A while ago, I watched a You-tube clip called “The Poor Clares of Malawi”. It shows a community of African nuns at prayer – singing the psalms of the Divine Office to the sound of drums – and as they do so they both raise their hands in prayer and gently dance to the rhythm of the drums. This video clip is accompanied by a commentary from an old Irish Missionary priest, who speaks with sadness of how the nuns have shown him what has been missing in his own prayer life. He says that God has given us hands to raise up to him in praise, has given us feet to dance in joy at his presence and has given us lips to kiss the ground in worship of the Creator – but then he goes on to say that although, when reciting the psalms, he has said the words, “I will raise my hands in praise”, he had never done so; although he has spoken of giving thanks for the beauty of creation, he had never bowed down and kissed the ground in gratitude for such a great gift.
As I watched and listened to that video clip, my own heart echoed the feelings of that Irish priest, for I realised that I also have tended to turn my worship into rules and duties and so the richness of my worship of God – bowing down before him in gratitude – has tended to be pushed to the edges of my Christian life and at times seems to disappear altogether. And this is sad, because our Catholic Faith is full of signs and symbols, which our Catholic forebears have bequeathed to us as ways of experiencing God by worshipping him with our bodies as well as our words. The Sign of the Cross, genuflection, the taking of holy water, the fasts and feast days, the flowers and the colours of the vestments etc. are all things which can help reveal the nearness and tenderness of God for us and yet we so often miss what they are pointing to, because we concentrate on the rules which govern the “what” and “when” of the symbols – and miss seeing the “why”.
In our chapel, here at St Peter’s College, we have a wonderful mosaic on the wall behind the altar. It depicts the night sky as spoken of in the Book of Genesis, when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be more than the stars in the heavens, which was God’s promise of life to Abraham in the only way that he could understand it. The Scriptures tell us that in answer to these promises, Abram uttered not a word, but “bowed down to the ground” (Gen.17:3) in an act of worship – and this way of answering God stands as a model to us of how to accept the promise of life that God holds out to us in Christ Jesus. It was the way, I am sure, that Thomas the Apostle responded, when Jesus invited him to put his finger into the holes in his hands made by the nails, for I cannot imagine Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God” without also bowing to the ground in adoration.
There have also been times in my own life, when I felt that the only way I could approach the Lord was on my knees, because I needed to “show” my faith in him and not just speak of it, for just as my love for my family and friends needs to be expressed in actions as well as words, so also does my faith and worship of God, for without those actions, my trust in God is not given a fully human expression. So, in my personal prayer, in the quiet of my room, I have an icon of the Lord, a copy of the Mt Sinai icon – “Jesus friend and judge” – and this, I find, helps bring me into the presence of the Lord. Sometimes I add to this by lighting a candle, as I pray, or softly play some devotional music as a background to my prayer. For the same reason, in times past, I used to sit cross-legged in prayer before the Lord, as I found that that helped me pray, but age and the stiffness of joints no longer allow me to do this, so now I pray and I can and not as I can’t! All of these things help remind me that God created me body and soul and it is only in my full humanity that I can offer him proper worship and praise.
But, you may ask, why is worship necessary? Does it add anything to our lives? It does! It was when he bowed down in worship that Abraham saw that the land he was being given was a gift and he learnt to cherish it as such. When, in worship, we thank God for the gift of family and friends, our eyes are opened to the tremendous treasure we have been given in them and we realise that love and friendship are more important than anything else in our world. So it was, that as I watched those African nuns singing their praise of God and touching their foreheads to the ground in adoration, I began to see, by following in my heart their actions, how cherished I am by God and as I experience a little of his great faith in and love of me, I find the grace to become the person I can become through his love – a person who loves and cares for the world in the same way that he loves and cares for us.
I am glad to be able to share with you that my doctor has given me a three months break from chemotherapy to help my body recover. I am now into my third week, but am still struggling a little with the weakness, which is the side effect of chemo – particularly my weak immune system leaves me a prey to whatever virus is wandering about. However, I am managing and though I cannot do everything, I can do some things – Praise the Lord!
One thing my sickness has done, which I regret, is that it has not allowed me to go home to be with my family as they mourn my brother-in-law, who died recently and is to be buried this week. However, I hope to be strong enough to go on leave in a few weeks’ time. It will be lonely not having my brother-in-law there to welcome me – but I am sure my sister will enjoy my visit.
I was due to go on leave in August last year and had the ticket booked and paid for, but then I was diagnosed with cancer. So, I wrote to MAS, the airline, and sent them a doctor’s letter and they replied that in the circumstances I could use the ticket at a later date. However, when I came to ask for a replacement ticket, I was told that I could only go for 10 days and that I would have to pay all the taxes again as well. The upshot was that I decided to buy a new ticket. No wonder they can afford all their planes!! Hehe!