I LOVE YOUR FACE: The Mission of the Child

 


Speaking at his Grandad’s funeral my dear friend Father Jaimie speaks about the greatness of the child in the eyes of Jesus; how we have to forget ourselves in order to remember and in remembering to become a true child. A little child who is content with the little daisies of life, content to be a daisy rather than a big impressive flower. It reminds me of a woman spoken of by John Moriarty in his autobiography, ‘Nostos’ – he asked his father why this woman was so happy and his father replied that she is happy because she is not seeking to be a tree where only a bush can grow. Something like that. Meaning that she is content to be who she is.

On Mission Sunday I’ve been struck again about the place of the child in my life, the Mission of the child that constantly lifts up my heart, draws me closer to God and to my true self, simply by being the child they are.

Last Sunday after Mass a ten-year-old girl commented on my mask.  It’s pale blue with white daisies. Probably not what I would have chosen but it was given me by a friend and so I wear it in fidelity to our friendship. The girl said, “I love your mask!” and immediately her three-year-old cousin said, “well I love your face!” He is of African origin and it was said with the emphasis and enthusiasm that only an African possesses. So, I was immediately lifted up in the joy of this innocence. And for some reason I go around singing David Bowie’s ‘Rebel, Rebel’ – your face is a mess! The emphasis is oddly the same, like there’s a particular joy in the mess.

LOSS: The Need To Be Found

In the early 1960’s things were hard economically and my mother never tired of reminding us that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and that it was hard to “make ends meet.” So she was understandably furious when my older sister Maura, who was about 8 years old,  lost the thrupenny piece on the way to the shop to get something for the tea. I was with Maura when she decided to throw the money in the air to see if she could catch it. She didn’t and it got lost in the grass. It was a dark winter’s evening. The searching was intense. And it was in vain. The value of it in today’s buying power would be about €15 and it must have been near the end of the week and there was no more money. It was a very frustrating reality when you  had children to feed.

My mother, like all of us, used to stress  from time to time over the loss of hard earned material things and then came the day when she lost her daughter. Maura didn’t wake up one morning and all of our experience of loss reached an altogether different level.

St. Teresa of Avila: Let Nothing Disturb you




“My soul at once becomes recollected and I enter the state of quiet. Everything is stilled and the soul is left in a state of great quiet and deep satisfaction.” (St. Teresa of Avila)

St. Teresa of Avila has been one of the most significant guides of my spiritual life since I was 17 years old. I began reading her very early in my life as a Pallottine and there are two moments – a dream and a time in prayer - that have connected me to her.

In the dream I walked into an old unfamiliar church where I met my father who was already dead at the time. He pointed me to a side altar at the top left-hand side. When I went there I saw St. Teresa’s tomb in front of the altar. It was like the Italian ones with the shape of the body carved in marble; she was sleeping covered with a blanket. Then she stirred and woke up, telling me to stand between her and the altar. “Stay here” she said “and I will take care of you.”
The second happened during a charismatic retreat when I was resting in the Spirit, in a state of quiet. A rope ladder came down from heaven and standing beside it was St. Teresa who pointed to the ladder and said to me, “I have given you the means to ascend to the heights.”
With these I am both emotionally and spiritually connected to her, even though I don’t pray to her that much but this prayer of St. Teresa I say very often:

"Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away.
God alone never changes.
Patience obtains all that it strives for.
Whoever has God,
Lacks nothing.
God alone suffices."

  
                                                    Ecstasy of Saint Teresa - Artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini



CONTENTMENT: I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

 

Dolores O'Riordan painted by Ryan Gannon Foster in January 2018

Morning. Bright and crisp. October 9th – my father’s Birthday, may he rest in peace. Born in 1911. It’s also the Feast of St. John Henry Newman, Britain’s newest Saint. From outside, the voices of children echo through the church door. The prayers I requested of them are on the small table beside my chair in the sanctuary so that, as promised, I can bring them to Jesus when I pray. The voices I hear are glad – parents and children on their way to school - light and happy. Most children seem to like going to school but some don’t and I can empathise with the latter because, from beginning to end, from the age of four to seventeen, I didn’t like school at all. So, I’m really happy that it’s so far behind me, to be where I’m at now.

This is a most special time of day. Morning – once the drama of waking and getting up is done. The silence of it. Silence without interruption. Except what saunters into my mind but even that is not an interruption but is rather material for prayer. Right now, it’s Dolores O’Riordan who enters in, the young Dolores playing the organ in a country church more than thirty years ago. Playing for the parish Mission that John Fitzpatrick and I were giving. A bleak place with a dedicated and excitable parish priest who took one look at me, then turned to John to ask in a voice filled with doubt, “can he preach, can he preach?” He had the tendency to say everything twice as I sometimes find myself doing now! I was then in my early thirties with a black beard, black hair and big glasses that made me look like Gerry Adams. So, it’s understandable that he would be sceptical about me!

THE CATHEDRAL OF MY HEART

 


“I always keep a candle burning for you in the cathedral of my heart! Yes, I always do!” So writes a friend all the way from Germany, across the distance of ten years. It’s that long since we met. We’ve known each other for about twenty-four years and were thrown together a lot in the course of work for the six years from 2005-2011. He’s a big, strong man and we’re as different as chalk and cheese. I drove him crazy with frustration at times but we have common ground, we are bonded by all of our experiences together and we even daydreamed of setting up a contemplative cenacle together. He is one of the most God-like people I know and it is an honour to be so respected in the cathedral of his heart.

As a priest I find some of the best expressions of who God is, what God is like in the noble expressions of motherhood and fatherhood that I encounter. Something that parents want for their daughter and son is that they be treated with respect by others and when their child is treated with disrespect it is a source of great pain.

ALL SOUND CEASES A WHILE

 


All sound ceases a while – the pausing of the wind that beats on the roof, the noise of traffic subsiding. I am Samuel in the sanctuary of the morning – “speak Lord!” A child’s footfall patters outside in the pouring rain, a voice that speaks of pleasure while the song of a robin dances in the sky.

“There has been a delay” said the boy as he stepped through the church doorway. He was referring to his First Holy Communion. Four months of a delay. And, when it came to receiving his First Holy Communion, this boy skipped up the aisle with delight.

GOING BACK: Memory and Reward

 

Three Galway Hookers sailing. Saturday morning leisure. They were working boats in my Aran childhood, a fleet of them carrying turf to the island, unloading it by hand, casting it onto the pier. Well into adulthood the pier was my playground; hours watching. These black Hookers with their brown sails are now the bearers of memory, treasures of the past. I am drover driven down forty-eight years of memory

A train passes on its way to Dublin, train of thought moving towards the approaching future, thinking of leaving again. Two more sleeps. No idea when a return will be possible in these uncertain coronavirus times. As long as the two-week quarantine remains in place it will be difficult to come home again before next August. But you never know. Back in my Tanzania days we got home only every two years and the luxury of phones hadn’t arrived. We didn’t hear each other’s voices, didn’t see each other’s faces. We wrote letters! And what a joy that was in its time.

BEAUTIFUL TENT



My body aches
For the finite touch
Of another

Infinite touch
Of The Other

Totally fulfilling
Eternally thrilling

I gasp for air

LATE NIGHT SOUL CONVERSATIONS

See how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in harmony! 
It is like fine scented oil... 

(Psalm 133:1-2)



Chelva, Spain - August  2017

I left Mervue at two in the morning, driving to Dublin for my flight to Spain and a beautiful drive it was with a crescent moon low on the horizon for most of the journey. It’s been a month of moons and awesome skies, those of Inis Mor in Aran being among the most beautiful. There the sight of the moon brought me to my feet, causing me to say out loud “Oh my God!” A true prayer of wonder.

I'm surprised by how lovely and clean everything is in Madrid - airport, trains, Atocha station. It's the day after the Barcelona terror attack but the atmosphere is relaxed with remarkably few armed soldiers in evidence. The flag over the station flies at half mast. I think about the dead, the injured - and pray.

GRACE: Are You Down For the Football?

The silence of flowers in a wild patch of garden, the graceful way of nature giving birth to what was not. Newly sprung forth on the Feast of the one who was sprung forth from earth into heaven, drawing our gaze upwards to the fullness of grace, earth into heaven, body into soul. The Assumption of Our Lady. 

The passage of all things is on my mind, all that I treasure in this world. I am passing through. Gifts of Nature fading away, Grace remaining. Word of God enduring. 

WILD HEART: A Brooding Beauty

From the movie 'Alpha'


'Wild at Heart' is the book I came upon in the sitting room at home. Wild is the unmanaged beauty of Ballyloughán, the beach where we swam and played as children, getting roasted by the sun. A brooding beauty. The sombre grey of the sea beneath a vibrant Western sky.  Dark and pale blue, brown and orange with a blazing white setting sun at its centre. The song of curlews echoing. I have gone there every day of my quarantine. Mostly in the early morning. 

I WOULD LIKE TO BECOME BREAD: Going home and other thoughts



I’m going home tomorrow. This is the longest I’ve been away from my family in 34 years. Seven months now! And there’s an excitement growing in me at the thought of it. It’s like a childhood summertime feeling. I will quarantine alone for the first two weeks and then have time to see family and friends, maybe even be in a bubble where hugs are allowed.

SOMETIMES MY HEART (Parable of the Sower)

(Matthew 13:1-23)

Sometimes my heart is on the edge.
At a distance from God.
Distant from myself, from others.
I have drifted there,
Made choices that brought me there,
Bear wounds that have driven me there.
It is next to impossible
To hear the Word
That would console, convert and transform.
Like Israel in Egypt
Unable to hear the Word of Exodus,
So crushed was their spirit
So cruel their bondage. (Exodus 6:12)

COME BACK TO ME

STAY WITH PETER



Stay with Peter, you said
Peter in chains
Peter imprisoned
Between two soldiers

Peter sleeping
Like Jesus in the boat
Jesus in the tempest
Quiet, calm, trustful

Peter, rock solid
Eyes fixed on the Lord
Looking toward Him
Radiant in the seeing

Stay with Peter, you said
Peter in his deliverance
Gospel unchained
The full length of the street

Stay with Peter
, you say
Peter in our time

Imprisoned
Trustful
Delivered
Radiant

I HEAR VOICES, I SEE FACES



I no longer hear accents. Only voices. I do not see colour. Only faces. The latter happened to me in Tanzania where I was initially very conscious of my own whiteness. There were so few of us in a black country. Tiny toddlers ran screaming at the sight of me, a little older they sought to insult me by calling out “Mzungu” and when they got used to me, they would take hold of my arm, rubbing it to see if the colour came off. Then when I eased down into the pool of our common life and blended, we were simply people making good with what life presented to us. 

One of my favourite singers of the early 1970’s was Madeleine Bell of ‘Blue Mink’ who had a hit called “Melting Pot”, a possibly naïve thought and hope but one that resonated with fifteen-year-old me and still sings itself in me from time to time. What we need is a great big melting pot, big enough to take the world and all it’s got! The blending of every colour.

Not hearing accents has happened here in England. So much does God love me that He put me in a place that would make me fall in love with England. In the beginning I was naturally very aware of the English accent in the way that one is aware of the sound of seagulls. But then, as in Tanzania, I have eased down into the pool of our common life so that I only hear voices now and not accents. Most of the time anyway. Of course, I hear and see who people are but accent and colour are not what occupy my ears and eyes. 

LIFE MATTERS: Thoughts on Fathers Day





The day plays with me. Teasing, messing with me! As soon as I sit down to eat my dinner the doorbell rings. When I make a mug of tea the phone rings. Toast goes cold and ice-cream melts in the tub. I go out the back to sit in the warmth of the sun that has been shining all morning and immediately it ducks in behind the clouds! 

I remain in the sacrament of the present moment. God and all of life in the moment, the present reality. When you stop to take notice, the noise is astonishing - the amount of noise going on every single minute, noise that we usually move in, that we are part of – until we step back from it.

All the cars driving up and down, an unbelievable number of motorbikes that render all other sounds mute. In the briefest gap in the traffic someone’s hammer echoes, a rasping drill, the cry of a single seagull on the church roof, the chorus of a hundred more bouncing off the houses, the flapping of pigeon wings. Hidden beneath and emerging now and then the sweet and delicate sound of birdsong.

Surrounded by all of these sounds there is silence within and peace. And even the sun emerges again hot on my skin, a therapeutic treatment. I put my head back and close my eyes. Let my thoughts surface and float.

Life is on my mind. Human life. The beauty of it and the trauma of it. The trauma sweeping the world recently, a violent reminder that Black Lives Matter. It shouldn’t have to be said, we shouldn’t need to be reminded but we become indifferent to the violence visited on lives that we do not see. Black Lives are created in the image and likeness of God. I say this too that Every Life Matters because, Every Human Life is created in the image and likeness of God. This is a forgotten truth in our time. Every vulnerable life matters and is worthy to have us kneel in its presence at all times. 

INTOXICATING ORDINATION: Pondering Priesthood 40 Years On - Eamonn Monson SAC




“Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” (Dag Hammarskjöld)
Ordination was intoxicating. It put a pep in my step, a smile on my face, tears in my eyes. All my life I was getting ready for it, having wanted to be a priest from my earliest memory, but when it came how ill prepared I was, how distracted. It’s a bit like accompanying the dying – you think you’re ready for death when it comes but it always manages to catch us off guard. Ordination caught me off guard, overwhelmed me, knocked me off my feet. And why wouldn’t it because it’s not just a major event, it is as close an encounter with God as you can get. Close encounters with God are overwhelming, sometimes devastating. It takes time to regain your balance.

Elizabeth and Hyacinth come to mind from the comedy series 'Keeping Up Appearances' - Elizabeth nervously holding the precious china cup and saucer, trembling in her hands and sometimes I think even falling to the floor. It seemed that priesthood was like the cup, the chalice in my hands, trembling, falling, breaking until I learned late in life that it is not me who holds the cup. It is God who holds me. 

THE PACT (Job in Isolation)



I make a pact
With my eyes, a pact
With my mind

Not to lead my heart astray
Lingering where the soul
Does not belong

I make a pact
With my senses
And break it

My body ravenous
For companionship
The touch of another

These isolation days
And weeks now turned
To months

I am at peace
I am at war
With myself




WHITE DOVE RISES: A new Intensity and Intimacy




A white dove rises, fluttering in the air as I emerge from the Crematorium. Brilliant white, radiant against the blue of sky. Sign of peace, symbol of the Holy Spirit which is appropriate in the days leading up to Pentecost.

I’ve slowed down to an extraordinary degree, like my brain is in slow motion, taking longer to complete what needs to be done in the time allotted. We’re given exactly half an hour for each funeral service and on Tuesday when I floated on for 50 minutes, the supervisor was understandably frustrated and sharp with me. In my defence, Tuesday was intense – I had three funerals in the space of two and a half hours and it’s quite difficult to switch from one group to another, to give them the attention they deserve, to leave one grief behind and enter into another in such a short space of time. Five funerals in a week feels like a lot, three in one day is something else. But it has to be done. Done with grace and honour for the deceased and the family.

The slow motion of my brain reminds me of the monks of Parkminster who are not allowed to drive because their reflexes are too slow, due to the pace of the life they live. There’s a bit of that too in me when driving following nine weeks of lockdown and isolation!

Monday was manic. Bank holiday fever filled the entire town and flowed happily onto the beaches of Hastings. The place was still buzzing in the late evening as people started moving lazily towards home, every bin in sight stuffed beyond capacity, overflowing on to the ground. Seagull’s paradise. They will wreak havoc and creation will groan.

Seagulls do what seagulls do and all the while the Spirit does what the Spirit does; the Holy Spirit working transformation in the hidden, locked down, isolated lives of our community. For some the transformation has carried them into eternity, carried being an important reality in our spiritual lives. We are carried when we allow ourselves to be carried, a call as old as Moses (Deuteronomy 1:31). We are like the wind; the Holy Spirit is the wind that blows where it will, a sound that is heard but it cannot be said from which direction the Spirit comes, in what direction the Spirit is going (John 3:8). So, it is with us, so it must be for we are born of the Spirit. We are available to be carried.

Maggi, a wise elder of our community, wrote the other day, a new intensity and intimacy has dawned - that’s my experience - I have been 100% isolated for nine weeks - no walks - and yet, I don’t feel alone - there is a great richness within us, unmined in normal life…”

A new intensity, a new intimacy is taking place in my own life. An immense love for Jesus rises, wells up within me. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, this love that is most intense in its wordless silence, most alive when I pray in the sanctuary before the Tabernacle. Wordless silence and hidden!

I have for many years thought how important it is to say “I love you” to Jesus and to those I love and have found myself saying it particularly to those who are about to die. Like I don’t want them to leave this world without knowing they are loved, knowing that they are loved by me. But saying “I love you” does not come easily to men in particular, that’s what the experts say. One night at home in Mervue as we were about to go to bed my Mother said to me, “I love you” and I replied “likewise” and she laughed, telling me she had recently read in the  paper that a woman will say “I love you” to a man and he is most likely to reply “ditto” or “likewise!” I was living out the theory.

I didn’t really know that my Mother loved me until the night before she died and now, I know. Life had taught me to mistrust words, to mistrust the word “love” because too often it has been a trap, a deception. Maura used to say, “don’t mind the words, just give me a hug!” So, when I say to Jesus, “I love you” I don’t trust my own words either because they feel false, hypocritical.

And now in this time of intensity and intimacy it seems that my love for Jesus is lessened in the saying, that it must be like the prophetic fire of Jeremiah, a fire imprisoned in my bones, a fire that needs to be held within until the restraining of it becomes a heat too much to bear. Then it will burst forth in the Holy Spirit, a perfect consummation, in groans and sighs beyond utterance (Romans 8). It will be a perfect prayer not of my own making and a fire that will purify all that is not good in me, a process that will go on to my end of days because there is more that is not good in me, more than anyone realizes.

So, this love that stirs in the sanctuary is not something I do or create. It is the working of the Holy Spirit. I am simply the vessel, the container, the thurible of red-hot charcoal that receives the incense, the sweet divine fragrance rising, ascending to mingle with light, the glory that streams through the window of the soul.

This may sound like I’m spending a lot of time in prayer. I’m not! Believe me when I say I’m not spending enough time praying but it’s not about time. It’s about presence,  intensity, an intimacy that happens in the briefest moment when I am taken up. And all who have asked me to pray for them are taken up too, taken out of my hands, out of my heart and mind into the Divine Presence, the hidden Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle, the doorway to heaven.






A WELL-WORN MISSAL - Funeral For A Friend



There’s a determined crow on the beach, challenging a seagull that has dared to try taking the food out of the crow’s beak – literally. The crow wins as both birds ascend upwards in battle into the sky, soaring and swooping before descending again to their separate places on the shore. The seagull gives up.

A swan in her place has made a nest of seaweed, ropes and clean garbage. Not ideal I’m sure but she has made something out the reality in which she finds herself and manages to look absolutely magnificent.

We all make do and sometimes we ascend and soar. Sometimes we descend and fight our way through what confronts us. It’s all we can do. Fight and welcome anything that helps us survive.

The other morning, I woke with the song ‘Happiness’ in my head and found myself through the day singing the words, “happiness, happiness the greatest gift that I possess. I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness.” This is the song that I’m singing as I am mourning the loss of my dear friend. It’s sincere and it’s no contradiction because I have learned times before that happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow abide together in the mystery of Christ. Happiness now is the grace that will see me through this period of grief. And I will go with it. I will be happy, even when I am sad.


Last night I sat for a long time – sanitized, masked and gloved - alone at the foot of my friend’s coffin. Near to the feet in a humble place, the place of Christ. Wounded, tired feet. Feet washed and anointed. The washing of feet at the heart of the Eucharist. In earlier years I tended his wounded body, held him while his mother anointed his wound. Held him and hurt him. Comforted him in a feeble kind of way.

He is free of all that now and is tranquil in repose, laid out in the vestments I sent for him, the alb that Derry got for him, Noel O’Connor’s clerical shirt. Noel a loyal friend gone ahead of him on this journey of faith. Sunlight flowing through the venetian blinds rests on his hands. Luminescence. I touch the hands folded over his breast, temple of the Holy Spirit, his right hand nearest to his heart enfolds his brown wooden rosary – pearl within his oyster.

Outside, his sister stands looking in the window, tears streaming down her face, lips moving in silent prayer. She is Mary weeping outside the tomb of Christ. “They have taken away my Lord!”

I have Michael’s apartment to myself and in the morning I pray in his bedroom where he lived and prayed and died. Pray the rosary sitting on a chair at the foot of his bed, the chair I always sat in when visiting and I stand the glass statue of the Madonna and Child by the window so that it looks like an apparition against the blue sky.


The room represents him. Over his bed is the picture of the Sacred Heart, to his left is an aerial photo of Celtic Park. Between that and the 1916 Easter Proclamation is a picture of Pope Francis. There are many Celtic memorabilia – a scarf, banner, framed picture on the sideboard where stands his well-worn Missal that is testament to his commitment to daily Mass which he celebrated against the odds. I am lonely and at peace in this place.

The prospect of this priest having no Mass at his funeral brought his family to a level of deep anguish that is beyond verbal expression. This priest confined to bed for more than thirty years, for whom the Mass was his meaning, his very existence. It was their anguish that brought me here, it is to this that I offer my obedience. It is very difficult for me to go against what lawful authority demands of me, so the struggle was great and my obedience here is responsible even though it might appear otherwise.

It goes totally against the grain for me as a priest, for all of us priests, not to be able to minister to our community within the church building and again, while I obey our bishops and government, I think it should be possible to hold small services in our churches. If it’s possible to hold funeral services in a Crematorium with a few well-spaced people, the same should be possible in a church building. But we deal as best we can with the reality. Reality is what is. And the encouragement I have constantly offered to my community during lockdown is to find Christ in this reality, to know and believe that something special is taking place within our current hidden lives. Something special like what took place within the tomb.

We celebrated Mass within the constraints of social distancing. It was simple, emotional, effective. The readings chosen came from the Liturgy of December 21st, a choice made by Michael’s Missal that fell open at that page suggesting readings that were very appropriate. The Visitation in Luke 1:39-45 represents the hidden presence of Jesus in Mary, a presence that was hidden in Michael all those days and years, a presence that stirred the longing of the Song of Songs 2:8-14, “My love lifts up his voice, he says to me, 'Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come. For see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone. Flowers are appearing on the earth. The season of glad songs has come, the cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree is forming its first figs and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance. Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come…show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.'” It is the conversation that takes place between God and the soul, each one seeking, desiring the other.


Let me hear your voice! It is my last memory of Michael, how he spoke my name so quietly when I arrived, he who could be so fiery speaking so gently. And as I left, his strong voice following me down the stairs. He knew it was the last time.

At the end of Mass I was given his Missal to keep and I will treasure this greatly because it is so lived in, its edges gone brown with age, the sweat of him that has coloured these sacred pages. And there are prayers written here that he used to say that will remind me of the tone of his praying voice, the expression in his eyes:

“Glory, adoration, praise, honour, worship and thanksgiving be to You Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Into your hands we commit ourselves and us all, especially those most in need of your help at this time.

Mary, Mother of Divine Love, Queen of Apostles, St. Vincent and all the Saints, intercede for all our needs through Christ Our Lord. Amen!”


Michael is buried with his parents. May they rest in peace and may those who survive find the consolation they need as they adjust to the new reality of his absence that will for a while be as intense and vibrant as his years of presence among them. Though his life was a hidden one, the priesthood he lived was shared intimately and inseparably by them. They are what St. Peter speaks of in the second reading of the fifth Sunday of Easter, “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart…” (1 Peter 2:9)









HAPPINESS - SORROW TURNED TO JOY

DAISIES THROUGH MY LETTERBOX

Father Michael Clarke in 1980
Divine Mercy Sunday with the sun setting behind Bulverhythe Beach as I turn for home, word comes that Michael is very ill with an infection that he might not pull out of. He has been ill for more than forty years. We have been close friends longer than that and there have been times when we were sure he was going to die, prepared ourselves for it. He has always rallied. But he might not rally now and I ache to see him, an ache that cannot be relieved because of the coronavirus. They are in lockdown and I cannot risk being the bearer of the virus.

O Christ, do you roll yourself into a ball within me and I roll myself into a ball within you? A ball of pain, regret, neglect and guilt. A ball of love and friendship. A great big ball of sorrow that he will die and I will not see him again in this world. But maybe I will. Maybe You will let it be so. If it be Your Will, You will show me and I will wait for whatever it will be.

The regret, neglect and guilt that is in me stems from the fact that I didn’t go to see him often enough, didn’t phone him and, while there are reasons, these reasons are not enough either.

In him I have been “a witness to the sufferings of Christ” – a truly hidden life, a hiddenness that is not glamorous and a spiritual life that has no false piousness in it. It is earthed, real and raw. In its presence there is mostly peace, especially when we pray together – the Divine Office, the Rosary, Divine Mercy and the Mass which is the summit of all prayer.



The intercessions made by him and his sister reach far beyond their own needs. In fact, they don’t pray for themselves at all. Instead their attention is focused on the poor, the homeless, the unborn, those who are trafficked. There seems to be in them no questioning of God in the way that is common nowadays. The words of Jesus apply to them, “blessed are those who do not lose faith in me.” Fidelity is a hallmark of who they are. 

THE UPPER ROOM : A Meditation in time of isolation



This is an extract from the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday. The Gospel of John 20:19-31 and a short reflection on it, a meditation on the isolation of the early Christian Community. It might be of help in our time of isolation as a result of the coronavirus.

You Raise Me Up To More Than I Can Be

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. Just now as I write Harry sends me this beautiful recording:





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.




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, cafés. 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!