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Unlikely inspiration

30 November, 1999

Two unexpected visitors to Fr Brendan Comerford SJ are what he calls his “unlikely inspiration” for his article about Mary. Like them, she is our “unselfconscious exemplar”.

There I was looking at my diary. Yes, the day was free of engagements! Now, at last I could get down to write this long overdue reflection before the poor editor would have to make that encouraging yet challenging telephone call spiriting me into action!

All was ready: computer turned on, sitting comfortably but still facing that dreaded blank screen. At least I could type up the title; that would be some sign of progress. The next thing the phone rings. A young man (let’s call him David) at the other end: ‘Brendan, I need to see you, like right now. I just need to talk! I can be with you in ten minutes.’

‘Sure, David, okay, come along, I’m here all morning!’

That little phrase, ‘I’m here all morning’, sounded the death knell of any progress on this article at least for the morning, beyond, of course, the wonderfully creative act of writing up the title!

True to his word, David is on the doorstep within ten minutes precisely. I turn off the computer with mixed feelings of frustration and relief! Another legitimate excuse to postpone the article.

Drugs and violence
Now here I have to be careful what I write. David is a psychotherapist working with vulnerable teenagers, some of whom are caught up in the drug scene in Dublin. We all know from the media where the drug scene ends for an ever-increasing number of young men – being gunned down brutally on our streets.

Gunmen had broken into the boys’ home where David lived, searching for one of the lads. Thank God the young lad wasn’t there but that’s just for now! We can’t even begin to imagine how scared the other boys were, not to mention the staff.

Hard deal
The boys whom David tries to help are damaged psychologically and emotionally. Some come from Third World countries. Life has dealt them a very hard deal: they have had little or no experience of love, security or family beyond what the carers try to give them in the home. Some of the boys find it very difficult to trust. Who could blame them? One of them from an African country (let’s call him Nathan) saw his father actually crucified before his very eyes. Nathan is proving the most difficult.

David asked to see me because he has tried everything with Nathan – all his professional skills and caring, personal gifts. Nathan rebuffs everything and everyone. You think you’re getting somewhere with him, you arrange a course for him or a job interview and inevitably he blows it, he lets you down again.

Nathan finds a girlfriend and all is well for a week, and just when you hope against hope, he starts to beat her up with words and clenched fists. The other boys in the home are afraid of Nathan; they won’t even stay in the same room as him.

Challenging question
David’s question to me is very challenging: ‘Is there such a thing as real evil?’ Being a typical Jesuit, I answer a question by asking another: ‘Do you think that Nathan is really evil; evil personified?’

David is silent for what seems like an age and then says, ‘There are times when I almost feel that, but then there are those fleeting moments when Nathan shows the merest glimmer of a smile or he begins to sing to himself (when he thinks he’s alone!) or he’ll even start to dance around the room and he’s a very good dancer – and it’s at moments like this that I know that I just can’t give up on Nathan. There’s goodness there somewhere really fighting to get out. Maybe I’m his last hope. He won’t admit that but I just can’t give up on him.’

I was stunned into silence. Here I was, the Jesuit, the priest, the one who was supposed to be offering spiritual advice and support. I received more from David that morning than he’ll ever know. Here was a real Christian, someone who was living the daily cost of discipleship.

Remember Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question, ‘How often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?’ Jesus answers, ‘Not seven times but seventy-seven times’. In other words, there should be no limit to your forgiveness and here was David living out that very commandment at great personal cost. Here surely was a sign of Jesus right before my eyes. What had I to say to him?

David’s life was a Gospel message for me. He stayed for two hours. I found myself quite emotionally drained after his visit so I thought I’d leave this article until the afternoon.

Spiritual direction
2.30pm and back at the desk again. All ready for take off! Yes, you’ve guessed it. A ring from our receptionist to say that someone has called to see me without appointment. I sigh, go down to the receptionist only to discover someone who comes to me regularly for a spiritual chat (let’s call her Ann).

Ann apologizes for coming unannounced but wonders could she see me for a few minutes. Well, of course, the few minutes become an hour and a half. Ann has just learned that her youngest sister has been diagnosed with a very serious cancer and the chances don’t look good. Ann has already lost a brother and sister to cancer and now this! Where is God in all of this?

Ann begins to tell me all she did in the past for her late brother and sister when they were ill and now she talks of all that she will do for her youngest sister. ‘Above all,’ she says, ‘I’ll pray, I’ll pray even for a miracle and even if there isn’t a miracle, I know things will work out. God will look after her.’

What had I to say to Ann? She had shown me a depth of faith and hope in God I could only wish for myself. I thought of those words of Jesus, ‘If your faith were the size of a mustard seed’. At that moment, Ann’s faith seemed to me to be the size of a cedar of Lebanon!

I didn’t get this article written that day but David and Ann were surely signs of the Lord by word and action; surely they were guided by the word of God. Do you know what was most striking and attractive about it? They didn’t even know it themselves!

Unselfconscious exemplar
Mary is often referred to as the first Christian disciple, the model disciple, chiefly because she listened to the word of God, pondered it in her heart and lived that discipleship quietly and faithfully to the end. I like to think that Mary didn’t even know the example she gave to the rest of us and that’s why I particularly like the opening of a prayer to Mary by the former Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Joseph Cassidy:

We thank you, Mary, for your generous acceptance of God’s Word, your realization of that word in your life, for standing by your Son through .thick and thin, for your extraordinary fidelity at the foot of the Cross…. We thank you for that vulnerable, suffering side, the side we know only too well, because it brings you nearer to us all. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (May 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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