STARING AT THE CEILING (Priest of the Hidden Life)
"Wake up in a hotel, staring at the ceiling"
The last two lines of Marianne Faithful's 'Times Square' echoing in my head, her deep, throaty, lived-in voice sings the beginning of this sunny Saturday morning in Greenock. April 23rd, second anniversary of the death of my friend Father Michael Clarke.
I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about solitude - his and mine. There's a litany rising, a calling:
Solitude of thought
Solitude of desire
Solitude of affection
Solitude of train and bus and plane
Solitude in a crowded place
Solitary altruistic introvert.
"O God you are my God for you I long" (Psalm 63, Prayer of the Desert)
This is the longing of a transient hotel room, transient man that I am. Longing of speed, the train that brought me here some 500 miles from Hastings, the East Sussex countryside whizzing by, ethereal flash of blue, bluebells beneath bush and tree. Fields - some smoothed brown, ploughed, some fresh green, some dazzling yellow, sunlight alighting, dancing, enlivening. Camouflaged deer racing towards the city, the longest way home. A journey without conversation, the no-one-ness of my life in the moment.
I love God! I say this to the clouds, filled with admiration.
We are in Scotland then, the rolling hills of Cumbria behind us and Rod Stewart appropriately pops up on my shuffled Spotify playlist. Reason to Believe. Michael was a fan, as am I of Rod's early 70s songs.
Claire Foster's readings during Lent inspired me, astonished me by their power and depth. Her book 'I Julian'. She could well be hinting at my own untapped interior life in her writings of Julian of Norwich. It all resonated so strongly. Except for the anchorage which absolutely frightens me, the sheer closed-in-ness of it. Confinement, complete separation from peole and nature. It repels me but this very repelling is asking something of me, asking me to face something within that I do not want to face or become. A monk, monos, alone. It's too late for that now.
"There is no need for you to be afraid."
This phrase woke me the other morning, a phrase that I'm somewhat suspicious of because I have found so often when someone tells me not to be afraid, that there is in fact every reason to be afraid, sometimes very afraid. And when I went to pray the divine office that very morning, that very phrase was thrown at me by St Peter in his First Letter. So I laughed out loud at the good of it because God seems to be making a point. Do not be afraid of the anchorage or what it represents within. There is no need to be afraid of the thing I fear.
"No evil would I fear for YOU ARE THERE" (Psalm 23 of the Desert). That's the point. God's presence is the reason for not being afraid. As a boy I felt safer in thunderstorms when my father was there, sleeping fearlessly through them. Night-time childhood illnesses were lessened when my mother took me into their bed. It was about being safe - then, as it is now. Am I safe in this place? Am I safe with you?
Julian had her inner self dismantled by an unsafe cleric. I had myself dismantled by a woman who got to my very core in a most destructive way. I'm tempted to say I allowed her to do it but it was an invasion and it left me disfigured, so much so that I went home feeling unsafe, looked in the mirror and said, "I hate myself!"
When I see the destruction of Ukraine now, I see my own soul and the soul of every person who has been invaded and left unsafe by another. And in every encounter now the child in me immediately asks, "am I safe?" "Am I safe here? Safe with you?"
Instead of growing up to maturity, it feels like I have grown back down to childhood. But one thing of value in this is that I am an authentic intercessor for the invaded.
Yet I see too that this invasion, the dismantling is my cell, my anchorage, my monastery. By it I am transformed.
Solitude. So much of Michael's life for more than thirty years was solitary, even though he was very well cared for, tended so lovingly. But for many hours of day and night he was alone in his bed which he could not get out of or even sit up in. His bed was his cell, his anchorage. It was his calling and by it he was transformed.
In that space he worshipped, celebrated Mass, contemplated, interceded, surrendered, watched football, listened to the radio, to news of country and world. Politics.
His was the ultimate hidden life. Pallotti pointed us towards the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth as a sacred learning place. Michael did not so much go towards it, or even think about it. He inhabited it. Priest of the hidden life. And, though he could never be called a Little Flower, he resembled St. Therese of Lisieux by being a missionary who never left his cell.
Indeed he was no flower in the delicate sweet sense but was passionate, firey and often argumentative. Passionate about what is right and just. Socialist. Not new Labour.
Eventually I stopped staring at the ceiling, got out of bed and had breakfast down the street in Café Mór, before going to St. Mary's Church to prepare for his anniversary Mass, the first public Mass for him since his death in covid times two years ago. Back then I broke the law and took the train to celebrate his funeral Mass in the sitting room of his home. Today we are free and there will be a gathering of family and friends.
I have prepared for this but am ill-prepared when the time comes, feeling somewhat unhinged and emotional. Seeing his surviving sisters whom I admire, love, feel for in their loss. Remembering his mother and father who took me in, were kind to me in the years I came while they were still alive. The sisters who have died. The priceless price of loving.
Their mother was fierce in her mothering. Small in stature, a lioness at heart, fiercely protective of her ailing child. In the early days of his confinement Michael got a nasty bedsore which his mother Nancy anointed out of existence and she, they never allowed any such sore to develop again.
At the Consecration of the Mass I have a strong sense of Michael's presence, see his eyes, clear, convinced, gazing heavenward. He was the Body of Christ at Mass and outside of it. His was the Body of Christ that we touched and washed and turned and covered. Every bit of him was Christ, down to the waste we flushed down the toilet. On arriving and leaving I would kiss him. I kissed Christ.
John O'Grady came in line for Holy Communion. I hadn't met him for many years and, though he was wearing a covid face covering, I recognised his eyes and his voice. John was a student with the Pallottines in the 1970's and remained friends with Michael, visiting him twice a year with Michael's classmate Larry Gould. They were Michael's most loyal and faithful friends. I might have been his close friend but not most faithful.
After Mass John and I walked together to the Regent Club for the wake. The in between years required no adjustment of us. We easily fell into step with each other.
The wake gave us the opportunity to chat with Michael's carers, to meet again his nieces and nephews, some of whom I hadn't seen since they were toddlers, one of whom I had never met before. Satisfying, joyful encounters. Satisfying to observe how this event brought far-flung cousins together, the energy of their being together, talking about things past and things present, a new generation of toddlers. And most of all there was Simon who was seventeen when I started visiting Stoneleigh Road and has now turned fifty! He holds a special place in my heart.
After visiting the cemetery John and I walked the Esplanade by the Clyde, sat in the sun at Battery Park and talked for over an hour. He is an academic and in his retirement from teaching he continues to study, speaking enthusiastically, educating me as I listen in admiration.
My contemporary is retired! And I am tempted by retirement. I couldn't see myself retiring home to Mervue, my occasional refuge. It wouldn't be good for me yet. It is too soon for that. "But would you retire to a monastery?" my brother Harry asked. There it is again! Monastery! Monk! But it's too late for that. I am somewhere to be found between too soon and too late. The middle ground is Hastings. And I still love Hastings.
And I love Mervue, my home where I finally arrived at three on Sunday morning. And the family who flowed into me, a river of love, at-one-ness and innocence. I am blessed!