Dives And Lazarus In Our Time



John Moriarty was a Philosopher, writer, broadcaster and sometimes hermit from County Kerry. He died in 2007 leaving behind a legacy of passion for God, for the earth and the renewal of Christianity. I liked a lot of what he had to say, liked to look at him with his wild head of woolly hair, to listen to the sound of his voice. I tried to read his autobiography ‘Nostos’, a 500-page book without paragraphs or chapters, no break of any sort. It fascinated me but wore me down half way through and gave it to my mother who read the whole lot of it.

Memories of his awful depression come back to me and some wonderful wisdom. He wrote of a woman in the village where he grew up. She used to cycle past their house and always looked very happy. He asked his father why she was so happy and the reply was, “she is content not to be a tree where only a bush will grow!” Content to be a bush rather than a tree. That resonated with me, still does and it remains an ongoing challenge. I keep wanting to be more than I am.

He spoke about the state of European civilization, comparing it to a plant in a pot. A plant does well in a pot until its roots start to wrap themselves around each other, becoming tangled in each other and they become sour. The solution is for the plant to be removed from the limits of the pot and be planted in open ground where the roots can spread out, breathe and thrive again. Europe’s roots have become tangled, wrapped around each other, gone sour and need to be replanted in open ground. This applies to its culture, its faith and its spiritual life.

In her commentary on the parable of Dives and Lazarus in St. Luke, Frances Hogan identifies Dives with the “rich, overfed and indulged West” and when I read that Gospel I think of Europe, “ensconced so snugly”,  so wrapped up in itself that it doesn’t really see beyond itself to the poor of the world. There is some attentiveness to the poor but they are literally the poor relations. And, while Brexit is a very serious issue, there is the feeling of a society consumed in itself, in its own wellbeing almost to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.

The gulf between the two is wide and there’s no mistaking which side of the gulf God is on both in this world and in eternity. Jesus is saying that the gulf in eternity cannot be crossed, so any crossing that needs to be done needs to be done in this world, otherwise we will find ourselves on the wrong side.

The Christian community in the parish and elsewhere is called to be the heart of God in this world, being really attentive to the Lazarus who lays outside our gate, hungry, in need in many different ways. We are to be his companion, the presence of God sitting with him, doing what needs to be done to relieve him, free him. And when the Lazarus of our lives is taken up to heaven, we will be taken up with him.

The need is not necessarily material in terms of money and food. The need can be emotional, mental, spiritual and Lazarus might not be outside the gate. He might be in the house with us, the gulf might be in our homes and any one of us might be too wrapped up in our own little world to notice, wrapped up in our own thoughts, in television, computer games, our phone, caught in a kind of stupor. Jesus wants to shake us out of our stupor, to get us to pay practical attention to the other who is in need. When we are repelled by the other person then we need to pray that we can see with the eyes of God, understand with the mind of God and respond with the heart of God. It is the difference between being saved and lost, between eternal life and eternal death.

A little girl explained to me once, “you have to believe in God if you want to go to heaven because if you die and you believe in God you go to heaven but if you die and you don’t believe in God, you stay dead!” And, believing in God means going beyond ourselves, our self-interest, and our self-indulgence to look after those in our midst who are in need. This is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus and the ministry of Pope Francis.

THE CALL OF EZEKIEL


The Call of Ezekiel
“I will make you a sign to them”



As certain as the snow
Falling in the dark
Before dawn that day

You are chosen
Begotten 
Before the world

I have 

Seen you 
Known you
Loved you

Made you a sign to them
Mirror of who they are
Though they may not observe
Though you do not understand 

Knowing yourself to be
The rubbish heap of the poor
Hating your own frailty

I have given you
The soft heart of my Son
To bleed and feel another’s pain

Embracing its helplessness
Descending to the depths of it

Ankle deep
Knee deep
Waist deep

Beyond the messy
Impossibility of it

To cry 

Tears of the child
Tears of Mercy
Sobbing

Clothed with Christ
Clothed with His people
Clothed in Mercy

This is who I created
You to be




Earth Has Given, Human Hands Have Made




Early in September I was concelebrating at Mass with the Pallottine community in Thurles. There were ten of us and most were struggling physically due to age and illness. When it came to the Eucharistic Prayer, I expected that they would all remain seated as they would be entitled to but, not at all. Each one made his way slowly to the altar and leaned on the altar for support. It was like a holy huddle of the humble, lives lived within this mystery, lives given, offered, surrendered. There was a clear and intense focus on the Consecration and I felt that heaven itself had come down among us, heaven and earth meeting in that moment. Our humanity in all its frailty drawn up to the altar of the Most High. It’s what happens in every Mass, except we don’t always see or feel the reality.

And it’s not only that God in Christ is present – all of heaven, Mary, the angels and saints, they too gather around the altar. We are enfolded in the heavenly embrace. It happens in the most splendid liturgy and in the most simple; it happens whether we like the priest or not, whether he is good or bad, because he is an instrument of God and it is God who is working the miracle of the Eucharist.

“For there is only one God and there is only one mediator between God and humanity…Christ Jesus who sacrificed Himself.” (1 Timothy 2:1-8)

It is the sacrifice of Jesus, Jesus offering, surrendering, giving Himself to the Father on our behalf and we too, all of us together, offer ourselves with Jesus and in Him. We offer ourselves with Bread and Wine to become the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Last Monday I entered into what was for me the unfamiliar world of the Russian Orthodox community. I went with Deacon Duncan to hear a talk on the Eucharist given by Metropolitan Kalistos who looked for all the world like Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter. A wise old man with long white beard and a long black robe.

Kalistos spoke of how, at the Eucharist, we represent all of humanity which we offer to God at the altar for transformation, offering prayers for everyone, “petitions, intercessions and thanksgiving – and especially for kings and others in authority, so that we may be able to live religious and reverent lives in peace and quiet.” (1 Timothy 2); to offer the poor of the world, to pray that those “who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor people of the country” would listen to God and do what is right according to the mind of God (Amos 8:4-7).

On behalf of humanity we bring the gifts of Bread and Wine which also represent all of Creation, gifts which “earth has given.” Kalistos says that the Eucharist is an ecological sacrament in which the praise of creation is present – all Creation, “all you have created rightly gives you praise” (Eucharistic Prayer III). We are familiar with the praise of Creation in the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. It was also present in the prayer of St. Vincent Pallotti.

An interesting point is that we don’t just bring the wheat of the field or the grapes of the vine. We bring wheat transformed into bread, grapes transformed into wine, a transformation worked by humanity, indicating that we come to the Eucharist as a transforming people, transforming humanity and transforming Creation, transforming and not deforming; people who themselves are changing for the better and being changed. This is how we prepare ourselves before Mass, the effort we put in to getting ready, the effort we put into presenting ourselves before God. The Orthodox Christians prepare by prayers that they recite the evening before Mass and, while God takes us as we are, there is something honourable about us trying to be at our best when we come. In our own tradition in the past the preparation was done by fasting and by wearing our best “Sunday clothes” going to Mass.

So, transformation has already begun even before we come to Mass, a transformation that is completed at the altar and taken up to the altar of heaven (Eucharistic Prayer I). The human effort is essential in the whole mystery – each of us personally and all of us together as community.

I go back to my fellow priests leaning on the altar for support. We bring our lives to rest on the altar, finding support there, especially in the areas of life where we are most fragile; we faithfully bring the “little things” (Luke 16:10), all the bits and pieces of our lives, the joys, the successes, the sorrows and failures, all that we have lost and all that we have gained. Every least little thing finds its meaning at the altar, finds its greatness in the reality of Jesus.




A SONG IN SEARCH OF A VOICE: In Memory of Father Michael Cremin SAC



Waiting beneath a weeping willow tree in the garden of Holy Redeemer while my car is being serviced up the road. Traffic roars beyond, but in here there is peace, sunshine filtering through the leaves, light and shadow falling onto the page on which I write, “a page that aches for a word” – a phrase from Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Neil Diamond. And a song in search of a voice.

The voice of Michael Cremin stepping out into the middle of a gathering, hands clapping, singing the kind of song that I don’t particularly like, but they were lively songs, drawing people in and out of themselves, diffusing an air of real happiness. Of course, he sang songs that I loved too and I’m trying to remember one in particular! Was it ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen’ or ‘The Green Fields of France’? His voice vibrated and soared.

The thought of him makes me quiver with sighs, the thought that he is dead to the world now, gone home to God. No more will we see or hear him again in the flesh. One of my generation, one of our time as students the 1970’s, the second of this generation to have died in the space of four months, the third in the past couple of years. Vivian Ferran, Noel O’Connor and now Michael at the age of 61.

We were not intimate friends but we were good friends, our lives weaving in and out of each other from the time he joined the Pallottines in 1976. After my ordination we lived for the most part in different countries and did not share community again, expect for a short period in Thurles in the early to mid-2000’s while he was waiting for his USA papers to be sorted out. He was a great support to me and brought a lot of solace to the darkness of that time and said of my struggle that God was preparing me for something more. The same might be said of him because this man of joy had more than his share of suffering. This is the time for him to receive the “more” from God, the fulfilment of all.

His right hand keeps coming before my eyes since he died, the touch of his hand, the hand that got badly burned when, as a child, he took hold of the red-hot bar of an electric fire. I heard him speak of it in a homily once, the physical scar and more, the emotional pain he had to endure from the thoughtless.

It’s like he was marked out from the beginning, marked out for suffering, marked out for God. In this he reminded me of Pope St. John Paul II whose whole family died, leaving him alone in the world and it was much the same for Michael. A Polish family brought me this lovely picture of John Paul, a copy of which I sent to Mike, telling him: “The attached picture was brought to me recently from Poland and it hangs in the place where I pray. Every time I look at it, it's you that comes to mind so I pray to him for you in the battle that lies ahead. You seem to bear it all with such dignity and humour.  I enjoyed the photo with the newspaper heading.” And he replied, “Thanks again for your kind thoughts and prayers at this difficult time for me. Loved the photo of St. JPII in his summer mountain retreat.” That was our last communication and, though I knew he was very ill, I did not expect him to be gone so soon. When in Aran in August, I offered Mass for him.

There was a phrase going around in the Charismatic days of the 1970’s that said of the call to follow Jesus – it cost nothing less than everything. Everything given, everything taken. It’s the reality of our lives, though back then it had a romantic ring to it and we were young enough to think we could, and would do it all. It turns out that it is God who does it all to us, in us and through us. It is the reality of the Cross that Jesus speaks of for those who are his friends, an intimate sharing in the Cross of Christ himself for the salvation of the world.

The memory of Michael celebrating Mass also stirs in me, celebrating with such dignity and the lines from Eucharistic Prayer I,  In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty.”

That is my image of him now, that he a Priest of Jesus and in Him is the gift, the offering, the sacrifice borne by the hands of the Holy Angel to the altar of Heaven in the sight of the Most Loving Divine Majesty.


THE WOUNDED HEART OF GOD




She puts her two hands on her hips and rolls her eyes to heaven. In that moment I feel like the most stupid, embarrassing man in the world and, in my awkwardness, I say something else stupid so that she rolls her eyes again. We used to have such a happy relationship. As a little girl she would jump for joy at my arrival but now there is a distance growing between us. People tell me it’s what happens with teenagers, that she will come back to me but in the meantime, there is the pain of a wound in my heart and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

I did it myself in a different sort of way. As a teenager I justifiably felt that life at home was unfair, impossibly unhappy and, with my youngest sister, I used to plan my escape. It was a fantasy in which I would get out the bedroom window and she would let me down by a bedsheet. From there I would hide away in one of the ships down the docks and end up in some faraway country.

Of course, I never ran away but I did escape by shutting myself down, cutting myself off emotionally and some years later when I had already moved away from home, my mother wrote me, lamenting the distance between us. Not the distance of miles but the distance of our hearts. I realized that I was not the only wounded one and that my emotional distance had inflicted a wound in her and so I began the journey back to her, a journey that took a whole lifetime. Returning can take a lot longer than the going away.

These memories come back to me as I reflect on the Gospel of the Prodigal Son. Walking by the sea I found myself wondering what was it that the Father felt when his youngest son left home, cutting himself off totally from his father; what did the Father feel when he encountered the distance between him and the older son who had remained at home physically but emotionally had left.

The Father is God, a God with a heart, a God who feels very deeply. This is one of the reasons why Jesus came to earth in flesh and blood – to reveal to us in human terms who God is, what God is like and how God feels. The two teenage memories I’ve spoken of indicate something of what God feels when we create a distance between Him and us, they are parables of what sin does in our lives. Sin offends God, touches Him like a wound and it keeps us at a distance.

And there are much deeper wounds – one spouse discovering the other’s infidelity, the betrayal of friendship, experiences of rejection. The awful wounds inflicted on women, children and sometimes men through human trafficking, modern forms of slavery, the hidden crimes committed, sometimes” legally”, against the voiceless and most vulnerable; wounds inflicted beneath a veneer of sophistication by institutions of power. There are many varieties of wounds that offend and wound the heart of God, that create varying degrees of distance between God and those inflicting the wounds.

Something of what God feels is revealed in the Passion of Jesus from the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, to being innocently condemned, flogged, spat upon, mocked, deserted, stripped naked, crucified. The wounded friendship when He asks, “Judas, would you betray me with a kiss?”

What God does with His wounded Heart is to await the return of each one living at a distance from Him, to wait and go out seeking, pleading. For us it is necessary to face up to the fact that we are, might be living at a distance from God through the sins that we have committed. It is for us to come to our senses and take responsibility for what we have done and are doing; to turn back and make the journey home to our Father, however short or long the distance. However, one of the hardest things for us to admit is that we have done wrong, strayed from the path marked out for us by God, that we have taken on ideas, attitudes and ways of thinking that are at odds with God, that sometimes are an affront to God. We find it hard to admit that we are sinners in need of mercy, hard for us to say sorry.

We might content ourselves that our sins are small but even small sins constantly repeated can lead us slowly further and further away from God. Telling simple lies is one example. One lie may be small but the habit of small lies turns us into liars.

So, we often remain stuck in our distance and thereby miss the wonderful joy of the Father’s embrace and the tenderness of His kiss, the kiss that brings solace to the hurts we endure, the consolation of mercy that kisses our sinfulness. We are deaf to the voice that calls us home – home to ourselves and home to God – to that state of being in which we are most truly ourselves. And, no matter what we have done, however small or great the sin, what matters to God is that we come back. That’s all the Father wants.

As I become more aware of the wounded Heart of God in Jesus, there’s a prayer in me that wants to bring consolation to His Heart, to bring consolation to the hearts of all the wounded in the world and, though I cannot console the world, I can console one person who comes across my path.

As a sinner I love the Gospel of the Prodigal Son because it reminds me of how “safe and sound” I am with Jesus; as a sinner I am blessed to have it said to me in confession, “your sins are forgiven, go in peace!” and, as a priest it is a privilege to assure another with those same words. There is something about saying it and having it said. We often think that it’s enough to tell God I’m sorry but in Jesus’ ministry of forgiveness He always says the words our loud. And in Psalm 32 we have the expression of a human and divine truth – “I kept it secret and my frame was wasted, but now I have acknowledged my sin and you Lord have forgiven.”


TOUCHED BY THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Katie
One of the lovely experiences of my time at home was being with my grandnephew who is just over three months old. The first day I arrived at their home he was restless, in need of sleep and his mother was trying to settle him. She handed him to me, so I walked around the room with him, singing to him the Swahili song Malaika, praying the Hail Mary over him in Swahili. It’s a very soothing language and, after the second Hail Mary, the child fell asleep, his head resting on my chest for about an hour. It’s one of the most tender things a man can experience, to be so trusted by a baby, to gaze upon his sleeping face, the beauty of it, to be one with him in that way and to be touched by the presence of God in such a moment.

But I’m aware too that suffering has already entered into this little life of his, the suffering that comes to every baby born, the very act of coming to birth. It is sometimes written on his astonished face. His mother was telling me about his experience of having injections – how much they hurt him, how distressed and distraught he becomes. And he looks up at her puzzled that she’s letting this awful thing happen to him. She can do nothing but feel the pain of his pain and hold him, soothe him until he is consoled. There are no words to explain to him that he needs these injections, this terrible pain in order to be safe and well.

When Jesus tells us again and again that we must take up our cross every day and follow Him; when I am faced with the reality of suffering – my own and that of others – I am like this little baby. Puzzled, distressed and unable to fathom the reason why, people sometimes withdraw from God, stop believing in Him because of the terrible reality of suffering. But in time of suffering the very place we need to be is near to God, nearer and not further away, to allow ourselves to be held and embraced by Him until the worst is over and we are consoled, comforted. 

As the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18) says, we can only understand the ways of God when we receive His gift of wisdom, when we surrender to it and through prayer come to the kind of trust that a child has in the arms of a mother and father.

A Future And A Hope



It's an incredibly beautiful day at sea. The ship sails steady on the white edged choppy waves and peace reigns now, with loneliness left behind in Dublin port. Mostly left behind. Out here I am suspended between two realities, ready to return yet slightly apprehensive. There is a tug between home and Hastings, both of which I love; a pull between Ireland and England, this world and heaven.

In a meditation at the retreat in Thurles, the director asked us to be blind Bartimaeus begging, to imagine ourselves being him. It’s a meditation I have guided on retreats going back many years, so it was necessary for me not to be stuck in an established way of seeing this gospel.

I wasn't blind but paralyzed, unable to walk, sitting on one of those four wheeled mobility scooters for the disabled. Disabled is a word still used in the UK. I am disabled in the meditation but my scooter takes me to Jesus at speed, the cloak flying off my back. When Jesus asks me, "what do you want me to do for you?" I'm supposed to ask for some form of healing or simply to make me light hearted but what comes out of me is, "take me home!" Home is heaven. And home is also that state of being truly myself, at ease with that reality and its potential.  It's not something that gets answered in a hurry. It's an ongoing process and a future hope.

In another exercise the retreat director draws our attention to an empty chalice on a table with a cruet of wine beside it. We are each to pour a drop of wine into the chalice. What we pour represents our desires, the desire we have spoken to Jesus in the meditation. The chalice with wine and desire will be consecrated at Mass the next day. I have been asked to lead the Mass and as I sit in silent preparation it strikes me that all of our desires are mingled together in the wine, all of our lives mingled inseparably, so that at some level it is impossible to distinguish one person’s desire from another’s, one person's life from another's. It is a mingling that will become the Blood of Christ, His very life and ours.

I have spent the last days of my holidays with the Pallottine community in Thurles and visiting some friends in the town. A happy, graceful time, an experience of Divine Providence.

After lunch with my good friend in Roscrea we went back to her family home where we watched the All Ireland football final, me sitting next to her ailing father, feeling the kindness of him and the blessedness of being there.

From there I went to Cashel to visit one of our priests in a nursing home. He’s doubled over in his chair watching a programme about lambs on television. Apart from being bent over he looks very well and when the chatting was all done, he asked me to bless him and I asked him to bless me. So, we sat there holding hands, heads bent into each other in an enfolding I previously experienced with Noel a few months earlier.

As I was driving into Thurles a friend of my brother’s saw my English registration, contacted my brother to ask him to ask me to pray for his mother-in-law Ann who was dying. I went to the house to pray with her. She wasn’t short of prayer or of people to pray with her but I felt I should go and offer my bit of spiritual support. Ann prayed along with those prayers that were familiar to her. It was another blessed and peaceful moment. Ann died the next morning. She is at peace.

Being present for the first day of the community retreat gave me a great opportunity to meet all the Pallottines who were present, all of them joyful encounters, perhaps especially with those who were my students back in the 1990’s, the warmth of their embrace.

My novice master from the early 1970’s is physically beginning to show his age and he sits silently at mealtimes, saying nothing unless he is asked a question. One afternoon I found him sitting alone at a table while everyone else was on the other side of the dining room drinking tea and talking loudly, so I went and sat with him. He no longer recognizes me by name but I like to think he knows me at some deeper level. We talked about his childhood and he told me at length about cycling to school, the cold wind of the river in winter and in the summer cycling half way up the country to visit relations. He has told me this before, many years ago when I myself was sick and it’s something I never tire of hearing.

Spent my last night alone in the Provincial House in Dublin with some old ghosts of mine that seek to trouble me but I had the grace to dismiss them, setting my gaze to the present, pressing towards the future and its hope. This is the Scripture that greeted my on my first day back: “Yes, I know what plans I have in mind for you, Yahweh declares, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. When you call to me and come and pray to me, I shall listen to you. When you search for me, you will find me; when you search wholeheartedly for me, I shall let you find me.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)