Finding Christ, Finding Life: a talk by Elizabeth Wang, given at the French Church, Leicester Square, London, 2006.
You probably know that I’m an artist. The project I’m busy with, nowadays, is the completion of a Catechism in pictures. It is very interesting work, but I can never be sure how people will react to the work.
A famous modern artist, Howard Hodgkin, once said: “Being an artist is like putting a message into a bottle, and throwing it into the sea.”
A visitor said to me, years ago: “Oh, I love your painting about prayer - with the large butterfly.” I said - “I’ve never painted a large butterfly!” - “Oh, you have” she said. So we searched, until we found the oil painting she wanted. She had misunderstood my early attempt to paint - not a butterfly - but the Holy Spirit. So I’ve grown used to all sorts of interpretations.
I am here today to talk about ‘finding Christ: finding life’, I’m going to leave paintings on one side for a while, to look at some of the ways in which we might have approached Christ, when we first heard about Him.
I felt totally unworthy to speak to Christ, when I first began to pray regularly. I still do: but now I believe that He loves me, as an individual who is precious to Him. Now that I’ve been a Catholic for nearly forty years I would really like to shout out from the roof-tops the amazing news that God has come down from Heaven, to deliver us from the power of sin, and even to conquer death.
I know that Jesus Christ is alive, and loves us. He can change our lives and give us hope. I know from personal experience what a marvellous friend He is, this astonishing God-man, all-at-once majestic and tender, witty and wise and gentle. Yet this sort of friendship - which is His free gift, offered all of us, is not usually achieved overnight. This is especially true, for those people, like myself, who have come into the Church as adults, or who have lapsed for many years. When we are cluttered with mistaken ideas about God, or bucket-loads of guilt, or simply a natural lack of confidence, it can seem impossible to achieve the child-like, carefree state described by so many spiritual writers.
Many of us have begun this journey in earnest, as adults, with little idea of what friendship with Christ really means. We have only hazy ideas about His characteristics; and we carry into the Church, with us, all sorts of strange attitudes and habits. Then, when we look for help in prayer, and in Confession and Communion, all we seem to do is discover new weaknesses. We might be humbled by the discovery that we are not community-minded. Others seem to hate church music. Some yearn for novelty - while others dread further experimentation with the Liturgy.
I once saw the chief server walk into the sanctuary just before the Mass began, carrying a step ladder. For a split second, I wondered if this was going to be a new liturgical aid. Of course - he was only tending the sanctuary lamp. But we do have surprises, not all of them welcome.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN.
Whatever our problems, if we are going to know Christ better we need to make efforts to stay close to Him, and to reflect from time to time on our journey, and our destination. This is why I invite you, for the next few minutes, to picture our life with Christ as a journey up the ‘Holy Mountain’ mentioned in Isaiah, in the Psalms, indeed, throughout the Scriptures. ‘Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, and desires not worthless things.’ There’s obviously a lot of work to be done if we are to stay with Christ, allow His Spirit to change us, move steadily towards God our Father, and prepare for life with Them in Heaven, at the end of our climb.
A REAL-LIFE CLIMB.
In real life, I’ve only once climbed a mountain, on foot - when I was seven years old, on holiday with my family in Wales. My father asked us all if we wanted to see the marvellous view from the top of ‘Cader Idris’. But he gave us a warning. “If you don’t want to come, that’s O.K. But if you start, there’s no turning back. You’ll have to keep on to the very top.” He was only echoing what Jesus has told us: to “Count the cost” of our undertakings.
THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT.
Another of the problems of any long journey is not having the right equipment. Do any of you remember those dreadful cross-country races round the fields, every time the snow was too thick, at school, for us to be able to play football or hockey? Thin clothes and plimsolls are not the best items for an English winter; and we shan’t be well-equipped for our journey with Christ if we refuse the good ‘clothing’ He offers us. I’m referring to the graces in which he wants to clothe us, in the Church, through the Sacraments, and the sacramentals, and through regular prayer - and spiritual reading. We also need a sure knowledge of our Faith, which is like a map and a compass, for the path ahead.
Once on the path, the important thing is to keep going - and to do so with as much love for others, and as much trust in God, as we can muster. The Lord can sort out our weaknesses, over time; but it’s important to give up the big sins that block our path, and to pray, and fulfil our ordinary duties. We can build up the Church and become holy through our very ordinary little proofs of love for God.
Plainly, I have to mention our rations: our ‘food’ for the journey, though I’m sure Fr. Keith has said it all: Christ Himself is our companion, our food, our best friend. He wants us to succeed in becoming like Him, and He knows how to help us. After all, He has shared our human life, to the last breath. So He has devised an amazing way of sharing His life with us, and giving us His holiness, and strength and peace. He is with us in the Mass, substantially Present, hidden under the appearance of bread: both our Sacrifice for sin, and our spiritual food.
Christ’s Real Presence.
I can never forget my amazement and joy when I first realised that the Church teaches the simple truth about Christ’s Real Presence. Jesus Christ is God. He had said at the last Supper, “This is My Body.” So from the earliest times, the Church has taught us to recognise Him, and revere Him, in the Blessed Sacrament. We need not envy His Apostles. We too have Jesus Christ amongst us, Really Present, though in what we call a sacramental manner.
If anyone here cannot quite believe this, I would ask them to look at a D.V.D. This is not a perfect analogy; but let us just reflect on the drama, the dialogue, and the sweeping music that can pour out of this little disc, if we put it in the right equipment, with the power on. By receiving this other little disc, which looks equally simple, even insignificant, we can meet Christ in Person, and reap huge benefits from His Presence - if we are in a state of grace, and have humble and grateful hearts.
Even if we don’t have any sweet feelings, in Holy Communion we can be sure that Christ is at work in us, loving us, and making us holy. And when we really believe this, we go to Mass not just once a week but at every opportunity, and we are better equipped to keep on with our journey.
We’ll find ourselves in danger, on this mountain, if we ever forget our need for this good ‘food’. And there are other dangers to be aware of.
Perhaps we are resting for long periods, convinced that we have all the time in the world. May be we think ourselves so mature that we don’t like being told what to do by our guides along the route: our priests and Bishops. Or perhaps we’ve relied on one person as a companion, and become bitter and resentful if he goes away to help someone else. A greater danger is if we become sour, or rebellious. Why shouldn’t we take a short-cut, or try another route to the summit?
If we find ourselves becoming grumpy or disillusioned we need to check whether we’ve been doing what a good climber does, who has thought things through. He allows time for rest, but he is disciplined; and he checks and cleans his equipment. We shan’t do much useful work, in the Church, or in our own souls, if we don’t make time for an occasional retreat, or if we don’t ‘clean up’ by regular Confessions; - and we need to read encouraging words by people who have persevered on the Way, not by people who have left the path.
Another reason for a sort of ‘greyness’ in our spiritual lives is when we do not yet treat Christ as a real Person: and a Divine One. It can be shocking, to realise that our routine devotions are without love. Do we ever thank Christ for being here in church, or do we genuflect with reverence - or pray the Stations of the Cross with real gratitude - and offer thanks that we can go to Mass, unlike millions of persecuted Christians?
Christ is man as well as God: and He is deeply touched by our demonstrations of love, by each new effort to show gratitude and reverence, and by our courage when we speak about our Faith with other people.
It’s important to find heroes and heroines to inspire us. The person I’d choose, as a model of patient endurance, is not even canonised yet; but she was a young French-woman called Zélie, alive when Claude Monet was nearby, shocking Paris with his new ‘Impressionist’ paintings. Zélie wanted to be a nun, but was firmly advised to marry. Of her nine children, several died. But she wrote brave letters to her sister about her tragedies - and about the joys of life, and God’s goodness.
Then she developed a serious illness, and died when the youngest child was only four years old. So it seemed as though she had not achieved very much. The truth is that in her everyday love and fervour she had laid the foundations of the life of faith for her children. And the four-year old girl she left became St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and a Doctor of the Church.
So just as God can bring good out of every evil, so He can use every earthly life which is surrendered to Him, even if people seem to see no results. Only sin can ‘block’ His action.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER.
Truthful and trusting prayer is all-important if we are to avoid sin - and also if we want to learn what tasks the Lord invites us to do for Him. It is often in prayer that Christ reveals what changes we should make to our lives. He opens our eyes to new duties, and opportunities. He also gave us some lovely surprises, either demonstrations of love, or perhaps an assurance that we are on the right path.
Just as, on a mountain, we might suddenly have a glimpse, between clouds, of the great height to which we have climbed, so we are sometimes given, in prayer, a glimpse of how far we have progressed, in Christ’s service. We can even see that we are now coping cheerfully with problems that would have left us distraught or hopeless, a few years earlier.
No climber must keep his thoughts on his own progress however, and fail to help other members of the team - even those to whom we might feel no attraction. It’s only too easy to judge or dismiss other people.
Many years ago I was in hospital, when my pains and weakness were being investigated. There was an old lady, thin as a stick, in the next bed, calling out for help. I was on bed-rest, so I called a nurse over, who then said: “Oh - Don’t take any notice of her. She’s always moaning.” Feeling guilty, a bit later, I tip-toed across to see what the woman wanted. She was desperate for water, so I poured a drink because she was too weak to lift the jug.
The point I want to make is that I received a letter a few months later, with a photograph enclosed. It was that very woman, now a smart, healthy, old lady. She wanted me to know that she had been at death’s door, earlier, undiagnosed, and seen as a hypochondriac and a whinger. But after finding a doctor who was willing to do further tests, she had at last been diagnosed with a potassium deficiency, and cured. So, no, we should never make superficial judgements, whether about someone’s health or spiritual state; and if people judge us, we must pray for them, as Jesus prayed for His persecutors.
It can be hard to do that, in the later stages of our journey, long after our first fervour. We do grow very tired. Many of our illusions have been shattered - about other people as well as ourselves. Our very reasonable hopes and ambitions might have been swept aside by circumstance. Perhaps we are too ill to get to Mass - or we wish we had married, after all - or that we had not married. Or our religious Order is about to disappear. Or perhaps a child has gone off the rails; and we find no joy in prayer. The danger is self-pity, or some other destructive emotion. We might feel as though: ‘I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint’. (Ps 22)
We need to look into ourselves, to see if there is some hidden sin, or laziness, or hardness of heart towards someone nearby. Have we put a boulder into the stream of grace which God is pouring upon us? - for His love never ‘dries up’. Or it can happen that we are to blame, in another way, for our sad states.
Sometimes, the Lord has great work for us to do, but He cannot show us, because there’s some great failing we haven’t yet conquered, such as worrying what people will think about us - if the work is in any way unusual, or will push us into the limelight.
When Christ spoke in the Synagogue to announce the start of His Ministry, He annoyed people so much that they hustled him out, and tried to throw Him over a cliff. I sincerely hope that we shall escape such a fate; but we must be willing to bear a little criticism or misunderstanding, in Christ’s service.
If we have a peaceful conscience, however, we must remember that in every life there are periods of spiritual darkness. It is part of our training. And then it’s crucial to remember that other old cliché - that Christ did His greatest work on the Cross. We can become holy, and even save other souls - by the grace of God - simply by persevering, in love, in our very ordinary lives. In union with Christ, ‘offering up’ our suffering as a penance for our own sins and for other peoples.
[It can be a help to find a new interest to take us out of our ‘doldrums’ - or to look for companionship, or a great ‘cause’ to throw ourselves into. But we need to look at our motives. If we decide to save the rain-forests and the environment, or campaign against litter, or go on sponsored walks, we must not neglect the people in our everyday lives.]
The joyful thing about life in Christ is that we know that Christ sees the truth about our nature, and our problems, and loves us. He sees our sincere efforts to do good. He gives us not just powerful help, but sometimes wonderful surprises. He can reveal Himself to us, in prayer, to embrace us. He can bring new friends into our lives. He can suddenly gives us, through providential changes, an opportunity to rest.
I’m told that, high up in the Rocky mountains, and in the Alps, there are log huts for use as emergency shelters. It must seem like a miracle, to come across one of these, in a storm. They are very basic, but well-suited to hold off a freezing wind. And whoever finds the hut can shut the door for a while to bears, and other dangerous animals.
We shall all be attacked, on our journey, whether by enemies in the world, or by an invisible enemy, commonly known as Satan. Contrary to what is often heard, he is alive and well, and living in England - and in other parts of the World, still prowling around, “seeking someone to devour”.
Christians of every era have suffered his attentions, because he would love to drag us off the path, persuade us that we’ll never reach the summit - or even try to frighten us so much that we forget to pray, and we don’t have the courage to finish our work for Christ. So when things go wrong, we need more prayer, not less - and a liberal use of holy water, and the sign of the Cross.
A NEW SURRENDER.
Despite our efforts to be hopeful, there can come a time when the climb will seem to be unending, and unendurable. The crowd has thinned out a lot. Many people have decided to make a permanent camp where they have a nice view. Others have returned to the foot of the mountain. It can even seem foolish to keep expecting to reach the summit. It can be at that very point that someone freely surrenders to Christ once more, to do His Will, prepared to shoulder the Cross for as long as seems necessary. Yet, suddenly, Christ overwhelms that soul with unexpected bliss, in an experience of Divine Love which surpasses every dream or expectation.
THE LOST WORLD.
Have you ever seen the film, ‘The Lost World’? The hero and heroine - if I’m right; it was a long time ago - climb over a ridge, high up in some mountains, only to discover a beautiful tropical valley, a lost world where there are strange animals and extraordinary types of vegetation.
This is what can happen in the spiritual life, near the ‘heights’, when a friend of Christ surrenders once again to Christ’s wishes, expecting further hardship yet trusting in Christ’s love. That can be the moment at which she finds that Christ has suddenly drawn her into another ‘country’, another ‘Eden’. It can rightly be called a ‘lost world’, because it was lost by human beings, by original sin, when our first parents’ behaviour open up a gulf between earth and Heaven.
It’s true that we are united with, and ‘indwelt’ by God, and that our sins are washed away in Baptism. We are made ‘children of God’, and members of the Church. But the intimacy with God that is known in the heights of the spiritual life is usually the fruit of perseverance on the path up the holy Mountain. It consists of known union with God, constantly experienced and enjoyed. It’s as if God walks and talks with such friends in a garden, as with our first parents, at the beginning. And He’s inviting all of us to reach out to Him, to achieve that degree of friendship, through love and through total self-surrender.
None of us can earn such intimacy. But we can prepare ourselves for it, and remain hopeful that, even within earthly life, we shall be transformed: we shall come to know not only Christ, but also the Holy Spirit, and God our Father.
Some of those who have persevered to that state have left us descriptions of their experiences. I’m thinking of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Each started out, as we have, as ordinary people with a number of gifts. They put their gifts to good use, and learned from their mistakes, but, most importantly, they really loved Christ, and never gave up trying to serve Him and give Him glory.
What is encouraging, in their writings, is not just the wise information about prayer and penance, and the stages of the journey. We learn a lot about the sheer loveliness of Jesus Christ: His attractiveness and loveability. Yet, if we ever long for the joys of Divine union, it’s worth asking if we really make efforts to be worthy. Or are we like a young woman, for example, who says she wants to marry, but rarely bothers to clean her teeth or her nails, or brush her hair. We know that Christ has no favourites; but His close friends - and we have the example of the Saints - have bothered to get out of bed, to pray, in the mornings, unless they are ill. They always acted with reverence; and they showed concern for all that Christ cares for, not only the sick and needy, but for the Church herself: Christ’s Body - and for the Pope, and the priests whom Christ has chosen, and Christ’s own Mother, now in Heaven. So if we want to be intimate friends with Him, we need to reflect on our attitudes.
No matter what the degree of union that Christ’s friends enjoy with Him on earth, Christ must keep leading them onwards. When people like that have lived for a while in that new country, they know that it is not their permanent home. The Lord eventually leads them to the ‘edge’ of that lost world, where they can see that only a short step is necessary, to arrive in their real Homeland, Heaven.
One of the paintings in this exhibition shows the moment at which someone arrives there. If you look at Our Blessed Lady, she is reaching out, to pull someone up, into God’s Kingdom.
INTO GOD’S KINGDOM.
Maybe she will hold our hands, one day, to assure us that we are home at last, and that Heaven is waiting to celebrate our arrival. Perhaps, then, Jesus will hold out His arms to greet us, to lead us further in, to introduce us to the Saints, our friends. And as we see the Father face-to-face at last, in the glory of the Holy Spirit, we shall know for sure that every sorrow and struggle has been worthwhile.
We shall see, as never before, that in finding Jesus Christ, and persevering in His company, we have indeed found ‘life’: a happy life which brought us, on earth, extraordinary joy and peace-of-mind: a life which, in the perfection of Heaven, will bring us incomparable joy and fulfilment.
WIPING AWAY OUR TEARS.
Saint John wrote many centuries ago, about those who achieve Eternal Life: ‘They will never hunger or thirst again; neither the sun nor the scorching wind will ever plague them, because the Lamb who is at the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. (Rv 7.15-17.)
May God bring into His Kingdom, one day, everyone of us here today, and all those we hold in our hearts.