Based on sermons from the Sunday readings, this book encourages us to appreciate the presence of God revealed in our experience through an eclectic range of literature, Scripture, modern poetry and prose.
176pp., Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
A fragile kingdom
THINGS FALL APART
‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned…’
Aware of an emptiness
‘While the world is full of troubles…’
Grace or gravity?
THE PITY OF IT ALL
One week in August
‘Places where the Spirit dies…’
A shaft of light on the debris of life
‘Am I going to die?’
Accumulating silent things within us first day at school
The banality of evil
FINDING THE SACRED
The diviner and the woman at the well
The magician’s cap
The dying fire
God our mother
A kingdom divided against itself
The sign of the Cross
The world will be saved by beauty
The hospitality of Christ
The spider’s web
‘Better to light a candle…’
THE DIGNITY OF LIFE
The Via Crucis
The open door
‘I was a stranger…’
Moth in Waterloo
The bird’s nest
The cradle of trust
The far side of revenge
Achilles and Priam
Wounding the heart of Christ
Why the worm?
Dante and Beatrice
Water: between life and death
The Christmas child
The gift of the Eucharist
David and the slaves
The tears of St Peter
Christ the teacher
The kiss of Christ
THINGS FALL APART
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
W.B.Yeats, The Second Coming
‘Giotto, Giotto…'(The Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time , Year C)
On 26 September 1997 two earthquakes devastated parts of central Italy. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the Apennine hills and it caused greatest damage in Assisi and several other towns close by. The cathedrals of Orvieto, Urbino, Bevagna and Fabriano were damaged in the earthquake, suffering cracks and fractures in their stonework. The worst damage, however, was sustained in Assisi. At the Basilica of Saint Francis the vaulted ceiling collapsed when the walls buckled and the 700-year-old frescoes fell from their great height crushing four people. Along with two Franciscan friars who were killed an art restorer was crushed beneath the very stones he loved. The woman in charge of the restoration, stood a few days later inside the basilica in tears, lifting scraps of plaster and repeating with reflective sadness: ‘Giotto, Giotto…’
I had been to Italy for the first time a year before the earthquake. I had visited Assisi and remember the uphill walk to the wonderful basilica. I remember the feeling of awe when I looked up inside the church at the marvelous cycle of frescoes by Giotto. Here was something permanent, I thought, something eternal in its beauty, something beyond the vicissitudes of time. I felt assured by the beauty of the frescoes, reassured by their age. Here were paintings that moved me, that spoke to me about faith, simplicity, love and trust; in this sense they were personal, assuring my own faith. In another sense, however, they were beyond me in time, part of a bigger picture, something that had been before me and would last beyond me. Their age reassured me of something greater than myself, of a mystery of which I was only a part, of a kingdom beyond the limits of this world, beyond my own.
I was shocked when I learned late in September 1997 that the frescoes had fallen from the ceiling of the basilica as a result of the earthquake. I thought of the devastation that the people of Assisi must have felt. I thought of the families who had lost loved ones in the tragedy, of the Franciscan friars who lost two of their community, and of those who loved Giotto whose work had returned to dust. I thought of those frescoes, of how they had assured and reassured me not so long before. I thought of it as a kind of apocalypse, some terrible ending, of a world bereft of permanence. What was art for if it didn’t last, if it was mortal too? The earthquake in Assisi seemed to point up an obvious yet somehow forgotten fact. We feel that great art somehow lays a claim to immortality – that the pyramids will always stand in the burning desert; that the Mona Lisa will smile enigmatically forever, and that the Parthenon will always stand guard over Athens. And yet when art as old and as taken for granted as the frescoes in Assisi returns to bricks and mortar it reminds us of our mortality too. Art, in imitation of life, is also mortal:
When some were talking about the Temple, remarking how it was adorned with fine stonework and votive offerings, he said, ‘all these things you are staring at now – the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed’… Then he said to them, ‘Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven’ (Lk 21:5-6, 10-11).
I thought of Christ’s prophecy when I learned about the tragedy in Assisi. I thought of the fear it must have instilled in those who took his words literally. The Temple was at the heart of the Jewish faith, something permanent, the most sacred place. Christ’s prophecy was bold for those who could not see that he was talking about his own death. But even as Christ prophesises the end of this world he hints at the creation of a new world when we will win our lives again by endurance:
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and” friends; and some of you will be put to death. You will be hated by all men on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. Your endurance will win you your lives (Lk 21:16-19).
On 26 September 2002, exactly five years after the earthquake that devastated so much of Assisi, a series of restored ceiling and wall frescoes were unveiled in the Basilica of Saint Francis. Five years of patient endurance had restored the fragments to their former glory. It is our belief that Christ will restore the fragments of our lives in glory at the Resurrection.
‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’ (The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B)
A few years ago I drove to a rural parish to hear the first confessions of boys from the local primary school. On the way I was slowed up in traffic and for the few minutes that I sat there I watched a group of about twenty young lambs playing on the slope of a nearby field. And I felt a surge of happiness at this beautiful ceremony of innocence being played out as the sun was setting over the nearby river. And I thought of it again as I watched about sixty small boys of eight make their way to confession for the first time, their uniforms immaculate, and their souls too, except for small sins that they confessed with such innocence and honesty. Probably never again in their lives, I thought, will they make a confession as innocent as this. Because for all their little sins the ceremony of first confession is itself a great ceremony of innocence and it seemed to me as if the playfulness of those young children and those young lambs were one and the same. And it seemed too, no accident that Christ should have presented himself as the Lamb of God.
When I left the parish to make my way home the sun had set and the only reflections of the river now were the distant lights of home. And as the darkness closed in, the lights in a distant city reminded me of another image set in my mind from that time – the lights of Baghdad and the blitzing of that city by coalition bombs in March 2003. The live coverage of the war in Iraq by the media seemed to bring a city and its people, thousands of miles away, right onto our very doorsteps. I thought of children, the same age as those in the small parish in County Tyrone with the same innocence, being drowned in suffering. And I thought of a third ceremony of innocence, this time in Yeats’s The Second Coming, where he prophesised, in a time of Civil War in Ireland, a terrible culture of violence:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned… (1)
There is a fourth ceremony of innocence in a story from the Gospel of John. Christ, the innocent lamb, faces his impending suffering and death. Even John, who fails to mention Christ’s agony in the garden because he wants to show Jesus in full control of the situation, is forced to have Jesus say that he is afraid:
Anyone who loves his life loses it;
Anyone who hates his life in this world
Will keep it for the eternal life.
If a man serves me, he must follow me,
Wherever I am, my servant will be there too.
If anyone serves me, my Father will honour him.
Now my soul is troubled.
What shall I say:
Father, save me from this hour?
But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.
Father, glorify your name! (Jn 12:25-28)
The other evangelists are probably much more honest when they present Christ as terrified and in great doubt and agony. It is a Christ, I think, that we can relate to more easily. It was as if, when watching live coverage of the war in Iraq, we were living the passion story in our own time. There is something about bombings and shootings that keep the reality of suffering from our eyes, but a close study of the faces of children fleeing Baghdad in the back of trucks gave us, if only for a minute, a sense of terror, an image of suffering and a glimpse of hell. There is a temptation to despair when anarchy is unleashed upon the world; even Christ knew that. But there is another reality, another world that gives us hope. Suffering and violence, even on a global scale, do not have and cannot have the last word. It would do all of us good to reflect on the thoughts of St Augustine who lived through the collapse of the Roman Empire sixteen hundred years ago. Augustine reminded us in his book City of God that we have on earth no lasting city. We are called as followers of Christ to build up God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of truth, love, justice and peace. The search for the kingdom will bring us great suffering, it will call us to challenge all injustice, to free those who are oppressed. We must be obedient to the will of Christ as Christ was to his Father’s. St Paul tells us that Christ becomes, for all who obey him, the source of eternal salvation. Christ’s victory and his revolution were founded on selfless love. His victory is our victory too. It is the victory of all who suffer and, first and foremost, it is the victory of children who suffer. Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Every act of love, every time we stand against violence and speak up for those with no voice, we restore something of the ceremony of innocence.
Aware of an Emptiness (The Ascension of the Lord, Year C)
Over the last few years as the revelations of cases of clerical child sexual abuse emerged I found myself searching for something permanent in my priesthood to cling to. I became preoccupied for a time, perhaps in a self-indulgent sense, with the disintegration I sensed around me – disintegration of children’s lives, of people’s faith, of my own sure sense of who I was or who I wanted to be. I was accused by some of exaggeration in my analysis and focus, of a lack of proportion, of a mindset that was unnecessarily negative and even despairing. For all the reassuring words of many many friends, colleagues and parishioners I felt a terrible isolation in my mind and in my vocation. The more I read of the pain inflicted on innocent children the more I doubted the innate goodness of people, the perceived innate goodness of the priesthood. I felt like the bruised reed or wavering flame of Isaiah, as if at any minute I might be crushed by one more sadness.
Eventually I was able to begin to articulate how I felt by reading a short story by William Trevor called ‘Justina’s Priest’. The story begins with Justina making her confession to Father Clohessy. He is aware of her innocence, her handicap, and that she was intellectually immature for her age. He reflects on the contradiction of this sinless girl making her confession and despite the unnecessary act Father Clohessy is moved by Justina. She reveals in her innocence something that has been lost to Father Clohessy’s Church, at least the Church as he knew it. Now that the grandeur of his Church has gone, his vocation within it is described as ‘bleak’. He is angry when he preaches because he doesn’t know what to say to his parishioners anymore, and stumbling from word to word, he searches for ways to disguise his distress. There is a sense in the midst of all of this that Justina is his salvation, at least that her innocence is. After she leaves the confessional Father Clohessy watches her walk down the church, dip her fingers in the holy water and leave. ‘The door of the church closed soundlessly behind her and Father Clohessy was aware of an emptiness, of something taken £rom him.’ (2)
My experience of priesthood in the last number of years resonates with such loss. At times I have felt somewhat threadbare, as if everything I had known and loved was beginning to unravel, that with each revelation of abuse the pattern of my priesthood was fading and that holes were showing where once there had been colour. I recall thinking of how fragile it all was, how vulnerable. As a young boy I had grown up in a Church that was strong, respected and solid. There was a permanence that attached itself to the Church. It was trusted and people needed it; it was necessary. Something of that permanence attracted me as a teenager and I was sure that this is what I wanted to devote my life to. But within three years of my time in Maynooth it seemed as if a thread had come loose and over the next ten years each revelation of abuse seemed to pull at the fabric that had once seemed permanent.
In the context of a feeling of deprivation and isolation I read and stayed with the readings for the feast of the Ascension. I thought of Christ’s disciples and how they must have felt when he told them that he was leaving them:
‘So you see how it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to this. And now I am sending down to you what the Father has promised. Stay in the city then, until you are clothed with the power from on high.’
Then he took them out as far as the outskirts of Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. Now as he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven (Lk 24:46-52).
Christ’s disciples looked for permanence too. At the Transfiguration they wanted to build three tents. Throughout the gospel stories they are in denial of Christ’s future suffering. Christ is constantly reminding them that he must suffer so as to rise from the dead. At various times the disciples must have felt that their own world was unraveling, not least when Christ was subjected to such a violent death. These were men who had left everything to follow him and who must have felt at times as if they had made a mistake. But they stayed with Christ even after his death. Before his Ascension, Christ had warned the disciples that it was not for them to know times or dates that the Father had decided by his own authority:
‘. . . but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1 :8).
There is much that is fragile about life and there is much that is fragile about the Church, but we might take encouragement from Paul’s advice to the Hebrews:
‘Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is faithful’ (10:23).
1. Edited and annotated by A. Norman Jeffares, Yeats’s Poems (Papermac, 1989) pp.294-5
2. William Trevor, A Bit on the Side (Penguin, 2004) p.40.