Canon John Twisleton reports on his experiences on the 2013 pilgrimage
Eddie Hughes from Shepherds Bush was saying grace when he got utterly zapped by the love of God.
To say grace on his birthday over his full English breakfast was evidence of childhood faith restored by encountering Our Lady of Medugorje and reading the True Life in God (TLIG) messages of Vassula Ryden. The love he'd experienced at that breakfast two years back still flowed from him. As my companion on Bus 15 of our August Holy Land pilgrimage with his sister and niece he became a great interpreter to me of the holy sites in Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
As I prayed and walked these sites with Eddie and 750 of us I was blessed to encounter the hospitality of open hearts - Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran et al - joined day by day at the altar of the eucharist. This joining in love became a prophetic sign in its context both of Christian divisions, so evident in the Holy Land, as well as of the threat of military action against Syria which overshadowed our pilgrimage. We were privileged to engage and encourage the beleaguered yet generous Christian communities reduced from 43% of the population in 1948 to 1.3% today due to the harsh scenario of Israel-Palestine. In this respect it was extremely moving for the whole group to receive the hospitality of Anglican Bishop Dawani at a reception in the precincts of St George's Cathedral in Jerusalem.
'Your mission is to bring My people under one Name, My Name, and break bread together' is a word spoken by Jesus in the True Life in God messages. 'Unite! Assemble! Invoke My Name together! Consecrate My Body and My Blood together.' This we did across denominations both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, faithful to the messages within the eucharistic hospitality that prevails on pilgrimage retreat.
What are the messages?
Since 1985 Greek housewife Mrs. Vassula Ryden claims to have received 'locutions' or messages from Jesus. Over the last twenty eight years tens of thousands have come to recognise in her messages a respelling of the call of the scriptures to repentance and faith in Jesus and a fresh owning of Our Lord's call for the sundered branches of his church to come together. Readers of the messages form a network active in prayer, evangelisation and works of charity called True Life in God in some thirty nations. The 2013 pilgrimage was the ninth of a series of roughly bi-annual international gatherings.
My first pilgrimage was in 2005. I had already started reading Vassula's messages at the suggestion of my spiritual director, the late Fr Gregory of Crawley Down Monastery. The messages began to inspire me with their passion for the transformation of the world and the church and my own spiritual transformation to serve these ends.
I had always subscribed to the church as being 'built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets' (Ephesians 2:20). Since encountering Vassula and the apostolic movement associated with her messages this belief has finally landed in my experience. With many others I have received a prophetic reminder beyond my reasoned catholic faith that Anglican heritage is apostolic and can still, if faithful, converge with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other traditions.
If the gospel is as St Paul says 'the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith' (Romans 1:16) why is evidence of empowered lives like Eddie's so absent in the main line churches? The answer is things are changing, not least among those who are impatient with the visible disunity of Christians. There is impatience and impatience! The godly impatience surrounding Vassula and TLIG is impatience among other things with clericalism 'holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power' (2 Timothy 3:5) The Holy Spirit is raising up through TLIG thousands of co-workers to tackle this spiritual apathy and build unity at grass roots localities across the world.
Robin Mace, an English pilgrim, was another changed man I met in Israel. Also on Bus 15 Robin's life was changed when he heard Vassula speak in Chichester Cathedral on July 14 2008. He saw Our Lord's face on hers and this led to quite a dramatic change of life. 'To this day I can't watch pornography or screen violence' Robin told me. With his wife Christine he has built an ecumenical Chapel besides their house as a sign of their desire to seek Jesus always and to encourage others to seek the Lord, especially through the TLIG messages.
The messages speak of the pain of God at human degradation: 'I look at the earth today and wish I never did ... My eyes see what I never wanted to see and my ears hear what I dreaded to ever hear! My heart, as a father, sinks with grief. I fashioned man to have my image, yet they have degraded themselves'. At the same time they speak of God's open heart towards humanity and his desire to transfigure the whole earth.
They speak of God's desire for spiritual renewal and the recovery of visible unity. 'The inner power of my church is my Holy Spirit' he says. A central message envisages the three main branches of the church - catholic, orthodox and protestant - as three metal bars that need bending and uniting together by the white heat of the Spirit. Until this happens - and it could happen a lot faster than people imagine - God says his work of reconciling the world is held back. The messages are a call to unceasing prayer, for churches to unite in diversity and work together in evangelisation for the conversion of the world.
For seven days our 16 buses travelled out first from a Jerusalem hotel to Bethlehem, Jericho and southern sites and then secondly from Nazareth in a visitation of sites near Lake Galilee. As we travelled news of the threatened violence in retaliation against Syria travelled with us. In my judgement our most moving Eucharist was in the Basilica over the Rock of Christ's agony coincident with the British Parliament's vote against military action. Who were we, I thought, 750 out of the world's 6 billion, to be elected to visit Jerusalem and to stand in prayer at that season so near to the hurting place of the world?
Another personal highpoint was the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem which we did wisely over two days. Each coach had a local guide and a spiritual leader who on our English speaking Bus 15 was Fr John Abberton from West Yorkshire. On the Wednesday morning we ascended from the Praetorium of Antonia fortress where Jesus was condemned up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 'We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world'. No sooner than those words and the accompanying genuflexion had been made at the first station I burst into tears which continued on and off up to the ninth station and recurred the next day at Christ's Tomb and since then. I was privileged to learn from Eddie and other TLIG pilgrims how Our Lord uses the gift of tears in private devotion to deepen intercession as well as a closer walk with him.
I confess that as a fairly hard headed priest I am struck very often more by the superficial historical aspects of Christian pilgrimage and the desire to gain knowledge through travel. On this pilgrimage God seems to have had other ideas in deepening my penitence for a lack of love for him and for sinners. 'Tell them that the God they have forgotten has never forgotten them…I need your heart to unite you and unite your Church' Jesus says in the messages, with a warning about lesser priorities, 'I do not want administrators in my house…who have industrialised my house'. The abundance of information we priests have to deal with and organise nowadays! How little this should matter to us compared to keeping our hearts on fire for God and for people!
In that spirit I was led to use the contacts information on my phone in a new way. On the last Sunday morning we visited Mount Tabor where I was able to take the opportunity to walk up with my friends from Crawley Down monastery. As we walked spaced apart I slowly read out my parish contacts to God, praying for them one by one, and for humanity as a whole, that we be changed from his image into his likeness. 'And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.' (2 Corinthians 3:18)
A repeated theme in the messages is Our Lord's desire for the churches to make one day, not several, for the celebration of Easter. 'Deep in my body I have the lance piercing me. I want the lance removed'. The blade of that lance is the visible disunity of Christians and it is symbolised by separate celebrations of Easter. At every recent pilgrimage attendees have signed up to petitions for a common date of Easter to be relayed to the Pope and the different Patriarchs. This year the engaging style of Pope Francis, whom Vassula met a few years ago in Buenos Aires, made for great encouragement in pressing forward to implement Jesus' desire for one Easter and, indeed, one Altar.
I believe the messages of True Life in God to be truly prophetic words for today from the risen Lord Jesus respelling the truth of scripture. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other denominational adherents recognise in them spiritual material that resonates with the writing of the early church fathers. Many are using the messages as a springboard for contemplative prayer. They are held to be prophetic words for today from the risen Lord Jesus and his Mother.
Vassula Ryden is a remarkably unassuming lady, fearless yet humorous and lacking self-importance. It has been her extraordinary and costly role to hand on the messages braving much cynicism, including my own initially. Vassula is handmaid of a unique work of God in our age, uniting and shaping the church up to be herself a better handmaid of the advancing of God's kingdom of justice, love and peace.
The spiritual apathy and indifference of our culture are too powerful for a divided Church!
Canon John Twisleton is Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes in West Sussex