THESE BOOTS AND THE EDGE OF WONDER




Shock! Shock breaks into the bubble in which I have been living. It has smashed my window, cast a rock through my senses, shattered my asylum. I have recognized its threat in my head but it has been easy enough to live at a distance from it, solitude being not a problem. But now it has gripped my heart, clenched my gut in its fist. I can hear the note of hysteria in my voice; the fear that has lurked beneath has broken the surface, the fear that this thing might be bigger than I have allowed myself to believe. It is the fear I recognize in the voices of others on the phone. And Prime Minister Boris is in intensive care. Everyone is shocked by that.

The death of a forty-five-year old husband and father of two of our school children has changed my perspective and I am distressed by what his wife has told me about his death, about the level of isolation that they are faced with. No one can go to console them and they cannot come out to seek consolation. We have never been faced with such a thing, never been so held back from doing what should be done, what our instincts ache to do.

There’s a pain in my chest, tears at the back of my eyes, a feeling of utter uselessness that makes me want to throw caution to the wind and go to see this woman and her children but someone reminds me that in doing such a thing I would become another link in the chain of contagion.

The sense of uselessness reminds of what the English mystic Caryll Houselander writes about Jesus crucified - “the moment in which His love was consummated…was when the hands that could heal with a touch were nailed back out of reach!” Somehow, in the mystery of redemption, Love is at its most intense when it is not able to do anything. And I find once again that my hands and feet are nailed, held back from doing what I am anointed to do as a priest. The only thing I can do with all this is turn to Him and pray in Him as He prays in me, the prayer in which Love is at its most intense and what is powerless becomes a thing of grace in the hands of God.

With this virus nature has locked us in and yet that same nature takes us to the very to the very edge of wonder so that we can survive, cope and even live well in the midst of this terrible time.

This evening was one of the many magnificent ones we have had over the past few weeks and the tide was at the lowest I have seen in the past three years. So far out that you could walk on the sand to the very end of the pier, a thing that excites the child in me, like years and years ago in Aran when you could stand at low tide by the fishing trawlers or walk on the sand beyond Nemo’s pier. I’m not the only one who is excited. There are people shouting with delight as they walk in shallow waters that would normally be dangerously deep or at least be impossible to walk in.

Harry and I have a WhatsApp video chat about the Dire Straits song ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that I want him to record. My memory is that he sang it in Rome forty years ago and that Father Louis Sisti loved to hear him sing it but, Harry informs me that the song only came out in 1981 so my memory is out of kilter and I need to sort it in my head. Louis and I were in Rome when the song came out and we both loved it, the Dire Straits version of it but I also came to love Harry’s version which Louis possibly never heard. Anyway, I would still like Harry to record it in memory of Louis and me and Rome.




This went on in my head as I walked on sand by the edge of the sea all the way to Cinque Ports Way. Down there on the shore is the best place for social distancing. My boots have sunk in the muddy sand, giving me the appearance of a man who works on a building site but I have never had the dignity of such hard work. I admire hard working people whose clothes and boots get dirty. My boots are made for desert and for the mud of pilgrimage. That is their dignity. They somehow represent the mud in which we find ourselves stuck and the destination to which they are leading us - to the edge of wonder!

For a while along the way I entertain the hope of making it to the wreck of the Amsterdam that is only visible at low tide on Bulverhythe Beach. It wasn’t to be, as day reached its edge, surrendering to the falling night. As I think of it now and look at the map, it’s quite possible that I passed by the wreck without knowing what it was!


I turned back towards home with a sense of utter satisfaction, wondering about the moon that seemed to be absent and the suddenly there it was on the horizon in all its red astonishing beauty that made me gasp at first and then laugh at the good of it, the good of seeing it. Of course the photographer in me wanted to capture it but could not and perhaps should not seek to.

The vision of it leads me to think about Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper that I will celebrate alone. The strangeness of that, the emptiness and the fulness of it. Mostly I think about the washing of the feet, a ritual I love but cannot do this year. Still, I’ve been thinking of whose feet I would like to wash if it were possible and will wash them by desire in my heart. My friend who has miraculously survived an horrendous motorcycle accident, his one leg that is yet to mend; the seven year old child with serious health challenges; the widow and her children; the homeless who break my heart and whom I love; the women, my friends who live cancer so bravely and well; the father who brings his little girls to light candles in the church; the woman whose mind is too fragile; the parents whose child has died; the child who wasn’t born; the children who scream my name, send me beautiful art and tell me how much they love me.

I would gladly wash all of these lives with love, anoint and kiss them reverently. And I would wash the man who staggers widely as we pass by Warrior Square. “I didn’t do anything,” he says to the police car that has slowed down. “I didn’t do anything. It was them that did it. It was them.” The child in him was calling out in fear. The police car drove off. We all made our way to wherever we might call home this night. May God be with us. He is. And see us through these challenging times. He will.


The edge of wonder



Brothers In Arms and A White Fluffy Dog



It’s dusk, almost 8pm on the homeward leg of this evening’s walk. Down on the pebbled beach there’s a woman and her young white fluffy dog who has ideas of going his own way rather than hers. She has released him from his leash and he decides to take full advantage of his freedom, running with child-like delight, zig-zagging around the shore, doing circles and then at high speed he takes off up on to the promenade. The more she calls, the louder she roars, the faster and further he runs, across the main road - which is thankfully in a state of corona quiet – disappearing up a street and out of sight. It all looks hilarious but I feel great sympathy for the woman who I hope eventually caught up with her pet.

I’ve seen it happen with a small child. That scary moment when she takes off at speed, running towards a busy main road and the more her father calls the more she runs, thinking that it’s great fun. Fun for her, not for her father.

The white fluffy dog represents something inside my chest. In the midst of the peace, tranquillity and happiness there is something that wants to run riot. Frustration, irritation, annoyance and maybe even fear. Impatience is a word that came into this morning’s reading – the people grew impatient with Moses and with God. We can become impatient with our confinement, the uncertainty of this time, become annoyed with ourselves, with those around us. This morning my prayer was for patience and only a few hours later that very patience flew out the window during a phone call.

And, when out walking there’s an annoyance within me, lurking, ready to pounce on someone, some thing. Mostly with other walkers who disregard the importance of social distancing, the four cyclists who stop in the middle of the path to have a conversation, leaving no room for distance, unaware, unwilling to make space for others, for me. It’s annoying to come home and find that someone has used the front of my house as a toilet – and not just a wee! – and dumped a half-eaten pizza beside their droppings. It’s annoying to have to clean that up before going to bed. So, it’s necessary to sit down and say a prayer, to let go of the feeling that, even if the person was drunk, didn’t know what they were doing, there was some subconscious message in it. Feels like I or what I represent was being shat upon. Let go of that unpleasant feeling. Pray for the person. Don’t let it overshadow the immense good being shown by the parish.

And I become annoyed with myself, annoyed now with the bloated, pretentious language I sometimes use to present myself as wise. The vanity of it, the sheer waste! The vanity of me!

It’s about twelve days since our isolation began. No one has entered this house in that time and no one will enter it until this is all over. It’s not a big deal. Mass in the empty church is somewhat of a big deal. The emptiness, the absence. There is some frustration in getting the Mass recorded, getting it right, getting it uploaded when the internet plays games like the white fluffy dog and the Wi-Fi keeps breaking down. But it’s worth it because it is a point of connection for those who seek it.

What has been very clear is that the people of the parish have become my pastors, my carers – phoning, texting and emailing to see that all is well with me. And food! They bring food and the children send cards!

Being so cared for leaves me free to pray a bit more, to focus on those who are really suffering at this time. Obviously, the victims of the virus and those who care for them. But also, those people in the parish who run small restaurants, caf├ęs. People whose livelihood and jobs are at risk. The uncertainty and fear of that. It is important to find hope in all of it.

Social media has offered many positive messages of hope, including two songs from my own brother. Mark Knopfler’s ‘Brothers in Arms’ is dedicated to the frontline workers who are dealing with the coronavirus. The reaction to Harry’s version has been very positive. Especially striking are the reactions of men many of whom have said that this is their favourite song of all time and I wonder what is it about ‘Brothers in Arms’ that strikes a chord with us men in particular.

One of the strongest, most moving of musical moments has to be the sight and sound of Mark Knopfler playing this song to a packed Wembley Stadium, the quiet emotion in him, the struggle to get the words out, the tears that glistened in his eyes, tears that did not flow. The swell in the heart of every man who witnessed it, the expanding chest. Something primal was being communicated, perhaps that particular kind of fighter that is in man. Man of war, man of peace! The paradox that we are. And the comradeship that men find in each other in the battle of sport and in all sorts of other ways. Comradeship more than comradery. Brothers in arms! I’ve witnessed your suffering. Words not spoken.

Another song that Harry shared with us on the family WhatsApp is Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’, a favourite of mine that was sung in solitude during my few years in Tanzania. “And from the shelter of my mind through the window of my eyes I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets to England where my heart lies.” Back then England was replaced by Ireland which was my heart’s desire. England was not part of my plan, there was no desire in me ever to live there, it was a challenge to my Irishness. And yet now I can hear the words, “England where my heart lies” and know that, though I no longer allow any land to claim me, right now my heart rests very well here in England. Perhaps it is so because my heart rests more in God and God is everywhere, God is here!














POTATOES IN MY HOOD: I Will Choose To Find Joy



In this corona isolation-state-of-mind it’s hard to know what day it is or what’s the time. It’s 8.30pm but it feels like midnight. It’s Wednesday but it feels like Saturday, Holy Saturday, a day of no-one-ness. And it has been a spectacularly beautiful evening again. Hastings by the sea at its absolute best. The misery of a wet winter is a distant memory and you think it will never rain again.

We're allowed out once a day to exercise. With the tide far out, you can walk on the edge of quiet waters where the sounding waves drown out every other sound, within and without. Walking on sand instead of stones is pleasure for tired feet, the still wetness of it a mirror for Venus. It takes you under the pier and on as far as Warrior Square before climbing up to the promenade which is busy enough in the hour before dark, making social distancing a bit more testing. Lovely, loving ouples walk as though ballroom-dancing, a slow foxtrot weaving from side to side, filling the whole wide space so that you don’t know which side of them to pass at a safe distance.



At the old bathing pool – which is no longer a pool – darkness has already fallen. My usual distance takes me beyond the beach huts to the place where the track meet the railway fence. The Ballyloughan child in me still gets excited at the sight and sound of a train. On these evenings you can see totally empty trains passing by, stirring that old desire to be a lone passenger on a night train.

Food is the big temptation of my isolation, always thinking of something to eat. The chocolate in the fridge has begun to taunt me. All my other desires merge into this one single hunger which is normally held at bay by busy-ness, except at night, the hours of grazing.

Potatoes! There are no potatoes at home and there’s a shop around the corner on the Bexhill road. None to be seen but there’s no harm in asking, “you don’t have any potatoes, do you?” Behind the counter the tall man replies in a strong accent, “I am just preparing them now!” And he hands over a small blue bag. The pleasure it gives me! It’s like when we were in the desert. One night they brought us a big plate of plain spaghetti and we all went “wow!” in unison. Pleasure becomes simplified in simpler times.

My lazy arm did not relish the prospect of carrying potatoes all the way home for more than two miles. The hood of my jacket offered the perfect backpack for the little bundle and this discovery brought an immense sense of pleasure.

Isolation is not a great problem since mine is a solitary life by and large but it causes me to pause – the fact that no-one will enter my home for the next three weeks or even more. There’s lots of contact via whatsapp video, phone calls and emails. All of them looking out for my welfare. The phone as a means of communication is not my favourite thing, though it's easier when we do video calls.

Three children from the parish have reached out in the past couple of days. Two four-year old girls from different families sent messages saying how much the miss and love me. The third is a ten-year-old boy who artistically wrote a line from what looks like Psalm 16, the Psalm of my life as a priest. He wrote, “I will choose to find joy in the journey that God has set before me!” A prophetic reminder of an essential element in this priestly life that has been given me. It is gift. All is gift.


THE WIND BLOWS FROM THE EAST: The Hidden Life



The wind blows from the East. Piercing. But it’s dry with the sun shining on this first full day of the coronavirus shutdown. We have entered into a great silence, a hidden life, a Gethsemane. A line from ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ comes to mind – “All our stores were closed and shuttered. All the streets were dark and bare.” It's a song that Maura used to sing when we were children. Plaintive. It opens up in me a deep well of silent absence that wants to see her, hear her, touch her. Touch is what will be most absent in this time of isolation.

The town
was a bit like the song last night when I went for a walk through George’s Street and down the seafront. Not everything was closed but most places were, giving an eerie silence and plenty of space for keeping a safe distance from others. Social distancing, I think is what they call it. 

An elderly couple are in animated and happy conversation. He laughs out loud, a sound that is good to hear. 

My mouth is covered with my newly acquired “Buff” which I think is the correct name for it. A gift given me by one of our many thoughtful parishioners. It happened through her son. We met on the seafront a few evenings ago as he was cycling home from work. He wondered should we not have more faith in the Lord, in the power of the Eucharist rather than closing down. It’s a question that many are asking, a question I understand, though I’m not asking it myself because I have chosen to trust and obey and I agree with the reasoning of the Bishops who said, “it is in order to keep each other safe, save lives and support the NHS.” 

The young man is concerned for my wellbeing in the moment, commenting that my neck is rather exposed to the cold so he takes his buff from around his neck and gives it to me to protect mine. I am clothed, protected by his thoughtfulness. 

I first heard of the “hidden life” through St. Vincent Pallotti who had a strong devotion to the hidden life of Jesus, that period from the age of twelve until he appeared in public at around the age of thirty, the life he lived with Mary and Joseph, hidden away in their home in Nazareth. It came to mind again on Thursday the Feast of St. Joseph. He is in a special way the protector and guardian of that hidden life of Jesus and in this time, when we are called to live the hidden life, the isolation demanded of us by coronavirus, St. Joseph is there to guard, help and protect us. 

Gethsemane is another aspect of the hidden life of Jesus, the intense suffering of Gethsemane which remained hidden from most, if not all – even from His three closest companions who fell asleep in the time of his greatest fear and distress. Fear, distress are words used in the Gospels to describe what was going on for Jesus. We are experiencing a certain amount of fear and uncertainty, particularly older people who have been asked to self-isolate for up to four months without physical contact with their families, the kind of contact that is essential for a person’s wellbeing. So, we need to find strength for this part of life’s journey. It is offered to us by Jesus of Gethsemane. 

Many years ago, I was spiritual director to a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. On a particular evening we were booked in to pray in the church that has been built in the garden of Gethsemane. We were to have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament there but a crowd of Italians had taken over the church, filling it to overflowing so that we could  not get in. We went instead to the place in the garden where Jesus suffered His agony. Some of the group were unhappy with this, complaining that we were deprived of adoration. So, I said what I felt, that somehow this is what God wanted us to experience, to understand that Gethsemane is the place where we do not have things the way we want or even need. It is a place of deprivation in which we are asked to surrender our own will completely and pray with Jesus, “not my will but yours be done!” It is a very difficult place to be. The Vicar General of our diocese refers to this current period of isolation as a long Holy Saturday and that’s exactly the feeling I had today. The quietness, the emptiness of Holy Saturday rests over all. 

It is a time of spiritual fasting. In a way it's like fasting on the absence of Jesus who once said that the time would come when the Bridegroom would be taken away from them and that would be the time to fast. It's the absence felt by the disciples in the Upper Room that first Easter evening when they were shut away in fear and uncertainty. Though Jesus was in fact risen and alive, they did not know it, did not feel His presence until He appeared among them. Ours is a liturgical absence - for the people the absence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for me the priest it is the absence of the community of the people.

It is difficult now for people to understand why God allowed the coronavirus to happen, to understand why people should be deprived of the Eucharist, to understand why the Church doesn’t have enough faith to carry on. In our final public Mass yesterday the last line of the Gospel read, “no one dared to question Him anymore.” While our questions are valid and need to be asked, the time comes when they are silent because they are of no use to us right now, they cannot alter the situation, they sap our energy and we might serve ourselves better to trust in the one thing necessary – Love. 

That is the great commandment Jesus speaks of – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbour. That’s what we are called to now. And in that we will find new life. 

In the life of a priest, central to his very nature, is the obedience which he has given by means of an oath or a  solemn promise in the presence of God. It is one of his ways of living in imitation of Christ, the obedience of Christ in Gethsemane, an obedience that is at its heart an expression of the Son's love for His Father. It is an expression of my love for God. That is not to say that my obedience is not troubled. It is troubled as was the obedience of Jesus, as was the obedience of Mary.

It always comes back to Love. Mark Oakley says of the poet George Herbert, “Love, Herbert believed, is the sole spiritual imperative and the only law of the authentic soul.” 

I realized many years ago that I do not have the courage to fast or do penance – perhaps because it’s not the gift God gave me. The gift He has given is the asceticism of Love. “King of Glory, King of Peace, I will love thee” wrote George Herbert in Praise (II). I will love thee! 

This in turn brings to mind the vocation of St. Therese the Little Flower who understood that she was called to be Love in the heart of the Church. During my recent desert retreat, when I was tempted to think it was all so complicated, a voice within me suggested that the only thing needed was the Little Way of St. Therese. It became the simplicity of taking one step at a time for the love of God. At the end of our retreat when Father Angelus prayed with me, he invoked the help of St. Therese for me and I’ve wondered many times since where does she fit into my life and now, I get it. I’m not childlike enough to be like her but Love is the imperative of my soul, the only law.



THERE I FOUND HIM: Finding Meaning with St. Patrick in Isolation




“I cannot hide the gift of God which He gave me in the land of my captivity. There I sought Him and there I found Him.” (St. Patrick)


In the Gospel for the Feast of St. Patrick there is the call to “put out into deep water” and today we find ourselves in the uncharted, deep waters of the coronavirus. There is uncertainty, fear and isolation. Isolation – the astonishing extent of it – is almost more fearsome than the disease itself. It is a challenge for families who have self-isolated, even more so for the elderly who are having isolation imposed on them, facing the prospect of not seeing their families for weeks or even months. The loneliness of that is perhaps something not considered by the experts and those in power.

I listened to an expert on BBC radio this afternoon on my way to hear confessions in St. Richard’s school. He said that grandchildren should be able to visit grandparents provided they take all the precautions of washing and keeping the required distance of two metres. That makes sense to me but those visiting the elderly would have to be scrupulous about washing hands etc.

Today was my first time to minister at St. Richard’s, apart from celebrating a Friday morning Mass for a small group a couple of years ago. I was prevented until now from doing anything in St. Richard’s because my safeguarding clearance wasn’t sorted but, truth be told, I was not in a hurry to go there because I feel I lack the gifts needed for secondary school students. It’s fine on a one-to-one and today’s experience was truly lovely, ninety minutes well spent.

Isolate. Self-isolation, imposed isolation – the reality of it can lead to a feeling of being held captive, like we are prisoners within our own life experience, a prison from which there is no escape no matter where we turn. It struck me this morning that we have a companion in St. Patrick who found himself alone, isolated, a prisoner on the mountains in very harsh conditions.  Within that reality he sought God and came to know Him in a new and more profound way.

“Do not be afraid” Jesus says time and again, as He does to Peter in this morning’s Gospel. As the deep water became a deep encounter, the opportunity of a new beginning for Peter with Jesus, as the captivity of the mountain was for Patrick, so our isolation is an opportunity to break through our fear into a new and deeper encounter with Jesus and others. Christ within, beside, above and below us. We are encompassed in the divine embrace and held safely there.

It also offers us time for reflection - to ponder the meaning of what is taking place, to turn our hearts to God in ways that we might have resisted until now and perhaps to find the wisdom that will allow us to contemplate our own mortality and the eternal life to which we are called, to contemplate how prepared we are for that eternal life. To do so without presumption or fear. To do so with trust.

It offers us time to pray, to be still a while and know that God is with us, to allow the prayer of the Holy Spirit to rise within us. For the Spirit comes to help us and, when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words, uttering the prayer that is necessary in the moment. (Romans 8:26)

Patrick too experienced this prayer of the Spirit. “I believe that I was sustained by Christ my Lord and that His Spirit was even then calling our on my behalf. I saw a person praying in me. I was puzzled and wondered who could possibly be praying in me. He spoke saying that He was the Spirit.” (St. Patrick, Confessions)

Finally, it is a time for families to spend more time together, to have fun together as I see happening with my family at home. And it is already a time when people are kindly attentive to those who are alone and in need of help. I being one of the alone have had so many offers of help in all sorts of ways. The offers alone raise me up to another level of joy. Thank God and thank you!

REDEMPTION: Who We Have Become






Galapo, Tanzania is a parish built on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the plain below. I was walking along the road one day when I met a group of children coming towards me. They looked at me with disdain and spoke to me in disrespectful tones, something that is unusual in Tanzanian society. The older girl shouted at me, "you must accept Jesus as your Lord!" They were obviously Pentecostals who believe that Catholics will go to hell. "Jesus is my Lord!" I replied. There was a look of shock on their faces and she spoke again, "you mean that you are saved?" I said, "yes, I am saved!"

Yes, Jesus is my Lord and Saviour and yes, I am saved. We are saved. But salvation is incomplete in this world. It is a journey we travel with Jesus our whole life long. A journey of leaving and moving forward, like Abram, like the Jews of the Exodus.
In his book of reflections – ‘My Sour-Sweet Days’ - on the poetry of George Herbert, Mark Oakley says, “So often we need to be redeemed not just from our belongings but also from who we have become.” This sentence resonates with me as I read the first paragraph of this Sunday’s reading from Genesis 12, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.’” It was this call of Abram that sent me on the Camino nine years ago and, because I am a perpetual pilgrim in this world, I am ever attracted by the prospect of leaving and going.

Of course, it’s not always a physical leaving but the internal leaving of oneself, leaving who I have become. Not that we have necessarily become bad or anything but we need to move on, progress further along the path marked out for us. We need to move and not become stuck in our way of being.
The call of Abram is lived out again in the lives of Peter, James and John when Jesus takes them on the journey up Mount Tabor. And, as He took them, so too He takes me, takes us upwards. It’s like we are called to leave for a while our ordinary, hum-drum way of existing, to leave behind our lower and more base instincts and go up with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration; to experience the truth of who Jesus is and to glimpse in Him who I am to become.
“This is my Son the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:1-9). Our future hope is shaped by listening to Him, to His Word, allowing ourselves to be informed and formed by Him in mind, heart and soul. And this is probably one of the greatest challenges for us – we don’t want to take on thoughts or ideas that differ from what suits us. We would like God to adjust to our way of thinking and doing. We don’t really want to have to adjust to Him, we don’t want the kind of interior change that such adjustment would involve. It is easier to stay at the foot of the mountain but that’s not where Transfiguration takes place.
When we dare go up with Jesus in prayer, then there is hope of transformation, a transformation that brings us back to our ordinary lives with new vision, new hope and a new way of being. A new way of treating each other, a better way of treating the stranger.
Question that crosses my mind – what do I need to leave behind in order to go up with Jesus? Does my encounter with Jesus positively affect the way I treat others. Do I go out from Mass and have arguments with others as if Jesus makes no difference? Do I as a child or an adult mock or taunt or even bully others as if I didn’t know Jesus? I asked the children the other day, “if Jesus came into the room as a boy and sat down among you, how would you treat Him? Would you laugh at him, make fun of him, treat him badly?” And they all said no, they would be kind Him. And I said, “that’s how we need to treat each other.” All the time to the best of our ability.

A DESERT OF A DIFFERENT KIND




There is a desert of a different kind, the desert we experience in our ordinary lives. The desert is within all of us. A few days after my return from the Sahara I went to the doctor who sent me to A&E to have my heart checked out because I have been struggling a bit with breathing. I have had a heart murmur since I was 17 and she had noticed something else in the ECG that she took in the surgery. So, I entered into a ten-and-a-half-hour process of waiting, being tested and waiting again. Two more ECG’s, an x-ray and numerous blood tests. And I thought to myself that, for all of us gathered there, A&E is another kind of desert, a testing, an encounter with our own frailty.

You feel vulnerable and uncertain. And somehow unworthy to be the recipient of the attention all of the medical staff show. I’m seen by four different doctors each of whom asks me the same questions which makes me wonder if they don’t actually believe me, that maybe I’m a fraud! But they treat me with such respect, touch my body with such reverence even as they prod and poke me with needles. They don’t know I’m a priest, so it’s not preferential treatment. I’m Mr. Monson to them and they are happy to treat me well, to do all in their power to ensure that I am well, to discover what it is that might be unwell within me. There's an air of happiness about them even though they must be under a lot of pressure.

At 1.30am the doctor gently takes my hand and apologises for the length of time I have had to wait, telling me I have to wait just a little bit longer. “The waiting is in your own best interest” he says. I know it is, I tell him. As it turns out I have to come back again the next day for a scan which takes another five hours. There’s no conclusion so they would like me to see a cardiologist. The bottom line is I’m fine, thank God!

The suffering of all the people gathered there in A&E finds its way into my heart. Particularly harrowing are the cries of the children, the suffering that they cannot put into words or understand. The perplexed, puzzled look on their faces. I have time to pray for them all.

Apart from the kindness of the medics and all the staff two other things hold me in peace, keep me going. Firstly, I feel enfolded in the embrace of God and, secondly, I meet quite a number of people from the parish who are there with their own ailments. Initially I was hoping that I would not meet anyone from the parish but very early on in the evening I saw a familiar face in the row opposite, so I went over to say hello and the woman told me she was at that very moment reading my Sahara blog! A few hours later a man from the parish came in great pain, later still a young family who seemed pleased to see me there! We are all concerned for each other and are bonded more closely by being there together.

Lent got off to a vibrant start with the presence at Mass of all the children from the primary school who brought a note of joy to this solemn season. And indeed, this joy is appropriate and in keeping with what Jesus says in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday – “when you fast, do not put on a gloomy look!” It is what Nehemiah calls us to, “this day is joyful to the Lord; do not be sad because the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

What we see happen to Jesus in the desert at the beginning of Lent is that the devil seeks to deceive, discourage, to bring him down and question his very identity, suggesting that Jesus isn’t really who He says, that He isn’t really the Son of God. What sustains Jesus and arms him against the devil’s tactics is what God the Father said to Him at His Baptism immediately before the desert, “You are my Son the Beloved, my favour rests on you!”

We are all confronted by discouragement and self-doubt. Lent is partly about choosing which voice we listen to – the one that brings us down or the one that reminds us that we are, each one of us, the Beloved of God. It’s not new news, very old news in fact but we haven’t allowed ourselves to really hear it and take it in.

The desert is a fascinating and surprising place. In the midst of all the barrenness you come upon the most amazing miracles of life. A tiny yellow flower all on its own! And you wonder how it came to be there, how it can even survive, where does it get its moisture? The answer is hidden somewhere deep below the hot dry surface of the sand. The presence of such a flower is a reminder to us in our barren times of the spiritual and emotional nourishment that lies hidden in the deep recesses of our being.

We are reminded in the desert to contemplate the beauty of small things. In Lent we are reminded to contemplate the signs of life that are within and around us, to contemplate the beauty of God, to contemplate the beauty of those who fill our lives every day. It might be a good exercise this season to sit down with your family, to look at each one’s face and contemplate the beauty there. To contemplate and be blessed by it.




NOTES FROM THE SAHARA DESERT: The Victory of Love


“Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves!”

(Mark 6:31)

Dawn

I sit on a dune in the cold dark before dawn, facing east where the sun will rise, contemplating the beauty of God to the restful rhythm of ruminating camels. God is in this place to be adored, honoured and praised. And when I pray “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” – a prayer without me in it - it seems as if all of heaven responds “Amen!” and the sands of this desert respond “Amen! Glory be!”

The rising of the sun will be beautiful, awe-inspiring, but it is not the sun that I am waiting for. I wait for Jesus who comes once more from east and west, north and south. He comes anew each day to tell us of the Father’s Love. The sun is a reminder of this reality and even as we wait, He is already present in our waiting.

This is the most silent, still and solitary part of the day – precious as water in this Sahara. I drink about four litres of water here each day. May I drink in even more of the Holy Spirit into my soul and may this time of prayer give due honour to the Most Holy Trinity.

We sing the Divine Office of Lauds (Morning Prayer) after the sun has risen and then go to gather up our belongings before having breakfast which our guides have laid out for us on mats. One of the miracles of the desert is porridge which I seldom eat at home but here somehow my body tells me that this is what it needs. Here I find myself eating food I don’t normally like and I eat it simply because my body asks for it. All of the food is fabulous and we are astounded every day by what Brahim produces. Meals are very happy occasions, true to Psalm 133 that says “how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity!”




We are twelve priests – four are from the community of St. John, two of us are Pallottines and the other six are diocesan. Most of us didn’t know each other before coming here and most of us live in England. John and I have been companions for almost 48 years and it is a blessing for us to be together on this part of life’s journey, to be present to each other without having to say much. All twelve of us here blend very well, are at home with each other and help each other to keep going. Laughter is very much the tonic of our down times, especially in the evenings. And though I am used to much more silence at home, I recognize the importance and necessity of these times of joy.

Once we have finished breakfast and are ready to set out, we have a very valuable presentation of the theme of the day from our leader Father Luc - leaving things behind, letting go, praying unceasingly, gratitude, attentiveness.

There is one young camel who protests long and loud against the burden he has to bear. As soon as he sees the herdsman coming with the saddle, he begins to wail with an anguish that I identify with – though someone said he is only messing. Whatever he’s at, it resonates with something inside me. One morning I said to those standing near, “he doesn’t realize he has another week of this!” to which His Grace responded, “don’t be projecting your own feelings onto that poor camel!” Indeed!



Morning

We are led away each day by our young guide Hussein while Hassan takes up the rear to make sure no one gets lost. We don’t talk at all during these morning hours of walking, the mornings being mostly about silence. It is then that one can hear God speak most quietly, delicately.

The first day out was like a piece of cake, being mostly on flat hard ground where my stride is fairly good and I can keep going for a long time but the second day saw us climbing impossibly high dunes along narrow ridges that literally took my breath away. The last time I gasped and panted so much was going up Mount Longonot in Kenya with Mike O’Sullivan but that was just a few hours of a day. This now became an all-day, everyday thing and, on the second day, I struggled very badly both with my breathing and the height which caused something in my head to wobble and my knees to tremble. It was humbling to be so exposed, to be the weak one of the group. Weak and in need in the physical sense but my hope too is that this testing in the desert, the testing of my breath to its very limits is somehow an expression of the Holy Spirit praying, gasping within me beyond the utterance of words.

The desert has its own rhythm that demands that I adapt to its way of walking, forcing me to struggle with it as Jacob wrestled with God at Penniel, prepared for both blessing and injury in the encounter. Both Luc and Philip Thomas told me that there was no need for me to try to keep up with the others, to go at my own pace and this helped me greatly, giving me space to look beyond the struggle to see the utter majesty of God’s Garden. That’s what they say the desert is – it belongs to God and it is His Garden, a quiet lonely place that speaks to my inner loneliness. Not loneliness in a negative sense but in the sense of my deepest desire and yearning, though it may also encounter aspects of human loneliness.


            The Way, the Gate, the Door

The other day as I was pondering during the 10-hour drive from Marrakesh to the desert, it seemed like Jesus said to me, “I am the Way, I am the Gate, I am the Door!” And in my mind’s eye I saw the Way like the highway on which we were driven, a direct and simple route to Jesus, a Way along which I am escorted by Our Lady. The Gate led into a beautiful garden at the other end of which was the Door that led into the House of the Lord and the Table of the Most Holy Trinity where a place is reserved for me. All very neat, simple and direct. And now the desert presents me with a very different kind of Way and Gate and Door but I feel that the purpose of this struggle with God’s Garden will lead to greater simplicity within myself. The desert is the outer expression of what is taking place in the interior of my soul.

When I would see Hussein leading the group up yet another dune I would groan out loud and say, “Oh God no!” but I learned very quickly to follow up with “thank you Lord!” and on reaching the top would find myself praying Psalm 117 “O Praise the Lord all you nations, acclaim Him all you peoples. Strong is His love for us. He is faithful forever!”

And when we came face to face with Abid Lia, that seems as great as Croagh Patrick, I was with Jacob again, realizing with delight “How awesome this place is; this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven…” (Genesis 28:17). It was appropriate for me that we had adoration in the tent in this place. The Tent of meeting.

On the second day I asked the desert how far we had walked, how much further we had to go, how high was that dune and what time of day it was. Of course, the desert remained silent and it soon became clear to me that it does not matter how far, how high or what time. It is what it is. We are where we are. There’s no need to know anything more. We had abandoned our watches and mobile phones which were being carried by the camels in our luggage. We got used to not knowing. The only time it challenged me was when I woke up in the morning – not knowing if it was time to get up or not.


Afternoon

On our morning walk there were a couple of short breaks when we would sit or lay down in silence, eating nuts and dates. It seemed to me that it was early afternoon when we would reach the shade of a Tamarisk tree where the Berber had mats laid out and a table ready for us to celebrate Mass. I loved the fact that, by the Eucharist, we were bringing the Sacramental Presence of Jesus into a land where He is largely absent, a land from which He has long been expulsed. This absence of Jesus is a great mystery that bothers me, a mystery to which only God can give the answer.

I got to lead Mass on February 8th, feast of St. Josephine Bakhita who was sold as a slave at the age of nine. Her day is dedicated to all who are modern day slaves, those trafficked and forced to live unimaginably appalling lives. We offered Mass for them. Much of the prayer of our desert is intercession for those whom we carry in our hearts and for each other. This Pilgrimage would be impossible without the others - the twelve and our seven Berber companions.

While we prayed, they cooked and after lunch we would stretch out in the shade before taking up our trek into the early evening. This was the hottest part of the day, most draining and most difficult and, though talking was permitted during this stretch, I found I had no energy for it and remained mostly silent.

Along the way one of the early days I asked God what I was supposed to get from this retreat, what is its purpose in my life and the reply came swiftly, like He said, “What more do you need?” and then the words of St. John came to me, “we know that we already possess whatever we have asked of him.” (1 John 5:15). So, I returned to Psalm 73:23-26 that was with me before coming on this retreat and it became the centre of my prayer for the remainder:

I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

“You hold me…” Many times along the way one of the brothers – Matthew or Rajiv - would stretch out his hand to hold me steady on a high, narrow ridge or take me by the hand to lead me down the descent. This was particularly true of young Brother Sharbel who would quietly come up beside me and take hold of my hand. And there was Brother Philip Thomas who carried my two litre bottles of water every day. It meant that their own walking was somewhat restricted by their attentiveness to me. They are the hand of God and God bearing the burden.


Others of the twelve kept pace with Hussein - the two Johns, Angelus, Thomas, Joe - and I would look at them with admiration from my distance for they were fleet of foot and agile in spirit, like gazelles bounding up the heights. When Hassan was not with us Luc lingered at the rear keeping us in view like a shepherd his flock. Abram kept his eye on the wonders of the desert, seeing the beauty in the very least of things, the miracle of the tiniest flower, taking the photos that I would like to take myself. The battery in my camera died in the early days because I forgot to turn in off! It was meant to be. Each of us is honoured in the place and pace given us, in this is our glory and I felt at peace in mine.




Evening

Worn down by the afternoon heat we looked at the dune ahead, hoping it might be the last of the day, so there was a special feeling of relief when we spotted the peak of one of the big tents in the distance. On arriving we would throw ourselves down in any available shade, take off our boots and rest a while, some tending to their blisters, others reading and others simply chilling and chatting.

We sang vespers in the evening on a dune facing the setting sun and at these times of looking westwards I felt I was facing my own family at home.

The main event of the evening was the reflection on Psalm 23 given by Father Thomas. These were most inspiring – the content and his own person that shone through everything he said. It is a Psalm for calming down, a Psalm of trust leading us from a state of being stressed to blessed; anointing our experiences of worry, hurry and fear.

On a couple of evenings we were joined by our seven Berber guides. The first was a getting to know each other session during which they gave each of us an Arabic name, perhaps so that they might more easily identify us. I was given the name Ali who was a cousin of the Prophet and it means high or exalted. In the car in Marrakesh before leaving for the desert, the driver got in, looked back at me and said with a smile, “Ali Baba!” Our guide Hassan had heard this and so decided that in Marrakesh I would be Ali Baba but in the desert I would be Si Ali. The second time we were joined by the seven Berber was for an evening of singing. The rhythm is beautiful and hypnotic and they even sing sad songs joyfully.

At the end of every day we all stood in a circle to sing the Salve Regina before departing to our tents for a quiet night and a perfect end.

In the future, we Twelve Fathers of the Desert will hold within us an emotional memory of this desert, our bodies will remember it and the lessons it teaches us by its silence, the lessons of God contained within its silence. The seven days that we have walked will be engraved within us. I feel that God has refashioned the landscape of my soul in ways that I cannot express or comprehend. He has reshaped my soul in the glory of Jesus, the victory of Love, a Love most uniquely expressed in Ahmed.

Ahmed


He is of the Berber tribe, the chief camel herdsman, thirty-one years old with a wife and three children whom he hasn’t seen since December because he lives much of his life in the desert with his camels and groups like us. He loves the desert, especially rolled up in his mat at night beside the fire, beneath the splendour of the stars.

And for some reason he took a particular liking to me! He would stride up to me in the morning and evening, his face radiating joy, his right hand in the air and his left hand upon his breast. And he would hug me, uttering something in his own language or in French, words I didn’t understand but in a tone that touched my heart. The first time I saw him approaching me like this, I looked over my shoulder to see who he might be approaching and was surprised to discover that it was me. 

One evening I was stretched out on the sand, waiting for the men to finish setting up our tents, when I heard a voice calling, "Si Ali!" It was Ahmed pointing to the tent he had just completed, telling me it was mine. And I felt the grace of being given something as a gift, rather than  me taking it, the grace of waiting and trusting.

There was a night we gathered around the fire outside to watch him bake bread. He moved the burning timber away from the centre and placed the dough in the pit of the fire, covering it with sand and brought the fire in over that again. After a while he removed the fire and the sand and out comes this perfectly baked loaf which he brushed down with a towel, scraping away the burnt parts with the knife. He broke the bread and passed it around and it was truly beautiful.

I was standing on the far side of the fire when Father Luc came to tell me that Ahmed wanted me to sit beside him. Surprised again, I went and sat there. Ahmed put his arm around my shoulder, drew me to him warmly and tenderly and said, “mon ami!” Then he began to sing. And I sang along as best I could and it pleased him!

Father Thomas told us that the glory of Jesus is the victory of Love. I have walked this retreat in the Love of God, always aware of His Love but in Ahmed I experienced the affectivity of that Love, tasted its victory and its glory. He became the embodiment of the Love of God the Father and he became for me the face of the Sahara Desert. It's as if God said to me through Ahmed, "this is how I feel about you, this is how I love you."

Gratitude fills me for this and for every single thing that has been given in this most amazing journey. And while we have made our way fairly quickly back to our homes by plane, Ahmed and his camels spent four days walking back to his. Unhurried and at peace!



***

The Lord Jesus is our Good Shepherd, my Shepherd

He shepherds me, comes close to me, to every single one of us

Walking ahead He marks out the Way we must follow

I step into His footprints, the footprints of the Brother in front of me

You are with me

You pursue me with Goodness and Mercy

Your hand stretched out to hold me on the uncertain, narrow ridge, escorting me on the descent

You bear the water that will quench my thirst of body and soul

You are the cheche that protects my head from the burning heat, soaked in the cool waters of a surprising desert well 

And in the shade of the Tamarisk tree you spread out the table of the Eucharist,

Your Most Holy, beautiful Body and Blood

The table that will nourish and restore our weary bodies,

Bodies that you make to lie down for a time of rest

In the good, pleasant and joyful gathering of our Brotherhood.

You are the Way, the Gate and the Door leading us into the House of the Lord,

The House of our dwelling, today and forever. Amen!


I AM THE DOOR
Tabernacle at the Church of the Franciscan Martyrs, Marrakesh

HORSE WITH NO NAME: Preparing for the Desert




“…the Lord whom you are seeking will suddenly enter His Temple and the Angel of the covenant whom you are longing for, yes He is coming!” (Malachai 3:1)

The Lord whom you are seeking will suddenly enter His Temple.

He is Himself the Temple and we are His Temple.

It is we who seek Him
We who are longing

It is in our longing that we present ourselves before the Lord so that we are there – present and prepared for when that sudden thing happens.

The healing that we seek will suddenly happen
The conversion we are awaiting will unexpectedly take place
The Love we are longing for will suddenly arrive.

And we will, like Simeon, say, “at last!”
That will be our prayer of relief and gratitude.
But we have to be there in the Way and in the Place where it will happen and we have to seize the opportunity when it presents itself.

I’ve been seeking Jesus all my life, often finding Him, often avoiding Him.

For many years I’ve had this image of Jesus and myself. I’m standing in my own life with all my belongings – personal, material, spiritual – all my comforts and securities.

Standing quite close, facing me is Jesus but where He stands is desert – bright, white, blue and empty. Empty except for Him and he’s asking me to step across the line from my place into His. I’ve always resisted taking that step, afraid that He would not be enough, but always knew that I would have to go there one day. He and I have always been very close but, somehow, also in different places.

And now that I have turned 65 and am almost 40 years ordained, I’m about to go there. Last year I received an invitation to take part in a priest’s retreat in the Sahara Desert and I leave on Monday (February 3rd). There are 12 of us taking the retreat and we will be guided by experts as we spend eight full days walking, praying, eating, sleeping, being silent in the desert. We will walk for five to six hours a day. 40 is a very Biblical and Desert number – 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert; Moses spending 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai; Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the desert after His baptism. So, I feel this is a significant event in my life .

I believe that it will be a blessing for the people of this parish whom I will carry with me in my heart. This is not just for my benefit, it's not only about me but about us as a community. I do not carry the parish as an institution but as a people, as specific people and it’s not so much that this parish as an institution will be any different when I return but my hope is that we will be touched as people by my going and returning. And perhaps something that we have been seeking and longing for will come to us or some of us in a defining way. The defining way might not necessarily be pleasant. It might in fact be challenging and even painful but it will be a moment of new life and salvation.

People in the parish have already been equipping me for this pilgrim journey. The kufiya (desert scarf) given me by a young husband and father, a small rucksack and gaiters. There are ski goggles belonging to a young doctor to protect my eyes in the event of a storm. All these will be physical connections with my beloved Hastings, reminders, symbols of the love given me, tangible instruments of prayer.

Apart from the parish, I will of course carry all whom I hold dear with all their needs and in a special way I will be connected to Katie, niece and God-daughter, who will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation while I am away. She generously gave me permission to go to the desert even though she would want me to be at her Confirmation. So, may the Holy Spirit who fills the air in the distance between us, bind us even more closely and fill her with all of the spiritual blessings of Heaven.

The moment draws ever closer. At last all powerful Master! And the old song from the 1970's goes round in my head and makes me smile - "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name...!"

“At last, all-powerful Master, You give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to your promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all nations, the light to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to Israel, your people.” (Lk 2:29-32; the song of Simeon)