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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Voice of Angels and the Witness of our Faith in England

This Christmas I had the joy of making a pilgrimage to the Tyburn Convent in London together with an English spiritual theologian David Torkington. He took me to this convent of contemplative nuns who keep vigil together at the sight of heroic witness to the Catholic Faith. The Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre are there to intercede perpetually for the whole world, all of humanity —for its reconciliation, healing and peace. Throughout the day, the nuns offer a tour and presentations of the Shrine of the English Martyrs over which they keep watch. While there were many powerful stories shared during my time with them, the story of the Carthusian martyrs was particularly poignant. Earlier in the day, Dom John Houghton and his Carthusian brothers together with a diocesan priest were marched in their vestments from the tower of London to the Tyburn. They were partially hung and mutilated before their death. After this public torture and exhibition, the executioners cut out their hearts to kill them. John Houghton was first. When his heart was cut out, they placed it in his hands. He is reported to have offered it to God with his dying words, "Lord, what wilt thou do with my heart?" The context of this execution is striking. When Henry VIII had asked the Carthusians to support his succession as "Head of the Church," the hermits took this request to prayer. At this time, doctrines concerning the Chair of Peter were not as clear as they are today. We can guess that they had wanted to be good subjects to the King. We can also guess that they did not want to cut themselves off from communion with the universal Church. Finally, we can also surmise that they had some sense that defying their King would have disastrous consequences. They needed to sanctify this ambiguity by discovering the most appropriate means of serving God in the midst of it. So they offered the Mass of the Holy Spirit. During Mass, through the Eucharistic prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the priest consecrates the offering of bread and wine with his own hands and the power of the Holy Spirit. By this action, the bread and wine are earthly bread and wine no more, but become the Body and Blood of Christ—His real presence on earth, heavenly food. In this way, the hands of a priest allow the whole Church to offer through his ministry the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in a very real and powerful way. Through this offering, we pray for everything and everybody—our enemies and persecutors, our neighbors and loved ones, the stranger and the destitute. Not as a nice wish or some vague aspiration, but with confident certitude and firmness of purpose, this spiritual worship allows us to stand before God and know that we are heard. When His whole mystery is offered to the Father for His glory and for the salvation of the world, something from Above breaks into even the most difficult circumstances here below—light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. At this moment of the Mass, the Carthusian heard the singing of heavenly choirs—angels songs were calling to them. This canticle echoing from heaven called to them and they could not be indifferent. Love from heaven above evoked love from their very depths.

Their hearts were pierced with clarity, conviction and confidence. The confusion that they suffered before Mass was dispensed. The inner voice of conscience had spoken in harmony with the music from above. In holy freedom, for their own integrity and dignity as sons of God, they knew what they had to do, even at the price of their own blood because of the Blood that was shed for them. When Saint John Houghton held his heart in his priestly hands, his executioners might not have understood the sanctifying power of his priestly question, but the glory given to the Father at the Mass was extended into that very moment. The integrity of worship and faith and witness were being held up in the midst of painful obscurity in the frail hands of a dying contemplative and priest. This gesture did not make the evil of that day magically go away, instead the powerful here below were confronted with a wisdom from above—and at the Tyburn Convent, this wisdom of loved offered for the sake of men, their integrity, and their faith remains unvanquished.

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