VAYA CON DIOS, GO WITH GOD – Remembering Father Michael Clarke

The view of the Clyde from Michael’s room in Greenock

You have kept an account of my tossing, a record of my tears. Are they not written in your book?

(Psalm 56:8)

Divine Mercy Sunday with the sun setting behind Bulverhythe Beach as I turn for home, word comes that Michael is very ill with an infection that he might not pull out of. He has been ill for more than forty years. We have been close friends longer than that and there have been times when we were sure he was going to die, prepared ourselves for it. He has always rallied. But he might not rally now and I ache to see him, an ache that cannot be relieved because of the coronavirus. They are in lockdown and I cannot risk being the bearer of the virus.

O Christ, do you roll yourself into a ball within me and I roll myself into a ball within you? A ball of pain, regret, neglect and guilt. A ball of love and friendship. A great big ball of sorrow that he will die and I will not see him again in this world.

The regret, neglect and guilt that is in me stems from the fact that I didn’t go to see him often enough, didn’t phone him and, while there are reasons, these reasons are not enough either.

In him I have been “a witness to the sufferings of Christ” – a truly hidden life, a hiddenness that is not glamorous and a spiritual life that has no false piousness in it. It is earthed, real and raw. In its presence there is mostly peace, especially when we pray together – the Divine Office, the Rosary, Divine Mercy and the Mass which is the summit of all prayer.

The intercessions made by him and his sister reach far beyond their own needs. In fact, they don’t pray for themselves at all. Instead their attention is focused on the poor, the homeless, the unborn, those who are trafficked. There seems to be in them no questioning of God in the way that is common nowadays. The words of Jesus apply to them, “blessed are those who do not lose faith in me.” Fidelity is a hallmark of who they are.

We would talk about the serious and threatening issues that have marked our world so painfully. We would pray about these again and again and then we would talk about music, football and family and find something to laugh at, laughter that would send his body into spasm.

The last time I saw him over a year ago there was real sadness in our parting as if this might be our last time. I see the sadness in his face, feel it in my heart but neither of us speak of it. We only speak fond words of blessing and farewell. His favourite being “Vaya con Dios! God bless!”

When I returned home from my walk at the end of an agonized Monday, I found that someone had put a bunch of daisies through my letterbox. And while my letterbox is probably too high for a child, daisies are the flowers of children and I think of Roxy on a sunny afternoon making daisy chains across the street. The daisies are a gift from someone and they are a sign from God. My prayer for Michael in these days that he knows the joy – even in suffering – of being a child in God’s garden gathering daisies for the sheer pleasure of it.

Michael died quietly on Thursday April 23rd as the last hymn was being sung at Mass on EWTN. For more than thirty years, confined to his bed in Greenock, Scotland, with Multiple Sclerosis, he has followed that Mass faithfully every day, listening to the readings and prayers, speaking the words of consecration himself over the bread and wine that were placed near his bed. To participate with him in the Eucharist was like being present at Calvary and I’m pleased that he should go home to the House of God at such an appropriate time.

Again, because of the virus none of us will be able to go to his funeral, a great sadness for us as his Pallottine friends and brothers. Sad that we cannot be a support to his family at this time.

And though I am truly glad for him, I am selfishly sad as I sit in the isolation of my sitting room looking out at the beauty of the East Hill. The no-one-ness of my life right now. Not having anyone to hug me, not being able to hug. In normal times I could go across the street to a neighbour to get a hug but the virus has removed us from what is normal.

Michael and I met first in September 1972 when I entered the Pallottine community in Thurles. He was the only one not wearing a Religious Habit and I wondered about him because I hadn’t seen him on the two occasions that I had visited the community when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. And he was different in every way to everyone else – he was Scottish, very handsome, cool looking, smoking a cigarette and a bit of a rebel, radical, leaning to the left. That was before I knew anything about politics. I was seventeen and he twenty-four. We had nothing in common. And he was a very good footballer. I was not.

My first memory of us becoming friendly with each other was about three years later, maybe even four and it happened over my radio. I had an old wooden wireless that picked up stations all over the world. Don’t know where or how I got it but he would come to my room on Saturday afternoons to listen to sport on BBC. And maybe it was after he became ill that we really became close, became very close for the rest of his life. He became part of my family.

After his ordination in 1976 he spent a short time in England but when his multiple sclerosis deteriorated dramatically he was unable to continue in public ministry and ended up back in Ireland, first in Dundrum and then back in Thurles where we were together for the last few years of my time in formation up until my ordination in 1980. These early years of his illness were very distressing, the utter frustration for him as he gradually lost control of his body. Though still he managed to enjoy himself. We enjoyed some very good times together.

Having spent a year in Rome and five in Tanzania I too was back in Thurles until his mother brought him home to Scotland in 1988 after he had become completely incapacitated and was confined to bed. She thought he was close to death and wanted that to happen at home, which is what most mothers would want. None of us realized that he would live another thirty-two years.

The care he received at home was exceptional – both from his family and his carer – and way beyond what he would have received in hospital or in a care home. It became clear to me that his vocation was something his family shared in very intimately. The two were inseparable and it cost all involved nothing less than everything. I started going over to visit him and the family once a year or so, sometimes more, sometimes less. He had other friends who were more faithful than I but I think I did my best. We had great times and difficult times, highs and lows that were all part of the intimacy of our friendship. I can say that we loved each other, though I don’t think we ever said as much in words. We were brothers.

In the early years we could spend all night talking, telling each other everything, though in more recent years we kept more sensible hours but we still told each other everything until silence became the greater communication between us, a silence that led us deeper into prayer.

As the years progressed Michael became more and more peaceful, the frustrations of his illness replaced by an inspiring surrender. He is the third of our generation to die in less than a year, such deaths leave their particular kind of mark on us and, while it is good for them to be gone to the House of God, the bed of Heaven, we are left with a deeper human loneliness that in the life of celibacy can only be filled and will ultimately be filled by God.

Some people suggested in the past that it would have been a mercy to end Michael’s life, to take him out of the years of suffering. He himself objected in the strongest possible terms to such a solution because he had an unshakeable respect for the gift of life and for God who alone is the author of all life. He had his desolation, as desolate as that of Christ on the Cross, a desolation that brought him to the very edge but his life, mission and priesthood had its meaning in that very Cross of Christ to which he was intimately united. He who bore the Cross may now wear the Crown.

Sleep well dear Michael and may all our beloved brothers rest in eternal peace. Amen!

Eamonn Monson sac