Friday, November 29, 2019

ADVENT: One Great Act of Giving Birth

“…we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home.” (2 Peter 3)

Memories surface in the stillness before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament - childhood, youthful, lovely memories. And a Word from the book of Revelation points me in the direction I need to travel on my spiritual journey this Advent, as a way of preparing for Christmas and for eternity. Jesus says, “you do not love me now as you did at first!” (Revelation 2) and indeed I know that my love for Him has become quiet, lacking in the kind of feeling I would like to have, needing more ardour, devotion. There was a time when I was a child and I had this really strong love for God and I find myself speaking the words of Henry Vaughan in ‘The Retreat’ “Happy those early days when I shined in my Angel-infancy. Before I understood this place…” and though I can’t return to the past, my prayer is to rediscover something of that kind of pure childlike love.

The flame of my love for God cooled down to a pile of hot embers on the grate in the fireplace, embers that wait through the night to be stoked again in the morning!

Of course, in childhood love is simpler, purer, less complicated but as we go through life it can become a sorrow, a hurt - experiences we need to emerge from with a different and, perhaps, a stronger kind of love.

My years as a seminarian and young priest were marked by an intense desire for God, like the feeling one gets when you live far from home. It’s a home-sickness for God. Everyone who has left home knows that feeling, the anticipation of coming home for Christmas; the waiting for the one you love to come home.

Those early years were also marked by a great appetite for prayer, though I had to be taught to moderate my zeal for prayer and for God. I used to leave what was called “sacred study” to go to the chapel to pray alone but the Rector caught me and convinced me that there’s no good praying when you’re supposed to be studying. There’s an order, a discipline to the spiritual life that means I can’t be in formal prayer when I’m supposed to be engaged in pastoral ministry, though prayer happens of its own accord throughout the day. It stands to reason but I have never since regained the same unquenchable appetite for prayer and part of me thinks now that if I were left alone to the workings of the Holy Spirit, I would have gotten the balance right anyway.

The other thing which is closely associated with the prayer goes back to how much I loved God. I just loved Him so much for Himself but a friend reminded me that I should also love people like I loved God. There was no question of me not loving people but my friend said I didn’t love them enough, so, as I often do, I surrendered to what I regarded as the superior wisdom of another. I dedicated myself to what my friend asked and it worked. It worked so well that now I wish I could love God as much as I love the people in my parish, as well as those who are obviously dear to my heart. I lost the intensity of love for God along the way and I want it back. That’s what I desire this Advent. That is my waiting!

I’ve learned that all desire is ultimately for God and that is what Advent is really about – “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting, my body pines for you.” (Psalm 63); “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you my God.” (Psalm 42). 

And it goes beyond me, us, our families and all of humanity because the whole of Creation is in a state of groaning with us, yearning and waiting for its fulfilment in Christ – “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly” (Romans 8).

Everything that exists is connected to Him and comes to completion in Him – “Christ is everything and He is in everything!” (Colossians 3:11) – and it is part of our Christian faith that we see ecology, caring for the earth, the environment in the context of God and not separate from Him. Our obligation is not just to the planet and all that lives on it, but to God the Creator of it all.

Something else we tend to forget and maybe don’t want to think about – there will be an end of the world as we know it; there will be the Second Coming of Jesus but the extinction we fear is not extinction but rather transformation, re-creation, fulfilment and resurrection. Caring for the earth is part of our preparation for that fulfilment; caring for our souls is also an essential preparation for that fulfilment and our entry into eternal life. The preparation takes place now. It is living now in the way that Jesus calls us to live; it is entering into the movement of the Holy Spirit who prays within us with groans beyond all utterance. (Romans 8)

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

TO YOU I SURRENDER (My Lord and my God)

My Lord and my God.
My God and my All.
My Lord, my Life and my Love,

I adore you profoundly.

O Lord, it is You who are my Portion and Cup.
My happiness lies in You alone.

What else have I in heaven but You?
Apart from You I want nothing on earth!

To You I surrender, give and offer
My whole self for the Mercy of Your plan.
Let it be done to me according to Your Word,
that all may be saved and
Come to the knowledge of the Truth.

Glory to You Father Almighty,
Glory to You Jesus Christ my Lord,
Glory to You Holy Spirit dwelling in my heart, 

Now and forever. Amen!

Friday, November 22, 2019

AN UNCOMMON RESPECT: The Anointing of Les

“…a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. “For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:7-13)

Les is approaching death, sleeping with the help of morphine, folded in a striped flannel sheet on an armchair, as they wait for the hospital bed to be delivered. He is 94 years old. His granddaughter Laurie has brought him to her home to care for him in his final illness with the help of Emma who looked after his apartment for him when he lived alone.

This house resembles a church. I understand that it was once a church but since have heard that it was a Bath House. In the room where Les is sleeping there is a large crucifix and a beautiful tall statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Neither of the two women is religious but they are keen that Les, who was a practising Catholic, should have his spiritual needs met as he makes the crossing from this life to the next.

They leave me alone with a mug of tea to pray with him, closing the door to give us privacy in case Les might awaken and need to talk. He remains asleep throughout the prayer – absolution, anointing and a tiny particle of Holy Communion, everything a parting soul might need. The Divine Mercy Chaplet. I speak words of confidence to him in case he might have any fear, should any struggle come to him in these final hours.

Afterwards they asked me what prayers they should say with him so I gave them the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, plus Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd and a Gospel reading from Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me all you who labour…” I’m deeply impressed by their level of attentiveness to his spiritual needs, their profound respect for his faith. Theirs is a counter-cultural love, an uncommon respect for the faith of another.

Next day they phoned to say that Les was awake. Would I come again to see him? I arrived to witness the anointing of love which they were lavishing upon him. They had prayed, kept vigil, played hymns and were now urging him to let go. I knelt beside his bed where two black greyhounds had settled, keeping their own kind of vigil. It was as if they sensed what was happening. I held the hand of the dying man and prayed again. It was the Hour of Mercy, a time of surrender and I find myself, as I often do in such situations, praying Psalm 131, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace, as a child at rest in its mother’s even so my soul.” After a couple of hours, I left because there were two people in hospital I needed to see. Les was in good hands. A man named Ant arrived to spend the night keeping watch by prayer and meditation.

Next day again during the Hour of Mercy I got a call to say that Les had died at two minutes to three. May he rest in peace and may those who attended him so well be abundantly blessed. Theirs is one of the great works of Mercy that should be told in the same way as the generous action of the woman who anointed Jesus, acts that fill this world with a beautiful fragrance.


“Are you happy there?”, she asks on the phone from across the sea. Happy is a word I treat with a bit of caution because I read once that it comes from a word that means hap-hazard. And indeed, happiness can be quite hap-hazard, unpredictable.

But I am happy now! A feeling has come over me lately, quite a strong sense that my whole life to date has been a preparation for this place and time. It used to seem that it was all fragmented, one experience or period disconnected from the rest but now it appears to me like one great continuous arc from eternity to eternity.

Celebrating Mass is never easy because it is an awesome reality – this great mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection which I am privileged to share in a most intimate way. Never easy but here in this place, at this altar, in this church I feel at home and content in a way that I have never felt anywhere in my entire life as a priest. And that’s nearly 40 years!

The church itself is most beautiful, the most beautiful that I have served in. People, strangers wander in here and look up, look around saying what a beautiful place it is. It has a monastic feel for me and it seems to be the monastery that I have been seeking for many years now and I find this prayer appropriate, “O Lord, I love the house where you dwell, the place where your glory abides.” (Psalm 26) But it’s not the building, however beautiful! It’s what’s within it that matters; the abiding Sacramental presence of Jesus and we the people who gather in prayer every day, every week. The essential wonder of this place comes down to persons – Jesus and His people.

Indeed, Jesus Himself seeks to draw us from what is solid, external to the interior of everything. While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, "All that you see here- the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down." (Luke 21:5) The structures that we place so much trust in will be dismantled, especially those that are obviously unjust but also those that are essentially good, yet have lost their way. It is when the Church seemed to be at its best, most strong and ordered that the most wicked things were going on within and beneath. 

The cleansing of the inside of cup and dish is uppermost in the mind of Jesus; the cleansing of the interior heart, soul and mind is what He seeks. And so, within this special place where we pray together, Jesus seeks to go further inside still, inside the deepest part of our lives to save us from our sins, to heal our wounds, to restore us to our innocence.

Recently I baptized a six-month old baby boy who took hold of my left hand and looked steadily into my eyes as I was pouring the water over him. The two of us were held in that mutual gazing and it seemed like God was saying, “this is how it is meant to be; this is how it can be!” The child is placed by Jesus at the centre of the Gospel of the Kingdom; the innocence of the child is available to us. In this place we can be restored to an innocence we have lost over the course of our lives.

This is what happens to us – the experiences of life can erode the innocence of our baptism; we damage ourselves by the sins we commit; we are damaged and hurt by life experiences but, as the Prophet Malachi teaches, “for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out will healing in its rays.” (Malachi 3). Jesus is the Sun of righteousness who offers us the possibility of being healed; Jesus in the Eucharist; Jesus in the Word.

On a pilgrimage to Medjugorje many years ago there was a woman in our group who was extremely bitter and I was tempted many times to tell her what to do with her bitterness which was having a corrosive effect on the rest of us, but I stayed quiet. Then, on the last day we had a prayer meeting during which someone asked me to pray over each person. Every time I placed my hands on a person’s head, a Word of Scripture, the Word of God would jump into my head. I just spoke the Word over the person and something happened to each one. When I came to the bitter lady, this is the Word that came to me, “I will console you and give gladness for grief!” There was a dam burst of tears. She cried a lot and, when I asked her later what had happened, she told me her husband had died five years earlier and in had left her bitter and angry. This is an example of the impact of the Word of God. Her grief found healing and peace. You can never take the Word for granted. We are not in charge of it and it doesn’t happen automatically. But when the conditions are right, when the moment of grace arrives, then there are miracles.

Healing is often kept at a distance by ourselves because, even though we want to be healed we cling to whatever it is that needs healing. It has become so much part of our lives that we don’t know how we would live without it; we fear the emptiness it will leave behind. An addict is afraid of what life will be like if there isn’t another cigarette, drink or drug. And it is important when healing has taken place that we fill the emptiness with what is good, that we allow God to fill the emptiness. Jesus uses the example of a house possessed by a demon. When the demon has been driven out and the house is in a perfectly clean state, the demon goes off and gets more demons to come and fill the house. Emptiness is an opportunity for God but it is a risky thing and we need to be very vigilant about what we allow into the house of our heart and soul.

The same applies to the sins we struggle with. Like St. Augustine we can be reluctant to let them go or we might not want to admit that there is sin in our lives, not realizing the damaging effect unacknowledged sin can have on us, or sins that we are not striving to repent of. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

God is faithful and forgiving. It is the Word of Mercy that heals us of our sins but we often find ourselves unable to accept God’s Mercy. We are unable to forgive ourselves and project this onto God, thinking the he cannot or will not forgive us. We might live under the burden of guilt, guilt of the present and guilt of the past. To this God says, “I no longer call your sins to mind” (Jeremiah 31), which Pope Francis says is God’s weakness – He is forgetful, doesn’t remember our sins. He has cast all our sins behind His back! (Isaiah 38:17)

So, we take a quiet time now to enter into the inner sanctuary of our souls and in the silence, allow what needs healing to rise up before God, the hurts and the sins that wound us. Let the risen wounds of Jesus touch, bless and transform our wounds into image of His glorious wounds, His glorious Body.

“Heal me Lord and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved, for You are my praise!” (Jeremiah 17:14)

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Patient, The Police and A Priest

He turns up in the morning rain, without a jacket, carrying a sleeping bag. All wet. I don’t have much time. A funeral is about to begin. He looks pleased and I’m pleased to see him too even though he shouldn’t be here at all. Shouldn’t be out, having been sectioned for twenty eight days a couple of weeks ago. He said they gave him leave. I give him bread, cheese, coffee and milk and send him to the hall where he can have shelter. A bit of privacy. And a smoke by the open door, thanks to the kindness of Terry. I put his sleeping bag in the dryer. 

A few hours later when the funeral is over, I get myself some lunch before going to check on him and phone a relative of his to see if the family can do anything to help him. They can’t. The phone rings. It’s the police. Missing persons. Had I seen him? Yes, in the morning. He needs to go back. 

Phone rings again. The hospital this time. They’ve been informed by the relative that he’s “with” me. He was, I say. I’m told in the strongest, blunt terms how serious this is, how dangerous - as if I were somehow to blame. I take it on the chin. But later think to myself that it is they who let him escape, not me. Of course it's worry that makes a person talk like this. It’s clear to me that the patient needs psychiatric help and he was in a secure unit because he attacked someone. The nurse on the phone tells me that 999 has to be called and, to be fair to him, he offers to do it for me, knowing that there are issues of trust between me and the patient. When he was arrested two weeks ago, he gave them my name as his contact.

I’ve seen his distress, the wild thing that goes off in his head, making him see reality in a way that I can’t see it. We see and experience the same reality in very different ways. But he has never been a threat, never intimidating, even though he’s a big strong man.

The large crucifix upsets him because he sees Jesus alive and moving on it, sees Him suffering and so he feels compelled to take the cross down so that Jesus can rest. 

After the call from the nurse, I go back down to the hall and talk to him about the need for him to return to the hospital but it frightens him. He’s sorry but is afraid of returning there. And I’m conflicted, torn between my loyalty to him and my obligation to the civil authorities. The need to obey those in power is very strong in me, like a survival instinct, one that has to be challenged because it risks surrendering the weak to the strong, the helpless to the powerful. He won’t be persuaded and, in some way, he now becomes the authority that I am willing to obey, need to obey. I have seen plenty of times how vulnerability can turn from being a grace into a way of exercising power. What is necessary is to do what is right, regardless of either power. 

“I love you to bits” he says, hugging me as I leave him again. “I love you too” I say. He walks about happily in the new Sketchers that Mary bought for him, wearing a rain jacket he found in one of the stores off the hall. 

Back in the house, the police phone again and, with a pang, I tell them where he is. Then I go to the church to watch and wait and pray. It’s the hour of mercy. He emerges from the hall and tells me he’s leaving. I tell him that the police are looking for him and that they will eventually find him. It will happen tomorrow he says. 

Ten minutes later the police ring at my door. Two squad cars. Two men and a woman - each one very pleasant. They’re not a threat. I have an idea where he’s going and tell them. They’re afraid he might get agitated and ask if they can use my name to calm him. I said no because it might damage the bond between us. My answer is accepted and I tell them too that I’ve never felt under threat from him. He’s usually calm with me.

They don’t find him. This I know because I bump into him while out walking. Says he’s going to sleep in a hut near one of the old lifeboats but later he walks past me at speed, accompanied by a young woman, so, a little concerned I decide to phone the police to tell them I’m looking at him. As with every modern phone system I’m put on a queue, being apologized to time and again for the delay. They’re very busy at this time. Twenty minutes later I hang up because he’s well out of sight. 

Next morning, I spot him from an upstairs window walking down our street, carrying his sleeping bag. My heart goes out to him but still I feel obliged, for his own sake, to call 999 and I’m dealt with more quickly. Later, I find his sleeping bag in the church lobby but of him there is no sign. I’ve gone out looking for him and return each time to find his sleeping bag still there. Still there when I lock the church at the end of the day. And I pray for him wherever he may be. And wonder will he know that I'm to blame if he has been found.

It's more than a week later now and he has phoned me a couple of times from the hospital. A woman from the parish was outside the church when the police came for him. She recognized he needed help, encouraged him and escorted him to the van.

He said they have taken all his clothes, so I phoned the nurse in charge who told me that J could do with clothes and when I asked his advice on what to get, size etc, he said, "Here I am, a  49 year-old man talking to another man about clothes!" It was said nicely. So, without his advice I decided to go shopping for new clothes rather than going to a charity stash somewhere. And I'm glad I did because, when J received the parcel he phoned me with the delight of a child. The idea of having new clothes made him so happy. He said, "now I can be warm for the winter and I can go to one of your Masses."

So, that is a little lesson to me - how difficult it is for the poor to come to church; how important is the dignity of new clothes.

It was said to us at a Jesus Caritas retreat recently, "the clothes in your wardrobe and the money in your bank account belong to the poor." It paraphrases the teaching of some great Saint whose name I've forgotten but it's the message that matters. I haven't forgotten and must never forget the message. So, anything I have done, am doing or will do for a materially poor person is simply giving them what is actually theirs and there's no credit due to me at all then. And I am so enriched by my encounters with them, most specially by our mutual loving.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY 2019: We Emerge Through The Clouds Of Grief

Remembrance Mass St. Mary Star of the Sea

On the third day of the Camino to Santiago I walked alone the 29km from Larrasoana to Zariquiegui via Pamplona and ended up being the only pilgrim in a private hostel in the tiny village.

While walking through the beautiful city of Pamplona I became aware of how at ease I am in an urban setting. I love the sea, the country, solitude but at the end of the day I am urban born! During the Camino I came to a heightened awareness of the sacredness of the city - the humanity of it, the presence of God in it. Later Pope Francis wrote in 'The Joy of the Gospel': "God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares.  This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered. God does not hide himself from those who seek him with a sincere heart..."

The morning of November 4th, this solitary pilgrim celebrated Mass alone on the dining room table of the hostel. Alone and not alone. There is always the Communion of Saints and the whole of God’s People. After breakfast I left Zariquiegui at 8.00 a.m. Dark and wet like the day I set out on this journey, the rain was pouring down, the ascent of the Alto de Perdon muddy and slippery, the fog thick and I might be Moses entering into the thick darkness where God was. The air was filled with the eerie sound of a hundred barely visible wind turbines.

Being Friday I decided to pray the Stations of the Cross internally, arriving at the top of the hill for the crucifixion – an appropriate convergence, serendipitous, providential. The monument there is familiar from the movie ‘The Way’. It is the Mount of Pardon and so I see this as a moment of Mercy.

On my way down the other side at the placing of Christ in the tomb my mind was instantly back at Calvary in Jerusalem 1999 a month after Maura’s death. A consolation was given there in that holy site in Jerusalem, under the altar that marks the site of the Cross of Christ. There's a hole in the ground where I lay down my head with all my sorrow and there came to me a most beautiful scent. Thinking there might be blessed oil in the hole, I reached into it with my hand, finding only emptiness but the scent remained and it was real. Afterwards I mentioned the remarkable scent to the group but no one else had got it, so I figured it was a gift of God to me in my grief. He does that! Afterwards we went into the tomb of Jesus and I placed Maura in it and cried and cried a torrent. Now in this place of the Camino I not only placed Maura but Mam & Dad and my own past with its failure, its pain, its shame.

And the tears flowed again! And though I was totally alone, miles away from anywhere, I tried to hide my tears at first because they embarrassed me. But I dropped my hands and my guard and let go, crying all the way down.

At the base on the other side there is a hint of resurrection. The last breath of the old life is the beginning of an alleluia that comes to my lips but it is a song that will not be sung until it encounters the alleluia of the Holy Spirit. Then life will ignite in me. The opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics comes to mind and I think of myself as the flaming arrow shot forth by the archer to light the Olympic flame. That is the journey, the Camino – lighting the fire, fanning into a flame the gift of God. And to my surprise and pleasure, the clouds parted, the weather cleared, the sun shone and I sang other songs. Thus, we emerge through the clouds of grief into the brightness of a new day and those who have died emerge to live in the brightness of a new and eternal dawn.

And I learned that day what I had known all my life but now know at a deeper level, that the tomb is not the end. The graveyard of our sorrows, deaths and failures becomes a place of hope in Christ. It is the location of the resurrection, the transient resurrections of this world and the complete resurrection into eternity. On this Remembrance Sunday, as we pray for our deceased loved ones and all the dead. As Christians we have this assurance that death is not the end. Life is changed, not ended. Our God is the God of the living, "for to him everyone is alive" (Luke 20:38)

Bereavement Chapel at Star of the Sea