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. 

And while some have suggested that it would be a mercy to end his life, to take him out of the years of suffering, he himself objected in the strongest possible terms to such a solution because he had an unshakeable respect for the gift of life and for God who alone is the author of all life. He had his desolation, as desolate as that of Christ on the Cross, a desolation that brought him to the very edge but his life, mission and priesthood had its meaning in that very Cross of Christ to which he was intimately united.

We would talk about the serious and threatening issues that have marked our world so painfully. We would pray about these again and again and then we would talk about music, football and family and find something to laugh at, laughter that would send his body into spasm. But he didn’t mind that!

The last time I saw him over a year ago there was real sadness in our parting as if this might be our last time. I see the sadness in his face, feel it in my heart but neither of us speak of it. We only speak fond words of blessing and farewell. His favourite being “Vaya con Dios! God bless!” As the plane took off into the sky, I listened to Rod Stewart sing ‘Sailing’ – “I am flying, I am flying like a bird across the sky, passing high clouds to be near you, to be free.” And I pondered then who it is that I was flying to be near to and of course I knew that there was no one at the other end of the journey. No one but God. This is my destiny and my freedom. A solitary and separate life. It is a bitter-sweet, sour-sweet destiny and the one in which I find life.

There is distance, a separateness in every relationship, even when we are physically near each other. Distance and love abide together. The distance between him and me is scrutiny – his capacity for scrutinizing me, his pursuit of the truth and my fear of that scrutiny, the relentlessness of it. So that, though I love him greatly and know in my head that even in his scrutiny he loves me, I could never be fully myself with him and, come to think of it, there are very few people in this world with whom I can truly be myself.

It’s a childish and childhood thing. Possibly Irish too! I was born and reared in a culture of scrutiny and learned that the result of all scrutiny would be failure on my part, the understanding that I would always be in the wrong, so I am always to some extent on my guard. The lessons of childhood can never be fully unlearned, though I am nearer now to unlearning than I have ever been before.

It is the lifetime labour of God in my life, to get me to know, believe, trust that I am alright in His eyes and in this world. He has had His work cut out. And perhaps this is why I am so at home in solitude with God – that I trust His scrutiny and have learned that He does not in fact scrutinize me at all. He simply loves and heals and finds ways of moving me on, transforming me into who I am meant to be. Human scrutiny is powerless to do anything except reveal a raw unpleasantness and, while I have been greatly helped by psychotherapy, I found that it too holds the tyranny that in the end the mess is mine and it’s up to me to deal with it. God, on the other hand, saves – saves me from the mess that I cannot sort out myself, the mess that no one else can sort. And there is also in God the promise that justice will be done on my behalf, on behalf of all who are injured.

As I have been thinking these thoughts in prayer the Word that is given is, “you are my son, today I have become your father.” So even if Christ and I are balled up inside each other in pain, God the Father is communicating this truth and the Holy Spirit simply prays within, “Abba!” Somewhere in the last week when I was surfing for something to watch on tv, I came upon a brief moment when a little Jewish girl calls to her father, “Abba!” It’s in the sound, the tone and it is perfect.

When I returned home from my walk at the end of an agonized Monday, I found that someone had put a bunch of daisies through my letterbox. And while my letterbox is probably too high for a child, daisies are the flowers of children and I think of Roxy on a sunny afternoon making daisy chains across the street. The daisies are a gift from someone and they are a sign from God. My prayer for Michael in these days that he knows the joy – even in suffering - of being a child in God’s garden gathering daisies for the sheer pleasure of it.
Daisies through my letterbox
P. S. A few hours after writing the above, a woman from the parish brought me a gift from Scotland that says, "Whits fur ye'll no go by ye" which means basically that what's meant to happen you will happen. What's for you will not go by you. An appropriate message for this time.

Thursday April 23, 2020

Michael died quietly today as the last hymn was being sung at Mass on EWTN. For more than thirty years, confined to his bed in Greenock, Scotland, with Multiple Sclerosis, he has followed that Mass faithfully every day, listening to the readings and prayers, speaking the words of consecration himself over the bread and wine that were placed near his bed. To participate with him in the Eucharist was like being present at Calvary and I'm pleased that he should go home to the House of God at such an appropriate time.

Again, because of the virus none of us will be able to go to his funeral, a great sadness for us as his Pallottine friends and brothers. Sad that we cannot be a support to his family at this time.

And though I am truly glad for him, I am selfishly sad as I sit in the isolation of my sitting room looking out at the beauty of the East Hill. The no-one-ness of my life right now. Not having anyone to hug me, not being able to hug. In normal times I could go across the street to a neighbour to get a hug but the virus has removed us from what is normal.

What do I do with all of this now? There's nothing for it but to turn to God. Right here. Right now. Even as I drink tea from my new Scottish mug and eat Irish Barm Brack for comfort. In this I am with God and He is my refuge.

This morning I held the funeral service of Paul Shaprles in the Crematorium. A sad, sad affair. But one of the lines from a poem from his children has stayed with me, "We are remembering the good times and forgetting all of the bad – holding onto special times..."

This I will do now going down to the sea with the song that Michael used to sing, singing in my heart - 'Will Ye Go Lassie Go!" And we'll all go together....

“In time the curtain-edges will grow light…” 

(Philip Larkin, Aubade)

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