Tuesday, March 30, 2010


One of my favourite passages from the Holy Gospels relates the event of Jesus calming the wind and the waves. [ Mt. 8: 23-27; Mk. 4:35-40]

Growing up on the coast of the North Atlantic as a boy my friends and I would often ‘borrow’ a dory and row out across the water to a distant island, a place devoid of human habitation.

Its high rock cliffs, home to thousands of nesting birds, its top plateau of scrub brush, the vast panorama towards the distant horizon allowing a clear view, first of the faint wisps of smoke, then the thick black column from the burning coal or bunker oil, little by little the emerging shape of a tramp steamer, liner or warship – a pretty neat place!

It would take the vessel two to three hours to arrive and pass by the island.

On a calm day the Atlantic waves would be a mere two to three foot swells.

On a windy day they would rise high enough the dory would literally ride up one side and down the other of each wave and we would be thrilled and terrified coming down a wave, never knowing if any, or how much, water would splash into the dory.

Nature’s rollercoaster!

I remember the last time we went out we truly misread the weather and the return trip was in a storm. A terrifying ordeal: pelted by cold, biting rain, literally fighting the wind and the waves.

By the time we reached shore the dory was half filled with water as we had nothing with us with which to bail.

From then on the Gospel event of Jesus calming the storm deeply entered, and has remained in my heart as an icon of trust.

Tradition sees in the Gospel event as well a symbol of the Church and we within.

This Holy Week the storm is huge, the battering intense.

How critical we remember Jesus is greater than any storm.

We are His Church.

This is His world.

In 1794 a young Russian monk, with several confreres, was sent across the sea from the mainland to a Russian outpost in what is modern day Alaska.

The monk’s name was Herman.

Eventually all the other monks died of natural causes, were martyred, or returned to Russia and Herman, remaining alone, moved to Spruce Island to live as a hermit, where, after decades of service to the local people and intercessory prayer, he died, alone and, for more than 30 years, forgotten.

It would be Bishop Peter of Alaska, who in 1867 would first investigate Herman’s life, however it would be 102 years later, 1969, before this humble monk-hermit would be declared as St. Herman of Alaska, Patron Saint of the Americas.

Some twenty years later a friend would drag a small hut up to the top of a hill as high as that island of my youth, a hill overlooking a huge river valley.

My friend named this hut: St. Herman of Alaska hermitage.

It had one window, no electricity, a sort of platform on which to put a straw pillow and blanket for sleep. A chair, a very tiny writing desk, and no foundation, which means it simply sat on the ground.

The ground, however, was not flat!

I would spend a few days there from time to time when I was pastor of a parish not too distant.

The isolation, the silence, the vista of the beauty of His creation all enabled contemplation and time to sit with the Holy Gospel.

One afternoon while I was meditating on the Gospel passage of the calming of the storm a summer thunderstorm suddenly began and I took shelter inside the hermitage from the rain and the wind.

The wind grew stronger and that little hut began to rock back and forth.

At first this was as disconcerting as fighting the waves when I was a boy on the ocean in a storm because, perched on the top of that hill, with now wet and slick grass all around, I had an inner imagination gone wild notion of the whole thing, we me in it, sliding down and crashing into the rocks and trees of the valley!

The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived and my rollercoaster hermitage stopped.

I sat there and laughed and laughed at being of such little faith!

“This day! This hour! This minute! Love God above all!” ~St. Herman of Alaska.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Perhaps the most common known virus, of which there are some 500 varieties, is the cold virus, a debilitating tiny creature only 20 nanometres in diameter.

To help visualize the size one descriptive I read recently suggested the comparison: 20 nanometres as one apple, thus the human nose would be the size of Wales!

The common stone, the kind you might kick to the curb if encountered on a sidewalk, or toss to see it skip across the surface of a pond, or in ancient times the kind picked up by a young lad and used in his slingshot to topple a giant, is likewise smaller than an apple!

When hurled as angry, unforgiving word against a human being, such a stone assumes the mass of Mount Everest.

When Jesus wrote in the sand one day the tiny grains were larger than a nanometre, smaller than Everest, yet the import is the same as when the finger of God inscribed the tablets for Moses and the impact reverberates across the millennia: Let only the sinless cast the first stone. [See Jn. 8: 1-11]

Granted the adult caught in the act of adultery causes pain and division in many lives, but clearly the abuse of children is incomparably more destructive both in the individual life of the child and in countless other lives.

In the media led frenzy around the scandal of priests committing the heinous crime and sin it is understandable dispassionate discourse is virtually impossible, witness the dismissal by most of the media and many, many Catholics of the Holy Father’s efforts, such as his recent Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland.

Yet Jesus is clear time and again in the Holy Gospel about our call to be compassionate, merciful, forgiving, loving of enemies, praying for those who persecute us.

Likewise Jesus does not mince words about the reality of personal sin, the need to beg for mercy, to be converted.

It is extremely tough to forgive.

If we wait for our emotions to settle down it is unlikely we will ever forgive any individual or group who either has sinned against us personally or whose ‘public’ sins cause us to experience betrayal or to live in fear because of their hatred.

9/11 has left in its wake a climate of hatred and fear.

The sins of priests likewise, indeed to an even greater extent.

Both evils are already rippling forward in history, perhaps for generations to come.

Much like the tiny cold virus which can infect any human being, does infect hundreds of millions, and for the foreseeable future there is no cure for the common cold, the outrage and disheartening pain infecting thousands these days throughout the world and in the Church, especially in the lives of the abused, but also in the lives of innocent and dedicated priests, who far outnumber those who have betrayed, appears unrelenting/incurable too.

The flood of angry and hate-filled words being hurled at the Church, the Holy Father, Priests is such a shower of stones there may soon be a dearth of stones on earth.

On the threshold of Holy Week, in the face of all this, I can but contemplate Jesus, writing in the sand, as I drop the stone in my own hand.

On the threshold of our redemption I can but contemplate Jesus, in the Garden and agonize with Him; Jesus on the Cross and cry out with Him the great plea for mercy, forgiveness from the Father.

Thus, as St. Ephraim has taught us to pray:

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faintheartedness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me Your servant the spirit of purity and humility, the spirit of patience and love.

O Lord and King bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not judging my brother.

O God, purify me a sinner and have mercy on me.

O God, purify me a sinner and have mercy on me.

O God, purify me a sinner and have mercy on me.

Yes, O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins and not judging my brother.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Paradox Of Loneliness

Soon I will add another link to a new blog by a wonderful friend, husband, father, teacher.

You will note his family is growing, what he learns from his children, and also much more about our life of faith, of pilgrimage, in Christ.

Reading his most recent post I must admit I shuddered interiorly.

Recently off retreat I found that post about the grace of living in the now was too close to home, to close to the struggle.

It seems to me there is an immense paradox unfolding in this Year of the Priest: the obvious love, gratitude, prayer directed towards priests from thousands upon thousands of the wonderful faithful – and yet – the seemingly never ending horror of new revelations of priestly sins and crimes against the innocent is the tearing open anew of a wound which I wonder: will it ever heal?

The wound: in the lives of the betrayed.

The wound: in the Priesthood.

So, yes, today to be honest I am struggling with my emotions, with the sheer weight of exile because of a false accusation and really kicking against the goad of the Holy Spirit nudging me, inviting me, ever more deeply into the loneliness of Christ.

The paradox of this loneliness is that we can only enter into this loneliness of Christ if we are with Him!

I love my Bishop and brother priests very much and hate the pain of loss of fraternity because I am deemed ‘one of those.’

In human terms, of course, priority of place in my heart belongs to my own Son and with each passing year, as he more and more confidently has his priorities in right order: wife, children, parish, work – well you get the picture and yes I hate that too and when my neediness for attention {just typing that I am blushing and feel like an old fart!} comes up against his feeling overwhelmed – well I hate that most of all!

Yet the lavishness of his love, the love of his wife who is a tender and wise woman, the love of their children, all of which domestic-church, family love is a healing balm, comes at a price I rebel against {much to the consternation of my rather patient son} because the price seems huge, when in fact it is far less than the price Christ paid alone in the Garden.

The price: being third, which in the case of a right ordered family may mean being 8th or 80th!; in the case of an exiled priest being third means being absolutely forgotten.

Why, I often wonder, did Jesus, as for example St. Mark tells us, go off to a lonely place to pray? [cf. Mk.1:30ff]

Well, not really! I just don’t like facing the implications because if it is just us and Jesus we are like the Woman at the Well – there is no place, not even within ourselves, to hide.

That’s loneliness too!

The Servant of God, Catherine Doherty, gave a powerful talk once, published as a letter in Volume Two of the series Dearly Beloved, published by Madonna House Publications.

It is a letter I return to again and again, often like a moth to a flame even though this moth knows he’s gonna get burnt again – but the fire, in truth, is the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit!

Aptly titled “Paradoxes of the Spirit” it is Catherine reflecting on another passage from St. Mark wherein Jesus tells us what will happen if we try by our own wits to save our life, ourselves, our very souls! [cf. Mk. 8:34f]

At the very beginning Catherine teaches: “This seems to be a key mystery that continually escapes us all; or rather it is a paradox from which we try to escape! We are not ready to have an inner battle with ourselves, sixty minutes of every hour, twenty-four hours a day, all of our lives.” – and – “…Whenever you experience inwardly any annihilation of yourself, you will feel an overpowering urge to assert yourself outwardly, to imprint yourself on life. ‘Look, folks, I exist! I’m here. I haven’t disappeared. I’m a person. Listen to me!’”

When the searing pain of the human family, of the suffering Christ, of the Holy Father, of the Priesthood, when the cries of personhood devastation of the abused, the silent scream of the aborted, when the raw ache of the loneliness of Christ goads the raw wound of exile, abandonment, not being heard touches my emotional centre – well yep I get this very overpowering urge to assert myself and the paradox is that very self-assertion pushes away the very people, quite naturally I might add, I most want to pay attention – sometimes, it seems, it is as if when I am in that space in prayer I am pushing away the very Jesus upon whom I yearn to lean, to be with and find rest!

Yep, this is the paradox of loneliness: unless I allow myself to experience the raw pain of loneliness, mine, everyone’s, Christ’s own, I cannot comfort the lonely Christ.

Nor can I be alone with Him in that solitary place of prayer, nor keep watch with Him in the Garden, nor be one with Him on the Cross.

If we are to do the battle ‘sixty minutes of every hour every day’, if we are to embrace the mystery, the paradox of ‘losing our life to save it’ we need, I believe, to hold onto the hand of our Blessed Mother, like a little child learning to walk, allow her to take us where perhaps, at least in our emotions and fears, we’d rather not go!

To be taken by her/led by her to enter this paradox, to allow this purifying fire to burn away our need to be the centre, rather than the servant, to be the loved rather than the one loving, to have needs met rather than be gift – yep if we willingly do the battle Catherine speaks of, then Our Lady takes us also to two extraordinary places where Jesus is: the Manger and the Eucharist, which is to enter the mystery of becoming childlike and truly beloved – but the way to both is the way of the Cross.

Indeed the cross Jesus urges us to take up each day is the very battle, the very paradox, as Catherine says, we seek to flee!

The paradox within the paradox is, of course, this is not a one-time battle and then it’s done and we become all calm, totally selfless, and absolutely faith-filled.

Much as I sure wish it were that easy, the reality is very much the Exodus story, the days with Jesus in the Desert, the struggle to keep watch with Him in the loneliness of the Garden, the Way of the Cross.

Cross is prelude, crucifixion is the heart and joy of the paradox.

Fulfillment is resurrection imprinted, invested, within us every time we receive Our Beloved Glorified Jesus in Holy Communion!

Wheat must be ground and fired to become bread, grape must be crushed to become wine.

This fired and crushed matter by the power of the Holy Spirit becomes Jesus, my Lord, my God, my all!

In His passion and death Jesus Himself was ground and squeezed to the last drop for love of us.

In the same letter Catherine notes the following, speaking about the weight of the battle pushing us face down to the floor, that is, of course, to be on the ground with Jesus in the Garden: “Now the grace is that you are on that floor, that you haven’t turned your back to God and walked away. That’s the grace. That’s the beginning of your growth in faith: you’re there! He was on a cross, and you are on the floor. After you get up, your soul feels like a thousand sponges that have been squeezed out, but it doesn’t matter….there comes a 'day’ when you wake up and find that a new dimension of Christ has opened itself, and now you can take some steps in His Kingdom….”