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Wednesday, 26 July 2017

"To do something for others for a change instead of just being a selfish bastard"

Here is my reflection from today's lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

For the last 26 years an annual Pilgrimage has been organised from St Martin-in-the-Fields to Canterbury to raise funds for our work with homeless people here in the centre of London. This memorable and picturesque four day walk from the steps of St Martin’s along the Pilgrims Way covers 74 miles. The journey ends in the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral with the laying of flowers on the tomb of Revd Dick Sheppard.

On the Saturday of the Pilgrimage the weary Pilgrims are glad to stay overnight at Aylesford Priory. Their programme for the walk is tight, so there may not be much time to explore the Priory – showers and sleep are likely to be the priority – but, were they to do so, they would find marvellous ceramics throughout the Priory by the celebrated Polish artist and ceramicist, Adam Kossowski, who devoted much of his working life to places of Christian worship following his release from Soviet labour camp. He said: ‘…When I was so deep in this calamity and nearly dead I promised myself that if I came out of this subhuman land I would tender my thanks to God.’

At Aylesford Priory, he certainly did that. Kossowski spent the last 20 years of his life, until he died in 1986, narrating important Christian events and the history of the Carmelite Order through his craft. So much so that his work has been described as "a prayer in stone."

Among the Chapels that he decorated at the Priory is St Anne’s Chapel. This is a chapel which reflects the value of our families through walls with ceramics that tell the story of Mary’s parents Joachim and Anne as it is told in the apocryphal gospel of James. As you look around this predominantly green Chapel - green to reflect hope and new life – you see: an angel appear to Joachim in the fields telling him his prayers are answered; Joachim meeting his wife at the city gates and telling him she is pregnant at long last; The birth of Mary; and Anne and Mary going to the temple so Mary can be dedicated to the service of God.

The story of Anne and Joachim appears to be based heavily on that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. A cult of devotion to Saint Anne is documented in the East in the 6th century, and had spread to the West by the 10th century. Devotion to Saint Joachim developed in the 14th century. The Church maintains their feast day both to emphasise God's plan from the beginning to send his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem fallen humanity; and also to show God's faithfulness in keeping his covenant with all generations. The feast day is traditionally a time to pray for families.

Families are essentially an incubator in which to learn about the reality of love. The Friars provide a guide to the different Chapels which can be visited at Aylesford Priority and this includes a prayer to say in each Chapel. The prayer for St Anne’s Chapel articulates a realism about our experience of family life that reflects what it would have been like for Mary growing up with her parents. The prayer begins by acknowledging the importance of the family at the heart of faith and the bringing of our own family before God to thank him for their presence in our life. It then continues, ‘You alone know the longings and struggles of each one of us, and you alone know our failures and regrets. Bless us with loving forbearance with one another. Heal any wounds that divide us and bring us together in eternal life with you.’

The reality of learning to love in families is bound up with longings and struggles, failures and regrets, loving forbearance, and the healing of wounds that divide us. If we allow ourselves to learn to love through these experiences, then we are enabled to love not just our own families but others outside our immediate family and friends as well. Some years ago a reporter from The Independent joined the Canterbury Pilgrimage. One of the pilgrims to which he spoke was a barrister and a judge, with a wife and kids and a comfortable life in west London. So what, he asked, had prompted him to leave all this behind for four days of the toughest walking he had ever done? The reply was, "As penance for my sins … and to do something for others for a change instead of just being a selfish bastard."

The reporter and that pilgrim both learnt through the Pilgrimage that while love may begin at home, it isn’t intended to end there. We can potentially learn love in our family, but if our love remains within our family unit then it is limited, restricted, selfish even. The love which Mary learnt from her parents and which Jesus then learnt from Mary and Joseph was a love that encompassed others, even the world itself! Just like that Judge and the Independent reporter we need to learn to look outside of the places where we are currently living comfortable lives to do something for others for a change instead of just being selfish.


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