Seated between two strangers. Strangers to me and to each other. As the aircraft is lifting off, ascending into the late May sky, the man on my left makes the sign of the Cross as does the young woman on my right. Hers is more hurried, half hidden. I pray silently, commending all our lives into the hands of the Lord.
When it’s allowed, I open out the tray top and start writing sadness into my journal, the shock of a deep sadness that cut into me in the wake of great joy. It is something as old as Eden – where there is harmony, division will appear; where there is joy, sadness raises its head.
Henry Nouwen is able to see this in a positive way when he writes, “life and death are not opponents but do, in fact, kiss each other at every moment of our existence.” The same is true of joy and sorrow even though I find this hard to embrace. But I have noticed how Mary Magdalene’s fidelity to her grief only helped to intensify her experience of the risen Lord. Again, Henry Nouwen writes, “Celebration can only really come about where fear and love, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles can exist together.”
Knowing this doesn’t lessen the sadness and it’s good to write, to put it out and down on paper. Not keep it bottled up! See it in context, the context of the wider and deeper traumas of life. When I witness the broken bodies of the sick and elderly waiting in line for anointing, I become aware again that we make too much fuss about things that are ultimately less important.
When I had finished writing, as I was closing the journal, the man on my left said,
“You’re a lovely writer!” I sensed he had been watching me.
“Not as good as it was. I have a bit of a tremor now.” I replied
“Are you an author?” asked the young lady of my right.
“No” said I, “but I like writing. I blog a bit.”
“What do you write about?” she asked
“Life. And a bit of poetry.”
“My father wrote poems” the man said. “He wrote a lovely poem to my mother for their 25th anniversary. We only found it after she died.”
“So, do you write?” I asked
“No” he said, “I wouldn’t be good at anything like that. My brother writes a bit.”
“Do you write? I asked the young lady.
“Yes, I write songs and some poetry, and I play the piano. I released two of my own songs. They’re a bit sad.”
“Mine are sometimes sad too” I said. “My brother Harry is a musician and writer. His music is on Spotify.”
And so, the three of us continued to converse like that – three exiles of a sort coming back from home to England. John, Sinead, and me. Electrician, singer-songwriter, priest. Sadness and introverted silence were lifted, to be replaced by the joy of encountering strangers.
I was taken out of myself, while they have entered into me, and I will hold them in prayer. John told how his marriage was on the rocks and he doesn’t really understand why. Sinead told me where to find her music, which I did later and what a beautiful voice she has.
It struck me that this experience is an example of how the Holy Spirit operates. Like when the disciples were locked in the upper room, locked in their sadness, fear and confusion. It was into that place, the reality of it, that the risen Jesus came. Into the same space came the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, transforming them all, bringing them out of the place and out of themselves into the life of the Gospel, into the lives of those who would hear them.
The Ryanair flight was our upper room, our cenacle in that hour. We were visited by the Holy Spirit from on high. We were good news to each other. Sadness would return but the experience on flight FR116 reminded me of a lesson learned many years ago in Argentina.
I had gone through a difficult meeting and, feeling bruised and sorry, I sat in the back garden in letting the sun warm me. Tommy, who was about three years old, stood watching from a distance and when he felt it was safe he approached and started chatting. I have no Spanish and he no English, so it was a childlike conversation that drew me out of myself.
He opened his little book to show me a picture of the Annunciation and I wished its joy would happen for me then. But it did not, and I was not up to it.
Later in the evening I was praying the sorrowful mysteries when the Angelus bell rang and it struck me that I was experiencing a collision, a mingling of sorrow with joy – that the joy of Annunciation was trying to break into my sorrow. And I chose to accept this strange mingling. It has happened many times since that, while praying the sorrowful mysteries, the Angelus bell would ring. The Angel of the Lord is always declaring the Good News and we are asked to receive it.
When we come to the seasons of the Spirit we have expectations that our lives will match the season in its time – sorrow in Holy week, joy at Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas – but it does not always work like that. Human life, life in the Spirit is not a neatly packaged thing.
The Holy Spirit who came upon Mary at the Annunciation, upon the Disciples at Pentecost, upon us in Baptism and Confirmation – is a Spirit whose direction we cannot predict or control. Mary surrendered her life to the movement of the Spirit and as a result she entered into her time of expectancy.
The expectant mother does not know who her child will be and, even if today she can know the child’s gender, she does not know what the child will look like or be like. And when the child is born she and her husband are surprised by joy. And as the child grows they are constantly surprised and amazed by the person emerging before their eyes.
What spoils the life of a child sometimes is that parents move from expectancy to expectation. They have expectations of what the child should become and sometimes push the child in the direction of their own expectations.
Expectations are narrow and defined and sometimes harsh. We do it to each other all the time and when someone doesn’t live up to our expectations of them we become disappointed, even angry.
Expectancy is open, always open to the surprises that emerge in life. The expectant person is one who waits and is open to the joy that can enter into sorrow, open to what God can do in any moment. Open to it, waiting for it and ready.
The Gospel at Mass for Thursday before Ascension was very appropriate, giving meaning to what often leaves us baffled.
‘I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.’ (John 16:20)
Amen to that!