Now things have changed. I doubt whether many Catholics would know which commandment the words 'difficult commandment' were referring to. Indeed if someone asked me today which was the difficult commandment I would reply that they can all be difficult, and if I had to choose I would probably say that for Christians in general trusting God and lovingg people in all circumstances are where we frequently have most difficulties. Indeed for many people today in the general public the word 'chastity' simply invites scepticism, a sneer, or both. They might even be largely uncertain as to what the virtue of chastity is meant to involve. Indeed, many people today would deny or doubt that the virtue or practice of chastity is always a good thing. Following one's animal instincts would often be regarded as the better way in many circumstances. Sexual self-control would frequently be seen as not being realistic, indeed as sometimes being unhealthy, psychologically harmful, and not to be recommended. They would say that if your spouse were to develop serious multiple sclerosis, the sensible and right thing to do would be to find a new sexual partner or indeed other sexual outlets.
At the moment the regular daily newspaper that I see is the Independent. It is excellent in its concern
for the needs of the Third World and for the envirotunent. But when it comes to sexual morality it would probably
regard itself as post-Christian. It recently published an article claiming that research has found out that in
general for men the best sexual solution could be 'serial monogamy' rather than sticking to one partner — women might be better off sticking to one
partner. One artide suggested that for a woman to spend some years of her life posing for pomography could be all
right, provided she was not doing so because of economic pressures, and to suggest that homosexual
So in my lifetime ideas as to what is sexually all right have slithered and almost vanished for much of the population. Teenagers can often see whatever they like on the Internet, including hard pomography, in contrast to the situation in my youth. I would not have known where I could have obtained pornography; I would probably have thought the best thing would be to go to France.
Christians, including Catholics, have been influenced by this decline in moral values. Most of the Catholic couples who go to the priest asking to get married are frequently already living together — in many parishes it seems that would be true for a considerable majority. Catholic priests are often just relieved that now the couple are wanting to 'regularise' the situation in the eyes of the Church. Many young Catholic people — and not just the young — no longer regard it as normal to abstain from sexual relations outside marriage. This would not be regarded as realistic by many people.
Many Catholic parents are often just happy that their son or daughter is going steady with one partner and are very relieved that nothing worse is happening! Are all recent developments just loss? Have all the changes been harmful? Many certainly have been. I think the easy availability of pornography, including hard pornography, has certainly not helped the sexual morality of our country, especially of the young people. Having said that however, I think there has also been a positive development.
In the past there was sometimes the dangers of just seeing sex as something evil and a cause of sin and temptation. So the less we have to do with it the better. Whereas the truth is that basically God's gift of sexuality is something good. Our sexuality, like other areas of our lives, has been wounded by original sin, 'the fall of Adam and Eve'. But that has not destroyed the basic goodness of this gift of God. Many good Christian couples will witness to the fact that their sexual relations are something truly positive and good humanly and spiritually. Indeed let us not forget that marriage is a sacrament. Perhaps in the Catholic Chinch we have suffered from a one-sided stress on consecrated celibacy when it comes to sanctity. Why is it that we have had to wait until 2003 before a Catholic married couple were beatified together?
Thank God for the tradition of consecrated celibacy in the Catholic Church. It has produced and will continue to produce great saints. But thank God no less for the far greater number of examples of married sanctity, which we have been slow to recognise, at any rate officially.
I thank God for my vocation to consecrated celibacy. It has not always been easy, but the Christian life is not meant to be always easy. Marriage is very certainly not always easy, either. My heart bleeds often for the many married people who come to me with very big trials and sufferings linked with their marriages, the last one often being bereavement. (If I may be excused for being flippant for a moment, I suggest that perhaps a propaganda drive for more priestly vocations might be based on the slogan: 'Join the clergy and avoid the trials of married life!')
'You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery". But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already conunitted adultery with her in his heart' (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus not only condenmed acts of fomication and adultery, but he also condemned unchaste thoughts. So we have to try to be chaste not only in our actions, but also in our thoughts. That may seem to many to be an impossible task. Telling a young man of eighteen in the English setting of today that he should not have unchaste thoughts might seem to be totally unrealistic! And indeed, without the grace of God it is totally impossible not to give way to unchaste thoughts, and indeed unchristian thoughts in other directions. Jesus said, 'But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement' (Matthew 5:22). The Christian is never permitted just to give way to wrong anger, unforgiving unloving, proud, bitter, revengeful, jealous, envious, blasphemous, self-pitying, unbelieving, fearful, and unchaste thoughts — the list could be contintied.
Trying to deal with sinful thoughts so that authentic love may by the grace of God flow in our lives is surely an important part of being a Christian. Paul wrote: 'I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discem what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect' (Romans 12: 1-2). I do not think that unchaste thoughts are a bigger problem than other sinful thoughts, indeed they are often much less of a problem.
Here we need to make a clear distinction between thoughts we deliberately give way to and temptations. Because of the sinful side of our nature and 'the flaming arrows of the evil one' (Ephesiarts 6:16), we all at times find evil thoughts coming into our minds. The devil can sometimes attack us with much force in the area of wrong thoughts. The great saints themselves sometimes went through very difficult struggles and spiritual warfare in their efforts to control their thoughts. This is certainly no more so in the area of chastity than in other areas of our lives.
However when it comes to unchaste thoughts I think some Christians perhaps influenced by wrong psychological ideas, would regard them as inevitable, and indeed not harmful, perhaps even good. They forget that unchaste thoughts easily lead to unchaste action. Unchaste actions tend to become increasingly serious. This whole area is one in which the devil is always trying to lead from bad to worse. Sometimes he is helped in this by wrong psychological teaching. Thank God for good psychologists and psythiatrists. Many of them are a great blessing. However, much harm can be done when psychologists and psychiatrists encourage people to give up Christian ideals of chastity and marriage, and this is not so infrequent in many countries today. (I think of a married Catholic woman who had a sexual affair with her male psychotherapist. Another psychotherapist, a Catholic whom she consulted, thought that this affair was a 'positive experience' for her. I was called in later to give absolution. I fear that cases of this kind are not so unconunon.
Controlling evil thoughts is not easy — we all have struggles at times in one area or another. However we may never give up seeking perfection, even though in this life we shall all fail at times in one way or another. If however we give up seeking perfection we shall fail even more. If someone says to themselves, for example, 'I will not indulge in hard pornography but be satisfied with soft pornography,' or if two unmarried people say 'we will indulge in a certain amount of sexual play but not go all the way', then they are on a dangerous path and certainly not growing in the virtue of chastity, indeed they will just make things more difficult for themselves.
I think that Catholics speak less now than they used to about the needs for 'custody of the eyes', yet a certain 'custody of the eyes' is still necessary. Looking lustfully at people is dearly not helpful for growth in chastity. Nor are erotic pictures and television scenes. It is not rare that people confess to me that they have been watching erotic things on television which they should not have done. I once went to a retreat for priests in a Catholic boarding-school for boys. We occupied rooms which the boarders used in term-time. The first thing I did on entering my room was to turn round the photos of scantily dressed young women so that they faced the wall. I wonder whether things like that should be tolerated in a Catholic boarding-school!
However, in this area it is important to try to have a balanced attitude. One can easily exaggerate in either direction. We need to recognise and accept our sexuality and not try to pretend that it does not exist and suppress it. We should thank God for it. Catholics have sometimes gone to excessive lengths in trying to observe 'custody of the eyes'. But too rrtuch stress on the 'custody of the eyes' is not a conunon problem in these times, in which there is so often practically no restraint at all in sexual matters for so many people.
It is important to add to what I have written above that what is all right for one person may not be for another. We have to try to be sensitive as to where people are. Also, what may be considered relatively harmless in one culture may cause trouble in another. I remember being surprised when I read some years ago that the officials in St Peter's in Rome were stopping women who were wanting to enter St Peter's with bare arms on hot summer days. I cannot think that that would have been considered necessary in Westminster cathedral here. Obviously in Moslem countries standards would be very different again. Individual Christians need to learn how to cope with the situations in which they live. One does not have to watch every television program or look at every glossy magazine or read every article or book. Discernment and self-discipline are needed here as in other areas in life.
St Paul wrote: 'Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things' (Philippians 4:8). I think the above passage would rule out indecent stories and foul language, which one finds too often among some Christians. Rightly or wrongly, I think that evangelicals would often have higher standards in this area than many Catholics. I can still remember my embarrassment when about fifty years ago I told a very slightly sexy story to a Lutheran theologian at an ecumenical gathering and he froze, and then so did I! However one can exaggerate in this area as in others. It remains true that we should try to fill our minds with positive and — dare I say it — uplifting things, without shutting our minds to the unpleasant realities of the world in which we live.
'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God' (Matthew 5:8). 'Pure in heart' here is certainly not limited to things connected with chastity, but it definitely includes chastity. I think that a chaste mind is a real help towards having a living and contemplative experience of God. Sometimes one can feel that the chastity of someone's life is reflected in the spiritual beauty of their faces. Chastity is certainly not the most important virtue, that is charity — love. And sins against chastity are not the worst sins. Yet I think that chastity has its own special beauty. Let Christians not feel ashamed or embarrassed at singing the praises of chastity at a time when it is so much ridiculed, despised and attacked.
Prayer is obviously very important when it comes to overcoming problems with chastity, as indeed problems with other virtues. Some fasting and dieting may also be beneficial. Many Catholics have found from experience that receiving Jesus in the Eucharist frequently has been a great help when it comes to growth in chastity. Many Catholics have also found that asking the perfectly pure mother of Jesus, Mary, to pray for us also helps when it comes to chastity. Prayer, by the grace of God, can overcome the most difficult problems of chastity. May Christians never give up hope!
'Read my last book.' Such is the pride of authors!
Then after prayer an idea came into my mind, which I hope is of God — but I am not so sure. We Christians who are struggling to become more prayerful men and women have normally been truly helped in our life of prayer, indeed in our Christian life as a whole, by the prayers and example of other Christians who have inspired us, encouraged us, and taught us about prayer. So I thought I would, in this chapter, write a little about a small number of the people who have helped me in the life of prayer, above all by their example. Of course there are many others, both among the living and among the dead who could be included in the list, but this is meant to be just a short chapter.
It may help the reader to reflect on the people whose lives of prayer have helped you in your own prayer life. This reflection can also be a source of thanks to God and to the people in question. I am not including saints and holy people whom I have only read about or heard about, but only people I have known. This reflection may encourage us to try to be Christians whose life of prayer can be an encouragement and help to others.
As I wrote in Chapter 1, the essence of the Christian life is love-charity. That is basically what the Christian life, indeed all human life, is all about. There is, however, normally, a close connection between love and prayer. For many Christians a more prayerful Christian life is, I think, the key to growth in love and holiness. They cannot expect to become better and more loving Christians unless they take prayer much more seriously and give more time to it. The short five minutes prayer morning and evening is better than nothing, but is not taking prayer seriously.
I will start with my beloved parents. I remember as a child my mother teaching me to pray kneeling down by my bed at night, and my father spending some time praying in bed before he got up in the morning. They would take me to church on Sunday mornings, and at some sacrifice sent me for six years to an Anglican boarding school where we had services in the school chapel every morning and evening. As the years went by — they died aged 93 and 94 — they became increasingly devout and also greatly appreciative of the Sunday services in their parish chtuch.
Then there was my maternal grandmother, Anne, born into a devout Methodist family, for whom Jesus was someone very real and close at hand. She suffered much from chest trouble. When she was medically speaking dying of pneumonia — there were no antibiotics in those days — her large family of young children were told to go and see their mother for the last time. But my grandmother received a message from Jesus or God that she was to remain on earth for the sake of her children, especially for one of them, Lal. Whereupon my grandmother recovered against all the certainties of the doctors, and she continued to live for decades.
My grandmother's brother, Jim Barlow, was also a Christian for whom Jesus was very real and close. He was a fervent Methodist lay preacher and helped in a mission centre in Bolton. He was also a capable businessman. I remember that he spent the first hour of each day in bed with his Lord, his bible, and his cup of tea. When in his sixties he was knocked over by a car in Manchester, a passer-by began to shout, 'An accident! An accident!' Jim lying on the ground said, No, just an incident.' He was talcen to hospital in an ambulance and died.
Artother prayerful relative for whom I thanlc God was my Anglican godfather, Joseph, the husband of my aunt, who was an Anglican priest and who wrote a doctorate thesis for Oxford on the Christian mystics, which was published as a book. When we stayed with them he would disappear from time to time into his study to pray. He was a truly prayerful and gentle man with a great sense of humour.
At St George's School (Harpenden) the Anglican boarding school where I went, I was in rebellion against compulsory chapel twice a day. I also refused to be confirmed after two series of confirmation classes because I said I did not accept the divinity of Christ and other dogmas. However, I was in fact truly influenced by what went on in the chapel and by the Christian ethos of the school. Looking back after 65 years I can remember practically nothing of what was said in the Sunday sermons, the scripture classes or in individual talks with members of the staff and others. However I still retain a distinct impression of this or that preacher or teacher as a truly prayerful and spiritual person.
There was the Anglican priest, Cecil Grant, who had founded the school and was headmaster. He preached fiery sermons which I thought went on too long — sometimes forty minutes. He left a lasting impression of being a prayerful and spiritual man. His successor as headmaster, Dr Watts, was a gentle, learned, and prayerful person. He surprised us all by one year turning up for the autumn term wearing a clerical collar, having been ordained secretly in the summer holiday.
Then there was Frank Cheshire who taught history and coachd me individually for A level history. He was a Methodist lay preacher and our sessions went well outside A level history. There were also several of the women teachers who were clearly prayerful people who took their turns in presiding over the regular weekday services in the school chapel. I think particularly of Miss Terry and Miss Mosscroft.
Finally I remember two visiting preachers for our Sunday morning service in the chapel who left lasting impressions of prayerfulness and holiness. The first was an old girl of our school who was a missionary in Africa, the other was Canon Raven, an Anglican priest who became, I think, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. I have not the faintest idea of what their sermons were about, but they left an itnpression of being a woman and man of God which has lasted 65 years.
I must try to pass on more quickly — I fear some readers will say, 'Why should I be interested in all this?' In which case just cut out the rest of this autobiographical chapter.
During my two and a half years in the Second World War in the Friends Ambulance Unit, a mainly Quaker pacifist organisation, I met some beautiful Christians. In one of the groups where we lived when free, some of us would meet together for about twenty or thirty minutes, for a daily 'devotional' a time of silent prayer. I remember as really prayerful people during my time in the FAU, the leader of our training camp, a Quaker called Ralph Barlow, a somewhat older man, and Teglo Davies, a Methodist whose strong belief in the divinity of Christ perhaps helped me to move in that direction.
Then I became a Catholic, a monk, and fifty years ago, a priest. Obviously as someone living in a monastery and ministering as a priest I have been meeting many beautiful prayers whose prayer life has supported my faith and my life of prayer. When I was a novice in Italy in the abbey of Monte Oliveto, our mother house, in 1946-7 some of the older monks seemed to be praying nearly all the time. It was very much a praying community.
As a younger monk I was later helped by two women who were like spiritual mothers to me, Domna Ursula, a Benedictine nun, and Maisie Spears, an Anglican lady who wrote books on the spiritual life. A Quaker lady, Kip Derbyshire, a friend of my mother, had helped me in this way earlier. Sharing in the life of prayer can fruitfully cross the boundaries between churches and this amongst other things contributes to Christian unity.
I must mention by name four Benedictine monks. Abbot Constantine Bosschaerts, a friend of the future Pope John XXIII, who had worked with him in Bulgaria. Abbot Constantine was in my opinion a really holy and prophetic man. He was one of the early ecumenical pioneers in the Catholic Church, and he suffered the lot of many pioneers in being misunderstood and suspected. He was a Vatican II man before Vatican II. During the last seven years of his life when I knew him, he suffered much from heart trouble, which eventually killed him in 1950. When he was dying he spoke despite his great pain to those present about the future as he saw it. He had a vision of Our Lady and was apparently in a sort of ecstasy at one point. He was and remains a great inspiration behind my monastic vocation.
Then there was Abbot Vittorino Aldinucci, my beloved novice master in 1946 and 47 in Italy. He died at the age of 92 a few months ago from cancer in our monastery here. His life was very fruitful both as a monk and in ecunenical work. So many people were aware of his deep life of prayer. What I want to mention here is how a long-standing prayer of his was answered. I remember him telling me about twenty years before he died, when he was abbot of San Miniato in Florence, how he prayed regularly that when he was old and infirm he would not be a burden on his monastic community. Well, he was celebrating parish masses here in Cockfosters until nearly the end. Three weeks before he died of cancer — and he knew he was dying and was looking forward to going 'home' — he celebrated a busy parish mass on Sunday and preached the sermon. Also, to within a few months of his death he travelled twice a week by underground to Westminster Cathedral to hear confessions in English, Italian, French and Spanish.
Then there was my friend and colleague, Dom Edmund Jones, who died of cancer at the age of 66. He was the founder and superior of our monastic community in Turvey His spirituality was typically Benedictine, based on the Mass, the Divine Office, and spiritual reading. I remember the peace and serenity with which he told me that the cancer had come bacic again — and this at a time when humanly spealcing his presence seemed absolutely necessary for the new monastic foundation in Turvey. His regular short talks on the BBC Empire Service programme used to reach about ten million people. He died the day before Easter, which I am sure was no coincidence.
The last of the monks whom I wish to mention here is Dom Placid Meylink, a man
of much courage, who died a year ago of cancer at the age of 76. He was our prior here, built the new monastery,
and was for years the parish priest. He went through a long difficult time with cancer and the treatment for it.
He also suffered from injuries due to falls. He never complained of his sufferings, to the edification of the staff
in the Royal Marsden Hospital and the rest of us. Even after suffering and sleepless nights he would often be the
first monk in the church for the early morning meditation. He was much helped, especially
Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Dom Placid died in the early hours of the day of his golden jubilee of ordination as a priest. We could not but see the hand of God in that.
It has been a privilege and joy in life to have known and been helped by the example
and prayers of so many devout Christians. I often say that I am a spoiled child in the number of people who pray
for me. There are many others whom I could mention in this chapter. There was the Dominican priest Fr. Conrad Pepler,
who was my Catholic sponsor for my confirmation, and
As a final section I must mention the people I have met, known and worked with in the Pentecostal Charismatic Renewal, some of them Catholics others not. In 1973 I became involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and this has played a large part in my spiritual life ever since, being blended with my vocations as monk and priest. Here it is difficult to give names because there have been so many beautiful men and women of prayer.
I want to start by mentioning two Pentecostals, the first from the Assemblies of God, the second from Elim Pentecostal Church. I met Donald Gee in the early 1960s, at the suggestion of an Anglican ecumenist, John Lawrence. It was, I think, the first time I bad ever met a Pentecostal, certainly the first time I had met a Pentecostal pastor. Donald Gee was the age of my father and died in 1966. He was principal of Kenley Bible College and a world famous Pentecostal leader and writer, who edited their world review, Pentecost, although I only discovered all this later.
I was rather apprehensive as I went to his bible college.Was I going to meet a rather wild and perhaps fanatical Christian? I instead met a very peaceful, quiet, kind, wise, prayerful elderly man, who impressed me as being a man of God. I was also impressed a little later when I attended a very large Pentecostal service at which he presided — I felt that there was an authentic spirit of prayer there. We agreed not to publicise our meeting and the later ones. I had the permission of my monastic superior to be there, but Cardinal Godfrey would doubtless have been very surprised that I had gone to a Pentecostal bible college — remember that this was in the early 1960s — and many Pentecostals would have been very surprised that Donald Gee was receiving a Catholic priest in his bible college. We were both trying to pioneer ecumenism from our different ends, he a world-famous leader, I a newly ordained Catholic priest.
Whenever I went to see Donald Gee we would, before I left, go into the little room behind his office and kneel in prayer together. All this led me to telling gatherings of Catholic ecumenists, 'We may not forget the Pentecostals', for many Catholic ecumenists of that time would have regarded the Pentecostals as too way out for serious ecrunenism.
The second Pentecostal I want to mention was Mary Fisher who with a fellow strident of Birmingham Bible College from time to time stayed with our sisters here in Cockfosters for a short visit. They would come to our prayer meetings and we would have times of sharing our prayer together. I had the impression that they were truly dedicated and prayerful Cluistians.
I attended the service in Kensington Temple when Mary was commissioned to go out to Kenya as a missionary. The prayer card she gave me then which is kept in my bible as a treasured possession had on it the words, 'Mary Fisher, Elim Missionary Society, PB Inyanga, with a photo of Mary, and a personal message for me. Well, not long after Mary got there all the members of her Pentecostal mission were killed by the Mau Mau, who were attacking Christian missionaries at that time.
When the security forcers arrived, Mary was the only one of the missionaries still alive — she died from her wounds in hospital some days later. Mary is the only Christian martyr in the full sense of the word whom I have known. God willing, before long I shall be 'seeing' her again in heaven. In the meantime I ask her to pray for me.
Now it becomes more and more difficult to choose from so many beautiful prayers I have met in the Charismatic Renewal. If this chapter is not to become much too long I must eliminate so many people — some readers may well think that this chapter has already gone on far too long — old men tend to go on and on !
I think of some people with powerful gifts of healing like Sr. Briege McKenna,
an active Poor Claire, and Father Peter Rookey OSM. They were both miraculously healed physically in answer to
prayer and now travel around different countries being used by Jesus to heal others. Sr. Briege is now rnuch
Another person whom I want to mention is a mother who came to England from Africa. I have only known her for about a year. Let us call her Joan, not her real name. She has two boys, aged 5 and 3, who both suffer from autism, especially the older one. Joan started coming regularly for prayer from our healing team, and the desperate situation has been wonderfully transformed, although life is still really difficult for Joan. (Please say a prayer for her.) The older boy who used to shout much of the time — more than once the police came to the house to see what was happening — is now much quieter, no longer tears the wallpaper off the walls and has begun to speak a few words. The younger boy has improved to the point where he will soon be sent to an ordinary school. The husband and wife, who were both wanting to leave each other — they spent three and a half months not speaking to each other while living in the same house — are now reconciled and the husband has become a loving helpful father. All this change in a relatively short time of months.
However, there is one other factor which I must mention. Joan has been praying and fasting in a wonderful way. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays she has been fasting from food and drink including water until about 6 p.m. I have persuaded her to no longer fast from water — I suggested that she take at least water and fruit juice. (I am not in favour of any fasting which a doctor is not happy with.)
It is very humbling for a priest when he is involved in cases like this where people have gone so far beyond anything he has ever done. May others be inspired by the example of people like Joan to set out on the adventure of prayer and perhaps prudent fasting with greater courage, perseverance, and generosity.
Another person I want to mention is Monica (not her real name), who is a widow. She used to be very active in our prayer meeting and healing team — she still prays for healing with people who visit her. However, now in her old age she can only walk with a Zimmer. What impresses me especially about Monica is that she spends so much of her time, night and day, praying for people, situations, families, disasters and world crises. She has a real and powerful ministry of intercession. As she says, 'The Lord has made me immobile so that I can stay at home praying for others.' I know that I can phone Monica at any time and ask her to pray for this or that intention, this or that person. I know a number of 'Monicas', and of course not only people involved in the Charismatic Renewal. They are, I think, to be found in nearly every church and parish, certainly very much in our parish here. These intercessors have a vital role in keeping the wheels turning in the church and in the world. I think God is calling and will call more and more Christians to be Monicas, perhaps especially in old age or sickness when other doors of service can close. Thank God for the Monicas!
A final name in this chapter, Teresa (not her real name), a married nurse, who was dying of Addison's disease, and also had ME. Jesus appeared to her in a vision about eleven years ago, and she was healed by him of her illnesses. About six years later Jesus said to her that he wanted her to live off the Blessed Sacrament alone as far as nourishment is concemed. She said to herself that this message is obviously not from God. So she cooked herself a nice meal and ate it — and promptly vomited. The same thing happened next day when she tried to eat a meal. She has also tried, as she told me, thick soup but could not manage that either. She does drink water and will take a cup of tea or coffee sometimes, but she does not take food or nourishing liquid.
She was referred to her local bishop who supported her, and she saw Cardinal Hume
not long before his death. He encouraged her to minister especially to
What are we to think of people like Teresa who have had and perhaps continue to have extra-ordinary spiritual experiences? We live in an age of materialism, secularisation and unbelief, especially in our part of the world. I think that as part of his help for this generation God is being especially generous in giving special signs and graces such as extraordinary healings and miracles. Perhaps this explains in part the rapid growth of the Pentecostal and Pentecostal-like churches and movements such as Alpha, which believe in these things.
Having said that, it is very important to remind Christians of the need for serious discernment, for there is too much foolish and mistaken acceptance of signs and messages which are not of God. Not so infrequently I come across people who claim to have words of knowledge, or words from God with which I am very unhappy. However we must not let the fact that there is sometimes chaff among the wheat cause us to throw out the wheat with the chaff.
Indeed the 'problem of suffering' is something which all human beings consciously or unconsciously have to face sooner or later. All religions are involved in trying to explain and cope with the 'problem of suffering'.
Suffering and Joy
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your
joy may be complete.
Suffering, indeed very severe suffering, may be five minutes away from any one
of us. A car crash, a fall, a mugging, a heart attack, a serious infection, a financial crisis, the death of someone
dose to us, and many other forms of suffering — all this
can and does happen to people, sometimes without warning.
I think there is an entirely adequate answer to that objection, that an all-loving,
all-wise, and all-powerful God would not have allowed such things to happen,
If this life was the end, then I would probably agree with those who say that God, if he exists, must be an unjust monster, for some people have such a rough and painful ride in this life through no fault of their own. But if this life is meant to be just a relatively brief preparation for the joys of eternity with God, and if by the grace of God our sufferings can be fruitful and redemptive, then that makes sense of our sufferings, including the sufferings of the innocent. However, that does not make suffering easy to bear, neither our own sufferings nor those of others.
Suffering is an evil, the result of the 'Fall', however you understand the 'Fall'. There will be no suffering in the new heaven and the new earth.
'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. Arad I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adomed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
'See the home of God is among mortals,
(Revelation 21: 1-4)
On a wider scale, God used the great evils of Nazism and Hitler's persecution of the Jews to bring separated Christians closer to each other and to make them repent of the unloving ways in which Christians had often treated Jews down tne centuries. The situations of genocide, which alas are still happening in the world today, have resulted in the international community at least seeking to stop such things from happening, and with some success though the progress is far too slow.
The New Testament leads us to expect some suffering if we are following Jesus. We are children of God and heirs of God 'if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him' (Romans 8: 17). In 1 Peter 4: 12-13 we read: 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.' Then in James 1: 2-4 we see: 'Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.' Finally there is the well-lcnown text in St Paul to the Colossians 1: 24: 'I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your salce, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.'
So the Christian sees sufferings as tests or trials we have to pass through in this life. Our sufferings are to be a sharing in Christ's sufferings. Our sufferings by the grace of God can be meaningful and fruitful for ourselves and others, can be redemptive. We are as far as we can to be joyful despite our sufferings, indeed in the midst of our sufferings.
It is surely normal that human beings at times experience fear of suffering of one kind or another. For many people in the world fears of starvation for themselves and their fatrtilies surely are very common, and understartdably so, so also fears of violence, of persecution, of Aids, of sickness of one kind or another, of a coming operation, of the dentist, fears also of family break-up, of loneliness, of failure, of old age, of senility, and of death. Some people are afraid of what may come after death, of divine judgement, of hell. Sometimes our fears for those close to us can be greater than fears for ourselves.
We need not be ashamed to admit that at times we are fearful of suffering of one kind or another. We read in Luke 22: 44 of Jesus in Gethsemane: 'In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.' St Paul wrote: 'And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling' (1 Corinthians 2: 3). So the Christian ideal is not that of the strong man or woman who has never experienced fear of suffering, it is rather the person who hands their fears of suffering over to Jesus, to God, and trusts Him to see them through.
As for fears of divine judgement and the suffering of hell, the Christian answer is basically repentance for our sins, including repentance for our lack of faith and hope, calling upon the mercy of God, doing our best to follow Jesus, trusting in him. So easy to write, not always easy to do! I find that some Christians, usually older people, were not helped by too much stress on sin and judgement in Christian teaching and sermons usually in their early years. Christianity became for them too much a religion of fear rather than of love. Perhaps, however, the pendulum has sometimes swung now too far in the opposite direction, and for some Christians, nowadays, sin, divine judgement and the possibility of not going to heaven do not seem to exist.
This Version: 30th July 2019