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.
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.
“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.
|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!
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 – 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.
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.
Chelva, Spain - August 2017
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.
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 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’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.
Stay with Peter, you said
Peter in chains
Between two soldiers
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
The full length of the street
Stay with Peter, you say
Peter in our time
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.
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
The touch of another
These isolation days
And weeks now turned
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.
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)
|Father Michael Clarke in 1980|
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.