COME BACK TO ME

STAY WITH PETER



Stay with Peter, you said
Peter in chains
Peter imprisoned
Between two soldiers

Peter sleeping
Like Jesus in the boat
Jesus in the tempest
Quiet, calm, trustful

Peter, rock solid
Eyes fixed on the Lord
Looking toward Him
Radiant in the seeing

Stay with Peter, you said
Peter in his deliverance
Gospel unchained
The full length of the street

Stay with Peter
, you say
Peter in our time

Imprisoned
Trustful
Delivered
Radiant

I HEAR VOICES, I SEE FACES



I no longer hear accents. Only voices. I do not see colour. Only faces. The latter happened to me in Tanzania where I was initially very conscious of my own whiteness. There were so few of us in a black country. Tiny toddlers ran screaming at the sight of me, a little older they sought to insult me by calling out “Mzungu” and when they got used to me, they would take hold of my arm, rubbing it to see if the colour came off. Then when I eased down into the pool of our common life and blended, we were simply people making good with what life presented to us. 

One of my favourite singers of the early 1970’s was Madeleine Bell of ‘Blue Mink’ who had a hit called “Melting Pot”, a possibly naïve thought and hope but one that resonated with fifteen-year-old me and still sings itself in me from time to time. What we need is a great big melting pot, big enough to take the world and all it’s got! The blending of every colour.

Not hearing accents has happened here in England. So much does God love me that He put me in a place that would make me fall in love with England. In the beginning I was naturally very aware of the English accent in the way that one is aware of the sound of seagulls. But then, as in Tanzania, I have eased down into the pool of our common life so that I only hear voices now and not accents. Most of the time anyway. Of course, I hear and see who people are but accent and colour are not what occupy my ears and eyes. 

LIFE MATTERS: Thoughts on Fathers Day





The day plays with me. Teasing, messing with me! As soon as I sit down to eat my dinner the doorbell rings. When I make a mug of tea the phone rings. Toast goes cold and ice-cream melts in the tub. I go out the back to sit in the warmth of the sun that has been shining all morning and immediately it ducks in behind the clouds! 

I remain in the sacrament of the present moment. God and all of life in the moment, the present reality. When you stop to take notice, the noise is astonishing - the amount of noise going on every single minute, noise that we usually move in, that we are part of – until we step back from it.

All the cars driving up and down, an unbelievable number of motorbikes that render all other sounds mute. In the briefest gap in the traffic someone’s hammer echoes, a rasping drill, the cry of a single seagull on the church roof, the chorus of a hundred more bouncing off the houses, the flapping of pigeon wings. Hidden beneath and emerging now and then the sweet and delicate sound of birdsong.

Surrounded by all of these sounds there is silence within and peace. And even the sun emerges again hot on my skin, a therapeutic treatment. I put my head back and close my eyes. Let my thoughts surface and float.

Life is on my mind. Human life. The beauty of it and the trauma of it. The trauma sweeping the world recently, a violent reminder that Black Lives Matter. It shouldn’t have to be said, we shouldn’t need to be reminded but we become indifferent to the violence visited on lives that we do not see. Black Lives are created in the image and likeness of God. I say this too that Every Life Matters because, Every Human Life is created in the image and likeness of God. This is a forgotten truth in our time. Every vulnerable life matters and is worthy to have us kneel in its presence at all times. 

INTOXICATING ORDINATION: Pondering Priesthood 40 Years On - Eamonn Monson SAC




“Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” (Dag Hammarskjöld)
Ordination was intoxicating. It put a pep in my step, a smile on my face, tears in my eyes. All my life I was getting ready for it, having wanted to be a priest from my earliest memory, but when it came how ill prepared I was, how distracted. It’s a bit like accompanying the dying – you think you’re ready for death when it comes but it always manages to catch us off guard. Ordination caught me off guard, overwhelmed me, knocked me off my feet. And why wouldn’t it because it’s not just a major event, it is as close an encounter with God as you can get. Close encounters with God are overwhelming, sometimes devastating. It takes time to regain your balance.

Elizabeth and Hyacinth come to mind from the comedy series 'Keeping Up Appearances' - Elizabeth nervously holding the precious china cup and saucer, trembling in her hands and sometimes I think even falling to the floor. It seemed that priesthood was like the cup, the chalice in my hands, trembling, falling, breaking until I learned late in life that it is not me who holds the cup. It is God who holds me. 

THE PACT (Job in Isolation)



I make a pact
With my eyes, a pact
With my mind

Not to lead my heart astray
Lingering where the soul
Does not belong

I make a pact
With my senses
And break it

My body ravenous
For companionship
The touch of another

These isolation days
And weeks now turned
To months

I am at peace
I am at war
With myself




WHITE DOVE RISES: A new Intensity and Intimacy




A white dove rises, fluttering in the air as I emerge from the Crematorium. Brilliant white, radiant against the blue of sky. Sign of peace, symbol of the Holy Spirit which is appropriate in the days leading up to Pentecost.

I’ve slowed down to an extraordinary degree, like my brain is in slow motion, taking longer to complete what needs to be done in the time allotted. We’re given exactly half an hour for each funeral service and on Tuesday when I floated on for 50 minutes, the supervisor was understandably frustrated and sharp with me. In my defence, Tuesday was intense – I had three funerals in the space of two and a half hours and it’s quite difficult to switch from one group to another, to give them the attention they deserve, to leave one grief behind and enter into another in such a short space of time. Five funerals in a week feels like a lot, three in one day is something else. But it has to be done. Done with grace and honour for the deceased and the family.

The slow motion of my brain reminds me of the monks of Parkminster who are not allowed to drive because their reflexes are too slow, due to the pace of the life they live. There’s a bit of that too in me when driving following nine weeks of lockdown and isolation!

Monday was manic. Bank holiday fever filled the entire town and flowed happily onto the beaches of Hastings. The place was still buzzing in the late evening as people started moving lazily towards home, every bin in sight stuffed beyond capacity, overflowing on to the ground. Seagull’s paradise. They will wreak havoc and creation will groan.

Seagulls do what seagulls do and all the while the Spirit does what the Spirit does; the Holy Spirit working transformation in the hidden, locked down, isolated lives of our community. For some the transformation has carried them into eternity, carried being an important reality in our spiritual lives. We are carried when we allow ourselves to be carried, a call as old as Moses (Deuteronomy 1:31). We are like the wind; the Holy Spirit is the wind that blows where it will, a sound that is heard but it cannot be said from which direction the Spirit comes, in what direction the Spirit is going (John 3:8). So, it is with us, so it must be for we are born of the Spirit. We are available to be carried.

Maggi, a wise elder of our community, wrote the other day, a new intensity and intimacy has dawned - that’s my experience - I have been 100% isolated for nine weeks - no walks - and yet, I don’t feel alone - there is a great richness within us, unmined in normal life…”

A new intensity, a new intimacy is taking place in my own life. An immense love for Jesus rises, wells up within me. It is the action of the Holy Spirit, this love that is most intense in its wordless silence, most alive when I pray in the sanctuary before the Tabernacle. Wordless silence and hidden!

I have for many years thought how important it is to say “I love you” to Jesus and to those I love and have found myself saying it particularly to those who are about to die. Like I don’t want them to leave this world without knowing they are loved, knowing that they are loved by me. But saying “I love you” does not come easily to men in particular, that’s what the experts say. One night at home in Mervue as we were about to go to bed my Mother said to me, “I love you” and I replied “likewise” and she laughed, telling me she had recently read in the  paper that a woman will say “I love you” to a man and he is most likely to reply “ditto” or “likewise!” I was living out the theory.

I didn’t really know that my Mother loved me until the night before she died and now, I know. Life had taught me to mistrust words, to mistrust the word “love” because too often it has been a trap, a deception. Maura used to say, “don’t mind the words, just give me a hug!” So, when I say to Jesus, “I love you” I don’t trust my own words either because they feel false, hypocritical.

And now in this time of intensity and intimacy it seems that my love for Jesus is lessened in the saying, that it must be like the prophetic fire of Jeremiah, a fire imprisoned in my bones, a fire that needs to be held within until the restraining of it becomes a heat too much to bear. Then it will burst forth in the Holy Spirit, a perfect consummation, in groans and sighs beyond utterance (Romans 8). It will be a perfect prayer not of my own making and a fire that will purify all that is not good in me, a process that will go on to my end of days because there is more that is not good in me, more than anyone realizes.

So, this love that stirs in the sanctuary is not something I do or create. It is the working of the Holy Spirit. I am simply the vessel, the container, the thurible of red-hot charcoal that receives the incense, the sweet divine fragrance rising, ascending to mingle with light, the glory that streams through the window of the soul.

This may sound like I’m spending a lot of time in prayer. I’m not! Believe me when I say I’m not spending enough time praying but it’s not about time. It’s about presence,  intensity, an intimacy that happens in the briefest moment when I am taken up. And all who have asked me to pray for them are taken up too, taken out of my hands, out of my heart and mind into the Divine Presence, the hidden Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle, the doorway to heaven.






MISSAL - Funeral For A Friend



There’s a determined crow on the beach, challenging a seagull that has dared to try taking the food out of the crow’s beak – literally. The crow wins as both birds ascend upwards in battle into the sky, soaring and swooping before descending again to their separate places on the shore. The seagull gives up.

A swan in her place has made a nest of seaweed, ropes and clean garbage. Not ideal I’m sure but she has made something out the reality in which she finds herself and manages to look absolutely magnificent.

We all make do and sometimes we ascend and soar. Sometimes we descend and fight our way through what confronts us. It’s all we can do. Fight and welcome anything that helps us survive.

The other morning, I woke with the song ‘Happiness’ in my head and found myself through the day singing the words, “happiness, happiness the greatest gift that I possess. I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness.” This is the song that I’m singing as I am mourning the loss of my dear friend. It’s sincere and it’s no contradiction because I have learned times before that happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow abide together in the mystery of Christ. Happiness now is the grace that will see me through this period of grief. And I will go with it. I will be happy, even when I am sad.


Last night I sat for a long time – sanitized, masked and gloved - alone at the foot of my friend’s coffin. Near to the feet in a humble place, the place of Christ. Wounded, tired feet. Feet washed and anointed. The washing of feet at the heart of the Eucharist. In earlier years I tended his wounded body, held him while his mother anointed his wound. Held him and hurt him. Comforted him in a feeble kind of way.

He is free of all that now and is tranquil in repose, laid out in the vestments I sent for him, the alb that Derry got for him, Noel O’Connor’s clerical shirt. Noel a loyal friend gone ahead of him on this journey of faith. Sunlight flowing through the venetian blinds rests on his hands. Luminescence. I touch the hands folded over his breast, temple of the Holy Spirit, his right hand nearest to his heart enfolds his brown wooden rosary – pearl within his oyster.

Outside, his sister stands looking in the window, tears streaming down her face, lips moving in silent prayer. She is Mary weeping outside the tomb of Christ. “They have taken away my Lord!”

I have Michael’s apartment to myself and in the morning I pray in his bedroom where he lived and prayed and died. Pray the rosary sitting on a chair at the foot of his bed, the chair I always sat in when visiting and I stand the glass statue of the Madonna and Child by the window so that it looks like an apparition against the blue sky.


The room represents him. Over his bed is the picture of the Sacred Heart, to his left is an aerial photo of Celtic Park. Between that and the 1916 Easter Proclamation is a picture of Pope Francis. There are many Celtic memorabilia – a scarf, banner, framed picture on the sideboard where stands his well-worn Missal that is testament to his commitment to daily Mass which he celebrated against the odds. I am lonely and at peace in this place.

The prospect of this priest having no Mass at his funeral brought his family to a level of deep anguish that is beyond verbal expression. This priest confined to bed for more than thirty years, for whom the Mass was his meaning, his very existence. It was their anguish that brought me here, it is to this that I offer my obedience. It is very difficult for me to go against what lawful authority demands of me, so the struggle was great and my obedience here is responsible even though it might appear otherwise.

It goes totally against the grain for me as a priest, for all of us priests, not to be able to minister to our community within the church building and again, while I obey our bishops and government, I think it should be possible to hold small services in our churches. If it’s possible to hold funeral services in a Crematorium with a few well-spaced people, the same should be possible in a church building. But we deal as best we can with the reality. Reality is what is. And the encouragement I have constantly offered to my community during lockdown is to find Christ in this reality, to know and believe that something special is taking place within our current hidden lives. Something special like what took place within the tomb.

We celebrated Mass within the constraints of social distancing. It was simple, emotional, effective. The readings chosen came from the Liturgy of December 21st, a choice made by Michael’s Missal that fell open at that page suggesting readings that were very appropriate. The Visitation in Luke 1:39-45 represents the hidden presence of Jesus in Mary, a presence that was hidden in Michael all those days and years, a presence that stirred the longing of the Song of Songs 2:8-14, “My love lifts up his voice, he says to me, 'Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come. For see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone. Flowers are appearing on the earth. The season of glad songs has come, the cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree is forming its first figs and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance. Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come…show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.'” It is the conversation that takes place between God and the soul, each one seeking, desiring the other.


Let me hear your voice! It is my last memory of Michael, how he spoke my name so quietly when I arrived, he who could be so fiery speaking so gently. And as I left, his strong voice following me down the stairs. He knew it was the last time.

At the end of Mass I was given his Missal to keep and I will treasure this greatly because it is so lived in, its edges gone brown with age, the sweat of him that has coloured these sacred pages. And there are prayers written here that he used to say that will remind me of the tone of his praying voice, the expression in his eyes:

“Glory, adoration, praise, honour, worship and thanksgiving be to You Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Into your hands we commit ourselves and us all, especially those most in need of your help at this time.

Mary, Mother of Divine Love, Queen of Apostles, St. Vincent and all the Saints, intercede for all our needs through Christ Our Lord. Amen!”


Michael is buried with his parents. May they rest in peace and may those who survive find the consolation they need as they adjust to the new reality of his absence that will for a while be as intense and vibrant as his years of presence among them. Though his life was a hidden one, the priesthood he lived was shared intimately and inseparably by them. They are what St. Peter speaks of in the second reading of the fifth Sunday of Easter, “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart…” (1 Peter 2:9)









HAPPINESS - SORROW TURNED TO JOY

DAISIES THROUGH MY LETTERBOX

Father Michael Clarke in 1980
Divine Mercy Sunday with the sun setting behind Bulverhythe Beach as I turn for home, word comes that Michael is very ill with an infection that he might not pull out of. He has been ill for more than forty years. We have been close friends longer than that and there have been times when we were sure he was going to die, prepared ourselves for it. He has always rallied. But he might not rally now and I ache to see him, an ache that cannot be relieved because of the coronavirus. They are in lockdown and I cannot risk being the bearer of the virus.

O Christ, do you roll yourself into a ball within me and I roll myself into a ball within you? A ball of pain, regret, neglect and guilt. A ball of love and friendship. A great big ball of sorrow that he will die and I will not see him again in this world. But maybe I will. Maybe You will let it be so. If it be Your Will, You will show me and I will wait for whatever it will be.

The regret, neglect and guilt that is in me stems from the fact that I didn’t go to see him often enough, didn’t phone him and, while there are reasons, these reasons are not enough either.

In him I have been “a witness to the sufferings of Christ” – a truly hidden life, a hiddenness that is not glamorous and a spiritual life that has no false piousness in it. It is earthed, real and raw. In its presence there is mostly peace, especially when we pray together – the Divine Office, the Rosary, Divine Mercy and the Mass which is the summit of all prayer.



The intercessions made by him and his sister reach far beyond their own needs. In fact, they don’t pray for themselves at all. Instead their attention is focused on the poor, the homeless, the unborn, those who are trafficked. There seems to be in them no questioning of God in the way that is common nowadays. The words of Jesus apply to them, “blessed are those who do not lose faith in me.” Fidelity is a hallmark of who they are. 

THE UPPER ROOM : A Meditation in time of isolation



This is an extract from the Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday. The Gospel of John 20:19-31 and a short reflection on it, a meditation on the isolation of the early Christian Community. It might be of help in our time of isolation as a result of the coronavirus.

You Raise Me Up To More Than I Can Be

THESE BOOTS AND THE EDGE OF WONDER




Shock! Shock breaks into the bubble in which I have been living. It has smashed my window, cast a rock through my senses, shattered my asylum. I have recognized its threat in my head but it has been easy enough to live at a distance from it, solitude being not a problem. But now it has gripped my heart, clenched my gut in its fist. I can hear the note of hysteria in my voice; the fear that has lurked beneath has broken the surface, the fear that this thing might be bigger than I have allowed myself to believe. It is the fear I recognize in the voices of others on the phone. And Prime Minister Boris is in intensive care. Everyone is shocked by that.

The death of a forty-five-year old husband and father of two of our school children has changed my perspective and I am distressed by what his wife has told me about his death, about the level of isolation that they are faced with. No one can go to console them and they cannot come out to seek consolation. We have never been faced with such a thing, never been so held back from doing what should be done, what our instincts ache to do.

There’s a pain in my chest, tears at the back of my eyes, a feeling of utter uselessness that makes me want to throw caution to the wind and go to see this woman and her children but someone reminds me that in doing such a thing I would become another link in the chain of contagion.

The sense of uselessness reminds of what the English mystic Caryll Houselander writes about Jesus crucified - “the moment in which His love was consummated…was when the hands that could heal with a touch were nailed back out of reach!” Somehow, in the mystery of redemption, Love is at its most intense when it is not able to do anything. And I find once again that my hands and feet are nailed, held back from doing what I am anointed to do as a priest. The only thing I can do with all this is turn to Him and pray in Him as He prays in me, the prayer in which Love is at its most intense and what is powerless becomes a thing of grace in the hands of God.

With this virus nature has locked us in and yet that same nature takes us to the very to the very edge of wonder so that we can survive, cope and even live well in the midst of this terrible time.

This evening was one of the many magnificent ones we have had over the past few weeks and the tide was at the lowest I have seen in the past three years. So far out that you could walk on the sand to the very end of the pier, a thing that excites the child in me, like years and years ago in Aran when you could stand at low tide by the fishing trawlers or walk on the sand beyond Nemo’s pier. I’m not the only one who is excited. There are people shouting with delight as they walk in shallow waters that would normally be dangerously deep or at least be impossible to walk in.

Harry and I have a WhatsApp video chat about the Dire Straits song ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that I want him to record. My memory is that he sang it in Rome forty years ago and that Father Louis Sisti loved to hear him sing it but, Harry informs me that the song only came out in 1981 so my memory is out of kilter and I need to sort it in my head. Louis and I were in Rome when the song came out and we both loved it, the Dire Straits version of it but I also came to love Harry’s version which Louis possibly never heard. Anyway, I would still like Harry to record it in memory of Louis and me and Rome. Just now as I write Harry sends me this beautiful recording:





This went on in my head as I walked on sand by the edge of the sea all the way to Cinque Ports Way. Down there on the shore is the best place for social distancing. My boots have sunk in the muddy sand, giving me the appearance of a man who works on a building site but I have never had the dignity of such hard work. I admire hard working people whose clothes and boots get dirty. My boots are made for desert and for the mud of pilgrimage. That is their dignity. They somehow represent the mud in which we find ourselves stuck and the destination to which they are leading us - to the edge of wonder!

For a while along the way I entertain the hope of making it to the wreck of the Amsterdam that is only visible at low tide on Bulverhythe Beach. It wasn’t to be, as day reached its edge, surrendering to the falling night. As I think of it now and look at the map, it’s quite possible that I passed by the wreck without knowing what it was!


I turned back towards home with a sense of utter satisfaction, wondering about the moon that seemed to be absent and the suddenly there it was on the horizon in all its red astonishing beauty that made me gasp at first and then laugh at the good of it, the good of seeing it. Of course the photographer in me wanted to capture it but could not and perhaps should not seek to.

The vision of it leads me to think about Holy Thursday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper that I will celebrate alone. The strangeness of that, the emptiness and the fulness of it. Mostly I think about the washing of the feet, a ritual I love but cannot do this year. Still, I’ve been thinking of whose feet I would like to wash if it were possible and will wash them by desire in my heart. My friend who has miraculously survived an horrendous motorcycle accident, his one leg that is yet to mend; the seven year old child with serious health challenges; the widow and her children; the homeless who break my heart and whom I love; the women, my friends who live cancer so bravely and well; the father who brings his little girls to light candles in the church; the woman whose mind is too fragile; the parents whose child has died; the child who wasn’t born; the children who scream my name, send me beautiful art and tell me how much they love me.

I would gladly wash all of these lives with love, anoint and kiss them reverently. And I would wash the man who staggers widely as we pass by Warrior Square. “I didn’t do anything,” he says to the police car that has slowed down. “I didn’t do anything. It was them that did it. It was them.” The child in him was calling out in fear. The police car drove off. We all made our way to wherever we might call home this night. May God be with us. He is. And see us through these challenging times. He will.




Edge of Wonder


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, cafés. 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: The Hidden Life



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.



THERE I FOUND HIM: Finding Meaning with St. Patrick in Isolation




“I cannot hide the gift of God which He gave me in the land of my captivity. There I sought Him and there I found Him.” (St. Patrick)


In the Gospel for the Feast of St. Patrick there is the call to “put out into deep water” and today we find ourselves in the uncharted, deep waters of the coronavirus. There is uncertainty, fear and isolation. Isolation – the astonishing extent of it – is almost more fearsome than the disease itself. It is a challenge for families who have self-isolated, even more so for the elderly who are having isolation imposed on them, facing the prospect of not seeing their families for weeks or even months. The loneliness of that is perhaps something not considered by the experts and those in power.

I listened to an expert on BBC radio this afternoon on my way to hear confessions in St. Richard’s school. He said that grandchildren should be able to visit grandparents provided they take all the precautions of washing and keeping the required distance of two metres. That makes sense to me but those visiting the elderly would have to be scrupulous about washing hands etc.

Today was my first time to minister at St. Richard’s, apart from celebrating a Friday morning Mass for a small group a couple of years ago. I was prevented until now from doing anything in St. Richard’s because my safeguarding clearance wasn’t sorted but, truth be told, I was not in a hurry to go there because I feel I lack the gifts needed for secondary school students. It’s fine on a one-to-one and today’s experience was truly lovely, ninety minutes well spent.

Isolate. Self-isolation, imposed isolation – the reality of it can lead to a feeling of being held captive, like we are prisoners within our own life experience, a prison from which there is no escape no matter where we turn. It struck me this morning that we have a companion in St. Patrick who found himself alone, isolated, a prisoner on the mountains in very harsh conditions.  Within that reality he sought God and came to know Him in a new and more profound way.

“Do not be afraid” Jesus says time and again, as He does to Peter in this morning’s Gospel. As the deep water became a deep encounter, the opportunity of a new beginning for Peter with Jesus, as the captivity of the mountain was for Patrick, so our isolation is an opportunity to break through our fear into a new and deeper encounter with Jesus and others. Christ within, beside, above and below us. We are encompassed in the divine embrace and held safely there.

It also offers us time for reflection - to ponder the meaning of what is taking place, to turn our hearts to God in ways that we might have resisted until now and perhaps to find the wisdom that will allow us to contemplate our own mortality and the eternal life to which we are called, to contemplate how prepared we are for that eternal life. To do so without presumption or fear. To do so with trust.

It offers us time to pray, to be still a while and know that God is with us, to allow the prayer of the Holy Spirit to rise within us. For the Spirit comes to help us and, when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words, uttering the prayer that is necessary in the moment. (Romans 8:26)

Patrick too experienced this prayer of the Spirit. “I believe that I was sustained by Christ my Lord and that His Spirit was even then calling our on my behalf. I saw a person praying in me. I was puzzled and wondered who could possibly be praying in me. He spoke saying that He was the Spirit.” (St. Patrick, Confessions)

Finally, it is a time for families to spend more time together, to have fun together as I see happening with my family at home. And it is already a time when people are kindly attentive to those who are alone and in need of help. I being one of the alone have had so many offers of help in all sorts of ways. The offers alone raise me up to another level of joy. Thank God and thank you!

REDEMPTION: Who We Have Become






Galapo, Tanzania is a parish built on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view of the plain below. I was walking along the road one day when I met a group of children coming towards me. They looked at me with disdain and spoke to me in disrespectful tones, something that is unusual in Tanzanian society. The older girl shouted at me, "you must accept Jesus as your Lord!" They were obviously Pentecostals who believe that Catholics will go to hell. "Jesus is my Lord!" I replied. There was a look of shock on their faces and she spoke again, "you mean that you are saved?" I said, "yes, I am saved!"

Yes, Jesus is my Lord and Saviour and yes, I am saved. We are saved. But salvation is incomplete in this world. It is a journey we travel with Jesus our whole life long. A journey of leaving and moving forward, like Abram, like the Jews of the Exodus.
In his book of reflections – ‘My Sour-Sweet Days’ - on the poetry of George Herbert, Mark Oakley says, “So often we need to be redeemed not just from our belongings but also from who we have become.” This sentence resonates with me as I read the first paragraph of this Sunday’s reading from Genesis 12, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you.’” It was this call of Abram that sent me on the Camino nine years ago and, because I am a perpetual pilgrim in this world, I am ever attracted by the prospect of leaving and going.

Of course, it’s not always a physical leaving but the internal leaving of oneself, leaving who I have become. Not that we have necessarily become bad or anything but we need to move on, progress further along the path marked out for us. We need to move and not become stuck in our way of being.
The call of Abram is lived out again in the lives of Peter, James and John when Jesus takes them on the journey up Mount Tabor. And, as He took them, so too He takes me, takes us upwards. It’s like we are called to leave for a while our ordinary, hum-drum way of existing, to leave behind our lower and more base instincts and go up with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration; to experience the truth of who Jesus is and to glimpse in Him who I am to become.
“This is my Son the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to Him.” (Matthew 17:1-9). Our future hope is shaped by listening to Him, to His Word, allowing ourselves to be informed and formed by Him in mind, heart and soul. And this is probably one of the greatest challenges for us – we don’t want to take on thoughts or ideas that differ from what suits us. We would like God to adjust to our way of thinking and doing. We don’t really want to have to adjust to Him, we don’t want the kind of interior change that such adjustment would involve. It is easier to stay at the foot of the mountain but that’s not where Transfiguration takes place.
When we dare go up with Jesus in prayer, then there is hope of transformation, a transformation that brings us back to our ordinary lives with new vision, new hope and a new way of being. A new way of treating each other, a better way of treating the stranger.
Question that crosses my mind – what do I need to leave behind in order to go up with Jesus? Does my encounter with Jesus positively affect the way I treat others. Do I go out from Mass and have arguments with others as if Jesus makes no difference? Do I as a child or an adult mock or taunt or even bully others as if I didn’t know Jesus? I asked the children the other day, “if Jesus came into the room as a boy and sat down among you, how would you treat Him? Would you laugh at him, make fun of him, treat him badly?” And they all said no, they would be kind Him. And I said, “that’s how we need to treat each other.” All the time to the best of our ability.

A DESERT OF A DIFFERENT KIND




There is a desert of a different kind, the desert we experience in our ordinary lives. The desert is within all of us. A few days after my return from the Sahara I went to the doctor who sent me to A&E to have my heart checked out because I have been struggling a bit with breathing. I have had a heart murmur since I was 17 and she had noticed something else in the ECG that she took in the surgery. So, I entered into a ten-and-a-half-hour process of waiting, being tested and waiting again. Two more ECG’s, an x-ray and numerous blood tests. And I thought to myself that, for all of us gathered there, A&E is another kind of desert, a testing, an encounter with our own frailty.

You feel vulnerable and uncertain. And somehow unworthy to be the recipient of the attention all of the medical staff show. I’m seen by four different doctors each of whom asks me the same questions which makes me wonder if they don’t actually believe me, that maybe I’m a fraud! But they treat me with such respect, touch my body with such reverence even as they prod and poke me with needles. They don’t know I’m a priest, so it’s not preferential treatment. I’m Mr. Monson to them and they are happy to treat me well, to do all in their power to ensure that I am well, to discover what it is that might be unwell within me. There's an air of happiness about them even though they must be under a lot of pressure.

At 1.30am the doctor gently takes my hand and apologises for the length of time I have had to wait, telling me I have to wait just a little bit longer. “The waiting is in your own best interest” he says. I know it is, I tell him. As it turns out I have to come back again the next day for a scan which takes another five hours. There’s no conclusion so they would like me to see a cardiologist. The bottom line is I’m fine, thank God!

The suffering of all the people gathered there in A&E finds its way into my heart. Particularly harrowing are the cries of the children, the suffering that they cannot put into words or understand. The perplexed, puzzled look on their faces. I have time to pray for them all.

Apart from the kindness of the medics and all the staff two other things hold me in peace, keep me going. Firstly, I feel enfolded in the embrace of God and, secondly, I meet quite a number of people from the parish who are there with their own ailments. Initially I was hoping that I would not meet anyone from the parish but very early on in the evening I saw a familiar face in the row opposite, so I went over to say hello and the woman told me she was at that very moment reading my Sahara blog! A few hours later a man from the parish came in great pain, later still a young family who seemed pleased to see me there! We are all concerned for each other and are bonded more closely by being there together.

Lent got off to a vibrant start with the presence at Mass of all the children from the primary school who brought a note of joy to this solemn season. And indeed, this joy is appropriate and in keeping with what Jesus says in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday – “when you fast, do not put on a gloomy look!” It is what Nehemiah calls us to, “this day is joyful to the Lord; do not be sad because the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

What we see happen to Jesus in the desert at the beginning of Lent is that the devil seeks to deceive, discourage, to bring him down and question his very identity, suggesting that Jesus isn’t really who He says, that He isn’t really the Son of God. What sustains Jesus and arms him against the devil’s tactics is what God the Father said to Him at His Baptism immediately before the desert, “You are my Son the Beloved, my favour rests on you!”

We are all confronted by discouragement and self-doubt. Lent is partly about choosing which voice we listen to – the one that brings us down or the one that reminds us that we are, each one of us, the Beloved of God. It’s not new news, very old news in fact but we haven’t allowed ourselves to really hear it and take it in.

The desert is a fascinating and surprising place. In the midst of all the barrenness you come upon the most amazing miracles of life. A tiny yellow flower all on its own! And you wonder how it came to be there, how it can even survive, where does it get its moisture? The answer is hidden somewhere deep below the hot dry surface of the sand. The presence of such a flower is a reminder to us in our barren times of the spiritual and emotional nourishment that lies hidden in the deep recesses of our being.

We are reminded in the desert to contemplate the beauty of small things. In Lent we are reminded to contemplate the signs of life that are within and around us, to contemplate the beauty of God, to contemplate the beauty of those who fill our lives every day. It might be a good exercise this season to sit down with your family, to look at each one’s face and contemplate the beauty there. To contemplate and be blessed by it.