“…the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty…”DH Lawrence
“You’re out early!” said a surprised James as he ran past me on the seafront. 7.17 on a beautiful, sunny morning. It’s not me at all, not like me to be out so early and this is the third morning in a row. I’m surprised by myself!!!
And I was surprised to see a hawk-like bird on High Street as I was starting out on my walk. It was lifting off the footpath with a pigeon in its claws. Startled by my arrival, it dropped its prey, swooped down and dropped it again before perching on the roof of a house. Suddenly an intermingled flock of seagulls and pigeons went ballistic, circling round and round, flapping and screeching with all their might until the predator fled and the unfortunate prey lay dead on the ground.
Surprises! Yesterday I took to cleaning the sacristy after the tumult of the week that had just passed when my eye attended to the control panel of the church bell that had fallen silent during a storm five years ago. We never managed to get it going again but something in me took hold of the manual, followed the instructions time and time again. Nothing was happening until suddenly the bell tolled manually. I was like a child with delight! And a surprised text message came from Vince, “I just heard a bell. Was it the Angelus? Is it fixed?” He had heard it on the West Hill in the storm that was blowing outside.
I had to wait until 6pm to see if the automatic programme was working and so it did. The Angelus rang at 6pm. I laughed and I thanked God and Barnabas my Guardian Angel who I had asked to get the thing working. Barnabas is sometimes very effective!
Busy in the sacristy I heard loud voices in the church. A very drunk woman and a younger man who was striding through the sanctuary towards the tabernacle with a tulip in his hand. “You can’t be up there” I said to him “but you are very welcome to pray.” He came down and shook my hand and I helped the woman light a candle, leaving them there to pray in whatever way they could.
I heard them leave, but a while later they returned again to break the silence. After a few moments I went into the church because the woman was shouting very foul language. She strode down the aisle from the altar to the exit and was gone again. It was only a while later I noticed that the altar cloth had been disturbed and my heart sank to see that the crucifix on the altar was missing. Another kind of surprise and not the kind one would want. Theft has a strange effect.
And then I thought of Job who said, “the Lord gave, the Lord has taken back. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” The Lord had given me the bell and He had somehow taken the Crucifix.
But I will still search for it.
Absence. We notice it on special days when we gather together. Like Easter. The empty space, the unoccupied chair – at home, in the church. There are those who, for various good reasons, cannot be present and those who are simply not. They have left and they are missed and we carry a certain burden of blame, a feeling of having failed in some way.
I think of all the young families who were once enthusiastically part of this church community whose children grew up to be teenagers and into a culture that will not allow them to be the Christians that they are. And their parents disappear with them. Maybe it’s that they got what they wanted – a coveted place in a Catholic Secondary School. And maybe that’s all they wanted in the first place. But I feel I have failed them and failed the Church.
People are sometimes surprised to hear that the next generations of my own family have no connection with Church – except that they want me to do their weddings and baptise their babies. And they have great love and respect for me but I feel that I have failed them too for having had no influence on their spiritual or faith lives. The culture in which they live is the most powerful of influences. For now at least.
But in times like Holy Week and Easter, all of these have to be left behind, let go of and I am drawn to attend to the presence of all who are here. Presence becomes greater than absence. Presence becomes my true home. Star of the Sea is my true home, the place where I am fully alive, the people with whom I find fulfilment and meaning, with whom and for whom I become exhausted with a happy exhaustion.
The movie ‘The Priest of Love’ is about the life of DH Lawrence who has nothing to do with priest as we know it and nothing obvious to do with Christianity or any religion. But there is a moment in it when he sees the sun rising over the Santa Fe desert in New Mexico and he says of it, “something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”
Something stood still in my soul. And I started to attend.
The hotter-than-Greece weather we were promised for Easter spectacularly failed to materialize. Instead, a cold fog crept in from the sea, followed by rain.
The eagle-like royalty, the magnificence of which DH Lawrence speaks was provided by us the people within the embrace of this safe haven that is our beautiful church of St. Mary Star of the Sea. Here was the brilliant, vibrant morning of love and faith and life that caused me to attend, a church bursting at the seams that made my soul stand still, even in the rush and surge of it all. It surpasses every loss and every absence.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
And the final surprise that I will speak of came after the 11.30am Mass when Claire Gilbert gave me a copy of her new book ‘I Julian’ which is being launched today, April 13th. A beautiful, moving and inspiring work of imagination that tells the life of Julian of Norwich. On many a page it feels like Claire has written of my own interior life. And how honoured I am that the dedication of the book reads:
“For Sean, always and Father Eamonn…”