A Page That Aches For A Word

“The nail bomb is an anti-personnel explosive device packed with nails to increase its effectiveness at harming victims." (Wikipedia) Death is like a nail bomb that scatters itself indiscriminately, fragmenting further what is already fragmented. It scatters people, pushes them against each other, pulls them apart. Some deaths do that.

Others are grace-filled, a grace that bathes the most severe sorrow in peace.

Those who survive have a choice to make. It's within our gift to decide what to do with what we inherit. That choice is simple enough, though never easy, when what comes to us is a loving legacy. When division is left behind, the task given us is much harder and it calls us to be more than who we are, to go far beyond ourselves, so that painful history does not have power to destroy our present and future. 

Being mourner and priest is seriously challenging, more than those closest can ever imagine. There is the moment when the Funeral Director calls him to step away from the intimacy, the warm embrace of family and friends, called to stand alone with the cold body of death. He may never learn to be professional, never able to be "in role", never able to separate the man from the priest. 

Waves of emotion, memories good and bad alike come crashing into each other. Hurts like rocks emerge. All in a split second. He might want to cry. Feel he will fall apart and surrender to the disintegration descending upon him. But he can't surrender to that. He has to steady himself as best he can. It's not about him. It's about God and the other, so he prays as God would have him pray, as the dead and the bereaved need him to pray. No matter who the deceased is, no matter how good or bad a life lived, whatever the state of the legacy, the priest sees the one created in the image and likeness of God and he sees the severity of the illness that has mined away, sucked the life out of the person, suffering that must in some way stand as recompense for any wrongs done. The priest sees this and when it is a personal grief he feels it intensely, to the point of feeling ill in his entire being.

Such are the thoughts going through my mind as the plane lifts off the ground and the song on my random playlist is "Be" from Neil Diamond's 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull', a song of ascent. "Lost on a painted sky where the clouds are hung for the poet's eye."

In September I used a phrase from the same song for the late Fr. Michael Cremin - a song in search of a voice. There's another phrase from it that I have often applied to myself - "Be as a page that aches for a word that speaks on a theme which is timeless."

A blank page that aches for the ink of other people's sorrow, their brokenness, anger, pain, their hatred - as well, of course, their love and goodness and joy. But the need of sorrow is more urgent, intense and it is written upon the blank page of my heart, written by God in a way that makes sense of what baffles us, in a language that God knows,  language that God's Holy Spirit can teach us to translate in ways that are not verbal.

Bare trees
Naked rosebush
Spiking the dawn

Dripping drops of dew
The tears I cannot shed

My heart a mayhem of crows
Swooping on a single seagull
Outside in the Green
Where we played by day
And partied by night

Until grief disfigured our joy
Love fatally fractured

The man has died
He who became my enemy

We made our peace
A defrosting
Long before it was too late

Yet still a broken legacy

The wounds of hate
The scars of love
Debris of human frailty

We must stand still
And wait for God
To win the victory
For us all


Ballyloughan New Year's Day 2010

Coming to the end of this year and the decade since 2009, I’ve been looking back in gratitude at those ten years, going back a further ten to the end of the year in which Maura had died and the arrival of the new millennium. This is what I wrote then in my diary:

“The sea at Ballyloughan was still and clear as glass, reflecting all the colour - the orange, dark red and pink of the sky as the sun went down over the hills of Clare. The buildings too were washed in the colour and a cargo ship, moving slowly towards the docks, cast its shadow as it passed between the sun and the Galway coastline. The sound of birds echoed, birds skimming in formation over the water, flying towards the south.

I stood in contemplation and awe and worship. Even Vincent Browne or Stephen Hawking, if they stood here, would understand worship, without having to have it explained. It seems kind of God to let me witness this at year’s end and maybe it’s an omen of better things. Afterwards I went to the Mervue Adoration Chapel to worship the One who is behind, above, beyond and within such beauty.

Eve and Har were at home when I returned and, with Mam, we did some reminiscing and laughing by the fire. Mam and I rang in the New Year quietly, having said Mass at 10.30pm, we had and few drinks and stood at the front door at midnight shouting Happy New Year to Margaret and Brendan Dowling, the Clohertys, the Quigleys and the Kennedys who came out briefly. The air was crisp with a heavy frost and the horns of the boats in the docks sounded like they were just in front of us. This used to be a wild night for us. Now the wildness had passed to two lively parties pouring out into the gardens across the avenue. It’s another kind of life, a world apart.”
Most of those have gone from us into everlasting life.

We cross the threshold now of these two years – 2019 into 2020. Into this new decade. Every threshold, every transition has meaning – its memories and its hopes, its curses and blessings, its losses and gains. We make the crossing with Mary Mother of God, in the spirit of the Epiphany, God seen again in this little Child in the poverty of the night, the Light that shines in the darkness, Light never to be overpowered.

In revealing Himself to the Magi, God shows His absolute freedom and His ability to surprise. He is discovered in this feast, not by men of faith and not in formal prayer but by so-called pagans who were watching the stars. So accustomed were they to gazing into the night sky that they noticed when something new occurred and something really new did occur when Jesus was born. Creation reacted to his birth and the Magi were ready, open to this new event and to its surprise, the surprising self-revelation of God that we sometimes miss because we are too distracted, tightened up, closed. This is the season for opening the doors of our hearts to the Truth revealed in Christ, this Beauty “ever ancient, ever new.”


Hasting Decembers 2019

AN ADVENT WEDDING: Sublime Intimacy

Advent weddings have a special appeal, though couples getting married in December probably don’t have Advent on their minds and are more likely to be thinking in terms of Christmas.

In a beautiful cathedral the Groom stands waiting for his beautiful Bride to arrive. It’s time! All the talking is done and he faces the altar quietly, intently staring ahead, allowing no distraction to deflect him. A single tear falls from his right eye. His three-year-old niece would like to blow out the Advent candles. There is to be no distraction. Twice he has asked me to make an announcement about photography – that no one but the official photographer should take pictures. The father of the Bride thought this to be unreasonable but she had been firm. She didn’t want the photos of her walking up the aisle to be filled with the heads of happy guests leaning out of the pews with mobile phones in their hands. I had never thought of it like that before but it makes perfect sense. It also meant that the Liturgy was an attentive and peaceful experience and I was amazed by the level of reverence in this largely young congregation, 60 per cent of whom were English and most of the remainder were Catholics from near the Border where Catholicism and faith are still held in high esteem.

I’ve come to look at Advent in the context of the wreath with its five candles that has become an essential part of preparing for Christmas. As far as I know no such thing was ever seen in Ireland before the 1970’s and I suspect that our own Pallottine Sister Juliana was instrumental in introducing it. The tradition, like Juliana herself, is German and she was very friendly with Father Seamus Ryan of St. Patrick’s College, Thurles who used to write in Intercom, the liturgical magazine.

It reminds me of a procession light that moves slowly towards Christmas, lesser lights leading to the perfect light of Jesus. This handsome, beautiful couple are also engaged in a procession towards the light, climbing the white steps to the altar to the three wedding candles that represent them, first as separate individuals and then as “one body” after they have consecrated themselves to each other and to God. Their wedding took place on the feast of St. John of the Cross whose “Living Flame of Love” came to mind, an appropriate image – the living flame of God’s love that burns in each of their souls uniquely, coming together into one living flame, a new reality that had not before existed. It is a reality that has God at its centre in the most natural way possible, a reality that elevates their love to a higher level, to the realms of the divine, a grace that flows through their sacred humanity, created in the image and likeness of God. The union of a husband and wife is a most distinctive expression of the face of God, the nature of who God is. Where there is love, there is God because God is Love.

Another aspect of the Liturgy that was a source of surprise was Holy Communion. I had given the congregation the opportunity of coming for a blessing if they were not receiving Communion and some did just that but most came reverently to receive, understanding what they were doing, knowing how to receive. Not coming up just for the sake of it. It was very inspiring.

Later at the reception a really nice young Dublin man approached to say how much he loved the Mass. “You know yourself” he said “how boring Mass can be!” “Not really” I said. “But you’re a young man” he said, “you know what it’s like! But this was different!” I laughed at the “young man” bit! He wasn’t drunk but perhaps his vision was slightly blurred!

During the reception the groom’s brother and best man took me aside for a chat, holding my hand all through. We’re cousins. He’s not one for standing still but stands still for a while with me, a man who is incredibly energetic, bright, a lawyer, a lover of fast cars, taking part in car rallies, plays rock music and swims in ice pools in Siberia or somewhere like that. We talk about Le Mans 66, the movie which I saw recently. He has driven in the reality of Le Mans and wants me to join him there sometime. But I think I’d die of a heart attack at such speed. And then he spoke to me about prayer – he doesn’t regard himself as a proper praying person but he puts himself in God’s hands every day which I think is a sublime prayer, the prayer of surrender. He’s almost half my age and thinks much too highly of me, though I accept the absolute sincerity of his admiration. We have a real respect and love for each other.

His trust in and surrender to God which is done with childlike simplicity is very much part of the Advent spirit. It’s what Mary and Joseph did in their own way, allowing God to do what He had chosen to do in their lives, even when it differed from their own good wisdom. It’s trusting a Wisdom that is higher than human, letting God have His way.

It was with such trust that Joseph heard the Word of the Angel Gabriel, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife!” And did just what the Angel told him to. “Take Mary home” is the phrase for the fourth Sunday of Advent that resonates with me and it connects with the beautiful poem of St. John of the Cross, “If You Want”, which my Camino Companion Mark sent to me at the beginning of this Holy Season.

you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing … (St. John of the Cross)

Under the roof of your soul you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth. I read these words to a man in a Care Home today. His illness has left him largely speechless and depressed but his eyes and his hands communicate something strong, as intent as the Groom on his wedding day. “I am no use” he manages to say but I hold his sacred hand that fills my entire being with grace and, placing my other hand on his chest and I said, “this is the stable, this is the soul under whose roof the divine comes to birth.” He nodded his head. And it is worth repeating and remembering that it is in the stable of our lives, the most unfit, unclean that the divine, the Christ comes to birth forever.

So, I take Mary home to my soul, let her take shelter under the roof of it, knowing that she bears within her the reality of Jesus who is the point of it all. He is perfect Peace, perfect Wisdom, perfect Love and there is no other to compare with Him in the entire universe. How blessed we are to know His loving kindness that visits us like the dawn from on high.