Saturday, March 30, 2019

Motherhood and God

St. Vincent Pallotti speaks about being “immersed in an immense sea of Divine Mercy.” One of the words the Bible uses to define Mercy is rechem which is a Mother’s womb, indicating that God’s instinct is like that of a Mother for the child in her womb, though God’s instinct is of course infinitely greater and all perfect. 

Hesed also expresses the tender, faithful, loving mercy of God, which is described as the feeling a Mother has when she leans over her baby to feed him or her. 

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15) Pope St. John Paul II uses this phrase in a meditation on how Jesus experiences the Fatherhood of God. The Pope says that the Fatherhood of God is often expressed in terms of Motherhood in some of the prophecies of the Old Testament. “As one whom his Mother comforts, so will I comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13) and our attitude in the presence of God is to be “as a child at rest in its mother’s arms” (Psalm 130) – a soul content and at peace. 

Today we thank God for all our Mother’s who chose to bring us to birth in this world, for this great act of love in the image of the love of Christ who brought us to new birth in the labour of the Cross.

To all the Mother’s in this parish of St. Mary Star of the Sea we wish you a very happy Mother’s day, with abundant blessings. Thank you doesn’t say it but I know your children will express with their hearts and deeds what cannot be put into words. 

A Prayer for Mums (by Summer in Year 4) 

Dear Mary, thank you for Jesus. Please keep mums safe and if they are hurt please look after them till they are better. Amen

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Saying It Is Half The Victory

The first day of springtime breaks with heavy clouds as I set out along the A27 from Hastings to Crawley for a meeting of priests. I used to dislike this road intensely but I’ve become accustomed to it now and take it as it comes, take the traffic as it is, though this morning it’s not bad at all.

On the radio they’re talking about “The Terrible Sonnets” of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th century English Jesuit priest and poet whom I became quite fond of when still at school. The Terrible Sonnets were written in Ireland, a place where he felt exiled and suffered from depression, a condition I have struggled with for many years, maybe even since I was a child. “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” he wrote. I know this feeling well.

But I smile at the thought of exile, living away from one’s homeland which for Hopkins was like oppressive captivity whereas for me I feel free. This is what I think in the silence after the radio has been turned off.

Along the way I glance at the hedgerows. The bare brown branches of winter are slowly taking on a delicate shade of green mingled with white and yellow, colours that remind me of home. And the occasional cherry blossom. The radio talks about those too and, to my dismay, I discover that they are a symbol of war and courage in Japan. Kamikaze pilots decorated their planes with a particular kind of cherry blossom.

Life and the world are full of paradox and contradictions. Even the beautiful blossoming bushes are somewhat spoiled with an abundance of shredded plastic that clings resolutely to the branches, the grass verges littered. I have to keep my mind on the emerging beauty; it’s what we need to do in life. No matter how littered our lives may be, we can keep our attention focused on the good that’s there as well.

Interestingly, some of the meeting I attended focused on depression and stress in the life of the priest. It’s not often we talk to each other about these things, much less admit what we struggle with. Men in general are not so good at admitting to something like depression. The Bishop told us how the armed forces deal with this – they put two men side by side in battle, they become companions in war and as well as being trained to fight they are trained to tell each other when they are feeling down or whatever. Saying it is half the victory.

The agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is a good refuge for those who are depressed or going through trauma. The Gospels tell us how distressed and frightened He was, so He knows what it’s like and He takes all our distress in there with Him, taking it all the way to the victory of the Cross.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

TWO MEN IN A SHELTER: The Story of a Brief Unexpected Friendship

But at the centre of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in Gods image. God was the parent, but he was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge…and Gods image shook now, up and down on the mules back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and ...he pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of Gods image.(Graham Greene, ‘The Power and The Glory')
It's midnight and Liam is asleep, wrapped in a duvet, his head resting on Ivan’s shoulder. A Buddhist and a Christian. That piece of information was shared when they exchanged names more than three hours ago. The concern that brought them together has now become inconvenient as the cold bites and the rain has long since penetrated to the skin. Ivan feels odd in these situations and wonders was it a mistake to have gotten involved in the first place.
He is a private, solitary man who likes to walk alone and seldom ever talks to strangers along the way. Not that he is cut off or anything, because he tends to notice every passer-by, but he doesn't want to engage too much with strangers.
It happened as he neared the end of this evening's walk, at about 8.30, that he saw the man lying face down on an exposed seafront bench. Unlike the regular homeless men, he didn't have any bedding and this made him look more vulnerable. Maybe he wasn't homeless at all. Ivan wondered if the man might be dead, a thought that made him retrace his steps to check. 
“Are you alright?” he asked the prostrated man who stirred and dragged himself out of the deepest sleep. He could neither stand nor speak coherently. “Would you like me to get you a coffee and something to eat?” asked Ivan and he understood the other’s agreement. So, suggesting that the man move into one of the shelters nearby, he helped him there and went to get food.
On his return the man introduced himself as Liam and Ivan told him his own name. Liam gestured for him to sit which he did, though  he felt a bit awkward, foolish and too visible to others. They ate chips together.
Back home Ivan contacted some groups who help the homeless but none was in a position to do anything right then so he decided to go back down with a duvet and hot water bottle. Liam was out cold again so Ivan covered him, put the hot water bottle inside it and returned home.
But he couldn’t settle and went again at 11.00 pm to check. Liam was sitting then, bent over groaning with the duvet covering his head. He was in pain, wanted medical help but not an ambulance. Ivan dialled 999 anyway and spoke to a very nice lady who ran through a series of questions, tried to speak to Liam who tried to answer but there wasn’t a lot of clarity, except that he had pain in his stomach.
“I need you to feel his chest” she said, talking again to Ivan. “Can you place your hand on the skin of his chest and see if he’s unusually hot?” 
“Liam” he said, “I need to put my hand inside your shirt to check your temperature. Is that ok?” There was no answer, no objection and his chest didn’t feel unusually hot. Anyway, the night was cold. The lady said an ambulance would come to check him out within two hours. Would Ivan be able to stay with him. He would. He did.
So, he sat there with his companion who had fallen quickly asleep. Sat there in a silence that was flooded with the sound of the sea driven to the pebbled shore by a merciless wind. A merciless wind, a driving rain.
This is not his time for being out and he was seeing the night in a new light, observing an alternative movement of life. Mostly the sound of taxis, slamming doors, distant voices and passers by who turned to look at the two figures huddled in the shelter. They probably saw Ivan as a homeless man.
He settled into the experience, feeling a tenderness for the man by his side, the physical warmth at the point where their bodies touched, an emotional warmth and something like peace. Maybe at times a deep peace.  What was initially concern for a stranger had grown into compassion. Concern, companionship, compassion. That was the progression.
But what is the use of this compassion, he wondered? It solves nothing.
“Are you in recovery?” Liam asked. “I am” said Ivan. The other slept again. The other put his arm around him. He thought of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and he thought too that he was holding the Body of Christ. Said a prayer for the one who slept. Absorbed something of Liam’s unnamed distress into his own being, a distress that might not easily depart. And he absorbed too something of the man's goodness. In a waking thoughtful moment Liam placed the hot water bottle on Ivan's lap to keep him warm.
Three street pastors came by, like the angelic visitors to Abraham, two women and a man.  “Everything alright?” asked the man. “You look in bad shape,” he said to Liam. “I’ve called an ambulance” Ivan informed him. “I don’t think they’ll take him” the other said. They gave Liam hot coffee and two cereal bars and left saying they would try to find him a sleeping bag.
There’s something about the cold of the night. You can hold it at bay for so long and tell yourself it’s not so bad but eventually it gets you and you start to shiver. Can’t stop shivering! This is just a few hours of one night. What about those who do it eight hours every night?  Ivan thinks you would have to be drugged or drunk to endure it. But the drugged and drunken hangover of the morning would be hell. And hell is the cycle that pushes you into more drink, another fix to cope with the day.
At about 1.30 when Ivan was thinking he could take no more Liam woke suddenly and said, “take me to a safe place.” With no ambulance in sight, Ivan decided to take Liam home where he gave him a coffee and an two armchairs to sleep on in the basement room. Not perfect, not even right  but safer and warmer.
The ambulance lady phoned at 2.00am, apologizing for the late call, asking if the ambulance was still needed. 
“No, he has revived, he’s alright.” 
“Are you still with him?” she asked. 
“Yes, “he said, “I brought him home with me.” 
“Are you alright with that?” she asked. 
“I think so,” he said, “yes, I’m alright.”
As he lay down, he wondered if his actions had been an interference in Liam’s night. Maybe the other would have been better off left to his own devices, left free. Maybe there are homeless people who value their way of living. He had no satisfactory answer to it. He only did what he thought to be right and was unable not to do it, knew no other way of doing it.
When morning came, he went to rouse Liam. “Give me ten more minutes man!” was the plea. He gave him that and a bit more. On his return, Liam told him where to go in no uncertain terms! “I need to go to work and I need you to leave!” Ivan told him calmly, kindly but still let him sleep till the last minute.
I need you to leave! That’s what happens to the homeless in the cold light of day. They are ever evicted.
At the last minute, Liam was up, ready,  with a grateful hug to the companion of his night. “Thank you for staying with me, man!”
“…he pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of Gods image.

Friday, March 8, 2019


Moses named his firstborn Gershom because, he said "I am a stranger in a foreign land." Another translation uses the word sojourner, which I prefer. It's what happens to us in Lent - we go deeper as sojourner into the foreign regions of our soul, that part of us that we do not normally inhabit because it is essentially solitary and silent. Sometimes  it's more painful than we can bear. And there too we encounter fears that tell us lies to keep us as far away as possible from our true selves and from God. But as Jesus was led by and filled with the Holy Spirit, so are we. Our foreign experiences, our deserts are filled with the same Holy Spirit.

A song that has echoed in me since I was a child - "this world is not my home, I'm just a passin through" - expresses the reality that I have always to some extent experienced myself as a stranger sojourner, a reluctant inhabitant of this earth with a sense of unbelonging. 

That is not to say that I am unhappy. Like the millions of exiles throughout the world I settle down wherever I find myself and live happily there. And when I speak of exile I'm not speaking of England or Hastings as such - I speak of the interior state of who I am - but when I go home to my family I realize how far away I am. Oddly, my sense of unbelonging is sharpest when I'm at home. That feeling makes me really irritable sometimes, brings out something childish in me, especially when we're together as a group. We were a tight little unit as children, dependent on and protecting each other and I'm wondering if that's what I'm harking back to - the time when it was just us with no outsiders. Perhaps I'm jealous of the others who have entered the lives of my siblings and I feel somewhat displaced in this wider family that we have become. Having said that, I must also say that I love those who have become part of our lives, especially the children and I couldn't imagine life without any one of them. 

And so, at the beginning of Lent, when we look at temptation I realize that one of my main temptations is to want what I cannot have from my family, to want more, to be more central, more vital in their lives in a way that cannot be.  Temptations are false, they are the lies that pretend that we would be happier if we indulged in them, more complete if they were fulfilled.

And it comes back again to acceptance of what is. Acceptance of it, love of how things are. It's an eating of what is set before me, to use the words of Jesus to his missionary disciples. To fast from seeking anything else. The devil tempts Jesus to want more - food and power - while Jesus opts for what is, what is enough, what is right and true. Except one cannot accept the unjust conditions of other's lives and one of the central acts of fasting as described by Isaiah, is to undo the yoke, undo unjust fetters. This is central to the life of Jesus.

Giving up chocolate is to turn all my desires and cravings in the direction of God and what He desires; giving up television is to free my mind and purify my thoughts in order to give space to what is good, noble, upright and worthy of praise. 

Something worthy of praise is my sister Evelyn's 60th birthday which turned all our minds and hearts towards those things that matter and are worthy of praise. Another is the Valentine's card given to me by Laura, my youngest niece. At school they were given the task of making a card and she chose to make hers for me. "I really want you to come home soon" she wrote. There are other delights - like waiting for the birth of my newest grandnephew and, despite my misgivings about the ever increasing place given to dogs, the visit of the wild and engaging pup Neo. 

And there's the final act of tenderness that makes me think I'm the luckiest priest alive. In Toorkeel I found myself again sitting between Katie and Laura on the couch showing them videos on my phone of their early days. Scenes that made us laugh out loud and warmed our hearts. They each rested their head and hand on my shoulders, a little trinity of what matters. And in all that I have written above, a significant phrase is, "I found myself again."

It's interesting and very significant that it was when Moses was a stranger, a soujourner in a foreign land, he had his extraordinary experience of God at the burning bush. Our experiences of displacement, being a stranger, hold out to us the real prospect of the most profound encounter with God and ourselves. I pray that we might all find God and our true selves in Jesus and be at peace where we are.