Opening Advent Doors

advent-door

Advent is a time for praying for the coming of Emmanuel, that God may be with us, and for each of the evenings of the week before Christmas there is an “O” antiphon. Each of the seven antiphons is prefaced by “O” and addressed to the Messiah according to the names for him found in Isaiah. The “O” expresses our longing. The seven antiphons are addressed to Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King and Emmanuel.

Doors are very much a theme of Advent. Doors are both barriers and openings. We open a “door” a day on our Advent calendar to signify our willingness to open our hearts to the coming of Christ. Many decorate their front doors in a way that invites the stranger, in a way that begs to be opened (as in the door of one of our neighbours pictured above). Some doors are hard to shift and many are locked behind them.

Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful poem in response to the O Clavis antiphon (based on Isaiah 22:22):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

This is Malcolm’s response (which is set in a beautiful image by Linda Richardson):

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

The poem senses despair but also senses freedom, if only we could find “the key  I threw away”, that “turned and over turned with certain touch and … opened my darkness to the light of day”. I love the sense of freedom because “every lock must answer to its key” and “each dark clasp … must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard”.

There are so many locks to spring. Back in the 14th century, Hafiz wrote about the sort of people who lock others up, and the sort of people who work in the darkness to set people free. They “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

What are the cages, catches, vices, locks and blocks that bind us? What needs to be undone for peace to be declared on earth?

You may be interested in the Jesus Doors by Cheshire artist Ali Hutchison and the Advent Haikus Jim Bridgman has written for every day of Advent as part of his blog which is Really Nothing but which is in fact, quite something. You might also be interested in The Advent Door by Jan Richardson.

Francis reports: a Maundy Thursday sermon

Picture1

Today, Pope Francis has been celebrating Mass at Casal de Marmo, a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome, and washing the feet of the prisoners there.

This is one of the many gestures that has captured the imagination of people around the world, along with his willingness to get out of his car to shake hands with people without the fear of getting shot, wanting to pay off his hotel bill, and choosing to live in a simpler apartment. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very exciting. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with its PR (rightly so, because of the ways in which it has covered up abuse scandals). But with the white smoke has come a whiff of excitement. Maybe, the church in its impoverished state, can become the church of the poor, for the poor. And, without doubt, what the world needs is, according to Pope Francis, a wounded church that goes out onto the streets, rather than a sick church that is withdrawn into its own world.

There has been far too much inspiration and charity from within the Roman Catholic Church for it to be hidden behind a smokescreen of scandal.

The juvenile detention centre has 48 prisoners. The majority of them are Muslims. Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 of the prisoners.

I wonder how they will feel. I wonder what will go through their minds. I wonder what sensations will travel from their feet and from the ground of their being. Will they know, through this action, that God loves them? Will they know that they are dear to him? Will they know that they are forgiven for the wrong paths those feet have taken them?

I wonder what Pope Francis will feel through his hands, in his mind and at his heart. Will he feel the journey those feet have made? Those feet of young people. Will he feel inside their shoes, their trainers, their boots, their bootees to the life they have led? Will he understand their running away from their homes, rival gangs, the police? Will he feel the cramping of life in those shoes and why they have kicked off?

This is what Maundy Thursday is about, that we love one another. It is a new commandment which is fleshed out in Jesus example of foot washing, and which is reenacted across the world this evening, including prisons and a detention centre in Rome. This is a love which is prepared to lovingly tend the other, whatever the state of the other’s feet may be, wherever those feet have been. This is a love which feels for the other, and which forms the foundation for a community of vulnerability, compassion and love with the least, the last and the lost.

It is a transformative act. The two parties will never feel the same about each other again. He felt for me. He understood me. He held me dear. He loved me.

Another Francis has hit the news this week. The Francis Report is the independent inquiry into what has gone wrong with the NHS in the light of the Mid Staffs Hospital. The important thing highlighted is the question of how to restore compassion to the National Health Service, and how safe care can be given to every patient every time. The publication of the report had nurses ringing in to Radio 5’s phone in, frustrated that they are unable to provide the level of care that they should be providing. Their hearts were going out to those who have been neglected, but their hands were tied up in so much other work.

I looked for a response to the Francis Report on Twitter from nurses. Mara Carlyle, now singer, but was a NHS nursing assistant for 7/8 years, mostly on wards so understaffed, tweeted:

If you give nurses enough resources and time to do their jobs properly, guess what? They will and they do. Because there weren’t enough staff for everyone’s basic needs to be attended to which inevitably led to some poor standards of care, that we often had to choose between attending to patients who were (variously) crying, dying, hungry, thristy, dirty, fallen out of bed …

Alison Leary, a registered nurse and macmillan lecturer in oncology writes of the work of a nurse (work described by Florence Nightingale as “women’s work which should be done quietly and in private”) and she asks:

How would you feel about dealing with a stranger in such an intimate way? A stranger who is so humiliated at his or her inability to control their own bodily functions that they weep? Then imagine having to care for him or her and 29 other patients with only two colleagues to help you.

So we have the juxtaposition of the Francis Report and its admissions about compassion, and Pope Francis and his expression of compassion, feeling for the other, loving the other.

Nurses want to alleviate suffering – physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

The dilemma for nurses is how they can show compassion in a system which expects so much from them.

If that is the dilemma of the nursing profession, it is perhaps the dilemma of our society. Don’t we want to be the answer to the problem of suffering, however that is experienced?

But how?

How does the NHS recover its capacity for compassion? How do we become compassionate? How do we feel for one another? How do we love one another?

The answer is repeated in story after story – from the story of the care of the Good Samaritan, to the story of the nurse most likely referred to as an angel. All of them are touching stories.

The answer is hinted at in tonight’s liturgy, and in Jesus own example of footwashing and his encouragement (“should”- is that command or encouragement?) for us to do just the same. This is the practice of loving one another, just as Jesus loves us.

It is taking one step at a time, one gesture at a time.

If the time has come for you to be asking where compassion has gone from our dealings with one another, if society has become so complicated that you don’t know where to start, I can tell you the place to start is HERE. It always has been. The first step is in the here and now, in truly local initiatives like Jesus washing the feet of his dearest friends, like Francis washing the feet of the prisoners in a Rome detention centre, like the nurse holding the hand of a patient who is afraid – who through that touch reaches beyond the physical condition of the patient to her heart of hearts.

The Bishop of Digne: dropping keys for prisoners

The Bishop of Digne

The Bishop of Digne is a key character of Les MiserablesHe is the one who offers Jean Valjean refuge, who treats him as an “honoured guest” and a shelter from the rules which allows Valjean to change his mind to the question which echoes through the story: the question of “who am I?” Valjean, or, rather, Prisoner 24601 conforms to type when he abuses the hospitality. He runs off with the silver and is captured by the law enforcers. They deliver Prisoner 24601 to the Bishop. The Bishop seizes the moment (what had he done to be prepared to react with such imaginative compassion?) and lyingly claims he had given the silver to Valjean, dismisses the police, commending them for their duty, and gives Valjean his chance.

Digne is in south-eastern France. I don’t know whether the name Digne had significance for Victor Hugo, but surely some association with dignity was intended. The Bishop of Digne was a steward (another word for “bishop”) of dignity. The Bishop is only a marginal character but according to Theresa Malcolm “he is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness”. Bishop Myriel (as was the name of the then Bishop of Digne) was also known as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” for his spirit of generosity and welcome.

Victor Hugo dwells on the character of the Bishop of Digne at great length. He describes how he moved out of his episcopal palace so that it could be used as a hospital. He describes how he gave 90% of his stipend to charity, and how he simply lived for the poor. He spent his life for them matching deed to word. He spent time with prisoners. Hugo described how Myriel went with one prisoner, standing side by side with him on the scaffold, having spent the previous day with him, sharing with him “the best truths, which are also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless.” It was through such a lifestyle that people came to refer to the Bishop as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” – a bishop most welcome and welcoming.

This key character brings freedom. He unlocks Valjean’s soul and “gives him back his life”. Fourteenth century poet Hafiz comments on such great people who “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

Valjean sums his situation up with these words:

For I had come to hate this world
This world which had always hated me
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

The engraving by Gustave Brion shows the Bishop of Digne prepared for the first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in 1886.

Do you see me? Or are you just looking?

We are drawing to the end of Prisons Week (Nov 20th-26th) – something organised to promote prayer for all those involved in the nation’s prisons. The theme of the week this year is “Do you see me? Or are you just looking?”. This draws attention to the fact that prisoners are constantly watched and under surveillance, they are rarely seen. It is indeed very difficult to “see” someone in prison. There is a real security rigmarole involved in visiting and visiting rights are severely limited (part of the punishment). But the most fundamental obstacle preventing the prisoner being seen is that in being locked up they are locked out of society.

Guard Tower and Prison Walls

Guard Tower & Walls of Robben Island
which locked Nelson Mandela out for
18 years but which didn’t prevent him
from being brother through
walls of prejudice and hatred.

(photoby Joe Barbosa)

I have often invited prayer for prisoners (there are currently 87,652 men and women in UK prisons – a rise of 2424 from 12 months ago). I am usually met with the hostility of a few who insist we should be only praying for the victims of crime. They follow the sight line of the secular media: the prisoner should not be seen and his or her cry should not be echoed in our prayer.

This week, someone was telling me of her pre-ordination placement experience in a “category A” women’s prison. She recalls her feelings of consternation after her first Communion in the chapel with a congregation of about eight when she was introduced to her table companions – including a much villified serial killer. This group of women have been seen by God. They have heard good news and a certain freedom even though they now they must be locked out of a society that wishes for them only to have bad news for a harsh and punishing sentence.

This is profoundly challenging because we share the same bread, and we drink from the same cup. We have been called companions (companions are friends who particularly share bread) and brothers and sisters. It is usually hard to imagine sitting at a table with people who aren’t our friends but God’s choice challenges these preconceptions. Instead we are challenged to see and recognise brothers, sisters and companions on the far side of dividing walls.