Wednesday, July 31, 2019

You Are Weeping Now

Broken body resting
On my lap hidden
Image of the unseen
God in finite form frail

God knows how to live
And how not to be
Able to keep going
To birth's beginnings
The end of expectancy

Eternal is the space
Beyond end and beginning
The place of this child's
Belonging forever loved
By God ever before
World and Womb were made

"So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you." (John 16)

Friday, July 26, 2019


Up till then I never loved anyone as much as I loved my older sister Maura and then I wondered had it been a mistake to love so much. The pain of her absence was unbearable, and I honestly thought I wouldn’t survive. I thought too that I would never dance again. It was with her that I danced best, most joyfully. But I have survived and have loved again. I have danced, but never so joyfully as with her. 

The morning of July 28, 1999 I was in London on my way home from holidays. There was a message to phone my sister Rose. There was no answer. So, I phoned Maura. Her youngest son answered. I said, “can I speak to your Mum.” He said, “she’s dead!” She went to bed at the age of 46 and never woke up. That was the beginning of my worst nightmare. I didn’t just cry. I howled. Those who were with me then still speak of the sound of my grieving. The experience left us all reeling as a family, fragmented and nearly destroyed. 

She was my best friend, my sister and the link that held us together as siblings. It felt like God picked us up in His two hands, tossed us into the air, all of us landing in different and strange places. It was the loss of one whose soul was knitted to mine - a pain impossible to express. I loved her more than my own soul. These words of St. Gregory Nazianzen express something of the reality that we shared, and I am now immensely grateful for it: "We seemed to have a single soul Animating two bodies… We were in and with each other." 

She saw beauty everywhere, praised beauty and I wrote this poem about the last time we were together: 

Beauty of the Sky (In Memory of Maura} 

She leaned forward
From the back seat
To speak of the singular
Beauty of the sky
Her right hand resting
On my left shoulder
Our eyes meeting
In the mirror

For the last time

For the last time
We walked the Prom
And never said goodbye
Or anything significant
As a last saying
That I might cling to
As some kind of assurance

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

INSOMNIA: They Who Fly Home To God

"Insomnia can become a form of contemplation. You just lie there, inert, helpless, alone, in the dark, and let yourself be crushed by the inscrutable tyranny of time. The plank bed becomes an altar and you lie there without trying to understand any longer in what sense you can be called a sacrifice." (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas)

Insomnia! A brand of coffee and a state of being! Being awake when you should be asleep. It's been part of my whole life since childhood, though it's less of an affliction now. Most religious people seem to resort to formal prayer like the rosary to help them through the dark hours. Not me! I just groan - "oh God!"

One such night many years ago my distress was so great that I sat up, took hold of my Bible and asked God to speak to me. What opened before me was Ezekiel Chapter 13, and I was particularly struck by verse 10:  "...they have misled my people by saying Peace! when there is no peace."

My inclination is towards Peace, to be a peaceful presence in people's lives, something that is central to my vocation but God seemed to be telling me not to presume peace, not to pretend peace when the conditions for it are not present. The spirits are always to be tested to see if they are true or false.  So too Peace must be tested to be sure that it's true. Perfect Peace is the gift of Christ. He Himself is Peace - even in the depths of insomnia. And I am essentially a missionary of Peace.

Peace is spoken in each of the three readings from yesterday's Mass - Peace flowing like a river, Peace in the Cross of Christ, Peace the first word to be spoken by the disciples of Jesus on entering a house. It is also the first and repeated Word of Jesus to his friends after His resurrection. We are Peace flowing like a river from the Eucharist into the streets of our town, into whatever place we enter, into every encounter.

It takes two to bring peace to birth in its fullness. If a person of peace lives in the house you enter then peace will remain; if not, it will depart with you. Peace is a relationship; it is mutual and reciprocal. It is a shared blessing. I discover this in a special way in visiting the sick. It would be a great mistake for me to think of myself as the strong going to the weak to offer them what they do not possess.  In such encounters I bless and am blessed by the other. Love responds to Love, Peace recognizes Peace.

I'm on a late train home having spent a lovely time overnight with two brother priests - how true the Psalm, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity. A true joy, an abiding Peace.

And I've been to see my aunt in hospital again. Really thought she was going to die, such was her distress, her colour ashen. While my sister ran to call the nurse, I held my aunt as I held my mother in her final illness, prayed whispering the name of Jesus and she rallied after being given oxygen and antibiotics. It’s difficult to see her in this state, extremely difficult for her daughter. You wonder how long! In the midst of her suffering all she was concerned about was that I would get a cup of tea. And she did it again – just as I was leaving, she held my face in her two hands to bless me and I put my two hands to hers in that embrace of my face. We blessed each other. It’s hard to decide whether to stay or go.

On my walk home from the station I said goodnight to a stranger standing in the shadows outside MacDonald’s. “It’s you!” he said with delight in his voice as he came towards me. I recognised him then as the man I rescued unconscious from the pavement on a cold wet night in March. He hugged me. “Bless you man” he said, “I love you!”

It’s the morning after now and insomnia had its way again. My aunt had a difficult night but is still with us. God give her what she needs this day.

The squabs (baby pigeons) are thriving, getting fatter by the day. Life ebbs and flows. They raise themselves to full stature as I look in on them. They will fly before I know it. May we all fly to whatever immediate destiny is ours and to our ultimate destiny in God!


Then I saw the wild geese flying
In fair formation to their bases in Inchicore,
And I knew that these wings would outwear the wings of war,
And a man’s simple thoughts outlive the day’s loud lying.

Don’t fear, don’t fear, I said to my soul:
The Bedlam of Time is an empty bucket rattled,
‘Tis you who will say in the end who best battled.
Only they who fly home to God have flown at all.

– Patrick Kavanagh

July 9th. At 5pm today our lovely Aunt Eileen's struggle ended. She has flown home to rest in happiness and peace. She was the last of all our aunts and uncles so it's really the end of an era.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

GLASTONBURY: Do You Love Me More?

It’s Monday, my day off and knackered is the only word for what I feel. I’m having an americano on the pier in sunshine. It must have to do with the intensity with which I live the weekends, especially in celebrating Mass. A surprising thought entered my mind during the consecration at the last Mass yesterday, just as a weary knee genuflected - "this is where I would like to die - here, celebrating Mass!" And in the state of grace! An honest, unbidden desire! And I thought of how awful that would be for my family and all who love me. I know the awful shock of sudden death and yet, if God chose to call me in that way, then I would serve them best by it. You never know the kind of thoughts that fly through your head at such sacred moments.

Friday, we had Mass for the feast of the Sacred Heart up at the school. Always a special experience from the time I walk in the gate to be mobbed by the children from Reception, many of whom want to hug me, others want to tell me about their cuts and bruises.

I used photos of my resident pigeons, projected onto the wall, to speak of God’s constant and protective love – the way the mother and father pigeons take turns sitting on the eggs to keep them warm and safe. They laughed when I said, “of course God doesn’t sit on us!” The children get it. It’s such a simple message, the message of the gospel. And it’s such a joy to watch the uninhibited bopping of the children to the rhythm of the hymns. They are so happy in the moment, happy in the message. Trustful in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And what a delight it was for the Vigil Mass of Saints Peter and Paul to have the First Holy Communion children back in all their finery, presenting them to the congregation, hearing them declare with St. Peter their love for Jesus.

Saturday began and ended with the sudden deaths of a young mother and a young father, both from different families, not connected. I feel I have failed both, could not save them from the terrible sorrow that has descended upon them. Sudden and tragic deaths leave all sorts of confused feelings in their wake and I have to make a rational decision to bring my feelings of failure into the Heart of Jesus where the right balance is to be found. The heart, the spiritual heart in all of us is where emotion and reason come together in harmony. It’s the right place from which to live our lives. It’s where I know that God is God and I am not!

The rawness of death doesn’t simply disappear and in the late evening I escape into Glastonbury on BBC. It awakens an old love, the obsessive, passionate love of music that was mine in the late 60's and 70's. The joy I behold now on the tv screen. The power of live music and the shared experience in the simplicity of our youth, gathered around a record player in the sitting room. We listened to each other's records, talked through the songs, their meaning, admired sleeves.  We borrowed, swopped, loaned, taking great care not to scratch the vinyl. 

The radio cassette recorder on top of the fridge in the kitchen, the pause and record buttons ever ready for whatever favourite track Larry Gogan or Pat Kenny might play. I knew everything that was to be known about the charts, the year, the date, the position a single entered into the chart, how long it spent at number 1. It became an obsession, the thing I loved more than anything, a kind of possession. 

Then there came a time when I knew that the obsession was interfering with my spiritual development and it seemed that Jesus was asking me as he asked Peter, "Do you love me more...?" More than music! I loved Him but not more than music and realized I needed to. And still not ready for the "more" I began to pray that I would come to love Him at least as much as music. It took years for Grace to achieve its purpose but it was done eventually, as has happened with a number of my addictions, the insatiable cravings of my being. In this lies my hope - that my current addictions will find their consummation in Love of Jesus. It seems to me that when I love Him more, then all my loves find their proper place and expression. I did not lose music in the process of coming to love Him more. It's one thing to say this of addictions and desires, it's quite another to say it of the people I love, yet it seems to be what He asks. It's there in the Gospels.

Getting over an addiction, emerging into the most genuine of Loves is part of the process of getting to know who Jesus really is. To know Him is to love Him, to love Him is to get to know Him better and, by extension it is to arrive at the best possible way of knowing and loving those who are given to me in life.

The pigeon’s eggs are symbolic of breaking out of the shell that encases us – breaking out, breaking through, breaking into the new life that is offered. And this experience of the pigeons is utterly new, something I have never ever seen before, hinting at the ever newness that opens up for us in God.

And there they are, eighteen days later, these little scrawny baby birds. Ugly looking things at first sight but when I allow myself to “see” them, they are a wonder. They remind me of unborn babies. That thought sends me into a spin! I was reading about a woman who regrets having voted “Yes”in last year’s referendum in Ireland. She and other “yes” people are distressed by the laws that have been introduced. I am impatient with such regret, intolerant of it because it is utterly useless and absolutely too late.

I'm reading a friend’s weekly account of her experience of being treated for cancer, of living with it. It's a "live" diary, happening now, every day. Her resilience, courage and humour inspire. This week she writes about how we might imagine ourselves dying - something I do from time to time. Mam's death is the ideal. Ten days living with the knowledge that she had cancer, expecting three months but we seized the moment and had ten memorable days. She died at home with her children gathered round her celebrating Mass. 

Mam’s sister is now seriously ill in hospital, our last remaining aunt. After Mass yesterday I went up to London to visit her. She was sleeping so I sat looking at her, praying silently. Like Mam she has macular degeneration and, when she woke up, she looked at me saying, “hello, who is it?” When I leaned over her and spoke, she knew me. “I thought you were that man with the white beard from the Dubliners, the one who plays the fiddle.” We laughed. She too is resilient and very patient with her lot. She’s waiting for one of these scope tests and hasn’t been given any food or drink for four days. It’s awful but she isn’t complaining when she says how she longs for a cup of tea and chocolate.

As I’m leaving, I lean over her again and give her a quiet blessing. She holds my face in her two hands like she always does when we say goodbye. It’s the tenderest of gestures. She is not holding on to me, she is giving to me, perhaps giving me away. I tell her it feels like a blessing when she does that. She said it feels like a blessing to her when she touches my face.

It was late when I got back home but the buzz of travel was too strong in me for sleep so I went to Glastonbury again on BBC playback to watch Kylie. Her music doesn’t do it for me but I’m very fond of her.  It’s an emotional event because of her experience with cancer but it’s also a very happy one. Before calling it a day at around 1.00am I looked back at David Bowie at Glastonbury 2000, a stirring performance of ‘Heroes’. He was once one of the objects of my obsessive musical love from his first appearance on Top of the Pops in July 1972.

Monday, July 1, 2019


A Place to Retire to ? View from my kitchen window at home

It's a long enough journey home - 10 hours from house to house - but there's no complaint except a weary body which is not a complaint. Just a fact of nature. There's a great amount of pleasure in the whole process - the train, the airport with an americano stretched out to last an hour so that I can charge my phone, a delayed but lovely flight and running in the rain to catch the 19.45 GoBus with only minutes to spare. And there I listened to all 10 episodes of Vesna Goldsworthy's 'Gorsky' on BBC Radio 4, so beautifully read by Philip Arditti. A voice that has soothed me to sleep some nights. It brought me to within 10 miles of Galway.

I'm home for my brother's retirement as head teacher. He's seven years younger than me, so it's natural that I might taunt myself with the question, "what about me?" A taunt and a temptation. I’m naturally and essentially a very lazy person attracted by idle thoughts of spending my life dreaming, writing, walking. And then I think about the parish in Hastings and the moment in the gospel when Jesus lost most of his followers. The Parish might, like Christ, ask me, "will you go away too?" and I like Peter would answer, "to whom shall I go? You have the message of eternal life!" And this is true! The people of Star of the Sea hold for me the Word, the message of eternal life.

It was lovely in this secular age that the celebration at the school was centered around Mass which I concelebrated with Father Benny McHale who also gives his all. He spoke of Harry's enthusiasm, informing us that the word comes from the Greek "entheos" which means "God within" – to be in God and to have God within oneself. I've looked it up since. An enthusiastic person is one who is possessed or inspired by God. It was an emotional experience hearing about my brother’s achievements, some of which I hadn't heard before. He himself would never boast. How proud our parents would be! How proud we his family are of him! I don't think I ever heard Harry give a speech, didn't realize how good a speech he could make. Well put together, delivered with a depth of feeling, revealing emotions that were important for his audience to witness and at the same time he remained master of those emotions.

Another highly anticipated part of this trip was my first encounter with my grand-nephew Cole who was born a month ago to Jenny and Brian. Here he might be called my great-nephew and I his great-uncle! My Camino Companions amusingly tell me that I’m a great Grate-uncle! There was talk of me meeting Cole while Brian was at work but both he and I wanted to be together in the moment and so it was. What a beautiful little child. What a grace to be given him to hold for so long. To be trusted with a child, to be trusted by a baby is a singular blessing, and what a joy to see Brian transformed into a Dad, Jenny transformed into a Mum, to see the completeness of this little family.

In the mix of family, we have our canine moments, which have often been a source of irritation to me. But if I resisted the dogs, then they seemed determined to draw me in. At Brian and Jenny’s, I had every bit of my face, neck, clothes licked by their two very lively dogs Willow and Roxy, fearsome looking but very friendly creatures who seem to have taken a shine to me! And Róisín’s Neo who liked licking my ears! Evelyn's Charlie and I have already become friends. He's older and tamer than his cousins! But it seems that, despite myself, I am being drawn into closer encounters with God's creatures - dogs now as well as pigeons!