‘I thank God whenever I think of you; and every time I pray for all of you, I pray with joy, remembering how you have helped to spread the Good News from the day you first heard it right up to the present.’ (Phil 1: 3-4)
Dear brothers in Jesus Christ
I was reminded recently of a phrase of St Bernard of Clairvaux when he describes himself as ‘disturbed, but not perturbed.’ He does so because he recalls the wounds of Christ and the power of redemption.
These past months have been disturbing for us. The waters of life have been muddied: the closure of churches; the celebration of Mass without a congregation; the gradual reopening, first for personal prayer, then a return to the Sacraments, but with restrictions; and the present uncertainty. This has all taken its toll, and continues to do so.
Without minimising the severe challenges faced by so many people, some of them life-threatening, we clergy have also, each in our own way, experienced the disturbance of the past eight months. To greater or lesser degrees, we have been stirred up and agitated, both exteriorly and interiorly.
The word ‘disturb’ carries the meaning of being thrown into disarray. From numerous conversations, I know that many clergy in our Archdiocese share my own experience of feeling dislocated from familiar patterns of ministry and routines of spiritual life. Keeping motivated, energised, and resilient, has not been easy. Mostly, we put on a brave face. It’s the instinctive disposition of a pastor. But it’s important to recognise what’s going on inside us, and to confide how we are feeling with trusted friends, with our confessor and spiritual director. We also need to bring the reality of our inner self before the Lord.
I know that prayer has been more difficult for some clergy in recent months. Rediscovering the simple opening of our heart to the Lord, especially to Him present in the Blessed Sacrament, wanting to be with Him and ‘talk things over,’ can make all the difference. As a young priest, I remember looking after a parish in Bradford. There were all kinds of problems that seemed overwhelming. I woke up in the early hours of one morning with worries running through my mind. The only thing that seemed to make sense was to put on my dressing gown and go through the presbytery into the church. I sat on the floor underneath the tabernacle. I didn’t know what else to do: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’ In that quiet time with the Lord something shifted and I was able to return to bed and sleep.
St Bernard’s experience is ours. We too can be disturbed, churned up, by so much, whether in our lives, or in the life of others, of the Church or the world. But, with St Bernard, we are never perturbed. We are not, nor ever should be, completely overcome by whatever turmoil threatens us. The reason why is obvious, even though we need to affirm it often. We have a Saviour. In the Lord Jesus we have a high priest able to sympathise with us in all our infirmities. (Cf Heb 4:15) As the Carthusian motto states: The Cross is steady while the world is turning. To put it another way, everything can spin, even seemingly out of control, but Christ stands firm, reassuring us, consoling us, healing our wounds.
Steadfast faithfulness, no matter what, is the great encouragement we take from the saints. In the end, holiness is always about fidelity, about knowing who has the words of eternal life. We desire to listen consistently to the voice of Divine love. We choose to allow ourselves to be shaped, from the inside out, according to the mind, image, and heart of Christ.
Remembering the experience of the saints has brought me great comfort and strength in these past months. We all have our favourite’s saints, the ones we think we discovered, but who really found us. Whether they are martyrs, confessors, or witnesses to the power of the Gospel to mould a human life by faith, hope and charity, celebrating All Saints, this year especially, can bring renewed courage and confidence. Their extraordinary lives all began with lives like ours. What marks them out is their unshakable conviction that Christ has conquered; and that dying with Him, even in the tiniest loving ways, causes us to rise through a sanctification that reaches its crescendo in heaven.
Moving forward, none of us knows the impact Covid 19 will continue to have. We face the future with faith, looking to the saints, asking their intercession and drawing upon their inspiration. They teach us that sanctity is within reach for everyone, that holiness can happen in the present moment. It’s about how I face life and the people and situations the Lord allows me to encounter. Will they bring me, and others, closer to Christ, or push me, and others, further away? Simple steps of faith and devotion, of love made real, make for holy living.
St Teresa of Avila’s beautiful words can be accented to capture all that this means: ‘Let nothing disturb you, let nothing perturb you, let nothing frighten you; all things are passing, God is unchanging. Patience gains all; nothing is lacking to those who have God: God alone is sufficient.’
I extend to each of you my heartfelt gratitude for your service in our Archdiocese. Please pray for me as I do for you, that, together with our lay faithful and consecrated men and women, we will retain the inner strength that comes from knowing nothing can separate us from the love of God made real in Christ Jesus the Lord. (cf Rom 8:39)
With every blessing for the Solemnity of All Saints
Yours devotedly in Christ
The Most Reverend John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark