THE SOILED EARTH



Bury me not
In the soiled earth
Of Ireland

Whose dust
I have shaken
From my feet

Incinerate me there
If you must
But bring me back

To the higher ground
Of Fairlight and a sea
Less cruel beneath

Better an exile
In a foreign land
Than a stranger at home

PLOUGHED AND HARROWED: Fallow Land

All of a sudden my life collapsed in front of me. It seemed as if my soul spilled all over the table, briefly, very briefly. Did anyone notice? I don't know. Nobody said.

Head bent, looking straight down at the crucifix in my hands, I pulled everything back up into myself. And carried on.

The soil of my heart is ploughed and harrowed. The parable of the sower features at Mass these days. As a young man, whenever I heard that gospel, I used to worry about the state of my heart, that place within where God dwells. Is mine a shallow, unfaithful, hardened soil where only thorns and briars can grow?

But the years testify to something more, something better and I must confess it as a blessing from God that the soil of my heart is rich and fertile, a place where the seed of God's Word has been able to grow. I don't know what the yield is. Hardly 100 fold but maybe 30.

Soil becomes tired, depleted and needs to lie fallow for a while, left alone, unsown, unused, so that it can be restored and made productive again.

It's hard to let that happen,  to simply lie back and leave everything to the Divine Ploughman Planter but that is precisely what is needed now and it requires total trust in Him.

If you only knew what God is offering said Jesus to the woman at the well; and to Jerusalem, if you only understood the message of peace but you would not! He said it to them and says it now to me and to anyone who will listen.

We spend so much time and waste so much energy on who and what has stolen our peace when the one thing necessary is right in front of our eyes. The One who is Peace!

There are moments of grace when we find ourselves doing the right thing. The boy at his grandmother's death bed who takes up the prompt to speak to her in words like these: "Grandma, I don't know if you can hear me but I want to tell you how much I love you and I will never forget you."

And he bent down to kiss her and she who was unconscious opened her eyes, smiled at him and began a conversation that was still going on when I left. Awkwardness or shyness might have held him back but he did it, said it and caused something beautiful to happen that otherwise would not have happened.

There's another woman waiting to die and I have been called to her a few times. She has beautiful blue eyes that she can't fully open now. She was looking  for an Irish priest and thought we were all dead but they found me and I introduced myself as one of the surviving ones. It's a pleasure to pray with her in Irish and speak some words of Swahili - she lived some years in Kenya and Tanzania. Most of all there's solace in quietly holding the hand of this fallow life that has been so fertile in its years and will be infinitely fertile again.

We're so used to God in Ireland - though He has largely been repudiated there now - that it still stops me in my tracks when I meet someone who has no knowledge of God at all, not just doesn't believe in God but has no conscious experience of God. They come as part of baptism, wedding and funeral parties. Everything that we are - the church building, me, us - is foreign to them.

Some wander in from the street and I notice them there at odd times during the day, feeling that the open heart of Jesus had drawn them there unbeknownst to themselves.  And that's why it's important that the doors are left open as much as possible .

Some are captivated by the physical beauty of the building interior. And some feel a presence that they know not but which they speak of in tones of quiet awe.

I had a wedding today. One of the musicians has no belief in God but in the course of our interaction I can see a very fine soul that would be greatly enhanced by a personal encounter with God and much as I might like to make that happen, it is not for me to make it so. It happens by grace and in mysterious ways.

My first wedding without Mass - just the marriage ceremony.  It makes sense not to have Mass when one half of the couple is not a believer in any shape or form. But it had come to mean something to him. The months of meetings and preparation brought him to identify with the place and created a bond between the three of us and he was really happy. A year ago the idea of getting married in church in front of a catholic priest might have been totally out of the question.

It makes me think again that friendship is key and maybe more important than evangelizing, preaching or teaching. And the atmosphere of the community is vital. Here at Star of the Sea we have no formal community structures apart from Sunday Mass but there's an atmosphere that attracts all sorts of people who turn up for different kinds of experiences. Some come to one Mass for the Latin singing, others come for the vibrant atmosphere of the family Mass and others come for the silence of the Saturday evening liturgy. Those who turn up are children and actors and artists and women and men. Only God knows how they get here. Only God knows!

Anyway, I started out knowing that I am depleted and need to lie fallow for a while, to lie fallow before God and be restored.

This is a poem I wrote a few years ago:

PLOUGH
The warm curve
Of brown ploughed
Soil in Spring

Conceals the way
Of its coming
Into being

Sharp shining steel
Incisive cuts

Sod upturned exposed
To air and rain
And seed and grain

The need of it

The way of all ploughing
The ploughing of the heart

The pain of it

And oh the lovely
Harvest





INTOLERABLE LANGUAGE: Will you also go away?




Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John will be read at Mass over the next month or so. In it Jesus presents himself as bread for the hunger of humanity, the Bread of Life. The miracle of the loaves and fish, the rejection of earthly power, the escape to the solitude of the hills, the walking on water are all part of the mystery of Eucharist. The teaching that follows these events is provocative, demanding an unambiguous response, pushes us to a moment of decision. We cannot be indifferent.

"The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world...I AM the bread of life..." The response of many was to say that this is intolerable language, who could ever accept it? And most of the disciples left him at that stage. "What about you" he asked the twelve "will you go away too?" Where do I stand, with whom do I stand?

Jesus is immediately aware of the people’s hunger, ready to do something about it. He is alert, attentive, listening. He who dwells in the deep silence of the Father listens as the Father listens, is attentive as the Father is attentive. Through the immediate physical hunger He intends to feed the deeper hunger of the human heart.

A lovely line, an encouraging thought is that Jesus himself knew exactly what He was going to do about this great hunger. But He also wants us, the disciples to participate in His response. We as Community, as individuals are called to enter with Him into the profound silence of the Father, to hear the hunger of the people as God hears it. To listen to the cry of others, to listen without prejudice and without any agenda of our own. It is a call to universal listening, to be universal as He is universal and that includes listening to what I do not want to hear.

On a personal level Jesus is alert to the hunger that is in me, in each of us. The question is - am I alert to the hunger that is in me? What is the hunger that is masked by my addictions - the obvious addictions and the more subtle ones. Will I allow God to feed these hungers in a Godly way?

I am called to allow myself to taste and feel my deepest desires, to acknowledge them to God and to myself as a first step towards dealing with them in a life-giving way. It means I have to live in the depths of my own being and not simply continue drifting along the surface of my own reality. To live a real life that is offered to God in the Eucharist, to live a life that is capable of being disturbed, unsettled and ultimately transformed.

We ourselves may think that we do not have what is necessary to deal with our life's hunger, that what we have is clearly not enough. But the response of Jesus is to take these little, inadequate offerings and to find in them reasons for gratitude. He gives thanks and somehow the power of gratitude makes the miracle happen. There is enough, even more than enough.

An aspect of our Eucharist is to allow the inadequacy of our lives to be taken by Jesus, to be held by Him, to be empowered by His gratitude. We need to surrender our lives into His hands. This is not a lifeless, timid surrender, a simple giving up or resignation. It is a surrender born out of struggle, it is the fruit of an honest wrestling with God and myself, wrestling with my deepest desire. And out of all this comes the abundance that is more than enough. Jesus himself is the food for my desire, the abundance for which I yearn.

There's an interesting translation of this passage in which Jesus tells the disciples to gather up what's left over. Most translations talk about gathering up the scraps but this has Jesus telling them to gather up "the broken bits". The broken bits of our lives are collected and saved, saved for another day, another feeding. They are the reserved sacrament by which others will be fed, blessed and saved.


THE HILL OF MERCY: Camino Remembered

Angels of Mercy - Mark, Becky and Brend
In the morning we had to be out of the hostel by 7am. Alfred moved on alone, hoping to walk tracks that were not part of the set route. We were already that close from one day together that I felt lonely parting and I expected that we would not meet again. 

Not wanting to walk in the dark I stopped under a street light on the bridge to pray to the sound of cockcrow, the running waters of a river and the wind. Later in the morning I went into a field to say Mass under a tree because it seemed there was no guarantee of finding an open church.

I walked alone the 18 miles from Larrasoana to Zariquiegui via Pamplona and ended up being the only pilgrim in a private hostel in the tiny village. While walking through the beautiful city of Pamplona I became aware of how at ease I am in an urban setting. I love the sea, the country and solitude but at the end of the day I am urban! During the Camino I came to a heightened awareness of the sacredness of the city - the humanity of it, the presence of God in it.

While praying in the Cathedral in Pamplona I read John's Gospel chapter 2 - the Wedding At Cana and the Cleansing of the Temple. What Jesus offers now - the new wine - is better than what went before and in the cleansing of the temple he is also offering us something better than we have known. The question is will we, will I, allow Jesus to give what he is offering? Am I willing to go through the kind of cleansing that is necessary in order to experience the new?

I left Zariquiegui on Friday November 4th at 8.00 a.m. The rain was pouring down, the ascent of the alto de Perdon muddy and slippery, the fog thick and the air filled with the eerie sound of a hundred barely visible wind turbines.

Being Friday I decided to pray the Stations of the Cross internally, arriving at the top of the hill for the crucifixion. The monument is familiar from the movie ‘The Way’. On my way down the other side at the placing of Christ in the tomb my mind was instantly back at Calvary in Jerusalem 1999 a month after my sister Maura’s death. At that time I placed her in the tomb and cried and cried a torrent. Now in this place I not only placed Maura but Mam & Dad and my own past with its failure, its pain.

And the tears flowed again! And though I was totally alone, miles away from anywhere, I tried to hide my tears at first because they embarrassed me. But I dropped my hands and my guard and let go, crying all the way down.

It was one of the most significant moments of my Camino and I walked 24 miles that day to reach Estella, a day ahead of schedule, arriving in the hostel where Mark, Becky and Brend were staying, though I wasn't to get to know them yet. Mark and I met briefly on the stairs, introduced ourselves and he with his great smile said, "I look forward to getting to know you." Right then I wasn't fit to get to know anyone!

It seems to me that Divine Province intended me to meet these very people who became major blessings in my whole experience.

Estella was also the friendliest town so far. It had a working class, happy atmosphere, and I went out in the evening to have the loveliest burger and chips ever. And I got lost and was rescued by a lovely couple - Miguel & Conti - who walked me a long way back to the hostel, none of us having a language in common!




















BEGINNINGS: Camino Remembered

November 1st & 2nd, 2011 Beginnings With Aelfred

I woke at 6.00 a.m. on the Feast of All Saints to the sound of thunder. A look out the window revealed torrential rain. At 7.50 a.m. I walked out into the gloom of the morning, uncertain and with the intention of going to the church to pray for guidance but it was locked and soon I found myself walking the road to Valcarlos where I arrived two hours later soaked to the skin.

From there the rain eased off and most of the day took me through miles of beautiful forest, mountains and rivers. And utter solitude! Innocence allows me to stand looking up at the mountains rising high above me, realizing that I am so small. And at the same time I am aware that I stand higher than the tops of the trees and torrents below me “From the dust He lifts up the lowly, from the dungheap he raises the poor” (Psalm 113) God is great!

It took about eight hours and 15 miles to get to Roncesvalles, the monastery hostel where I first met Aelfred. We share the same small cubicle, along with two others. He’s 27 years old, Brighton born but grew up in Scotland which he claims as his native place. He was to become my first companion on the Camino.

We had just been to Mass in the monastery chapel where I participated as a member of the congregation with the other pilgrims. Before holy communion one of the celebrating priests announced that communion is only for Catholics but that others could come for a blessing. My immediate reaction was to ask myself what it must be like for a non-Catholic to be told this.

I got my answer from Aelfred back in our cubicle where he was pacing. When I asked “how are you?” he blurted out his hurt and anger at the exclusion he had just experienced which he saw as an exercise of power on the part of the Church. I listened, let him rant. He apologized for loading this on me and kept talking. I said it was ok. He needed to say it.

Next day I headed off at about 7.30. in very pleasant weather. In the late morning I stopped for coffee at a bar in a little village. Smiling I asked the woman behind the counter for a cafe Americano. Her face remained impassive as stone while she got me my coffee and when I smiled and said “grazias” she did not smile.

I sat outside and was soon joined by Alfred who was protesting against the set route of the Camino that we had to follow, protesting against being seen as a tourist. And he insisted that the woman behind the bar had such a face on her because she’s fed up with pilgrim tourists. It doesn’t matter to me whether we’re seen as tourists or not and the set external route liberates me to pay attention to the internal pilgrimage so I don’t have to worry much about finding my way. “The lot marked out for me is my delight...you will show me the path of life” (Psalm 16). But Aelfred’s rebellion against the route led him to places and experiences beneath the stars that remained unknown to me.

It began to rain so we covered up and moved on, spending the rest of the day together talking nonstop. We got to the small village of Larrasoana at about 5.00 p.m. Alfred was for going on a further 10km but I had enough and he decided to stay as well. The municipal albergue was small, smelly and unattended, with just one other pilgrim. There was something homely about the three of us being there together in the simplicity. When we lay down to sleep in our bunks Aelfred turned out the light and said to me “thank you for today.” Thank you too I said as I closed my eyes and listened in my headphones to the song I want to die to - What A Friend I've Found by Delirious?





Camino - St. Jean Pied de Port, point of departure



“...life must pass through difficulty in order to achieve any modicum of beauty”
(Colum McCann - Let The Great World Spin)


There were eight of us on the train up the mountains from Bayonne. One woman was obviously a pilgrim, being dressed much like me and carrying a backpack. The train stopped and after a delay the conductor came down to announce something that made the woman pilgrim puff and roll her eyes. Were we stuck? Everyone went up to the door of the driver’s cab and through his window we could see a flare burning bright at the entrance to a tunnel. There was the fear that rocks had fallen in the tunnel and the driver walked into the tunnel to check it out.

While he was gone everyone talked - happily. The eyes of a woman met mine so I asked if she spoke English. She did. And very well. Marlies and her daughter Monik are from Belgium. Marlies lives in St. Jean. Monik is visiting.

The driver returned, the journey resumed and when we got to St. Jean the two Belgians decided to walk with me to my hostel - Auberge du Pelerin - to make sure I got in. It was now 11.15 p.m. My knocks on the door and ringing of the bell brought no response from within. Marlies gave me her phone for me to call the woman of the house who came down and welcomed me into the dark silence.

I was talking like it was midday. She told me to be quiet because “people are asleep”. Hostels have lights out at 10.00 p.m. Opening the door into the dormitory she pointed to the top bunk inside the door. “This is yours” she said and then withdrew, leaving me to the darkness and the sounds of men sleeping. It was not the time to go rooting in my bag for anything so I threw it onto the bunk, climbed up and went to bed fully clothed. There was a blanket. 

The morning revealed a small dormitory with just three bunks and two elderly men going about their ablutions. The guy beneath me was still sleeping. He was younger than the rest of us.

At breakfast the woman of the house, Daniela, was chatting with a young female pilgrim who had a rosary wrapped around her wrist. They both gave me a warm welcome. The two older men from my dorm were at the end of their Camino - a Frenchman who sadly had to abandon his walk because of severe back pain and a German who does not believe in talking to God because he does not believe in God. He was planning to get the train to Lourdes that day. I said “maybe God is talking to you” and told him how peaceful the Grotto is, especially at night.

The third roommate arrived and sat quietly at a distance. He is Julien, a computer scientist from Paris and he’s here to help Daniela clean up and close up. A nice man. I’m the last pilgrim of the season.

St. Jean is a beautiful place and it’s a beautiful day. There was some discussion at breakfast as to whether I should begin today or not because there is concern about the weather. But having been up all night travelling I decide to rest before beginning. Daniela agrees and says it will be alright.

When I asked Daniela where she comes from she replied, "I'm a citizen of the world. I allow no country to claim me." During the winter months she goes off backpacking somewhere around the world. She plans to do archery in India!














THE PACE OF MY WEAKNESS

There is a prophet among them, a prophet unheard and despised. (Ezekiel 2:5 and Mark 6:1-6)


If I remember rightly it was during the Synod on Religious Life in 1994 that Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) said that Religious Life is the prophetic arm of the Church and he described the prophet as one who sees the face of God.

We usually think of prophecy in terms of the spoken Word but it is first of all spiritual vision, vision of God in the way that Moses beheld the Holy Face of God on Mount Sinai where God spoke to him as one does to a friend. When Moses came down from that encounter the people first noticed how he radiated the presence of God before ever he said a word to them.

Prophecy is about recognizing the presence of God in the ordinary and extraordinary realities of life, in all its struggle, suffering, it's joys and hopes. It is about speaking Gods Word to those realities and being a prophetic presence.

Paul received a prophetic word in his struggle with some weakness, a "thorn in the flesh". Instead of God taking awaythe problem He said "my grace is suffient, my power is at its best in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12). Paul accepted the Word and went on to say "I shall make my weaknesses my special boast...for when I am weak then I am strong."

This is where many of us might reject the prophetic Word and in this world such an idea is ridiculous because none of us wants to be weak and everything in the world suggests that we ought to be strong.

Can I welcome weakness as a grace and an opportunity to experience the power of Christ in me?

On the Camino to Santiago I experienced prophetic presence, word and action many times and one day in particular comes to mind.

It was the 26th day of walking and my enthusiasm, my pride had already been humbled by the intense pain in my right foot which kept suggesting that I would not be able to keep going.

Five of us were on the 30km walk to Ocebriero, the last 10km being a steady ascent. My companions were young - in their 20's, early 30's - and they might well have strode ahead in their strength but, instead, they stayed with me, walked at my slow pace, encouraged and supported me all the way.

This was prophetic presence in action, in this God was telling me that He takes the pace of my weakness and pain. He remains with us, moves forward with us at our speed.

This is generally not an issue for the young but it does matter as we grow older and our limbs no longer move as quickly as they did, when we easily run out of breath.

It matters that God also travels at our speed when we become emotionally, spiritually and mentally incapacitated. "I am with you" is His enduring promise.

The other significant prophetic moment came when Brend looked at me with real concern and said, "Eamonn if you're not able to walk we'll carry you!" It would have been an impossible feat up that ascent but he absolutely meant it. They would have carried me somehow. I was urged on by this love, the love of Christ in him, in them. And there's a song by Michael W Smith that I hum when I think of that moment. I Will Carry You. God carries us.

Amen! Let it always be!

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