SORROW A PRELUDE TO JOY - Celebration in Memory of Fr. John O'Brien SCA
11:11 and exactly 14,000 miles on the trip meter over the hump of the magnificent Dartford Crossing. I love numbers like these. John loved to see 11:11 glow red on his digital radio clock beside his bed at night. Now whenever I see it, I think of him, pause like an Angelus to pray for his eternal rest and praise the Holy Trinity.
Ever since he died his parish wanted to do something to commemorate him, something they were not able to do five months ago. And they wanted us to be there – Tom and myself as John’s close friends and any other Pallottines who could make it. I was reluctant because they arranged it for a Saturday which is one of the busiest days but, as always Tony and Duncan stepped into the breach and set me free.
Getting there proved a challenge in terms of traffic. Part of the return to normal. The Dartford Tunnel caused a tailback an hour long but still I made it on time. Not so Tom and Liam who were travelling from Greenford. They were still forty minutes away at the time when Mass was due to begin, so we had to start without them.
Before beginning I was asked to do an interview for a documentary being made by one of the parishioners. Not for tv – but for John’s family and the parish. My mind was scattered and my eyes all over the place, avoiding the camera.
In the church now voices have come out of isolation and the sound is just fabulous, made more fabulous by the fact that most of them are African, reminding me of Mass in Tanzania.
I was main celebrant and gave the homily and afterwards one of the men came to tell me that I speak very good English. Meaning that I was clear and easily understood. “You know how to speak to Africans” he said. Never heard that before but maybe my early years in Tanzania did something to me that I was not aware of.
There are still some English and Irish parishioners there. A man from Donegal cried when speaking of John and many of that generation remember John as a young priest.
There was a barbecue outside after Mass and then the dancing started. They sang out wearing Father John t-shirts and danced to thumping music that went on for hours, sending me at least into an altered state of consciousness. I’m so used to the silence of my life.
The silence of my life also means that I haven’t spoken much about John since he died and have somehow overlooked the impact his death has had on me. Loss of confidence is something that tends to happen to me a few months into grief. It came so strongly over me the year my mother died that I almost resigned from the office I was holding. And recently I found myself saying out loud to God, “you need someone better here than me.” Hastings needs someone better. It's what I feel when I'm not functioning right.
Not talking means that stuff gets swallowed, buried deep in the soil of the soul. Then when I do talk about John something shudders in my chest, words get stuck in my throat and tears threated to silence me again.
My mind goes back to the Sahara Desert and the Bible readings that were so significant there. The Lord is my Shepherd. Twelve priests strung out in a line across sloping sand dunes. A young Berber guide at the head with John always close behind and an older Berber guide at the very end, with me usually a few steps in front of him. He always had to walk at least as slow as me to make sure that I did not get lost. That’s the Good Shepherd that I got to know then – the one who walks behind me. And after we had paused for a break, standing again to resume our pilgrimage, he would count us out by name, the Arabic name given by the Berber to each of us at the beginning. Ali was usually the last name – mine. Si Ali, cousin of the prophet or Ali Baba as one of them said when he first met me. He thought I looked like Ali Baba! Isn’t he a character of fiction?
Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The Shepherd comes from behind. And not only does he follow, He pursues! The more correct translation seems to be “pursue” rather than “follow” – God pursues the one He seeks to protect and save. This is most evident when we run away from Him. He pursues us. Like the famous Hound of Heaven of Francis Thompson.
The mystery is the way in which God pursued John in order to bring him to the place of rest that was necessary for him. The journey there was far more desolate and rocky than anything we experienced in the Sahara but perhaps the desert emptied us and made of us the wilderness that was necessary, the sorrow that is the prelude to joy, the sorrow that becomes the pursuit of joy.
It was something that John valued greatly – joy. The phrase from Isaiah 12 has been his since we were 19 - with joy you will draw water from the wellsnof salvation. It’s what he spoke of the day he led us in Mass beneath the shade of a tree, how good it was for him to be among a group of priests who were so happy and filled with joy. And indeed, we were a very happy group with whom there was a lot of laughter.
John’s laugh was funny to behold and sometimes infuriating when he found one’s misfortune amusing. And his laughter was childlike, innocent, transparent.
It strikes me that the call of the Christian in sorrow is to pursue joy. When we are sunk in genuine sadness, Christ offers us the pursuit of joy. That becomes the goal of the sorrowful pilgrim and it is what make Christian sorrow a thing of hope, a thing transformed.
It’s what we encounter at Cana, another significant Scripture of our desert. What came for Jesus after the Temptations of Satan was the wedding feast at Cana. The joy of marriage, the zeal of love and joy restored when the wine, the zest of life had run out. Cana is also the espousal of the soul with God and this has been the pursuit of our lives from the time we began almost fifty years ago.
So now, after the harrowing experience of sickness, John has passed through the veil into the inner sanctuary, to that consummation achieved by Jesus on the Cross and through the tomb into the resurrection. Blessed is he! This we have come to honour and celebrate.
We must equally honour Paul, the priest who has held the parish together in such difficult circumstances of grief. He does it with such calm and an enduring expression of joy. He is obviously one with his people who love him enthusiastically.