I BECOME HIS CAPERNAUM




I don’t like Monday but I love the Word of God. Monday morning, even though it’s my day off, feels like a hangover. Heavy, slow, dull. And it’s raining, so the temptation is to stay in but there’s a movie that I want to see – A Hidden Life – and it’s only on in Ashford at lunchtime. I get myself together and out the door.

Walking down the street I run into a young family from the parish who are on their way back from the doctor. I hear them before seeing them. The young voices exclaim my name in unison and one of them looks up at me and says, “I am sorry about your brother-in-law!” It is so tender the way she says it. “Thank you!” I reply, adding that he needed to die because he was in a lot of pain. “He rests now” I say and she adds “in peace!”

The Word of God is alive and active and it comes to us in many forms. It is impossible to resist it when spoken by a child and my mood is completely altered, the strain in me dissolved.

Yesterday was Word of God Sunday, named so by Pope Francis so that we might pay greater attention to the Sacred Word of God in Scripture which I consider to be the most precious of gifts given me from the time I was a young student.

It’s as if God touched my lips with It, placed It in my mouth, gave me the prophetic scroll to consume in all Its bitterness and sweetness and wrote It upon my heart, a painful and ecstatic engraving.

In the Liturgy we reverence the Word, holding It aloft, incensing It, kissing It. In Nairobi they dance and sing the Word up the aisle as a mark of respect and love. But we reverence the Word most by listening to It, receiving It into our hearts, that It may take root and bear fruit in our lives.

It can only be properly read, heard and understood under the influence of the Holy Spirit, that is why it is essential to pray to the Spirit before reading or hearing the Word. Then the Holy Spirit uses the Word to resonate within our souls, stirring us to a response. The external written Word of the Bible seeks out the interior Word that is written in our hearts and the meeting of these two aspects causes the one Word to spark into a flame.

When I read yesterday’s Gospel what resonated with me was, “…He went and settled in Capernaum.” Jesus, the Eternal living Word, seeks to settle into my life, make His home in me so that I become His Capernaum, the Word made flesh within me. And He is my most welcome guest, my abiding and permanent resident.

His very name -Jesus – is the highest of all God’s Words. Name above all names, most sublime, beautiful, powerful. The name I wish to be on my lips when I draw my last breath. Sadly, it is a name spoken most casually and disrespectfully, especially in television and movie dramas, when it should only be spoken with reverence and love.

The movie, A Hidden Life, is a rare exception. Here God is spoken of and spoken to so tenderly, reverently, even in times of great suffering when questions are being asked of Him. And it’s never sentimental. I would love to watch it again, if only to hear the way they speak to God – the couple, Franz and Fani whose love for each other is exquisite. Their enemies and others speak scornfully about Christ and God but never this couple. “One must accept everything that He sends us with gratitude. He loves us. He won’t send us more than we can bear.” (Fani)

An aspect of the Word that we don’t often advert to is Its silence. A lot of communication in A Hidden Life is done is silence. God’s own communication is sometimes done in silence. There’s a hint of such silence in the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – Aleph that corresponds to the Greek Alpha (beginning) has no sound of its own, it is silent, suggesting the silence that was before the beginning of things. Jesus says of Himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” I am the Aleph! The soundless beginning.

We witness the silence of Jesus in the face of the accusations made against the woman taken in adultery; His silence in the face of His own trial; the silence of the Father when Jesus cries out in Gethsemane and on the Cross at Calvary. I suspect we also witness something of the silence of God in Pope Francis whose refusal to give answers is scorned by a world that demands immediate reactions leaving little or no space for reflection. And sometimes complete silence is the only true response that we receive from God.

I return to the Name of Jesus, the exquisite Word. May we take a silent moment to let this Name, this Word of life, settle silently into our hearts, touching the places that are sore and sorrowful bringing consolation and healing. May we speak His Name as a blessing over all that is in need of transformation and conversion.


“…on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” (Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23)

WAR ON THE ORDINARY PEOPLE: Days in December




“This is the war on the ordinary people”, the man shouts and shouts again on the crowded train. We’re squeezed in like sardines. Standing. There’s chaos at the station. Delays and cancellations. Yet, most of us remain silent in the face of it and some try to stop the man shouting his protest against this form of war on the people. I’m happy to have gotten in to the train at all but I wonder if it is our silence, our quiet resignation that allows government to become so detached from what is happening in ordinary lives. Although, it’s only a week since people had the opportunity to protest by means of the ballot box and they chose not to protest at all. Maybe they are too tired.

At Dublin airport the wind howled through the departure door, rain swept down across the tarmac. We were left standing on the stairs for quite a while after having presented out boarding passes. A young official asked, “would anyone like to skip the queue?” Two of us accepted the invitation to go down in the lift. The woman said, “I never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

There’s something odd about going away from home this close to Christmas. We should be travelling in the opposite direction and I wonder how many of my fellow travellers might be feeling lonely, though it’s not like it was 30 or more years ago when travel was more difficult, more expensive and communications were more challenging. Thankfully, in this instance, I’m not among the lonely. I’ll be home again soon.

On board I’m in E27 having been randomly allocated this middle seat because I chose not to pay £4 for the privilege of selecting a more suitable one. It was just as well because the aisle seat remained empty. A stewardess came down, stood by our row and asked would anyone agree to sit at the emergency exit. “Yes!” I said, so I got to have a row all to myself with plenty of room to stretch my legs. Serendipity!

Serendipity followed me. The morning after I arrived in Dublin, I phoned to enquire about my friend Ita who has been ill. Her daughter told me that she was now in the Hospice in Blackrock. My intention was to visit her in January but I asked if I could do so now, that morning. Yes! And Ita, surprised, said when she saw me, “this is a miracle!” She was very calm, peaceful and said she had no worries. Only praise for her family. We prayed. I kissed her goodbye and told her I love her, something I say now to friends departing this world.

The morning after the wedding in Monaghan three of us headed back to Galway for Katie’s ballet concert in the Town Hall. Ah, what it does to me when she appears on stage! My heart swells with tearful pride and she is so intent, focused.  

Monday was the funeral of our dear Pallottine Father Ned O’Brien, aged 87, whom I have known for 47 years. His was a noble and timely dying. He was ready, waiting. And his funeral Mass was a beautiful gathering of family and Pallottines, some of the music being provided by Ned’s grandnephews, one of whom played the banjo for him the day he died.

When I sent word to my family that Ned had died, my sister replied, "Priest, Prophet and King", referring to a theme that was dear to Ned's heart which she heard him preach about at an Associates retreat in Esker back in the 1990's. The titles refer to Jesus and they are applied to a child with the anointing of sacred Chrism in the ceremony of Baptism. "As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life." Ned spoke this message with great enthusiasm, insisting loudly to his hearers, "YOU are priests, prophets and kings!" This concept of sharing in the person and ministry of Christ was at the core of his Pallottine life.

In 1972 Ned was staying at the Pallottine College, having broken his leg in a car crash. He and our Rector, Pat Dwyer, were good friends. Ned always had a love for students. He hung around us under the awning outside the back door where we lingered before going in to sacred study as the cathedral clock struck four. He gave us advice on many subjects, including how we should pray the Breviary in common. It should have life and tempo in it, not dragged out. In later years during a period when I was sick, he told me I could simply pray Psalms that I remember rather than struggling through the full daily obligation of the Breviary, this from a man who was scrupulously faithful to those same obligations. His love for students continued right up to the end of his life and, though never officially a formator in our communities, he formed many by his learning and wisdom.

We were to be together again in Dundrum from the mid 90's for about 12 years, with a break between 2002 and 2005 when I was back in Thurles as Rector. A few things stand out in my memory, apart from his love of music - his passion for dogs, souped-up cars, and the two of us melting Cracker Barrell cheese on toast in the grill of the Provincial House. Cooking for the community was something he enjoyed doing spontaneously on the occasional evening. The George Foreman in the kitchen is a constant reminder of him.

A couple of years ago on my way home from England I borrowed his Twingo which he was no longer able to drive and I felt like a boy racer roaring down the M6 until the little machine broke down somewhere near Ballinasloe and I had to wait in the bitter cold for a tow truck to come. But I was still very pleased and so was Ned.

The last time I saw him was the end of August before I returned to England and this was perhaps the loveliest moment of our two lives together. He asked me to bless him and I did what I did with Noel O’Connor a few months earlier. We held hands, huddled in together because he was completely doubled over and prayed and blessed each other. It was as physically close as we could get and only once before did, we get so close was when he hugged me as he cried on hearing of my sister Maura’s death. Family mattered to him - his own above all but mine too and many others.

After the funeral it was straight back to Galway where the family had arranged a tea party gathering for me as a way of celebrating Christmas together. Initially there was talk of cooking a Christmas dinner but I appealed for something simple because I find large meals oppressive and I keep thinking of the homeless people I see here in Hastings who have very little to eat. Besides, cooking a dinner would have meant half of the family spending the whole time working to get it on the table. As it turned out this was one of the loveliest gatherings we’ve had, enhanced by the presence of the younger members of the family – one in the womb, another seven months born. Katie and Laura presented me with my first ever Christmas jumper which I wore to school on my first day back here. It gave great delight to the children who swarmed about screaming my name, clinging to me like bees as soon as I entered the playground. What joy is this!


A Page That Aches For A Word


“The nail bomb is an anti-personnel explosive device packed with nails to increase its effectiveness at harming victims." (Wikipedia) Death is like a nail bomb that scatters itself indiscriminately, fragmenting further what is already fragmented. It scatters people, pushes them against each other, pulls them apart. Some deaths do that.

Others are grace-filled, a grace that bathes the most severe sorrow in peace.

Those who survive have a choice to make. It's within our gift to decide what to do with what we inherit. That choice is simple enough, though never easy, when what comes to us is a loving legacy. When division is left behind, the task given us is much harder and it calls us to be more than who we are, to go far beyond ourselves, so that painful history does not have power to destroy our present and future. 

Being mourner and priest is seriously challenging, more than those closest can ever imagine. There is the moment when the Funeral Director calls him to step away from the intimacy, the warm embrace of family and friends, called to stand alone with the cold body of death. He may never learn to be professional, never able to be "in role", never able to separate the man from the priest. 

Waves of emotion, memories good and bad alike come crashing into each other. Hurts like rocks emerge. All in a split second. He might want to cry. Feel he will fall apart and surrender to the disintegration descending upon him. But he can't surrender to that. He has to steady himself as best he can. It's not about him. It's about God and the other, so he prays as God would have him pray, as the dead and the bereaved need him to pray. No matter who the deceased is, no matter how good or bad a life lived, whatever the state of the legacy, the priest sees the one created in the image and likeness of God and he sees the severity of the illness that has mined away, sucked the life out of the person, suffering that must in some way stand as recompense for any wrongs done. The priest sees this and when it is a personal grief he feels it intensely, to the point of feeling ill in his entire being.

Such are the thoughts going through my mind as the plane lifts off the ground and the song on my random playlist is "Be" from Neil Diamond's 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull', a song of ascent. "Lost on a painted sky where the clouds are hung for the poet's eye."

In September I used a phrase from the same song for the late Fr. Michael Cremin - a song in search of a voice. There's another phrase from it that I have often applied to myself - "Be as a page that aches for a word that speaks on a theme which is timeless."

A blank page that aches for the ink of other people's sorrow, their brokenness, anger, pain, their hatred - as well, of course, their love and goodness and joy. But the need of sorrow is more urgent, intense and it is written upon the blank page of my heart, written by God in a way that makes sense of what baffles us, in a language that God knows,  language that God's Holy Spirit can teach us to translate in ways that are not verbal.
DEBRIS OF HUMAN FRAILTY

Bare trees
Naked rosebush
Spiking the dawn

Dripping drops of dew
The tears I cannot shed

My heart a mayhem of crows
Swooping on a single seagull
Outside in the Green
Where we played by day
And partied by night

Until grief disfigured our joy
Love fatally fractured

The man has died
He who became my enemy

We made our peace
A defrosting
Long before it was too late

Yet still a broken legacy
Remains

The wounds of hate
The scars of love
Debris of human frailty

We must stand still
And wait for God
To win the victory
For us all