By Pelham Beach: I Think As I Pray



A beautiful Friday afternoon. Walking the sea front by Pelham Beach in the direction of the Bathing Hut Café which never seems to be open and is exactly three miles from my door. It’s a walk I do every other day, mostly in the evening. Six miles in total and it’s really good for my head.

I pray as I go and think as I pray and often just let my eyes and my mind float, taking in what’s there. The beauty of everything. Every one.

September 28th. I remember it’s exactly a year ago since I was inducted as Parish Priest of St. Mary Star of the Sea. 28 is a significant number – January and July. I was 28 years old the last time I became a Parish Priest in Galapo, Tanzania.

I don’t know how to assess the last year, to know whether I’m doing well or not. There’s always a bit of a shadow lurking to suggest I will never really get it right, that I never have in fact gotten it right. The shadow suggests that my mistakes - past and present - are bigger than they actually are.

The devil is an accuser. The Bible says that the accuser has been thrown down, that we have conquered him by the Blood of the Lamb. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of His Christ. For the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, he who accuses them day and night before our God. They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony…”’ (Revelation 12:10-11)

He may be down but is certainly not out. He still has what it takes to pull me down.

But I don’t give in and find myself living in the present quite a bit – it being the only thing I can be sure of and doing my best in every moment is all I have control over. 

There are things I will never get right but it's not so much about me getting it right or getting it right at all. It's about us as a parish, what exists when we come together. There is certainly great warmth and happiness, and for me a sense of completion especially at weekend Masses.

Two, no three things have been recurring in my mind and life over the past few days – eyes, the unfairness of life and the Camino, the latter never being too far from my consciousness.

Yesterday morning at eight I got a call from the hospital to go and see a man who is terminally ill. A young husband and father of three little children. He cried profusely at the unfairness of it all and he knows the prayer, speaks it in the face of such a hard reality. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Only God has the answer to that and sometimes, as in the case of Jesus, the answer is silence.

This man has beautiful blue eyes that look directly into mine and offer me a vision of his soul. Beautiful soul. Frightened and beautiful. And he is disappointed that he never got to do the Camino. I said he’s on an altogether different kind of Camino now but, like the one that leads to Santiago, the principle towards every destination is the same – one step at a time, one moment.

Later I had a funeral at the crematorium. It’s where older Catholics are brought by children who have no connection with the Church for a ceremony that has little connection with the faith of their parents. It’s just the way things are and the challenge for me is to find the connection with God that is actually there.

The coffin came in draped in a beautiful multicoloured blanket that was knitted by her friends and included two pieces knitted by her young grand daughter and grandson. She was carried in to the sound of Dolly Parton singing “Coat of Many Colours” and it was in this that I found my connection. Jacob giving his beloved Joseph the coat of many colours, symbol of God the Father’s favouritism, His lavish love, symbol too of the colour of the deceased woman’s own love.

I would love every Catholic to have a funeral Mass in our church but I always offer Mass for them anyway. Perhaps there is something honest about a simple crematorium service and, of course, there are no restrictions and great freedom. People can play whatever kind of music they want and read whatever kind of readings they want. And no matter what is sung or read, there is usually a way to find God through it. I suppose that’s what the Incarnation is about – God present in the reality of people’s lives.

Today we had a funeral that was a beautiful blend of both church and crematorium. A 66-year-old man with Downes syndrome who loved the Church, especially its joyful music and loved Manchester United. It was my first time seeing a Man United coffin and I decided to wear red vestments in his honour.

At Mass we sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, two Gloria’s, ‘Bind Us Together’, ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, ‘Give Me Joy In My Heart’. In the Crematorium we had ‘Football’s Coming Home’ and ‘Glory Glory Man United!’

Last night I had dinner with two couples who are getting ready to do the Camino and they wanted to pick my brain on it. Talking about the Camino for me is as life-giving as being on the sea. Blisters, boots and socks were gone over at length. The kind of clothes to wear. Hostels. And we got talking about the long climb up to O’Cebreiro, arriving in that lovely Franciscan church with Exposition and the row of Bibles in many languages. Singing ‘Bess The Lord My Soul’ – Mark, Becky, Brend and me!

Brend has beautiful eyes that speak. Last week at Mass Martin West from Hastings Street Pastors spoke about the eyes of a young man that spoke, that pleaded and I’m thinking of the eyes of a little girl in Shankill.

I had just finished Baptisms and the crowd were milling round very noisily when a grandmother pushed through the gathering, holding the hand of her little granddaughter. The woman told me the girl couldn’t hear or speak and would I bless her with the baptismal water.

So, I got down on my knees in front of the girl so that we were about the same size. Dipped my hands in the font, bringing the holy water under her long black hair, only to discover that the child had no ears at all and I said straightaway to God in silence, “Oh my God, she has no ears. This is so unfair!” and my heart sank into sadness.

But then our eyes met and hers were smiling serenely. There was no unhappiness in her. She was living her reality contentedly. And it was as if God said to me, as if she herself said, “touch the place where her ears might be, touch this part of her beauty and bless it.”

I can still feel the softness of the flesh there and I can still see her eyes and feel her happiness. And still on my knees, still looking into her eyes I asked if she would bless me. So, she dipped her hand into the font and blessed me with a quiet smile. It was like she touched the damaged parts of my life and pronounced them beautiful.

It’s what God seeks to do for all of us when we come to Him, it’s what Jesus asks us to do in His Name, to be with Him rather than against Him, to be with each other rather than against each other. To bless the broken parts of our lives, not always to fix what is damaged but to find the beauty in them, to pronounce them beautiful.

At the end of next month, I will visit each class in Sacred Heart School and on that day, I will send each child on a mission in the name of Jesus to bring a blessing home. I have great faith in the blessing that is given by a child. It is the simplest and loveliest of things.

I take a moment to visit the damaged parts of my life, those parts that I think of as unlovely, even ugly and I allow the child Jesus to pronounce a blessing over them. Amen!
On my way back I go through the town centre to by some glue and stuff for making cards. The place seems to be winding itself up to live it up for the weekend. Some men in a bar are already talking more loudly than is necessary. It seems like they're already well oiled. 

And I catch the words of a young man passing by as he tells his companion, "he left us when I was five."
God bless and protect them all. God bless us all.


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