Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Spiritual Teaching of St Catherine of Siena


In honour of our holy sister, St Catherine of Siena, below is a brief presentation of some of the spiritual themes and ideas revealed to her. Her teaching on prayer and her compassion and love for others, her concern for truth and her desire to spread the truth of God's love - the preaching service of her letters and writings - are all firmly Dominican traits and she remains a great teacher of Dominican spirituality, a spirituality that all Christians can learn from and draw upon:

"Fra' Guy Bedouelle, OP identifies four great prayers and concerns in her Dialogue: Firstly, for herself; one cannot truly love one’s neighbour unless one first loves oneself, and both are grounded in God’s love and the knowledge of Him. In the Dialogue, God tells her that one moves “from the knowledge of me [God] to the knowledge of oneself, from love of me to love of one’s neighbours.” We see this too in Catherine’s life – first the years spent in solitude and contemplation, growing in love and knowledge of God and then her emergence into the world and a life of passionate service to her neighbour – the sick, dying, troubled. And this love of neighbour, giving without return is only possible is one “draw[s] your love from God who is the fountain of living water, if you do not drink it continually in God, your vessel will soon be empty.” Clearly then contemplation of God drives and replenishes her service of others.

With regard to knowledge of self, it is the foundation of humility. When we know ourselves as we really are, we become aware of our nothingness and our need for God. Catherine says that we come to know ourselves not by looking at ourselves but at God for it is from God that we receive our very being and so God is all in all. Thus the Lord says to her: “Catherine. I am who am; you are she who is not.” All existence is predicate on God and it is this self-knowledge that humbles us and takes us from self-love to love of God who gives us being. Hence, our self-knowledge is dependent on a true knowledge of Him. Thus, we are invited to look at the “gentle mirror” of God – a beautiful image of our human dignity and God’s presence and gentleness.

Catherine comes to this knowledge of God through prayer and meditation. In particular, her own interior (mystical) experiences are God’s revelation to her of his love. Thus she writes: “In your light you enlighten me so that I am able to know your truth. You are the light above all light, who illumines the eyes of my mind with such fullness and perfection that you give clarity even to the light of faith.” As such Catherine attributes her knowledge of God and the fruit of her meditation to the action of God; to His enlightenment of her mind. It is this that she shares with us in her writings.

With regard to mystical union, Catherine describes it as an experience or awareness of the presence of God in the soul and it is quite different from the simple union with God through sanctifying grace. In the state of perfection the soul never loses its awareness of God’s presence; there is such an intimate and continual union between the soul and God that every time and place is a place for prayer, for communing with God; this place she called the “cell of self-knowledge”, the “cell of the heart” and interior cell.

With regard to prayer, Catherine writes in a letter to her niece (Sr Eugenia) of the threefold way of prayer. First there is prayer of the heart, namely, continual prayer, or that constant and holy desire that keeps one in the presence of God. In saying this, Catherine echoes St Augustine who said that first of all, one’s prayer is one’s desire. Secondly there is vocal prayer, especially in the Divine Office, wherein our heart must be in accord with our tongue. Thirdly, there is mental prayer in which “the soul unites itself to God in a movement of love. Rising above itself through the light of its intelligence, it sees; it knows and clothes itself in truth.”

This movement of love has three stages in the growth of a person in holiness. St Catherine calls it servile love (a love accompanied by fear of punishment for one’s sins), mercenary love (a love accompanied by hope of eternal reward) and filial love (the love of God for his own sake, which is the perfection of charity). In this final state of filial love, the individual’s will in entirely united and abandoned to the divine will. The image she uses is of God as a “deep sea” and just as a person dives into the depths of the sea, so “the soul who plunges totally into God is so transformed into God that all her thoughts, understanding, love and memory are taken up exclusively with God and are busy with God alone.”

Catherine’s second great concern was a love for the Church and this love fired her zeal for reform in the Church. Even this love for the Church is fuelled by her passion for Christ.

Indeed, Catherine’s spirituality is deeply Christocentric and she has an interesting image of Christ as a Bridge. In her Dialogues, she writes: “I [God] give you a bridge, my Son, so that could cross over the river, the stormy sea of this darksome life, without drowning.” We need to walk along this bridge to reach our goal. The bridge is “walled and roofed with mercy”, typical of Italian urban bridges. I think of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence which has shops and homes on either side of a broad street, spanning the Arno. One can find refreshment in these shops just as we find refreshment in the sacraments and the Eucharist.

It is said that Catherine’s “sense of the dramatic is unparalleled in mystical literature” and this is true from some of the images we have seen so far. Clearly she draws on images familiar to her time and often inspired by nature too. However some images are (initially at least) violent, even frightening and somewhat startling. For example she calls Christ: "O sweet lamb roasted by the fire of divine charity on the stake of the cross!"

For Catherine, the Church is so united to Christ, as His Mystical Body that she said, “the Church is no other than Christ himself.” As such, the sins of Church members and the moral laxity of the Church in her days was a constant concern for her and she described the Church as a bride whose “face is disfigured with leprosy”. In that same vision, she said that it was the prayers and tears of the saints which would ensure Christ’s mercy on the Church and it was “the fault of [God’s] ministers, and of all those Christians who indulge themselves” that the Church was in such a state of schism and turmoil.

This must have been a tremendous burden for her. In the final year of her life she dragged herself daily to St Peter’s in Rome to pray for the Church which was beset by schism, heresy, infidels in the Holy Land, states in revolt against the Holy See, etc. She used to pray in front of a mosaic of St Peter in a boat being buffeted by high winds. One day as she prayed there, she felt that the boat was lifted out of the mosaic and placed on her shoulders. It was so heavy that she cried out and fell to the ground.

Indeed, she prayed to the Trinity to “have mercy on the world, and restore the warmth of charity and peace and unity to Holy Church. I do not wish you to delay any longer. I beg you to let your infinite goodness constrain you not to close the eye of your mercy.”

We can see from this prayer that Catherine’s third concern was for peace in the world. Hence she busied herself interceding between city states and writing to leaders.

Finally, Catherine had a concern for her friends. In particular she had a deep friendship with of Raymond of Capua. She calls friends those who “love one another very closely with a singular love” and she sees friendship as a means given to us by God to help us and others to grow in holiness and grace. Hence she looks out for the spiritual welfare of her friends and prays for them: "I commend to you [Father] those whom you have put on my shoulders. You commissioned me to keep them awake, me, who am always sleeping. Wake them up yourself, kind and compassionate Father, so that the eyes of their understanding may always be wide awake in you.""
Associating ourselves as friends of hers, we can be sure that St Catherine of Siena still prays for us and for God's Holy Church. Today is also ordinarily the feast of St Pius V, Dominican friar and Pope and we ask him to pray for us too that he may draw all Christians into the unity of the Church that we may offer to God a universal hymn of praise and glory and so be brought into the communion of all the saints!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Life of St Catherine of Siena

Today Holy Mother Church rejoices in the Feast of St Catherine of Siena, she who has been called a Second Founder of the Order of Preachers. Together with St Teresa of Avila, she was one of the first women to be declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970 and she was subsequently proclaimed a Patroness of Europe. Both these marks of recognition from the Church are signs of the Church's high regard for his spiritual doctrine and mystical revelations; noteworthy too is St Catherine's love for the Church and her zeal for the unity and renewal of the Spouse of Jesus Christ, who Himself was her Mystical Bridegroom. Hence she proclaimed: "We should pass through the door of Jesus Christ, the Crucified, a door which can only be found in holy Church." Her deep love for Christ and His Body, the Church is just one of many precious examples we can learn from this great saint.

Following is a Biographical Sketch which I prepared for our Novitiate classes:

"Catherine was born around 1347 in Siena, the twenty-third of twenty-five children. Her father Jacopo Benincasa was a fairly prosperous dyer and her mother was called Lapa. Their house was on a steep hill below the Dominican church of San Domenico in Siena. At this time, Siena was a self-governing republic, in the shadow of the great republic of Florence. At this time, between 1305 and 1378 all the popes were Frenchmen, governing the Church from Avignon in Provence. Because of the papal absence from Rome the Papal States were in chaos and Rome itself was in the grip of a power struggle between the aristocratic families of the City.

Catherine herself must have grown up in the chaos of her huge family. Kenelm Foster, OP says that “in the swarming hurly-burly of her home Catherine grew up in full contact with human realities.” She grew up quickly too in Christian piety and when she was six she saw her first vision of Christ over the Dominican priory. A year later, she vowed her virginity to Jesus. At the age of fifteen, at the advice of her cousin, a Dominican friar and her first spiritual director, she renewed her vow of virginity by cutting off her hair, a step that brought her into sharp conflict with her family until Jacopo, convinced at last that this daughter of his was no ordinary girl, ordered Lapa and the rest to let her be. Indeed, it has been said that these were the first signs of a stubborn independence that was to be a hallmark of most of her life. Yet, she is described as “a strikingly pleasant and outgoing youngster, imaginative and idealistic in her devotion.”

Unusually, she was allowed the rare privilege of a room of her own in the attic and she remained there, praying day and night, only leaving it to go to church or help with the housework. At the age of eighteen, she got herself admitted, against stiff opposition, because of her youth, into a Dominican lay sisterhood called the Mantellate. This did not make her a nun but it gave her the black and white Dominican habit and incorporated her into the wider family of the Order. The Mantellate were actually widows who served the needs of the poor and the sick under the direction of a prioress and ultimately the friars. She continued to live at home but in even stricter seclusion, leaving her room only to go to Mass at San Domenico, until about three years later, around 1368, she received an order from Christ to come out of her solitude and to love her neighbour as herself. She was twenty-one years old.

She immediately rejoined her family and gave herself to the service of the poor and the sick with the Mantellate. She served as nurse in homes and hospitals, looked out for the destitute and buried her father. This period of activity seems to have come after her ‘mystical espousal’ to Christ, which had climaxed her period of solitude. Her ministry quickly took her beyond the lepers, plague victims, poor, sick and homeless victims of Siena, and she began to address her considerable energies to peace-brokering between the warring Italian city-states, correcting abuses of power and privilege, reforming the Dominican order and even restoring the papacy to Rome.

Yet she still continued to have daily times of silence and contemplation after which she would have conversations with those who gathered around her room. In these conversations she learned the subtleties of theological argument and biblical interpretation and she taught what she knew from experience of the way of God. These people – lay men and women, Dominicans, secular clergy and even members of the aristocracy – who gathered around her saw themselves as a spiritual family and called her ‘Mother’.

Mystical experiences continued to increase and intensify and in 1370 she experienced her ‘mystical death’ – four hours during which she experienced ecstatic union with God while her body seemed lifeless to all observers. Although only twenty-three then, she experienced an exchange of hearts with Jesus who said to her: “See, dearest daughter, a few days ago I took your heart from you; now, in the same way, I give you my own heart. For the future, it is by [this heart] that you must live.” And this seemed to be the case! Her austerities increased and she abstained from food and sleep almost entirely!

In 1374, she travelled to Florence, summoned some say, for the General Chapter of the Order. Here she formed a life-long friendship with St Raymond of Capua, who became her spiritual director and confessor. It seems that she was also investigated by the Chapter and duly exonerated, returning to Siena with a friar who would become not only a spiritual director but a disciple and friend.

In 1375 she travelled to Pisa to convince Pisa against joining an anti-papal league and she even preached a crusade to deliver the Holy Land, believing that Christian armies ought to direct their energies to this effort rather than warring against one another. It was in Pisa in St Christina’s church that she received the stigmata which she was to bear invisibly – at her request – until her death. In 1376, she travelled to Avignon to plead for Florence which was interdict for taking up arms against the papal armies. Although she was unsuccessful in this regard, due to Florentine treachery, she turned her energies instead to telling the pope Gregory XI about her ideas for a crusade, the reform of the clergy and most importantly, the return of the papacy to Rome. Catherine’s insistence on this matter strongly influenced the pope in his actual move and return to Rome.

Gregory XI entered Rome in January 1377 but died within a year. The Roman mob demanded an Italian pope and the cardinals elected Urban VI, the first non-French pope in sixty years. But this pope was “impulsive, violent and mentally unstable” and so after four months of aggravation, the French cardinals fled to Avignon, nullified Urban’s election on grounds of duress and elected Robert of Geneva as Clement VI. This anti-pope established his papacy at Avignon and thus the Great Western Schism had begun – a tragic consequence of Catherine’s good intentions.

During these turbulent times, Catherine wrote many letters to any and all who were involved pleading for loyalty and unity. Despite Urban VI’s shortcomings, Catherine defended his papacy as she believed in the office of Pope and its significance for the unity of the Church. Indeed, we can identify renewal and reform in the Church as one of her great themes.

In 1378 she was summoned to Rome. She left Siena with her disciples and set up a household in Rome where lived on alms. She laboured for eighteen months, preaching, writing, praying for unity. She pushed herself to the limits of her energies and still she failed. At last in 1380, she fell seriously ill and was unable (or unwilling) to eat or even swallow water. For two months she lay paralyzed and diabolic visions tormented her as much as mystical ecstasy ravished her. She died on 29 April 1780, aged just thirty-three.

She was canonized in 1461."

On this day, let us sing God's praises and thank Him for the gift of St Catherine of Siena, whose example and witness to Truth still inspires so many. I pray especially for all the apostolic sisters of the Order of Preachers who follow in her footsteps and who have St Catherine as their patroness. May she make the work of our Order fruitful in praising, blessing and preaching the love and truth of Jesus Christ.

The statue (above centre) of St Catherine is from the facade of San Esteban church in Salamanca.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Priory of San Esteban (Secunda Pars)

The Priory and Church is dedicated to St Stephen, the protomartyr and his Martyrdom (shown above) is depicted in stone at the centre of the great facade of the church, which is executed in the Plateresque style that dominates Salamanca.

This beautiful door on the left in honour of St Joseph leads from the cloister into the Priory church of San Esteban. Opening off the cloister are other elaborately carved portals in honour of various Dominican saints that lead to other parts of the convent. As with much of Spanish architecture and ornamentation, the shape of the door frame has a clear Moorish influence.

The existing Church (on the right, showing the high altar and reredos and seen from the choir loft) was begun in the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul in 1524 by fray Juan Alvarez de Toledo, Cardinal-Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. The Dukes of Alba were major benefactors and are buried in the church upon its completion in 1608. The church is 87 metres long, in the form of a Latin cross and rises to a height of 41 metres at the Crossing (below). The Crossing and the vault has beautiful bosses depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, Dominican saints and beati and the arms of Cardinal Alvarez.

A marvel of the church is the beautiful Choir that is found in the west end, an arrangement quite typical of the churches used by the friars. The choir loft has 118 stalls for the friars and a central stall with a statue of St Dominic. The stalls are carved from walnut and were made between 1651 and 1655. In the centre of the choir is a splendid revolving lectern on which the enormous Office chant books were placed. The photo below shows a part of the choir with this lectern and a painting can be glimpsed above the choir stalls that depicts 'The Church Triumphant'. This is a wondrous work of allegorical art that shows the Order of Preachers serving the Church and the greater glory of God, helping the Church to trample error, ignorance and sin underfoot. More on this at a later date!

Returning to the cloister, we also visited the amazing Sacristy (below right). It sure beats the walk-in closet that serves as our sacristy here in Blackfriars Cambridge! Built in 1627 by fray Pedro de Herrera - bishop of the Canary islands and a son of this convent - the sacristy, taken as a whole, is considered the most representative work of the Baroque period in Salamanca. In one of the niches here was a statue of St Thomas Aquinas and the Spanish friar who was kindly acting as our tour guide said it looked rather like me! Would you agree with his assessment? Here it is on the left:

Finally, we re-emerged into the cloister and walking under the portal of St Peter Martyr we made our way out of the convent. The view from San Esteban is stunning. From the front of the church, one sees the east end of the Cathedrals of Salamanca. The city has two cathedrals - an old Romanesque one next to the larger new Gothic-Baroque cathedral - and it dominates the city together with the former Jesuit college which is now the Pontifical University. I leave you with this view of Salamanca Cathedral below. There will be more photos of the city and of our pilgrimage to Caleruega, Silos and Avila next week!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Priory of San Esteban (Prima Pars)

The Friars Preachers arrived at the university town of Salamanca in 1224 and settled on the banks of the river Tormes without the city walls. That priory was destroyed by flooding in 1256 causing them to move to the site of the existing Romanesque St Stephen's church on 9 November 1256. The bishop had given them that site along with an adjoining cemetery and land on which the friars proceeded to build a priory, cloister and other adjacent buildings. Vestiges of these structures survive but most have been reconstructed 16th century (left, the Facade of the Priory), a golden age for Salamanca.

On the right is the so-called Cloister of Processions, the main cloister of the convent. It was completed in 1544 and designed by fray Martin de Santiago. As is the style of many such cloisters it has two levels and I am shown below in the Upper Cloister which is reached via a stunning Stone Staircase built by fray Domingo de Soto, just after he returned in 1553 from the Council of Trent.

It is from this convent of San Esteban (St Stephen) that the first Dominican friars to evangelize the Americas and the Philippines were sent. Among it's sons are fray Domingo Salazar, first Bishop of Manila; fray Francisco de Vitoria, founder of the 'Salamanca School' and creator of International Law; fray Domingo de Soto, inquisitor and a principal theologian at the Council of Trent; fray Diego de Deza, confessor and protector of Christopher Columbus who was a visitor of this house; Cardinal Juan de Torquemada and St Vincent Ferrer. Many of these luminaries are depicted in the new Chapter House of the Convent (shown on the right) which was begun in 1627 and replaced the old Chapter House which had become too small. Nevertheless many of the famous sons of this Convent are buried in the original Chapter House.

St Teresa of Avila (whose home and convent in Avila we visited later in the week) also went to San Esteban, as a penitent, whenever she was in Salamanca and the confessional she used can still be seen. She is known to have said that the best confessors were Dominicans and it seems to have been her practice to avail herself of a Dominican confessor whenever she could. In the photo below, Br Paul is sitting on the friar's side of the Confessional on a rather uncomfortable stone stool; the friars had access to the confessional through doors in their cloister but the penitents entered their side of the confessional through a door in the Priory church. This meant that the confessor did not have to leave the clausura in order to hear confessions!

The Priory is now home to a community of about two dozen friars and also several storks who nest on the roof and gables of the convent and the church! Below is just one of many which I spotted and many churches in Salamanca and around the region seem to have stork-nests on them. It made me think of the psalm:

"How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts... even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of Hosts" (Ps 84:1, 3).

Tomorrow: More photos of the Priory and the Church of San Esteban.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Back from España!

We're back from a most amazing week in Salamanca and its environs and I've almost a thousand photos to sort through, but here are two to begin with: Br Paul Mills OP and me outside our Dominican convent in Caleruega, birthplace of St Dominic and home of the holy Guzman family; and the wonderful Priory and Church of San Esteban in Salamanca where we were guests of the Dominican community of Sotomayor. The hospitality was superb, even though our Spanish was almost non-existent (!), the food (and wine) was excellent and the weather was perfect!

I'll post more photos over the next few days although Br Paul and I shall be in our Dominican sisters' convent at Stone this weekend for a Youth 2000 Prayer Retreat... but more stories and sights from our pilgrimage to Spain is forthcoming!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Pilgrimage Hiatus

This blog will be on hiatus for the duration of a Novena as the English Dominican Novitiate is going on a pilgrimage to Spain to visit the Dominican sites and also the places associated with other spiritual masters. We shall be based at our Priory in the beautiful and ancient city of Salamanca. Do keep us in your prayers, as I will remember all my readers at the holy shrines.

During this hiatus, the English church celebrates the Solemnity of St George and we mark the anniversary of Pope Benedict's election; no doubt many of my favourite bloggers will mark those days with due care and consideration, more ably than I could. As for me, Blogging will resume on 26 April, hopefully with some photos from Spain.

Have a blessed and joyful Easter Octave!

The photo above is of our chapel at Blackfriars Cambridge arrayed for Solemn Vespers on Easter Sunday.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Dare to be an Easter People of Saints

'This day was made by the Lord: we rejoice and are glad, alleluia!'

This antiphon permeates the Easter Octave, and in the Divine Office time seems to stand still as we celebrate the Office of Easter day for the whole week, forming one great 'Dies Domini'. But even this extends into the entire season of Easter, the pentecostarion, or fifty days that form the days of the Easter day, such that the whole of Paschaltide has been called the Great Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection.

In the following reflection, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton considers what this means as all of Christian time is redeemed and thus Easter-time and also explicates what is implied when Pope John Paul II called all the baptised an "Easter people". As we sit in the light of the Paschal Candle and ruminate on the Scriptures, so our entire life takes on a Resurrection hue and we enjoy the new life of Christ given us by water and the Spirit:

"The Easter Mystery is not celebrated only at Easter but every day of the year, because the Mass is the Paschal Mystery. Passiontide, Holy Week, Easter and the 'holy fifty days' of the Easter season culminating in the celebration of Pentecost, all combine to spread the Easter mystery out before us in time in all its detail: but the fullness of Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost is also compressed within the compass of each day's Mass. For every time we participate in the sacred Mysteries, the 'Pascha Domini', we die with Christ, rise with Him and receive from Him the Spirit of Promise who transforms us and unites us to the Father in and through the Son.

Lent has summoned us to change our hearts, to effect in ourselves the Christian metanoia. But at the same time Lent has reminded us perhaps all too clearly of our own powerlessness to change our lives in any way. Lent in the liturgical year plays the role of the Law, the pedagogue, who convinces us of sin and inflicts upon us the crushing evidence of our own nothingness. Hence it disquiets and sobers us, awakening in us perhaps some sense of that existential 'dread' of the creature whose freedom suspends him over an abyss which may be an infinite meaninglessness, an unbounded despair. This is the fruit of that Law which judges our freedom together with its powerlessness to impose full meaning on our lives merely by conforming to a moral code. Is there nothing more than this?

But now the power of Easter has burst upon us with the resurrection of Christ. Now we find in ourselves a strength which is not our own, and which is freely given to us whenever we need it, raising us above the Law, giving us the new law which is hidden in Christ: the law of His merciful love for us. Now we no longer strive to do good because we have to, because it is a duty, but because our joy is to please Him who has given all His love to us! Now our life is full of meaning!

Easter is the hour of our own deliverance... Here is all the greatness and all the unimaginable splendour of the Easter mystery - here is the 'grace' of Easter which we fail to lay hands on because we are afraid to understand its full meaning. To understand Easter and live it, we must renounce our dread of newness and of freedom!

Every Christian knows that he must die to sin. But the great truth that St Paul exhausted himself to preach in season and out is a truth that we Christians have barely grasped, a truth that has got away from us, that constantly eludes us and has continued to do so... We cannot get it into our heads what it means to be no longer slaves of the Law. And the reason is that we do not have the courage to face this truth which contains in itself the crucial challenge of our Christian faith, the great reality that makes Christianity different from every other religion.

In all other religions men seek justification, salvation, escape from 'the wheel of birth and death' by ritual acts, or by religious observances, or by ascetic and contemplative techniques... But Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to 'the Law' rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ; 'Do you seek justification by the Law... you are fallen from grace... In fact, in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor its absence is of any avail. What counts is faith that expresses itself in love' (Gal 5:4,6)...

Hence the Christian has no Law but Christ. His 'Law' is the new life itself which has been given to him in Christ. His Law is not written in books but in the depths of his own heart, not by the pen of man but by the finger of God. His duty is now not just to obey but to live. He does not have to save himself, he is saved by Christ. He must live to God in Christ, not only as one who seeks salvation but as one who is saved.

One might almost say that this truth is the great 'scandal' of Christianity. It is the stone that is constantly being rejected by the builders... Easter is the mystery of our redemption. We who have died and risen with Christ are no longer sinners. Sin is dead in us. The Law has no further hold on us.

And yet this is not as simple as it sounds. Our new life in Christ is not a permanent and guaranteed possession, handed over to our control, a 'property' which we now definitively have. We are still suspended over the abyss, and we can still fall back into the awful dread of the alienated man who has lost trust. But the fact remains that if we consent to it, grace and trust are renewed from moment to moment in our lives. They are not a permanent possession but an ever present gift of God's love. For this liberty to continue, we must really believe in the power of God to sanctify us and keep us saints. We must dare to be saints by the power of God..."
(Meditations on Liturgy, 146-150)

As Paschaltide unfolds, we are drawn deeper into the mystery of grace, into the gift of redemption and new life. The apostles whose acts are read in this holy season grew in understanding of what it meant to be saved by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As we journey towards Pentecost, the completion of the Paschal Mystery, let us pray for the grace to live as an Easter people - liberated from sin to serve and love God - and by His power, may we dare to be saints!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Holy Week & Triduum at Blackfriars Cambridge


All are welcome to join us for the following
Liturgies for Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum this week at
Blackfriars, Buckingham Road, Cambridge CB3 0DD

Palm Sunday:

9.30 am Lauds
11 am Blessing of Palms, Procession and Sung Mass
7 pm Vespers & Compline

Spy Wednesday:

7.10 am Lauds followed by Mass (7.30)
6.30 pm Vespers followed by Via Crucis

Maundy Thursday:

7.30 am Office of Readings & Lauds
6 pm Mass of the Lord's Supper
followed by Watching at the Altar of Repose

11 pm Compline

Good Friday:

8.30 am Tenebrae
3 pm Solemn Liturgy of the Lord's Passion
7 pm Compline

Holy Saturday:

8.30 am Tenebrae
2 - 4 pm Confessions
6.30 pm Vespers
10 pm Vigil & First Mass of Easter

Easter Sunday:

9.30 am Lauds
11 pm Solemn Mass
6.30 pm Solemn Vespers



Kristos Anesti!
Christus Resurrexit!
Christ is Risen!
Mabuhay si Kristo!


The Dominican Friars (and Leo the Priory Cat)
at Blackfriars in Cambridge wish you and yours

every blessing of the Risen Lord and every Paschal joy
this Eastertide and throughout the year!

The photo above, taken in the Priory garden, shows our hand-painted Paschal candle designed and executed by fr Richard Conrad OP, our prior, and based on Celtic illuminations.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Asleep with Christ

The fresco above by our Dominican brother, Beato Angelico depicts the Harrowing of Hell. Christ has shattered the gates of hell, trampling the devil underfoot and putting the demons to flight and he enters hell to free the patriarchs. This is the essence of Holy Saturday - which I have already written about at this post - when Christ descends to the dead and brings the fullness of salvation to Adam, to Abraham and our fathers and mothers in faith.

However, the dynamic image above contrasts with the great pall of silence that hangs over the Church today - the silence of the Lord in the tomb. The Second Reading in the Office of Readings for today speaks of this stillness that reigns over the world, as Christ descends into the realm of the dead. But it is noteworthy that this ancient homily for Holy Saturday, using early Christian terminology, refers to death as sleep: "God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages"... Hence, the following reflection on sleep, death and Christ, from Fr Geoffrey Preston OP is a fitting reflection for this holy day. He writes:

"'Into your hands I commend my spirit', a verse from Psalm 31. Rabbinic literature often refers to this psalm verse in connection with prayer in the evening. It recommends that the Jew, before going to sleep, should entrust himself with these words to the mercy of God. In the modern Jewish prayerbook it is found among the night prayers for children. Jesus may well have learned such a practice as a child and remained faithful to it all his life. And now as he was dying, as he was about to fall asleep, he prayed as he had always prayed before going to sleep. 'Into your hands I commend my spirit; you have redeemed me, Lord, you God of truth'...

In Compline we repeat again and again the verse from the psalm which Jesus prayed as his goodnight prayer on the cross. At Compline we sing an antiphon to Our Lady that is sung traditionally when people are dying...

Sleep and death. In the New Testament the words are often interchangeable. Lazarus falls asleep. Stephen falls asleep. Sleep is an image of death, but death can be sleep... Learning to sleep is part of learning to die...

How do we learn to die? By practising dying. How do we practise dying? By going to sleep properly night after night, letting the past day go and saying: 'Into your hands I commend my spirit.' Then we discover that it is not just obedience and acceptance of our biological situation but that we can freely and even gladly choose to fall asleep and to die. It can be a matter not just of necessity but of salvation.

The prayer of Jesus on the cross, his good-night prayer, is given to us each night at Compline so that we can find that such letting-go may do us all the good in the world. You cannot 'go to sleep', you fall asleep, you let go into sleep. If we refuse to relinquish our hold on the day, hanging on grimly to our achievements, whatever they are, we lose them in the loss of ourselves. But if we let them go they will be ours to enjoy again tomorrow morning, and in the morning of the Resurrection. 'Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who loses his life will keep it for eternal life', because he will have given it into the hands of the Father where it will be safe and sure. He will keep us, and so we can relax the vigil over our own personality not just for one moment or two, when caught offguard, but for a whole night and then for ever...

That is the way of life to which we are called as sons and daughters in the Son of God. We are called to receive from the hands of God whatever he chooses to give us, whatever comes to us by way of the laws of nature or the events of life, and to let ourselves be moulded into true sons and daughters in that way."

(Hallowing the Time, 109-112)

Let us pray:

"Come to visit us, Lord, this night,
so that by your strength we may rise at daybreak
to rejoice in the Resurrection of Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns forever and ever."

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Filipino Passion on the Streets

Every year on Good Friday in the parish of San Lorenzo Ruiz and Companion Martyrs in Manila, the Philippines, the youth of the parish perform the Senakulo, which I have called "the poor man's Oberammergau", a "spectacular display of the Passion, a live Via Crucis and Passion Play taken into the streets, into the ordinary lives of people; out of the churches and into the highways and byways of life".

The devotion lasts for 4 hours and traverses the length and breadth of the parish, stopping at the traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross. It is a tremendous witness to the Faith, drawing the attention of passers-by and throngs of poor children who follow in its wake. Writing in my personal Journal, when I served for a year in this parish as a Dominican Volunteer, I reflected: "No doubt the Lord’s Via Dolorosa was similar: chaotic, a mere freak-show or inconvenience to others. Some were moved by it, others merely curious, still others indifferent."

I would like to relive the two Senakulo devotions I experienced and saw during my 12-month stay in Dagat-dagatan and share photos from the fourteen stations with you. Please join me on this journey, in the footsteps of Our Lord.


"So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted... and he handed Jesus over as they wished" (Lk 23:24-25).


"So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgatha" (Jn 19:17).


"Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." (cf Phil 2:6-7)


"And a sword shall pierce your own soul too..." (Lk 2:35).


"As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene called Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross" (Mt 27:32).


"And as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised and we held him of no account" (Isa 53:3).


"But I am a worm, and not human... you lay me in the dust of death" (Ps 22:6, 15).


"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children..." (Lk 23:28).


"Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accouunted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities..." (Isa 53:4).


"They took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier..." (Jn 19:23).


"He took our sins on himself, giving his body to be nailed on the tree..." (1 Pet 2:24).


"Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last" (Mk 15:37).


"To what can I liken you, that I can comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion?" (Lam 2:13b).


"Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb" (Mk 15:46).

Let us pray:

"I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; moreover, my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence" (Acts 2:25-28, citing Ps 16:8-11). Amen!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tenebrae factae sunt!

All is ready for our (slightly abbreviated) celebration of Tenebrae, perhaps the most evocative Office in the Liturgical year as we knew it. The texts of the Office, notably the responsories and the Lamentations have inspired a spectrum of composers from Palestrina, Gesualdo and Victoria to Poulenc and Rubbra. We don't have a choir to sing such beautiful polyphony but we shall sing the sublime plainsong responsories, using Dominican chant, which differs slightly from the (more typically-used) Benedictine versions.

A feature of Tenebrae as the names suggests is the increasing darkness or deprivation of light as the Office proceeds. This is signified by the fourteen unbleached candles on the Tenebrae hearse (shown on the right, behind me) which are snuffed out with each psalm. The fifteenth candle (which represents Christ) is not snuffed out but taken away and hidden, as our Lord was laid in the tomb.

Sadly we shall not be performing the strepitus - the loud noise made by slamming the breviaries on the choir stalls, to signify chaos in the world as Christ the light is taken from us. However, we do sing a litany at the end of the Office and the versicle "mortem autem crucis" is sung, in the English Dominican custom - a fifth above the written note, which I rather suspect should provide enough of a loud noise!!

Do join us at 8.30am for this unique liturgy or find somewhere near you that does it and join them!

I ought to acknowledge the fact that in the photo above, taken tonight, I am wearing a summer-weight habit made by the Dominican Siena Sisters in the Philippines and given to me by a friend and benefactress in the Philippines. Maraming salamat po!

Thy Will be Done...

"Why is this night different from other nights?" asks the youngest at the Passover Meal. This question has a special poignancy and significance for us Christians because on this night, the Lord's work of redemption begins: "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him..." (Jn 13:31). St Thomas Aquinas' hymn Sacris solemniis, which was written for Corpus Christi beautifully expresses the significance of this night:

"Of that night is recalled the Last Supper, at which Christ is believed to have given to His brethren the lamb and the unleavened bread, according to laws given to the ancient fathers.

After the typical lamb, and when the meal was finished, we profess that our Lord's body, with His own hands, was given to his disciples, in such manner that the whole (body) was given to all, and the whole to each.

He gave to the weak the food of His body; and He gave to the sad the cup of His blood, saying: Receive ye the cup which I give to you, drink ye all of it.

Thus he instituted the sacrifice, the administration of which He willed should be entrusted to priests alone, whom it thus behooves to receive and give to others."

Thus, on this night, the Lord institutes that wonderful sacrament in which "Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is renewed and a pledge of future glory", the glory of salvation, is in these Sacred Three Days, won for us. On this night too, the Lord gives the sacred priesthood to the world to continue His example of Eucharistic self-giving and servant-leadership and by the washing of feet, has given all Christians an example of service and love to follow.

And "when they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives" and "then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane" where he told his disciples to watch and pray (cf Mt 26:30ff). Fr Gerald Vann OP reminds us that that command is given us by the Lord, to watch and pray; and not just on this night - as many of us will before altars of repose - but to always watch and pray. As St Peter says: "Be sober, be vigilant because your adversary the devil prowls round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand up to him, strong in faith" (1 Pet 5:8-9a). And how should we pray? How can we be vigilant and defeat the devil? How do we stay awake and alert?

Fr Gerald Vann suggests that we can take our inspiration for Christ's example and prayer in Gethsemane and place our will in God's. Indeed, the Desert Fathers often teach that only humility can defeat the snares of the devil. And the fruit of such humility is obedience to the Father's will. And so, Gerald Vann OP writes:

"'Father, if this cup may not pass from me, but I must drink it, thy will be done.' Obedience to God's will is the keynote of the whole Gospel story. We find it at the beginning when Mary is told of her destiny: 'Be it done to me according to thy word' (Lk 1:38). We find it constantly on the lips of Christ: 'My meat is to do the will of him that sent me' (Jn 4:34). Here in the garden the struggle within him is caused by the shrinking of his nature from what that will was to mean to him; and as here he prays, 'Thy will be done', so in the final cry on the cross, Consummatum est, 'the work is completed', he is declaring the fact that the will has been done. Obedience is the keynote of the story because it is the essential fact in the story. Sin means the rejection, by human pride and egoism of God's authority; and it is from our egoism that all our troubles spring. Christ saves us from our troubles by reversing the process; annihilating egoism - and asserting true self-hood - by a total acceptance of God's will. But his obedience can be of value to us only in so far as we share in it. For us too God's will has to become the essential fact, and 'Thy will be done' the essential prayer."
(The Son's Course, 111)

Perhaps as we contemplate our Lord's Passion and His agony in the garden tonight, we can unite our willful selves more closely to His selflessness and pray that God's mysterious will is done in all things. That is how we are to watch and pray so that, beginning with this night, tonight paradoxically becomes just like any other night, because the prayer 'Thy will be done' ought to be our perennial and daily prayer.

This happens as we partake of the "sacred solemnity" of the holy Eucharist - as St Thomas Aquinas puts it in the hymn referred to above - whose supernatural graces will cause "all things [to] be new: hearts, words, and works". This wonderful work of the redemption and renewal of all creation, begins tonight as we enter the Sacred Triduum and the Lord declares: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21:5).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Judas and Us

Station at Saint Mary Major

Today is the final day of Lent as the Church stands on the eve of the Sacred Triduum, and we end our Lenten journey with Our Lady and begin our entry into the Paschal Mystery in her company. The Station is held at Rome's oldest and largest basilica built in honour of the Mother of God. She is the ever-faithful one, whose 'Fiat' to God led her to follow Christ and share in His Passion.

"Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me" (Ps 41:9)

The Blessed Virgin's steadfast faith and closeness to her Son contrasts with Judas, who betrayed the Lord. This event is especially commemorated in today's Liturgy, hence it is known in some countries as Spy Wednesday. And yet, the tragic figure of Judas is someone we can perhaps all identify with and feel sympathy for. How many of us have not betrayed the Lord in some way through our sins? And Judas at least did not know what the Lord was to do for him, by dying on the Cross. But we, we know of the marvellous works of the Lord and still we sin against him.

However, when we have sinned and are conscious of this, we can pray for the grace of repentance which is the very gift of divine forgiveness. As we have seen the past two days, God is ever ready to forgive us, if only we are honest with ourselves, strip ourselves of all illusions and come to God, with "a humble and contrite heart", as a sinner in need of God's healing, stength and re-creating Spirit. This forgiveness of God and every grace of repentance is poured out into our hearts through the beautiful sacrament of reconciliation by the ministry of His priests. As the Council of Chalon-sur-Saone in 813 puts it: "God, the author and dispenser of health and salvation, grants us pardon, by the operation of his invisible power, and by the work of the doctors of the soul."

Therefore, the tragedy of the sinner, the one who betrays Christ is not so much that one has sinned but that one does not come to repentance and so, does not receive the forgiveness of our ever-loving God. It is here that we part company with Judas. As a Dominican Tertiary (writing in 1956) muses:

"[If Judas had] thrown himself at Jesus' Feet, how different his end would have been. We know that God will forgive the most hardened sinner, provided he repents and hopes. But Judas to his first sin added that of final despair, and casting down the money, he went out and hanged himself. Had he repented truly and insisted publicly on the Lord's innocence, there would doubtless have been four crosses on Calvary instead of three, but he would have welcomed that agonising death by the side of his Redeemer, and would have died with his soul at peace, and the assurance of forgiveness."

The language above, as fr Herbert McCabe OP put it yesterday, is "picturesque" and what it says is that the one who truly repents, finds forgiveness in abundance, for the grace of God's forgiveness is true repentance. Judas did not find this because he succumbed to despair and all hope was lost; we however, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and by baptism, have the gifts of faith, hope and love. Drawing on the strength of these gifts, we can examine our conscience and see ourselves clearly - sinners as we are - and ought not to despair but need only repent, confess our sins to the Lord and be healed, renewed and revitalized. This is the grace of "second repentance" as fr Geoffrey Preston OP calls the sacrament of reconciliation.

May the Blessed Virgin, our Mother of Mercy lead us to the grace of this sacrament and help us to see ourselves as we truly are - sinners yet beloved in God's eyes. May she intercede for us before God's Mercy Seat and may we, by our fidelity, show ourselves to be children of Mary.