FIRST OF MAY: When I Was Small





When I was small we all looked forward to the first of May – long before the Bee Gees wrote their beautiful song - when the leaves were fresh on the trees and the sun seemed to shine most of the time, though sometimes it rained heavily as we made our daily pilgrimage to the Grotto in Castlegar, about two miles from home. We were right on the edge of Galway city and it was over the wall and through the fields that we made our way, taking time to play among the rock and bushes, dreaming up great fantasies and dramas from snake valley to mansions and boats carved out of stone.
It was a time when faith was woven fairly seamlessly into ordinary life as we were keenly aware of the Divine in our midst and we turned to the Mother of Christ for help in everything we had to undertake. For us children as we grew into secondary school, we needed her help with exams. We went to her in droves every day after school, though I didn’t fare too well in exams even after the most fervent of praying but it wasn’t her fault because I was made for things other than formal education and I didn’t put in the kind of effort that was necessary to do well with study.
At the age of fifteen I was already breaking in and out of innocence, familiar with teenage turmoil and the Grotto was for me a place of bliss where the birds sang as if in paradise and we were held beneath a canopy of green trees rustling in the wind. There were five stone steps for us to kneel on, one for each of the mysteries of the rosary and I would look up at the tranquil statue of Our Lady who seemed to be gazing into a distance that I felt to be my destiny. No other Grotto in the world has ever come near to Castlegar for beauty, atmosphere, mystery – not even the great Grotto of Lourdes. It has a power to awaken hidden memories of hope, hope that is born of God and has its fulfilment in God. I pray for everyone who has ever prayed there. Everyone who has gone there has done so with utmost sincerity, though some may have lost a lot on the way of life. We have all lost! May it be recovered and may each one be restored to that blessed interior innocence of the child of God and Mary. 
Grotto
Place of beauty
Moment of bliss
Birds singing

Sound of the Grotto
In May

I am fifteen
Nearly innocent again
Almost recovered

From breaking down
Still bruised
But breathing

Passing through the gap
From the rocky fields
Of play to churchyard prayer

Entering the gateway
To paradise beneath
A canopy of fresh green

Oasis in the desert
Deep pool where raging
Rapid waters cease

Five stone steps
To ascend
Five mysteries

Joy
Sorrow
Glory

I am on my knees
In unhurried prayer
Making this refuge last

Fending off  the future
As long as I can

"Will you mind me?"
I wonder

On the sixth step
I am Bernadette silently
Looking up to Mary
Looking higher still

The ultimate ascent
That I have yearned for
Since first I left it

But now I must descend again
To the old priest's grave

And run for a further
Wordless glance to Jesus
In the sanctuary

The sound of the ticking
Pendulum clock
Reminding me of an old
Kitchen telling me its time

40 Years Red



Red the life vest of the oarsman. Red the wide-rim hat of a smiling cyclist.  Red the lips, the dress of a woman walking into the sun. Red the fluttering shirt of a young man running.  Red the coat of a woman calmly writing, seated stately on the pebbled shore. Red the tulips. Red has made me smile, revived my drooping spirits. And yellow is the Mustang that growls like a contented lion.

Our daily prayer begins with Psalm 95. Before I leave my bed this morning a line from it is already hovering around me – “for forty years I was wearied of these people.” What a thought with which to start the day. But it’s the forty years part that is significant now because on this day forty years ago I made my Final Profession as a Pallottine on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena and I intend this to be a blessed, peaceful day.

It's also Monday, my day off, a day that always finds me spun out after the weekend. It’s my day of rest and I tend to approach it slowly, quietly lingering over breakfast before going on to pray and then making a decision about what to do with my freedom.

But today I’m not feeling very well - and it has nothing to do with chocolate!  Didn’t have a good night and I begin by tripping and stumbling into the morning – literally. The doorbell was ringing incessantly and I had to scramble to get dressed before going down to answer. So, I feel frazzled, frangled – there’s no such word but it’s what I feel - my nerves a bit on edge. There were too lovely people standing there, one of whom I was pleased to see but the other was way too early for me.

He’s Christ in need and I treat him badly, with impatience because I already know every line of the speech he is about to give and he will not stop until he has worn me down and then proceeds to ask for much more than I have given. So, I’m not on for it, tell him I can’t do this right now and feel ashamed of myself, a foolish feeling that won’t leave me alone all the day long. There’s no excuse for being impatient like that. And maybe my pride is wounded for letting myself down in that way!

Eventually I go for a walk, a gentle 11k (according to my app!) along the seafront in the lovely sunshine, passing the idle big wheel, and it’s out there that all the beautiful reds dance before my eyes. But it’s not just the blaze of anonymous red that revives my drooping spirit. I’m most specially revived by my encounter with a lovely young mother from the parish and her two beautiful sons on their little scooters. It is a radiant joy. And as always, the children are a little bit puzzled by the sight of me not wearing vestments!

I get to thinking about the power of uniform and I’m the tall young undertaker whom I meet regularly on the job. So reliable, calm, sure of what needs to be done, with an unflappable smile when things are going awry. And sometimes I meet him on his way to work, out of uniform and he appears more vulnerable. I wonder is that how I appear when not wearing my vestments?

The evening is closing in now and I’ve closed the church door, switched off the lights and whispered a sigh to Jesus. Then a text from my friend consoles me ever before I tell him how bereft I feel. He’s feeling the same for some reason so we are in this moment a bereft brotherhood, breaking that particular bread over the material distance that separates us. I will listen to Pray-as-you-Go and be one with him in that too, praying for all who are even more bereft than I, those who do not have access to the peace that will enfold me this night.

BREND: A Special Feeling








It happened to me. Even though I chose it, took it on, walked it – the Camino was something that happened to me. Every encounter, every experience of the Pilgrimage was like God doing something to me and in me – in a small way like it was done to Mary according to the Word of God at the Annunciation. It is said that it is not the pilgrim who makes the Camino but the Camino makes the pilgrim. It’s true.

Meeting Brend was one of the key happenings on that journey almost eight years ago. He was twenty-five years old then and now he is thirty-three and he arrived in Hastings on Easter Monday having cycled three days from Arnhem in Holland. This was our fifth meeting since the Camino and as always when we’re together we think and talk a lot about our other Camino companions, especially Mark and Becky. I miss them.

He was exhausted from the journey and I’m pretty tired after the wonderful Holy Week and Easter ceremonies. We went to Porters for food and stayed up too late talking. We talked a lot over the next few days and it’s like we have never been apart. We adjust to each other very quickly.

Faith makes up part of our conversation. Brend is not bound by any institution but at the same time he is quite Catholic and is perhaps becoming more so. One Sunday afternoon on the Camino, the day after Brend and I first met, we were chatting with a group of pilgrims in the dormitory about our reasons for doing the Camino. Mine were clearly religious & spiritual. Michael, who is Catholic, said he was doing it for cultural and sporting reasons. He and Brend got into a discussion on work and money.

Brend said that he wanted to do something for people and went on to talk about his religious experiences which had led him to believe that all religions are good, that one is not better than another. And then, placing his hand on his chest he said "but in here I have a special feeling for Jesus". The gesture, the tone, the expression on his face were beautiful. Look after that feeling I said to him then.

It's something that worries me about our children and young adults, the next generation of my own family – how quickly they move away from the fervent experience of First Holy Communion. Especially when they move to secondary school, they abandon almost all of the external evidence of faith, become embarrassed by it, embarrassed by those who practise it. They do this, I believe, mostly because of peer pressure but I would appeal to them not to let anyone or any thing rob them of their genuine interior feeling for Jesus. To love Him even in secret, just like Joseph the secret disciple of Jesus in the Gospel. No one should touch to destroy the sacred experience of Jesus that a child has had and if it is nurtured in its secret inner place, it will emerge as a saving grace in later life. Now Brend talks about how Christianity is the only religion that has compassion at its heart. In Chelva a couple years ago we all had spoken about the heart of Jesus being at the centre of our religion and now too he speaks of how it’s not enough to simply believe in Jesus but we should also imitate Him, be like Him, do what He did. What He does!

It brings me to Divine Mercy Sunday which we celebrate today, the second Sunday of Easter. In the Gospel the disciples are locked in the Upper Room of the Last Supper for fear of the Jewish religious authorities of the time. Jesus, the risen Mercy of God, comes through the locked doors, enters into the confined space in which they have placed themselves, enters in to their fear and confusion, speaking His Word of Peace to them, addressing the reality in which they find themselves. He addresses the doubt of St. Thomas, brings him to touch His wounds, His pierced heart, leads him to faith. My Lord and my God!

It is the same Mercy of God that approaches us in whatever reality we find ourselves, the confined spaces in which we have somehow chosen to live. It may be the confinement of fear or some hurt; it may be a confined attitude to God; a limiting idea of who we ourselves are. Quite often it is a feeling of guilt that we cannot let go of or a way of living that has imprisoned us.

Whatever it is, Jesus comes into it, speaks His peace to it, breathes the power of the Holy Spirit into it, transforms and changes us by the grace of His mercy, by His own risen wounds. And the He sends us out from that place – “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you!” We leave our confinement to become instruments of Peace, Mercy and Compassion. We do so by the kind of people we are, by our presence in the lives of those whom we meet in the Providential Mercy of God.












RADIANT WITH GLADNESS: Easter Vigil Homily 2019




Last Sunday morning at the 10am Mass Deacon Duncan and I were standing at the altar, possibly during the Eucharistic Prayer, when we saw little Emily leading her mother up the side aisle until they came right in front of the altar. Emily is about a year and a half old and I think she is just learning to walk and her mum is behind her holding both of Emily’s hands so that it’s the child who is at the front, leading. What both Duncan and I saw was the extraordinary joy on the face of the child as she looked up. She was literally radiant with gladness at whatever she was seeing – and it was not Duncan or me. It was like she was having a vision of God. It was quite extraordinary.

So, she has become for me a symbol of the journey that we have all been making towards Easter and it is somehow the child, that which is innocent within us that has led us here to catch sight of the mystery of Jesus who died and has come back to life. No one but God knows what was going on in Emily’s mind, no one but God knew what was going on inside the tomb as Jesus lay there in the silence of death; no one but God knows what’s going on in the hidden depths of each of our souls. It may seem that nothing is happening, it may even seem that we are permanently un-revivable. But the tomb of Jesus tells us another story. Jesus Himself tells us another story – that there is always more, always hope.

We cannot understand the Resurrection of Jesus. We cannot understand the Mystery of God. When I was at home a couple of weeks ago my two young nieces Katie and Laura came to stay with me – just the three of us. On the Sunday morning we had Mass in the sitting room and after the gospel we talked about religious things and Laura asked, “who made God anyway?” I said it was a very good question but that nobody made God, He was always there. And Katie said, “Laura, it’s a mystery!” And Laura replied, “Oh Mystery makes my skin tingle!” And that I believe is a true response to God. When we cannot put words on our experience, when we cannot find words to express what our faith is about, then something in us tingles in a kind of positive frustration.

For the past six months or so we have been going through the RCIA programme with our eight adults while the young people have been following the First Holy Communion classes. It has been a most satisfying experience that is beyond words. It is a journey that challenges the culture in which we live, a journey not understood and maybe even frowned upon by our culture. Some of you have literally been led here by your own children, some of you have brought your own children along, some of you have been led here by the child within your own soul, a child searching and in need of something.

I would like to thank you for coming into our lives, into the life of this community. We who have been your teachers have been greatly enriched by the experience and this community is greatly blessed by your presence. And one of the lovely things is that you reveal a freshness, an openness and freedom from the baggage that some of the rest of us have gathered along the way. You have put no conditions on this experience and so, you resemble Mary the Mother of Jesus, who gave her unconditional yes to God and by that open, unconditional yes the salvation of others, the salvation of the world is made possible.

Eamonn Monson SAC

From Notre Dame to Sacre Coeur: Easter 2019





It was Tuesday morning when I heard the news that Notre Dame de Paris had gone up in flames the evening before. Having seen it three years ago and, more importantly, having prayed there, I felt a pang of sadness. And then it struck me that there is something powerfully symbolic about the event and its timing, it being the start of Holy Week and perhaps it stands now as a prophetic statement of the spiritual state of Catholicism, not just in France but in Europe. As if Our Lady herself, Notre Dame, is reminding us how things really are.

Much of the reaction has been about the physicality and cultural importance rather than the spiritual and, it’s very interesting that politicians and the wealthy could so readily commit money to the restoration of this great building but do not show the same readiness to put money into the restoration of the lives of the poor. Still, the burning of this much-loved building has brought people’s attention to its sacredness and we have the witness of Fr Jean-Marc Fournier who entered the burning building to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. And when the fire went out, there stood the altar and the cross shining above as another prophetic statement of what survives, signs of hope in the midst of disaster. There must always be hope. There is always hope in Christ.

The burning of Notre Dame sent my mind off to the other great Basilica of Paris, Sacre Coeur which I love very much because I experienced it as a wonderful and vibrant place of prayer. Sacre Coeur, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was Sacre Coeur that came into my conversation with a man in a nursing home whom I visited that afternoon. We hadn’t spoken of Notre Dame but he talked about how he had become an atheist at the age of 16 and, still an atheist at 24, he found himself going up the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris, just one of the many enthusiastic tourists gathered there. It was night but the doors of the Basilica were open and he found himself drawn to the light there and on entering he saw the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar and it seemed to be a blazing beacon that reached out to him. All he could do was fall on his knees.

Then, after he left, he started to rationalize the whole experience until he dismissed it altogether and reverted to his atheism. But that light would emerge in him many years later, it would lure him back to the faith into which he was baptized. When I visit him now he is hungry for the Eucharist, he glows in the light that was ignited in him as a 24-year old young man and for me this is a story of resurrection, the life that can rise from the ashes of unbelief, from the grave wounds in which a human life can be buried. Jesus is that light, He is the beacon and the fire. He is the Light and the Life that would not be held back by the tomb but broke free on the first Easter morning, that breaks free in surprising ways from the tombs in which we find ourselves. There is always hope in Christ.

ON OUR KNEES - Mass of the Lord's Supper


Last weekend on Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme there was a report on a spiritual retreat held at the Pope’s residence in the Vatican. The retreat was suggested by Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Communion, and was attended by political and religious leaders from South Sudan, a country that has been torn by a brutal civil war for the past seven years or so, taking the lives of 400,000 people.
At the end of the retreat there was a meeting with Pope Francis who pleaded with them to keep the fragile peace which has recently been established. The two opposing leaders are Christian. Having finished his talk, Pope Francis stood up, everyone in the room stood with him and he went and knelt to kiss the feet of each of the leaders. Everyone in the room was stunned, shocked by what was taking place and it was said by Martin Bashir – the only journalist present – that everyone was in tears. Pope Francis was following the example of Jesus who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2)
This action of the Pope is well understood in African cultures where greetings between people are both reverent and humble. In Swahili there is a greeting which is used by a child for an adult, the young for an elder, by the so-called inferior to the so-called superior. The word is “shikamoo” and it means, “let me kiss your feet”. An example of this from the gospel is the woman who anoints and kisses the feet of Jesus. It is an action of profound service and humility.
So, I think to myself, if the leaders from South Sudan were stunned and shocked by what Pope Francis did, then the Apostles would have been equally shocked when Jesus got down on His knees to wash each of their feet. And not only did Jesus get down on His knees in front of the good Apostles, He did so for both Judas and Peter. Each of them went on to offend Jesus in the most serious of ways – by betrayal and denial – and yet one of them became the first Pope, a weak and sinful man who failed in so many ways but had the grace to accept the Mercy of Jesus.
This Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the first Eucharist that Jesus had with His apostles, a celebration of the service of the ordained priesthood in the Church which is expressed by the holy oils for the Sacraments of Baptism and the anointing of the sick; by the bread and the wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus. 
It is at the consecration of the Eucharist that the priest is most keenly aware of his unworthiness because, in the words of Pope Francis and like Pope Francis, the priest is a sinner in need of Mercy. I am a priest in need of Mercy. Pope and priest fail time and again but neither can escape the fact that he is the anointed of God, not by his own doing but by God and each must time and again turn back to God and seek the right path. It often strikes me that if the Pope or I were employed in a regular job we would be fired for our failures. St. Peter would never have been employed at all. God tends to hire the least so that His own greatness can emerge. 
We are as a Church emotionally and spiritually on our knees and rightly so. What I have discovered is that I learn how to be a priest from the community in which I live and serve. Here the children teach me, the congregation at Mass teaches me, those who come to confession teach me, those who are sick teach me and the homeless teach me and I am immensely grateful for what I am learning, for who I am becoming under your guidance.
And when I go down on my knees in front of a child, I discover my true stature; in the Liturgy of the washing of the feet I am, on my knees, in my proper position within this community and I am there with reverence and love.
On Good Friday we too will kiss the feet of Jesus who has already knelt to kiss the feet, the reality of our lives to brings us redemption, healing and mercy.

STOP ALL THE CLOCKS, COVER THE STATUES





"Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, silence the pianos"

The words of Funeral Blues by W H Auden remind me of when my grandfather died. Everything stopped - literally. Curtains were closed, the clock was stopped, the radio turned off, the television covered with a cloth and would not be watched until the funeral was over. For a child it was all a bit spooky and sombre but it was the way of acknowledging the major loss that had just occurred. Instead of entertainment there was conversation about the man who had died and prayers for his soul. His life and death became the total focus. Those days were all about him. A veil of sorrow and remembrance was thrown over everything. A veil of mourning, a mourning that included a lot of eating and drinking and even music. 

I remember in Shankill visiting a man whose wife had just died. We all sat around the kitchen table and every time he started to talk about her he would start crying, they would all cry so in the end they decided to play the music that she liked. Not a cd or anything like that. It was their own live music, they themselves played the instruments that gave expression to what could not be put into words.

Something like that happens when we move into Holy Week when we are asked to share the sorrow of the awful suffering of Jesus, to remember and somehow mourn for Him as for an only child as the Prophet says. So, we cover all the statues with a veil, something that is a bit scary and spooky for children and maybe even adults but it forces us to think about what really happened to Jesus, to feel some of the pain of it. In Holy Week we cannot take comfort in the devotions that normally help us. The tender care of Mary and the saints is put aside while we pay full attention to Jesus. We take Him seriously in a way that we might not normally do.

And then once we have allowed His sorrow to touch us we will come to Easter when the veils are lifted and new light fills the church and each of our hearts.