Saturday, December 29, 2018



This time 28 years ago – December 29th - on the eve of the Holy Family Maura and I were in hospital visiting Dad who had taken ill on St. Stephen's Day and was being checked out. As we were leaving him, she and I looked at each other and said "he's dying." There was something in his eyes that made us both think this. So, we went to the nurse in charge and said we thought our father was dying. She said, "not at all. He's fine." And we went off home.

When I told Mam what Maura and I were thinking she said, "well if you think he's dying then go back and anoint him." This we did and when the praying was done two interesting things happened. First Mam took hold of his hand but he took it away as if to say this is not the time for holding but the time for letting go. Then he pulled the bed clothes up under his chin looking content and complete and told us to go off and get a drink for ourselves. We did! 

And at home we sat up talking until the phone rang at 1.00am. The nurse said, "there's no need for alarm but your father has taken a turn. It's not necessary for you to come but you can if you wish!" Of course, we went and as we were about enter the room, we were told to wait. He was surrounded by doctors and nurses. One nurse said to him, your family are coming to see you and he replied, "it would want to be soon." I think he died then and they tried to resuscitate him but he was gone.

It strikes me now that Maura and I had a knowledge of my father that no medical person could have. It is the knowledge of a particular kind of love that is born of years and years of family life, time spent together – bad and good times. We spent a lot of time together as family – moody morning breakfasts, hurried lunchtimes and long evenings that were often peaceful and sometimes filled with arguments. And in the era before television we spent our time by the fire talking. As little children, it was he who put us to bed saying as we walked up the stairs, “all together like Brown’s cows!”

He was gentle and silent and somewhat overlooked, still is overlooked in some ways because we have always paid more attention to our Mother. And he had his weaknesses that we came to know; I had my arguments and misunderstandings with him; we got over them again and again. And through it all there was an intimacy developing, a kind of knowing that cannot be spoken but is real and deep as the ocean.

All of this comes to mind on this feast of the Holy Family when we contemplate the family of Bethlehem and Nazareth, when we reflect on our own family life with its blessing and its struggle. We are not talking about a zen-like tranquillity but something more akin to the sea in its various manifestations.

I think of how Jacob got to know God when he wrestled with Him all night long and when the night was over, he was both injured and blessed and he had come to know God up close and personally. Family life takes us to such deep levels in our relationships and we get to know each other like no one outside the family can know us or love us or sometimes hate. It’s why family fallouts are so traumatic – the wounds they open are also deep as the ocean but they are all part of the creative mix that make us who we are and can be healed through mercy and forgiveness. It goes without saying that there are aspects of the mix of family life that are unacceptable – all kinds of physical, emotional, mental and verbal violence. 

Getting back to the night my Father died, the early hours of Sunday morning December 30th. A nurse came to us where we waited at the door of the ward and brought me in first to pray with him. It was like looking at Jesus crucified. His upper body was bare and his back was arched from the shock they gave to revive him. I thought how I wished they had left him alone and had allowed us to be with him as he was dying but things are what they are and they were only doing their job. And our real farewell had come in the evening when he was anointed. We cried the whole night.

An interesting aspect of our family life is that both our parents allowed us the freedom to follow our own path in life. They never tried to push us in any particular direction – at least not in my case – and Dad in particular was very proud of anything we did and Maura was always the apple of his eye.

There’s a bit of tension between the twelve-year-old Jesus and His earthly parents. He is getting a sense of who He is meant to be in this world but Mary and Joseph in their distress do not understand Him, a familiar feature in the relationships of a lot of children with their parents. On the one hand the child needs to start discovering his or her path in life and on the other hand the child can only gain the necessary wisdom for life by living under the authority of parents. It was the same with Jesus who grew in wisdom and stature under the authority of Mary and Joseph, a necessary period in any child’s life and it might help children to meditate on and pray to the twelve-year old Jesus to help them through. It would help parents also to pray to the Holy Family to get them through many situations that might otherwise be impossible.

I am reminded 

to keep alive a sense of colour and light, 
the brightness and the smile  of life. 

The colour of Africa 
flaming red and purple blue of the Massai shuka - 
its colour and its lively striding movement.

Colour reminds me 
of the kitchen floor at home when we were children. 
painted yellow in the night by Mam 
- yellow and dotted with many lively colours
it was our lino and our carpet and it was beautiful.

Colour reminds me 
of Dad walking barefoot in the morning 
His feet of lumpy purple veins half sticking 
to the newly painted floor
and the blue transistor radio turned on long before its time 
its piercing whistling noise driving us demented
until the gentle strains of “Donal Abu”, 
the news and the soft and haunting sound
of the sea area forecast.

I am reminded and I am grateful…

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. (Psalm 19)

It’s Christmas morning, still dark and I’m wide awake at 6.00 even though it was very late when I got to bed after last night’s Masses, not that the last Mass was so late but I was buzzing afterwards and it took me a while to come down to earth. Two very different and life-giving experiences.

The earlier than wished for wakefulness was like a prompting of the Holy Spirit and I decided to go out in search of the dawn, something I’m not given to doing very often. I thought the view from the West Hill would be best and it was beautiful but I was drawn to the shore at Rockanore where the tide was out very far and there was plenty of sand to walk on. Down there I realized that I was walking where I had not walked before and it seemed to me then that this Christmas is about walking in a new and previously undiscovered place.

And there I waited, and walked and waited more. Further along was a woman and her dog. There were broken clouds and, by 8.00 the sky had become light except for a small patch of intense red on the horizon. It was there that the sun broke through rather magnificently, an appropriate dawn for the day that is in it.

As I was walking back home through the fishermen’s huts the woman and her dog came along. “Did you see the sunrise?” she asked. “Yes”, I said “wasn’t it magnificent!” She said, “I stood there wondering would it ever come and it did! The waiting was worth it!”

Indeed! The waiting was rewarded and when it seemed that we would not see it, it was then that it emerged so beautiful, so strong. Like waiting for the Lord. When it seems like He will not come, it is then that He arrives.

The children’s Mass was packed to overflowing and the noise was so loud beforehand that I wondered how I’d be able to draw them in at all or calm them down but they have a capacity for silence when invited and led into it.

The Nativity was read and acted out from the Annunciation to the visit of the Magi and those who did not have specific roles were invited to come as angels and shepherds. The baby Jesus part was given to a recently born baby girl and her sister played the part of Mary, a perfect combination. The Christmas Night Mass was at 10.00 and was preceded by carol singing. This was a full and fervent liturgy that was imbued with great peace and beautiful singing. It is lovely too to see the young adults who have come home for Christmas.

The two Masses this morning were quieter and by the second one I was noticeably more tired. Our voices - Deacon Duncan’s and mine – sounding a little raw.

It’s a very happy time for children, their joy is infectious and it’s tempting to conclude that Christmas is really just about children but the themes of the first Christmas are quite serious and addressed to adults.

The conception and birth of Jesus speak to emptiness – the emptiness of the womb of Mary, the emptiness of the manger, both of which represent the emptiness that we experience in our own lives, emptiness that is now the object of the Good News. Do not be afraid! A Saviour has been born for you today. We are in need of saving on so many levels of life, though we often don’t want to admit it. There are those who come to this Christmas with new grief, relationships broken, personal issues ongoing and illness of body, mind and soul. In all of these we need our Saviour.

The birth of Jesus is addressed to and in the darkness. The shepherds of the night are forced to look upwards from the labour of keeping watch, drawn to the light of the angel. This is prayer - the raising up of the mind and heart to God. How necessary it is for us to be lifted up beyond the demands and limitations of our daily lives. The Light shines in the darkness and darkness cannot overpower it. Though there is widespread rejection of Jesus and countless Christians who have de-accepted Him, to all who do accept Him He gives power to become children of God. And that is what we are, that is who we are as we gather in church to worship Him. We have here among us an abundance of love and joy and peace and though I am exhausted at the end of all the liturgies, I am also full to overflowing.

After lunch it’s tempting to sag into my armchair but I get myself out the door and down to the sea again to walk among all the other happy lives that are there. And dogs – new ones who drag their owner along too quickly, old dogs dressed in Christmas jumpers, moving more slowly. And to witness the going down of the sun as I had seen it rise earlier. “From the rising of the sun to its setting, great is the name of the Lord.
Back home I pay a brief visit to the Snowflake night shelter in our hall to welcome and wish them a happy Christmas. The homeless again express their gratitude that I allow them to sleep here but it is the least we can do and I’m inspired by the Snowflake volunteers who give themselves with such energy, joy and love.

I go back upstairs looking for a movie about outer space and sit down to “Approaching the Unknown”, a title that appeals as do journeys into the beyond that seem to express something of what is happening in my soul. These are words I wrote about Voyager 1, the spacecraft that has been travelling for more than 41 years, a span that covers most of my religious life:

Above the moon and stars
Beyond the edge
Of what is known
The space between all things

The quiet dark
The womb of light
Where speed and stillness merge
And distance has no measure

A thousand years
A single day
Is all the same

Where Love
And Hope and Faith remain 
Pure and perfect

Saturday, December 22, 2018

CHRISTMAS 2018: All I Want

Nativity by Bradi Barth

The Bishop stands up and I get nervous because I feel he's going to make me jump from an aeroplane. It's a feeling, a sensation that runs through me, not a physical possibility. He has himself actually done it - jumped from an aeroplane. There's a challenge afoot and I'm afraid I won't be able for it - his plan for the renewal and future of the diocese. Having been through countless meetings like this and being the age I am I'm doubtful about what might be proposed. The language of it. I have no doubt about the Bishop’s own commitment, the energy that he’s putting into this whole process, never flagging in zeal.

What sets me at ease is the line of Scripture he uses, "the Word who is life, this is our subject" - one of my favourite lines of the bible, my favourite reality. Bishop Richard  says that we go wildly wrong if we do not keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. This I agree with and I feel absolutely safe with Jesus.

The discussion that follows the presentation is disappointing because of people's preoccupation with money and externals, though much of this was concern for the  material wellbeing of priests.  Our own Maggie spoke passionately about revealing the face of Christ to each other, and I had to go and give her a hug  afterwards, because for me her's was the statement of the night that dispelled the cold that had crept in around our legs.

Christmas invites us to take a leap into the simplicity of the stable, into the innocence of Jesus, the warm tenderness of love that is to be found in him, to have a first-hand experience of Him so that we might say with St. John that Jesus the Word who is life is someone “we have seen with our own eyes and touched with our hands.” (1 John 1)

Christmas songs rise easily in me at this time of year, my preferred one being Silent Night, but there are secular ones that surface too with memories. Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” brings me right back to my second year in Thurles polishing the hall and singing that song to myself, the anticipation of going home stirring strong with it.

Some Christmas songs annoy me, like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” that continues to race up the charts year after year. The pose of her annoys me. But  something changed those feelings a recent Monday night down in Porters where we were celebrating ten year-old Lila who had finished her treatment for a brain tumour that very day. A lovely, lovely evening. 

And the guy with the guitar started Mariah’s song and it really got the crowd going. The transformation for me came as I watched this girl and her friend  Isabelle bopping and singing with all their might and when it came to the line “all I want for Christmas is you” the friends pointed happily at each other. Precious friendship, precious life. So, when I think of that song or hear it I will see these two friends! And God's power to transform what we do not like into something meaningful. 

All I want for Christmas is to come to the stable for a new encounter  with the One who gives Christmas its meaning; my earnest wish is that everyone in the parish will feel the love of Jesus in a personal way. I feel so blessed to be here and want to thank the whole parish for the happiness which continues to surprise me.

I'm also grateful for my life in Sacred Heart School where I am continually surprised by joy. Going into the assembly hall at lunchtime one day I was mobbed by children shouting my name and showing me their Christmas jumpers, wondering why I wasn't wearing one! And what can you do when a little child hugs your legs!

The heart is warmed by the Nativity play, the enthusiasm of the teachers and the pride of parents; the children's carol singing in our Church and Lila bringing presence and dignity to the role of the Archangel Gabriel and a depth that is not easily achieved.

My thoughts of course go back to other lovely Christmas times - at home,  in Shankill - and I treasure these memories and hold them with gratitude in my heart. 

I don't look for renewal because I know we are constantly being renewed,  that we are constantly renewing each other when we come together and most of the time we go out from the church with smiles on our faces, without having to be told to smile!

So may Christmas bring solace to our suffering,  hope to our struggle,  comfort to our grief, peace and some measure of simple happiness. May we feel the glow of God's own smile upon us.

Eamonn Monson sac

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Above the moon and stars
Beyond the edge
Of what is known
The space between all things

The quiet dark
The womb of light
Where speed and stillness merge
And distance has no measure

A thousand years
A single day
Is all the same

Where Love
And Hope and Faith
Remain pure and perfect

Friday, December 7, 2018

In Expectancy of surprise

I had gone through a very difficult meeting and, feeling bruised and sorry, I sat in the back garden in Belgrano letting the sun warm me. Tommy, who was about three years old, stood watching from a distance and when he felt it was safe, he approached and started chatting. I have no Spanish and he no English, so it was a childlike conversation that drew me out of myself.

He opened his little book to show me a picture of the Annunciation and I wished its joy would happen for me then. But it did not and I was not up to it.

Later in the evening I was praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary when the Angelus bell rang and it struck me that I was experiencing a collision of sorrow with joy - that the joy of Annunciation was trying to break into my sorrow. And I chose to accept this strange mingling. It has happened many times since that, while praying the sorrowful mysteries, the Angelus will ring. The Angel of the Lord is always declaring the Good News and we are asked to receive it.

When we come to the seasons of the Spirit, we have expectations that our lives will match the season in its time - sorrow in Holy week, joy at Easter and Christmas - but it does not always work like that. Human life, life in the Spirit is not a neatly packaged thing.

The Holy Spirit who came upon Mary – and upon us - is a Spirit whose direction we cannot predict or control. Mary surrendered her life to the movement of the Spirit and as a result she entered into her time of expectancy.

The expectant mother does not know who her child will be and, even if today she can know the child's gender, she does not know what the child will look like or be like. And when the child is born, she and her husband are surprised by joy. And as the child grows, they are constantly surprised and amazed by the person emerging before their eyes.

What spoils life very often is that we push the child, we try to push each other into a particular direction in life that may not be what God intends for the other person. Parents sometimes move from expectancy to expectation. They have expectations of what the child should become and sometimes push the child in the direction of their own expectations. Expectations are narrow, confined and often harsh. We do it to each other all the time and when someone doesn't live up to our expectations of them, we become disappointed, even angry.

Expectancy on the other hand is open, always open to the surprises that emerge in life. The expectant person is one who waits and is open to the joy that can enter into sorrow, open to what God can do in any moment. Open to it, waiting for it and ready and capable of being surprised.