Mary, a neighbour at home died recently. She was about a year younger than me and lived three doors away, lived there most of our sixty-something lives. There are two brothers and a sister, married with their own families but Mary remained single and lived at home alone for many years since her parents died.
A solitary life, even an isolated one. No one in the avenue ever seemed to get close to her, there was no sign of friends coming to see her. We were not close, though we would always have a chat at her gate when I’d be home. The talk was mostly about her health because she had been fighting cancer for quite a few years and I would promise to pray for her. Her response to this promise of mine one day was, “you’re a liar, you’re a liar!” Maybe I wasn’t praying enough. Maybe she was telling the truth.
But I did think of her and pray when in my mind I would go around the sixteen terraced houses in the avenue and I would feel what I thought must be her loneliness, though maybe she wasn’t lonely at all.
The last time I spoke to her was in August. She had aged terribly and was pretty honest about her condition, even her aloneness. “But I’m not alone” she said, “haven’t I got God with me all the time!” It’s what Jesus Himself said of His own aloneness – “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” (John 16:32). And Padre Pio featured a lot in our conversations. She had great faith in him.
When I was home in January, I looked at her house every day wondering was she there, was she alright but there was no one to answer my questions and she wasn’t there, she was already dying in the Hospice and died a few days after I returned here. I feel the sadness of her passing and the starkness of her death notice that said nothing about her funeral except, “Private cremation to take place in Shannon Crematorium.” We felt the need to honour her life and death, to connect with the family’s grief but there was nothing, no way of doing that. And I now ask myself, “who are we that we think we should seek to enter a grief that is not ours?” The starkness of it now seems appropriate because it fits with the kind of solitude she lived. I offered Mass for her and in that there is the only connection necessary.
All of this makes me think of those who live single lives, those who are alone in the world. They are overlooked so much of the time by society and church. We value marriage, family, relationships and rightly so but we often neglect the single life which has a value in itself and is also a valid vocation from God by which the Church and the world is served and saved.
Thinking of Mary brings me back to another solitary woman who touched my life, who came as a gift one winter. I prayed for her when I was 17, having glimpsed something of her sacredness on the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt – go sell everything. Everything! Anthony heard and acted immediately on the Word. As St. Francis did later. I heard and took my time but yearned as I yearn for the sea, as I yearn for God himself and sought her out over the years, associating with many of her companions along the way. But her I did not find for forty or more years. Mahila, Lady Poverty, Sacred Poverty in Person. Beautiful Simplicity.
And then, there she was in a church on a wet January evening when the cold darkness was deep and all pervading. We didn’t speak at first and not for many an evening. I respected her solitude and her prayer. She respected mine. But in that silence we became part of each other, straining our ears, stretching our souls to grasp the loving whisperings of the Holy Spirit. She spent hours praying, sometimes sleeping like the Little Flower. There’s the photo of her before her suffering began that reminds us of the loss that she endured. We have all witnessed her suffering. She was once incredibly beautiful, as Grace Kelly was beautiful but the woman in the seat behind me bore little resemblance to the woman of the past. Life ravaged her. Stripped her of all external beauty so that she resembled the Suffering Servant who had no physical beauty to attract. Though that is not completely true because her eyes still sparkled with the unspeakable beauty that she had in her; the colours that she wore, displaying something of the colour, the liveliness that is in God.
She walked with confidence, striding through life, striding into the church, a childlike presence in there, a childlike determination. I felt the loss of her – the loss of not being able to speak to her again or hear her; no longer to see her coming from the blessed sacrament chapel when she would walk up to where I sat, coming up to speak to me or sometimes just to look at me! Steady eyes! She would go out for a smoke before Mass and wash her hands in preparation for Holy Communion.
Jesus speaks, “as father has loved me so I have loved you. Remain in my love! If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (John 15:9). Keeping His commandments! One of the commandments of Jesus that we don’t often think about as a commandment is, ”if you want to follow me you must take up your cross every day” and that is what she did. That is a command she lived. Every day she picked up the cross of her suffering and every day she emerged from her home into the world with the best of her ability and carried her cross into the church, into her prayer, everywhere – to old folks parties, to dance with them, make them happy, bringing great joy.
And I would look at her and think, here is a woman carrying a great cross and yet she has the courage to go out there and lift others up. Very, very inspiring for me! Even though there were commandments of God that she could not live by, she certainly lived the two great commandments of suffering and love. Two of the most certain paths to union with God. As my mother used to say, only Jesus is perfect! The rest of us struggle with something and our journey is to struggle through life with whatever we are given. We don’t choose the cross, the suffering we have to bear but in bearing it we discover something more precious than gold. Hidden within the suffering is the mystery of God’s presence, that most kindly of gazes by which we are seen and known.
When he looks at her he sees the child he loves with all his heart, the unspeakable love. I knew her mostly within the clearly defined boundaries of the church, occasionally meeting her outside Cafe Solo in the village, and we loved each other within those boundaries. Before Christmas she came to me in the sacristy to tell me she was going to her sister for Christmas. And she did what she never did before – she kissed me on the lips. It was the kiss of Lady poverty that I had sought all my adult life. It was the kiss of God.
On my birthday that year she collapsed into the silence that would never speak again, released into the colour of God’s love, the colour and music of it. I think of how she would burst out laughing. And all of the prayer she offered carries her home to God, to the fulfillment that her heart has desired, the love that she has needed so badly, that only God can give in the end.
About ten years ago I came to a clear understanding of how solitary I am in my own life. Gatwick airport came to shutdown during a snow storm one night and as every flight was cancelled I observed all the other passengers – some frantic – phoning home to explain the delay. Then I observed that I had no need to phone anyone because there was no one waiting for me on the other side and no one would know that I wouldn’t be home that night. I was tempted to feel a bit sorry for myself but then I refused to go down that futile road, accepting my reality which is a reality lived by many people in the world. And it’s alright! As they say in Tanzania, “Mungu yupo!” – God is here!