compelling riff-raff from fields and hedgerows to fill up his banquet hall. It must have been the same with David who in his guerrilla campaign against Saul collected a lawless gang of desperados to fight alongside him. But for all this David will prove to be an authentic character: in the end he will admit his crimes, adopt the noble cause and cling to it; and as a result he will demand that his guerrillas do the same. That is, they too must put on the wedding garment.
Contrary to what many naively suppose, the Christian body is not made up of nice people. It starts off like the ruthless king of today’s Gospel, or the warlord King David, and it collects some pretty dubious characters along the way to pursue its course. Painful though it be to admit, we are not the good guys. And this is why like for King David, and so also for the guests at the wedding, the demand is made to us to change, to become worthy of the dignity that has been given to us. When we come to the end of our lives will we be able to say, ‘I was not really the wonderful person I pretended to be; I had my dark side and I tried to cover it up; but I got challenged to be different, to put on the wedding garment. And so I changed like King David did: I turned my aggression, greed, ruthlessness, into humble confession, into mildness, honesty and fairness. I found that I had been given a wedding garment at Baptism, and I learnt how to wear it with dignity.’
“You never know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33)
Late in the day Napoleon saw the Prussian Forces in the distance advancing towards his French army at Waterloo; if they joined up with Wellington he would be defeated. But neither Wellington himself nor Napoleon’s own troops could yet see the Prussian force. A quick ruthless assault on Wellington’s centre might decide the battle and give Napoleon victory. And so he sent forward the never yet defeated Imperial Guard. These successfully reached the top of the ridge ahead of them, but then got a terrible shock. Wellington had ordered his troops to lie down in the grass just behind the ridge in order to avoid the terrible French canon fire. Suddenly they jumped up like corpses rising from the dead and delivered a fierce musket volley at the Guard. At about the same time Prussian troops were spotted coming onto the battlefield, preparing to attack. Panic set in, the cry went up ‘every man for himself’, the Guard collapsed in chaos. Within a few minutes a near victory had been turned into a total defeat.
Such scenarios repeat themselves in many places: some people know what is about to happen, while others at the same time have no grasp of what is coming. The traveller knows when he will arrive back home, the servants do not; God looking down on this world knows full well the events that are about to take place; we do not. What is more we must go through life constantly unsure of what is about to happen.
In the time of Jesus, there was great fascination with a few persons who were believed to have gone to heaven: Enoch who is described as walking with God; Elijah who was whisked up to heaven in an angelic chariot. People believed revelations by these had been discovered, describing the view from heaven where the future could be seen. Such stories were fantasies, but demonstrate the desperate desire to know what is about to take place, so that one can be ready for it. The point, however, on which Jesus insists, is that we do not know the future, we cannot guess it, all we can do, that which we must do, is to be on the alert.
Each time we pray, we turn our minds towards that heavenly world which is so important, but so obscure to us. No doubt this explains why we get a blank feeling when we try to pray. We are looking into the unknown; we cannot see anything; it seems a waste of time: in a sense it is. But by this very fact of praying we are keeping alert, we are looking towards that world not understood, yet vitally important that will one day be revealed to us. So let us in Advent not bury ourselves in comforting material goodies, but make that effort to pray. Jesus tells us we must do so; it is our way of staying awake.
“They expected to get more.” (Matthew 20:10)
It is a sorry sight to come across a person addicted to gambling. In the worst cases such an individual can lay 90 bets a day, typically between midnight and 4am, losing about £100 every 24 hours, and in the process wrecking their marriage, damaging their health and seeing their home taken from them to meet debts. Although in severe cases there are deep mental reasons for this obsessive behaviour, the underlying factor is very simple: the out of control gambler thinks he can force his luck.
The average person has a rough control over their income via the work they do. The harder they work, the more skills they possess, the extent of commitment to their job: all of these enable an increase in income. This is not luck, it is graft. But sometimes a person receives money unearned: it just happens to come their way, and such experiences we call good luck. The critical point is that you cannot produce good luck; it just happens. Thus the men in the parable who worked the full day were entitled to their denarius, they had earned it. The ones who had worked only one hour had no right to a whole denarius, it was simply luck that they were given more than their due.
What we commonly call luck is in fact gifts that God gives us for no merit of our own. God is just, he treats us fairly, he pays the denarius we have honestly earned. But, mysteriously, he also showers all sorts of benefits on us that we have no way earned ourselves, and that we cannot claim we should have by right. And they come in very odd ways, sometimes when we do not expect them, often when we do not appreciate them, all too frequently when we do not even notice them. But always they are simply gifts, unearned, unmerited, unpredictable.
We trip up spiritually when we think we can force these gifts, when we are like the addictive gambler who imagines he can make his bet win. The full day work men grumbled because they wanted to claim extra as a right, rather than accepting that it is a gift. Even St Ignatius made this mistake, when on finding his prayers had no effect, he decided to try and force God’s hand by going without food or water for seven days, when he was already in a weak state. He ended in a deep depression, even thought of suicide, and he was only rescued by a Dominican Confessor who told him he must eat and drink, and let God come in his own time.
Let us, as we go through the adventure of life, keep an eye out for those things which happen to us out of the blue, and be happy and grateful to receive them. Equally let us always be conscious, that God’s gifts are gifts: we must not try to grab them.
Short Homily on Saint Theodore of Tarsus
St Theodore, Born in Syria, lived from 602 to 690 and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 AD until his death.
Theodore was a Syrian Christian of Byzantine descent, who was forced to flee from Tarsus, when it fell to Islam. His own story is especially poignant as today’s Syrian Christians face their own Calvary of persecution, and flight to unknown lands, reminding us of the ever-present challenge of persecution and the exodus of the Middle East’s Christians fleeing Syria and Iraq.
St. Theodore studied theology, medicine, Roman Civil Law, Greek rhetoric and philosophy, Latin literature (both secular and ecclesiastical), astronomy and mathematics in Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. He was the embodiment of faith and reason.
When Pope Vitalian sent Theodore to Britain it was just after the Synod of Whitby, which confirmed the decision of the English Church to follow Rome. He worked hard to fulfil the aims of the Synod, bringing Celtic British Christianity into harmony with Roman practice, for example by harmonising the date of Easter. Theodore is celebrated for healing divisions, reforming the Church and for the entrenchment of Christian education. His promotion of Biblical commentary, sacred music, knowledge of Eastern Christianity – and the possible creation of the Litany of the Saints – added richness and beauty to the liturgy and a more profound understanding of other traditions within the Christian faith. A saint, then, for our troubled times.
He is of special interest to us at Stonyhurst, because the new Heritage centre that is being developed from the Old Mill is dedicated to him, partly because the centre was greatly helped by a generous grant from the St Theodore Trust, an Anglican foundation. We pray that by his intercession the Heritage Centre may flourish, and enhance our links with the rich Christian History of these islands.
“Even to accepting death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44b.c., there was a scramble for power by the leading rivals. One of these, Octavian, arranged a week of games in Caesar’s honour, hoping by this stunt to gain popular support for his claim to become emperor. It was an astute move, but it was greatly enhanced by a co-incidence that Octavian had not anticipated.
For, at the start of the games a comet appeared in the sky, and it remained visible for the entire week. Octavian was quick to claim that this was the departed spirit of Julius Caesar, who by this sign was being marked out as divine, and that this indicated his endorsement of Octavian’s claim, and indeed hinted that as Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian must also be one of the Gods. His clever move was successful, and he became the first Roman Emperor with the title ‘Augustus’, adopting a starry looking comet on his coins as his logo.
Today every important body has its logo; some attractive symbol to indicate the good qualities of the organisation, be it the giant letter M for McDonalds, the bitten fruit for Apple Technology, the tick mark for Nike Sportswear or whatever. They are all intended to present an immediate recognisable symbol of the good qualities of the establishment; to sell it to the public.
But who in their right mind would ever adopt that dreadful symbol of disgrace, rejection and failure, the Roman Cross on which criminals were tortured to death. Sometimes people object to crucifixes in classrooms, saying they may upset children. They are quite right, it is the most horrible image imaginable! And yet it is this symbol that is found everywhere, that has been honoured by artists, that many wear around their necks, that can be found at wayside shrines as much as in cathedrals and churches. And why? Because though the cross Jesus, who unlike Julius Caesar actually was divine, went down to the final humiliation of crucifixion to help us.
For Jesus the cross was not just a symbol, it was the instrument by which he redeemed the world. Through that cross Jesus entered right into death and conquered it, planting his divine life in human flesh. Through the cross Jesus defeated the forces of evil, and established God’s sovereignty on earth. All these crosses we have, and there are hundreds in Stonyhurst, are reminders of the great victory our Lord achieved, and they challenge us to follow his humble way.
His was an action bringing him a status Octavius Caesar barely dreamed of. Through the cross Jesus attained an eminence far above any emperor, for his rule is eternal, covers not just earth, but also heaven, and even the underworld. However
much the Caesar comet enhanced Octavian’s status, it pales before the symbol of the one who by the cross became the world’s Saviour, whom everyone must acclaim as Lord to the glory of God the Father.
“Anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11)
In the 19th century the priests in a diocese in France went on strike. Why? Because the bishop in a neighbouring diocese allowed his clergy to have red piping on the edges of their cassocks, whilst their own Bishop would not permit them to do the same. Such is the bizarre emphasis on appearances they can grip people. Many a clergyman, or a teacher for that matter, will argue that their role is very important, and that titles, mortar boards, gowns and tassels rightly exhibit the greatness of their calling that other people should respect.
There is however a crucial point when it comes to men or women with a religious function, be they Bishops, Nuns, Monks, Priests or whatever. All these people whom our Lord calls to share in his work, have no greatness of their own; it is a higher power that works through them, somehow bringing heavenly aid by means of people of very ordinary, even weak character. As Shakespeare said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It is the last of these that applies to those who represent God.
Samson in the bible, appeared to possess phenomenal physical power. At one point he kills 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, at another he escapes from the city of Gaza by wrenching its gates out of the ground. All this power was believed to come from the fact that he never cut his hair; even Samson thought this was the explanation. So when he was tricked by his girl-friend Delilah into having a hair-cut, he thought he had been made helpless. In fact his strength came from on high. The hair bit, like the phylacteries and tassels, made him look strong. Only when Samson was reduced to a pathetic joke by the Philistines, and found himself unable to act with any physical prowess, did it dawn on him to turn to God for strength. He prayed, and was then given the might to push over the pillars of the temple of Dagon, and bring the entire structure crashing down, even though his hair had been cropped.
Maybe our biggest mistake, in our levelled society, is not so much to seek admiration and honour from our friends, but rather to claim there is nothing special about us. We so emphasise our ordinariness and limits that we do not allow for the special and extra-ordinary powers God may give to us. We rightly avoid showing off, and taking on airs and graces, but we fail to accept God’s great power to do amazing things through us. Jesus, like Samson, performed wonderful miracles by the power of God. Let us on the one hand keep our feet on the ground and admit that we are but ordinary people, but on the other allow God to thrust greatness upon us, so that we can to do good in the world around us.
“A perfect wife – who can find her!” (Poverbs 31:10)
Shah Jahan fell in love with Mumtaz when he was 15 while she was 14, they married 5 years later, and he became one of the great Mogul Emperors. But then at the age of 37 Mumtaz died giving birth to their 14th child, leaving Shah Jahan completely heartbroken. He isolated himself for 12 months, and when he emerged again, his hair was white, and his body bent over like an old man. Still racked with grief Shah Jahan built a magnificent monument, the Taj Mahal by the Yamuna river, in which he laid Mumtaz,. In later years he was deposed and imprisoned on the other side of the river, from where he spent his days gazing across at the wonderful marble building in which the body of his beloved wife was interred.
One might see this as just a charming love story, but in reality Mumtaz was more than a pretty face. A women of high intelligence, and possessed of great diplomatic skill, she was the key influence in Shah Jahan’s prosperous reign. He had come to rely on her: the advice she gave was sound, she was the one he could turn to in total confidence. Her knowledge and perception of affairs made her a perfect sounding board on whom the emperor could frame his ideas. Indeed, after the death of Mumtaz, Jahan appeared to lose his ruling genius, and steadily lost control of his vast empire.
We see similar qualities in the key women portrayed in the Scriptures. They may be very much in the background, but they are crucial in guiding events; it is women who are seen as possessing wisdom. As a rough generalisation it can be said that men are described as characters who act, women as persons who perceive and guide. The familiar story of Adam and Eve, shows both as taking the wrong turn, but it is Eve who persuades Adam to act; he merely trails along after her.
Much more positively, we notice Mary the mother of Jesus truly understanding events, and guiding her son to take action. Her perception at the wedding feast of Cana, that the wine is running out, is not merely about a local problem, it is the realisation that the human race itself is failing, and needs help of a heavenly kind. The miracle she steers Jesus into will initiate divine intervention in human life. Mary has seen this, and persuades her son to make that opening move which begins with a miracle and culminates in the victory over death he achieves on the cross. At all key points she will be there, the barely noticed genius who understands God’s plan to rescue people, and guide events to fulfilment.
Mumtaz disappears into history, to the point where many tourists will visit the Taj Mahal without realising the wonderful person who is buried there. But she was the one who influenced events, as a woman of true greatness.