"I was always in your Presence; You were holding me by my right hand. What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth. My body and my heart faint for joy; God is my possession for ever. To be near God is my happiness. I have made the Lord God my refuge." (Psalm 73)
Two images are uppermost in my mind today. Both are videos. One is a devoted priest with a fairly successful series on YouTube. His style strikes me as a bit stagey, is confrontational, sure of itself and somewhat accusatory, pointing the finger at us priests who he sees as being responsible for the state of the church in Ireland. Responsible because we are not praying enough. On this Easter Monday I think, “oh, give us a break.” It was recorded a couple of weeks ago but was sent to me yesterday as an Easter gift. I didn’t get beyond the first few minutes. Accusation has the reverse effect on me and makes me less able to do what is being asked of me. It may be my own psychological limitations that have me this way but that’s how it is.
The tone brought me back to 1983 when I had just arrived home for my first break from Tanzania, having been away for the best part of two years. The taxi driver was lamenting the state of affairs and said to me, “it’s all yeer fault, ye priests.” And the awful scandals hadn’t even broken at that stage! I was silent before my accuser. But my mother was not silent and came strongly to my defence telling the driver in no uncertain terms that I should not have to be listening to that seeing that I was working on the missions and had only just come home. I felt like a small boy in the back seat but grateful that at least my mother hadn’t lost her tongue. Of course, it has become evident that we priests are to a great extent responsible for the state of the Church but sometimes the burden of that responsibility is too heavy to bear.
Before being ordained as deacons we were required to make a solemn promise to pray the Divine Office every day. It is comprised of five periods of prayer made up of Psalms and other readings from the Bible. It was a promise I gladly made and have mostly loved this way of praying for most of fifty years. Sometimes I pray it out of obligation and a sense of fidelity, a fidelity that is a chosen act of love. And I pray it even when my spirit is drawn more and more to silence. But a phrase from Psalm 73 has come to define my life of prayer for quite some time now. It rises spontaneously in me, often when I realize that I have forgotten some part of the Divine Office or deliberately left out some other prayer. The phrase is – “always in your Presence.” And it seems to me that with these words the Holy Spirit is reminding me that I am always in the Presence of God and therefore always in a spirit of prayer. It could a cop-out, a lazy approach to prayer but it’s not that, even though I know I should pray more than I do. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit without whom true prayer is impossible.
I already knew this as a small boy. When we were taught that God is everywhere, I accepted that fact without question and found myself praying to Him everywhere and anywhere – in the bathroom, in bed, on the bus on the way to school, by the sea and in the empty churches that I liked to visit. I was troubled as a child and so needed to get in touch with God at any given moment. He was always there. I was always in His Presence. As all of us are even though we might not be thinking of it.
And the Presence is “home” as well as atmosphere. That’s what I felt listening to the old monk in his bed. At home! I’ve always felt at home with the Cistercians and it was the sense of being “home” that drew me into the Pallottines. God is home. To be in His Presence is to be at home – with oneself, with life. I found this as a boy with my Granny in her kitchen where I felt the presence of God even though I was silently eating rice and not praying. And I found it with Mary Ann McDonagh in her kitchen in Aran where we prayed and ate Kimberley biscuits. It has come to me while holding a baby in my arms and gazing on the faces of lovely people.
Interestingly on Holy Saturday I was called to one of the Care Homes in Hastings to visit two women who are residents there. It’s only the second time that I have been allowed into a care home since the pandemic began. Jan, a lifelong Anglican, is coming to the end of her life, has just recovered from covid and wants to become a Catholic. She was happy enough as an Anglican but a few things have drawn her in the direction of Catholicism. Catholic prayers and poetry have touched her, especially the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins. Interestingly in this context, a visit to Mount St. Bernard’s Monastery gave her a feeling of being “at home” and the same feeling came to her when she started attending our church here in Hastings. It started a number of years ago, this feeling of being at home and she kept coming, always coming up for a blessing at Holy Communion time. And now she wonders if she can become a Catholic and at last receive Holy Communion. So, we talked a while, we prayed, listened to the Gospel, she professed her faith and received her First Holy Communion as a Catholic. The joy that radiated from her was like a resurrection. There she was curled up in her bed, laying on her side and she smiled and said, “oh I feel so well!” The One in whom she is at home has made His home in her in a new way, the most perfect way of all.
“To be near God is my happiness. I have made the Lord God my refuge."