Saying ‘good-bye’ in January

January 12th 2018 was Auntie Bridie’s 30,695th and last day.  She was in Tralee hospital.  We gathered around her.  We spoke of her wonderful character.  We shared funny stories of her irreverent moments and of the many times she had spoken her mind to us or other family members.  We hoped to avoid the inevitability of her death.  When the nurse told us to expect it we said she had defied medical opinion before.  And then she died.

There is no more privileged moment than being present with someone as they die.  Here they are totally vulnerable.  They are caught by the momentous split-second of their departure.  If they are not alone their breath is awaited, and awaited.  We who stand and sit around them hardly dare breathe ourselves as we watch for signs of life. Often we wait, long after the machines become quiet, and long after we expect to see the lift of the next breath.  We still and stop as the beloved becomes something else, other than the person they were.

Death is the only absolute.  There is nothing partial here.  Death stands apart from other, pseudo opposites which are really points on a continuum – hot and cold, up and down, fat and thin.  One can always plead hotter, downer or thinner.  But not deader.  Not nearly alive.  To see a person move from life to death is the ultimate in intimacy; in privilege and potentially in accompaniment.  They are the centre of the room.  They are leaving all they have been, all they have seen; all they have held.  They are going where none of us has gone.  It is their moment.

In the moment of  Bridie’s death the story of our lives changed.  Something was added, or rather something was stopped.  For most of us around her bed there was always Bridie. Always her home, her kitchen, her tea, her presence.  Now her death brought changes we couldn’t imagine.  It was an affront to our view of ourselves and the world.  We said we couldn’t believe it.  Our focus moved from the drama of her last moments to the drama of our loss.

So that’s the funeral.  The drama of her life and the drama of our loss.  A collision of memory, liveliness and the chasm of absence.  A collision which exposes the inadequacies and needs of family members; stirs up old sorrow; brings people face to face with past and future, with love and loss. Not to mention one another. And, in Ireland, this is so swift as to be nearly merciless.

Enter the rite.  Enter the pastoral minister.  Enter the friends and neighbours.  Enter the gravedigger, the undertaker and the priest.  Enter the handshake, the whisper and the bell.  Even as we are scandalised we step into this process, pulled and cajoled and eased by our people. They will not let us alone until it is done.  Until the lid is closed; the coffin lifted and lowered; the smell of fresh earth; the sound of the sea.

Time’s Up?

On January 6th, Nollaig na mban in Ireland, social media was alive with appreciation of women and hope for our future.  It coincided with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Ireland and the UK.  People announced that this would be the year for women’s rights.

This morning the impact of women wearing black to the Golden Globe event is reported across the world.  2017 was the year of revelations about sexual harassment in the movie industry and its doyens were anxious to include in their movement for liberation all women in all industries and the home, who have been prey to sexual violence and harassment.

Female family and friends agree that sexual harassment and discrimination has affected pretty much every woman.  Whether abused as a child; threatened or coerced as a teenager; touched, groped, raped as an adult; financial disadvantage or the daily comments or innuendo, few have escaped.  If we stand up to this we pay the price – with blame, labelling, missed opportunity, poverty, discrimination or violence.

This is all equally true in churches.  Or, perhaps, more so.  In churches there are theologies which support discrimination against women and taboos around our full involvement.  There is tacit permission to disregard or to treat women badly. Churches are exempt from equal opportunity legislation, and church leadership and (Irish religious) theology departments are expected to be all or mostly male clubs.  Elected representatives, universities, activists raise no cry about this and leave the churches to their own devices.

Will things change for church women this year?  Probably not.  Those most vocal on behalf of women in other spheres show no interest in the liberation of women in churches.  There is an unspoken understanding that women in religious settings have brought our fate upon ourselves because we choose to be involved in religion.  Some of us are pro-life and so disagree with a fundamental cause embraced by many other feminists.  In Ireland this issue is dividing feminists across the country.  So we are left to struggle on without solidarity from other women, and those who perpetuate the oppression of women in religion know no-one will touch them.

We need other women to stand in solidarity with us – not judge us. Maybe it is hard to understand our reasons for faith and membership of churches which discriminate against women, but the struggle we are engaged in for human flourishing in these settings is the struggle of women everywhere.  Church women are also the citizens feminists wish to support in the workplace, home and culture.

I would like to see women in churches included in the calls for equality and fairness made by activists and leaders in 2018.  We do not want to be disregarded, undermined, harassed and abused any more than women in any other sector.  I would equally like to see theologians included in Women’s Studies programmes, and women’s studies specialists working with feminist theologians to explore the intractable sexism in our culture, and ways of addressing it. I would like to see Time’s Up include women in all spheres of life and perhaps 2018 will bring a new solidarity and more effective action for the flourishing of women and girls.

Like a Weaned Child

Psalm 131 (NRSV)

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.[a]

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

If one prays this psalm as part of the divine office the translation is somewhat different.  Verse 2 reads ‘like a child in its mother’s arms, even so my soul.’  As a breastfeeding mother I used to imagine the moment when, after a full and satisfying feed the baby’s sucking would become sporadic as they drifted into sleep.  As it became little more than a nibble I would start to doze myself.  As they gradually drifted further into sleep their little head would fall back on to my arm in a drunken bliss.  Often there would be a small dribble of the last milk which they had been too sleepy to swallow.  A beatific smile would cross their face. All was well in their world.

This beautiful image for years summed up for me the mystic’s experience of God.  Utterly satisfied; utterly in love; blissfully replete.  It was my experience too of a wonderful God who provided as a mother; who would enfold me in grace and the thrill of her presence.  She was all I wanted and desired.  Nothing could interrupt our bliss.

As I came across other translations I was a little miffed to see ‘as a weaned child.’  I, to my regret not a Hebrist, wondered whether this could be a misunderstanding.  Seeing the various notes which indicate that this term in fact indicates a child of three or four years walking with his or her mother made me think again about the text.

The three or four year old has left babyhood behind.  In normal circumstances she loves and trusts the mother completely but is full of questions about the world.  She walks alongside the mother, nicely sheltered but moving under her own steam.  While she does not wish to be too separate she is independent and individual.  The symbiosis of babyhood has long gone.  She still fills the mother’s thoughts and there might also be a new baby on the scene.

This is a better image of discipleship.  God cares for and protects us – and there are times when we need the utter dependence of a baby.  Mostly however we walk with God as weaned children, teenagers, adults.  God desires our independence, our individuality; our questions and our sense-making of the world as well as our love and trust.  God our mother treasures each moment of our development but hopes for fullness of life for each of us as  functioning adults.  She will always be there for us but requires and desires more than dependence.  She lovingly holds within her heart the dependent baby but also weans us from the breast with faith in a future we cannot imagine.

Singing the Tune without the words…

CF campaigner and sufferer Orla Tinsley recently tweeted the words of Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the Tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

Now seriously ill she is awaiting a double lung transplant.  So far she has had six calls but each time has been disappointed.

Director General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine,  Pierre Kraehenbuehl was recently interviewed on RTE radio about the situation facing Palestinian young people in schools in Gaza.  He described them as having a ‘total lack of horizon.’ 90% of them had never left Gaza and they were facing a record unemployment prospect of 65%.  Describing the same young people he said, ‘They are the last ones to give up hope. Their courage, dedication, and the energy that they invest in education. We cannot give up on them.’

Both of these situations are critically unresolved and highlight the unfairness of our world.  Those most deserving often have hard lives.  The people at the centre of them, however, are beacons of hope. There is a paradox in this.  Hope sings the tune because words are powerless and even facile in the face of such difficulties – but it does so relentlessly, compelling the human spirit to look forward and outward with courage.

In his TED talk Pope Francis spoke of hope:

Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow… A tiny flicker of light that feeds on hope is enough to shatter the shield of darkness. A single person is enough for hope to exist, and that person can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’ And so, does hope begin when we have an ‘us?’ No. Hope began with one ‘you.’ When there is an ‘us,’ there begins a revolution.

Francis identifies hope as a light shared which combats the surrounding gloom.  It is strengthened by each person who opts in to it as a choice, and in turn nourishes the ensuing ‘us.’

Advent is a season of hope. The momentum of the season as the December light grows dim grows in revolutionary fervour with readings about freedom for captives, good news for the poor and a God who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.

Some thoughts about hope as we continue the Advent journey:

  1. Hope is relentless – and doesn’t depend on the circumstances. In fact the more difficult they are the more powerful the experience of hope.
  2. Hope is sometimes, often, hidden. It is more of a spark than a flame.
  3. Hope believes the promises of God.
  4. The Holy Spirit is both the singer and the song of hope in the world.
  5. Hope is found most easily in communities, where people come together in solidarity.


It’s not about the boat…

Some time ago – well, ages ago –  I was sitting with the very good people of  Kilbrittain talking about some images they had come up with for their parish.  One of the groups had drawn a boat.  A man described the boat as the Church with all the people of the parish taking their part – some leaders, some do-ers, some navigators, deck swabbers and so on.  Another person from the group said with a laugh that he had jumped the ship and now must be in the water.  We all looked again at the picture.  In our preoccupation with the boat we had not considered the water.  If the boat was the Church – what was the water?  ‘God,’ said the first man, ‘the water is God.’

The reason I remember this all these years later?   Is that when we get into bemoaning the failing and dying of the Church, and even into conversations about how to save it, I say to myself ‘it’s not about the boat.’  God is bigger.  God can keep the Church-boat afloat but also so many other vessels.  God can sustain all the creatures of the deep.  When people jump from the Church because anything is better than staying on board, they fall into God’s mercy, God’s provision and God’s love.

The Church has been preoccupied with itself.  Those who sail in it have been concerned about their positions, and roles.   We have loved the boat, tended to it and fixed it.  At a certain point, some have been sacrificed for the good of the boat.  Some were deemed unfit for the boat and made to walk the plank.  Others were left on the pier and never taken on board.  Some forgot that the boat was on the sea and that the sea was deep and wide and unknowable.   Others forgot even to stand on the deck and feel the spray on their faces, as the sun turned orange in the west.

It’s not about the boat.  It’s about the boat and the crew; the sea and the sky; the fish and the seabirds.  It’s about the galley kitchen and the photo’s on the bunks; the rigging and the sails; the cargo, the tilt of the deck and the rumour of land.  In the rise of the swell the Spirit is moving.  The Word of God is heard in the night air as a bird calls.

Those of us who have given a lifetime as ship’s company should continue our work – at this stage we’re not going to change.  However as we do so we can acknowledge that it is not about the boat and the boat doesn’t come first.  We can be attentive to the perspectives of others – dolphins, gulls and landlubbers – not so that we can save the boat but so we can know the sea better.



I went to Belfast on Thursday (9th Nov) for the Festival of Social Science.  I was contributing to a panel on women’s ministry with my Women in Ministry in Ireland research project.  I was to meet the chair and other panelists in a pub close to the hotel where I was staying.  As I walked the short distance I noticed that everyone was wearing a poppy.  I began to wonder whether other panellists would be wearing one and how it would be received if I did or didn’t have one.

When I lived in England I used to wear a white poppy.  This, for me, expressed remembrance without any kind of nationalistic celebration of war or victory.  I felt I wore it for British and all other fallen military personnel, whether German, Japanese, French or Russian.  This was my theoretical position and it was fine.

I have recently started to think about remembering the fallen in a new and more personal way.  My sons are now at the age at which they would have been conscripted if we had lived at the times of the world wars.  I cannot describe the horror that this realisation brings.  The thought that these gentle lads who are just stepping out into the world, bringing their good humour, wisdom and sense of justice with them, could be used and disposed of in this way offends me to my core. It was gendercide. The contributions which these young men could have made to the world were reduced to how much damage they could inflict on other young men before some of them died.

Recently the world seems to have become even more violent and unstable.  I look at my sons and wonder whether, at some time in their future, the world may expect violence of them or inflict terrible suffering on them in the name of a cause or country.  It mustn’t.  Our remembering needs to include an element of resistance – of anger at the futility of the wars which killed these men – as well as sorrow at their loss.  If we call the fallen ‘heroes,’ then we must find a way of doing so which refuses to accept that this was the only or best way of addressing international problems.

With the European project under threat we must remember the dream which has sustained it.  With the movement of peoples and reactionary politics we must be heard in defence of peace and co-operation.  We must make our work for peace practical and effective.  Theologians and churchpeople who have not previously explicitly included the quest for peace in their work should begin to do so.  Philosophers, politicians, sportspeople, parents and young people – everyone – should start to make it part of our focus.  This is respect and remembrance for today.

It turns out that wearing the poppy in Belfast is complicated as symbols often are.  This Catholic of English, Welsh and Irish heritage would only have added to the confusion had I hastily pinned one to my coat.  But I remember and make a pledge to work for peace in my own corner of our shared world.

A Fire Flag

A Fire Flag: An Invitation

Today the City of Cork has retained its purple flag.  ‘Great’ I thought – ‘what’s that?’  In the few seconds between seeing and opening the tweeted article from the Cork Independent newspaper my brain processed the possible associations for the colour purple for a flag.  Of course the first option which presented itself to me was spirituality.  I ruled this out fairly quickly and went on to read that Cork had been award the flag for its excellence in night time economy.  Good for Cork!

But.. what if there were a flag for the spiritual life of a city or region?  What would be rewarded?  How could the spiritual health of a place or population be measured.

I offer the following exploratory proposal:   A Fire Flag for Spirituality and Faith

Areas for Consideration

  1. Culture

Where is spirituality and faith found in the culture of our city and county?  The promotion of concerts; theatre events; exhibitions and festivals which reflection a spiritual or faith component.

  1. Community

That communities are invited to get involved in initiatives which demonstrate religious dialogue and tolerance; interfaith activities and the sharing of spiritual traditions or activities. These may include the celebration of existing religious festivals; pilgrimages to local spiritual sites; or gatherings where dialogue takes place about spiritual and religious practices.

  1. Education

Schools: That there is demonstrable excellence in the teaching of religious studies with a view to mutual understanding and civic participation.   That schools embrace an agreed standard of support for spirituality as part of their ethos and curriculum.

Third Level Colleges: That a variety of programmes be made available within diverse disciplines which explore the spiritual and religious dimensions of topics. This includes Religious Studies and Theology and also these dimensions in Social Studies; History; Business and Economics; Philosophy; Health and Science.

That opportunities are made available to all students to learn about and experience different spiritual traditions.

Adult and Community Education: That programmes are made widely available to promote understanding of faith and spirituality with a particular view of mutual understanding and civic participation.

Clearly a group of leaders and stakeholders should be put in place in each town or region to drive this initiative and develop it in sustainable ways.

What about a national organisation, linked to government to take this forward?

A ‘Truly Pluralist’ Society?

The news this week that a meeting had taken place between ‘The Catholic Church’ and the government was a welcome surprise. Leo Varadkar’s tweet made me curious:

Good meeting with Catholic Church. Faith communities have important place in Irish life.Constructive engagement with them is valuable 4 Govt

The Irish Times piece  ( revealed that ‘senior Catholic representatives’ met with key government representatives to discuss a number of issues including the eighth amendment, aid and the political impasse in Northern Ireland. Afterwards Archbishop Eamon Martin said

‘I believe that regular Church-State dialogue is in the interest of everyone and reflects a truly pluralist society.’

The Taoiseach hoped ‘this would be the first in a series of bilateral meetings which would be held with dialogue partners.’

Faith communities have an important place in Irish life. The majority of Irish people belong to one and have a faith perspective on life.  The views of faith communities can and should be part of the national conversation on policy, values and public life.  This includes the diverse faith traditions which make up Irish society and should certainly fully involve Catholic representation as the biggest faith group in the country.

But within this who should be the ‘dialogue partners?’ In this case the Irish Times names three archbishops.  Were there other representatives present?  How does this representation contribute to the ‘truly pluralist society’ mentioned by Archbishop Martin?  Could ‘senior figures from the Church,’ include senior Catholic women who have spent a lifetime in service of the Church? When the key issue being discussed is the eighth amendment, the Catholic voice is debilitated without expert female representation.  When the Church puts forward its view on the eighth via male celibate leaders this is detrimental to how it is received and this is also true of any subject in the public square.

There are many Catholic experts on Irish life who reflect its plurality and would make themselves available to advise the bishops, including expert non-episcopal members of their commissions.  I am encouraged by the news of top level meetings between the government and the Church and hope that the bishops will endeavour to make their delegation at these meetings truly representative of the membership of the Catholic faith community.

The Realm of Sparks

This is the post excerpt.

The title of this blog is taken from Nancy Victorin-Vangerud’s book The Raging Hearth: Spirit in the Household of God (Chalice, 2000).   She writes (p198)

God’s Spirit inhabits the realm of sparks where the groans for life and freedom first arise.

My aim in writing these pieces is to join God’s Spirit in the ever fertile realm of sparks – human experience – where life, freedom, justice and hope relentlessly arise.  I hope each of these pieces will fan the flame….