Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Martyrs

Yesterday was the Feast of St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain. Martyrs seem to be a theme with me recently...

Alban was killed by the Roman Empire in a crackdown on Christianity in the third Century. His death was voluntary: he volunteered himself in place of a priest to whom he'd offered hospitality. After a few short days of conversation with the priest, Alban embraced Christianity, and then was required to either turn in his guest, or offer himself. He did the latter.

I spent last Saturday at St. Alban's Cathedral, in (where else?) St. Albans, England. It was for the annual observance of St. Alban's Day. Hundreds of folks came--the event took me by surprise. I'd been expecting something stodgy and conventional. But it was nothing like that. Huge puppets dominated the outdoor procession. The spring which welled up to slake Alban's thirst was suggested by the local fire department blasting fire hoses from the shrubbery. Scores of children participated too: dressed as flowers, stained glass windows, soldiers and monks the procession was colorful and LIVELY!! The high point, for most of the little boys at least, was when the centurion who chops off Alban's head loses his eyeballs in some kind of divine retribution, and they roll around the grass...

I am not sure who the guiding genius is behind this extraordinary event. It got even better inside the Cathedral with the girls choir singing a jazz mass. The Dean of the Catheral is Jeffrey John, who seems unpopular with the Church hierarchy because he is a gay man in a relationship. I suspect he is the source of the razzle-dazzle. Even the way he introduced the different pilgrim groups had people laughing out loud--in an English Cathedral. I was totally charmed.

The day ended with everybody filing past the shrine of St. Alban singing special words to a familiar tune (The Battle Hymn of the Republic):

We sing of holy Alban and his suffering for the Lord,
of resounding words of witness for the Christ whom he adored;
of his boldness and his daring and his dying by the sword;
his faith is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! ...His faith is marching on!

It was an inspiring day. The classsical formulation is that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church: new life and growth and encouragement springs from their witness.

It worked for me. The Cathedral was packed. The Dean made us laugh and everyone felt welcomed: imagination was unfettered.

It made me think: imagine if this man was a bishop!

Monday, June 13, 2011


Pentecost is about empowering.
New beginnings.

Hildegard of Bingen said the color best associated with the Spirit is green--
the green of trees leafing out
herbs growing in the garden,
wheat sprouting in the fields.

The friary kitchen garden here in Dorset is an icon of fecundity! (I haven't figured out how to get photos off my cellphone onto the internet yet...soon, soon, soon...)

There are complaints of drought in other parts of England. A photo of burnt fields appeared in the newspapers recently. Bewildering weather patterns are a sign of global climate change, I fear. Whoever heard of a drought in England in May???

Nevertheless here in Doreset, at least our corner of it is GREEN. Pentecost came at the end of a long week of Chapter meetings. And the sap was rising all week! It was the first All Brothers Chapter, now expecting to meet every year at Pentecost. Every borther in the Province had a voice and a vote. We spent two days in small groups and a third n plenary, sharing the results of the small group work and making decisions for the year ahead. We concluded singing the praises of God. Everybody had a wonderful time. Not always the case at the end of a business meeting.

Every voice was honored.
Leadership was shared.
Creativity was everywhere.

These are key features for what I think must charatcterize Franciscan life!

And the week wasn't all work either. There was time for Brother John and me to get away to visit a nearby stately home/museum, Stourhead. I'd visited there in 1978: very faint impressions endured. It was a pleasure to re-visit especially the gardens, designed by Capability Brown. And we ate a Ploughman's lunch at a little country pub--all my favorite lunchtime foods of cheese, pickles, ham and lettuce...

Another highlight was gathering with all the brothers and watching Of Gods and Men together. It is a story of a small communityof Cistercian monks lifing in algeria who decide to stay at their monastery during a time of Islamist jihad. Most of the monks are killed. It is a true story, from 1996, I believe.

The other color for Pentecost is red, the red of fire. Of martyrdom.

I had a strong sene of identification with the brothers in the film. Their community life was not so different from ours in SSF--small, fragile, poor. Yet the relationships among the brothers in the film rang true too: both the small frictions among them and the profoundly loving way they came together to make their decisions and face the future together. In one scene they were in the chapel singing, as a helicopter circled tightly overhead. They gathered together, in a kind of communal embrace. I have felt that at time with my brothers. But thank God, never under threat of death.

Their fear and their faith moved me to tears. Their decision not to run from the terrorists, but to stay with their neighbors, knowing what might happen to them struck many of us SSF brothers in a deeply personal way. What would I do (or what will I do) in similar circumstances? They wrote to the terrorists as their brothers, and recognized a terror-filled death was one shared with Jesus.

It is the highest hope and greatest fear of a religious calling.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.
It was an enlivening, green time.