HE TOUCHED ME: Reflection on the life of Father John O'Brien SCA
Morning of John's funeral. I sit on the chair where he used to pray, in the room where he slept. Facing out into the garden and the fields of Ballynoe as far as the eye can see. Daffodils beneath the fence and a pale sunlight on the grass - sunlight growing bright and brighter still. All is neat and still and quiet. Quiet but for the occasional bellowing of cows in the parlour.
And dark clouds marching slow across the blue sky with the look of rain in them. But as it turned out, it was snow, not rain that they bore into the early part of the day. Later there would be rain after the burial was done. Torrents of rain that drove us out of the cemetery, tearing us apart lest we be tempted to linger in unsafe social closeness that is forbidden now.
Lines from a hymn come to me:
"The day is come, the accepted day
When Grace like nature flowers anew,
Trained by Thy hand, the surer way
Rejoice we in our Springtime too.
Let the whole earth in worship bow
Great God before Thy Mercy Seat
As we renewed by Grace do now
With praises new Thy Presence greet."
Yesterday I moved through the eerie silence of a near empty Heathrow Airport before embarking on my final flight with John. Me in a seat in the cabin. He is a coffin in the hold. But it's not really him, only the remains of him, the better part having moved on to the place that is best.
The last time we flew together was just over a year ago to and from Marrakesh, with the desert in between, not knowing that we were entering into the last of everything. It was his last retreat. The desert had been calling us since we were young and now I'm so glad that we dared to go when we were tempted not to in case it might be too much for us at this stage of our lives. We went of course.
And the Sahara was followed by the desert of the pandemic lockdown which John found very tough at times. It was the first time I ever heard him talk about being depressed. But perhaps his gloom was that life was already deserting him, sapping him of his energy.
In nearly 42 years as a priest John served mostly in England - Greenford, Barking, Hastings and Amwell Street. There was a period of study in the United States. A renewal course during which he was characteristically forthright in expressing views that did not fit in with the prevailing thinking of the group. There was a lot of experimentation with forms of prayer. John himself liked to explore new ways but on a particular day he lost patience when it was suggested that they remove the Blessed Sacrament from the Chapel so that they could create a "sacred space" - what could be more sacred than the presence of Jesus himself, he asked?
He spent six years as Rector of the College in Thurles, served as a member of the Provincial Council and was the Provincial Delegate in England.
John joined the Pallottines in September 1972, a few weeks before his 17th birthday. He was intellectually very bright and deeply spiritual. Fr. James Ryan, who taught Scripture in St. Patrick's College, said that John was the best student he had had in all his years.
John's spirituality was greatly influenced by Fr. Pat Dwyer, our novice master who had huge respect for John, once describing his as "shot through with the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit permeated John's entire being and together with Pat Dwyer I have never known anyone to pray with such fidelity and depth as John did. To be in his presence in prayer was something to behold, though he never made a show of it and there was no "piosity" in it. Faith, fun and friendship are dimensions of John's life that fitted well together and none excluded the other. This was true on holidays as well as in the ordinary course of life.
We read in 1 John 1 the beautiful words of one who knew, saw, heard and touched Jesus. God was as real for John as Jesus was to his friends in Galilee. It was as if John touched the very life of God and he was only able to do so because God had touched him first. John Powell's book 'He Touched Me' is one we shared in the mid 1970's and it expressed what was happening in both our lives at the time.
He who was touched by God and in turn touched God became a great instrument of Divine Grace. But his greatness was not without price. He was marked with the Cross and developed an instinctive empathy for the sufferings of others whose lives he touched. Many know the healing power of John's hands, hands that God used to transform the lives of His people.
God is real and John was real in His presence, real in what he said about God, real in what he said to God. Towards the end of his life when he experienced the absence of God as Jesus did on Calvary, John said to me "I was mad with Him!"
But in that feeling of absence, in the silence of unconsciousness, I think of Jesus whispering these words in the soul of His dear friend, "John, I am going now to prepare a place for you and after I have gone and prepared you a place I shall return to take you with me, so that where I am you may be too." (John 14)
That place of John's belonging has always been in the heart of God long before he was born into the place of his belonging in this world as the son of Lizzie and Tom and as brother to his siblings. It is there that the foundation of John's life lay, among his family that his humanity was formed, the humanity that is in turn the foundation of his priesthood. A priest is nothing without his family and, though he leaves and is sent far away, still the bonds of flesh and blood remain vital.
All of us who love John, now lift him up in prayer to the Father whom he loves and adores, in whose presence he may forever draw water from the wells of salvation. Amen.