"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Wednesday, 11 February 2015


by a monk of Pachacamac
Long after Our Lady appeared to Saint Bernadette at Lourdes, and after an intensive investigation, the French Episcopate recognised the authenticity of the apparitions.   They commissioned a famous sculptor to make a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.   He visited Saint Bernadette and heard from her own lips all the information he could glean about the apparitions.    He then went back to his workshop and made an image of Our Lady according to her instructions.

He then visited her again in her convent to show her his statue.  He was surprised at her reaction.
"That is not Our Lady!" she exclaimed.
"But I made it exactly according to your instructions!" said the poor sculptor.
"I know; but it is not the Virgin," said Bernadette.
He then showed her a collection of pictures of Our Lady, each with its own title, "Our Lady of...." and asked her to point out to him the one that looks most like the Virgin that appeared to her.   She picked out one and showed it to him: it was the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, called in the East, "the Theotokos of the Passion."
"THAT is the Blessed Virgin!" she said emphatically, laying it before him.
"But it isn't anything like your description," said the poor man.
"I know, but it is the Virgin," she said.

What did St Bernadette see in the icon that was missing in the statue?   Remember that she had very little education and knew nothing of icons.   However, she was a saint, and there are things that saints know that they don't need to be taught.

The difference between an icon and a simple religious statue is that an icon is a fundamentally liturgical object, a liturgical proclamation of the Church's contact by the power of the Holy Spirit with the person or event depicted .   To paint an icon is a spiritual project, painted with prayer and religious awe, because the artist is putting his skills at the disposition of the Holy Spirit who wants to bring people into a relationship with whoever or whatever is the subject that is displayed on the icon.   The artist does not sign it: like St John the Baptist, he must decrease and let the subject matter increase.   Because iconography is a liturgical art and prayerfully looking at an icon is a liturgical act, an icon is not fully an icon until it has been blessed by the Church.

Did St Bernadette know all this?   Of course not!   But I think she at least dimly realised that, next to having an actual apparition of the Blessed Virgin, is having an icon of the Blessed Virgin, because it does not only remind us of her, it manifests the closeness of her presence.

Above is an icon of "Our Lady of Tenderness", recently painted by a monk of this monastery in Peru. "Our Lady of Tenderness", in icon-language, stresses the tender relationship between Mother and Son.   (Can you tell me how?)  Fr Alex is a pupil of Aidan Hart, an Orthodox iconographer and is at Belmont Abbey, our mother house, where he has been giving two courses, one on the theology of icons and another on actual painting icons.   He returns home to Pachacamac within a couple of weeks, but will be going back to Belmont in July to do another couple of courses.

'The babe in my womb leaped for joy.'  (Luke 1.44)

Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, carrying Jesus in her womb.  The Son of God is still invisible – not yet born, not even known about by Elizabeth;   yet Elizabeth recognises Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations, and life stirs in the deep places of her own body.  The one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, moves as if to greet the hope that is coming, even though it cannot yet be seen.

Mary appears to us here as the first missionary, 'the first messenger of the gospel' as Bishop Perrier of Lourdes has called her: the first human being to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to another;   and she does it simply by carrying Christ within her.  She reminds us that mission begins not in delivering a message in words but in the journey towards another person with Jesus in your heart.  She testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus, even before there are words or deeds to show him and explain him.  This story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth is in many ways a very strange one;  it's not about the communication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a primitive current of spiritual electricity running from the unborn Christ to the unborn Baptist.  But mission it undoubtedly is, because it evokes recognition and joy.  Something happens that prepares the way for all the words that will be spoken and the deeds that will be done.  The believer comes with Christ dwelling in them by faith, and God makes that current come alive, and a response begins, not yet in words or commitments, but simply in recognising that here is life.

When Mary came to Bernardette, she came at first as an anonymous figure, a beautiful lady, a mysterious 'thing', not yet identified as the Lord's spotless Mother.  And Bernardette – uneducated, uninstructed in doctrine – leapt with joy, recognising that here was life, here was healing.  Remember those accounts of her which speak of her graceful, gliding movements at the Lady's bidding;  as if she, like John in Elizabeth's womb, begins to dance to the music of the Incarnate Word who is carried by his Mother.  Only bit by bit does Bernardette find the words to let the world know;  only bit by bit, we might say, does she discover how to listen to the Lady and echo what she has to tell us.

So there is good news for all of us who seek to follow Jesus' summons to mission in his Name;  and good news too for all who find their efforts slow and apparently futile, and for all who still can't find their way to the 'right' words and the open commitment.  Our first and overarching task is to carry Jesus, gratefully and faithfully, with us in all our doings: like St Teresa of Avila, we might do this quite prosaically by having with us always a little picture or a cross in our pockets, so that we constantly 'touch base' with the Lord.  We can do it by following the guidance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and repeating silently the Jesus Prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner'.  And if we are faithful in thus carrying Christ with us, something will happen, some current will stir and those we are with will feel, perhaps well below the conscious surface, a movement of life and joy which they may not understand at all.  And we may never see it or know about it;  people may not even connect it with us, yet it will be there – because Jesus speaks always to what is buried in the heart of men and women, the destiny they were made for.  Whether they know it or not, there is that within them which is turned towards him.  Keep on carrying Jesus and don't despair: mission will happen, in spite of all, because God in Christ has begun his journey into the heart.

And when we encounter those who say they would 'like to believe' but can't, who wonder how they will ever find their way to a commitment that seems both frightening and hard to understand, we may have something to say to them too:  'Don't give up;  try and hold on to the moments of deep and mysterious joy;  wait patiently for something to come to birth in you.'  It certainly isn't for us as Christians to bully and cajole, and to try and force people into commitments they are not ready to make – but we can and should seek to be there, carrying Jesus, and letting his joy come through, waiting for the leap of recognition in someone's heart.

Of course, as often as not, we ourselves are the one who need to hear the good news;  we need people around us who carry Jesus, because we who call ourselves believers all have our moments of confusion and loss of direction.  Others fail us or hurt us;  the Church itself may seem confused or weak or even unloving, and we don't feel we are being nourished as we need, and directed as we should be.  Yet this story of Mary and Elizabeth tells us that the Incarnate Word of God is always already on the way to us, hidden in voices and faces and bodies familiar and unfamiliar.  Silently, Jesus is constantly at work, and he is seeking out what is deepest in us, to touch the heart of our joy and hope.

Perhaps when we feel lost and disillusioned, he is gently drawing us away from a joy or a hope that is only human, limited to what we can cope with or what we think on the surface of our minds that we want.  Perhaps it's part of a journey towards his truth, not just ours.  We too need to look and listen for the moments of recognition and the leap of joy deep within.  It may be when we encounter a person in whom we sense that the words we rather half-heartedly use about God are a living and actual reality.  (That's why the lives of the saints, ancient and modern, matter so much.)  It may be when a moment of stillness or wonder suddenly overtakes us in the middle of a familiar liturgy that we think we know backwards, and we have for a second the feeling that this is the clue to everything – if only we could put it into words.  It may be when we come to a holy place, soaked in the hopes and prayers of millions, and suddenly see that, whatever we as individuals may be thinking or feeling, some great reality is moving all around and beneath and within us, whether we grasp it or not.  These are our 'Elizabeth' moments – when life stirs inside, heralding some future with Christ that we can't yet get our minds around.

It's very tempting to think of mission as something to be done in the same way we do – or try to do – so much else, with everything depending on planning and assessments of how we're doing, and whether the results are coming out right.  For that matter, it's tempting to think of the Church's whole life in these sorts of terms.  Of course we need to use our intelligence, we need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad outcomes, we need to marshal all the skill and enthusiasm we can when we respond to God's call to share his work of transforming the world through Jesus and his Spirit.  But Mary's mission tells us that there is always a deeper dimension, grounded in the Christ who is at work unknown and silent, reaching out to the deeply buried heart of each person and making the connection;  living faithfully at the heart of the Church itself, in the middle of its disasters and betrayals and confusions, still giving himself without reserve.  All that we call 'our' mission depends on this;  and if we are wise, we know that we are always going to be surprised by the echoes and connections that come to life where we are not expecting it. 

True mission is ready to be surprised by God – 'surprised by joy', in the lovely phrase of  C. S. Lewis.  Elizabeth knew the whole history of Israel and how it was preparing the way for God to come and visit his people – but she was still surprised into newness of life and understanding when the child leapt in her womb.  Bernardette's neighbours and teachers and parish clergy knew all they thought they needed to know about the Mother of God – and they needed to be surprised by this inarticulate, powerless, marginal teenager who had leapt up in the joy of recognition to meet Mary as her mother, her sister, bearer of her Lord and Redeemer.   Our prayer here must be that, renewed and surprised in this holy place, we may be given the overshadowing strength of the Spirit to carry Jesus wherever we go, in the hope that joy will leap from heart to heart in all our human encounters;  and that we may also be given courage to look and listen for that joy in our own depths when the clarity of the good news seems far away and the sky is cloudy. 

But here today, with Elizabeth and Bernardette, we say, in thankful amazement, 'Why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?'  And we recognise that our heart's desire is met and the very depth of our being stirred into new life. 

©  Rowan Williams 2008

- See more at: http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1221/archbishop-of-canterburys-sermon-for-the-international-mass-at-lourdes#sthash.IWDN6HMx.dpuf


Prayer to the Theotokos

Our most gracious Queen, our hope, O Theotokos, who receivest the orphaned and art the intercessor for the stranger; the joy of those in sorrow, protectress of the wronged, see our distress, see our affliction! Help us, for we are helpless. Feed us, for we are strangers and pilgrims. Thou knowest our offences; forgive them, and resolve them as thou dost will. For we know no other help but thee, no other intercessor, no gracious comforter, only thee, O Theotokos to guard and protect us for ages of ages. Amen

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