In Conversation with the Communita di Sant’Egidio

November 16, 2016

I’ve just returned from a wonderful time in Rome, where I was invited to participate in an ecumenical dialogue facilitated by the Communita di Sant’Egidio: a Catholic lay community that started nearly fifty years ago in Rome and is now in 74 countries.

Fourteen of us spent twelve hours in conversation; a mixture of Catholic bishops, university professors, leaders from the World Evangelical Alliance, World Vision and Samaritans Purse. And me.

Our aim was to look together at issues around the nature of church, the role of prayer and the place of the Gospel amongst those at the peripheries of our societies. I can’t hope to do justice to such a rich day, but there are three things that I am taking away with me particularly.

Firstly, the Community itself

I am returning home humbled and inspired by the little I have learnt of Sant’Egidio. As a community they are dedicated to Prayer, Peace and the Poor and my day with them gave me just a glimpse of the many ways by which they live out those emphases. We had lunch across the piazza from their main building, at the Trattoria de Gli Amici (the Restaurant of the Friends): a restaurant that they run cooperatively with people with disabilities. We heard of their soup kitchens that feed 800 people, of the individuals who they have befriended, and of their friendship with the Pope and of how they facilitated the end of the Mozambique civil war in the very room where we had our meeting.

We joined in their daily evening prayers, which they hold along the street in one of the oldest churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The large church was packed, with hundreds of people. The twelfth century mosaic was stunning to look at while the singing took place around me.

I have so much to learn from their way of life and their commitment.

Secondly, the place of the poor

We had a long and challenging conversation around poverty and spirituality. Echoes of Liberation Theology were reverberating around the walls loudly as we discussed God’s preferential option for the poor. I was constantly reminded that this was not a theoretical discussion: many people around the table spend much of their lives in the company of those who were poor and it is their lived experience that they see God’s face in the faces of the poor more than they see him anywhere else.

I was particularly challenged by the question: if we are not with people who are poor, does that mean we won’t see Jesus so clearly?

I was also struck by a reflection on the story of the rich man and Lazarus and how Jesus named the poor man Lazarus but did not name the rich man, in contrast to our societies which name rich people, but keep poor people anonymous. We must never let ‘the poor’, ‘refugees’ etc become social categories: they are people with names.

Thirdly, the strength of prayer

We had a beautiful discussion around prayer, its place in the work of poverty relief, and our own personal experiences. Here are some of the things that people said:

  • ‘Prayer is getting out from oneself in order to meet the Father who is waiting for his child to return’
  • ‘In prayer we say no to the ego and yes to “we”. No one prays alone: we’re in community with angels and saints, both on earth and in heaven’
  • ‘Prayer is a barrier to evil and is one of the engines of history’
  • Prayer is one thing God gives us to do that keeps us sane’ (in the context of finding ourselves hopeless in the midst of the world’s problems)
  • ‘Prayer prepares us. It broadens the walls of our heart to make us more receptive to God’.

Cara mici – dear friends – I’m sorry you couldn’t be round the table with me, but I hope this gives you a flavour of a special and memorable day.

(image: the ceiling of one of our meeting rooms in the community’s base, originally a closed Carmelite convent)


Get Thee to a Nunnery: Can the Monastic Tradition Help Us Live Christianly Today?

September 4, 2016

Monasticism, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, practices of silence and meditation are all things being discovered by many of us. Perhaps that is no surprise given the challenges of living Christianly today. Can these older life wisdoms provide us with a more secure anchor?

I believe they can, but I also think they carry within them some inherent challenges that we should be aware of.

In a new article, published by the William Temple Foundation, I begin to explore the potential of the monastic tradition to provide us with an alternative path to that which is offered by society, but also highlight the potential dangers.

To read the full article click here.


‘The time that He has granted us’

June 26, 2016

These words brought me up short when I heard them, and caused me to stop in my tracks and think.

I was at Hilfield Friary earlier this week, assessing them for an Eco Church award, and I joined in their Mid Day Prayer service. During the Intercessions, one of the friars prayed that we would do something, ‘with the time that He has granted us’. I can’t actually remember what he prayed we would do, but that phrase jumped out at me.

It has made me reflect on how I view life.

Sometimes, if I’m brutally honest, life feels like something that has to be gotten through and endured as best I can. There is so much pain in people’s lives; so many things that people are living with.

But no! This little phrase opens a different window to look through. Life is a gift. A gift from God. How incredible it is to be granted some years to live on this earth; yes, not ignoring the pain, but also relishing the beauty and love that is such an amazing feature of our humanity.

Each one of us might not have existed: but we do! We have been given the privilege of existence… of life.

And so I want to make the most of this time that has been granted me; not frittering it away selfishly, but living it to the best of my ability, making the most of the opportunities I’m given to serve God and make a difference, however small that might be.

What about you – will you join me?


Stand and Stare

June 5, 2016

These flowers stopped me in my tracks today as I walked along the road. They were just in the bushes by the pavement and are nothing rare or special (they’re the very common guelder rose). But, their beauty caught my eye and made me stop and look at them more closely.

They are perfect. They look like confectionary flowers you might find on a cake. Perfect little white five-leaved flowers. Wow.

This month the Wildlife Trusts are encouraging us to do something wild every day for thirty days. That might mean taking the time to go out and do something big and whacky, but often it’s simply about noticing what is there around us and making room for nature in our lives.

It’s about stopping and being aware.

Go on, do something today. Sign up to 30 Days Wild with all their ideas, or just simply have a moment when you stand and stare at something beautiful.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

(W.H. Davies)

PS If you’d like to tell me what you do, I’d love to hear.

Green living

Beauty with a Conscience

April 3, 2016

I have an inner-princess who wants to be gorgeous and beautiful. I’m guessing you probably do too and, hey, I’m sure you guys have an inner-prince as well!

So, this post isn’t about me telling you that it doesn’t matter how you look, or advocating that we go around unkempt, unwashed and smelly. Or that make-up and hair-dye is evil.

What I do want us to think about though is the nature of the products we use in this area. I’m not going to go into a long diatribe here about the problems with conventional beauty products (there are plenty of details elsewhere on the internet), but I simply want to highlight that those problems exist:

  • Packaging. This is so obvious I hardly need say more: (nearly) everything we use comes in a plastic bottle and we are using and producing vast amounts. It’s not good enough to say, ‘well we can recycle them’, because the process of recycling itself is energy-intensive. Far better not to produce that plastic in the first place.
  • Chemicals. Conventional beauty products use a dizzying array of chemicals, a number of which are known to be bad for us. Again, you can find more details elsewhere, and maybe you’re happy putting lots of chemicals into your body (skin absorbs remember), but I know I’m not, and I don’t want my kids to do so either. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be happy knowing that those chemicals were being washed away down the sink and entering the natural world in various ways.
  • Palm oil. Palm oil is a massive problem because of the deforestation that has taken place and is still occurring in Asia and Africa to make room for its vast plantations. The abuse of indigenous people’s land rights, huge forest fires (and I mean huge: I remember being in Singapore for a week some years ago and I didn’t see the sun once because of the haze from the fires in Indonesia), and declining species (including of course the orang utan) are all part of the palm oil issue. Palm oil is in pretty much every conventional beauty product and so it can be very hard to avoid for those of us who care about these issues.
  • Animal testing. Huge progress has been made on this and a complete ban on beauty products that have been tested on animals is now in place for the whole of the EU, New Zealand, Israel and India (and also the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo). However, if you are reading this from any other country then this is still an issue for you.
  • Cultural expectations. I find this bit really hard, because who am I to tell you what you should or shouldn’t want to look like? All I know is that the beauty industry itself spends an awful lot of money telling us how we should look, and we spend an awful lot of money trying to conform to what they tell us.

So What Do We Do?

The good news is that there are all sorts of alternatives and it is pretty easy to substitute our conventional beauty products for ones that help us avoid the issues above. And, unless we’ve been buying real cheapo products, they really don’t have to be more expensive (although sometimes they are).

For the high street, I don’t think you can beat Lush. They are ethical superstars and really minimise their packaging. I also like Neals Yard Remedies and use their facial products a lot, but a quick trip around the internet will show you many other companies you can use too.

My latest discovery is a fantastic business and social enterprise called Carishea, which works with communities in Ghana where women harvest sustainable shea nuts to produce butter. This is then hand-crafted into luxurious products by workers from disadvantaged communities in Scotland. I’ve been trying out some of their products recently (as you can see in the picture) and they’re really nice!

Some of us might want to go a step further and try making our own things or avoiding some types of products altogether. As a result of reading around for this post, for example, I’m currently experimenting with not using conventional shampoo or conditioner at all. Maybe in a later post I’ll let you know how I get on…

The point of it all though is to live in ways that do as little damage as possible to this world and all its inhabitants, both human and other-than-human, and that might even do a bit of good. This applies to what we do to our inner-princess as much as to anything else, so go on, treat her to some ethical loveliness!