The art of meditative presence to life is both gift and call. To open to the mystery within us, between us and in the world around us is sometimes to catch glimpses of grace, ever at play at the heart of life and making all one.
In these reflections, two women in faith, both Northerners and long-standing friends, one a Presbyterian minister, the other a Dominican sister, express something of their musings on what it is to find a home in God’s world, to discover God at home in the world, and to be pilgrims living towards a vision of a new heaven and new earth.
Originally broadcast on BBC Radio as Thoughts for the Day,these unpretentious reflections on the seasons of Lent and Advent and the days in between prompt the reader to pause, to lift the eye and open the heart for grace in unsuspected places, finding hints of what one seventeenth-century poet described as Heaven in Ordinairie.
Geraldine Smyth OP is a Dominican sister and theologian from Belfast. She is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of the Research Degrees Programme at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin and a former director of ISE. Geraldine has a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity College Dublin. She is a board member of Healing Through Remembering, a Belfast-based organisation focused on dealing with past conflict in and about Northern Ireland and shaping a new and peaceful society.
Lesley Carroll, from Co. Tyrone, is currently Minister at Fortwilliam & Macrory Presbyterian Church, Antrim
Road, Belfast. She is well known for her leading role in reconciliation and peace-building, and most cently as a member of the Commission on the Past, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. She completed her studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, gaining a Ph.D. in Theology in 2007.
In these days of increasing secularisation and a decline in the numbers participating in organised religion, the Christian churches are trying to find new ways to reach out to people and to bring spirituality, if not religion, into their lives. This book is an imaginative attempt to do just that as it brings together a Catholic nun and a Presbyterian minister to write meditative pieces for the lay person. Carroll is minister at the Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian church on Belfasts Antrim Road. She has played a prominent role in reconciliation work and peace building in the North. Smyth is a Dominican sister who is senior lecturer in intercultural theology and interreligious studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin. She too has worked extensively in the areas of reconciliation and conflict resolution. The short essays look at everyday life and its challenges from a Christian perspective particularly in relation to the Christian seasons like Lent or Advent. The authors have a moral in each tale or at least a point to make but they do not lay on the Christianity with a trowel, and there is hardly a prayer or biblical quotation to be seen throughout the book. Their ideas to guide people along the right path rather than goad them. With titles like Foolish Shadows, Cherishing Children and Discovering Happiness, the authors highlight the shortcomings of prevailing beliefs and practices in order to emphasise the spiritual and emotional benefits of the Christian alternatives.
- Books Ireland, May 2010
These reflections began life on BBC Ulster as a series of Thoughts for the Day. Lesley Carroll is a Minster to a Presbyterian congregation on the Antrim Road in Belfast, while Geraldine Smyth OP is a theologian with the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity. But these pieces are neither sermons nor theological disquisition. They are aimed at a personal audience, with all that intimacy which radio seems to so specially create (as opposed to the distancing effect of TV).
Following the liturgical seasons, which are themselves a reflection of course of the inherent natural rhythms of creation itself, they provide a daily uplift to the sprit. The authors draw on a wide range of allusions, and though anchored in the world of today, are very much alive to the eternal verities which religion holds always before us. A delightful and discursive, but also uplifting book.
- The Irish Catholic, 22nd April 2010
This new book contains fifty-two reflections on God at work in the world. It is a treasury of wisdom, a cornucopia of delights - stories, personal anecdotes, fables, the experiences of others, plots of popular films, poetry, and quotations from the Bible and from other sources of wisdom. It is written by two well-known Irish women who are friends, one a Presbyterian minister and the other a Dominican sister. It is a book that you can dip into at any time and come away with material for reflection or prayer after reading only one chapter of less than two pages. The material was originally broadcast on Radio Ulster in the Thought for the Day series.
Rather than write about the book I will give you a flavour of the writing and a taste of the riches by quoting some passages. In a reflection on the film, Dead Man Walking, where Sr Helen Prejean makes friends with condemned man, Matthew Poncelet, we read: "The tension between forgiveness and revenge is excruciating. No position is un-examined, the boundaries between sinners and sinned-against keep shifting, and ultimately, innocence and guilt must let go to grace." In a reflection on self esteem, we read: "Today it may well do us good to listen to what others say about us but to especially listen to the positives and not to the negatives. It helps us to accept ourselves and even to begin to rejoice in ourselves and it holds back the temptation to think of ourselves in fanciful ways." On the film Babettes Feast with its Eucharistic overtones we read: "One by one, thinly veiled resentments and jealousies that have festered over the years are acknowledged; the pain of opportunities squandered is expressed and redeemed. Stories told around the table somehow rekindle a delight in life and compassion for others in the lack and losses that have marked their lives. The meal becomes a sacrament of abundant life and reconciliation." About friendship we read: "...openness to vulnerability is real in every friendship. We open ourselves to the possibility of being let down but we also open ourselves to the tremendous joy that comes from the authentic company of others." In a story about David Bailie Warden who was adjudged a "blockhead" at school in Northern Ireland and who later became a doctor and served as U.S. Consul General in Paris, we read: "What better way to ground a childs life than in the knowledge that they are a gift from God? As precious gifts are cherished and given space, so too our children should be cherished and given space for they are more than any other precious gift; they are a gift from the Lord."
On the subject of conversation we read: "The old English word `gossip originally had God in thee middle of it, God-sib. But somewhere along the road the word was emptied of that divine core. It used to mean a sponsor at Baptism, someone spiritually related, your divine sibling - sib in God. In the word and image of gossip there are undertones of gospels, of spreading good news. It was women who were the first God-sibs, proclaiming that Jesus was present and alive." On the distortion that may arise between the word spoken and the word heard by the other, we read: "Ive often had that experience, going through a conversation, talking as if the other person understood, and then they say something which indicates, sometimes to my dismay, that they havent got what Im saying at all but have heard something entirely different." On words we read: "What brings words alive is the act of listening. And listening needs a receptive space of inner quiet. Today as we listen in to the old words of collective speech, and listen out for the new ones, we stop and give them space to echo in us. We take heed of T.S. Eliots chiding:
Where shall the word be found, where will the Word Resound? Not here. There is not enough silence. "
In a piece on the importance of funerals we read: "Civilisation began with cemeteries, with the impulse to gather round a graveside, to return the dead to a final resting place, to search for some pattern in the strands of a life, to exchange the word of regret or comfort, to pray together and to remember them before God."
- Africa , July/August 2010
- Lent & Easter
Some years, Lent seems to steal up on me unawares, and it can be hard to stifle a groan, with the association of confronting our sins and doing penance. But then I remember that Lent is a first cousin of Spring, the word Lent deriving from the Old English word for Spring. Maybe it is truly understood as being not so much about self-denial and harsh penances, as about the creative thrust within us towards healing and hope. There is within all of life an impulse towards renewal. The ancient symbols of sackcloth and ashes remind us of our need for Gods newness and symbolise the reality that we are about to leave behind all that is dead and old in our lives, and make the transition to a new way of living. Lenten renewal can come to birth in the digging of soil and planting of seeds, in singing or listening to music, or in giving time to a neighbour or donating alms to those in need. It is a time for opening our scriptures with fresh expectancy, a time for simplifying our needs, for living more basically so that others might simply live. Perhaps such an approach can give a new context to the ancient Lenten practices whose remnants linger around us. Lent is a time not so much about getting a stoical grip on our human nature, as about treating ourselves to those very things we miss and desire in the arid, concrete maze of modern life , delight in nature, poetry, silence and prayer: Gods free gifts.
Doubtless, Lent offers stark reminders of our own shame and sin, and calls us to go into the desert places where we may catch a glimpse of Gods back and know something of Gods otherness. Small wonder that behind the discomfort this evokes lurks a fear at the prospect not simply of complacency dislocated, but of encounter with the awesome tremendousness of God. Lent may well be about seedtime and new life, but it is also a disturbance. Like a sudden Spring, it comes shaking nature out of its hibernation. It is in the nature of Spring to dislodge us from the lethargy induced by winter. T.S. Eliot glimpsed that truth when he wrote:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with Spring rain.
Lent, likewise, sets our barren memory astir with new desire, breaks open our sealed lives with alternative visions. This Lent, let the sap rise, let all the numbed-over parts of our bodies and minds feel the rinsing, wringing touch of the Creator God. With another poet, we too cry out:
Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.
The escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is a story that evokes hope in the hearts of oppressed peoples everywhere. Stories about escape have always engaged and sustained people, whether escapes from prison or concentration camp or tyrannical regime. Films like The Great Escape, The Fugitive or The Shawshank Redemption are modernday epics of freedom and the dramatic risks that people take to protect or regain that freedom.
But escape has its less heroic side. Thoughts of escape are what spring into my mind when I see someone I want to avoid, or anticipate a meeting fraught with conflict. These days, spring-cleaning , the thought of clearing out that drawer, so bunged up it wont close, or of bringing the pile of newspapers to the recycling bin , prompt escape plans of epic proportions. The thought that I might go for an early morning run or deal with letters is enough to propel me into the inertia of busyness or lull me into the inertia of laziness. The old word used for inertia was sloth, and the new American term for us slothful ones is couch potatoes. In older Ulster idiom we would have been said to have been as lazy as sioch water. My mothers unimpressed comment on my absorption in a book every time dishes were mentioned still smarts: That one wouldnt turn her toe where her heel was. Never was a more withering judgement on bone idleness delivered in such economy of phrase.
Lent invites us to let go of our escapades of avoidance and look freedom in the eye. Lent faces us with our fear of freedom. That is the burden of John the Baptists call: The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the good news. Give up turning a blind eye and quit turning a deaf ear, stop being as lazy as sin, he is saying, and start turning your toe where your heel is. Lent is a time of shaking up, shaking off, shaking out, and of turning our minds and hearts from the old comfort zones towards riskier freedoms of the untried and the new.
Few have realised better than Nelson Mandela that the road to freedom can be a long one. Describing his thoughts and feelings on the day he walked free from prison after twenty-eight years, Mandela speaks of newness: as I finally walked through those gates I felt , even at the age of seventy-one , that my life was beginning anew. In Ireland, we have had too many years of closed walls and communities often sealed off in solitary confinement from one an other. Mandelas words encourage us now, too, to walk on in the freedom of people who belong to one another: We will walk the last mile together.
Food , and our lifelong involvement with it , is at the core of how we relate to ourselves, others, animals and to nature itself. Around food revolve the most vital dramas of survival, economics, relationship with the earth, communion with others or with God. Lent, Ramadan, Passover: food , and our relationship to it , symbolizes that most fundamental pattern in life; one of exchange, of giving and receiving.
We have seen peoples die of starvation because of closed markets, rigged prices, or confiscation of land. We have witnessed the ironies of famine and food mountains; starvation and slimming diets. There are daily reports of pollution in our seas and rivers, interference with the food chain , from DDT to PCP, BSE, CJD, E.COLI.
The film Babettes Feast is a story of how food turns enemies into friends, restores broken trust and replenishes delight in beauty, goodness and desire. Babette, once a master-chef in Paris, fleeing from war in her country, arrives, in the opening scene, on the bleak shores of Jutland. Collapsing
in a state of exhaustion on their doorstep, she is taken in by two ageing sisters whose father had been the strict village pastor. Her past remains a secret and they do not pry. Years later she wins the French lottery, and in one prodigal gesture expends it all on the creation of a lavish meal for the dispirited villagers. One by one, thinly veiled resentments and jealousies that had festered over the years are acknowledged; the pain of opportunities squandered is expressed and redeemed. Stories told around the table somehow rekindle a delight in life and compassion for others in the lack and losses that have marked their lives. The meal becomes a sacrament of abundant life and reconciliation. As they partake in it, the difference between hosts and guests disappears and Gods love among them is renewed.
During Lent, we remember Jesus journey into the wilderness with only wild beasts for company, eating only of the fruits of the wilderness. Lent questions our choices about food; the way food includes or excludes; the appalling vista of hunger that afflicts so many millions of the human family. Lent, whether through fasting or feasting, is about life and about reconciliation. For Christians, with their memory of Jesus farewell meal or Last Supper, and of his constant example of sharing meals with outcasts and strangers, it is an opportune time for reflecting on our own lacklustre hospitality, on who it is that we debar from food and friendship, and why we are not more troubled that the day has not come when we can gather together in companionship at the Lords Supper.