I Do Know how to Pay Attention: Spirituality

What is spirituality? For years in Ireland it has been associated with religious faith and practice. We are being spiritual when we pray, attend church, light a candle for someone or read the bible. This is entirely true and will continue to be so. These days, however, fewer people are practicing spirituality in this way. Does this mean they are not on a spiritual path – or is there more to discover? How do we find spirituality in our lives?

Firstly, instead of identifying certain practices as ‘spiritual,’ I suggest we look at what is spiritual in how we live our lives. In a recent conversation with young adults, we began to look at what was spiritual about what we already do. For me, loving my family is a deeply spiritual experience. There was nothing holier than carrying a child, including those miscarried; giving birth, and nurturing and loving them, and there still isn’t. They talked about running, which includes both discipline and a sense of connection which comes from being in your body, out in the weather, doing what’s in front of you. I find that in a first-light swim in the sea. We talked about community – caring for other people; kindness; environmental awareness and activism; loving relationships; sexuality; music, literature, art and, hugely, the natural world.

How do I know when someone is talking about their spirituality? It can be when someone finds it hard to put words on their experience. Here, the word ‘something,’ comes up. Searching for something; feeling something; knowing something. We talk about connection, healing, unity, forgiveness, peace and letting go. We also talk about spirituality in actions – protesting, singing, nursing, playing soccer, cooking. There can be a sense of light or darkness; depth, grace, truth, presence, freedom, hope and love.

Often we are not sure what our spirituality is, but find it in glimpses and places which are not acknowledged by formal religion.  American poet, Mary Oliver writes a lot about spirituality and here describes it in terms of ‘paying attention.’

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver The Summer Day (extract)

While everyone is on a personal journey, exploring this together is a way of opening up the spiritual path, and letting the Spirit in. Here we find open hearts, curious minds and a community of support and love. Over the pandemic period many new people have engaged with spirituality online because they are exploring their spirituality for different reasons, and their presence has made us richer.

Spirituality is a powerful force in our personal lives and in the world. It is a deep and necessary part of being a human being, and isn’t owned by any religion or philosophy. We need a spiritual perspective to negotiate life’s many challenges of identity, relationships, and the myriad ways we find of taking our place in the world. We can help one another by listening, by sharing our hard-won wisdom, or just walking a little way together.

Published on the Galilee Spirituality Centre blog, 2021.

Laying Limbo to Rest

At Galilee Spirituality Centre, we have a remembrance tree for babies who have died before or around the time of birth. The plaque which marks it reads:

The value of life is not measured by the span of its years (Wisdom 4:8)

We blessed the tree in the company of several parents who had come to spend a day remembering in the company of Rotunda Chaplain, Ann Charlton. This was to be the first of an annual event, but of course, by spring the next year we were in lockdown. Now that we are opening up, parents who have stayed in touch tell me that they will visit the tree when they can get there.

Years ago, when asked to speak to Church groups about Baptism, I began to notice a pattern. Within a short time of beginning to open up the subject with the group, or into the tea break, a participant would ask about Limbo. I began to realise that the question was coming from someone whose baby had died before Baptism and who had spent a lifetime wondering where that little baby was, if not in Heaven. Some of these children had been buried at night, in unconsecrated ground, or in cillíns. Often the mother herself had not been present at the burial. I discovered that I was uncovering a deep well of grief and distress. I made the decision that when this came up I would pause the progress of the evening and give this time and priority and, inevitably, when I did, other group members also shared their own family stories.

Now, when this happens, two things are different. The first is that the questions come from siblings of the baby and not parents. Time has moved on, but many of these siblings lived with this sadness until the death of their parents and beyond. The second thing is that I now take with me an extract from the Statement of the Church regarding babies who die before Baptism, (April 2007) which states that Limbo was never really official Church teaching and that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness (Introduction). The language of this seems half-hearted but it provides reassurance to many people that their beloved family member is where he or she belongs – in the arms of God, and reunited with parents and family members who are now deceased.

I remember a conversation with a friend following a miscarriage. She told me that she imagined her baby floating in outer space: never anywhere; never belonging; never held. She felt terrible guilt that she had failed her child in this way. Church teaching had created this extra grief for her. I told her I felt differently about my babies who died early in their gestation. I felt that they had lived their entire life in the safety of my womb and in the echo of my heartbeat. They had completed their days and gone to their greatness. While they were truly missed, I had no worries for them.

The teaching of Limbo has done terrible damage. It is a teaching which emerged from a legalistic way of thinking. It is miles away from the experience and faith of parents, and miles away from a true theological grasp of Baptism. Let us now make sure it is laid to rest, and, with it, the anxiety and suffering of generations of families.

Wait for One Another: A Project of Solidarity

The COVID19 virus came to Ireland in February. On the 12th March schools and universities were closed, social distancing was introduced and the St Patrick’s day festivities were cancelled. On Friday March 27th Irish people were asked to remain at home; over 70’s and vulnerable people were asked to cocoon and all inessential outings were banned. Lockdown.

There was widespread compliance; widespread loss of work and income; widespread disruption of lives, especially for young adults whose lives are made up of so many short term goals and plans. Health workers became cherished; grocers and bin collectors thanked daily. Adult children came home to be isolated with family and their parents found themselves with treasured bonus time. For many the pause button had been pressed.  Domestic abusers and addicts continued to wreak havoc and harm.

Church services were cancelled in the main. Sunday Mass, Confirmations and weddings were called off. Almost immediately we began to see the filming of Mass and other prayer; an invitation to watch and remotely participate with clergy vested in empty churches or in their living rooms, continuing to pray – or possibly lead prayer – at a distance. The pope was filmed first blessing an empty St Peter’s Square and then preaching to the city and world in the empty square at dusk one damp evening in Rome.

What was this about? Why this response and what was behind it?

On Sunday, March 29th, I tweeted (@abfrancis1):

I’m deeply ambivalent about the avalanche of livestreamed ‘liturgy.’ I appreciate the pastoral intent. Is a video of a clergyperson’s prayer the best or only way we can worship or connect? Is looking at the ‘real thing’ from a distance our best shot at Eucharist today?

I am not a regular tweeter and don’t have a large following, so was surprised at the responses – their number and the feeling behind them. One was a bit annoyed (stung?) and defended their practice of streaming services. There was some wondering whether my feelings were particularly Catholic; another person shared a poignant moment with her elderly relative watching Mass online.

Feeling thus ambivalent I tuned in to the responses of other people. As lockdown occurred I was in the privileged position of teaching three modules with undergraduate ministry students. These modules all transferred mid-way to online presentation, which had drawbacks, but also meant that participants had freedom to contribute quite considered pieces on forums. They expressed their satisfaction and gratitude for online Mass (in particular) as it gave them a sense of connection and spiritual nourishment. Many expressed the view that while they could not be physically present at Eucharist and receive in person, they had the ‘next best thing’ in online presence and spiritual communion. The concept of ‘spiritual communion’ was revived and explainers were added to diocesan websites.

In May 2020, churches in Ireland reopened for private prayer. The narrative and reasoning behind this did not include the idea that one could pray anywhere else. Churches are now open for a limited number to participate in liturgy. Back to normal, for now.

I know everyone did and is doing their best. It is a pastoral response to want to continue to provide spiritual leadership in difficult times – to do something in response to crisis. In doing before really reflecting, as we often have to, we also reveal something about ourselves. It is often the time when the core beliefs emerge. I want to think about these responses – without judgement of those who are engaged in them, and wonder at this early stage what has been revealed. In retrospect – from September – I see that in that moment frozen in time, we have an ice-clear snapshot of where we are as a Church, particularly regarding liturgy.

Online liturgy, especially Eucharist was seen as the natural replacement for Sunday Mass. For a Church which has insisted on Sunday obligation, real presence and has strongly identified who can and cannot receive holy Communion this was surely not an obvious progression. What made this the natural solution, when the Church could equally have turned to its theology of the Word, its body of literature on the domestic Church, its tradition of solidarity as Eucharist presence, or creation theology, or other well-established Church traditions?  

Here – knowing that much has already been said and written – I would like to make two, brief, observations.

  1. We are a clerical Church.

COVID liturgy has revealed that we see the agency, power and centre of the Church in the person of the priest. I saw a number of initiatives online, not all Eucharistic, but all centred on the priest. I saw filmed Eucharist, filmed adoration, evening prayer, and priests and bishops and an archbishop take the exposed Blessed Sacrament out into the community. In each case the message present in this liturgical experience is that ‘we’ have it and we are sharing it with you. Those who, in the normal run of things, felt like the audience at Mass – despite our theology – were probably right. A priest in his living room, fully vested, uttering both the prayers and the responses: ‘and with my spirit…;’ a priest celebrating Mass while soothing his fractious dog reminding one of Luke 5; a priest balancing his ‘phone in his left hand while enacting the gestures of the Mass with his right: these images spoke of a centring and self-reference of the clergy to the exclusion of everyone else.  

During the lockdown a colleague made the point that people in Ireland did not attend the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park because they felt it was just as good to watch it on television. They had already received the message that they were spectators. COVID has made this explicit. Will we look back and see this as a key time of disempowerment and disenfranchisement of laity? Bishop Antonio Gómez Cantaro of Teruel and Albarracín (Ecclesia March 24th) made these observations early in the lockdown:

There have been some priests who have got very nervous and have filled all our media, where we normally communicate, with prayers, with calls to pray, with the possibility of following the Holy Mass via streaming, that is, live via web, they have sent us links to be able to see the Blessed Sacrament exposed…and some have even get out walking around the streets with the Monstrance as we would at Corpus Christi (and I wonder with what permission, because for some things we are extremely strict, and for other matters not as much) Such bombardment makes me ask many questions. Are we not treating the faithful as if they would not know how to pray, dependant on the clergy to do it? What have we done up until now, having them as mere spectators? Don’t we think that so many Masses on the screens keep the persons in the passivity of watching? Or is it that we want to justify our priesthood? Are the religious services broadcasted in televisions and radios not enough? They have been enough until now. What is more important, a moment of prayer or of lectio divina with the Word, or to watch a Mass on the screen?

This was echoed in April by Venezuelan theologian Rafael Luciani who said the focus on online Masses gave the impression that ‘grace can’t leave churches, while the virus travels around the world,’ (Jesuitas, April 3, 2020).

I observe that the sense of the presence of Christ with the faithful; the domestic Church; the vibrancy of the Word was hardly present. Where was the encouragement, during the Triduum, to pray together in home or neighbourhood with the readings, or to venerate the cross, or light a vigil candle for the resurrection? Acknowledging that some funerals would be conducted by lay people, the National Centre for Liturgy (Ireland) made resources available for prayers a lay person could lead at a burial which omitted blessings. This raises the serious question of whether the priest has so fully appropriated all of our liturgical practices that it has become transgressive for the lay faithful to pray at all, even when a priest is unavailable?

What of Holy Communion? What theological grounds are there for the presiding priest to receive with no provision for the participating faithful? It soon became clear that the provision was ‘spiritual communion.’ A colleague wondered whether this meant that those normally refused Communion (divorced and remarried people; people in homosexual relationships) were now reunited with the Church. Orthodox theologian, Marcus Plested, referred to ‘mass excommunication of the laity’ (September 2020). I have been minded of the core Eucharistic text,1 Cor 11:17-34, which admonishes part of the community for eating while others go hungry and adds a severe penalty for those who celebrate Eucharist in this ‘unworthy manner,’ (1 Cor 11:27). In particular, in its closing sentences Paul writes ‘when you come together to eat, wait for one another,’ (1 Cor 11:33).  Where is this gracious waiting, this pause in solidarity, in our experience of these months?

Becky Stephens raised this on Twitter (April 17). She questioned whether Church of England clergy should celebrate Eucharist online, observing that clergy who did, say they did so on behalf of their congregations and those who did not do so said that they were abstaining in solidarity with the people. She questions whether the idea of abstaining still makes it ‘all about the priest,’ and wanted to focus on the people.

Though there was little balance, there was this recognition of the domestic Church. Thomas O’Loughlin wrote (March 25th, 2020):

..every table is a sacred place. Jesus encountered people and taught at their tables: every table is a place where we can encounter the Lord in those with us. We will not be eating together as sisters and brothers in a church for the next few months, so let’s start recalling that whenever we eat, we should be thankful: “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). We should always be thankful for the food we eat (saying grace before meals) and for the pleasure of eating and being together (grace after meals).

2. We seek communion in our deepest selves.

My second observation is more hopeful. We have a human, divine, sacred impulse to seek communion. While churches fretted about whether or how to open, or provide liturgy, what words could or should be uttered and by whom, the Eucharist of the world was present in the service and sacrifice of healthcare workers, families, neighbours and communities. Here liturgy was the work of the people, and the presence of thanksgiving, communion, love, sacrifice, fraction and sharing were clearly visible. God’s Word was proclaimed by those who spoke their care, their solidarity and their commitment to hope. It was whispered by bedsides and even as the body bags were zipped up. It was there in the calls and Zooms among family, friends and colleagues. There was a united cry of epiclesis to the Spirit who is not limited to formulae or particularity, but is the Giver of Life and the Challenger of death. This Spirit, really present, worked her own miracle of connection and encounter.

We went out of doors in the glorious weather and heard the birds singing. We noticed the world around us in cities and countryside. The Spirit of life led us to a deeper connection and encounter with creation. Pope Francis writes, (2012):

As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (9)

This Eucharistic experience of the natural and human world was intuited by very many people in their experience of lockdown. We felt more united with each other and the world than we did before, and were enlivened and encouraged.

This was reflected in the revelation that, in Ireland, it turns out we believe that we are a community. Then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s speech on March 17, 2020, referred to vulnerable people as the ‘most precious in our society.’ This speech, and his subsequent speeches focussed on solidarity:

To all of those across the world who have lost a loved one to this virus – we are with you. To all those living in the shadow of what is to come – we are with you… Tonight I send a message of friendship and of hope from Ireland to everyone around the world this Saint Patrick’s Day.

And, ten days later:
Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us, to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day – in the way we live our lives – and in the decisions we take willingly to protect our loved ones… Restricting how we live our lives so that so that others may live. I am asking us for a time, to forego our personal liberties and freedoms for a greater cause. Tonight I am appealing to every man, woman and child in our country to make these sacrifices – not out of self-interest but for each other.

Pope St John Paul II (2004) affirmed the universal nature of Eucharist when he wrote:

The Eucharist is not merely an expression of communion in the Church’s life; it is also a project of solidarity for all of humanity (27).

This was echoed by Pope Benedict in Sacramentum Caritatis (2005)

Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become “bread that is broken” for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realize that Christ continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: “You yourselves, give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). (88)

It was surely not their intention that this be seen separately from the celebration of Eucharist by the faith community. We need sacramental, social and ‘cosmic Eucharist,’ (Francis, 2012, 236) but when liturgical celebration had become temporarily impossible we saw it in human and ecological communities of solidarity and hope. It behoves us now to notice and name it.

I am reluctant to write any real conclusion to this piece as, while much has been said, really, still, so little is known. This is not over, and hindsight is still a long way off. My memories of the last seven months are of being in one place; having two of my kids home; ‘phone calls with my son; my husband undergoing chemotherapy, and that glorious weather; the day I could finally get back to the sea, and keeping in touch with friends and family. It has been very different for others. Let’s look after one another. Keep the faith!

Benedict, Sacramentum Caritatis (2005). http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis.html (downloaded 19/9/2020)

Francis, Laudato Sí, (2012) http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html (downloaded 19/9/2929)

Gomez Cantaro, Antonio, ‘La Inusitada Efervescencia,’ in Ecclesia y Revista, translated by Jaime Mardones Rosieque, March 2020. https://www.revistaecclesia.com/la-inusitada-efervescencia-por-antonio-gomez-cantero/ (downloaded 19/9/2020)

John Paul II Mane Nobiscum Domine, 2004, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2004/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20041008_mane-nobiscum-domine.html 

Luciani Rafael, Jesuitas, April 3rd, 2020, https://jesuitas.lat/es/noticias/1945-rafael-luciani-es-la-hora-de-ayunar-del-pan-y-aprender-a-comulgar-con-la-palabra (downloaded 19/9/2020).

National Centre for Liturgy, Rite of Burial for use by a lay person. http://www.liturgy-ireland.ie/uploads/8/4/2/9/8429650/rite_of_burial_for_use_by_a_lay_prayer_leader.pdf  (downloaded 19/9/2020)

O’Loughlin, Thomas, ‘Reimagining the Eucharist,’ The Tablet, 25th March, 2020.  https://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/17770/reimagining-the-eucharist (downloaded 1/4/2020)

Plested, Marcus, Woolf Institute Excerpt from Lockdown Conversation No 3, 17/9/2020,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=26&v=PCVBEH-TuAY&feature=emb_logo (downloaded 19/9/2020)

Stephens, Becky, @BeckyLStephens, https://twitter.com/BeckyLStephens/status/1251065330824339457

Varadkar, Leo, March 17th, 2020. https://merrionstreet.ie/en/News-Room/News/Address_by_An_Taoiseach_Leo_Varadkar_17th_March.html

March 27th, 2020 https://www.gov.ie/en/speech/f27026-speech-of-an-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-td-government-buildings-27-march/

Mediating the Word to One Another

Rev Molly Deatherage came to Galilee Spirituality Centre last night. She spoke in a series on Seeking the Face of God about discovering God in the Word. She offered us some texts for reflection. Before reading one text, from Romans, she said ‘this is my favourite bible passage.’ I had been participating very happily but this made me alert. As the text was being read I was not only wondering what it was saying to me and us, I was wondering why Molly had said it was her favourite. When Molly asked the group to share anything which had spoken to them I found that the most pressing connection I had made with the passage was this question about why it meant so much to her.

I was reminded of the wedding presents – the few that remain after thirty years – in our home. When I pull out the wok, most days, which Dan gave us, I think of him. When at Christmas we take out the goblets which we always use for mulled wine I think of Martin. The cracked and glued large fruit bowl is Mike and Sabine. The teapot where we keep the cooking utensils (after losing the lid) came from the All Hallows pastoral ministry programme team…and so on.

It came to me last night that the same happens when I read the scriptures. As the years have gone by friends and colleagues have shared particular passages which have held great meaning for them in their faith journey. Often we have prayed them together. I never now read those texts without these people being present. Not that I always consciously remember, but more that they are there, inhabiting the text with their life and witness. They have, at various times, made me alert to the Spirit speaking in a passage which before had not necessarily been fruitful for me.

It may seem obvious to say that we mediate God’s presence in the Word to one another. The liturgy of all our churches is centred around this. Sharing in bible groups is focussed on encountering the God of the Word together. And… this personal selection of Word which has stirred and nourished the lives of others feels like a deep and precious connection. It reveals a Word which is sacramental in the manner of its presence. It has permanently changed me and my discipleship. It brings human love, friendship and memory into the reading of scripture. Not only am I connecting to the lives of those by and about whom the bible is written but with those who now read it in faith.

I realise today how much I treasure these associations. Through them the bible has become a personal encounter for me – not only in my own reading but in the living reading of others. Whatever my state of mind when I approach my personal reading, these passages speak of those I love, have ministered with or who have ministered to me. I realise too that I have given my own reading as a gift to others. That there may be passages (I know which ones) that have my name on them in the reading of others. Like the wedding gifts which are so much part of our home and everyday lives (many now not in the state of wholeness in which they arrived) these mediated texts are part of the furniture of our stories, our faith and our encounter with God. In the Christian journey nothing is ‘alone’ or individual. It is all ‘us.’

Streams in the Desert: The Woman at the Well.

This was my homily on John 4:1-42 for the Women’s World Day of Prayer 2014

What do we find here?

There is a woman
at the well.

She stands in the sun.

Some people think that she is a sinner
that she has had a string of husbands,
of lovers,
of infidelities as long as her arm.

She is a woman at the well.
Maybe she is a sinner.

Some people think she has been unfortunate.
That brother after brother after cousin died
leaving her childless and defenceless
and forced to marry the next and the next and the next
until this one didn’t even bother to marry her.

She is a woman at the well.
Maybe she is unfortunate, and abused.

Some people will say ‘ah, but the 5 husbands are really
the five foreign tribes living in the land of Samaria
with whom the Samaritans mixed on their return.
She is a metaphor for all of Samaria.’

She is a woman
at the well.
Maybe she is Samaria,
standing there in the sun.

Some say the five husbands are the five books of Torah,
others identify her as a saint, Photini,
later to be martyred.
Some say it was midday
some say it was evening
some say she had a jar,
others a bucket.

She is a woman at the well.
Maybe she is all sinners;
all saints, all martyrs;
all the unfortunate and abused.
Maybe she is all her countrywomen and men.
Maybe she is all of ours.
Maybe not.

She is a woman and she has come
with her vessel,
to draw water
at the well.

She has come in her particularity.
a person, a name, a history;
her person, her name, her history.
She can be no other than she is.

She has come to the water.
With her thirst, her need, her task.

She meets a man.
He comes in his particularity.
A person, a name a history
Who can be no other than he is.

He is a man at the well.
He is a man with a thirst on him.

He brings no vessel.
If he is to receive he will receive from her.

They meet, and talk. A strange dialogue takes place.

How does it come about that this
is the place of transformation?
-this is the moment of grace?

How does it ever?

Each have need: a thirst of sorts.
The well is deep
with water infused with history,
and drinking leads to more of the same
thirst and slake, thirst and slake
an endless cycle
binding everything to its place.
Himself, his sons, his cattle….

Each takes a risk;
forsakes the safety of convention.
to occupy a different space
where separation is suspended
and difference finds a place.

Each tells a story.
In speaking truth, one to other
they hear the Word.
He asks
She questions
He offers
She accepts
a free gift, offered by God.

She is beheld
He is known.

She says ‘I see,’
He says his first ‘I am…’

And, afterwards
she leaves her water jar behind.
Perhaps she is leaving the familiar
as the fishermen left their nets to follow Christ.
Perhaps she knows now that the water is within.

And what do we know of her baptised life?
Only that she was a woman in a hurry;
the first to go and tell.

Only that where the disciples had earlier bought food
she went without mandate
and founded a Church,
and many believed on the strength of her testimony.

And what do we know of this Church?
They prayed, ‘stay with us;’
they heard him and believed
and became the Church of the baptised,
like poplars by streams of water.

When we come to the water, in these days,
we can be no other than we are.

People will have their views about the method and meaning of our living.
They will have their say about our loving and our compromise.
They will add to us significance or insignificance according to their need.
Maybe they’re right.
Maybe not.

We can be no other than we are.
Women, men, at the well.

In this baptised life
we will come to know our thirst
like an old friend guiding us home.

We will feel our dryness;
the parch which comes of spending
the wealth of our lives
on what fails to satisfy –
and we will come to the water.

Where history has bound us
a new story will make us free
and forge new encounters
of spirit and truth.

We will hesitate over pretence,
and be real in the meeting;
allow another to make us tilt and falter,
and turn around,
allow our mouths to shape the words,
‘give me this water.’

In this baptised life we will recognise moments
when we no longer need the vessel
because the water is within;
bubbling up
like a spring,
Streams in dry land
making us young
making a fertile valley of our lives.

Flowing into our hearts;
irrigating our bodies;
streaming into our relating, creating,
flooding our work, our words,
our silence, our prayer.

Rivers of justice,
pouring out into the world,

Encountering Christ in all who thirst.

Who are we anyway?

This piece was first published in Candlelight: the Innishannon annual, Christmas 2018 – here with an update.

As I wrote this in the early autumn there was a young Corkman in prison in Greece. He was working for a humanitarian agency assisting refugees on the island of Lesvos. His name is Seán Binder. I met him a few times while he was studying with our daughter at Trinity College. Asking about him some time after their graduation I heard that the situation on Lesvos was dreadful. Boats full of desperate people arrived each day but many were barely seaworthy and some went down even as they neared the shore. A strong swimmer, Seán was often occupied retrieving the bodies of those who had drowned. Time went on and his short stay became longer. He did not want to abandon people in such dire need. Then news came that he had been arrested and accused of espionage and other serious crimes. As I update this piece he is has been released on bail and is home for Christmas pending a trial.

I know that people will have various reactions to this story. The initial shock at the picture of little Alan Kurdi whose tiny body was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 has given way to a weary acceptance of a new order where people are displaced in their thousands and hundreds of thousands. Internationally, governments are challenged to create new structures to accommodate and integrate refugees crossing borders. Countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have taken vast numbers of people in a short time. A new wave of far-right parties oppose immigration and promote hostility and distrust of migrant people. These groups say that the arrival of many and diverse people will change their countries for the worse. Some of these same countries continue to arm the regimes from which refugees are fleeing for their lives. Humanity and truth are early casualties in a complex world which changes hour by hour.

All of this raises pressing questions, not only about where we stand but about our very identity. What makes us who we are as individuals, communities and nations? What might we gain or lose if newcomers arrive on our shores and make their homes with us? In a time of truth-decay, can we get to the core of the truth about our nation? Does being Irish depend on a skin colour, an accent or a faith? Or is it about a history and a value system – or other qualities which run through our very DNA? Who are we in our bones?

Ireland’s history is that of an island people who have more often been the traveller or the stranger, than the host. This history includes poverty and hunger and need, and days when families said ‘good-bye,’ never to see each other again. Our nation has endured occupation and violence from a foreign power. We are a nation where the hearth is kept warm and the thought of home kept sacred for millions of sons and daughters who have ventured abroad. As a nation we have contributed above our weight to countries where our citizens have settled: in medicine, social development, building, education and the arts. How do these experiences and values inform our responses to this new world order?

When a group of Syrian refugees were allocated to the small Roscommon town Mary Gallagher of Ballaghdereen said:
We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy … if somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say ‘no?’ How could you say ‘no?’ You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.

Every single thing we have come from. Every son or daughter put on a boat; every door opened to a neighbour in trouble; every brown cake wrapped and taken across the road to a needy family; every famine ship; every hesitant walk down a gangway to a foreign shore; every prayer breathed that our own young people would find a welcome, a shelter and a place to belong; every hope that a new generation would be free to flourish, to work and marry, to add their own genius to the human melting pot.

Who are we anyway? If we are true to ourselves I believe we know in our bones that we are Seán Binder and Mary Gallagher. We are Adi Roche and the families who welcome Chernobyl children. We are Nasc, the Irish Refugee Council and the Red Cross. We are Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Alma Harrak, Dil Wickremasinghe and so many others who have become and are becoming part of the fabric of our culture.

Ireland is a nation of families and communities who depend on one another. We know that what goes around comes around. We are communities who welcome those in need because it is in our nature to do so and because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t know ourselves and wouldn’t be ourselves. We have in our DNA both the need and the gift of the newcomer. We know if we give people a chance they will pretty much come good as Irish people mostly came good in every corner of the world.

The future is unknown and there is no doubt that it holds many changes. I believe we are wise enough to hold fast to our truth and to build the future on the foundation of this truth, on the values that make us Irish – that make us human. If we do this we will be investing in hope. We will retain and strengthen our identity while also gaining the contribution of diverse and gifted people. We will both stay the same, and change for the better.

Going too far: a spiritual challenge.

Reading the work of a gifted student on children’s spirituality and play I started to think about the element of play which is Going Too Far (think ‘this time, children, you have gone too far..’)


Your five and three-year-old are in the playroom with their cousin, also three. They are playing with dressing up clothes, a tea set, and various dolls and soft toys. You have stepped into the kitchen to make some lunch. You can hear a hum of conversation and some giggles as they play. All is well.  A short time later your radar picks up a slightly different note in the laughter. You instinctively put down the tomato you are chopping and move toward the door. The laughter becomes uncontainable. You move in. The sight that meets you as you peep around the door is familiar to all parents. The children who were quietly playing three minutes ago are now (a) marching about the room, military style, without a stitch on, daubed with blue and green paint; (b) giving the dog a haircut having dressed her up as Dobby the house elf (‘but Dobby hasn’t got any hair!’); (c) jumping from the windowsill into the doll’s cot (older two jumping, younger one in the cot); (d) any other of a thousand scenarios which represent going too far. Depending on the risk to life, limb and furniture, and the current state of your nerves, you may withdraw, join the laughter or intervene firmly.

As parents we know that children have to test boundaries. Although we are responsible for teaching them to behave safely and considerately we know that unless they try things out they may grow up to be unable to take healthy risks or to assert their needs and preferences, or to live a little and have some fun. Part of the fun of going too far is knowing it, and that there will be a mighty reaction when you are caught! Children know that we want them to be compliant, but it is their job to discover that there is more to life!

Going too far and spirituality.

As Christians we may feel that God wants us to be compliant. The lesson from an early age is that God wants us to be good – to observe boundaries and know our place. God’s pleasure is closely related to keeping our bedroom tidy and not fighting with our siblings. The carol says: Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he… This doesn’t really change when we grow up.

Deep down though, we know there is more to life with God.  We see those who passionately believe and love and act and we feel that they are closer to the Reign of God. There comes a time when compliance is not enough.  The Holy Spirit has a reputation for stepping over the boundaries and guiding others to do the same: The wind blows where it wills… so it is with those who are born of the Spirit (Jn 3:8).

Deep down we know that beyond our religious compliance there is a wild adventure out there for us with God – that life to the full is scarier and more exhilarating than we could have imagined.  We know that the Spirit is ready to be the older sibling who defies the boundaries and, with uncontainable laughter, will lead us on.

It turns out there is a door in this family that leads to The World.

Summer is a time of change in families. When the children are young it is the welcome break from routine and the gradual orientation to their promotion to senior infants, sixth class, fourth year. You’re busy, you’re broke (there is no free education in Ireland!) but there’s a sense of order and control. Your list is the only list in town and is the safeguard and guarantee of readiness for the next step. Twistables, lunch boxes, shoes and keyrings; booklists, uniforms, bus tickets. Sorted.

The first Leaving Cert* changes that. It turns out there is a door in this family which leads to The World. It has always been there but has never been used. You stand in the shop holding a duvet cover in one hand and a toasted sandwich maker in the other and wonder what on earth you’re doing there. Any smile you have ever painted on as a mother becomes insignificant compared to the one you are doing right now.

In house Francis-Devine this is the last Leaving Cert year and each of the ‘children,’ are making a big move. The eldest is moving from MSc to workplace; middle is moving across the water for a Masters and youngest is heading for college for the first time. This is our transition year! The dates are in the calendar. August 13th, September 3rd and September 16th.  Lists are being made; deposits paid. Mental and emotional shifts are happening on a daily basis.

I am no longer the captain of the summer. I stand by. Now it is mine to remind, ask, fund, discuss, broach, support, drive and reassure. Mine to pride, if it were a verb. I am prouding.  Mine to pray. Mine to wonder whether, what if, should and could. But not to answer. Mine to quietly watch as they move around the house. These bodies which I have treasured and protected; fed, clothed and held and which they wear and use so lightly, as they should.  Their faces appear at the top of the stairs with news or queries.  I am seeing them in detail.

This is not the time to slow them down.  Heaven knows I don’t want to. Go them!  But within myself there is a still point and I look out from there. In this place the day of their birth is today. The person they were at four, seven, twelve and sixteen is at once the young adult emptying the dishwasher beside me. I hold and perceive them in one moment, one knowledge, one love as they, as yet, do not. This era is ending for sure, but it is all the one with the next phase, the next challenge, their individual lives and the life of the family. I am seeing this now, on this summer day, and it gives me joy for all that is to come.

*Leaving Cert is the equivalent of A level in the UK system.

Still dealing with the abuse crisis 2018.

My heart goes out to Catholics in the US, Australia and Chile. Their churches are currently under intense spotlight regarding the resignations of Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Wilson and a group of Chilean bishops, the first accused of abuse and the rest of failing to deal with it as leaders.

As a Catholic living and ministering in Ireland I recognise the same tenor of outrage and hurt in media reports and the same tone of church statements which apologise for ‘moral failure,’ and ‘sin.’  The use of this professional church language seeks to damage-limit and control the narrative. Those at the centre of the crisis and commentators rehearse the possible ‘reasons,’ for clerical child sexual abuse, among them obligatory celibacy, misogyny, theology and, most staggeringly, loneliness.  We in Ireland have had this weary conversation ten million times over the last twenty five plus years. It has got us nowhere* and now we face a papal visit which ‘celebrates family’ and does not include a meeting with those who have been abused by priests (not church personnel; not the Church: priests).

Those priests, bishops and cardinals who have abused children here and elsewhere have destroyed the Church in Ireland. They have not done this alone but have been aided by those who covered up, denied or minimised the atrocities they perpetrated. Their caste always trumped the rights of their victims. It became clear a few years into our process of discovery that while the Catholic hierarchy would prioritise safeguarding regulations to the letter and spend millions doing so, it would never ‘get it’ in terms of the changes which would be needed for the Irish Catholic Church to emerge from the ashes. It has not heeded the pleas from so many Irish people, including victims, clergy, the lay faithful, theologians, religious and non-church-attending citizens for real change; for authentic humility, conversion and a deep attention to the action of the Holy Spirit. Instead the Church has continued as before – proud, unyielding, defensive, and hoarding resources, leadership and influence to a tiny group of like-minded men. This approach has cost the Irish Catholic Church its voice in public discourse and in the hearts and minds of the Irish nation. While individual Catholics and communities continue to do huge good and witness profoundly to their faith, the institutional Church is set on a course of anti-witness.

I hope it’s different in other countries. I hope they get it  – our experience is at their disposal – but I am not confident. While the pope does not demand resignations; does not demand root and branch change and does not listen and be seen to listen to those whose lives have been devastated by the ‘moral failures’ of his men, local churches will not take a new course. It will not matter what other good the Church does nationally or internationally, it will continued to be defined by this tragedy and will continue to limp along toward obscurity.

*An enlightening contribution which is the exception is Kevin Egan’s ‘Remaining a Catholic after the Murphy report (Dublin: Columba, 2011) which contributed calm clinical responses to the ‘why and how’ questions.  I recommend it as a still-relevant read.

The Sacred Heart of Ministry.

This reflection was first offered as part of a homily for the thirtieth anniversary of priesthood of my friend Bernard Cotter which fell on the feast of the Sacred Heart 2014.  (with reference to 2 Cor 4:1-6).

Thirty years, twenty years or one year of ministry is first of all a matter of the heart. Think of  all the things you might learn in those years of ministry. When to speak, and when not; what our gifts are; where we’re challenged; what annoys people; the teaching of the Church and where the rubber hits the road.. After a time we get the hang of things and may even become proficient. After a time we know what in our ministry makes us dance for joy and what parts make us want to hit the snooze button and turn over. But the heart is another thing.

These years are about the sacred heart of ministry. This is to be found where the heart of the minister meets the heart of Christ. The heart of ministry is a human heart which holds the love of Christ and freely shares it.  I want to look at some qualities of the heart of the minister which may be so ordinary we barely notice them.

The heart of the minister is open to receive. Paul says – ‘truly the love of God has been poured into our hearts.’  The heart of the minister has heard God call him or her by name. Has heard the words – ‘do not be afraid – you are precious and honoured in my sight and I love you.’  The minister’s heart has moved from being empty to being full.  It has received faith, hope and love as free gifts and shares them wholeheartedly. The heart of the minister continues to be open and continues to receive. The day the heart closes is the day its ministry is over.

The heart of the minister perseveres. Paul says ‘we do not lose heart.’  Our ministry comes from Christ and it is Christ we offer, not ourselves. This sustains us through the challenges we face. We meet and share in people’s suffering and this soon means that the heart of the minister is a bit broken too. We meet our own failure and the failure of much of what we hoped for.  We come to integrate brokenheartedness into our spiritual journey, perhaps coming closer to the broken heart of Jesus. We are sometimes downhearted and definitely fainthearted. But we do not lose heart.

The heart of the minister is truthful. Our perseverance comes from neither strength nor delusion.  It comes from the truth that we are clay jars. But we believe that the treasure we hold is extraordinary and precious. So we don’t have to hide who we are, but just keep it real for ourselves and others. If we hide ourselves we hide the treasure that lies within.  If, as Paul says, we cultivate habits of cunning or truth-bending we simply forget where we put it and the treasure is lost.

The heart of the minister is the heart of love. Not because we are the touchy feely types, and not because we feel it always, but because love is what we have received. Not because we are nice, but because love is the heart of Christ.

The U2 song says

We can’t fall any further if we can’t feel ordinary love
And we cannot reach any higher if we can’t deal with ordinary love

Ordinary love gives us access to ultimate reality in Christ.

Jesus says to all of us – ‘learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart.’

I see in many colleagues the sacred heart of Christ’s minister. It is a full heart; a weathered heart; a heart open to the grace and wisdom which comes from long haul prayer. It is a listening heart; a pastoral heart willing to bend to include and accommodate. It is a quiet and patient heart in the face of trouble, and a rebellious heart when it comes to injustice or nonsense.  It is a gentle and humble heart. It is a loyal heart. It is a heart which can be trusted. It is a heart full of sincerity, presence, prayerfulness, integrity. It is a sacred heart. It puts love first.