INTOXICATING ORDINATION: Pondering Priesthood 40 Years On – Eamonn Monson SAC

“Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty – for the past must only be reflected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” 

(Dag Hammarskjöld)
When the Congregation has gone home after Mass in Hastings, the feeling is one of having lived well.

Ordination was intoxicating. It put a pep in my step, a smile on my face, tears in my eyes. All my life I was getting ready for it, having wanted to be a priest from my earliest memory but, when it came, how ill-prepared I was, how distracted and full of myself. Ordination caught me off guard, overwhelmed me, knocked me off my feet. And why wouldn’t it because it’s not just a major event, it is as close an encounter with God as you can get. Close encounters with God are overwhelming, sometimes devastating. It takes time to regain your balance.

Elizabeth and Hyacinth come to mind from the comedy series, the name of which escapes me. Elizabeth nervously holding the precious china cup and saucer, trembling in her hands and sometimes I think even falling to the floor. It seemed that priesthood was like that in my hands, trembling, falling, breaking until I learned late in life that it is not me who holds the cup. It is God who holds me. I wrote this some years ago:

The Cup

Can you drink
The cup? He asked

How simply sincere
The yes of youth

And sure the hands
That take the cup

Holding it to my lips
Mouth to mouth

Communion adoration
Drinking of its sacrificed

Service

Thinking nothing of the cost
In the greatness of my loving

It takes time
To become what we drink

And becoming takes its toll

Uncertain feet stumble
Weakening hands tremble

The cup falls
Spilling out emptied

And I am nothing
To myself but a bare
Naked trusting

That I am the cup
Held in His hands

A vessel fit for lofty use
Dedicated to the Master

Ready for every good

As I have been pondering the 40 years that I have lived as a priest I have asked God to let me see it through His eyes rather than my own – Jesus looks steadily, honestly and filled with love while I am tuned to see the black spots and exaggerate them, turning them into the major part of the story. The story that carried me from Mervue to Thurles to Rome, Tanzania, giving retreats all around Ireland, formation in Dundrum, the years as Provincial, Shankill, Pilgrimages to Lourdes and around Dublin, Radio Maria and now Hastings. My greatest love was in giving retreats. It was then that I felt most alive but that has gone from me now and there is no desire in me to return to it. For now it seems that I have come home in a country not of my birth and the last nine years both in Shankill and Hastings have been the happiest of my life. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives in ordinary homes – these give the life of a priest its most balanced context. They are my joy.

So, how does God see these years of my life? The eyes of the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal give us an idea of how He sees both sons, the faithful and the unfaithful. He runs to the returning son, clasps him in his arms, kisses him tenderly; and reminds the older one of this beautiful and tender reality, “my son you are with me always and all I have is yours…” I believe this on both counts. I am both faithful and unfaithful. The details are not all laid out on the table, the nitty gritty are not picked over by the Father. It is enough that we are home, safe and sound and free.

Ours is an incarnate religion, Word made flesh, God experienced in what is human – blood, sweat, tears; flesh, blood and bone; heart and soul and mind. So, if I am looking for the eyes of God and how He might be regarding my life, then I turn to those who know me best and yet still can see the best in me. And I turn to the community in which I am living now.

Last Saturday evening I was asked by a parishioner to come out my front door because there were people who wanted to see me but I never expected what I went out into – quite a large gathering of parishioners standing across the road in family clusters, up and down the street, at a safe distance from me. They had come to clap for me in the way that we have been clapping for the frontline workers during this coronavirus pandemic. The sight and the sound were astonishing, clapping and cheering as they did with all their might, shouting, “we love you” when I broke down in tears, finding it hard to talk.

And I realize now that they are the eyes of God, the prophetic eyes that I have been seeking. Through their eyes, what they see in me is somehow what God sees, a seeing that is felt and I cannot ignore the impact it is having on me. I saw it in Shankill three years ago and believed it then, felt it but on that occasion all our eyes were focused on departure. It was the vision of departure which heightens all our feelings, intensifies our tears and leads us into grief. The eyes of Saturday evening were focused on remaining, on what is present, acknowledging it, celebrating it. God sees us all through each other’s eyes, feels us through each other’s hearts. And though I returned to the solitary celebration of my 40th anniversary, I was emotionally held by this community that God has given me, as I am given to them.

We are getting ready now for the opening of our church doors next week and, though the timing of it has caught me off guard, I am delighted and excited. It wasn’t meant to happen until July and now it’s happening on June 15th. There are all sorts of opinions about the closure in the first place but I tend to live in reality as it is, finding God in that reality. It is the mountain we have been given to climb, the Camino in which we have been called to walk, the desert into which the Holy Spirit has driven us, a pilgrimage not of our own making, the Way that makes and shapes us, preparing us for the future that is unfolding now. Christ is the Way. We travel together even in our solitude, as even in our companionship we remain somewhat alone. It is a wonderful thing to have been called to this.

The embrace of community in Shankill

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