Welcome + Worship + Witness

Dom John Wisdom: The Only Problem

Fifth Sunday of Easter
19 May 2019
10.30 Eucharist
Dom John Wisdom

(formerly of St Mary’s Church, Port Stanley, Falkland Islands)

I think Nicholas may have told you that we served together in the Falklands, which the tourist brochures describe as “interesting, different unique”.
I could loosely be labelled an Augustinian and Bolton Priory was an Augustinian house, Nicholas has asked me to say a few words about Augustinians.

Well, just as Benedictines follow the Rule of St Benedict, Augustinians follow the rule of St Augustine of Hippo, the 4th/5th century bishop and theologian.
And Augustinians can be divided between Friars (who are meant to be mendicant – to wander around and beg) and Canons/Canons Regular (who are meant to live and pray together, but go out of the monastery to do useful stuff). They’re both different from monks (who are meant to stay in their monastery to work and pray there).
Like a Falkland tourist brochure, that explanation is a little simplistic.
Bolton Priory, by the way, had Augustinian Canons Regular (also called Austin Canons) from about 1154.
Before the “Reformation” there were more Augustinian houses in England than Benedictine and the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear/Adrian IV, was an Augustinian Canon. The only one so far – he was born less than 30 miles from me, so keep your eyes open at the next conclave.

In my own Order we follow the Rule of St Augustine, but don’t normally call ourselves “Augustinians”. We were founded by St Norbert in 1120 and are normally called Norbertines, or sometimes Canons Regular of Prémontré, Premonstratensians, or White Canons (our habit is white, not black like your run-of-the-mill Augustinians). When things are going well we say we’re an Order, but if one of our houses hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, we’re “a loose confederation of associated houses” and hide behind one of our aliases.
I’m sorry not to be wearing my Norbertine habit for you today (a long story of widely-scattered luggage), but if you look at the Pope you’ll get the idea – when a Dominican friar was elected Pope in 1566 he carried on wearing his Dominican habit and it became the standard papal everyday outfit. The Dominicans weren’t founded until 1216 and shamelessly copied the Norbertine habit. The only difference is that we also have a white biretta (hat) with four peaks as well. We raise the biretta at the Holy Name of Jesus, which always seems to amuse Pentecostals and Salvation Army types.

Today’s First Reading is from the Book of Job, which deals with the question : “If God is good, why is there suffering ?” It’s a question that has probably crossed everybody’s mind at some stage. It’s a question any Christian – possibly anyone who says they believe in God – has probably had their face rubbed in at some stage.
Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) wrote a short novel -156 pages – on the problem of suffering – it was based around someone writing a thesis on the Book of Job and the novel’s called The Only Problem.
St Thomas, whom Nicholas calls Aquinas, wrote a Commentary on Job – 432 pages in the latest Latin & English edition.
St Gregory the Great – who one sent St Augustine of Canterbury to England, whose Pastoral Rule King Alfred translated into Anglo Saxon for all his bishops – the English translation of St Gregory’s Commentary on Job runs to 2,033 pages in the Kindle edition.
And none of them comes up with a simple answer. And I haven’t got one for you today either.

The only thing we do know is that we have all experienced suffering in this life and can be pretty sure that we all have more suffering to come, and the only option is to decide what to do with it.

For most people in England the Falklands War was simply a long time ago, but the suffering from the War is still felt very deeply in both the Falklands and its continental neighbour, and, as is often the case with suffering, there’s no quick fix. In the Falklands at this time of year, for the 74 days between 2nd April (Invasion Day) and 14th June (Liberation Day), the pain still caused by the War becomes very obvious as memories of the Occupation resurface. And there’s no reason to doubt that the pain felt in Argentina is any less. Apart from all the international politics – and there’s a lot more of that than people imagine – on the Falklands side there’s been the sudden change from pre-War feudal colony to a “modern” British Overseas Territory with very bad internet ; on the Argy side they’ve got their own national history, and are still coming to terms with the treatment of their conscripts during the War, and the treatment of their veterans on their return home.

Last December I had to meet the pilot who crippled the Atlantic Conveyor in 1982, the ship with most of the British helicopters on board. The War was far more touch-and-go than most people realise and the loss of the Conveyor could very easily have proved a fatal blow to the Task Force.
I was nervous about meeting him – and wasn’t too pleased to find myself stuck next to him on the coach from Mount Pleasant up to the Argentine Cemetery. But I was relieved and pleased to find him a really good bloke – an honourable man with memories of ’82 that he can’t forget – and we got on really well. By the end of his visit I was calling him ‘Toro’ (the Bull), which was his radio call-sign for the attack on the Conveyor.
We e-mailed each other a few times after the visit, and one thing he very much appreciated was something about forgiveness that I quoted from one of the Elizabethan Catholic martyrs – and forgiveness is often an essential part of what the Christian response to suffering must be.
St Edmund Campion worked secretly as a priest knowing that when caught he would be hanged, drawn and quartered. His capture was virtually inevitable and he carried a pre-prepared document usually called “Campion’s Brag”, which concludes with :
I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almighty God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us his grace, and see us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

Very often part of our response to suffering – for our own sake – must include forgiveness of the person who caused it – and it’s important to remember that forgiveness is a purely intellectual decision and has nothing to do with nice feelings in your tummy – you simply make the decision whether or not to forgive. It may help stop a sense of grievance, or a desire for revenge, from festering inside us, but it will do little to ease the actual pain whose cause we’re forgiving.
In Matthew’s Gospel :
“Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him ? till seven times ? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times : but, Until seventy times seven.”
And on the Cross Our Blessed Lord said, “Father, forgive them ; for they know not what they do”
– >He< forgave – but it didn’t make the pain of the nails in His hands and feet go away.

The Falklands War threw up problems for many people.
When Colonel ‘H’ Jones was killed in the Battle of Goose Green, his second-in-command, Major Chris Keeble, took over at a stage when the battle wasn’t going well.
‘We were in a perilous position, and the responsibility for getting us out of it lay with me. I had no idea what to do. I walked up a gully to be alone for a moment to try and think. I put my hands into my pockets and my fingernails caught on a piece of plastic. It was a prayer which I had typed out and had laminated as a kind of deal with God – you know, “I’ll carry this prayer if you’ll look after me” stuff.’
Keeble knelt in the gorse and said the prayer, written by the desert mystic Charles de Foucauld : ‘My Father, I abandon myself to you. Do with me as you will. Whatever you may do with me I thank you, provided your will is fulfilled in me. I ask for nothing more.’
Keeble found it, in the midst of battle, ‘a terrifying, almost impossible’, prayer to say. ‘But to my amazement, I went through a real transformation. Instead of feeling frightened, uncertain, cold, miserable, confused, I suddenly felt joyful, happy, warm.’  Above all, he had ‘immense clarity’ about what he needed to do. He returned to his men and told them that at first light he would walk down across the battlefield, ‘and invite the Argentine commanders to surrender.’
The next day the numerically-superior Argentine forces, defending prepared positions, surrendered to the British.

That particular example of what Jean-Pierre de Caussade calls “Abandonment to Divine Providence” may be the most important single moment in Falklands history, but “thy will be done” is something we all need to keep praying again and again, above all in the face of suffering, our own or that of others. As Chris Keeble said at the Annual Service of Commemoration at Malvern College in 2016 :
“We all suffer when we dare to love and the price, as always, is enduring pain.”
As if our own sufferings weren’t enough, love also calls us to show compassion to others – and “compassion” means “suffering with” others, sharing in other people’s pain as well. And all too often our compassion only highlights our inability to do anything to relieve another’s suffering.

When I made my Solemn Profession – on the Feast of the Annunciation, 20 years ago – my then-Abbot said one of few sensible things I can remember him saying : that it was like signing a blank cheque. (These days he might have to re-phrase it and say it’s like giving someone your PIN number and computer password).
When Mary said “Yes” to God’s will for her at the real Annunciation,
she was writing a blank cheque –
– she was saying an unconditional “Yes” to everything that God would send her –
-“Yes” to : Simeon’s prophecy that “a sword will pierce your own soul also”
-“Yes” to : the Flight into Egypt and life as a refugee
-“Yes” to : having her twelve year old Son go missing for three days before finding Him in the Temple
-“Yes” to : meeting Him on the Road to Calvary
-“Yes” to : watching Him die on the Cross
-“Yes” to : receiving His dead Body into her arms
-“Yes” to : seeing the stone closing His Tomb.

For each of our sufferings and losses we have to say with Job “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”.
And although saying that does little to ease whatever pain we’re suffering, we also know that that is never the end of the story.
Sometimes, many years later, we look differently at past sufferings and disappointments –
– after the Resurrection Mary probably felt very differently about the three days Jesus went missing as a twelve year old
– sometimes we recognize some “disaster” of the past as a blessing in disguise – “If that hadn’t happened, neither would this ; and I’d never have ended up here today with such a lovely new Rector”.

But Christians don’t just sit there with their fingers crossed, hoping that something better will turn up – they say with Job, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.”
Our concern with this mortal life should only be to lead it such a way as to be judged, at its end, worthy of the eternal life won for us on Calvary and promised to those who follow God’s Incarnate Son. Our goal is the eternal happiness of Heaven, where there will be no more suffering.

The title “Redeemer” for Jesus seems to have dropped out of fashion a little these days, but it’s one that’s it’s very useful to remember as we try to follow the commandment He gave us at the Last Supper : “Love one another as I have loved you.” Love, like forgiveness, is an intellectual act – we make the choice either to love or not to love. To seek the spiritual and material good of another – or not. (Remember – we can always >choose< to >love< someone, even if we’re never going to >like< their table manners or their Lancashire accent.)
As anyone with schoolboy Latin know “redeem” means “buy back” or “ransom” –
– and St Peter tells us in his First Epistle :“ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” [1 Peter 1 18-19].
It can – and should – make us uncomfortable to think about Our Lord’s Passion.
Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, when it comes to the Crowning with Thorns, I always think of each of >my< sins as the thorns mocking Our Lord.
One of the standard Catholic devotional practices, particularly during Lent, are the Stations of the Cross, for which we often use the prayers of St Alphonsus Ligouri, – they’re not intended to be cheerful, and they do bring home our individual responsibility for Our Saviour’s sufferings.
When He is sentenced to death :“My loving Jesus, it was not Pilate ; no, it was my sins that condemned Thee to die.”
When he falls down on the road to Calvary :“My Jesus, it is the weight, not of the Cross, but of my sins, which has made Thee suffer so much pain.”

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ” – I’m not recommending it for general viewing – it >is< a powerful film and doesn’t pull its punches in showing the brutality of the Passion. When John Paul II saw it he simply said : “It is as it was.”. There >is< a lot of blood in the film – at the Scourging at the Pillar even the Pharisees turn away, disgusted at the barbaric brutality being inflicted on the man they want to die.

Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, True God and True Man.
In the hymn “Adoro te devote” (“Godhead here in hiding”),
St Thomas (Aquinas) points out that a single drop of His Precious Blood would have been enough to redeem the whole world. That Jesus didn’t stop His Passion after the first drop of His Blood, shows how much He loves us.
He suffered to redeem the whole of mankind,
but He would have gone through the same thing
even if it was only me or you He wanted to save –
– that’s how much He loves each one of us.

We are never going to “understand” human suffering, we simply have faith in the Redeemer who was Himself willing to suffer for our sake.
There a line from St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, which is perhaps useful to remember when faced with suffering : “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand”. (It may also come in handy if you find yourself posted to the Falklands.)
de Caussade tells us : “To escape the distress caused by regret for the past or fear about the future, this is the rule to follow : leave the past to the infinite mercy of God, the future to His good Providence, give the present wholly to His love by being faithful to His grace.”
Our response to suffering must always be to hope and trust in the love of Our Redeemer, who offers us the peace that the world cannot give,
to allow His love to flow through us to others.
I don’t like messing around with well-known prayers,
but this is a slightly adapted version of a prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola :
Teach us, good Lord, to love Thee as Thou deservest,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.