Monday, October 12, 2009

Trinity 18 - Fr Damian Feeney

Given by Fr Damian Feeney, Vice-Principal of St Stephen's House, on Trinity 18 - Sunday 11th October 2009.

This has been a week when the recurring refrain for a new Vice-Principal has been ‘Well, I won’t make that mistake next year’. The list is long enough to be embarrassing, so I won’t give you the catalogue – suffice it to say that next year I will try very hard not to be preaching at the end of a preaching studies course which I have led.

The air has been full of veneration this week. The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have rested sufficiently long in Oxford for thousands to have venerated her at the Oratory. After Gerrards Cross there are two further stops before a final spell at Westminster Cathedral. Prior to Oxford, there were similar events at sixteen other venues. Those who feel that this is something of a whirlwind itinerary for the ‘Little Flower’ need not worry – she has already made similar trips to Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, the United States, Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Lebanon and Iraq. As one member of our College Council once observed of the Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, she ‘likes a trip out’.

On Wednesday evening, when so many were queuing in Oxford to see Thérèse, veneration of a rather different kind was taking place on Television, as 5.5 million people tuned in to see the ‘Pride of Britain’ awards. People from all sorts of walks of life were honoured, from the man who left school at 15 with no qualifications, but who went on to invent the MRI scanner (Sir Peter Mansfield - how many lives has that saved?) to 12 year old Jake Peach who had survived the most harrowing leukaemia treatment and now spent all his spare time fundraising for Great Ormond Street Hospital (£600,000, at the last count). In between there was Royal Marine Sergeant Noel Connolly, who threw himself at a suicide bomber on a motorbike, saving 30 lives in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan and Jasvinder Sanghera who, motivated by the suicide of her sister who had been forced into an arranged marriage, has devoted her life to supporting those who, like her, have rejected a similar path for themselves. Each of these singular people had their moment of fame – perhaps the most amusing being Chris Saunders, the ex-heroin addict turned Rehab Centre Manager who was on record as wanting to thank the judge who had sent him down, because it was during that sentence that he got his life together. Well, the re-union happened – in some ways a bizarre moment, but in others part of a powerful story of re-building and repentance.

Aside from being a hopeless romantic and therefore a sucker for this kind of thing, I believe that such moments can and do lift the spirits. First of all, these people are not isolated, because the truth is, there are many people like this – good people, living good lives in ordinary places, lifting the vision of communities and providing opportunities for others. Doubtless the people who appeared on Television are the tip of the iceberg. There are many, but we don’t hear about them so much. Secondly, these stories provide inspiration for others, who discover that there is more than one way to react to adversity, setback, or hardship. That way might be described as ‘heroic virtue’ – the phrase coined by Augustine of Hippo to describe the early Christian martyrs, and used by Benedict XV in describing St Thérèse in 1921. Thérèse herself was no stranger to suffering and hardship, of course: a troubled, bullied childhood, the constant pain of family bereavement, tuberculosis, an earthly life of only twenty-four years. When I think of Thérèse I’m reminded of Kristin Hallenga, aged twenty-three on Wednesday night whose breast cancer diagnosis has come hopelessly late, and whose response to this shattering blow is to organise an initiative, amusingly called ‘Cop a Feel’ which encourages women to self-examine for early signs of breast cancer. It is a very far cry from the first instinct, that of shock, tears and self-centred lamentation.

Such stories reflect the Christian narrative, which accepts suffering but does not accede to it, using it rather as a fulcrum with which the world might be moved. Surely this, too, is heroic virtue, even if in our minds we create a distinction between a Canonized Saint and Doctor like Thérèse and the award winners from Wednesday. Being prime-time television, we weren’t party to any insights about whatever religious beliefs the winners may or may not have held (although I noticed Jasvinder Sanghera wearing a cross) but that doesn’t lessen my desire to label the stories which we heard Works of the Kingdom.

Having acknowledged his need for obedience to the Commandments as a starting point, the sticking point for the young man in this morning’s gospel comes when he is challenged by Jesus to re-define himself – no longer a self-sufficient man of means but someone whose living must be dependent upon God. Jesus’ call to the young man to sell up and give the money away is far more than a rejection of worldly prosperity. It is an invitation to take his place among the truly poor, to take account of his need of others, and their need of his – a need to live as one of a community. . His challenge is ours – the challenge to see through the affluent, sophisticated context in which we find ourselves, and recall, in humility, our dependence upon God and one another. It is the challenge which Thérèse faced, and the challenge which all who seek after truth face. Having so venerated the relics of an astounding saint, we should use this moment as a spur – to recognise again the good news that every community contains seekers after truth, those whose circumstances throw up reactions of heroic virtue, and to act as those who encourage such good news stories and enable them to see the light of day. Such stories, whether from a canonized saint or from closer to home, lift our eyes to see the possibilities of community life lived to the full, (not least in our own community here) and inspire a positive re-appraisal of our own potential under God. If we have venerated heroic virtue this week, let us be people who seek it, promote it, and live it.