On this day nine years ago I started the Camino to Santiago, an anniversary I like to remember for many reasons but especially because it is the road that led me into the lives of my three companions.
My first memory upon waking this All Saints morning is the story of a hibernating bear from long ago in childhood. The bear gathering Autumn leaves with which to cover himself and beneath this blanket he sleeps the whole winter long. The thought of this November lockdown has me saying to God, “I’d like to be a hibernating bear now!”
Not that I’m in a difficult situation, and not that I actually mind the lockdown at all but some tired part of me has cracked open. The constant drone of coronavirus has a wearing effect on us all. I simply want to lay down and sleep. Not even to have the obligation of finding meaning in what is happening. I want to be the bear in a storybook but I’m not.
The readings for All Saints return me to the centre of my life. The centre is Jesus – the Lamb upon the throne of the Apocalypse, the one surrounded by the thousands and millions of heavenly creatures who simply fall down and worship Him. The centre is to gaze upon God and, in seeing Him as He really is, to become like Him. The apostles gathered to Jesus for the Sermon on the Mount, drawing life and strength from His Word, His Beatitude. How blessed!
The centre is to seek His face as it is revealed to us in every circumstance of life, so often the face that is hidden, seeming not to exist at all, in the perplexed, puzzled depths of sorrow. To seek and find the face of Christ in the beauty of those around us, especially entering into lockdown, to find reasons for joy in beauty, reasons to be positive instead of negative, hopeful instead of hopeless.
I found the sacred face in one who is nearing her end and has been sleeping deeply, her entire body, her entire being collapsed into the bed of her dementia. That’s the first image that strikes me – that her life has collapsed. And then, at the prompting of her daughter, she awakens, lifting up her arms as if to embrace me, stretching out her hands to me. It’s like God rose up out of the hidden depths of her, came fully alive in her. I hold back my body from her embrace but her hands persist and, what can I do but let her take mine, take me in that way. Her face is alive with the full flush of her beauty, her eyes smiling, on fire with love. This is a moment of pure joy, perfect gladness. And very moving!
We haven’t met before but within herself she knows me, tells me how glad she is to see me, how good it is of me to have come. And she comments on the awful coldness of my hands, wanting to warm them with hers. Our four hands entwined, the blue-cold of mine surrendering to the warmth of hers.
We pray together, I anoint her and she is with it all the way, praying along – Our Father, Hail Mary. And she imparts her maternal blessing to me before I leave. I’ve said it many times before that there is something sacred about the blessing given by the one who is about to depart this world on the journey home to the house of God. Little did I realize that morning that I would be so favoured by lunchtime.
All this time the song of the Poor Clares from Arundel is singing within me - as I walk back home in the mist and the strong wind, with the waves crashing on the shore. The song comes from the teaching of St. Clare herself – “Gaze, Consider, Contemplate.” Gazing upon Jesus in His humility and suffering. I have gazed, considered and contemplated Him in the face of the woman I have just encountered.
The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to the love a mother has for her child; it is like a woman baking bread, Jesus tells us. Or a man for that matter! Memory recalls my Mother and Sister baking bread in different places, different times, different ways. Like many strong people my Mother thought that only her way was the right way and when she tried to teach Maura to bake brown bread, it went all wrong and ended in tears.
My Mother’s bread was exceptional, the fullness of her goodness kneaded into it. And Maura’s bread was exceptional too when she got the freedom to do it in her own time and space. I’m biased in her favour, in favour of everything she did. Her very name expresses the warmth and wholeness of freshly baked brown bread, her very essence being in it, the full richness of her love, the presence of God in her.
These thoughts came up at Mass the other morning in the Gospel reading: ‘Jesus told them still another parable: “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A woman takes some yeast and mixes it with a bushel of flour until the whole batch of dough rises.”’ (Matthew 13:33)
The Kingdom of Heaven is at home with us, in the ordinary things that we do every day; the taste of God in the food we prepare and eat; the fragrance of God. I’ve started to bake bread again, this time using a bread maker and I love the aroma of it around the house. It reminds me of God and the fragrance of the anointing of Jesus by the sinner in the Gospel.
There is a special quality to the flavour of what is given by the sinner who has turned again to experience the loving Mercy of God, the repentant sinner who remains humble. It is altogether different to the flavour of the forgiven who become proud and self-righteous.
There is a special quality too in the life that has arrived at a place of grace through tears and toil, as was the case with Maura’s bread. Grace abounded within her and from her into everyone she encountered. She only had to be herself and good things happened to others. Like when she worked as a nurse receptionist in a doctor’s surgery – it was said of her that the patients were half healed by the time they got to the doctor because of the time they spent with Maura first in reception. May it be so with us all, that the time we spend with Jesus may have a healing effect on others, that by being with us others may be the better for it.