THE SEA WAS STILL AND CLEAR: New Year's Eve 2019

Ballyloughan New Year's Day 2010

Coming to the end of this year and the decade since 2009, I’ve been looking back in gratitude at those ten years, going back a further ten to the end of the year in which Maura had died and the arrival of the new millennium. This is what I wrote then in my diary:

“The sea at Ballyloughan was still and clear as glass, reflecting all the colour - the orange, dark red and pink of the sky as the sun went down over the hills of Clare. The buildings too were washed in the colour and a cargo ship, moving slowly towards the docks, cast its shadow as it passed between the sun and the Galway coastline. The sound of birds echoed, birds skimming in formation over the water, flying towards the south.

I stood in contemplation and awe and worship. Even Vincent Browne or Stephen Hawking, if they stood here, would understand worship, without having to have it explained. It seems kind of God to let me witness this at year’s end and maybe it’s an omen of better things. Afterwards I went to the Mervue Adoration Chapel to worship the One who is behind, above, beyond and within such beauty.

Eve and Har were at home when I returned and, with Mam, we did some reminiscing and laughing by the fire. Mam and I rang in the New Year quietly, having said Mass at 10.30pm, we had and few drinks and stood at the front door at midnight shouting Happy New Year to Margaret and Brendan Dowling, the Clohertys, the Quigleys and the Kennedys who came out briefly. The air was crisp with a heavy frost and the horns of the boats in the docks sounded like they were just in front of us. This used to be a wild night for us. Now the wildness had passed to two lively parties pouring out into the gardens across the avenue. It’s another kind of life, a world apart.”
Most of those have gone from us into everlasting life.

We cross the threshold now of these two years – 2019 into 2020. Into this new decade. Every threshold, every transition has meaning – its memories and its hopes, its curses and blessings, its losses and gains. We make the crossing with Mary Mother of God, in the spirit of the Epiphany, God seen again in this little Child in the poverty of the night, the Light that shines in the darkness, Light never to be overpowered.

In revealing Himself to the Magi, God shows His absolute freedom and His ability to surprise. He is discovered in this feast, not by men of faith and not in formal prayer but by so-called pagans who were watching the stars. So accustomed were they to gazing into the night sky that they noticed when something new occurred and something really new did occur when Jesus was born. Creation reacted to his birth and the Magi were ready, open to this new event and to its surprise, the surprising self-revelation of God that we sometimes miss because we are too distracted, tightened up, closed. This is the season for opening the doors of our hearts to the Truth revealed in Christ, this Beauty “ever ancient, ever new.”

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Hasting Decembers 2019






AN ADVENT WEDDING: Sublime Intimacy


Advent weddings have a special appeal, though couples getting married in December probably don’t have Advent on their minds and are more likely to be thinking in terms of Christmas.

In a beautiful cathedral the Groom stands waiting for his beautiful Bride to arrive. It’s time! All the talking is done and he faces the altar quietly, intently staring ahead, allowing no distraction to deflect him. A single tear falls from his right eye. His three-year-old niece would like to blow out the Advent candles. There is to be no distraction. Twice he has asked me to make an announcement about photography – that no one but the official photographer should take pictures. The father of the Bride thought this to be unreasonable but she had been firm. She didn’t want the photos of her walking up the aisle to be filled with the heads of happy guests leaning out of the pews with mobile phones in their hands. I had never thought of it like that before but it makes perfect sense. It also meant that the Liturgy was an attentive and peaceful experience and I was amazed by the level of reverence in this largely young congregation, 60 per cent of whom were English and most of the remainder were Catholics from near the Border where Catholicism and faith are still held in high esteem.

I’ve come to look at Advent in the context of the wreath with its five candles that has become an essential part of preparing for Christmas. As far as I know no such thing was ever seen in Ireland before the 1970’s and I suspect that our own Pallottine Sister Juliana was instrumental in introducing it. The tradition, like Juliana herself, is German and she was very friendly with Father Seamus Ryan of St. Patrick’s College, Thurles who used to write in Intercom, the liturgical magazine.

It reminds me of a procession light that moves slowly towards Christmas, lesser lights leading to the perfect light of Jesus. This handsome, beautiful couple are also engaged in a procession towards the light, climbing the white steps to the altar to the three wedding candles that represent them, first as separate individuals and then as “one body” after they have consecrated themselves to each other and to God. Their wedding took place on the feast of St. John of the Cross whose “Living Flame of Love” came to mind, an appropriate image – the living flame of God’s love that burns in each of their souls uniquely, coming together into one living flame, a new reality that had not before existed. It is a reality that has God at its centre in the most natural way possible, a reality that elevates their love to a higher level, to the realms of the divine, a grace that flows through their sacred humanity, created in the image and likeness of God. The union of a husband and wife is a most distinctive expression of the face of God, the nature of who God is. Where there is love, there is God because God is Love.

Another aspect of the Liturgy that was a source of surprise was Holy Communion. I had given the congregation the opportunity of coming for a blessing if they were not receiving Communion and some did just that but most came reverently to receive, understanding what they were doing, knowing how to receive. Not coming up just for the sake of it. It was very inspiring.

Later at the reception a really nice young Dublin man approached to say how much he loved the Mass. “You know yourself” he said “how boring Mass can be!” “Not really” I said. “But you’re a young man” he said, “you know what it’s like! But this was different!” I laughed at the “young man” bit! He wasn’t drunk but perhaps his vision was slightly blurred!

During the reception the groom’s brother and best man took me aside for a chat, holding my hand all through. We’re cousins. He’s not one for standing still but stands still for a while with me, a man who is incredibly energetic, bright, a lawyer, a lover of fast cars, taking part in car rallies, plays rock music and swims in ice pools in Siberia or somewhere like that. We talk about Le Mans 66, the movie which I saw recently. He has driven in the reality of Le Mans and wants me to join him there sometime. But I think I’d die of a heart attack at such speed. And then he spoke to me about prayer – he doesn’t regard himself as a proper praying person but he puts himself in God’s hands every day which I think is a sublime prayer, the prayer of surrender. He’s almost half my age and thinks much too highly of me, though I accept the absolute sincerity of his admiration. We have a real respect and love for each other.

His trust in and surrender to God which is done with childlike simplicity is very much part of the Advent spirit. It’s what Mary and Joseph did in their own way, allowing God to do what He had chosen to do in their lives, even when it differed from their own good wisdom. It’s trusting a Wisdom that is higher than human, letting God have His way.

It was with such trust that Joseph heard the Word of the Angel Gabriel, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife!” And did just what the Angel told him to. “Take Mary home” is the phrase for the fourth Sunday of Advent that resonates with me and it connects with the beautiful poem of St. John of the Cross, “If You Want”, which my Camino Companion Mark sent to me at the beginning of this Holy Season.

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing … (St. John of the Cross)

Under the roof of your soul you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth. I read these words to a man in a Care Home today. His illness has left him largely speechless and depressed but his eyes and his hands communicate something strong, as intent as the Groom on his wedding day. “I am no use” he manages to say but I hold his sacred hand that fills my entire being with grace and, placing my other hand on his chest and I said, “this is the stable, this is the soul under whose roof the divine comes to birth.” He nodded his head. And it is worth repeating and remembering that it is in the stable of our lives, the most unfit, unclean that the divine, the Christ comes to birth forever.

So, I take Mary home to my soul, let her take shelter under the roof of it, knowing that she bears within her the reality of Jesus who is the point of it all. He is perfect Peace, perfect Wisdom, perfect Love and there is no other to compare with Him in the entire universe. How blessed we are to know His loving kindness that visits us like the dawn from on high.




NOSTALGIC FOR CHILDHOOD CHRISTMAS SHOPPING



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.