Surrounded to surrender

Here is the sermon that I preached last Sunday (Easter II) at St. Paul’s within the Walls. On Friday, April 22nd was Earth Day.

A plate from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1707, by Maria Sibylla Merian.

Surrounded to surrender


The birth of the natural sciences, especially the study of insects and amphibians, flourished in Northern Europe in the 17th century. Much of the foundation for the natural sciences was developed by people who were courageous and devout Christians. Shaped by their deep and intimate meditation and prayer, they learned to discern the work and will of God in the natural world in ways that were quite unconventional. At the time, little was known about the peculiar creatures that seemed to inhabit different realms of life-forms: for example, flies who had their origins as worms, or frogs beginning as fish-like tadpoles.

One of the leading naturalists of those times whose work has been praised as a forerunner in the field of ecology was Maria Sibylla Merian. At age 13, Maria Sibylla started raising silkworms. By the time she was 28 she had published her first book of natural illustrations. Merian would go on to be a leading naturalist illustrator, publishing volumes of sketches on caterpillars, insects, and plants. Her illustrations are not only true works of art and pioneering studies of insects, but they are also silent praises to her Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, she focused especially on the study of the different stages of the evolution of butterflies which emulate Christ’s life and the spiritual growth of all followers of the Resurrected One. Like a butterfly, our Lord began his humble life close to the earth as a human, like a worm; he lay as dead in the tomb as in a chrysalis; then, emerging as a butterfly that shimmers and flies away to heaven, or to Galilee.

The coincidence of Easter and the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere is quite perfect timing. The Good Lord in his providence knows how to speak to us through what we are able to experience, yet our reading this morning says that not everyone was able to see the Resurrected One and believe in him. Why is it that someone like Thomas, who was a close disciple to Christ, couldn’t at first believe in him? Yet someone like Merian could? Just like Thomas at the beginning of our Gospel reading, belief for many people means being sure of information. Believing relates to a truth statement, and to be sure that something is true you need as many elements of proof as necessary. This attitude has become the model of modern science: scientists build truthful theories by putting together truthful-statements. They establish, little by little, what is true. This intellectual process is very efficient, but it always falls short of dealing with living things as truly living things. It is the same difference that exist between knowing about someone and loving them. How can we truly know our children, our partners, our friends or our neighbors if we come to them with bossy expectations about how they are supposed to be alive for us? How can we know the resurrected one if we force him into our objectifying methods and processes? Into being this or that? With this proof-based attitude, demonstrated by Thomas, very little room is left for mystery, very little room is left for letting Christ freely relate to us and between us; very little room is left for encountering truth beyond what we have set as its limits: « Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. »

Fortunately, believing in Jesus as the Resurrected One doesn’t work the same way as a police investigation or a modern scientific study. It’s quite reassuring if, like me, you’ve never been a fan of NCIS or don’t know how to count! We don’t need to worry about a process or a method that most often merely reveals our desire to control and exert power over what we don’t know and therefore scares us. Indeed, what often holds us back from believing in the Resurrected One, just as it did for the disciples locked up in their room and for Thomas, are fears. We hold back by fear of experiencing how this encounter could change us; by fear of seeing God in places we didn’t want him to show up; by fear of seeing the reality of God’s love and selflessness that will disarm all our attempts to control ourselves and each other. We don’t need to worry about building up truth to find reassurance. For us Christians, believing doesn’t mean piecing together elements of truth about Jesus like the suspicious Thomas meant to do. More like Sibylla Merian, believing for us means meeting God’s power in his very Creation, in the multiple ways in which he gestures towards us, how he courts us, how he discloses for us the living signs of his presence and his life in our lives.

If Merian was capable of seeing God’s resurrection and life in unexpected places it is because she had surrendered to her Lord fully when she left her hometown in Germany for the religious community of the Labadists in the Netherlands. She left to run after her passion. She shed her fear and surrendered to the Lord’s loving presence that she met in his creation and his church. Just like for the early disciples and Thomas, only the living peace of Christ can set us free from our inner prisons and our attempts to control, that all lock God away from us. We can doubt ideas, we can doubt information, but we cannot doubt for long the reality of an encounter that frees us. We cannot doubt what we see the effect of in our world, in our lives, in our bodies. We cannot doubt a meeting which has given life, joy and courage to the downcast and the marginalized.

Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrections might be tough to fathom. Our doubts might be stronger than our belief. But Jesus, like the spring, like the butterfly out of its pupa, keeps showing up no matter what. He is eager for us to touch him and behold him, for in doing so we will receive that peace we hope for, that peace that comes when death has not won. Let us not hesitate to abandon ourselves to his presence that surrounds us, through the signs of his love that are marked on his creation, those signs that Merian saw so clearly. Jesus himself has sanctified his creation to help us feel, see, taste, and know that he is risen, that the impossible is possible. Mary found him in the garden, and so can we. Indeed, surrendering to Christ does not mean to wander far from reality, to be far from things or people. It is through things, it is through people, that we believe in God; it is through them that we abandon ourselves to him and find the courage to move forward. We need look no farther than the blooming trees just outside these windows to look at his glorious wounds. We need come no farther than to this altar this morning, to receive his own body and blood so that we too can be changed into his likeness. Through all that surrounds us, Christ surrenders to us so we can surrender to him.

Maria Sibylla Merian understood this, as she encountered the resurrection every time she illustrated a butterfly stretching from its chrysalis or a fly morphing from larva to pupa. Her encounter with the Risen Lord in her study of his creatures gave her passion and courage beyond measure. Her volumes of sketches included very few words and she seldom wrote about her faith. However, in the front of one of her sketchbooks she wrote two simple words in German: “Mit Gott”, “With God.” With God. Let us dare to see the world with God, so we can rise with Him.   

P.S. I have always had a soft spot for butterflies and insects (I used to raise stick and leaf bugs!) but I didn’t hear about Merian before 2014. I got fascinated by her life a couple of years ago when I was doing my Master’s in French literature at the Sorbonne. I was then researching the devotional poetry of the bilingual pietistic « Church of the Lord » she had joined in the Netherlands. I was struck by the relation between the spiritual life of that community and her own work of a scientist and an artist and could share the results of my research at the International and Interdisciplinary Conference organized in Amsterdam on 2017. The devotional aspect of scientific enquiry is usually not well know of the larger public, yet I think it is an important witness to remember and a good food for prayer, if we want to be more faithful stewards of the Earth our Lord has entrusted to us.

Risen from the ruins

Here is the homily I preached at St. Paul’s within the Walls during the Vigil of Easter.

[In Italian below]

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Paul Nagai, a Japanese doctor who slowly died of leukemia after the nuclear destruction of his town of Nagasaki in a blast of light, Doctor Nagai recounts how he had a glimpse of immortality in the last gaze of his dying mother. He was then studying medicine and a materialist, like most of his comrades. When suddenly, before this mystery, before the gaze of his mother so present with light and love, he was shaken to the depths of his being, saying to himself: “It is impossible that such a gaze should be condemned to death.” 

In the look of his dying mother, Dr Nagai, had seen that eternity and resurrection is our true reality. This is what Christ’s resurrection from the dead means for us: when we love, even death cannot contain us. This mystery that Nagai felt, and which led him to become a Christian is a reflection of the mystery of God’s love for us when we are suffering or dying. God has been so consistently present with us as we just heard from the Bible, so consistently present in our suffering and unfaithfulness that we can only be shaken by the reality that neither our deepest suffering nor our deaths could prevent him to be close to us. Only he can, in these places where we only see imperfection, decay, abuse, and loneliness, only he can, in these places where we don’t want to go and that we utterly reject, enter and inwardly transform them by his divine life. Only he can bring us back to life with him into the land of the living. 

Tonight, it is the night when we know and experience more than any other moment of the liturgical year that our Lord is the one who rises us out of the hells we have created and the ones we have inherited. Tonight, Christ wakes us up with tenderness from our lethal sleep to live new lives with him. His light does not rise like an atomic mushroom, he does not force our surrendering. He comes to us tenderly in the words of the Exultet resonating in this dark sanctuary, he comes to us in the light of the Easter candle and the living waters poured out on the forehead of the baptized, he comes to us as the Spirit of God flows, piano ma lontano. Let us take a moment to contemplate the power and tenderness of his rising. 

We will soon renew together our vows of baptism in Christ. These words you will utter are no churchy formula but our declaration of love to God, made with the words he has given us. We will reaffirm with the words of our mouth our baptism in Jesus Christ we will feel on our lips how incorporated we are into his life. We will experience how he tenderly puts his power on our lips and in our hands, how we share in his resurrection and his promises for the life of the world. Christ “renews us” tonight “in his love” as the prophet Zephaniah just said, and all our rejoicing at all times this year, all our prayers, all our thanksgiving and communion, even all our penitence will spring from the present resurrection of our Lord. All our words to him will respond to his everlasting resurrection for us: “O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Tonight, we have been awoken by the beat of his resurrected heart that won’t be silent anymore. 

Immediately after the destruction of the Catholic cathedral of Nagasaki, Paul Nagai, with his Christian brothers and sisters, set up to straighten on a hoist the bells of the cathedral which were all that remained of that building blown up by the atomic bomb. They hoisted them up and made them sing in the night while kneeling on a field of ruins. Like the bells of Nagasaki, the bells that are going to ring for the Resurrection of our Lord are not going to celebrate the perfection or full restoration of this world. They will sing for the Resurrection of our Lord. In this broken world, they will sing of the humble light of the Easter candle and resonate like the bells of Nagasaki that could not be condemned to death. 

Never Give Up: The Bells of Takashi Nagai
Paul Nagai

Risorti delle rovine

Paolo Nagai, un medico giapponese morto lentamente di leucemia dopo la distruzione nucleare della sua città di Nagasaki in una esplosione di luce, il dottor Nagai, racconta di come ha intravisto l’immortalità nell’ultimo sguardo della madre morente. Stava allora studiando medicina, egli era un materialista, come la maggior parte dei suoi compagni. Quando all’improvviso, davanti a questo mistero, davanti allo sguardo di sua madre così presente di luce e di amore, fu scosso nel più profondo del suo essere, dicendo a se stesso: «Non è possibile che un tale sguardo sia condannato a morte».

Nello sguardo della madre morente, il dottore Nagai, aveva visto che l’eternità e la resurrezione sono la nostra vera realtà. Ecco cosa significa per noi la risurrezione di Cristo dai morti: quando amiamo, anche la morte non può contenerci. Questo mistero che Nagai ha sentito e che lo ha portato a diventare cristiano è un riflesso del mistero dell’amore di Dio per noi quando soffriamo o moriamo. Dio è stato così costantemente presente con noi come abbiamo appena sentito nella Bibbia, così costantemente presente nella nostra sofferenza e infedeltà che possiamo solo essere scossi dalla realtà che né la nostra sofferenza più profonda e né la nostra morte potrebbero impedirgli di essere vicino a noi. Solo lui può, in questi luoghi dove vediamo solo imperfezione, decadimento, abuso e solitudine, solo lui può, in questi luoghi dove non vogliamo andare e dove rifiutiamo totalmente, di entrarvi e di trasformarli interiormente con la sua vita divina. Solo lui può riportarci in vita con lui nella terra dei vivi.

Stanotte, è la notte in cui sappiamo e sperimentiamo più di ogni altro momento dell’anno liturgico che nostro Signore è colui che ci resuscita dagli inferi che abbiamo creato e da quelli che abbiamo ereditato. Stanotte, Cristo ci sveglia con tenerezza dal nostro sonno mortale per vivere di nuovo con lui. La sua luce non sale come un fungo atomico, non ci costringe ad arrenderci. Viene a noi teneramente nelle parole dell’Exultet che risuonano in questo santuario oscuro, viene a noi alla luce del cero pasquale e delle acque vive versate sulla fronte del battezzato, viene a noi come Spirito di Dio scorre, piano ma lontano. Prendiamoci un momento per contemplare la potenza e la tenerezza della sua resurrezione.

Presto rinnoveremo insieme i nostri voti di battesimo in Cristo. Queste parole che pronunceremo non sono una formula religiosa, ma la nostra dichiarazione d’amore a Dio, fatta con le parole che egli ci ha dato. Riaffermeremo con le parole della nostra bocca il nostro battesimo in Gesù Cristo, sentiremo sulle nostre labbra quanto siamo una cosa sola con lui. Sperimenteremo come pone teneramente la sua potenza sulle nostre labbra e nelle nostre mani, come partecipiamo alla sua resurrezione e alle sue promesse per la vita del mondo. Cristo « ci rinnova » stasera « nel suo amore », come ha appena detto il profeta Sofonia, e tutta la nostra gioia in ogni momento quest’anno, tutta le nostre preghiere, tutti i nostri ringraziamenti e comunione, anche tutte la nostre penitenze scaturiranno dalla presente risurrezione del nostro Signore. Tutte le nostre parole a lui risponderanno alla sua eterna risurrezione per noi: “O Israele! Rallegrati ed esulta con tutto il tuo cuore!” Stanotte, siamo stati svegliati dal battito del suo cuore risorto che non tacerà più.

Subito dopo la distruzione della cattedrale cattolica di Nagasaki, Paolo Nagai, con i suoi fratelli e sorelle cristiani, si accinge a raddrizzare con una carrucola, le campane della cattedrale che erano tutto ciò che restava di quell’edificio distrutto dalla bomba atomica. Le issavano e le facevano cantare nella notte inginocchiati su un campo di rovine. Come le campane di Nagasaki, le campane che suoneranno per la risurrezione di nostro Signore non celebreranno la perfezione o la piena restaurazione di questo mondo. Canteranno per la resurrezione di nostro Signore. In questo mondo spezzato, canteranno l’umile luce del cero pasquale e risuoneranno come le campane di Nagasaki che non potevano essere condannate a morte.

+ La Settimana Santa +

Here are some picture of the Holy Week celebrations in Rome. It is difficult to summarize or explain how it felt to be in Rome for this very special week during which we are all invited to participate, thanks to the liturgy of the Church, to the death and Resurrection of our Lord. The Spirit intercedes during this Week in very intimate ways, with sighs often too deep for words.

+ Palm Sunday +

Holy Week started at St. Paul’s with an ecumenical procession with our Catholic and Romanian Orthodox brothers and sisters.

+ Holy Monday+

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On Holy Monday the Anglican Centre organized an ecumenical vigil of prayer. It was a prayerful moment that allowed us to enter into the mystery of this holiest week.

You can watch the video of the service by clicking on the following link:

+ Holy Tuesday +

On Holy Tuesday a Chrismal Mass was celebrated at All Saints’ Anglican Church on the Via del Babuino. All Saints’ is the Church of England parish in Rome. Bishop Hamid celebrated and Archbishop Ian Ernest, Director of the Anglican Centre was also present. Many clergy of the Diocese in Europe were also present to renew their ordination vows.

You can watch the service on the Facebook Page of All Saints’ Anglican Church.

+ Holy Wednesday +

A Tenebrae Service was held at the St. Paul’s but I sunk so much into the prayerful atmosphere that I didn’t take any picture..!

+ Maundy Thursday +

On Maundy Thursday we celebrated the Last Supper of our Lord at St. Paul’s with the Washing of the Feet. In Rome on Giovedi Santo it is also customary to visit as many churches as possible as they are opened until late at night for the visitors to pray at their Altars of Repose.

Below you’ll see some picture of the nine churches (!) I visited with my roommate Edoardo that evening. Edoardo is Roman and knew exactly which one where particularly stunning! I particularly enjoyed the altar at the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. The Altar of Repose (Sepolcri in Italian and reposoir in French) is one of my favorite devotion during Holy Week. I am particularly touched by their peaceful atmosphere of surrender created by the garden and the lights.

“Yet not what I want but what you want.”

+ Good Friday +

On Good Friday, St. Paul’s organized a bilingual (English-Spanish) Via Crucis, followed by a Good Friday liturgy. You can watch the celebration of the liturgy on the following video.