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.
And as I have been pondering the 40 years that I have lived as a priest I have asked God to let me see it through His eyes rather than my own – Jesus looks steadily, honestly and filled with love while I am tuned to see the black spots and exaggerate them, turning them into the major part of the story. From Mervue to Thurles to Rome, Tanzania, giving retreats all around Ireland, formation in Dundrum, the years as Provincial, Shankill, Radio Maria and now Hastings. My greatest love was in giving retreats. It was then that I felt most alive but that has gone from me now and there is no desire in me to return to it. Gone too is the ministry of spiritual direction. Very late in life I discovered that I was not actually good at it at all.
So, how does God see these years of my life? The eyes of the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal give us an idea of how He sees both sons, the faithful and the unfaithful. He runs to the returning son, clasps him in his arms, kisses him tenderly; and reminds the older one of this beautiful and tender reality, “my son you are with me always and all I have is yours…” I believe this on both counts. I am both faithful and unfaithful. The details are not all laid out on the table, the nitty gritty are not picked over. It is enough that we are home, safe and sound and free.
Ours is an incarnate religion, Word made flesh, God experienced in what is human – blood, sweat, tears; flesh, blood and bone; heart and soul and mind. So, if I am looking for the eyes of God and how He might be regarding my life, then I turn to those who know me best and yet still can see the best in me. And I turn to the community in which I am living now.
Last Saturday evening I was asked by a parishioner to come out my front door because there were people who wanted to see me but I never expected what I went out into – quite a large gathering of parishioners standing across the road, up and down the street, at a safe distance from me. They had come to clap for me in the way that we have been clapping for the frontline workers during this coronavirus pandemic. The sight and the sound were astonishing, clapping and cheering as they did with all their might, shouting, “we love you” when I broke down in tears, finding it hard to talk.
And I realize now that they are the eyes of God, the prophetic eyes of God that I have been seeking. Through their eyes, what they see in me is somehow what God sees, a seeing that is felt and I cannot ignore the impact it is having on me. I saw it in Shankill three years ago and believed it then, felt it but on that occasion all our eyes were focused on my departure. It was the vision of departure which heightens all our feelings, intensifies our tears and leads us into grief. The eyes of Saturday evening were focused on remaining, on what is present, acknowledging it celebrating it. God sees us all through each other’s eyes, feels us through each other’s hearts. And though I returned to the solitary celebration of my 40th anniversary, I was emotionally held by this community that God has given me, as I am given to them.
We are getting ready now for the opening of our church doors next week and, though the timing of it has caught me off guard, I am delighted and excited. It wasn’t meant to happen until July and now it’s happening on June 16h. There are all sorts of opinions about the closure in the first place but I tend to live in reality as it is, finding God in that reality. It is the mountain we have been given to climb, the Camino in which we have been called to walk, the desert into which the Holy Spirit has driven us, a pilgrimage not of our own making, the Way that makes and shapes us, preparing us for the future that is unfolding now. Christ is the Way. We travel together even in our solitude, as even in our companionship we remain somewhat alone. It is a wonderful thing to have been called to this.
THE CUP - a poem