Fr John Bollan is Director of Spiritual and Pastoral Formation in the Religious Education Department at the University of Glasgow. He shows how scriptural passages yield spiritual richness for the teacher and he also supplies a practical tool-kit of materials to help students and teachers to develop their own faith formation programme.
pp 189. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
Part II Reflections from Scripture and the classroom
Part II A suggested programme and resources
A WORD ABOUT SPIRITUALITY
Blowing in the wind
Today many people are more comfortable describing themselves as ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’. I suppose in our increasingly secular and materialistic world we should be grateful even for that. To my mind, the best visual expression of this is a scene in the film American Beauty. Although some might raise their eyebrows at a movie which takes a subversive approach to domestic propriety, it is actually quite a moral story. It shows us two young loners who drift together, finding common cause in their contempt for the perceived hypocrisies of their parents’ generation and its stifling routines. One day the boy shows the girl a film of the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. While we might expect footage of a sunset or a mountain panorama, what he gives us is a silent movie of a white grocery bag blown about by the wind. The word he uses to describe its motion is dancing. This discarded bit of plastic is dancing with him and in doing so it makes him aware of an unseen force behind things, a reassuring and consoling presence. Those teenagers speak for a whole generation – indeed more than one generation – who want to rebel against the suffocation of their spirits. We have a hard-wired sensitivity to what the boy calls ‘this incredibly benevolent force’ and in describing themselves as spiritual most people are implicitly affirming this. What sets the twenty-first century apart is the way most of us are happy to leave that force without a name and our relationship with it free of the constraints of words and images. It just is.
Since this a book about spirituality and the spiritual lives of educators, it might be worthwhile clarifying what is meant by this increasingly vague word. To borrow the imagery of the film for a little longer, we are indeed moved and guided by this force. We experience its energy, impelled and propelled throughout our lives. Beyond the apparent randomness and occasional solitude of our existence, there is the intimacy and rhythm of something very like a dance. This is God moving with us, through us, in us. Spirituality is, first and foremost, the awareness of this energy we call grace. It is grace which takes us as it finds us and moves us closer to God. Or rather, since God is everywhere, it simply makes us more conscious of that loving presence. Spirituality also describes the ways and the language in which we express our relationship with God and our fellow seekers-after-God. Although we respond to God in ways which are uniquely personal, we do not do so in isolation. We are enriched by the insight and experience of those who have surrendered to the motions of grace. By reflecting on their accounts of darkness and light, agony and ecstasy, we get a sense of our bearings. For Christians there is a treasury of accumulated wisdom stretching back thousands of years to the pages of the Old Testament. In Jesus we have someone to get to grips with in making sense of our spiritual lives. He reveals this force as ‘Father’ and this wind as ‘Spirit’:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
We are not blowing aimlessly through life. No matter how absurd and circuitous our route may seem, grace moves us in the right path. The Holy Spirit knows where it is going. This same Spirit breathes through the diaries and stories of the Saints in which their own spiritualities are preserved or, better still, alive and accessible to us. In this book there are echoes of Ignatius, Benedict, Augustine, Margaret Mary and many others. While their writings are sometimes regarded as brands or schools of spirituality, they are all expressions of a desire to live ever more fully the life of Christ. As teachers we certainly have something to learn from them. At the same time, we are also moved by grace and we should be attentive to what the Spirit is saying to us. Do not be afraid to sketch out your spiritual vision because that is something Christ is doing in you. At least that is the way I understand those final words in John’s Gospel about the whole world being too small a place to contain all the books about Christ. We are all still writing.
‘TELL AND SHOW’
The Transfiguration as Learning Environment
As soon as I had typed the above sentence I was overcome with a strong urge to change it. Anyone glancing at the words ‘The Transfiguration as Learning Environment’ might well be tempted to shut the book as quickly as possible for fear of being buried under an avalanche of edu-babble. That said, I decided to keep the title as it is, for the simple reason that the terminology of the classroom should not be kept separate trom the language of faith: grace can seep into the cracks and wrinkles of human experience and education is no exception.
In this chapter I would like to explore the Transfiguration of Jesus, both as it is recounted in the Gospel and depicted in sacred art. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini penned a brilliant pastoral letter on this very subject which has been translated as Saving Beauty. I recommend it to anyone who wants to approach this key episode from an aesthetic angle. My main aim in this reflection is to consider the Transfiguration as a ‘lesson’ prepared by Christ. Just how ‘successful’ the lesson was, is for you to evaluate.
Background to the lesson
It is important for us to consider the disciples as learners. The very word ‘disciple’ implies a relationship of listening and learning. Jesus very clearly assumes the role of ‘Rabbi’ or teacher and the Gospels are quite unambiguous in describing much of his activity as ‘teaching’. Even those ‘bits’ of his ministry which do not involve instruction, such as healings or exorcisms, are meant to convey a clear message about the nearness of God’s Kingdom. The real thrust of his mission is the culmination of what we call the Paschal Mystery, the events surrounding his suffering, death and resurrection.
This is the background for the ‘lesson’ of the Transfiguration. Ever since the rather embarrassing end to John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus is increasingly focused on his own. The full horror of the impending crucifixion is hard
for us to grasp, accustomed as we are to the happy ending of the story. For the disciples, however, the idea that their friend and teacher could be exposed to the most accursed of deaths was so extreme as to be inconceivable. So the events on the mountain are designed to help the disciples, especially the privileged inner circle of Peter, James and John, to jump the gap between the abject awfulness of the cross and the hidden workings of providence.
The lesson itself
The Gospels all agree that the Transfiguration takes place on a high mountain, with Mark and Matthew adding a note of privacy: although this is to be an elevated experience, there is also an element of intimacy to the gathering. Perhaps to this note of privacy should be added a hint of individuality. Although the disciples are there as a little group, Jesus intends each one of them to take something unique from the encounter. The physical location of the Transfiguration is important not just in providing a setting (the higher we go, the more our perspectives are altered) but also for the effort which is required to get there. Luke adds a little detail which is also significant: the ostensible purpose of their hike is to pray and it is against the backdrop of prayer that the transformation occurs.
Suddenly, without warning, Jesus changes. While all three evangelists comment on the brilliance of Christ’s clothing, Luke and Matthew note a change in his aspect: ‘his face shone like the sun’ (Matthew 17:2). The light comes from within him, like the sun. This transformation is not brought out about by any outside agency. Jesus is not ‘floodlit on Tabor’. Then the next element of the lesson unfolds: Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus and speak with him (although only Luke ventures to suggest what their conversation was about). It is traditionally considered that these figures represent the two great streams of religious inspiration – law and prophecy. Jesus appears firmly within the context of his people’s religious understanding and yet adds something new. ‘His passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:31) is hinted at in the foregoing ‘lessons’ of the law and the prophetic utterances of Israel but this next step is a radical and challenging one. His passing is going to be accomplished through rejection, suffering and death. Christ is leading his disciples to an awareness of what his words about the cross actually mean for them all; not some metaphorical surrender of life but a nasty and brutal seizing of it.
What is really happening in this privileged moment? The disciples are offered, albeit for a fleeting instant, a chance to see Jesus as his Father sees him. This is a moment of true insight. Peter, James and John are seeing in to Christ through the eyes of Love itself. Love, which has the power to transform the ‘ordinariness’ of life, allows the disciples to bask in the light of a radiance which is in Jesus all the time. Not all insights can be clearly articulated. Peter clutches at words to convey something of the depth of their wonder (only Mark refers to it as fear). ‘It is easy to be patronising about his suggestion to pitch tents; no matter how daft it may sound, Peter is trying to get hold of this event and break it up into manageable concepts. He is taking a transcendent experience and trying to fit it into the framework of his understanding of the world and its workings. This is not to be scoffed at: Peter is attempting what any intelligent person would do.
To use the language of lesson planning, what Jesus intends the disciples to take from the experience is an image
of himself in glory, reinforced by the words of the Father that he is ‘the Beloved’. The next time they see Jesus in a similar setting it will be under very changed circumstances: not in glory, but utter humiliation; not in the company of God’s spokesmen, but of two condemned criminals – and his fate no better than theirs. Although this is the intended outcome of this particular episode, it would be fair to say that the disciples are on a fairly steep learning curve and do not immediately grasp what Jesus has been trying to get across. They fail to understand what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean (nor do they ask the teacher!) and allow the sorrowful spectacle of Golgotha to drive the lesson of Tabor from their minds. It is only much further down the road that these three disciples are able to reflect back on their experience and the connection is successfully made.
Looking at Christ: ‘Eye contact’ for the teacher
The Transfiguration is chiefly a visual experience: the ‘lesson’ is conveyed by looking at Jesus, rather than simply attending to the voice of the Father. Virtually all the artistic imaginings of this Gospel episode show the disciples shielding their eyes against the glare of glory. This seems to be something of a missed opportunity, especially as Luke suggests that they ‘stayed awake’ to miss nothing of this awesome spectacle. Teachers are only too aware of the value of illustration: a well-used image can be twice as effective as words. But the purpose of their looking at Christ is also bound up with the way in which he had looked at them indeed, into them. The lofty mountain setting serves to underscore the ‘leg up’ that this Transfiguration is giving the disciples in terms of their perspective. Not only are they seeing Jesus as the Father sees him; they are also seeing themselves as Jesus sees them. Their potential for goodness and greatness is unlocked by Christ’s insight. He has the gift to ‘look and love’ and see what is lacking in someone’s life; his penetrating but respectful gaze provokes the amazed response ‘but how do you know me?’.
Eye contact often features in the arsenal of classroom management: a quelling look can put down a potential mutiny. I have seen teachers who would have made Genghis Khan turn-tail with a raised eyebrow. Yet by far the most important element of eye contact is the tacit signal it sends: ‘I see you.’ Some of the most self-destructive behaviours in life often issue from a sense of futility; that nothing matters, that nothing I do (good or bad) gets noticed. To counter this Jesus says quite clearly that the Father sees all that is done in secret. This loving scrutiny is not some invasion of privacy: we are God’s business. ‘Why, every hair on your head has been counted.’ The Transfiguration invites teachers to make eye contact with Christ and to see themselves reflected in that light. Teachers, in turn, are called to look at others in the same way, especially those poorest of children who are starved of love and frequently ignored. In other words, these rough-edged ‘weans’ (children) have never been looked into shape by someone who genuinely respects and cares for them. To ‘look someone into shape’ is to make them aware that they are seen, understood and accepted. Even if not everything they do can be approved of, they are still accepted. Disruptive behaviour may be a form of attention seeking, but there are times when it is simply a byproduct of feeling insignificant. It does not matter what you do because you do not matter either.
What I am trying to say might be better served by an illustration. One of the most moving aspects of the story of Lourdes is the way Bernadette describes the eye contact she made with ‘the Lady’ in the grotto. As a young girl, especially with her poor, unlettered background, Bernadette would frequently be addressed in the curtest of terms. Seldom would anyone take the trouble to actually look at her while speaking to her. What struck Bernadette about the Lady was that she looked at her ‘as one person looks at another’. She was left in no doubt that she was the object of the vision’s attention and words requesting – politely – that Bernadette might do her the courtesy of coming back to the grotto for two weeks. Those words are certainly full of grace, and brought about an equally gracious response: grace invites graciousness.
Beauty in a world of ugliness
The Transfiguration affirms beauty, especially that extraordinary beauty which shows itself in unexpected places. There is a real need for beauty in our world. We are constantly bombarded with images ‘which some viewers might find upsetting’ (as the newsreaders warn us): death, famine, disease, violence. The explosion of the Internet means that these distressing images are only ever a mouse-click away. A couple of years ago I found myself sitting at the ‘Internet corner’ of a hotel lobby beside a child who was browsing through autopsy photographs. When I pointed out to him that that sort of thing wasn’t for children he looked at me as if I were a monster. I am very concerned about the potential after-effects of exposing children to such images of real-life horror. There is, I think, a kind of stealth trauma which creeps up on children (and adults) when they are subjected to a drip-feed of such images. Not that long ago I was observing a student teach a very impressive lesson to a Primary One class. She had her little charges sitting around her chair, legs in a basket, gazing up at her as she showed them some pictures of autumn. ‘Now, boys and girls, I’m going to show you an amazing picture,’ she told the class with infectious enthusiasm. One little boy sitting beside her chair recoiled and covered his eyes pleading, ‘Miss, don’t show me anything yucky!’ My first reaction was to smile at this oversensitivity but then I wondered just how many yucky things he might have seen in his short life. The world is only too full of yuckiness.
What the Transfiguration offers is an antidote to all that conspires against beauty. The three figures on the mountaintop also mirror a triptych of Gospel scenes, with the Passion and the Resurrection completing this story arc or rainbow of theological colour. Although brutality and disfigurement dominate the central scene, these give way to the beauty which precedes and follows. The sadness of Christ’s death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. It is worth remembering that this pattern is also played out in life in general. Whenever we enter the ‘dark night’, be it in our private or professional lives, it is important to remember that it will pass. We may be overshadowed for a time, but only for a time.
Tell and show: Witnesses on the ground
Matthew and Mark’s accounts more or less end with Jesus instructing the apostles to say nothing about what they witnessed; Luke opts for a spontaneous ‘vow of silence’ on their part. At first sight this may sound slightly odd. Surely they would have been bursting to tell the others what they had seen. Why should they wait until ‘after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’, whatever that might mean? My handle on this apparent conundrum is that Jesus is using a layered teaching approach: the full impact of the experience will only become clear later.” I find this to be especially true of students in teacher-formation programmes. What they are being offered by their teachers sometimes appears of dubious relevance in the short-term. You might receive positive feedback from students on an enjoyable lecture presentation but still hear niggling doubts about its practical value. Students often voice a desire simply to be taught what to teach, as if being a page ahead of the class were enough. My students have become familiar with the mantra, ‘You may not get this right now, but later on you will see’! As I have suggested above, the disciples are only to grasp the depth of this encounter in the light of Easter. It is then that they can begin to witness to the whole mystery of Christ.
Although the disciples are described as witnesses we should not overlook the fact that Jesus himself is ‘the faithful witness’ (Revelation 1:5). His teaching is not just about telling, but showing as well. This sets out the pattern which his disciples are to follow as they extend the Gospel message to the ends of the earth. Their witness is not just a matter of words. The Word became flesh and so their words must also take solid form in their lives and actions. As much as I love Raphael’s famous mosaic of the Transfiguration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, I am a little disappointed that the three central figures are levitating, caught up in an eddy of wind and light. To a generation brought up on a diet of science-fiction imagery, they look like alien abductees with the spaceship just out of the frame. The icons of Eastern Christianity seem more faithful to the Gospel account: Jesus, Moses and Elijah are standing on solid ground. For all the transcendent power of this event, at no point does anyone involved lose touch with the earth.
No matter how heavenly it may be, the message of the Gospel needs to be grounded in reality. It is far too easy to take the Word made flesh and turn it back into words again. The key challenge for the Catholic teacher is to witness to the whole package of the faith and to ensure that their words are confirmed by their actions. What our children and young people need are real people engaged in living the faith in the often messy circumstances of the twenty-first century. Teaching reinforced by example is the authentic continuation of Christ’s ministry. Here was one who taught with authority and not like the scribes. His witness was genuine and compelling because he was being true to himself.
If we as teachers are to be true to him and his ‘lesson plan’, we must be prepared to replicate his methods and, those of the disciples. Their witness took on a new shape when they were asked to embrace suffering. This they were able to do because the light of Tabor was never fully extinguished in their hearts and minds. Even when the demands of the Gospel conflicted with the ‘normal and sensible’ options offered by the world – such as the chance of staying alive – they chose martyrdom, which is the most exalted form of witness there is.
The next time you stand in front of a class and find the words are dying on your lips, and your heart is overshadowed, look at your feet: they are planted on the same earth that witnessed the awesome transformation of Jesus and the inner illumination of his friends. Then look at the class: if the eyes looking back at you are filled with boredom, indifference or incomprehension, do not despair. This is just one moment in the unfolding of understanding which started before you and does not end with you. All that you have to give in that moment, in that place, is yourself. Offer that, and the circuit between you and that high mountain-top will be complete. The class may not be dazzled, but you should become more aware of your own light. You might even catch your inner voice echoing those words of Peter, ‘It is wonderful for us to be here’.
An interesting aspect of Raphael’s Transfiguration is that he brings his visual account of Christ in glory together with the next episode in the Gospel. The (top tier) of the painting shows Christ caught up in shining splendour while, at the foot of the mountain, the boy possessed by an unclean spirit is being brought along by his anguished parents. Here it is Raphael who is offering us a lesson through art: here he shows us what such moments of clarity and insight are actually for. What we experience on the high places is always in the service of what we are asked to do in the plain, ordinary moments of life. Notice too that the Transfiguration represents an all too brief respite from the harsh demands of Jesus’ ministry.
We should not be altogether caught out by the rapid alteration between triumph and challenge, between the sublime and the mundane.
When Words Fail Us
There is one song that any mouth can say,
A song that lingers when all singing dies.
Joyce Kilmer, The Rosary
By now I am well prepared for the blank expression on the faces of my students when I begin to talk about the Rosary. For most young(ish) people, if the Rosary had ever been a feature of their prayer repertoire by the time they hit their teens it has undergone something of an eclipse. This happens for a variety of reasons. Many people are (rightly) turned off by the unthinking, unfeeling monotone in which most public recitations of the Rosary are conducted. It is sometimes hard to see how hearts and minds could be raised by a prayer which seldom seems to lift its landing-gear. There is a reason, however, that the Church continues to hold this particular form of prayer in such high esteem. It has taken me a while to appreciate this. If I had to put my finger on the moment when I began to understand the Rosary it would be during the last hours of a saintly little woman in Paisley.
I used to visit this woman each month to bring her Holy Communion and over the years I got to know her quite well. I enjoyed her sprightly banter with the eldest daughter who shared her house and provided constant care for her mother. A fall during the night led to the diagnosis of an untreatable tumour and the mother was moved to the local hospice, where she spent the little time remaining to her. I was aware that she had three other children (I had seen their photographs on the mantle-piece) but I only got to meet them the day before she died. Although she was no longer able to receive the Eucharist, I took the chance to pop in and see her as I was passing. I knew she was very poorly and, as I was going to be away from the parish for a couple of days, I was concerned that I might not get to see her again. As soon as I walked into her room I sensed that all was not well. This was the first time that all four children had been together in the same room for a good number of years and it was a difficult reunion. There appeared to be a division of opinion as to what arrangements were to be made for the inevitable moment of the mother’s death. My opening gambit – that their Mum was not dead yet and could hear them bickering – at least gave them the opportunity to direct their pent-up feelings at me instead of each other. By now I am used to this kind of reaction: as a freshly ordained priest it was sometimes hard not to take this personally but now I am a little wiser. Thankfully it was their mother who came to my rescue: just as they were about to really turn on me she managed to work her right hand out from underneath the bedcover. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, it was as if this merest of movements had become amplified, as though she were shouting for everyone to be quiet. I noticed that she was holding her Rosary and, albeit almost imperceptibly, she was. telling the beads between finger and thumb. What possessed me then I do not know but I suggested that we join with her in saying the Rosary. I experienced a little panic as I realised that I did not have any beads but managed to make a weak little joke about having ten fingers so it would be alright. You could have heard a pin drop (for all the wrong reasons). Still, undeterred, I began the recitation of the glorious mysteries.
To my relief (and I would have to say surprise) one by one the family fell in line. The mother continued to tell her
beads, wordlessly but effectively leading us in the rhythms of this prayer. As we reached the end she attempted to bless herself but could no longer raise her hand. I recalled her telling me of the times she would bless them with Holy Water before they headed out the door and suggested that this would be a good time for them to return the favour. All but one of them did (the daughter who lived with her found it too upsetting) and the matriarch settled back into a contented sleep which more or less continued until her death the next day.
I thanked the family for sharing that time with their mother. Somewhat sheepishly, the other three children confessed that the last time they had ‘said the Rosary’ was at their father’s funeral some thirty-five years previously. In that time their relationship with the Church had more or less fallen apart and they had followed paths which led away from the faith of their childhood. ‘It just goes to show you,’ said her son, ‘that it never leaves you. It’s in there somewhere.’ He was absolutely right and that is, I think, the strength of the Rosary. Some may argue that the constant repetition of the words forms a barrier to truly getting inside the prayer. I would suggest that it is precisely this mantra-like quality which allows people to be carried along by it. The issue for that emotionally exhausted family was that they did not really know how to be together and what to say to each other. In the absence of positive words and feelings, negative sentiments often come more easily to hand. What the Rosary achieved in that fraught moment was little short of miraculous: it took the heat out of that situation and gave them words they could say together. And not just any words. They were able to say words expressive of faith, hope and love. In that moment they were able to reconnect with something that had deeper roots in their memories and lives than the gaps which had opened up between them as a family. It was, in other words, an occasion of grace. More importantly, the moment of grace was prolonged beyond the woman’s death and real healing came to that family.
They were happy to talk about what they felt happening to them in that room and they are happy for me to talk about it as well. Their experience perfectly demonstrates the truth in that line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem: the Rosary is indeed ‘one song that any mouth can say’.
The Rosary is a prayer which can be as sophisticated or as simple as you like. When it is built into a programme of Lectio Divina, its identity as a deeply scriptural prayer becomes apparent. Pope John Paul II’s addition of five new Mysteries of Light gives the Rosary an even stronger scriptural and theological basis. Even more pertinent to Catholic Teacher Formation, the late Pope was keen to emphasise what the Rosary had to offer children and young people.
To pray the Rosary for children, and even more with children, training them from their earliest years to experience this daily ‘pause for prayer’ with the family, is admittedly not the solution to every problem, but it is a spiritual aid which should not be underestimated. It could be objected that the Rosary seems hardly suited to the taste of children and young people of today. However, perhaps the objection is directed to an impoverished method of praying it. Furthermore, without prejudice to the Rosary’s basic structure, there is nothing to stop children and young people from praying it either within the family or in groups – with appropriate symbolic and practical aids to understanding and appreciation. Why not try it? With God’s help, a pastoral approach to youth which is positive, impassioned and creative – as shown by the World Youth Days! – is capable of achieving quite remarkable results. If the Rosary is well presented, I am sure that young people will once more surprise adults by the way they make this prayer their own and recite it with the enthusiasm typical of their age group.
The Holy Father encouraged us to be creative in presenting the Rosary to children. This is particularly true in considering the visual aids which children and young people often require to get a hold on the mystery. The Alive-O series, which is the agreed Catechetical programme for primary school children in Ireland and Scotland, offers thoughtful suggestions for engaging a class in discovering the Rosary in new ways. A class of younger children might be enthusiastic about making pictures which relate to each of the mysteries, while an older class might benefit from searching for contemporary images which illustrate the events brought to life by the Rosary. Clearly the goal for everyone, however, is that we are able to visualise the mysteries in our own minds. This ancient prayer should fuel the sacred imagination of God’s people. In the ‘toolkit’, which forms the second part of this book, I have had the temerity to offer what I call The Teacher’s Rosary. Hopefully it will forge a chain of new ideas in your imagination and enable you to find something fresh growing in this neglected garden.
THE TEACHER’S ROSARY
Although the Rosary is easily dismissed as an outmoded form of prayer, it can, as I hope I have described earlier, offer a way of reflecting upon those bits of our human experience which we share with the protagonists of the Gospel. When other words fail us, the Rosary can offer a framework for our thoughts or perhaps even a sort of scaffolding to which we can tie our thoughts when everything else seems to be coming adrift. Although I have gathered these reflections under the heading of The Teacher’s Rosary, they are general enough to cross over into any sphere of work or life.
Even if the prospect of praying the respective decades of ‘Hail Mary’s’ one after the other leaves you cold, you might derive some benefit from exploring these mysteries as part of your own prayer. After all, the word ‘mystery’ has more to do with opening windows than solving puzzles. For example, some of these reflections could form part of an exercise in Lectio Divina.
The Joyful Mysteries
The Annunciation: On courtesy
The angel and the woman engage in a gracious conversation. No orders are given, but God’s plan is presented as a scenario which only the most shuttered soul could refuse. The courtesy of this encounter is arresting: Gabriel’s words stir life in the womb of the Virgin and she has shown herself worthy of the greeting ‘highly favoured’.
How do I express my ‘will’? Is it delivered as an ultimatum or an invitation? Am I aware of the power of words and my ability to build up or knock down by what I say and how I say it?
The Visitation: On cooperation
The helping hand extended to Elizabeth is itself a lesson in cooperation. Mary was not sent for but took the initiative; she comes not so much as a helper but as a sharer in joy since Elizabeth had also been touched by the grace of God who had (taken away her shame). Both women are cooperators with God and each other. In a very real sense what Mary does for Elizabeth is not as important as what Elizabeth does for Mary: her greeting confirms what the angel had spoken – she had indeed become the Mother of the Lord.
How ready am I to help others, especially if it makes demands which are beyond the call of duty or contract? Do I take the initiative in offering help to someone who might be slow to ask? By the same token, do I graciously accept support when it is offered to me? Remember that faith is confirmed (or strengthened) in charity.
The Nativity: On difficult births
Beneath the sentimentality which so often attends our recreations of the Nativity story lies a deeply unsentimental truth: God is born into a world of shadows in which shepherds and kings offer us glimpses into the lives of the poor and unregarded or the rich and insecure. In the midst sits Mary who contemplates the raising of the lowly and the fall of the mighty. There too lies the child who is the cause of all this: a new life already overshadowed by the threat of death.
It is important to acknowledge that all births and beginnings carry an element of risk. The risk may lie in our hopes being too fragile or our designs too rigid. Sometimes the struggle comes from the opposition of others who, Herod-like, feel threatened by change or any initiative which is not their own.
The Presentation: On the wisdom of experience
Mary and Joseph encounter Anna and Simeon: the young meet the old in God’s house and something beautiful is exchanged not so much advice as a blessing. Of course the blessing words are also hard-edged, sharp like the sword which will pierce Mary’s soul. Yet here too Mary shows herself to be a woman of reflection, pondering these words and feeling their weight.
The advice of our elders is often a mixed blessing. There can be times when ‘advice’ is merely criticism in thin disguise. But there are times when we should listen to the wisdom of experience, that sense of proportion one acquires simply by being around long enough. Those words of Simeon in particular prove to be a mystery to Mary but she resists the temptation to ignore a message that is hard to bear or grasp. Do I jettison what I find it hard to understand or accept?
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: On respecting space
Mary and Joseph’s reactions are refreshingly unrestrained: there is that mix of anger, relief and love which any parent would recognise. Perhaps for the first time, Jesus is behaving in a way that is marking him out as an individual in his own right. He may not quite be ‘testing the limits of his freedom’ as children on the cusp of adolescence tend to do, but he is certainly showing a desire to communicate his inner world to those on the outside. This is a tentative step on the journey towards selfhood and a rehearsal for the Gospel.
The sword mentioned by Simeon makes a brief appearance in this passage. But it is the ‘cord’ binding mother and child which is being severed at this point. Mary must accept and respect her son’s need to flex his muscles and live a life which is not simply an extension of her own. Difficult, apparently thoughtless behaviour is not the end of the world and more often than not the beginning of a new one. Knowing when and how to create respectful spaces for this growth is a grace. As C. Day Lewis has expressed it: ‘Selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved ‘in the letting go.’
The Mysteries of Light
The Baptism of Christ: On joining the queue
Christ’s baptism is not like any other; he does not actually need baptism (since he is the sinless Lamb of God). So how are we to account for his appearance at the Jordan? On the one hand, his immersion in the waters of the river is a sanctifying gesture, one echoed in the celebrant lowering the Paschal candle into the font at the Easter Vigil. The Lord’s baptism is also a gesture of radical humility which makes explicit God’s decision to make his dwelling among us. Jesus waits his turn among sinful humanity and allows himself to be ministered to by John.
What defines a really good teacher is not only the ability to stand before a class and teach but also the courage to stand among them and share something of their lives. This is exactly what we observe in Christ our Teacher.
The Wedding at Cana: On asking for what you need
The first of the ‘signs’ worked by Jesus arises from two things: a simple need and a compassionate intervention. A young couple are spared the embarrassment of a wedding without wine by Mary’s decision to ask her son to help. What looks at first like reluctance becomes an action of superabundant generosity.
Sometimes we know what we need but cannot quite find the words to ask for it, whether it be pride or awkwardness which hampers us. If we know someone else is in need, do we know how to intervene discreetly? If we are in a position to help, can we do that without drawing attention to ourselves or the need itself?
The Preaching of the Kingdom: On teaching as kerygma
The core of the Gospel is Christ’s proclamation that the Kingdom is near at hand. He, in fact, embodied this Kingdom he was proclaiming. This message is underpinned by the miracles and healings of Christ’s public ministry and continued in the preaching of the Apostles after the resurrection.
What the crowds heard from the lips of Jesus and the disciples is essentially what we proclaim to our children. This proclamation (kerygma) is the key truth at the heart of all Christian education, namely that the Christ-event changes the way we understand our world and ourselves. Far from being a marginal extra in a busy curriculum, it is the law which underpins all our reasoning and creativity.
The Transfiguration: On seeing through the eyes of love
The disciples are allowed a brief glimpse of Jesus as the Father sees him, as ‘Light from Light’ or even ‘Love from Love’. Jesus is shown in context, between the Law and the Prophets, for that privileged audience of apostles.
Cynics and Romantics both claim that ‘Love is blind’. In this mystery, however, we are shown that Grace lends a real depth to our perception. In a world where judgements both snap and superficial tend to predominate, the Transfiguration challenges us to see into the heart of people and situations.
The Institution of the Eucharist: On the sharing of life
What is about to unfold in the ‘real world’ is sacramentally enacted in the Last Supper with the handing over, the breaking, the pouring out. The Church reads the Passion narrative in the light of the Eucharist and understands the Mass as the death and resurrection of Jesus made real and present once again.
The Eucharist not only makes the Church, it makes the Christian too. Those gestures of blessing, breaking and sharing are written into rhythms of every Christian life and the challenge is to accept them in the same spirit of ‘free acceptance’ as Jesus. This is no mean feat: while we might find it easy to accept a blessing, the inevitable demands of being shared among the many can be such that we wish the cup to pass us by.
The Sorrowful Mysteries
The Agony in the Garden: On being alone with our decisions
The account of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is reminiscent in many ways of his temptation in the wilderness. Both are times of trial when, explicitly or implicitly, the temptation to be someone else is set before Jesus. Surrendering to the Devil’s suggestions or running from the ‘hour’ would be inauthentic choices. In order to truly be himself, Jesus must see things through to the end.
Although we can be guided (or tempted) by the advice of others, most of the crucial decisions we must make in life are ours and ours alone. Before all his significant choices Jesus spends time in intense prayer and, in the examples we have just mentioned, the struggle of decision is followed by an experience of consolation. A sense of peace accompanies all genuine discernment.
The Scourging at the Pillar: On humiliation
The Roman custom of flogging condemned criminals was the overture to an appalling spectacle of torture. Whoever devised the stages of a crucifixion clearly had an understanding of how the mind works as well as the body. For not only was it a particularly cruel form of physical torment, but it was also calculated to shame the dying man by exposing his crime and his nakedness.
To be humiliated, either by another person or simply by circumstances, is a deeply wounding experience. While a physical injury may heal and fade, a mark of shame can linger on. Whenever our shortcomings or inconsistencies are exposed to the scrutiny of others, we are often surprised at how vulnerable we really are. To be deliberately humiliated or to knowingly humiliate another is an act of violence: the very expression ‘a tongue lashing’ says it all.
The Crowning with Thorns: On the ambiguity of success
When Jesus is crowned with a crown or ‘cap’ of thorns, it is part of that same routine of humiliation. The eyes of faith, however, are invited to see this as the soldiers prophesying in spite of themselves: Jesus really is a King, really is their King. This surrender to death is the crowning achievement of his life.
The cross does not look like success. What we now regard as the defining symbol of the Christian faith was, for hundreds of years, a concept which caused awkwardness and apologetic stammering. At its heart, the cross is a sign of ambiguity and revolution. The passion of Jesus is revolutionary because it upsets the ‘normal’ pattern of life and death. It is ambiguous because it makes us reassess what we understand by failure and victory.
The Carrying of the Cross: On emerging from the crowd
Jesus is made to carry his cross and we are invited to reflect upon this fresh misery. But this mystery also calls to mind the ‘admittedly forced’ help given by Simon. A reluctant and potentially anonymous figure is changed by this encounter into someone whose name and family would be familiar to the young Church.
A strategy for survival (and even success) is to keep your head down, to say nothing and stand well back trom the action. This was certainly not the case for Simon: although the choice was made for him by the guards he still had the option of sinking back into the crowd once he had served his purpose. Jesus was a dangerous man to know, even in death. Am I prepared to step out trom the crowd to challenge an injustice or indeed to forsake the ‘crowd position’ altogether in order to assume a prophetic stance on life?
The Crucifixion: On confronting death
Any death is an absurdity: to see any person in death whom we have known in life is a shock to the system. The rapid and brutal transition from death to life we witness at the crucifixion is an even more unsettling contrast since it is ‘the dux vitae’, the Lord of Life, who is dead.
We are less and less accustomed to being around the dead. A little of that discomfort can even extend to those who mourn – we struggle to find ways of being with them and often feel tempted to absent ourselves from their presence until we can safely join the company of others. Death raises questions for us all and we should not downplay how much havoc it causes in our lives. It is especially important to be attentive to death’s impact on children and young people not just in the immediate wake of bereavement but months down the line.
The Glorious Mysteries
The Resurrection: On the triumph of life
On Easter morning the Church sings of the struggle between Death and Life in which Christ though ‘slain, yet lives to reign’. Of course it is not only Christ who is raised: the shock of Easter brings life to the flat-lining Apostles. The Liturgy describes them as ‘men on the verge of losing hope’ but this seems an altogether optimistic appraisal of the state of their hearts and minds.
Although ‘Love’ is the quality which strikes the loudest chord in the human heart and ‘Faith’ seems inextricably bound up with the word ‘Christian’, ‘Hope’ is the Easter virtue. Surrexit spes mea, intones the Church in that same Easter song, ‘Christ, my hope, is risen’. Hope defines the Christian experience and gives it a shape when the other theological virtues seem to be but words. In the bleakest, sealed-tomb moments in life, the Paschal Mystery must refresh those corners of our hearts which despair of the sun rising and a new day.
The Ascension: On moving on
The forty days after Easter must surely be the most emotionally turbulent in human history – from the abject despair of the cross to the joy of Easter to the strange parting on the hillside outside Jerusalem – all human life is here. The apostles are jolted from their open-mouthed staring into space to the real task in hand: why are the men of Galilee looking into the clouds when there is work to be done beyond the confines of the immediate neighbourhood?
There is a real grace, both required and shown, in moving on in life. We truly need help to leave a place we have known and loved and in which we have been known and loved. The Ascension invites us to adopt the perspective both of the one departing and of those watching the departure: being either side of an airport departure gate is a familiar enough one for most people. The temptation is to wait until the last possible moment, until our loved ones disappear from sight or until we head out of view. Of course departures extend to every sphere of life: the moment comes when we must take a decisive step on our onward journeys or allow others to continue on theirs. Sometimes we need a little shove to get us started.
Pentecost: On the Holy Spirit as teacher
Given their destructive power, the key symbols of the Spirit – wind and flame – are often rendered remarkably tame. The union of these two explosive elements serve to ‘fire’ the Apostles into the foundation stones of the Church.
In the midst of imparting new knowledge, a fundamental element of education is reminding learners of what they know already. Jesus has ‘co-opted’ the Spirit into his teaching ministry, promising that the Holy Spirit would remind the apostles of all he had said to them (cf. John 14:26). Memory is a fluid thing, dependent on many other factors, but the particular role of the Spirit is to ensure that the hearers of Christ’s words were re-minded, somehow made present again at the moment when his words first reached them, and enabled to make the jump between ‘then’ and ‘now’.
The Assumption: On promises fulfilled
This mystery takes a leap beyond the accounts of scripture and leaves us in a place where the faith-story of the Church begins to speak and recount God’s continuing intervention in our world. It is part of that tradition that Mary lived out the rest of her ‘Easter life’ in John’s house. It is, of course, to John’s tradition that we owe the record of that strange event at the wedding feast at Cana, when a mother asked a son to help. At the end of her days Mary fell asleep ‘marked with the sign of faith’, as one ‘who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:45).
The Assumption offers the ‘sacramental corollary’ to Cana: ‘doing whatever he tells you’ flowers into the remarkable revelation of a God who does whatever he tells us. In a world tainted with cynicism, we tend to despair of anything being quite as it seems or purports to be. Having made that step of faith in embracing the message of the Assumption, we are asked to mirror that same faith ourselves, in honouring our promises to others – to the ‘greatest’ and the ‘least’.
The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin amid the Rejoicing of the Saints: On sharing the joy of others
In the last mystery of the Rosary, which surpasses all others in scope, we are finally invited to contemplate an ‘event’ in which we might participate at first-hand. In Mary crowned Queen of Heaven we have a gesture which transcends time and challenges the temptation to saccharine scepticism. Anything which is predicated of the Blessed Virgin is, by extension, applied to us. The crowning of the girl who features in the very first mystery of the Rosary is in fact an endorsement of our whole mixed-up race. We should all rejoice in being so highly favoured since the woman who stands at the end of our race is, quite emphatically, intervening in our lives for the good.
The Communion of Saints is a somewhat whispered presence in the Rosary and yet it is fitting that this great prayer should dovetail neatly with the closing line of the Creed. Every time this statement of faith is professed, we subscribe to a belief that, beyond our sight, there is a vast company of people who care about us. In a passionate negation of the anti-creed which claims that nothing matters, such articles of faith draw our attention to a basic Christian attitude which sees the blessedness of others as intrinsically bound up with our own. On the ground, this mystery invites us to share wholeheartedly in the joys and successes of others. When petty, sin-tainted envies encroach, we should in fact rejoice in the fact that we are all being ‘built-up’ by the victories of God’s love at work. By the same token, our achievements reflect upon others: we are all enriched in the economy of Grace. Here and now, however, how graciously do we deal with praise and commendation heaped upon a colleague?