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During the Covid lockdown period, Deacon John has been sharing his thoughts on a weekly basis.

21 May 2020

Patience seems to be wearing thin for many even though lockdown remains in place for another week at least, here in Scotland. I have noticed a marked increase in the number of cars going about when I am out for a walk. The queues outside supermarkets with social distancing have diminished to nothing at times. Does that mean that people are shopping more often than once a week, rather than just the once as instructed by the government?
With the closure of churches and places of worship there is the temptation to become impatient and dissatisfied with the Church authorities. Demanding that the opportunity to worship and receive the sacraments is a right that must continue without disruption. On the other hand, there is also the temptation that faith will wane, and some will fall away from worshiping altogether.
Rights entitle a person to a sense of freedom, to act or not to act in certain ways. However, even the most rudimentary human communities had rules prescribing that some were entitled to tell others what they must do. In our current modern society rights dominate our understanding of what is permissible. They structure our democratic way of life and shape our morality. So, to accept a set of rights is to approve the distribution of freedoms given and to acknowledge the authority which lays down those rights.
In the same way all the major religions have rights and freedoms. The structure of each one is based on the laws and the moral standards which the authority of the particular religion has derived from their Holy books, laid down over time. These rights include the freedom to abide by the rules and moral standards set, or not. However, with the gift of faith and by abiding by the rules, the believer will, with patience and hope be led towards achieving the goal of meeting God in eternity.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension when Jesus leaves his disciples, having appeared to them at various times during the forty days since his resurrection, and is assumed into heaven. He promises them he will return but does not say when. The disciples believed that it would be very soon, within days, weeks, or months even, but certainly in their lifetime. But as time went on and He had not returned they must have become impatient and disappointed. Did their faith begin to wane at the creeping realisation that it wasn’t going to happen when they wanted? No, because His departure marked the end of His physical presence in the world, but it also marked the beginning of his presence in quite a different way. “I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you for ever” [John 14:16], “the spirit of truth… he will be my witness” [John 15: 26]. On Sunday 31 May this year Christian Churches will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, onto the Apostles.

14 May 2020

During the weeks of lockdown there has clearly been a sizable proportion of the programmes on the television which are repeats from previous years. This is obviously because the staff of the BBC and other television companies are either on Furlough or working from home just like everyone else, and current episodes of soaps or new drama series cannot be filmed because of the lockdown and social distancing rules. The choice of what to watch can be somewhat limited, although if you are lucky enough to have Sky, Netflix or iPlayer there is a wider choice of viewing.
Looking through the channels during the week we came across a film called ‘The Good Pope’ it was a film about the life of Pope St John XXIII, from his very early life as the son of a small farmer, and one of thirteen children, to his election as Pope and his inspiration and vision to convoke the Second Vatican Council. Yet in the film, it portrayed how the hierarchy of the Vatican, at the time, were strongly opposed to his idea to begin with. After the death of Pope Pius XII, the ‘power brokers’ of the Vatican thought that Cardinal Roncalli would be an interim holder of the See of Peter, a safe pair of hands, not rocking the boat, keeping it warm for the next one that they would choose in due course. They were totally caught off balance with his announcement to convoke the council.
Similarly, when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister at the start of World War Two, he wasn’t the first choice, even from within his own party, but he was the choice of Parliament as a whole and was asked by King George VI to form a government. He also was strongly opposed, particularly by his war cabinet in the very early days of his Premiership, they were more in favour of negotiating a peace agreement with Hitler than defending the freedom and sovereignty of Great Britain. However, his utter determination and inspiration to fight for freedom began with the successful evacuation of 300,000 British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.
Supreme power, whether received through a democratic process or not, will always face opposition. Jesus faced strong opposition from the Jews and in the end total rejection through his death on the cross, “this is the stone, which you, the builders rejected but has become the cornerstone”, [Acts 4: 11]. There is much opposition and criticism of the way the government has and is managing the current crisis in public health caused by the corona virus. Now that the prospect of unlocking the lockdown is upon us there is further opposition and criticism being voiced. Very few aspire to, or crave supreme power, in the case of Pope St John XXIII he shouldered it with grace and humility, realising his vision of bringing the Universal Church into the modern world. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, believed it was his destiny from his earliest days to lead the country, yet he achieved his goal of maintaining the freedom and sovereignty of the British Isles and the British people.

7 May 2020

This time last year I travelled to Spain, to attend the graduation of my grandson from flight school in Jerez and afterwards visiting Cordoba and Toledo. It was a memorable time in each location, enjoying the different experiences of a celebration with family members at the graduation, visiting the historic places in Cordoba and Toledo, tasting the food and wine of the different regions and traveling from Madrid to Jerez by high speed train, things that a year ago were considered normal features of twenty first century society. What a difference a year makes. My grandson having started on what he thought was an exciting and lifelong career finds himself driving a delivery van for a major supermarket until he is able, we hope, to get back to the cockpit of a passenger plane. There will be many others of his generation who graduated from university or completed an apprenticeship at the end of last year and now find themselves at a standstill in what they had anticipated was their secure future. The generations of people living in the UK since the Second World War have lived in relative stability and security. The standard of living for most people has improved enormously since the ending of the war in Europe seventy-five years ago, as too, has the general heath of the population. Longevity has increased over the years and one can speculate on the possibility of living longer than one’s parents, provided ill health or a fatal accident doesn’t change that statistic.
Suddenly all that has changed, the fear that the virus brings is the fear of change, it has shortened our horizon, it has introduced the ‘fear and flee’ reaction in many of us, all of a sudden our foreseeable future, in terms of the effect the change has brought, is reduced to months, across all ages. Even living in such an advanced technological society as we do there is no potential defence against the virus for at least a year, probably longer, so we have been reduced to utilising similar methods of protection as the population of the world did in the fourteenth century, during the time of the Plague, of small communities being in isolation, of keeping others at a safe distance, and for some, wearing a face covering to potentially reduce transmission of the virus.
The world of the Apostles changed dramatically too, after the coming of the Holy Spirit. They had all met together to celebrate the Jewish ‘Feast of Weeks’ or ‘Shavuot’; which is counted seven weeks from the second day of Passover. Pentecost in the Christian liturgical calendar is counted fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus The Apostles had closed the door of the room they were in because they were fearful of being found by the Jewish authorities, “when suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the entire house in which they were sitting… They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them” [Acts 2: 1-4]. Change is inevitable, however old we are we should be thankful for the period of security and stability we have experienced in our lives and look forward with hope and resolve to whatever the future my hold for us.

30 April 2020

Next Monday we will have been in ‘Lockdown’ for forty days. There are a number of well-known references in the Old and New Testament to the number forty. There is the forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness on their journey to the promised land. The forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai in prayer and fasting and where God then gives him the Ten Commandments. The forty days that Elijah spent in the wilderness journeying to the mountain of God, and the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his mission of salvation, which God the Father had sent him to carryout. And there is the forty days of lent each year, which this year had not quite finished before the social restrictions came into force.
To many of us the weeks and days of ‘Lockdown’ may have indeed felt like being in a wilderness, coming to terms with not having many of the things we took for granted before the virus changed everything. Being unable to go out to the shopping mall and browse the shops, or to meet our friends for lunch or dinner, or just to go where and when we like when we want to. Being in a virtual wilderness is certainly a challenge to our mental ability to accept and embrace the significant changes to our lives that have been imposed in order for each one of us to be safe, to keep the potential of being infected by the virus at bay.
Today I decided I should go for a walk, I hadn’t been out for a couple of days, and telling myself I needed to exercise I ventured outside the door, it was almost like winter, so back in for a fleece and winter jacket and woolly hat, my muscles and joints saying, you don’t really have to do this. But the mind took control and overruled the complaints and off I walked. Once into the rhythm of the walking, the complaining of the muscles and joints fade away and the mind can soar to clarity of thought. Ranging from observing the landscape and wildlife around to higher thoughts of a spiritual dimension, to meditation as the body relaxes and the walking becomes metronomic.
How did Moses, Elijah or Jesus summon up the mental strength to survive their forty days of isolation? They had no one to look after them or bring them food. Their strength of mind is an example to all of us in this present crisis, an example to show us that we can get through it with resolute determination once we overcome that initial mental hurdle, of wanting to say “I can’t do it.” In the end Jesus had to summon up the mental strength to face death on the cross, even though in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before, he wanted to say he couldn’t do it, “if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I would have it.” [Mt 26: 39-40].

25 April 2020

As we go into a further period of lockdown and social distancing one of the issues being reported over the last week has been the country’s state of readiness to combat the Corona virus. The 2016 exercise carried out by Imperial College London and involving the NHS, was to assess how prepared the country was to deal with a respiratory virus pandemic on the scale we are currently experiencing. The decisions made at the time on the outcome of that exercise has been the subject of much criticism in the media in recent days.
Exercises to assess the readiness of organisations such as government bodies, the military in particular, and major utility and oil exploration companies are regular occurrences. During my years in the Royal Air Force, it was a regular annual event, they called them tactical evaluations, (Tac-eval) and usually involved the Station being in lockdown for 24 or 48 hours while a team from Head Quarters evaluated the readiness of the station to defend the nation. However, as we have seen and heard over the years, when disaster strikes, no matter how much rehearsing or practice has taken place beforehand, it can never prepare fully for the real thing. The unknown factor, which can never be prepared for, has to be overcome quickly and decisively. That is the time when real leadership is demanded, to get through the disaster securely and safely, with minimum loss of life, if that is a consequence of the disaster.
The prophet Malachi foretells the ministry of John the Baptist, “Look I shall send my messenger to clear a way before me.” [Malachi 3: 1] and Isaiah prepares Israel for the coming of the Lord, “A voice cries, in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” [Isaiah 40: 3]. Yet the Jewish people were anything but ready for the arrival of Jesus. They were unprepared at that moment in time for the coming of the Messiah. They did not want to believe, that Jesus was the Son of God. Even those that followed Jesus, including his chosen Apostles, were not prepared at all for what actually happened, and only after the coming of the Holy Spirit, did they show the calibre of leadership that the very early Church needed.
We need the Holy Spirit to prepare us and sustain us for whatever disasters may happen in our lives, even the minor ones like the washing machine breaking down with a full load inside or a flat tyre on the car in the middle of winter when we are miles from home. But we need the Holy Spirit even more so when we face life changing situations brought on by major disasters, either natural or man-made. Our readiness will undoubtedly not be one hundred percent, yet as members of the human race we have the intelligence, the ingenuity and the resolve to overcome any disaster, small or great.

18 April 2020

Another week of this changed world goes by, and Easter has passed, sadly almost unnoticed. Yet Easter brings hope not only for an end to the ‘lockdown’ but more importantly the hope of salvation. Easter brings new life through baptism and the Holy Spirit, and springtime in the northern hemisphere also brings new life. In the natural world plants are pushing through and trees are blossoming. Gérard de Nerval a 19th cent French Poet wrote, “every flower is a soul blossoming in nature.” Newly born farm animals jump around in the fields enjoying the wonder of this strange new world they find themselves in.
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, you may have been out there in this time of enforced leisure, refreshing it after the winter, planting flowers and vegetables, cutting the grass, weeding the borders and so on. There are many examples of gardens which come to mind from scripture. Starting with the Garden of Eden, to the Garden of Gethsemane, and finally the garden where Jesus was buried after been taken down from the cross, “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had been laid,” [John 19:41].
Gardens provide food and beauty, places to enjoy, places to relax in, to meditate in, to pray in or just be in. Gardening can be therapeutic, taking us away from the stress of life as we knew it, before Corona Virus, and bringing us closer to the natural world created by God. It can provide the gardener with a good workout, digging, pruning, or building a new garden feature, activities that provide the full range of muscle and aerobic exercises our bodies need to stay healthy; being out in the fresh air in all weathers, sun, showers or windy conditions is also good for our mental health.
When I visited the Holy Land ten years ago, we walked in the Garden of Gethsemane amongst the old knarled olive trees there, on the West side of the Mount of Olives, which looks East to the walls of Jerusalem. Gethsemane means an oil press and in the time of Jesus a large number of olives trees would have grown there on the side of the mount. The ones that grow there now, although very very old are not the ones Jesus would have seen on the night of his arrest. Those were destroyed by General Titus in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed by the Romans. However, replanting obviously took place, perhaps not on such a large scale as before. This old Greek proverb reminds us of that moment in time and also gives a glimpse into the future for the planet we inhabit, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit under.” Jesus’ journey from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Cross on Calvary and on to the garden where he was buried is a journey of hope for each one of us as we journey through this life to the garden of Paradise, which is a figurative way of saying heaven.

9 April 2020

Week three of ‘Lock Down’ is bringing the country to the realisation that we are nowhere near emerging from it. The media is getting nervous, asking Government Ministers and anyone else from the other political parties and political commentators, who wish to give their view; for an exit strategy, whatever that means. It unsettles us; the general public, it fuels the communication channels on social media, and causes dissension. Patience, on the other hand, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit which we receive in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Patience will lead us through the raging storm of the Pandemic, it will give us the wisdom to follow the instructions from our elected Government and keep us safe. So that, in the future we will once again be able to enjoy life to the full, with our family, our friends and the members of our parish community.
Living in a state of imposed restriction of movement, may to some, seem to be similar to a period of imprisonment, or in another dimension, living a monastic existence. In both those situations there are obvious rules regarding restrictions on movement, which includes a certain amount of time for work, study or reading, and exercise each day. Social interaction outside the enclosed environment, in both cases, is either non-existent or severely limited. This is the situation that we all find ourselves in at the present time. The vast majority of us do not want to lead a monastic life or be imprisoned. However, in this current global crisis we are experiencing, to a small extent, the way of life of those that do. How do we keep our physical and mental health in good shape? Just as in normal times, we have a structure to our daily existence, work, school, socialising and times of physical activity and so on. So, at this extraordinary time in our lives we really need to have some daily structure to keep sane and healthy. A time for work, a time for reading, a time for exercising, a time for relaxing and a time for praying. The words of Ecclesiastes come to mind here, “a time for every occupation under heaven” [3: 1].
St Isidore of Seville [6th/7th cent] was a Bishop and Doctor of the Church. He was a loving shepherd of his flock, yet he experienced an inner conflict in his personal life, between a desire for solitude and prayer and the demands of bringing the message of salvation to his flock. He concluded that he was capable of both, using the example of Christ, who, after feeding the five thousand, withdrew up the mountain to pray [Mt 14: 13-22]. Homo Sapiens are a naturally social species, we interact, we cooperate, and we build. The present restrictions are alien to these natural characteristics, yet to survive this virus, which at the moment, we have no current cure or vaccine for, we have to be patient and trust in the Lord as we approach the commemoration of the loving sacrifice of his own life for the salvation every one of us.

2 April 2020

As we come to the end of the second week of ‘Lock Down’ the reality of how the world has changed over the past weeks is gradually sinking in. Without a doubt the world will not be the same again. The reduction in the level of emissions into the atmosphere is staggering, on the other hand the livelihood of millions is in serious jeopardy as a result of government-imposed lock downs around the world. The global economy is in ‘freefall’. However, the truth is not one of us really knows what the future holds. Many will be asking where is God, why does he allow such catastrophes to happen? The fact is, God is here with us, whenever we need to turn to him, he is there at our side.
In his Extraordinary Moment of Prayer last Friday, 27 March, Pope Francis used the passage from the Gospel of Mark, (Mk 4:35) where Jesus and his disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm blows up; as an analogy for the present ‘storm’ affecting the world. The disciples are in a state of panic almost, yet Jesus remains calm, even to the point of remaining asleep until he is woken by the disciples. He asks them “Why were you afraid? Have you no faith?” I’m sure everyone of us has recently experienced anxiety, fear, even panic at times, as we follow the spread of the pandemic across the world. Like a roller coaster, our emotions and fears rise and fall as the news and statistics fill the media. Our vulnerability is exposed, and it uncovers those false, and previously thought, certainties in our lives, our daily schedule, our habits and what we think are our priorities. It also lays bare all those ideas we have of what we think nourishes our soul, it deprives us of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
The sudden change that the pandemic has brought to our lives and to our global community is a harsh wake up call for us and for the world. In every aspect of our stewardship of planet Earth, from the atmosphere and beyond, to the smallest living creature buried in the ground, this is a time to think about taking stock. How will we manage things differently when the pandemic abates? Will we manage things in a far better way for the whole spectrum of God’s creation? It is a wakeup call for the future of the soul of every individual. In another passage from the Gospel of Mark, (Mk 13: 3-37), Jesus tells his disciples to “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come… lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” However unpalatable the thought of our own demise may be, from whatever the cause, our priority should be, must be, the welfare of our own soul because the brightness of it is what will propel us into eternity with God.

26 March 2020

The world that we have known for so long has suddenly changed, it’s almost as though we are all extras in a science fiction horror movie. The world is grinding to a halt, shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and places of worship are ordered to close, only the outlets where the essentials can be obtained are exempt from closure. We are not allowed to congregate in Public places, we cannot visit our neighbour and the most vulnerable are advised to stay at home in self isolation. Even the National Health Service is delaying routine procedures to combat the daily surge in the cases of the Corona Virus. From our Christian perspective closing all our churches is unprecedented. What do we do? A lifetime of attending the liturgical services of the Church, attending Mass on Sunday, is stopped, by order! How do we cope?
Change is never easy for some, even impossible for others, but in these unparalleled circumstances we should keep calm and have faith. In the letter to the Hebrews it tells us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God.” Faith is a response of trust and belief in what is reliable, truthful, certain and real. For example, we believe in the power of electricity even though we are unable to see it, yet we see the result of its power in boiling the water in a kettle or heating the oven so that we can have hot food. Faith in God works in the same way. He gives us the assurance and conviction that his power and presence and his glory is just as real. God never changes, he is ever true to his word and always faithful to his promises, Jesus is the visible proof that God is reliable and true.
What about Sunday’s though? In the Gospel of Luke, the Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for picking grain from the field and eating it on the Sabbath. Jesus then relates to them the example of David who was given the bread of the Presence from the house of God by the priest Ahimelech, because he had no other bread to give, and used it to feed his men and himself, and finishes by saying, “The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath.” Basically, the Pharisees were confronting Jesus about the primary intention behind the commandment to “keep the Sabbath Holy.” The Sabbath rest was meant to be a time to remember and celebrate Gods goodness through his works of creation and redemption. It was intended as a day set apart to bring everyday work to a halt and provide rest and refreshment. The disciples were criticised for picking the corn on the Sabbath, not for eating it. In defending his disciples Jesus argues that human need has precedence over ritual custom, which applies precisely for this most unusual time in history.
So, imposed change has taken away our ritual of worshiping God at Mass, but not through other ways, through prayer, meditation, Lectio Divina, reading the Sunday gospel, saying the rosary and so on. In the words of the Gospel of Matthew, “When you pray go to your private room... And your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”