Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


We are extremely grateful to The Revd Dr Michael Cullinan for the following Meditation, which was delivered during the Lenten Evening of Recollection at St James's Spanish Place on Wednesday 15th March 2017.

The Flagellation of Christ by Caravaggio
I’m not really very used to this sort of thing, you know. I feel a bit like a sprinter suddenly called upon to do a much longer distance. I’m used to giving short, British-length Mass homilies. Particularly here at Spanish Place, where my Mass is squeezed tightly between two others and so there isn’t any time to waste. But you have very kindly invited me – again – to say a few words to you in Lent. And for somewhat longer than a hurried Sunday homily.

Last year I said something about coming to God as the Prodigal Son did, and staying with God through daily quiet prayer. But what to say this year? I’m not one of those great guides who have a larder well-stocked with spiritual conferences. And I didn’t want to be either hackneyed, or, indeed, typecast as the tough priest got in every Lent to give them what for.

So I turned to the Mass of today. And its readings. But of course there are two sets. The older and the newer forms. As it turns out the gospel is the same. It’s the story of the apostles going up to Jerusalem, when Our Lord predicts his passion and death, and immediately afterwards, the mother of James and John rushes onto the scene and, like a good Jewish mother, tries to get her sons the best posts in the new government that she thinks Our Lord is going to head.

So today I thought we might spend some time looking at our own Lenten journey up to the Jerusalem of Holy Week and Easter and see how we are getting on.

But the Epistle comes first. In the newer form it’s quite safe. A piece from Jeremiah about digging a pit for the prophet. Familiar from Passiontide. Very appropriate. And very safe.

The Epistle in the older form isn’t safe at all. Particularly now.

It’s from the Book of Esther. Part of the prayer of Mardochai to avert the destruction of his nation.

In those days Mardochai besought the Lord, remembering all his works, [9] And said: O Lord, Lord, almighty king, for all things are in thy power, and there is none that can resist thy will, if thou determine to save Israel. [10] Thou hast made heaven and earth, and all things that are under the cope of heaven. [11] Thou art Lord of all, and there is none that can resist thy majesty. … And now, O Lord, O king, O God of Abraham, have mercy on thy people, because our enemies resolve to destroy us, and extinguish thy inheritance.[16] Despise not thy portion, which thou hast redeemed for thyself out of Egypt. [17] Hear my supplication, and be merciful to thy lot and inheritance, and turn our mourning into joy, that we may live and praise thy name, O Lord, and shut not the mouths of them that sing to thee.

Last Sunday was Purim. The annual feast when Israel celebrates its deliverance from destruction. When they read the Book of Esther in the synagogue, much less sedately than usual. They bring gongs and boo the evil Haman. And then they party.

It all seems a long way from our Lent. Especially now. When we may be thinking keenly about the future of the world’s only non-territorial nation. Your Sovereign Order.

I won’t say anything more about that. I say it now so that we can, perhaps, be honest before God about where we actually are. So that planning our coming journey may go better.

So why is that Epistle there today? Since at least the sixth century, today’s Mass was celebrated at the Church of St Cecilia in Trastevere. Does it have anything to do with her? Was Mardochai’s prayer confused with that of Esther, who interceded with the king to save her people? Did people think of St Cecilia who saved her pagan husband and brother-in-law by bringing them to baptism? The books aren’t sure.

How’s your Lent going? Two weeks in now. More than four to go. Has the initial enthusiasm worn off? Are the resolutions teetering, crumbling, or entirely in ruins by now? Do you feel like praying for salvation, and that the mourning of Lent – and the deeper mourning of Lenten failure – may be turned into the joy of Easter?

I think that’s why the Epistle was put in today. In ancient times when Lent was indeed a terrible time. A time of hard endurance. For catechumens. For public penitents. And for the rest of us.

So I think we’re wise to begin with that Epistle. To recognize our need to pray for God’s mercy. If our Lent is to be saved from destruction.

Just as we must recognize our need to pray for God’s mercy if we ourselves are finally to be saved from destruction.

At the end of our earthly journey to Jerusalem. Our journey with Christ. Which we act out each Lent. Like the characters in today’s gospel. I’ll read it to you now.

[17] In those days, Jesus going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples apart, and said to them: [18] Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death. [19] And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked, and scourged, and crucified, and the third day he shall rise again. [20] Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him.

[21] Who said to her: What wilt thou? She saith to him: Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom. [22] And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can. [23] He saith to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand, is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father. [24] And the ten hearing it, were moved with indignation against the two brethren. [25] But Jesus called them to him, and said: You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that are the greater, exercise power upon them.

[26] It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister: [27] And he that will be first among you, shall be your servant. [28] Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many.

It would almost be comic if it weren’t so serious. Right after Our Lord’s warning. In she comes. Completely misunderstanding the position. Getting it totally wrong. It would be bad enough, we think, if the sons had had the guts to ask Our Lord themselves. But no, their mother has to put in the word for them. And when they’re asked the terrible questions, the questions about being willing to endure suffering and death, they cheerfully, unthinkingly, reply ‘Yes!’ They want the big jobs whatever. No wonder the others are disgusted. Allowing Our Lord then to engage in a little of what the spiritual masters call ‘rectification of intention’. To be great is to serve. To give. To give everything.

Which brings us smartly back to our own Lents. To the condition of our hearts and our resolutions in this part of our Lent. As we act out our journey to Jerusalem. Not only this Lent but in the rest of our lives.

What I’d like to do, as we mull over this gospel in our hindbrains, as it were, is to suggest a few ideas for the renovation or even rebuilding of our hearts and resolutions. So we can at least shore them up and keep going.

We’ve already had the first lesson from the Epistle. The most important lesson of all. Everything depends on God. Not on us. On God’s mercy and God’s plan. God’s plan, not ours. We can’t go forward on our own. And we can’t lead. We have to follow.

The second lesson comes from the Gospel. But it’s not the most obvious one. Notice, as you always should, what’s not there as well as what is there.

You’d expect Our Lord to give that mother, and certainly those wretched sons, a bit of a rocket. But he doesn’t. You’d expect him to be indignant at their ambition and presumption. But he isn’t. He merely makes very clear to them what their ambition will really mean. And it isn’t the same for each of them. They both become great apostles. Despite running away at Gethsemane. One dies a martyr’s death. The other lives to be an old man, caring for Our Lady.

So the second lesson is that it isn’t wrong to be spiritually ambitious. Provided you are clear what it will mean. And leave everything in God’s hands.

I say this because I know that most of us aren’t carried away with great spiritual ambition – thank God it isn’t a very Catholic vice – and most of us will be very happy to get to Jerusalem at all, somewhere back in the crowd rather than in the van.

But we can be selfish even in this. We can so rule out any likelihood of our own future sanctity that we actually thwart God’s will for us. We can do this out of an excess of humility. Or out of damp, gloomy, English negativity. Or out of an excess of cowardly playing safe. Not a very knightly thing to do, actually. Perhaps we negative English could do with a pinch of Spanish bravado, a glimpse or two of the life of St Ignatius to encourage our pace this Lent.

And now to the renovating and rebuilding. If your Lent is going well, if your resolutions are shimmeringly intact, you may be best to leave well alone. Carry on with the journey plan, straight to the Holy City.

If not, things may be worth a little inspection and attention. So I’m going to throw out a few ideas. They’re not for everyone because we’re all different. And we all have different vocations. Even within priesthood. Even within the Order. What others do may not be best for us. And what we want to do may not be best for us.

But if urgent repairs look necessary, here are a few thoughts. A few draft blueprints. Take them or leave them.

The first question is whether we should try to do the same thing throughout this Lent. Or plan a different thing each week or fortnight. As I said, if your resolutions remain firm, it’s probably best to keep to them, and not to ruin the edifice by redesigning the building half way through its construction. But if the first construction has already fallen down, or become unsafe, then why not plan a different one for the rest of Lent.

There are three grand designs for Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. They’re all suitable for everyone, and they’re all particularly suitable for knights.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We need to concentrate on the one we really most need, which may be different from the one we think we need or want. I’ll say just a little about each.

I mentioned prayer last year. Not only Mass and Divine Office but quiet private prayer. Silent prayer. Meditation. We all know we need it. Like exercise. We’re all rather afraid of it. Like exercise, at least if you’re not the sporty type. We all claim we haven’t time for it. Not even for ten minutes a day. We often delude ourselves that if we can’t do the recommended amount, less won’t do us any good. So we might think of a way to do a little more. To have the courage to face our Maker a little more. Even if we have to do it in the train or in the office.

Then there’s fasting. We Latin Catholics don’t do much of that anymore. Not like the Muslims in Ramadan. And certainly not like the Eastern Christians. Imagine a vegan Lent. They’re only supposed to have one meal a day in the evening. Wine is allowed on Sunday. Oil isn’t allowed at all. But they’re only allowed to fast with the consent of their Spiritual Father. So it has to be supervised and controlled.

The reason the spiritual masters give for fasting and abstinence is to raise our mind and heart more to God. To reveal our dependence on food and to give us more respect for it. I think many medics would see value in avoiding meat and fat for a time. It’s ironic, I always think, that as soon as the Western Church abandoned abstinence, along came the veggies and the vegans.

Another motivation for eating less in Lent is to witness to our faith. Imagine trying to explain our current Lenten practices to a Muslim or an Orthodox without embarrassment. It was Eamon Duffy, I think, who said, ‘This is the first generation of Catholics since the apostles that doesn’t fast.’ Not something to be very proud of, I don’t think.

So you might think of doing something here. A knight should be able to survive on field rations when he’s on active service.

Personally I admire our Eastern brethren very much in what they take on. But that doesn’t mean I should necessarily imitate them, unless that’s what Almighty God wants me to do. And a danger with too rigorous a Lenten fast is that it can distract us very conveniently from the third thing. The third design.

Almsgiving. Prayer and fasting can be very self-centred. The first thing to say about almsgiving is that it isn’t. It redirects us to seeing God in other people. To looking outwards as well as in.

The second thing to say is that it isn’t primarily about money. It’s about giving what we have to other people. And our time, our attention, our love, and our service, may be far more valuable – and far harder to sacrifice – than our money.

Whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister: [27] And he that will be first among you, shall be your servant

One of the most appalling mistakes of our busy consumerist world is to give people money instead of time and love. How many relationships have been destroyed by over-working in order to give the loved one things rather than ourselves.

So whatever our Lenten plan, we need to inspect the fabric of our relationships and attend to their repair and improvement. Particularly if we have families. But we all have friends, and we all have what one lady I know calls ‘our own personal parish’, to give us mending and repairing enough, if we but look out for it.

The last thing I’ll say on almsgiving is about money. It would be so very convenient to allow the priority of the more important gifts we have to give to allow us to turn away completely from looking at our attitudes to the things we possess.

When I was learning about marriage and relationships in a counselling course, we were told that one of the things that can damage a couple is unacknowledged differences in basic attitudes to money. And that psychologists believe that such attitudes can be formed very early in our lives and so be very deeply buried within our psyches.

So I really can’t accept the argument that money is quite unimportant as we take stock of our lives and where we are going this Lent.

Most of us will give something this Lent, perhaps hurriedly in Holy Week as the deadline for our Lenten alms approaches.

Monks and religious can talk more easily about poverty. Married people can’t possibly cultivate the same attitude to money and possessions. So here again we have to ask what God wants of us in our own vocation.

Most of us would say that we cannot follow the detachment from goods of a monk. Although if you read the warnings of one Cistercian spiritual writer you might be surprised just how comfortable some monks can actually be, at least compared to the urban poor.

Religious are supposed to be poor. Secular priests are actually supposed, if you read the Church documents, to have enough money to be able to give to the poor. And anyone with a family has a duty to provide for dependents.

So we can’t all embrace poverty. But detachment is another thing. We may legitimately desire more money in order to put it to good use. But it doesn’t do to get too attached.

Like that extra glass or two of wine, we need to be aware that there are dangers here. We can get hooked on acquisitiveness very easily. We can delude ourselves about just how acquisitive we really are very easily. ‘Just a little’, we say. ‘It was just a glass or two’, when our Doctor has already warned us about the condition of our liver. ‘It was just a few pounds extra’, when Our Lord has already warned us about the condition of our heart. And so, perhaps, we end up just a little greedy, avaricious, and unscrupulous.

We live in a materialist society that doesn’t believe in anything beyond possessions. And that all too easily forgets that money cannot buy health and love. So we actually need to fight against the prevailing views if we are to remain on course.

So, once again, we need an honest inspection. And a degree of detachment.

A detachment that is meant to be a foretaste of the detachment that will come to us all at the end of our lives, whether we want it to or not. When everything we possess will be taken away.

Detachment. And something else.

I said that fasting can reveal our dependence on food and lead us to respect it more. Ten days or so ago I lost my credit cards. I had to stop them and live almost without plastic for a few days. It seemed so easy to just go to the bank and cash a cheque, just as I used to do many years ago. Until I saw the queue and realised how I might miss my train.

Most of us have never been really hungry or in want. And most of us have never been really poor. And we may well conclude that this Lent is not the time for us to fast much or to give much. But it is certainly a time to be grateful for what we so easily have. And to realise how fortunate we are to have it.

We can all ask this Lent for the grace to do a little audit of everything we are carrying with us on our journey to Jerusalem, and the grace to do a little tidying and lightening of our load.

A knight, by his vocation to arms, has to put possessions, indeed life itself, in second place. And a good knight does not ignore the needs of those he meets.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Three grand designs to guide us on our journey. All three necessary in some way for each of us. And none of them making up in itself for a deficiency in the others.

Designs we can use to build or rebuild our resolutions and our souls this Lent. To guide us and speed us on our journey to Jerusalem with Our Lord.

We pray for the grace and mercy of God above all. We ask for courage and discernment. To keep us going on the way up to Jerusalem.

This Lent and for the rest of our lives. To whatever seat is prepared for us.