Prayer, and then silence…- Mark Aloysius, SJ

John 17:11B-21, Feast of St Edmund Campion

Perhaps the most well known piece of writing by Edmund Campion is a letter he wrote to the Privy Council in 1580, often referred to as Campion’s Brag. Allow me to read to you a well-known part of it:
And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world … cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored.

I remember the exact moment I first read those words. I was traveling by coach back to university after staying at the Jesuit novitiate in Singapore for a few days. I was a younger man, considering seriously whether I should join the Jesuits, and those words and the life of this native of London, born in 1540, impressed me greatly. It spoke to me of how courage can be found in the darkest of times and perseverance amidst immense persecution.

These days, I find it difficult to read those words with the same enthusiasm. After all, aren’t we all taught not to brag? Bragging can be tolerated among the young, but most of us would avoid having to listen to any kind of bragging from those who have supposedly grown up.

Our readings today invite us to change that language of bragging into firstly, a language of prayer. Isn’t that what Jesus is doing in our Gospel today? On the eve of his death, moments before he is betrayed by Judas, Jesus prays for protection not just for his own, but for all the world. I pray not only for them, Jesus says, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you. Jesus teaches us to give up that language of bragging and taunting, and instead to use the language of prayer. Prayer not just for those who are with us, but also for those against us. Prayer, even for our enemies.

In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, there is a further transformation in the language we are invited to use. Though he was harshly treated, Isaiah prophesies of the Suffering Servant, he submitted and opened not his mouth. What tremendous suffering has brought about in this one who is innocent, the one who bears our wrongs, is a deep silence. Silence because he does not understand why it is that God has permitted the innocent to suffer. Silence because God is also silent.

Out of this deep silence, something miraculous happens, which Isaiah can only express in poetic wonder. By his wounds we were healed, Isaiah writes. Somehow, this horrible persecution of this one who was innocent is redeemed. Somehow, suffering does not get the final word. Isaiah knows not how, only that this transformation from pain to triumph, brokenness to healing, suffering to salvation, happens because of God’s love. Love is the final word.

To be fair, Edmund Campion never called his letter a brag. Neither did he brag in it about his own self, his accomplishments as a scholar at Oxford, nor of his courage and fortitude through terrible torture. After being told that he was to be hung, drawn and quartered on the day of his sentencing on 20 Nov 1581, he and those others who were condemned prayed the Te Deum; we praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. And moments before his execution on 1 Dec 1581, we are told that Campion prayed for the Queen and pardon for all. We are told that there was a deep silence after his death. In that deep silence, Campion learnt that love indeed is the final word. May we too learn that truth in our prayer, in our silence. St Edmund Campion, pray for us.

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