Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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.

Saturday, March 21, 2020


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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

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!

Saturday, March 7, 2020

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.


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.