Fr Andrew’s blog – April

Thursday, 30th April, 2020

It is a curious English phenomenon that we tend not to talk to fellow passengers on trains, buses and planes. We sit close to complete strangers but don’t generally engage in conversation. The exception is when there’s a problem. If the train gets stuck because of a fallen tree then conversation does start. Similarly, if a plane is seriously delayed. When some semblance of travel starts again we might have plenty to talk about but won’t be able to because we shall be sitting too far apart. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St Philip finds himself travelling alongside a high-ranking Ethiopian official who he notices is reading from the prophet Isaiah. They start up a conversation which, through Philip’s explanation of things, leads to the Ethiopian’s conversion and baptism. Tradition has it that the official then went back to Ethiopia and spread the Good News there. Philip only knew the Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah because in those days you read aloud – fortunately we don’t do that on trains! However, reading the scriptures out loud can be very helpful.

Wednesday, 29th April, 2020

Doctors used to have a reputation for bad handwriting. As I recall, that was certainly many the case in the days of hand-written prescriptions. My own handwriting these days is pretty poor as most of my writing is done at the keyboard. Apart from the occasional note to myself or Christmas cards I don’t have to write much by hand and it takes a real effort to write neatly if I have to. Being literate and being able to write are associated with learning and intellectual ability. Queen Victoria must have spent most of her day writing and she did so legibly. The great Doctors of the Church are renowned for their literacy and the great works of theology and spirituality that they left behind. It comes as a surprise, then, to learn that today’s saint, Catherine of Siena – who is designated as a Doctor of the Church – never learned to write. Much taken up with spirituality and mysticism, she was also much involved in the political debates of her time. Perhaps it’s the clarity of mind rather than handwriting that is more important.

Tuesday, 28th April, 2020

Good King Wenceslaus last looked out on the feast of Stephen. Christmas was some time ago and the feast of St Stephen, when the good king last looked out, was 26th December, an important feast marking an early witness to Christ through the martyrdom of the man considered to be the first Deacon. We know about St Stephen from the Acts of the Apostles which are read through during this Eastertide. The daily readings take us through the very early development of the Christian community, a community of faith and of service where the service was a particular function of the deacons – the word deacon means one who serves. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the martyrdom of St Stephen, a reminder that service sometimes involves sacrifice. Many are making big sacrifices at the present time. St Stephen’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain and remember that the word ‘sacrifice’ in its origin means ‘to make holy’. It would be nice to think that the sacrifices of the many at this time will not be seen as something merely utilitarian but as something that can make us all just a little bit more holy.

Monday, 27th April, 2020

Sitting in the garden yesterday a big bumble bee came by but, curiously, it wasn’t interested in flowers or greenery but some stones. It settled on a flat stone, preened itself and then just lay there in the sun having a rest for about ten minutes. It then preened itself again and flew off. I was reminded of a time when I was in a camping lodge visiting my brother who was then living in Malawi. I was sitting and reading and a bee, or possibly a wasp, kept bothering me. If I shooed it away it kept coming back, so I watched. It wasn’t interested in me at all but the chair I was sitting on. It turned out that this bee’s home was in one of the pieces of bamboo out of which the chair was made. The bee wasn’t invading my space, I was invading his. Once I realised this we got on fine. I didn’t, however, have such a good relationship with the mosquitoes.

Sunday, 26th April, 2020

One of the positive new experiences arising from the lockdown is the quietness of the roads. In place of a constant stream of traffic with accompanying noise there is often nothing, and a silence in which may be by disturbed by a solitary car coming in the distance. When taking the permitted exercise it has been a pleasure, sometimes even a little bit of an adventure to make new discoveries.  I may set off with only a vague plan but then let curiosity lead me down roads and paths I didn’t even know were there. For more serious activities, however, it does help to have more than a vague plan and stick to it but finding and keeping to that particular pathway can sometimes be difficult. As grim milestone statistics have been reached (statistics in abstract but personal tragedies in reality) the Government, and all of us, will be looking for a pathway out of the present confinement, a pathway that offers hope. Today’s psalm response points us in one direction and shows us who to ask:   ‘Show us, Lord, the path of life’.

Saturday, 25th April, 2020

There was a fascinating programme last night on the thirtieth anniversary of the Hubble telescope. The pictures taken over the last thirty years have opened up a view deep into the universe which has given science much to work with and those of us who don’t understand the science some truly spectacular and beautiful images that cannot fail to move. Humankind has always been fascinated and profoundly moved by what can be seen in the darkness of the night sky. The author of Psalm 8, writing some three thousand years ago, thinking of the night sky, humbly prayed:

“How great is your name, O Lord our God! When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged, what is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you care for him?”  (Psalm 8)

Friday, 24th April, 2020

The supermarkets now seem reasonably well stocked. Eggs are somewhat intermittent but most things can be found. The one thing that is still missing, however, is flour. There hasn’t been any for a long time and the helpful man in M & S said they don’t expect any for another month. There must be a lot of home baking going on. Flour, of course, is used not just to make cakes but also bread. Bread features in today’s gospel which is St John’s account of the miraculous feeding with the loaves and the fish. This story, rich on so many levels, shows us that with the Lord there is no shortage, no problems with sourcing raw materials, no supply chain or distribution problems; his love, compassion and mercy and direct access to the Father is always available. We don’t have to queue or pay; it’s always there. Interestingly, according to St John the loaves were barley loaves, not wheat loaves. Barley was the food of animals and the very poor. I’m not so sure, though, that M & S will have any barley flour either.

Thursday, 23rd April, 2020

Today we celebrate another English saint:  St George. Like St Anselm, St George was not English and while St Anselm did come and live in England, St George came nowhere near. Quite why he is the Patron Saint of England is not clear and may have much to do with the returning Crusaders. St George is popular in the Eastern churches and is thought to have come from the Middle East. He was a martyr for his Christian faith and that is why he is important, not because of the dragon which was a legend which only appeared in the late Middle Ages. His feast day is perhaps an occasion to remember and pray for the English nation and the diverse people that now make up its human character, at this time of great national challenge.

Brief Encounters. Every afternoon this week, while out on my walk, I have come across other parishioners who, singly, were all out on their walk – about ten in all. Keeping appropriate distancing, it has been nice to have a few minutes of catch up. Hopefully it will not be too long before more of us can meet in community.

Wednesday, 22nd April, 2020

For composers, the Bible is a good source of texts to set. The Psalms have much to offer, as does the Book of Wisdom. The Magnificat, our Lady’s prayerful response to the Angel’s news, has provided many a composer with inspiration. The Gospels, too, can strike a chord, sometimes with just one verse. Today’s gospel reading from St John provides one simple phrase that is worth pondering: God so loved the world. One of the finest settings of this text is to be found in the nineteenth century English composer John Stainer’s Crucifixion. It is worth listening to if you have a couple of minutes (actually three minutes).

Tuesday, 21st April, 2020

Today is the feast of the English saint, St Anselm (1033 – 1109). At least, we think of him as an English saint as he was Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact he was Italian and had spent thirty years in a French monastery before he came to England. His enduring reputation is as a theologian and philosopher who could think about complex matters but express them with clarity. He is perhaps most famous for his ontological argument, or put more simply what it means to be and he applied this to God. God, he said, ‘is that than which nothing greater can be conceived’. Philosophers and theologians since his day have explored other formulations but St Anselm’s version is still fairly convincing and relevant.

Please remember in your prayers Stephen Buxton who has died. May he rest in peace.

Monday, 20th April, 2020

There is a lovely piece of music you might hear sometimes on Classic FM. It is a piece for guitar, quite romantic, very gentle, very soothing. For many years I didn’t know what it was but then I found out that it is called Cavatina and comes from the film The Deerhunter. Not knowing what that film was about, when it was on the TV one day I sat down to watch it with the music in mind. The film, now a classic, is about the horrors of the Vietnam War, one of the first films to try to be ‘realistic’. I didn’t stay the course and turned it off as it was just too violent and to this day I could not see how the music related to the film at all. I was reminded of all this when I noticed the film was on again last night. Sadly, not everything that appears attractive lives up to its promise and can be misleading. With time on their hands, the email scammers are busy. There seem to be a lot more phishing emails promising tax rebates, etc. Some of the perpetrators have been caught by police – even a group in Poole! The Lord tells us not to judge – ‘Judge not lest you be judged yourselves –  but we do have to discern. If we see something attractive we have to discern the reality and quality of its attractiveness. Conversely, something that is superficially unattractive, even ugly, may have hidden depths.

Sunday, 19th April, 2020

The Sense of an ending. No, this is not what some politicians and commentators seem obsessed about but the title of a film on BBC2 last night. A complex film, well-acted, about how an unexpected legacy brings the past suddenly into the present and how the protagonist works through unresolved memories, guilts, what-ifs and much more. At the end of the film there is a resolution and, freed from the burdens that he has been carrying around for half a century, he becomes an altogether more generous person. There was no religion in the film at all but there are clear similarities to some of the gospel stories where burdens are removed to allow new living, new loving.

Saturday, 18th April, 2020

We may be having to put up with many inconveniencies at present but over the last few weeks we have been rather blessed with some gorgeous weather. Hopefully everyone has been able to enjoy it at least in part. It may be a particularly English characteristic to both enjoy and sometimes bemoan the same type of weather. Earlier in the year we seemed to have endless rain and were pretty fed up with it. But yesterday’s rain was a welcome variation, much needed for the gardens. But there is also something special about fresh spring rain – perhaps at this Easter time it is the promise of the new. Some of the Biblical authors certainly found something to praise:  The author of the Book of Job (29:3) wrote: “They waited for me as for rain and drank in my words like spring showers”. In Psalm 71:6 we find, “May he be like rain that falls on freshly cut grass, like spring showers that water the earth.”  And Hosea (6:3) puts it, “Let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.”

Friday, 17th April, 2020

The Thursday night 8.00 p.m. clap has become something of a ritual and last night virtually everyone on my street was out – safely distancing. It has become a moment not only of thanks to the NHS and carers but an important expression of community solidarity at this time of isolation now due to continue for at least another few weeks.

Sadly, for the third time this week I have to convey the news that another member of our parish community has died. Marie Owen died on Wednesday, a victim of coronavirus. May she rest in peace. She helped put away the hymn books after the 11.00 a.m. mass and for many years she faithfully looked after the altar linen in the church. Her late husband Dennis, Owen was a former parish treasurer. We remember her and her family in our prayers.

Thursday, 16th April, 2020

The cross is the universally recognised Christian symbol, yet it was not always thus. In the very early days of the Christian church it was not the cross but the fish that was the symbol of their faith. In today’s gospel the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and when he asked them for something to eat they offered him some grilled fish. The fish was, and remains, a Christian symbol because the Greek word for fish – ichthus is an acronym for: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

Please remember in your prayers Margaret Collins who has died unexpectedly. Together with her husband Glen she was a regular at the 11.00 a.m. mass and at coffee afterwards. May she rest in peace. I shall offer mass today for the repose of her soul. Our sympathy and prayers also to Glen at this difficult time.

Wednesday, 15th April, 2020

Yesterday was a fast day. In Easter week, surely Lent is over? This, however, was a self-imposed fast day. I decided yesterday to abstain, not from any food, but from the news. I decided that I would spend one complete day without listening to, watching or reading any news. It is possible I will have missed something really important but if I did I will doubtless discover it today. There is only one story at the moment and it is affecting us all but I’m not sure it is really healthy to focus so much on it or let the editors of news programmes determine how we should be thinking about it. At the end of a news free day I did feel that my mood had lifted. From now on I shall limit my exposure to the news programmes and certainly not watch a late evening news bulletin. In today’s gospel we have the wonderful story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were much exercised by the news of their day about what had been happening in Jerusalem but they were slow to see the risen Jesus in their presence. Sometimes we need to step aside from immediate preoccupations, however, pressing, urgent or serious to reset the spiritual perspective or rather let the risen Lord reset the perspective.

Tuesday, 14th April, 2020

There are many short scenes that make up the complete Easter story. One of the most striking and intimately personal is the one recounted in today’s gospel: Noli me tangere when Jesus says to Mary Magdalen, ‘Don’t touch me’. The encounter is memorably captured in the famous painting by Titian. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener and asks where Jesus has been put. It is only when Jesus says her name, ‘Mary’ that the truth is revealed. As we saw yesterday names are important but it is the fact that Jesus, with a unique sounding voice familiar to Mary, spoke her name with a special intimacy. Maybe Jesus has a special tone of voice for each of us perhaps mediated through others. Do we recognise Jesus in the gardener?

Please remember in your prayers Douglas Wilson who has died. May he rest in peace.

Monday, 13th April, 2020

What’s in name? There are many characters in the Bible and in history who get given names that are changed: Abram became Abraham, Saul became Paul, Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, Princess Alexandrina became Queen Victoria. Others are better known by their second names: James McCartney, we know as Paul McCartney, James Brown we know as Gordon brown, and Alexander Johnson is better known as Boris Johnson – now thankfully much on the mend. And Fr Andrew? Andrew is actually my second name. My father was a great enthusiast for motor racing and wanted me to be called Stirling after Stirling Moss who sadly died yesterday. But my mother said no and didn’t favour his other choice either: Juan, after Juan Manuel Fangio. Tony was the mutually agreed name along with Andrew, after St Andrew Avellino, a sixteenth century priest who is the patron saint against sudden death, on whose feast day I was born, though I also have a special affiliation to St Andrew the Apostle. When he retired my father had his own historic motor racing team and Stirling Moss drove one of his cars, a Cooper Climax, in 1989. I don’t know if he told him that his son was almost called Stirling.

Easter Sunday, 12th April, 2020

A Happy and Holy Easter!

I imagine many will mark today’s celebration with an Easter Egg – and why not? In this country when we think of Easter Eggs we probably think of chocolate but eggs made out of chocolate are relatively new. In many parts of Europe, today is marked by the giving and sharing of eggs but hard-boiled eggs that have been painted. The egg is a symbol of new life which, of course, the resurrection of Our Lord promises to us all. Behind the egg, of course, lies the chicken. Last night there was a fascinating programme on BBC4 about chickens, their history, their usefulness and the ways in which they are kept and so much more. What was most interesting was that they are social, they have individual characters, they are intelligent and they are adaptable. Some chickens, who had only ever known life in a cage in a shed and who had never even seen daylight, were released on a farm and almost immediately adapted to the new surroundings clucking and scratching around. The only thing they needed help with was to have their claws trimmed. When we eat an Easter Egg today don’t just enjoy the delicious taste of the chocolate (perhaps for the first time in six weeks) but also think that when our being cooped up comes to an end we too will quickly readjust.

Saturday, 11th April, 2020

Today is Holy Saturday not, as many think, Easter Saturday. Easter Saturday is next Saturday. Easter hasn’t yet happened so the adjective Easter cannot yet be applied. Today, in many ways, is a strange day because nothing happens not just because of the lock down but because the church, even in normal times, would be bare and empty even of the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, it is ‘emptiness’ that perhaps characterises this day more than anything else. The world is fairly empty at the moment: the skies are empty of planes, the bus that has just driven by (as most buses at the moment) has no one on board except the driver, and the roads are empty of traffic. In a previous parish I recall a lady knocking at my door on Holy Saturday in floods of tears. She had gone in to the church to do some cleaning but she was powerfully hit by the fact, as she said to me, ‘He is not here’: the tabernacle was empty and she felt that emptiness. Those words, ‘He is not here’, will be said again tomorrow but then the meaning will be different because it won’t be the tabernacle that will be empty but the tomb.

Friday, 10th April, 2020  – Good Friday

Coronavirus, so called because its particular structure resembles a crown. When we think of a crown we, in this country, most likely immediately think of the royal crown with all its diamonds and other precious jewels. Today, however, there is a different crown that merits our attention, a crown that perhaps resonates more with the reality of the coronavirus, namely the crown of thorns. Those suffering from the coronavirus directly or indirectly can identify with the agony, distress and pain that the crown of thorns would have inflicted on the Lord and in making this identification might be able to link their own suffering and anxiety with that of Our Lord and draw some measure of spiritual consolation at this difficult time. In the Liturgy of Good Friday we would listen once more to the story of the Passion, offer prayers for the church, for those of faith and of no faith, for the world and its leaders and, at this time, offer special prayers for the sick, those who care for them and for those working to overcome the virus. We would also reverently approach the cross. This we cannot do in church but we will all have a cross of some kind in our homes before which we can take a moment to reflect and pray.

Thursday, 9th April, 2020

Today we start the Triduum, the three days that, together, form one overarching liturgical observance. Maundy Thursday, on its own, only makes sense when connected with the events of Good Friday which again only makes sense when seen through the light of the Resurrection. Each day has its own character, its own spiritual and emotional focus drawing us deeper into the mystery of communion, suffering, death and resurrection. As we trace the path Our Lord took there is, of course, a special resonance at this challenging time.

Please remember in your prayers Marie Owen, who recently suffered a stroke. She remains in special hospital care but now also has coronavirus. (She helps put away the hymn books after the 11.00 a. m. mass.)

Wednesday, 8th April, 2020

I am more than a little conscious that this blog is written very much from the perspective of someone living alone and comfortably so. Many will be in a similar position but many others will not. Looking back to my childhood I was wondering how our family, with five children would have fared, cooped up in a modest house with no computers or internet. It certainly would have been challenging. One can only imagine the challenges being faced by families across the world with shared rooms and perhaps not even a balcony. Tensions will inevitably surface and in some cases perhaps even worse. In our prayers we naturally think of the sick and those who are selflessly caring for them, those who are in isolation and suffering loneliness but we should also remember those who are being tried in other ways too.

Tuesday, 7th April, 2020

The other night I was preparing a light supper of pasta, sautéed tomatoes with basil and mozzarella. The TV was on and Rick Stein was doing one of his continental tours when he started to describe a Sicilian dish of – pasta and tomatoes but instead of basil, there was fresh mint and capers. As I had both fresh mint and capers immediately to hand I was quickly able to substitute them for the basil. I would never have thought of that combination but it worked very well. When Jesus asks us to repent that word, repent, in its original Greek means to turn over a new leaf, turn in a new direction. It’s not just in cooking that we can benefit from looking at things in a new light, doing something familiar but in a slightly different way. In doing so our eyes can be open to seeing things in a new and refreshing light. At this time of lock down we are having to do many things differently, not least the way, the when and the how we might pray. Not everything will work: I was a little apprehensive about the mint and the capers but thought it worth a try – and it was.

Monday, 6th April, 2020

It was good to see the Queen last night delivering her words of quiet reassurance and hope while at the same time highlighting the seriousness of the present situation and the need for a common purpose. It was also reassuring to know that the Queen was accompanied only by a cameraman who was apparently wearing appropriate protective gear. It was also good yesterday to be able to follow the Pope’s Palm Sunday Mass from the rear chapel in St Peter’s, not so encouraging though to see that the Vatican does not appear to be following strict protocols of distancing. We priests have been instructed to say mass strictly alone. Only those resident in the same household may be present and then at a distance. There were too many people around, or near, the Pope with his MC getting up close and personal to put his mitre on and off. There are seven cases of the coronavirus in the Vatican; one hopes there won’t be any more. The fact that the Prime Minister is now in hospital underlines the gravity of the situation. Stay safe!

Sunday, 5th April, 2020

In recent years, Radio 3 has been playing rather shorter pieces of three or four minutes, presumably in order to fit in more unnecessary chat advertising programmes later in the week. One benefit of the present situation is that they have now taken to playing rather longer pieces, a fifteen minute movement from a Bruckner symphony and the like. This adds to the general sense of tranquillity and unhurriedness that is around at the moment (albeit with a background noise of anxiety). On Sundays we generally have short passage from the gospel to listen to but today we have the longest of all the gospel readings with the complete Passion from St Matthew’s gospel. As none of us are likely to be in a rush to do anything else we should have the time to give this passage full attention. I am also planning to listen in full to Bach’s setting of St Matthew’s Passion.

Saturday, 4th April, 2020

Last night saw the second episode of the programme following seven people of different faiths as they make their way through Serbia and Bulgaria towards Istanbul. This varied group of characters are getting on surprisingly well but also facing some challenging moments. With a blind person among them there is a need for some helping hands as they clamber up rocky mountain paths, some hands more evident in help than others. For me, the most impressive character so far is the young Muslim who has been positive throughout and has made several quite insightful observations: ‘my life is a pilgrimage’, ‘Allah created everyone for a purpose’ and ‘this pilgrimage is helping me a find a level of grounding and of service’.  When the group stopped to light some candles at a shrine, five lit candles for someone who had died and two for someone who was alive – interesting.

Friday, 3rd April, 2020

Yesterday, I did some shopping for my self-isolating senior neighbours. They gave me a rather modest list and I am pleased to say I was able to get pretty much everything they asked for except a specific brand of savoury biscuits. I am embarrassed to say, though, that I came out of Marks and Spencers with two bags – their modest one and a bigger one for me. I hadn’t gone shopping for myself and didn’t actually need anything but such is the turn around from a couple of weeks ago that the shelves are now full, so much so that there were a great number of reductions, which is what I took advantage of. Each time we pray the Our Father we say, “Give us this day our daily bread”. At one level that is perhaps about basic shopping needs but, of course, there are other needs as well and exactly what is meant is not entirely clear. In the original Greek text the word translated as ‘daily’ is an unusual word. In fact, it is a word that only appears this once so its meaning can only be deduced as there is no other context to compare. Also ‘bread’ is both physical food but also spiritual food. It is generally thought that this phrase means: ‘give us the sustenance we need for this day and everyday’. It is, of course, always a struggle to be content with what we need rather than what we might want or think we need, as my receipt from Marks and Spencers shows.

Thursday, 2nd April, 2020

For more years than I care to remember I have been a pretty regular follower of the Today programme and Newsnight but not much more. I have rather given up on Newsnight (despite having a cousin who works on the programme behind the scenes) as I find the confrontational tone unnecessary and the asking of questions seemingly just for the sake of asking a question. Yesterday, I turned off the Today programme after yet another vacuous and inane question: ‘Surely more should have been done earlier?’ Maybe it should have been but how does this sort of blame-mongering question help at this time? Sometimes controversy is necessary and sometimes inevitable but adversarial journalism is not needed right now. Jesus of course faced much controversy and it may be said he caused it. He certainly did in today’s gospel where he said the one thing that more than anything else caused apoplexy in the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus was talking about Abraham and he said, “I tell you most solemnly before Abraham ever was, I am.” It was those two little words, ‘I am’ that caused all the trouble for those were the words God used when Moses asked, ‘Who are you?’ and God replied, ‘I am who I am’. The Scribes and the Pharisees interpreted Jesus using these words as a claim to divinity. In St John’s gospel there are several occasions where Jesus uses this phrase ‘I am’ to say something truly profound: ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the vine , ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ and ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.

Wednesday, 1st April, 2020

Today is April Fool’s Day. There is a fine line between being gullible and being trusting, something that many with devious intent seek to take advantage of. While today may be a source of mild amusement to those not embarrassed by being caught out, there is perhaps a place for some ‘foolishness’. In Shakespeare’s King Lear the Fool is a major character, speaking truth unto power acting, as it were, as King Lear’s conscience. Perhaps we all need a fool like this to whisper in our ear. St Paul also talks of foolishness in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians where he even attributes foolishness to God:

Where are our thinkers today? Do you see now how God has shown up the foolishness of human wisdom? If it was God’s wisdom that human wisdom should not know God, it was because God wanted to save those who have faith through the foolishness of the message we preach. And so while the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1: 20 – 25)