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, caf├ęs. 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!

POTATOES IN MY HOOD: I Will Choose To Find Joy

In this corona isolation-state-of-mind it’s hard to know what day it is or what’s the time. It’s 8.30pm but it feels like midnight. It’s Wednesday but it feels like Saturday, Holy Saturday, a day of no-one-ness. And it has been a spectacularly beautiful evening again. Hastings by the sea at its absolute best. The misery of a wet winter is a distant memory and you think it will never rain again.

We're allowed out once a day to exercise. With the tide far out, you can walk on the edge of quiet waters where the sounding waves drown out every other sound, within and without. Walking on sand instead of stones is pleasure for tired feet, the still wetness of it a mirror for Venus. It takes you under the pier and on as far as Warrior Square before climbing up to the promenade which is busy enough in the hour before dark, making social distancing a bit more testing. Lovely, loving ouples walk as though ballroom-dancing, a slow foxtrot weaving from side to side, filling the whole wide space so that you don’t know which side of them to pass at a safe distance.

At the old bathing pool – which is no longer a pool – darkness has already fallen. My usual distance takes me beyond the beach huts to the place where the track meet the railway fence. The Ballyloughan child in me still gets excited at the sight and sound of a train. On these evenings you can see totally empty trains passing by, stirring that old desire to be a lone passenger on a night train.

Food is the big temptation of my isolation, always thinking of something to eat. The chocolate in the fridge has begun to taunt me. All my other desires merge into this one single hunger which is normally held at bay by busy-ness, except at night, the hours of grazing.

Potatoes! There are no potatoes at home and there’s a shop around the corner on the Bexhill road. None to be seen but there’s no harm in asking, “you don’t have any potatoes, do you?” Behind the counter the tall man replies in a strong accent, “I am just preparing them now!” And he hands over a small blue bag. The pleasure it gives me! It’s like when we were in the desert. One night they brought us a big plate of plain spaghetti and we all went “wow!” in unison. Pleasure becomes simplified in simpler times.

My lazy arm did not relish the prospect of carrying potatoes all the way home for more than two miles. The hood of my jacket offered the perfect backpack for the little bundle and this discovery brought an immense sense of pleasure.

Isolation is not a great problem since mine is a solitary life by and large but it causes me to pause – the fact that no-one will enter my home for the next three weeks or even more. There’s lots of contact via whatsapp video, phone calls and emails. All of them looking out for my welfare. The phone as a means of communication is not my favourite thing, though it's easier when we do video calls.

Three children from the parish have reached out in the past couple of days. Two four-year old girls from different families sent messages saying how much the miss and love me. The third is a ten-year-old boy who artistically wrote a line from what looks like Psalm 16, the Psalm of my life as a priest. He wrote, “I will choose to find joy in the journey that God has set before me!” A prophetic reminder of an essential element in this priestly life that has been given me. It is gift. All is gift.


The wind blows from the East. Piercing. But it’s dry with the sun shining on this first full day of the coronavirus shutdown. We have entered into a great silence, a hidden life, a Gethsemane. A line from ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ comes to mind – “All our stores were closed and shuttered. All the streets were dark and bare.” It's a song that Maura used to sing when we were children. Plaintive. It opens up in me a deep well of silent absence that wants to see her, hear her, touch her. Touch is what will be most absent in this time of isolation.

The town
was a bit like the song last night when I went for a walk through George’s Street and down the seafront. Not everything was closed but most places were, giving an eerie silence and plenty of space for keeping a safe distance from others. Social distancing, I think is what they call it. 

An elderly couple are in animated and happy conversation. He laughs out loud, a sound that is good to hear. 

My mouth is covered with my newly acquired “Buff” which I think is the correct name for it. A gift given me by one of our many thoughtful parishioners. It happened through her son. We met on the seafront a few evenings ago as he was cycling home from work. He wondered should we not have more faith in the Lord, in the power of the Eucharist rather than closing down. It’s a question that many are asking, a question I understand, though I’m not asking it myself because I have chosen to trust and obey and I agree with the reasoning of the Bishops who said, “it is in order to keep each other safe, save lives and support the NHS.” 

The young man is concerned for my wellbeing in the moment, commenting that my neck is rather exposed to the cold so he takes his buff from around his neck and gives it to me to protect mine. I am clothed, protected by his thoughtfulness. 

I first heard of the “hidden life” through St. Vincent Pallotti who had a strong devotion to the hidden life of Jesus, that period from the age of twelve until he appeared in public at around the age of thirty, the life he lived with Mary and Joseph, hidden away in their home in Nazareth. It came to mind again on Thursday the Feast of St. Joseph. He is in a special way the protector and guardian of that hidden life of Jesus and in this time, when we are called to live the hidden life, the isolation demanded of us by coronavirus, St. Joseph is there to guard, help and protect us. 

Gethsemane is another aspect of the hidden life of Jesus, the intense suffering of Gethsemane which remained hidden from most, if not all – even from His three closest companions who fell asleep in the time of his greatest fear and distress. Fear, distress are words used in the Gospels to describe what was going on for Jesus. We are experiencing a certain amount of fear and uncertainty, particularly older people who have been asked to self-isolate for up to four months without physical contact with their families, the kind of contact that is essential for a person’s wellbeing. So, we need to find strength for this part of life’s journey. It is offered to us by Jesus of Gethsemane. 

Many years ago, I was spiritual director to a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. On a particular evening we were booked in to pray in the church that has been built in the garden of Gethsemane. We were to have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament there but a crowd of Italians had taken over the church, filling it to overflowing so that we could  not get in. We went instead to the place in the garden where Jesus suffered His agony. Some of the group were unhappy with this, complaining that we were deprived of adoration. So, I said what I felt, that somehow this is what God wanted us to experience, to understand that Gethsemane is the place where we do not have things the way we want or even need. It is a place of deprivation in which we are asked to surrender our own will completely and pray with Jesus, “not my will but yours be done!” It is a very difficult place to be. The Vicar General of our diocese refers to this current period of isolation as a long Holy Saturday and that’s exactly the feeling I had today. The quietness, the emptiness of Holy Saturday rests over all. 

It is a time of spiritual fasting. In a way it's like fasting on the absence of Jesus who once said that the time would come when the Bridegroom would be taken away from them and that would be the time to fast. It's the absence felt by the disciples in the Upper Room that first Easter evening when they were shut away in fear and uncertainty. Though Jesus was in fact risen and alive, they did not know it, did not feel His presence until He appeared among them. Ours is a liturgical absence - for the people the absence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for me the priest it is the absence of the community of the people.

It is difficult now for people to understand why God allowed the coronavirus to happen, to understand why people should be deprived of the Eucharist, to understand why the Church doesn’t have enough faith to carry on. In our final public Mass yesterday the last line of the Gospel read, “no one dared to question Him anymore.” While our questions are valid and need to be asked, the time comes when they are silent because they are of no use to us right now, they cannot alter the situation, they sap our energy and we might serve ourselves better to trust in the one thing necessary – Love. 

That is the great commandment Jesus speaks of – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbour. That’s what we are called to now. And in that we will find new life. 

In the life of a priest, central to his very nature, is the obedience which he has given by means of an oath or a  solemn promise in the presence of God. It is one of his ways of living in imitation of Christ, the obedience of Christ in Gethsemane, an obedience that is at its heart an expression of the Son's love for His Father. It is an expression of my love for God. That is not to say that my obedience is not troubled. It is troubled as was the obedience of Jesus, as was the obedience of Mary.

It always comes back to Love. Mark Oakley says of the poet George Herbert, “Love, Herbert believed, is the sole spiritual imperative and the only law of the authentic soul.” 

I realized many years ago that I do not have the courage to fast or do penance – perhaps because it’s not the gift God gave me. The gift He has given is the asceticism of Love. “King of Glory, King of Peace, I will love thee” wrote George Herbert in Praise (II). I will love thee! 

This in turn brings to mind the vocation of St. Therese the Little Flower who understood that she was called to be Love in the heart of the Church. During my recent desert retreat, when I was tempted to think it was all so complicated, a voice within me suggested that the only thing needed was the Little Way of St. Therese. It became the simplicity of taking one step at a time for the love of God. At the end of our retreat when Father Angelus prayed with me, he invoked the help of St. Therese for me and I’ve wondered many times since where does she fit into my life and now, I get it. I’m not childlike enough to be like her but Love is the imperative of my soul, the only law.