“If you love somebody, set them free…” sang Sting back in 1985. I sing the song now down at Rockanore. Freedom of seagulls, sea, and wind. Quite an astonishing thought! Love ultimately lets us go, sets us free, even sends us away so that we can be who we are meant to be, though we don’t often really want to be sent away, perhaps not even free. We prefer to be held, to cling. Routine, controlled, measured living and loving.

The soul in me is endeavouring to reclaim something, to rediscover the purity and freedom of who I really am. This endeavour takes me to Mary Ann McDonagh’s kitchen in Kilronan of Aran, behind the pub that she ran with her sister Katie. I went there every morning as a small boy. The black range shone, and the big black kettle was always boiling for the wetting of tea at any given moment.

She would sit on her kitchen chair near the table, and I would kneel at her feet, my hands resting on her lap. I loved her so much, felt utterly safe and well in her presence. And we would pray. This is what I am reclaiming. The childlike prayer that was simple, direct, uncomplicated. Happy. When I read of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray, I know that he taught me through Mary Ann.

And after prayer she would make tea and give me Kimberley biscuits, telling me to eat the whole packet of them, which I dutifully and happily did. This is all part of the one experience. Prayer, the kitchen, tea, Kimberley biscuits, our relationship – all these make up a complete experience of God. I tasted heaven there, I have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet.

Next she would take me to the window of the pub and tell me to watch for the “steamer” that would come from Galway, the ferry that brought supplies and tourists to the island. In those early years the steamer had no fixed timetable, so my task was to watch the horizon and announce its appearance there. This is the first horizon. It is not prayer in the strict sense, but it is there that I learned how to contemplate.

Being a dutiful, obedient child, I did exactly what was asked of me, gazing steadily on the horizon of Galway Bay, learning to recognise the appearance of the Naomh Eanna as a tiny dot on the horizon. We knew then how long it would take for it to get to the pier in Kilronan. It is by grace and experience that I have learned to gaze at the horizons of life, seeking the Face of God, to recognize there His Presence, even in situations where He seems to be absent.

In later years we children watched the horizon from the great rock to the side of the pub and we would run excitedly to watch the boat dock and unload its cargo. I remember when there was no car on the island, or electricity. There was stillness, silence, and pure darkness in the night.

And I remember storms that made it impossible for the ferry to sail. Great waves crashing over straw island, leaping up to the top of the Dun Aengus cliffs. Before caution took hold of us we stood near the edge of the cliff, stood thrilled in the face of the storm.

It was in watching the sea and playing alone on the beach that I made a prayer to God, that I would like to go home to Galway on one of the yachts that I admired anchored in the harbour. A childlike prayer that was meant very sincerely. But the chances of it happening were very slim. We are a working-class family, far removed from the glamorous world of yachts. But prayer dares to ask for the unlikely and the impossible.

It didn’t happen. But then about thirty years later as I was sitting in Mary Ann’s pub waiting for the ferry home a man approached me. We had given retreats together and he said, “my friend is down at the pier in his yacht, and he needs someone to travel with him. Would you be interested?” Would I ever! I couldn’t believe my ears!

Down I went and into this lovely yacht. Sean, the owner, put a glass of whiskey in my hand and after a short conversation he said, “you take the wheel!” I hadn’t bargained for this, had expected to be a passenger. “I can’t” I said. “You can” he said. “I’ve never done this!” I protested. “You can do it!”

And so, I did. it wasn’t like driving a car and he had to show me how to feel the water beneath. We almost ended up on the rocks at Frenchman’s beach. Almost, but didn’t. I was trembling and he showed me how to steady my knees and when I had the hang of it he sat back chatting, telling me how he had suffered a major heart attack at sea the previous year. That piece of news didn’t do me any good and then he went down inside to try fixing the broken radio.

There I was alone at the wheel, eyes fixed on a point on the horizon that Sean had pointed out as our destination in Rossaveal. Alone on deck on a heaving sea, terrified and excited.

This is the second horizon, viewed not from the solidity of land but the fluidity of water. A new horizon that represented my destiny in God. He is the point towards which we journey. With our eyes fixed on Him we will arrive eventually, safely - not without turbulence – at the centre point of all existence.

And it seemed to me up there on deck that God reminded me that he had heard my childhood prayer and that this answer represents how prayer is heard and answered when it is made with childlike honesty and simplicity, when it is for our good, for our eternal salvation. 

We are not passengers on our journey but participants. We take hold of the wheel of our lives and steer them in the direction of the answers that are offered. We sometimes have to dig deep within ourselves to discover resources that we didn’t know were there, just as I discovered for the first time that I could steer a boat safely to its destination. The ultimate resource is the Holy Spirit who gives what is necessary in all of the challenges we face.

The third horizon is my physical ailing heart. It is the vessel from which I keep my gaze fixed on heaven and it has taught me to live more deliberately, training myself to discipline thoughts and desires; to live each day as if it were my last on earth. To be ready for the call when it comes, knowing it could come very suddenly. This conscious, deliberate living has its purest focus in the Consecration of the Mass.

I had a cardiac review recently and it was a very challenging experience on a number of levels. My cholesterol and blood pressure are high, leaving me vulnerable. But the real challenge for me had to do with the prescribed medication I was supposed to take.

A few months ago, I came on an article in National Geographic that revealed how medical science uses foetal cell lines in the development of medicines and in many cases there are foetal cells of aborted babies in many medicines and food products. These cells are "valued" because they are uncontaminated, pure. National Geographic is a secular publication, so it wasn’t promoting a pro-life or Christian agenda. Just revealing facts. While one of my medications has no direct connection with foetal cells, it is used in conjunction with foetal cells in some experiments. Another of my medications is listed in a Christian publication as having been developed from foetal cell lines. So, this stopped me in my tracks, and I felt that I couldn’t continue with these medications and stopped ordering them when they ran out.

“I have an ethical problem with them” I told the medical practitioner. She asked me to explain and when I did her dark eyes darkened even more over the top of her mask. She glared at me and said, “do you realize you are at serious risk of stroke, heart attack and death?” “I’m aware of that” I said “and I accept it! But I can’t take them.” These words of mine came squeaking out of me like a chastened child. How difficult it is to find one’s voice in front of a medical expert. How incredibly difficult it is to express one’s conscientious views regarding the use of aborted babies in keeping me alive.

I think somewhat differently about the covid vaccine, though when I received it I didn't think it had any connection with foetal cell lines. And the Pope said we could receive it in good conscience. I trust the Pope now matter who he is, whether I like him or not. As a priest I had no choice but to receive it because, without it, I could not have ministered to the dying in hospital and in care homes where the vaccine was a requirement of entry. I was the only priest within a radius of about thirty miles who was healthy enough to take the risk of being face to face with the virus during the worst period of the pandemic. I didn't have the luxury of sitting on the fence. And a priest has to be ready to lose himself completely for the good of the soul of another.

Two people come to mind. One was a woman on the verge of death in intensive care who, against the odds, recovered and left hospital some weeks later. The other was a man, also coming near to death, who was gripped by a fierce and unforgiving anger. Once more, the sacrament of anointing worked its miracle and he was able to die peacefully. Anointing is a sacrament that is critical in the care of a dying soul. And, while I know that God can provided other ways, this sacrament has been given us. I have witnessed its power many times and I have no doubt but that it is a sure a swift vehicle for the journey into eternal life.

The medical practitioner softened and said, “we have to work together on this!” “Thank you” I replied and suggested an alternative to one of my medications. She agreed. In prescribing two new medications she suggested I try them, do my research, and if I’m not happy with them to come back to her. And I have to honour the fact that she has respected my conscience and concluded that I would have to work with her on my health.

The most difficult challenge came when she said, “I want you on a Mediterranean diet – salads, green vegetables, fruit. She might as well have asked me to stop living! Those who love all that food cannot understand my aversion – salads feel like grass and gravel in my mouth. I labour to swallow them.

Leaving the surgery, I felt like I had fought a war but promised God that I would comply with what is asked of me, and I would offer it up for my sins and for the intentions that have been entrusted to my prayer. And saying this I realize what a luxury it is and how many starving people would give their eye teeth for the food that I protest against.

When I arrived home, on entering the kitchen I saw a large basket of fruit on the table. It had been left in by a parishioner who wished to thank me for something I had done. What could I do but laugh and say to God, “you’ve very funny indeed!”

It was like He was saying, “this basket of fruit is the sign of what you need to do. It is the gift for the challenge you face.” Perhaps too He is telling me that the challenge itself is the gift, something that I might apply to some serious challenges that have occupied my head. The challenge is the gift because God is in it.

"Give me your blessing as I cross this sea towards that shore where all my hopes are centered" 
(St. Aloysius Gonzaga)


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