Praying with nature and then sharing it

The story of Noah and his ark is one of the best known from the Old Testament, but few people really recognise what the story is getting at. The person who created the story wasn’t writing history, but trying to make a number of important points about us humans, and our relationship both with God, and with the natural world of animals, plants and birds. The first point is the most shocking. The most dangerous animal on our planet – the one that kills and pollutes and destroys – is us’ us humans. And, strictly speaking, if God was being fair, God would simply destroy us all and start again.

But God also knows our potential for goodness and self-sacrificial love, and that is why he carries on loving us. The way that’s expressed in the story of Noah is the bit of the story we had as our 1st Reading, (Genesis 9:8-15) where God makes a Covenant with us – in other words a promise to us – affirming his love and his mercy despite our many failings. The bow that we hear of is of course, the rainbow – a natural sign that in the midst of the rain the light will shine – that in the midst of the darkness of our troubles and our failings, God’s love is still at work.

The writer then makes another important point. For God doesn’t just make a covenant with us, but with the whole of the natural world. Listen again to what God says! “I establish my Covenant with you” – yes we expected that, but then he adds “Also with every living creature to be found with you, birds, cattle and every wild beast with you ………. everything that lives on the earth.”  This part of the promise is affirmed in rather a strange way by our Gospel today. (Mark 1:12-15) It’s easy not to notice it, but unlike the other stories of Jesus in the wilderness, Mark’s story says that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.”  So this very special time for Jesus, when he was extra close to God the Father, working out in prayer what this new and final phase of his life should be like, is one in which he is also extra close to the natural world.

We all know that Lent is meant to be a time when we all try to pray more as we prepare for Easter, that in some way we are meant in these 40 days to imitate the 40 days that Jesus spent in prayer. How lovely to discover from the Gospel today that we might do some of this prayer, not in church, nor inside our homes, but in the midst of the natural world. Dark cold February here in the UK will soon turn to brighter March, and we can already see the signs of Spring, as the first flowers open and the birds get more active and their songs grow stronger.  One of my favourite places to pray is in my Conservatory where I can see and hear all this as I look out into my garden. Or we can do the same if we go for a walk outside, and maybe as we walk we could quietly praise God for the beauty around us, or even like me sing quietly:-                                                                                                                                     “Morning has broken like the first morning                                                               Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word.”

However….. note the pause…. I have known people get muddled about this, and say that they find it so much easier to find God as they look at the sky or the birds or the trees, that they do not need to come to Mass. The answer to this is so obvious. The more we appreciate the beauty of the world God has given us, despite our tendency to mess it up, the more we need to thank God for this and for all his other mercies; and we need to do that as a family of love and peace, not just alone doing our own thing. That’s why Jesus gives us the Mass, a place, a happening, where once a week we can gather together to offer back to God all the beauty, and all the love, and all the glory he has given us. Our response is pretty feeble, given the immense beauty of the world, but God has promised that when we offer ourselves to him in this way, as we listen to his Word, and as we meet him in the Blessed Sacrament, he fills this with his presence, and his glory.

This time together may not be as outwardly beautiful as the rainbow that we can see in the sky, or the grass and the trees as they grow greener and fresher day by day, but nonetheless God has promised that he will be present for us in an even more powerful way than he is present in the world’s beauty. Jesus said “This is my Body.. this is my Blood… Do this in memory of me”, and he meant it. He meant us to bring all our prayers and thought and worries and hopes and joys from our own life, so that we can offer them all to him together, and together discover in an even more wonderful way that he is always with us – “to the end of time”.  

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Christians always have a bigger agenda

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :; Our Lenten readings begin with the Book of Genesis, (9:8-15) and the stories around Noah, a mythical figure. By this I mean, following the instruction of the Vatican to the Archbishop of Paris in 1948, we do not have to view the first eleven chapters of Genesis as historically true; but rather expressing truths about God in relation to his creation. Many of the nations inhabiting the Middle and Near East some three and a half thousand years ago had creation myths and flood stories which played an important part in their self image, along with the gods. Perhaps the significant thing for our purposes lies in the fact that, although Noah appears in the Hebrew Bible, he is not a Jew but simply a representative of one of those very ancient peoples from which they originated. In our part of the story, after the flood, we are shown that God the Creator makes a Covenant with the survivors and the rest of creation, all the animals. The writer wants his hearers to understand that they are part of a blessed creation, valued, with its part to play in God’s story of the flourishing of his world. Significantly, this is clearly hundreds of years before any of the Jewish food laws which cut Jews off from others and fragmented their ties with the animal world, by their separation of what they deemed was acceptable and what was not. Moreover, it is clear to the writer that God does not use part of his creation as a weapon to punish other parts; we are of a whole, united and made for each other.

It should not pass without comment that it is to this view of creation that St Mark appeals (1:12-15) when, immediately after his Baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted. Greco-Roman culture took a rather dim view of the countryside. Its thinkers and elite, as well as its commercial heart, was in the cities, so whilst dependent upon the land for wealth and especially the grain which sustained all city dwellers, they saw the countryside as alien and even dangerous. Indeed, their writers often lamented the dangers of journeys, as beset by thugs and murderers; and throughout their empire wild animals could be a real danger, be they wolves, leopards, elephants or the like. Not for nothing did they invent the spectacle of the venatio – the slaughter of wild animals in the arena – and some of their ancient festivals, even the one’s of Diana, involved the ritual slaughter of wild beasts. Romans liked to think they had tamed nature. Mark’s temptation of Christ is surprisingly brief, with none of the development we find in Matthew and Luke. Mark merely records the fact that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days and tempted by Satan. ‘He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.’ Neither Matthew nor Luke have so much as a bunny in sight! Clearly Mark wants to convey something quite special by this detail of the wild beasts. For this Son of God become son of man, there can only be a return to the fullness of creation in the beginning. The alienation between city and countryside, between citizen and alien, between the human and the animal world so much a feature of first century society, and especially of the Rome of Mark’s Gospel just isn’t there for Jesus. He, its eternal creator and sustainer, is one with creation. His time in the wilderness is no terror to him, nor are its untamed creatures; indeed they and the ‘angels’ seem to protect and sustain him at this time. Our Lenten observances are intended to be restorative, linking us to Christ the redeemer of the world, not just our tiny bit of it.

The writer of 1 Peter, (3:18-22) probably writing from Rome in the late first century to Christians in Northern Turkey who were undergoing persecution, writes from the viewpoint of a fallen world. He reminds them of the story of Noah and the flood which wiped out so many sinners, but whose waters preserved the faithful few. Our writer admonishes his Christian audience to the strictest conformity to society, to honouring the emperor and giving pagans no cause to persecute them, while all the time reminding them of the sufferings undergone by Jesus. The Roman Governor of the area, Pliny, writing to Trajan his Emperor at this time, pointed out that Christians were not a malign force in the state, though they had of course refused the pagan sacrifices; and he sought his Emperor’s advice on how to treat Christians. Trajan, an Emperor always alert to sources of dissent, even so far as to banning fire brigade guilds, advised execution of those Christians who held firm to their faith; but refused to accept anonymous denunciations or harsh dealings with those who had returned to paganism. Our writer comforts the faithful with the knowledge that they follow Jesus who, having undergone death, is now supreme Lord, and actually rules all the authorities and powers, seemingly so powerful at present in the world. He evokes a world finally restored, made what it was meant to be by its creator. Christians are always those who have a bigger agenda, and regardless of our present condition we need to be aware of that, and carry it with us wherever we are, no matter what our circumstances.

Healing an ugly world

People quite often ask me why did Jesus avoid telling people he was the Christ. Why does he tell the leper in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) not to tell anyone what Jesus has done for him?

The answer is actually really quite easy. There were lots of people around at that time showing off, by telling people that they were the Christ, and of course they were all fakes. Jesus knew that the true Christ would not be someone blowing his own trumpet, proclaiming himself, saying “Look at me!” Even though he allows St Peter to say “You are the Christ”, (Matt 16:16) he immediately insists that no-one is told, and then shocks all the disciples by saying that “He must suffer many things… and be killed.” (Matt 16:20-21) That was not what most people thought the Christ – the Messiah – would be like.

Jesus knows what the true Christ should be like from many passages in the Old Testament, especially from the Prophet Isaiah; and Luke records Jesus actually quoting a crucial passage from Isaiah 42. Listen and you will know what I mean! (Luke 12:18-21) “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, 
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.”

So the true Christ rather than talk about himself, will actually act to bring  God’s justice to all men and women, even those whom society has rejected or abandoned. The world Jesus lived in had very firm ideas about who or what was holy, and who or what was dirty and defiled; and was also clear that if you mixed with dirty or defiled people, if you ate with them, or even worse touched them, then you too became dirty and defiled. This included anyone who handled dirty money, like the tax-collectors, anyone who had a defiling disease, like lepers, and anyone who had died or who had touched a dead body.

I am sure you know lots of the stories where Jesus defies these rules.  He eats with tax-collectors and sinners. He puts out his hand and touches the poor widow’s dead son. And here in today’s Gospel, he does the unthinkable, for it tells us that he did not just offer to heal the leper, which one might expect of the Christ, but horror of horrors, he stretched out his hand and “touched him” – touched his ugly diseased skin.

It’s after this moment that we get a strange link with our 1st Reading. (Part of Lev 13:1-46) There we heard the rules for dealing with lepers in the world where Jesus lives. It tells us that lepers had to “live apart… live outside the camp” But we heard that word “outside” in our Gospel today, for St Luke is making the point that in doing the unthinkable, in touching the leper, Jesus changes places with him. The leper, healed by Jesus, can come inside, can become accepted by the world and return to his family and friends; whilst, so many people now want to see Jesus, want to make him a popular hero that, as it says “He had to stay outside in places where nobody lives”

In the end, as St Paul tells us, God in Jesus chooses to be “Humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross” (Phil 2:8)  Thus Jesus in his life, and in his death, reveals to us the true God, who does not look down from us on high, like some grand emperor vaguely telling us how sorry he is about our troubles, but doing nothing about them. No, our God is the God who in Jesus is with us and alongside us whatever we face. We may not always feel his presence, but he is always there, bearing our sorrows.

Sometimes people say to me. “I’m not good enough to go to Church”. My reply is always to tell them that only good people can stay away from church. The rest of us are people who need God’s help and love and forgiveness is various ways. We are the people who need to be in Church Sunday by Sunday. A newspaper once had the headline “What’s wrong with the world”. I wonder who you might blame? But the famous writer G K Chesterton wrote them an answer. What’s wrong with the world? “Dear Sirs.  I am.” There is an answer for us. Instead of blaming others, let us simply aim to be more like Jesus. How easily I shudder at all the horrible people ruining the world with violence or pollution. How easily I blame them and turn away, instead of reaching out and doing something, however small, to make things better.

Jesus reaches out to the defiled

Frances writes on the Readings for next Sunday : – We are presented in these Readings with a vivid and even ferocious contrast between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and in it we experience precisely the radical departure Christian attitudes and beliefs represented as they broke from Judaism in following Jesus. It will flag up many questions for us secure Westerners today, as we are forced to ask ourselves precisely where Jesus’ ministry would have led him had he been incarnate with us in the 21st century. These are Readings which were meant to leave people questioning and uncomfortable; I hope they do so today for us Christians.

Our Reading from Leviticus (13:1-2.44-46) is part of the Holiness Code designed to separate Jews from their pagan neighbours, and our part would appear to date from settled times in the Holy Land possibly from the time of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. It presents us with a religious society which lived by the rules. Anyone who has ever ploughed their way through this text will inevitably come away with its immense sense of the order imposed by a rigid code by which the would-be righteous were meant to live, in every aspect of their lives. But, as our text shows, that made life extremely difficult for the sick, in our case those with skin conditions. Clearly not all conditions described loosely as leprosy were actual leprosy, since it envisages people recovering – something not possible until the 20th century and the use of antibiotics. But it clearly ranged from scabies through to eczema to skin rashes gained from allergies, ulcerated tissue and on to actual leprosy. Now I hope we can begin to see the difficulties and distress this could impose on families and communities. Exclusion must have devastated families time after time, cutting off wage earners from their dependants, and rendering them destitute. Long term skin conditions could remove a beloved member for months if not permanently, not to mention the agony for the actual sufferer, forced to separate him/her self and live apart, shouting their uncleanness to the world. These conditions could decimate family life and brand whole families with the ostracism a member’s illness incurred. I guess it would have made sale of their farm produce and other items very difficult too. The Book of Leviticus stands as a monument to separatism and distinctiveness and much of it jars on modern sensitivities.

In our Gospel, (Mark 1:40-45)still right at the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus, we carry on from last week’s Reading and meet a leper. For our purposes it is best to assume he truly had leprosy and suffered all that entailed. Now we have already witnessed Jesus exercising his healing ministry under the power of the Holy Spirit away from the synagogues; and we shall shortly see the response this incurred from the law-righteous Jews, especially the scribes and Pharisees, who in a very short time were determined on his destruction.

A leper, clearly having heard of Jesus meteoric Galilean healing ministry, presents himself. Here the Greek is significantly different from the Jerusalem Bible translation, for the leper says ‘If you are willing’ or even better, ‘If you will’. For it is an act of will on Jesus’ part. His response is clear and immediate ‘I will’. Jesus is full of sympathy for the leprous man, he, and the glorious Greek word splagchnistheis – to be gut wrenched in compassion, hit at the core of his being, chooses to heal him. It’s not simply about the man’s getting better, it’s about life, the life the creator God the Son is eternally, and his will for his creation. God wills good for us, not death, destruction or its consequences.

Of course there would be consequences. Jesus has thrown down a gauntlet to an entire world of Levitical separatism and all that it meant. Granted, his will is that the healed man be reintroduced to society, so he is instructed to get his healing confirmed by the priests and offer sacrifice in thanks to God. Yet much more is actually going on. One can feel the outrage of Jesus that a system meant to glorify the one, sole God, in its land, its law and its temple, has actually become so closed that they become the ends rather than the means, thereby excluding the would be faithful, the sick and all those whose lives acted to obstruct their access to God, because the workings of the law had become so rigid. Hereafter we shall meet Jesus working away from the synagogues out in the Galilean countryside; he will challenge them unremittingly as he meets in the houses of the despised tax collectors, and reaches out to prostitutes, the dead and the defiled. Jesus becomes a scandal to Judaism, to the very system graced by God to reveal his salvific purpose to the world, and in passage after passage like this Jesus is saying to his enemies : ‘You have lost the way’, and as Mark’s Gospel, delivered to pagans in Rome makes so clear, this epic of human redemption is going elsewhere.

This surely is why St Paul writes to the Christian converts from paganism in Corinth (1 Cor 10:31-11.1) insisting that their entire model of living must be that of Christ, a model he tries unremittingly to copy. It appears that the question of eating meat that had been offered in sacrifice to pagan idols was an issue, as these converts struggled to live in two worlds, their former pagan one and their newly achieved Christian one. How they reconciled these difficulties with their obligations to their patrons, who were still pagan, with their obligations to the Christian community, without causing a scandal to either, was a real and even daily problem. Like Christ it was possible that on occasions they had very difficult, even life changing choices to make, and we need to identify those choices and those moments in our own lives too.

Always an unexpected person with whom to share God’s love

Most of us have to face nights when we cannot sleep, because of pain or worry of some kind. Like Job in our 1st Reading (Job 7:1-7) we toss and turn wondering “When will it be day?” I usually sleep well, so when it happens to me I find it very difficult, and if I discover it is about 4 in the morning and I am still awake, then I will give up trying to sleep, and get up and make myself a cup of tea and sit somewhere and put myself into the hands of God.

I wonder if this is what happened to Jesus in our Gospel today? (Mark 1:29-39) He had had a busy day praying with the sick and the suffering, and all was going well; but he knew that his task was not to be successful but to challenge the world with his Gospel message. He knew too that this would end up with his own death, just as had happened to his cousin John the Baptist. So he gets up early, and goes somewhere away from the house to pray, and that’s where the disciples find him. I wonder if his prayer was like his prayer on the night he was arrested, when he agonised about his future with God.

Some people question how Jesus can be God and yet pray to God. They fail to realise that when we Christians talk about God, although we may use language that implies that God is some kind of person in one place, we know that actually God is a power beyond our understanding who can be present in all and every place at the same time. So God can be fully in Jesus, and yet also everywhere else. That’s why, if we are true to the teaching of Jesus, we must live out the Gospel message everywhere. Our love cannot be confined just to our family and friends but must be shared as widely as possible.  

The disciples are small minded men without Jesus’ vision. They have seen his success healing people in the village, and so they want to take him back there, presumably so that they can bask in his glory. But Jesus knows that he has to move on, that he cannot just stay put in one place. So he says “Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’  Later on, the risen Jesus actually says explicitly, does he not. (Matt 28:19-20) Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

This command to go to all the nations is there throughout his teaching. Remember the story in St Luke’s Gospel (4:24-30) when we hear how he went to his home place of worship, and when they praised him he immediately challenged them with a reminder of how God worked powerfully amongst foreigners way back in the time of Elijah and Elisha. They were so offended by this reminder that they then tried to kill him!

It’s always easier for us to speak to people we know, or people from a similar background to us, rather than to strangers ; but as Christians that is what we are supposed to do. As Christians, we must never limit ourselves just to places and people we feel comfortable with. St Paul in our 2nd Reading today (1 Cor 9:16-23) actually says that he only receives the blessings of the Gospel by sharing it. If we keep our faith to ourselves, if we share our love and care only with those we know, then we have failed to follow Jesus; for he told us, as you know, to love our enemies, even those who persecute and hate us. (Matt 5:43-44)

We do not have to travel to foreign countries to do this, but if that is God’s calling then that is what we must do. One of the Catholic Churches in Oxford is run by two Nigerian priests who have felt the call to come and re-convert those who live in England, where so many people are slipping away from the faith. But even in the place where we live, we can find plenty of people we might not think of as people to share the Gospel with. Let me give you an example from the Immigration Detention Centre where I say a Sunday Mass on a Monday. Here I might well encourage the men to think of the Officers, the Staff, as people they otherwise might easily forget. As officials we might well forget that they too are human beings,  children of God, and they too may well be struggling with some problem. A kind word and an offer to pray for them may be just what they need.

Remember Zacchaeus the hated tax-collector up the tree? Only Jesus looked up and did not just see him, but called him down and thus changed his life. Whatever our situation we must never neglect the stranger who might be right under our noses, because that is what Jesus wants us to do

Living with whatever the future brings

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-

Those of us who live under a regime of continual chronic pain will probably wholeheartedly sympathise with Job, (7:1-4.6-7) for there do seem to be times when our lives appear to be one’s of constant drudgery, and we despair of things getting better, or of our regaining what we perceive as the lost control we once had over our lives. Job’s tale is of course a late Old Testament writer’s attempt to cope with the problem of evil; and in the end Job’s fortitude does win through and of course Satan loses his bet with God, made in his conviction that our sufferer would curse his creator. Now I trust by now that none of us hold such a dualistic view of God. God the creator and sustainer of the cosmos does not share his power with Satan or make deals with him; but it is possible that we all have to learn the hard lesson that we do not have unlimited freedom over our bodies or lives and that we all live under various constraints that being bodily impose upon us. Of course, how we live with our limited abilities and disabilities depends on us. We can go down into the dark cursing, or try to live with them creatively and positively. I think of ex army amputees who have, through great stress and much help, learned to live very different lives from the macho existences they once enjoyed. There are many others. It is how one learns to cope with the difficulties and choices life thrusts upon us that will be significant.

Paul could of course have picked himself up after his Damascus Road experience and gone on into the city to persecute Christians. How very different our understanding of the Christ event would have been. Instead, it was a life changing moment as we know. Something about that incident opened up new opportunities for Paul, which he embraced. Here, in 1 Corinthians (9:16-19.22-23) he shares with his fellow Christians  the implications of that moment when, meeting the risen Lord, he, a powerful and educated Jew destined for great things and much acclaim, was invited and empowered by God to take a very different path. It was one which would alienate him from his fellow Jews who represented the law righteous Judaism which had killed Jesus. It led him on a path whereby he lived a much more dangerous, hand to mouth existence, preaching the Gospel to Jews, and increasingly to pagans.

Here, writing to the Corinthian Christians, a group still clearly immersed in the commercialism of their city and concerned with status and the rights of preachers, he explains why he does not charge for his preaching and ministry, nor does he insist on any of the ‘rights’ which other preachers accepted. Paul then pushes things even further, claiming that he understands himself as God’s slave, bound, even chained for the Gospel. This is something his experience of Christ has imposed upon him. So altered is his life now – just as that of any slave, captured in war or sold into slavery through dire poverty – that he believes he has no rights himself, just like other slaves. Paul was of course a Roman citizen, born free, and as we know enormously proud of this status. Yet in relation to the gift-grace which God granted him, he is now completely in the thrall of his patron, God. The point he is making is that were he to start charging he would lose that conviction that this was God’s way for him and no other. I suspect that Christians in Corinth, used to the ways of other ministers, were decidedly upset by Paul’s approach to his mission. But he never suggests that others serving the Church live in this precarious manner, it was something for him and him alone, and it fitted with his itinerant ministry unlike that of those who stayed at home and worked there over the years. Here then we meet someone whose life was totally turned inside out by God, and who responded to it with vision and a wholehearted zeal – the enthusiasm of the wholly convicted who never turned back to his former life and who responded to its joys and difficulties equally.

In our Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) we meet Jesus early in his ministry. He had recently been baptised by John, an event which led to his reception of the Holy Spirit which thrust him into a series of temptations, after which he begins his own ministry, somehow connected to the call of John the Baptist and the arrest of the latter. Jesus himself proclaims the coming of the kingdom of God, and as a vivid sign of this begins to heal people. Initially he worked in the synagogues on the Sabbath, but this attracted the attention of hostile Jews and in our Reading we find him moving out among the needy themselves, first Peter’s mother in law and then covering the towns and villages of Galilee. Mark, writing for Roman Christians, immediately presents us with a picture of Jesus, the angry young man of Galilee, who is increasingly estranged from mainstream Judaism and one therefore acceptable to Romans in the years after the failed Jewish Revolt.

The fact that Jesus demonstrated his power of healing both of conventional illnesses and by his control over the demonic, would have made an immense impression on pagan and Jew alike. In a time with little understanding of the working of disease, and almost no cures or control of them, Jesus’ power and even the record of them would have proved enormously attractive. People died like flies in the ancient world, from things easily curable today, and of course they had no knowledge of hygiene and the transmission of infections which frequently raged through cities. Early on, in places like Antioch, Christians got a reputation as ‘healers’, and adverts for Christianity, quite simply because they remained to clean and offer water to sufferers of dysentery and cholera, when conventional wisdom advised they be abandoned. Christians were not aware of the hygiene implications, rather it was care and solidarity which imposed this requirement upon them. Clearly Jesus’ power over the mentally ill was very impressive, since such illnesses would have been truly terrifying to people, and cut sufferers off from family and community. In our account from Mark, he makes it clear that Jesus was all too aware of the dangers of personal acclaim and the possibility groups would set him up as king or ruler in some form, for he will not stay put, or gain adulation, but rather moves on all the time. Jesus then ‘gives life’ to sufferers, opening up new possibilities and potential for them, it’s how we deal with the situations we find ourselves in that matters, for good or ill.

Homily on the many different ways to pray

When St Paul talks about the advantages of being unmarried in our 2nd Reading today, (1 Cor 7:32-35) it’s easy to misunderstand him. It follows on from last week, when we heard him tell us not to be “engrossed” in the world. (7:31) Some people have taken this to mean that the only really good Christians are those who choose a single celibate life and spend all their time deep in meditation and prayer, and that the rest of us are somehow 2nd Class Christians! There are two answers to this nonsense. The first is that being unmarried does not stop you from having to do & to think about everyday practical things; & the second is that a few lines earlier St Paul has praised marriage as a holy thing in which an unbelieving spouse can be made holy by their believing partner.

This means that although the Church has always honoured those who choose to be unmarried, to offer their single life in a special way in the service of God, as monks and nuns do; it thinks of marriage as a different but equally valid holy calling. Both have a place, provided both are used to glorify God. In the world of today where there is an idea around that unmarried people are somehow a bit odd, we Christians want to get the balance right. What matters is how we use the particular life that we find ourselves living, not our particular lifestyle.

Part of the problem is that we Christians use the word “world” in two different ways. On the one hand, we talk about the world as a beautiful place that reveals the glory of God, and on the other we use the word to talk about all the things that take us away from God, about being worldly. In the first sense we ought to be engrossed in the world, to delight in how its beauty reveals God to us; but if we allow worldly things – our job, our clothes, our favourite sport, our internet connections etc, to take over our life so that we become engrossed in them, then we have definitely gone wrong.

People have often said to me how difficult it is to pray, because all sorts of thoughts come into their head to distract them and stop them thinking about God. I always suggest that instead of getting worried and trying to shut those thoughts out, what we should be doing is taking these thoughts and sharing them with God, as we pray. The most extreme example of this is faced by those who are parents or carers of little children. They would like to be able to come to Church and pray the way they used to, but instead they have to spend all their time trying to control their little ones, and gradually as they get old enough teach them to pray. I always tell such people to remember that it is the bringing of their child to church, to Mass, that is their offering to God. It is their quiet and persistent example to the child that is what matters; that their exhausting care for their child IS the way, at this moment in life, that they are giving their undivided attention to God.

The unmarried, and those married people whose children have now left home, can of course spend time thinking about the Readings and the Homily from the priest and the Prayers and what they all mean in a much more concentrated way. Their prayer will feel much more like the way we tend to think prayer ought to be ; and for them that’s right, but it is not the only way to pray, not the only way in which we can offer ourselves to God when we pray.

I remember once a young man who had the mental age of a child of 5. He couldn’t fully understand the prayers offered in Church, but that didn’t make him any less a child of God. He came to Church with a smiling face and simply enjoyed it, even though sometimes he would call out inappropriate things at the wrong time, just like little children do. I know too of people who go to Church in a country that is not their own, and where they cannot understand the language used. Some people say to me that they don’t see the point of going if they don’t understand anything. My answer is that it is the going that matters. It is the offering of oneself to God together with one’s fellow Christians that matters.

Why were the people in the Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28) impressed by the teaching of Jesus? Because it was not like the scribes. The scribes knew their Bible and taught by quoting this passage & that passage in a learned way, but Jesus (though he knew the Bible as well as they did) was recognised as someone who taught them from his heart, & it was because his heart was one with God, that they recognised that here was someone different. May our hearts be more like the heart of Jesus, whatever kind of life we lead.