Been to see Jay at Eastbourne Hospital. This giant of a man comes towards me with his arms wide open, giving me a big hulk of a hug. He wants me to do so many things and, though obedience in me wants to do everything, I can only do some. Amazing that he wants to be homeless, sleeping in his tent in the woods. Would I check to see if his tent is still there? He feels safer there than in a building. He kisses my hand, an action that always embarrasses and humbles me. I say, “there’s no need!” And then I choose to kiss his hand. It is an act of reverence and love, like kissing the hand of the baby Jesus in the painting by Fray Juan Bautista Maino.

Walking in the cold sunlight I pass a family coming back from town with their shopping. They move slowly, looking content, unburdened. The man smiles at me. I smile back.

The sight of them makes me suddenly, surprisingly nostalgic for childhood Christmas shopping and I'm back home, going to the market in town with Mam and Colie Carr. Two bicycles. Mam haggling. A live goose on the back carrier of one bike, a turkey on the other. Did they carry Christmas trees too? The scent of pine is alive in me. The turkey hanging by its feet on the back door. Plucking it. The pleasant feel of its cold flesh. Mam dealing deftly with the entrails. A brief loneliness for all that comes over me, fleeting, passing. And there's a worn-down tiredness on me, a physical tiredness that is probably due to the fact that I am alone in my responsibility for the parish, though most of the time it isn’t a burden. But maybe it’s the constancy, and the fact that I haven’t been home for three months. That’s about to change!

Despite tiredness I've opted to walk, half hoping to get back to Eastbourne town centre to see the movie Motherless Brooklyn. Monday is movie day, my day off. I love anything to do with Brooklyn.  The sight and sound of it. But I'm unlikely to get to the cinema on time. It's a 40-minute walk. So, I give up on that and concentrate on the fact that I'm ravenous.

I get to daydreaming, thinking about the young people newly arrived in our parish from India and other countries of the East who will spend their first Christmas so far from home. Some of them are already desperately lonely and I wonder if I can do anything for them.

And I think about Christine who died last night at 8.00pm on December 8th, Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Originally from Dublin she spent all of her adult life in England, married for 68 years to Bob who died in late December last year. She could be very abrupt and in your face with her comments but she had a great Dublin heart. Her daughter Susan who had Downs Syndrome died a few years back, before my time here and Christine said of her, “I thank God for the privilege of being given such a beautiful, loving daughter.” A counter-cultural statement that was spoken with typical conviction.

Christine was moved to the hospice just a few days ago. Her daughter asked if I would go to see her this coming week but a young doctor from the parish who works at the hospice sent me a message of Saturday to say that Christine wanted the “last Rites.” The young doctor joined in the prayer as did Christine herself – three of us gathered in the name of Jesus; He Himself present with us in fulfilment of the Scriptures. The doctor withdrew, leaving us alone to talk and pray some more. I said the Divine Mercy Chaplet and she said, “thank you very much, it’s lovely to see you!” She repeated that a few times. I put my rosary beads under her pillow, kissed her forehead and told her I love her. A moment of grace.

Passing the station, this young man is standing in my path, saying something, waking me out of my daydream. He's trying to charm something out of me for a charity, telling me how friendly I look – my suspicion immediately aroused - and then he's talking about my age. "You're about 54-55?" And I start laughing in spite of myself. "Flattery!" I said, "you want my credit card details and I'm not giving it. And I'm nearly 65!" In fairness to him he doesn't push but continues talking about charity, Hastings, suspects I'm from Dublin. Galway, I say. He's from Dublin. So, the Irish in us keeps talking a while longer. There’s a team of them with a stand, probably professional fundraisers not directly connected to the charity.

I notice that I'm standing outside the Beacon Shopping centre that houses the cinema but it's hunger that drives me in there. Beautiful new shopping centre! Not really that much different to any other but the new excites me like a child and I’m wowed in admiration. My enthralment takes me as far as the cinema which enthrals me even more, so I decide to check if I’m still on time. Yes! The ads and trailers are still on. Then armed with a hot-dog, Pepsi and a senior’s ticket I walk through this astonishing neon place.

The Guardian website describes the movie as “a substantial and distinctive drama, unlike anything in the cinema right now” which was enough to get me interested. Edward Norton plays a lonely private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, causing him to twitch rather violently and shout out whatever comes into his head. They refer to him as freakshow, a terrible thing to say to anyone and in the beginning, you think he’s not very bright but he’s very, very bright. Well worth seeing. A very good story. Good soundtrack, including Thom Yorke of Radiohead singing the haunting Daily Battles which is somehow not as effective when listened to apart from the movie.

You come out of a cinema suspended between worlds, a floating feeling that continued the train journey home. And a day nicely spent! Thanks be to God!

It's Only Your Strength I Remember

He is one of the strongest men I know - a hunter, builder, fisherman, priest. Steady, stalwart. But the serious illness of his sister whom he loved brought him low, upset him greatly for he is also strong in love and loyalty. I was comforting him and he said, “I envy you your strength!” And I replied, “you have seen me at my weakest!” He had indeed witnessed me close up at my weakest worst. But he said, “it’s only your strength I remember.”

Memory is a strange thing. When I look back at my life as it was ten to fifteen to twenty years ago I remember it in largely negative terms, think of myself as a mess and a failure but when I read my diaries from that time I am brought face to face with something a lot more positive than I realized. When I read of other things this friend and colleague said about me in those years then I know that, in fact, I was ok – more than ok. What he has said of me bears a weight beyond all others because he confronted and challenged me, demanded that I make the changes that were necessary in my life. Perhaps the strength he admires is that I hauled myself out of a very deep pit, climbed upwards, moved forward instead of falling back or going into reverse. It was strength in weakness, the strength of God at full stretch. 

So, I remember this and thank God for it in a Magnificat kind of way. It is Mary who comes to mind now; Mary who represents all of us who are lowly; she who remembers with gratitude what God has done and honours Him – “the Almighty has done great things for me…and has lifted up the lowly.” This is exactly what God has done in me. Magnificat prayer is a positive and grateful way of remembering, a prayer that was so important to the Jews from the time of Moses who called the people to remember and never forget all that God has done. It is, of course, central to the Mass, the Eucharist which is the great prayer of thanksgiving of the Church offered to the Father in the name of Jesus. So, I thank God that I sank so low in order to know what it is to be lifted up, that I am so weak that it is God who can be so strong. I thank God for the man who saw me and sees me anew, remembering the good of me rather than anything else.

This friend has revealed something of God’s own nature to me, made it real to me, something that I have mentioned not too long ago – God’s forgetfulness – and somehow, in order for us to become truly free, we need to enter into this forgetfulness of God that leaves us free of past pain, to find a way of remembering that is a blessing for this present moment.

For more than thirty years I have been saying this prayer that came to me during an Ignatian thirty-day retreat, “Teach me to see as You see, to understand as You understand, to Love as You Love, to respond with Your Heart.” The prayer initially had to do with how I see other people, specifically difficult people whom I find hard to like. But it can apply to any situation so, in the context of memory, I pray to God, “teach me to remember as You remember, to forget as You forget, to let go as You let go, to move forward as You move forward.” 

To remember as God remembers does involved facing wrongs of the past so that justice may be done and freedom gained in the present. On a personal level there is a remembering of the past that is necessary so that we can find freedom in the present and we we don't go on forever dragging the past with us, a dragging that takes us down.

In wounded relationships there comes a time when the past must literally be forgotten so that reconciliation can take place. I waited for years for another to admit fault and apologize, until I realized that I might never get that and time was running out, life is running out. I decided to let it all go and it has made such a difference. Not perfect but better. 

And for many years I’ve also been saying a line from a prayer of St. Claude de la Colombière, “teach me perfect self-forgetfulness, for this is the only way to you!” A tall order but wise words. He teaches that There can be no peace except in perfect self-forgetfulness. We must reconcile ourselves to forgetting even our spiritual interests, in order to seek only God's pure glory.

St. Paul speaks of the self-forgetfulness of Christ in 2 Corinthians 10:1 and in Philippians 2, where he calls us to put on the mind of Christ, he has the beautiful hymn of Christ’s self-emptying. Jesus goes out of Himself towards the Father, towards us, towards the world. And that is what can happen to us the more we live “in Christ”, we become part of the outward movement of His Holy Spirit, knowing that we are remembered and minded by the Father, so there’s no need for us to think too much about ourselves, past, present or future.

As an introvert it’s very difficult for me to become self-forgetful but that is the goal and the hope offered in Jesus.

ADVENT: One Great Act of Giving Birth

“…we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home.” (2 Peter 3)

Memories surface in the stillness before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament - childhood, youthful, lovely memories. And a Word from the book of Revelation points me in the direction I need to travel on my spiritual journey this Advent, as a way of preparing for Christmas and for eternity. Jesus says, “you do not love me now as you did at first!” (Revelation 2) and indeed I know that my love for Him has become quiet, lacking in the kind of feeling I would like to have, needing more ardour, devotion. There was a time when I was a child and I had this really strong love for God and I find myself speaking the words of Henry Vaughan in ‘The Retreat’ “Happy those early days when I shined in my Angel-infancy. Before I understood this place…” and though I can’t return to the past, my prayer is to rediscover something of that kind of pure childlike love.

The flame of my love for God cooled down to a pile of hot embers on the grate in the fireplace, embers that wait through the night to be stoked again in the morning!

Of course, in childhood love is simpler, purer, less complicated but as we go through life it can become a sorrow, a hurt - experiences we need to emerge from with a different and, perhaps, a stronger kind of love.

My years as a seminarian and young priest were marked by an intense desire for God, like the feeling one gets when you live far from home. It’s a home-sickness for God. Everyone who has left home knows that feeling, the anticipation of coming home for Christmas; the waiting for the one you love to come home.

Those early years were also marked by a great appetite for prayer, though I had to be taught to moderate my zeal for prayer and for God. I used to leave what was called “sacred study” to go to the chapel to pray alone but the Rector caught me and convinced me that there’s no good praying when you’re supposed to be studying. There’s an order, a discipline to the spiritual life that means I can’t be in formal prayer when I’m supposed to be engaged in pastoral ministry, though prayer happens of its own accord throughout the day. It stands to reason but I have never since regained the same unquenchable appetite for prayer and part of me thinks now that if I were left alone to the workings of the Holy Spirit, I would have gotten the balance right anyway.

The other thing which is closely associated with the prayer goes back to how much I loved God. I just loved Him so much for Himself but a friend reminded me that I should also love people like I loved God. There was no question of me not loving people but my friend said I didn’t love them enough, so, as I often do, I surrendered to what I regarded as the superior wisdom of another. I dedicated myself to what my friend asked and it worked. It worked so well that now I wish I could love God as much as I love the people in my parish, as well as those who are obviously dear to my heart. I lost the intensity of love for God along the way and I want it back. That’s what I desire this Advent. That is my waiting!

I’ve learned that all desire is ultimately for God and that is what Advent is really about – “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting, my body pines for you.” (Psalm 63); “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you my God.” (Psalm 42). 

And it goes beyond me, us, our families and all of humanity because the whole of Creation is in a state of groaning with us, yearning and waiting for its fulfilment in Christ – “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly” (Romans 8).

Everything that exists is connected to Him and comes to completion in Him – “Christ is everything and He is in everything!” (Colossians 3:11) – and it is part of our Christian faith that we see ecology, caring for the earth, the environment in the context of God and not separate from Him. Our obligation is not just to the planet and all that lives on it, but to God the Creator of it all.

Something else we tend to forget and maybe don’t want to think about – there will be an end of the world as we know it; there will be the Second Coming of Jesus but the extinction we fear is not extinction but rather transformation, re-creation, fulfilment and resurrection. Caring for the earth is part of our preparation for that fulfilment; caring for our souls is also an essential preparation for that fulfilment and our entry into eternal life. The preparation takes place now. It is living now in the way that Jesus calls us to live; it is entering into the movement of the Holy Spirit who prays within us with groans beyond all utterance. (Romans 8)