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


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!