Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Lent 2. Something Beautiful for God
March 13, 2010, 6:16 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 28th February 2010, evening.

This is the second address in a series for Lent with the title, “Something Beautiful for God.” The phrase comes, I think, from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, as a description of what she wanted to do with her life. So I think the phrase may fairly be taken as a description of the life of any Saint, any Christian whether formally given the title or not, whose life is characterised by that elusive word, “holiness”. They achieve something beautiful, which they offer back to God.

Two weeks ago I was in Padua, specially invited to attend (and report on) ceremonies in honour of St Antony. So in the light of that visit, I would like to reflect on his life, and how he offered something beautiful to God. More than eight hundred years have passed since he was born in Lisbon, a city only recently restored to Christian rule after centuries of Muslim domination. The Cathedral under the walls of which he grew up was a brand-new building. There must have been a feeling that the Faith was very precious, to be cherished and defended. It is not surprising that he felt a call to serve Jesus Christ, joining the Canons of St Augustine in their Abbey just outside the walls, on the banks of the great river Tagus.

Being so near home, it was natural that his family and friends should want to visit him and see how he was doing. Kindly meant, I dare say, but a distraction to a young man whose heart was set on the things of God. Furthermore, his thirst to understand better the Gospel could not be met by the resources of this new Abbey. He asked if he might be transferred to the royal capital of Coimbra, where the Abbey of Holy Cross, mother house to his own, was situated. Reluctantly (for he was a promising lad) his superiors agreed, and for ten years or so he was content to study the Scriptures and the great Fathers of the Church. But such intellectual progress was still not enough. Yes, it was good to know more and more about God’s ways, but knowing is not the same as doing. Mother Teresa wanted to do something beautiful, and so did Antony.

The turning point came when the bodies of five poor men were returned to the Abbey from Morocco. They were members of a new Order, scarcely ten years old, founded by St Francis in Italy. They had repudiated all possessions, and had been sent to Morocco to preach the Gospel to the Moors. Like Jesus, they had been rejected, shamefully treated, and killed. Truly, in offering their very lives they had done something beautiful for God. Anthony felt an overwhelming desire to follow in their footsteps.

The first stage was not too difficult. Although, again, his superiors were reluctant to lose him, he was allowed to join the little community of friars nearby. He was sent over to Africa, but there he fell ill, and before he could begin his mission he was shipped home. God had different plans, and (like St Paul) Antony was blown by storms far off course, landing in Sicily. From there he made his way to Assisi, a new and totally unknown Friar. Almost by chance, he was taken under the wing of the Minister Provincial for northern Italy, and assigned to a small hermitage so that the brothers should have a priest to say Mass for them. Oh, yes, and Antony became well known in the community for doing the washing-up after meals. Was this to be the beautiful thing he could offer to God? Well, don’t dismiss it! St Therese of Lisieux achieved holiness through little more than that. It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. “Who sweeps a room as for God’s laws makes that and the action fine.”

In fact, God had more in store. Almost by chance, the brothers discovered that Antony was learned in the Scriptures, and a powerful preacher. St Francis himself asked him to give theological instruction to the friars, to equip them for their ministry to the people. For a further ten years Antony travelled tirelessly in Italy and France, preaching in churches and churchyards, to Bishops and Abbots in synod, and to ordinary faithful. He undertook responsibilities in the Order, and after the death of Francis became Provincial in northern Italy, where he had begun. He completed a set of sermon-notes on the Sunday Gospels, and began a second series on the Saints. In Lent 1231 he led a great mission to the city of Padua, attended by thousands, and with the Bishop and all the clergy, diocesan and religious, supporting him. By Easter he was worn out, and retired to a little friary on the estate of a local nobleman, a day’s walk north of the city. He asked if a little tree-house might be made for him, in a walnut tree on the edge of the forest. There he gave himself to prayer and contemplation.

Two weeks ago I visited Camposampiero, St Petersfield as we might say, for the first time. Alas, the forest and the nut-tree have long gone, and so has Count Tiso’s house, but there is a little chapel on the site of the tree, and a large retreat-house on the site of the castle. There are also some fine bronze figures representing themes from Antony’s preaching. On June 13th, 1231, Antony had just come down to join his brothers for the mid-day meal when he fell ill. He knew it was the end, and asked to be taken back to Padua. A cart was borrowed, and he was put in it. The journey is only half an hour by car, but several hours by horse and cart. Just outside the city it was clear he could go no further, and they carried him to the convent of the Poor Clare sisters nearby. There, at sunset, he died, after singing a hymn to our Lady. His last words were, “I see my Lord!”

After some unseemly wrangling about his place of burial (the nuns wanted to keep him with them), a great funeral procession took his body to the church of Mary Mother of the Lord, beside which he had lived. Almost as soon as he was entombed, God began to do something beautiful for Antony. First one poor woman was healed of a great tumour, and then a whole stream of disabled and sick people. Within months, the clamour for Antony’s canonisation was so strong that the Pope had to agree. In less than a year after his death, he was proclaimed a Saint. Even Mother Teresa could not beat that!

Of course, it was soon realised that the little church in which Antony had wished to be buried would not be big enough for the crowds of pilgrims. A fine Basilica was begun alongside St Mary’s, and after thirty years his remains were transferred to a new tomb before the high altar. It was at this point his tongue was found to be still incorrupt, inspiring the Minister General of the friars, St Bonaventure, to cry out, “O blessed tongue, you always praised the Lord and led others to praise him. Now your great merits with God are manifest to everyone!” After this, the old church was partly demolished and partly incorporated into the new transept. Eventually, after nearly a century more, it was decided to move the tomb into this transept chapel, so that Antony might rest again in the place he had chosen.

So things remained until 1981, when Pope John Paul II authorised a scientific examination of Antony’s remains, as a result of which we have a better idea how he must have looked in life. The bones were then enclosed in a glass coffin inside an oak coffin, and replaced in the tomb. Since then, problems of damp had caused deterioration of the chapel decorations, and it was decided to renovate them. This meant moving the remains again. On April 12th 2008, Fr James Brown was visiting the Basilica, and he saw the tomb in its usual place. Next day he visited the Basilica again, and to his amazement he found the tomb was now on the opposite side of the church! He could not understand it!

So, two weeks ago, Antony was due to be disturbed one more time. That is what I had gone out to witness. At nine on Sunday evening, a small crowd of friars and others who work in the Basilica assembled opposite St James’ chapel, where the temporary tomb was. The organ and a solo violin played quietly. The workmen gently raised the oak coffin out of the marble tomb, and placed it on a bier. The oak covering was removed, to reveal the glass coffin within, and the bones of the saint. Having worked so long on translating Antony’s words, and understanding something of his mind, I found it very moving to see all that remains of his mortal body. We formed up in procession, and singing the Litany we made our way round the darkened church to the place where Antony was to lie in state for a week, before being once again enclosed in his permanent burial place. We sang Compline, and made our way out into the streets of Padua.

So what was it all for? There are those who think that veneration of relics ought to be a thing of the past, that a preoccupation with ancient bones is morbid and unseemly. Speaking for myself, I found the whole experience “something beautiful”. In his lifetime, Antony fought against the Manichean heresy of the Cathars, which denigrated the flesh and the world of matter. Christianity, and Franciscanism in particular, rejoices in the fact that God has made a wonderful and beautiful world, and seen that it is good. He has made us what we are, spiritual beings incarnate, clothed in material bodies. The bones we honoured were not just accidental belongings of Antony, now discarded, they had been part of his very being, and in a sense they still are, even though his spirit has left them.

In death, Antony still preaches and teaches the message he proclaimed in life, and which is preserved in his writings. We are mortal, formed of dust, and to dust we return; yet we are also immortal, created for everlasting happiness with God, made for glory. Even our mortal part is destined to be raised and glorified. Yet the bones of Antony remind us that, so far, only our Lord and his blessed Mother have entered fully, body and soul, into glory. The saints themselves still wait “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” We are all pilgrims, some still here on earth, passing through this world and leaving it at death; some in Purgatory, and some already in Heaven. But God has still more in store for all of us! Surely this is something beautiful?


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