Thursday, 17 July 2014

Pilgrimage for life

Tomorrow is the long awaited second reading of the assisted dying bill in the House of Lords. I call it 'long awaited' when in actual fact I mean 'long dreaded' as it is difficult to know how the vote will go. Obviously I do not want assisted suicide to be legalised in this country. If the bill were to be passed then it would be disastrous as it would inevitably lead to a similar state of affairs to those seen in the Netherlands and Belgium; older people afraid to report symptoms of serious illness for fear of euthanasia, a dramatic drop in the quality of care for the elderly, disabled an terminally ill and patients who do not want to be euthanised being pressured into the decision. I'm not being OTT in saying the bill frightens me, it truly does as it could (and would) face being abused in the same way the abortion law is. It scares me because it says something about our society if this is how we treat the most vulnerable; they should be protected, supported and cherished but instead they are eliminated. And what annoys me more than anything (makes my blood boil in fact) is that giving someone a lethal dose of medication is not a dignified way to die. Dignity in suffering as well as dignity in dying is found in treating someone (or being treated) like a human being; supporting and caring for then with compassion, not pity, giving the best treatment regardless of who the person is, in not judging a person by what they can and cannot contribute to society but by seeing them as they are; a perfectly marvellous human person. I can understand that people don't want to be a burden upon their families, I can also empathise with those facing a prolonged, painful illness and can't face the pain. But what we should be doing, instead of devaluing the lives of the sick and disabled is show them how much we all care an help in whatever way we can, not because we are do-gooder or because we have a sense of duty but because it is the good and decent thing to do and we should always treat others how we would want to be treated ourselves. And instead of wasting all this money in attempting to change the law we should be using it to find better care, better medicines, cures for disease and better pain relief. Let's focus on living, not on dying.

Tomorrow there will be a rally against the legalisation of assisted suicide outside the Houses of Parliament. I had wanted to go but unfortunately cannot. So instead I thought it would be good to pray hard about this today and walk from Horsham to the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in West Grinstead and ask her intercession. It was a hot but beautiful day and I thought I'd share some of my walk as the Sussex countryside is lovely.

My day started with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass in Horsham and I set off at around 11am. West Grinstead is along the Downs Link and I had to make my way down to Southwater (a nearby village) to pick up the route (you can also go via the local private school, Christ's Hospital, but from where I was starting it was a bit out of my way). I left Horsham via the Causeway, past St Mary's church (built in the 13th century) and was very quickly out into open fields and climbing Turner's Hill.

The public footpath can either take you towards Christ's Hospital school or away from the main road and through some woodland and farmland which I personally preferred. The paths were very quiet, the odd dog walker or cyclist here and there but otherwise I had the route to myself. It was really fabulous to just walk and enjoy the countryside and all the wildlife that goes with it (saw a few beehives in the wooded areas and rabbits everywhere). Since it was a personal pilgrimage I made sure to pray every time I didn't need to consult the map (anyone who knows me wil tell you I am not a great at understanding maps). There is something wonderful in getting away from the hustle and bustle and to simply spend time alone with God. Our Lord would often retreat to quiet places, many of the saints have too and I can see why. In the open air and quiet and peaceful surroundings it is easy to get caught up in the splendour of God; to see him in all the things around you and to open up to him more and more.

Just over an hour into my journey I picked up the Downs link.

The path leisurely weaves through the Downs amidst hedgerows and woodland and thankfully had enough shaded area to stop me getting sunburnt. After forty five minutes on this path I came upon an old train carriage, now used as a kind of museum about the old railway line, and the former West Grinstead train station.

The shrine church is about a mile further on and I had to follow the road for the final leg. Before long the spire appeared over the hedgerows and in a jiffy I was there.

Sadly the church itself was shut but I was able to spend some time outside praying at the statue of Our Lady of Consilation and paying a visit to the rosary walk.

Although I don't have a clue how the vote will go tomorrow I have full confidence in Our Lady's intercession and entrust all of this into her maternal care.

Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead, pray for us.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...

This week I am down in sunny Dorset with my family for a week's break. We've been coming to the Isle of Purbeck for years (my grandad started the tradition when my mum and her siblings were small) and Swanage and the surrounding towns and villages are almost like a second home since I know them so well. The cottage we've rented this year is probably the most remote one we've ever stayed in. One of the old coastguard cottages it sits out on St. Aldhelm's (also called St. Alban's) head; a stone's throw from the 11th century Norman chapel (and the coastguard station...obviously).

In true family holiday style we all agreed to meet at a pub in Swanage for lunch and I thought I felt it would be nice to "earn my pint of beer" by walking from St Aldhelm's along the absolutely gorgeous coastal path. If you've never walked along any of the Purbeck coastline you really must. It's beautiful and peaceful (aside from the cows) and worth some of the slightly steeper slopes in and out of the various coves.

I started out by taking a convaluted route to the coastal path in order to pay a brief visit to my Canadian relatives who are staying closer to the village of Worth Matravers. It was quite poignant to walk past a field full of poppies on the day that marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the events that precioitated the First World War. (My iPhone camera did not capture it well, it was much more vibrant in real life.)

Having diverted in for a brief chat with my aunt, uncle and cousins I made my way down the steep decline from Worth into Winspit.

Having reached the site of the old quarry (which I've seen a hundred times and didn't feel the need to look at again) I made my way left up a steepish slope onto the main coastal path.

I was very blessed with the weather (the promised rain downpours never arrived) which meant that the cliff top views were absolutely spectacular. And the path was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday morning, I met very few walkers along the way.

It took a little over two and a half hours to walk the bulk of the route, most of which is just open farmland and disused quarries. My favourite abandoned one is the "Tilly Whim caves" (purely because the name is fabulous) which are actually not too far from Swanage itself.

Having been in splendidly prayerful isolation for so long there was a sudden influx of walkers out for a stroll having had lunch at Durlston castle (a strange Victorian house/folly which now houses a museum and restaurant).

The castle used to be privately owned and the grounds have been open to the public since the late nineteenth century. As you head in towards Swanage you pass through some very pretty woodland with viewing points a-plenty.

And then, as if out of nowhere, you reach the above old marker (and the modern equivalent) and exit into a suburban street. Although the beautiful scenery isn't all at an end as, once you've wound round a street or two, you come to the crest of the hill which over looks Swanage bay.

In all it took me three and a half hours to complete but I wasn't really rushing, I was all to happily admiring the scenery (an praying rosaries) along the stony coastal route. My journey ended at the pub where I was greeted by some very dodgy looking folk....but they bought me a beer so they can't be all bad!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Doing small things with big love

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said "I don't do big things, I do small ones with great love." This notion is very frequently overlooked in our lives as we fall into the trap of thinking that to be good Christians (or just good people in general) we have to perform huge and heroic acts of charity; donate vast sums of money to this or that cause, give up big portions of our time to serve the poor abroad or at home or whatever else. This is, of course, utter nonsense and, I think, one of the ways in which the enemy tries to put us off the path to holiness. Because we can't go overseas to offer help to the sick or those in refugee camps, or feel utterly unable to help the men and women who live below te poverty line in this country (to give but a couple of examples) doesn't mean we aren't doing enough, that we aren't carrying out Christ's mission here and now in the 21st century. Each of us, no matter who we are or what state of life we are called to are able to co-operate with God by simply loving, by doing the work that we have with faith and love. This is what made the early Christians stand out, not just the martyrs and great writers but the "regular joes" too. The way they lived their lives; in peace with their neighbour (whoever that might be) and by offering up all of the big and small events of the day up to God made an impression on those around them. They weren't concerned with material gain or temporal power but kept their eyes fixed on Jesus and made each act of their daily routine one of offering to God.

Having spent a couple of weeks now with the Missionaries of Charity I can say that what really sets them apart from other organisations I've come across working in this way in London is the joy with which they do their work. Whether it's the cleaning or prayer or dealing with the issues the residents of the women's home have they are always very peaceful and simply happy. Their life is hard, vet hard, but that doesn't dampen their love for God and those whom they serve. Every action of theirs is one of pure love of God and in giving themselves totally to the way of life and work that God has called them to they receive so much more than they could ever hope for. When you meet the sisters you realise very quickly how basic their lives are, how little they have but not in any way are they lacking. They seem full to the brim, overflowing with gifts. And their smiles and laughter are very contagious, they show everyone they meet how there is more to life than material "stuff" and that in being loving in all things it opens us up to greater graces than we could ever have hopes for.

During my last few days I had the privilege to work with two fantastic volunteers, one from France, the other from America. We got on like a house on fire (to put it mildly) and most of our days were spent in laughter. Malcy (the lovely little French girl) wondered one day whether the sisters approved of our giggles (and singing) and of course they did, a) because God loves a joyful giver and b) it makes their lives easier if we all rub along nicely. And the thing is even though we were obviously having a good time none of us shyed away from the work we were there to do. We supported each other and it helped us to love and to give all the more.

Friday, 13 June 2014

All for the love of God

As Sr Elvira and I were on the way to visit the Traveller community the other day she was talking about her vocation story and how she had come to choose this way of life. She said that any true calling to the religious life is not founded on a love of missionary work or teaching (or whatever else) but on a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus. Anyone wishing to pursue this type of vocation must allow him to win over their heart totally. Only in loving him completely can one persevere in community life with all it's trials and joys.

Whilst this is most certainly true I would go a step further and say that this is the case for all Christians, not just those wanting to join a religious order. We are called to holiness and we can only do this if we make God our priority. Regardless of what we are called to do and where we are called to be; whether in the convent or the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) we cannot hope to progress and persevere if we do not spend time devoted to prayer and make use of the sacraments. He longs to have a close relationship with us but he will never force the issue, he will always give us the grace but we have to cooperate with it.

What I found in staying with the Sisters this past week is the simple joy in doing all of my daily tasks for God, offering them up to him for love of him and, sometimes, for a particular prayer intention. But what I also found was that is that it made me want to do things; whether it be chopping onions in the soup kitchen or mending curtains by hand, to the best of my ability. It's a bit like when you make a gift or a card for someone you care deeply for, you want it to be beautiful, an expression of your love for them. So in neatly stitching or making a meal with care I can offer a gift up to God to show my love for him and to spend some extra time in a loving conversation with him. Holiness, for the majority of us, will not increase in us through big heroic acts like martyrdom but in the little things, in those small moments when we commit again to serving and loving God more. And this, in turn will help us to be more faithful to our spouse, our religious vocation etc. it helps to keep our eyes fixed on our final goal; life with God in heaven.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The worst weapon of war

There's a book I read a couple of years back with a bit of a corny title that is actually a very good. Street walking with Jesus was written by the American Deacon and founder of Emmaus ministries in Chicago, John Green. Emmaus is dedicated to supporting an evangelising male prostitutes and the book is a series of stories about the different men John has met over the years. It was an eye opener for me as, whilst I knew there were male prostitutes around, I wasn't aware of the lack of help for them and of the preconceived ideas and prejudices people have of them. 

An article today appeared on my Facebook feed about rape being used as a weapon against men during war. As we all know the figures for women who have been sexually assaulted during conflicts are wildly inaccurate as many feel they cannot come forward to report the crime but, as the article highlights, the problem is even worse for men and there is almost no help for them afterwards. I warn you now; the article is deeply upsetting and describes in detail certain events. But then rape itself is a dreadful thing, it is often played down or trivialised but it is always an act of violence. We must be there, trying to stop the crime from taking place at all but, when it does happen, we must care for the victims regardless of age or gender.

You can look at the article by clicking on the link below;

Last year whilst working in my professional capacity with a charity in London I met a homeless man who had been raped whilst staying in a shelter. The social worker he had been speaking to said it had taken him a long time to admit to it to her as he was deeply ashamed of what had happened. He was coming for a sight test and she wanted us to be aware that he was very nervous and if other men were present he might refuse to come in. Fortunately we were having a quiet day and my ophthalmologist colleague was also female so when we came in, although he was still very apprehensive, he was as comfortable as he would ever be. I remember that we heard a fight break out in the courtyard below and this poor chap jumped out of his skin at the sound. It took us a while to convince him that he was safe upstairs in our little testing room and that, should they try to come up, we would lock the door and radio for help. 

I can't imagine what any rape victim has to go through, how they must feel or how they get through it. In one sense I'm helpless as I've no clue as to what support should be offered (and I'm sure many feel the same way) but the one thing I can and will most definitely do is pray for all victims of rape, that those who can offer help and support are always able to do so. And it is also important to pray for their attackers to, that they will never hurt anyone ever again and that they will be truly sorry for their past actions and make amends.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

An unexpected visit

As a laywoman one of the many joys of staying and serving with a religious community like the Missionaries of Charity is that no two days are quite the same (even with the rule of life) and they are rarely what you expected them to be! For instance I awoke this morning assuming that my day would follow more or less the same pattern as yesterday with time of prayer interspersed with housework and a visit to the soup kitchen. More fool me. Instead I was told I would be going out visiting with Sr Elvira. Again rather naively I assumed that we would be going to the house of some local people, perhaps some of the women who formerly lived in the refuge the Sisters run but now have permanent accommodation or maybe to some of the elderly and housebound. I have done this in the past with the CFR sisters in New York and mentally prepared myself for a similar experience.

But, as you will have worked out, we did not do that. As Sr Elvira and I walked out to the bus stop she told me that one of her apostolates was to visit and evangelise the Traveller communities in this part of London (there are two within a half an hour's drive.) She had recently been on a three month retreat (!!) and had obviously not been able to visit so was looking forward to seeing some of the families today. Now I'm from a small, safe, middle class town in Sussex. We have the odd Traveller group come and settle from time to time but it's only a matter of days before they are moved along. There is a permanent site about fifteen minutes away and occasionally some of the women venture into our town selling flowers but generally we do not associate with them. I'm sad to say that I had a lot of preconceptions of what Travellers are like; crime accompanies them wherever they go, they have no manners or respect for others or their property and similar thoughts. But I went with Sister nonetheless.

For the reasons I have stated above I have never been on a Traveller site, never really spoken with a member of their community or, if I'm honest, taken any real interest in them. So I was quite surprised when we arrived and walked up to the first caravan we saw at how warmly the tiny little Indian religious I was with was welcomed. After hugs from mums and children alike she was invited into each home and had long chats about her retreat, the community and so on. And she took an interest in each family, remembering their names and the little details they'd mentioned on previous visits. What struck me the most, however, was how keen the families were to talk about prayer and how eager they were for Sr Elvira and I to pray with them there and then and again for them later once we'd left. Many shared their experiences on pilgrimages to various (usually Marian) shrines and even gave us some of the little medals and crucifixes they'd bought and had blessed either to keep or hand on to someone else. As we walked around the site Sr Elvira explained that these people had a great thirst for God but were not always going to Mass or were involved in feuds or crime which meant they could easily fall away. She also spoke of how they are, from a very early age, rejected by people outside and that as a result they rarely finish their secondary education and, as it turned out, many of the women we visited could not read or write. She told me some stories of how some of the families had been hit by hardship (no money, family break up, bereavement etc.) and the knock on effect it had had on the behaviour of the children; they had become rude, demanding, begun to lie and steal. She said that once you know the background it was easy to see that this little boy or girl was acting out as a cry for help and whilst the behaviour does need correcting you also have to be compassionate to the circumstances they are in. I've been pondering this all evening and the thought that has hit me is that whilst in some ways the issues facing the Travellers are not totally alien to the ones that our families and friends might (e.g. a woman abandoning her children to run off with another man) our attitude towards them is. For example if we knew of a little boy who was badly misbehaving we would want to try to find out why and if we discovered it was because his mother had suddenly left we would be sympathetic to the situation and (hopefully) do our best to help. But when a young Traveller boy acts up we write them off as a stereotypical "pikey" and go no further in offering our charity. It pains me to admit that I am as guilty as the rest of this. But regardless of whether these children, these people are Travellers or not God loves them, God wants what is best for them, God calls them to a relationship with him just a much as he does you and me. His mercy is extended to them just as freely as it is to us but we resist this notion, rather choosing to believe that they are bad people, a pestilence and a nuisance. We, in fact, are the bad ones as we sit in judgement over them even though none if us are without sin, none of us is better or more worthy than our neighbour. The ladies and gents and kids we met today welcomed Sr Elvira and I with great affection because she and her fellow Sisters treat them with the same dignity and respect as any other person. She is as kind and warm to them as she is to the homeless woman at the convent door asking for bread or the priest coming to say Mass. And she sat there, teaching them in quiet and friendly conversation about the importance of orayer and goin to Mass and having a relationship with Jesus, trying to show them that these things are open to them, even if others make out they aren't.

So my little unexpected excursion today has left me with much to mull over. It is etta only going to make me examine my conscience and the other prejudices I carry. If I am going to follow and serve God I can have none of them.

Monday, 9 June 2014

A new beginning

So it's been a really really long time since I even looked at my blog, let alone put anything on it. It's a miracle I can still remember my password to be honest! But, anyway, since my life is changing quite significantly I thought this might be a good place for me to keep track of what I'm doing and where (I do have the memory of a goldfish...)

Saturday was the end of an era. After nine years of working for the same company (and in the same location) I left my job as the dispensing optician and assistant manageress of the VE store in Horsham to pursue my vocation. I won't pretend it was easy, it was extremely hard in fact. Leaving my lovely colleagues (who I can happily call my good friends) was heartbreaking but I know that God is calling me to dedicate my life to him more and more and more and I can't, I don't want to resist it. And the thought that over the next few months I will be able to give myself to Jesus with greater devotion is unbelievably exciting and brings me immense joy and hope. 

So what precisely am I doing now I'm no longer employed full time? Well this week I have the privilege of staying with the Missionaries of Charity up in London; volunteering in their women's refuge and in the soup kitchen. I may only have been here twelve hours but so far I'm thoroughly enjoying it. They welcomed me with open arms and, since they know I am discerning my vocation, have kindly invited me to join them in some of their community prayers as well as to Mass and adoration which are open to all.

This afternoon two of the sisters and I made our way over to the soup kitchen about a mile from the convent. I love doing work like this. In serving those who literally have nothing but the clothes on their back you encounter the person of Jesus in a profound and humbling way. In those men and women who come for a simple plate of food you see the suffering Christ; in their eyes you meet his, in them you see his humiliation and poverty. He lives in them just as much as he lives in us, he loves them as passionately as us and he walks with them through all their joys and sorrows just as he does with us. And by serving them, in offering them a meal, a smile, some friendship you are given the chance to serve the Lord and that is just...amazing. 

On the surface the help that the sisters and the volunteers give doesn't appear to be very much; a meal once a day and a time of prayer. Yet it is more valuable than some would give credit for. This afternoon we all sat and prayed the rosary together, the men and women led decades together, they all took part. Many of them weren't even Christian let alone Catholic (and the prayer time is optional, you can arrive afterwards and just have dinner if you wish) but in praying together we draw closer to Jesus and to one another, we recognise each other's innate dignity as children of God. In a world that is all too frequently very dismissive and unkind to the homeless these simple actions in which they are (quite rightly) treated as friends and equals are so very important. And the food? Well it's not fancy but it's a good, honest, hot meal which is made out of love and what more can you ask for? 

So yes, this far I'm having a great time. I'm not so naive as to believe it will always be sunshine and lollipops but it's certainly a gift for my new direction in life to begin amid prayer and love of God and neighbour.