THE BLESSED SACRAMENT AND THE INCARNATION OF DIVINE COMPASSION

After all the celebrations during the Christmas Octave I’m aware of having come to a period of peace when it’s possible to find time to listen more deeply to the Incarnation. The eye of the body has beheld Jesus within our Cribs and now the eye of the heart can begin to see the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us.

One of the books I’m reading at present is ‘The Drawing of This Love’ by Robert Fruewirth in which he explores aspects of the way Julian of Norwich realised how the compassion of God permeates Divine Love. In one chapter he quotes Julian saying: ‘Here I saw a great affinity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain, we were in pain.  And all creatures capable of suffering pain suffered with him … So was our Lord Jesus Christ set at nought for us, and we all remain in this way as if set at naught with him, and shall do until we come to his bliss…’ (Ch.18)  This led me to consider the way we can always be present to His compassion when we come before Him in the Blessed Sacrament. I find there is something truly wonderful about being present to Him as He is present to us when the Sacrament is exposed on the altar and long for this practice – of placing the Host contained in a monstrance on an altar where anyone can sit or kneel in prayer – to be more and more common. Here we can talk with Him or just rest with Him and know that He is fully present to all who come to Him. And then we can take Him with us in the tabernacle of our own heart for, as St Francis of Assisi wrote in his Rule of 1221: ‘We should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where He can stay, He who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

Dame Julian echoes this theme when she later writes: ‘The with a glad expression our Lord looked into his side and gazed, rejoicing and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side within. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest there in peace and in love.’ (Ch.24)  As I read that I saw that ‘place’ as His Sacred Heart, a Heart large enough to contain all of us, enlarged by Compassion. This is the Sacrament of Love upon which we are invited to gaze, as Julian gazed on what was revealed to her. I find it a wonderful thing that we who have been made part of His Body can gaze on that Body which is lit up with Love – I see it as one might look on a building flooded with light both inside and out, throbbing with all the colours there are against the darkness that surround it – a darkness of both sin and a lack of recognition. This is what we are to realise as we gaze on His Incarnate Body shown to us in the monstrance.

So I love the idea of creating that inner-monstrance which is to be the dwelling-place for Jesus because I can then adore Him whenever I visit that place. I know few churches can offer perpetual adoration but He can always be with me and I can always adore Him whenever I choose to make this visit to my heart. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Anglican churches were able to offer this facility? Perhaps well-staffed cathedrals might offer this facility – I believe Southwark Cathedral contains the Tabernacle House from the Convent of the sisters of the Community of Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament which was founded in 1869 and ended with the death of the last sister in the early years of this century. Sadly I never visited this community and would love to find a way of continuing their charism. It’s exquisitely beautiful to come to Jesus in this way and be able to just rest with Him – ‘be there’ with Him who is in all places and fills all things yet who left us this way to realise His presence. It’s a presence that doesn’t require any words and the only effort is to focus attention on Him and Him alone. To be able to do this in places like Westminster Cathedral and Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place is a joy and I am grateful to those who make this possible.

So I wonder, might it be possible for individual churches to offer Jesus to us in this way – maybe just for an hour or so at a time? I did this when I was a parish priest and although few came it was such a blessing for me to be able to place Christ there on the altar and spend an hour in His presence. Could we not begin to develop a list – a rota, maybe – of times and places where this happened and encourage people to come to Jesus in this way? What a wonderful appeal to renew and refresh the spiritual life this would offer.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

How did the name of this Association come about is a question that has been asked.  Doesn’t it “smack of high church-ness or even Roman-ness”?  So why choose it?

THE SACRED, COMPASSIONATE, HEART OF JESUS
For many years I had been attracted by the Sacred Heart of Jesus, finding in that image a real sense of God’s passionate love for all people.   Shortly after my Confirmation, in 1967, I bought a small, porcelain statue of the Sacred Heart which remained with me for many years until joining the Franciscans.  I’ve never understood why such a passionate and inherently positive, emotive image has not found a home in the Church of England.   I know I’m not alone in feeling that we’ve lost a great opportunity for evangelism by ignoring the Sacred Heart, as others have pointed out.

FRANCISCANS AND DIVINE COMPASSION
But there was a time when the Sacred Heart inspired some Anglicans.  The first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion, which is just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart (Society of the Divine Compassion: 1897 – 1952).  It was founded at a time when devotion to the Sacred Heart was becoming more popular (the Basilica of Sacre Couer was built from 1875-1914). One of the founding members, Fr. Andrew SDC, had a particular devotion to the Heart of Jesus as shown in this poem he wrote:

To rest a tired head upon Thy Heart,
And to be still –
To come to Thee from the whole world apart
And learn Thy Will –
And in that will, because it is Thy will, to live and die,
Knowing Thy love and will are one eternally.
that be my way of prayer –
That brings me where Thou art –
Heaven is there.

Another priest at that time who also wrote poems and meditations on the Sacred Heart was Fr. Arthur Shearly Cripps, the ‘St. Francis of the African Countryside’.  He was connected with SDC and spent most of his life in Zimbabwe where his grave is now a Shrine.   Although SDC ceased to exist in 1952 (the year of Fr. Cripp’s death) when it’s members became part of the Society of St. Francis the dedication of the local parish in Plaistow where it was based is now ‘of the Divine Compassion’, a dedication shared by one of the Provinces of the Society.

Whilst I am no longer a member of the Society, nonetheless its charism remains dear to me and using this designation connects us to the Franciscans.  In 1994, Br. Damian SSF wrote this in his introduction to my First Mass, which was a Votive of the Divine Compassion: ‘Franciscans have been around in the Anglican Communion for a full century.  We may be proud in Birmingham that we can trace those origins to St. Saviour’s, Saltley and to its prophetic priest, Fr. James Adderley, a pioneer of the Christian Socialist Movement.  He went on to found the Society of the Divine Compassion in January 1894 in the Parish of Ss. Philip and James, Plaistow.  …  Divine Compassion, the theme of Brother John-Francis’ Mass, strikes at the very heart of the Good News.  … We sense that God is worshipful and, indeed, we are sanctified by his presence and his touch as we dwell in him.  But what Jesus has shown of the Divine nature is true of the numinous Being of the Father: he is above all compassionate, deeply caring, gentle as a Mother, and ready to heal, restore, forgive.  As he comes again to dwell in us we receive that sacramental grace that is given for our wholeness.  We are gathered today as brothers and sisters within the Body of Christ to give thanks for the Divine Compassion and to receive Christ’s healing and grace at the hands of the latest Franciscan brother to be ordained priest in the Church of God.’

THE COMPASSIONATE HEART OF MARY
In a similar way I have long held a deep devotion to our Lady and regret, as do many, the lack of devotion to her in our Church, in spite of the fact that there are at least six Marian feasts recognised in Common Worship.  Most Anglican churches have a ‘Lady Chapel’ and she holds a particular place in the life of the Mother’s Union.  Her role is central to orthodox Christian theology and, as Theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’, she is the ‘defender of the Incarnation’ setting us apart from every other religion.

She was the subject of one of the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s (ARCIC) Joint Statements (‘Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ’; 2008) contained this statement in its final chapter: ‘Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike are drawn to the mother of Christ, as a figure of tenderness and compassion.’ (D.para.71)   During my time as a parish priest I became aware of how it was to the shrine of our Lady that many went when entering the church in order to light a candle – something that has been commented upon by other priests.  Whatever theology we might embrace concerning her it seems she offers a maternal image which draws many people.  Whilst we might speak of God as both Father and Mother it is the image of Mary that gives expression to ‘tenderness and compassion’ for many.

And it is Mary who embraced me, as she continues to do, for six months during my novitiate in SSF.  The life of another member of the SDC, the solitary Fr. William, continues to help form Franciscans at the house he founded in Worcestershire, the ‘Monastery of St. Mary at the Cross’.   And all those who make the journey to this holy place are greeted by the words: There stood by the Cross of Jesus His Mother , words which speak out over the surrounding fields which Fr. William had painted at the centre of the complex.  And it was on the Feast of St. Mary at the Cross which, in the Roman Catholic Church, is known as the Feast of our Lady of Sorrows (September 15th) that I was admitted as a Postulant of the Society in 1976.  That Feast is closely connected with that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the devotional name which reminds us of ‘her joys and sorrows, her virtues and hidden perfections, and, above all, her love for God, her maternal love for her Divine Son, and her motherly and compassionate love for her children here below.’  (New Advent)

It would, of course, have been possible to omit reference to her in the title, but including her meant that members embrace the totality of human compassion.  Including reference to Mary makes clear that the Society seeks to place itself within the great Tradition of Christian Faith, a Faith which the Theotokos, the God-bearer, guards.  It also acknowledges the important place of Mary – and Jesus – in Islam.

SIMPLY ‘COMPASSIONATE HEARTS’?
There already exist other groups whose charism involves compassion.  Amongst these are: ‘Compassionate Hearts’ (the name of various organisations in the UK and USA); the ‘Compassionate Hearts Ministry’; The ‘Society of Jesus Compassionate’;’ Missionaries of the Compassionate Heart of Jesus’, ‘Compassionate Companions’;  the ‘Compassionate Heart of Jesus’, etc …   But none which unite the compassion of Jesus and Mary – the Son and His Mother.  The male and the female.

INCLUSIVE?
The website of our online Society makes it clear that members recognise that Divine Compassion is realised by all the great world religions.  In seeking to be as inclusive as possible it would have been strange to omit reference to the way that Christians have long realised this charism in the lives of Jesus and His Mother.  It is a pity if, in seeking to be inclusive of other religions, we excluded those great traditions of our own.  Personally I have always realised there is an anti-Catholic (Roman or Anglo) strand buried deep in the heart of some Anglicans – something both sad and to be resisted.

CONCLUSION
Two years ago a young evangelical, one of those I was helping train to be a spiritual director, said that he saw the Sacred Heart becoming central in my life and ministry.  He knew nothing of my story and  I often wondered what his observation might mean.  At the same time I had been reading The Personal Vocation by the Jesuit, Herbert Alfonso.  In it he explores how God calls each of us is called by name: ‘I am not one in a crowd for God’, he writes, ‘I am unrepeatably unique, for God “calls me by name”.  This reality I may characterise as … my most profound and true “self”.  Biblically, however, I prefer to call is my “personal vocation”’  And I began to sense that my ‘personal vocation’ lies within the call to Divine Compassion.  And I also sensed a connection when I noticed I was writing a lot about the need for compassion in our world.

After a while, and with prayer, I began to realise the connection between that love for the Sacred Heart and a deep desire to find a way of encouraging others to consider nurturing this virtue.  The ‘Rule’ of CCHJM, using aspects of Ignatian and Benedictine practices, seems to offer a simple structure in which to nurture compassion.  The reference to the Sacrament of Confession reminds us of the importance of what St. Benedict called the need for conversatio morum – ‘conversion of life’.  Realising the way in which the Church of England is encouraging ‘Fresh Expressions’ in the ministry of the Church, this new initiative, founded in February 2017, might be of help in ‘growing Christians’.   That is my prayer.

John-Francis Friendship
March 12th, 2017