Monday, September 6, 2010

The Searching Heart

It was a warm summer evening when the taxi pulled up outside the presbytery in a London suburb. A woman about sixty years of age rushed out, her face flushed as she greeted the Irish visitor. "Oh heavens above, I'm so sorry, there has been a terrible mix up. Your room is already taken." The grey haired lady introduced herself as Claudia Winston. "Please do come to my home, there is no one there as my two sons are away for the summer. I'm a widow and would be glad to have company. The talks for the month on the spiritual life & new evangelisation will begin as scheduled for nine in the morning. Let’s go to my house now, it’s just around the corner. I’ll show you around the centre in the morning.”

Catherine woke up to a continual drone of distant traffic. As she lay there, she looked at a hand painting on the wall opposite her. She studied the young Geisha girl, dressed in Madam Butterfly costume, sitting on the lawn under a willow tree, holding an open hand fan over her white face. Above the painting a scroll cloth with Japanese writing left her intrigued. To the left of her bed, a corner book shelf containing four rows of books caught her attention. She leaned over and let her fingers trail along the titles until she stopped at a slim book of essays. Sitting up she opened the front page and read down the awarded titles. 'Snow Edward Winston…page seven.’ She turned the pages to the titled essay written by Claudia’s son and skirted over the paragraphs until she stopped half way. "…I drove deep into the countryside. The beauty of nature whispered to me, almost beckoning me to learn silence, to know solitude. I stopped driving and got out, the click of the car door, the only sound; I remained standing there, beneath the umbrella of an aisle of trees. Suddenly the softest, whitest snow flakes floated dreamily over me and then onto my face and shoulders. Purity of untouched beauty sang her song and no one could interrupt my memories, my sorrowful regrets...." "Good morning!" Catherine jumped, startled as Claudia arrived in with a tray of tea and toast. "Oh, I'm so sorry; I didn't expect you to bring breakfast up to me,” the house guest apologised. "No trouble at all. You needed to rest after the long journey. Why not join me in the garden for a second cup of tea before we get moving?"

Claudia spoke with pride about her two children, their high academic achievements and their plans. “My husband died in an accident seven years ago so it hasn’t been easy.” She began clearing the table before taking out some bread and cheese. Catherine was not quite sure whether the well spoken elite English accent by her hostess was a naturally inherited one, or one that was acquired through practice. Somehow the latter seemed to be the case as Claudia slapped on margarine between two slices of brown bread, before adding processed cheese topped with Yorkshire relish sauce. "What ministry do you work in?" Catherine asked as she sipped her tea. "I’m a Eucharistic Minister for those who can't attend church, due to illness, but I’m also involved in the prayer group ministry, a core team of six who pray with people. I think I am called to be involved in praying for men with homosexual problems." "Why do you feel called to homosexual ministry?" her guest asked, surprised at the self selected choice of ministry. "I think my son Edward is gay. I find him quite difficult. Edward is an accountant. He came first in his exams. Now my other son, Stephen is wonderful. He has just finished college and has started work as a marketing consultant." Sandwiches wrapped, she picked up her Bible, and then checked her lipstick with her pocket mirror. "Well, my dear, let's go and meet the rest of the group.”

It was Wednesday evening, into the third week of her stay in London, when the phone rang. "Why didn't you tell me you were returning home? You were supposed to be in Japan until September?" The strained edge in Claudia's raised voice was a sudden change to her guest. "Alright, I will collect you but you should have told me." She replaced the phone receiver abruptly. “That was my son; he is at Heathrow airport and wants me to collect him. This is very inconvenient," she said to Catherine with an angry expression on her face. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

The sound of voices drifted up the corridor. Catherine sat on the bed, drumming her fingers on her lap, wondering if she should stay there for a while and let Claudia have time with her son. Suddenly the bedroom door opened. The young Irish woman was so taken aback she was unable to find her voice, as the tall sandy haired, handsome man looked down at her sitting there. In an unexpected gentle manner, which touched the heart of Catherine, he smiled and extended his hand. "I'm Edward.” “I'm so sorry.” She stood up. “There was a mix up in accommodation and your mom...." "No, please don't explain. It's perfectly alright. My room was not exactly prepared for a guest, though!" Catherine looked to the right and left of where she stood and said in a whisper, "I'm in your room?" "Oh dear," Claudia interrupted, arriving at the door; "I forgot about this and meant to give you the other room."

The strain and tension between mother and son was rapidly growing as the three adults sat down to dinner. Claudia spoke to her son in a manner that was curt and somewhat cold. He became awkward at the table and suddenly shy. “He does not look twenty nine years old,” Catherine thought as he turned to speak to his mom. “He looks so much older and wiser, and perhaps much too experienced in the ways of the world for me to know.” The young Japanese lady came to mind as she looked at him again. Aware of her simple cotton summer dress, with her hair tied back in a rolled knot, she saw her self as a very ordinary woman. “Someone who must look suitable for convent entry,” she thought to herself smiling, but content in her own freedom. He was looking at her again, almost as if he read her thoughts and smiled back at her, a glimpse of amusement in his eyes. Tensions grew as mother and child ran out of conversation. Catherine wanted to ask about Japan. "I think the Japanese women are known for their gracious manner and their delicate beauty, would that be true?" she asked Edward, as Claudia poured his coffee. His face lit up as the conversation turned to Japan and he began to chat with an obvious affection for the Japanese people. Claudia suddenly stood up and said she had to visit a friend so did not have time to linger. Taking her Bible from the hall table, she walked out. Edward put down his coffee cup and stared at the table cloth for some moments before excusing himself. Upstairs the bedroom door shut with a bang and a sad silence filled the house.

"Good morning." Catherine opened her eyes and looked up to see Edward standing at the open patio doors in his faded wrangler jeans, a coffee cup in his hand, his hair still wet from the shower. "Do you usually stand there and watch people while they are praying?" she asked, a little self conscious. "No, but I am intrigued by your arrival here. Why do you pray?" he asked, pulling up another sun chair beside the rose bush. "When you want to know someone, when you feel something special in their friendship, you want to be with them, right? For me, to pray is to be with God," she replied, finding herself at ease with his gentle presence. "Mom told me on the way home from the airport that you have lived like a hermit for the past ten years, is this true?" he asked directly. "Not like a hermit, but maybe a semi-hermit, yes." "So did you go to university before that?" "No." "Why not?" he asked, a desperate curiosity racing through his thoughts. "They can’t teach the interior life in university, they can’t teach what I wanted to know," she smiled. "Which is...?" he waited. "Which are the things of God. There is the knowledge of experience and the experience of knowledge. There is the spirituality of the heart.” Edward looked intently at the young woman sitting beside him. He was enamoured by her peaceful disposition, her detachment from so much, including his mother. He was drawn to her obvious love affair with heaven and the beauty of the divine, which he sensed from her. But most of all he sensed in her a love that carried justice, a love still young. His gaze upon her was gentle and caring, curious and somewhat penetrating, a searching gaze that made no apologies, leaving her feeling exposed yet undisturbed. Peace fell over them like two souls brought together on a bridge of borrowed time. Here in the garden, the mirror of his soul sent S.O.S. messages to a woman of prayer who found a sincere plea in his eyes and in his ongoing questions. Time passed unnoticed as they both sat in the enclosed garden on a quiet Sunday morning.

The following evening Edward was listening to the radio with the news of the suicide of a local young man. The parents of the dead youth knew he was homosexual and had crushed their son with verbal abuse. Unaware of the front door closing with the radio volume on high, the house guest heard the broadcast as she walked into the kitchen and saw Edward’s face shake in horror and disbelief, as he stood looking out the garden window. Catherine coughed and he swung around. "How long are you standing there?" he asked in an angry tone. Before she could answer he flicked the radio switch off and marched out of the kitchen. Again, the bedroom door upstairs shut with a bang, leaving Catherine in deep thought. In the garden, led by the Spirit of God, she offered her rosary for Edward, and for the pain she saw on his face.

It was the last weekend of Catherine’s stay in London, when she heard the raised voices beneath her window sill. It was still early as she finished her morning coffee. She had left her bedroom window open with the heat wave that hung over London. She leaned her elbows on the sill and looked down into the pretty garden below. Edward had set the summer table with a full breakfast that looked so inviting. He was placing fresh scones just out of the oven, onto a plate. “You should have asked me, I don’t have time to have breakfast with you,” Claudia said to her son in an irritated tone. “You never have time to sit with me, you don’t even want Catherine to sit with me,” Edward replied, his face red with stress and upset. “I prepared this especially...” Before he could continue his mother took out her pocket mirror, and rechecked her lipstick. “I have to go out and do some early shopping. Not now, haven’t time,” she shouted over her shoulder, as she walked out of the house. Edward slumped into a chair, his face buried in his hands. A sight which gripped Catherine’s heart as she slipped back down onto the bed and started to pray.

Catherine continued to pray daily for Edward, at Mass and in the evening. As she prayed for him, she became more aware of his gentleness of soul, his yearning for love, his longing for truth, his desire to return to the Church, his seeking for sincere friendship. He shunned from superficiality, and from toe dipping in shallow waters. He wanted authentic witness, he wanted to walk where buds would bloom, where pain would open up to redemptive grace, where the educated could learn what the heart wants to experience. It would not be an easy journey for him but Catherine knew he thirsted for all of this. She knew little about homosexuality, but now she knew the man in question and the heart that she saw through the eyes of grace. The rest would unfold as it should, according to his desire for truth and love, for confessions and conversion which every pilgrim participates in.

“Mom hides behind the Bible; she escapes reality by always running away, by always propping an image of God up in front of us. Yet she is not able to sit with herself and others, or to converse naturally without having to bring in prayer, prayer meetings and so forth.” He spoke openly as they cleaned up after dinner. “She sees that everyone has issues that need to be addressed but does not see the need for her own issues to be addressed. Pride is a terrible thing. My brother and I find religion so off putting.” “Some people stay in the same spot without moving on in themselves.” Catherine said. Edward walked over to her. “I want to return to the Church, I want to know Him.”

When the morning arrived for her departure she had a short while alone with Claudia’s son in the garden. “Why did you really return home early?” she asked him. “When my brother phoned to tell me about a missionary lady, in her early thirties, who was in mom’s house I thought it may be an answer to prayer, or to the beginning of prayer,” he smiled. “Is there more to a Geisha girl than mere high society socialising?” she asked unexpectedly. He looked at her, a serious look that searched her face and he knew he couldn’t lie. “Yes, there is more to the Geisha girls that I know,” he replied honestly. He walked with her into the house and held her in his embrace for one brief moment, before he kissed her lightly on the forehead and said farewell.

As the car moved out of the driveway, Catherine turned her face to the window, brushing away the falling tears before Claudia could see them, tears from a heartache which was already given to the Lord, for Edward. It was not everyday she had a little arrow of love shot into her heart. But neither was it everyday that she met a soul such as Edward, a gentle soul who carried the wounds of childhood rejection and sexual abuse, the same young man who still carried the dreams of unknown love. She knew that this sad young man longing for the truth, would sip from the waters of God’s well, grace which would revive his drooping spirit and lead him on, bit by bit into God’s healing light.

Edward watched the car turn the corner, and for the first time in a long time, began to pray. He would not see his Irish friend again but that dart of love, still lingering in his aching heart was already opening up a new hope for the future, in his silent tears. For after all, He who had formed him in his mother’s womb was calling him.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Those who put their hand on the plough….

It was a bitter cold January morning in 1996. The clear blue sky changed to a dull grey. Soon the delicate white snow flakes would fall and the expected forecast of icy roads and sub zero temperatures would set in. Refilling her coffee mug, Victoria returned to the bedroom and picked up the letter to read again.

"…my parents would be delighted if you could stay here while they spend some time in Spain. You will be interested to know that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament continues from morning to night in the adoration chapel next door." Then she read on. "I have to say that I invite you to stay in my family home for several reasons, but prefer to wait until I see you to talk more.” Victoria jumped out of bed, pulled out a suitcase from the closet in the hallway and started packing. She already had the feeling this visit would be very different from previous stays with her friend.

“Who is it?" the voice asked over the intercom. "This is security, reporting for duty, ma'am.” The door opened with the familiar buzzer sound. Victoria stepped into the polished parquet tiled hall, happy to have arrived before the big freeze. “Well look who the wind blew in!"

Anne passed the coffee mug to her guest. She sat back on the sofa looking out onto the garden. Taking a biscuit from the plate, she said “It’s to do with my brother.” “Your brother was in America, he’s back home then?” Victoria asked. Anne sipped some coffee before answering, a worried expression on her face. "He has returned from Chicago with his new girlfriend who’s Austrian. He was working in a pub there for a while. He’s different. He’s not the brother I know and love. When I ran down the stairs to welcome him home, I just froze. At Mass that morning, I prayed for him and suddenly I was crying." She shook her head. "What is it?" Victoria asked, hearing the gravity of the situation. "I'm not sure," Anne hesitated. "Not sure? Or not sure you want to say?" "Not sure I want to say just yet. But I do know that my brother doesn’t have an idea about his girlfriend or what I think I know.”

“So is she staying here, in this house now?” Victoria enquired. “No, she’s temporarily in a flat at the end of the road, a small garage converted into a neat little pad. I know my brother plans for her to move in here. My mother is worried; she has an uneasy feeling about her to say the least, and does not want her in the house while they are away. Which reminds me of another problem, her cooking.” “What do you mean?” Victoria stopped and looked at the home-made cookie in her hand. She listened attentively to all that Anne was saying. “I don’t like what she cooks,” her expression recalling an episode in the kitchen only the day before. “Plus the fact my brother has never looked so unhealthy. He has no idea what this woman is about; both my mom and I feel something is very wrong. Also, in the mornings he finds it difficult to get up. He feels exhausted and without energy. This is not my brother.”

Victoria knew in her heart what her friend feared. “There is one thing more you should know,” Anne added. “I called to her flat unannounced a few days ago, pretending I was looking for Damien. She didn’t invite me in, obviously! But she had the Bible on a coffee table which you can see from the doorway, and a rosary beads hanging from a hook on the corner of a wall shelf.” “H-m-m-m,” Victoria nodded. "This is a typical cover and guise. She probably reads scripture verses to your brother as well.”

“Feel free to use mom’s prayer room at any time,” Anne reminded her friend. “Remember when she converted the old linen closet into a prayer room? It has become a welcome prayer corner, so peaceful in the back corridor. The small silver crucifix on the centre of the wall, with a painting of Our Lady to the right has been admired by all the visitors who have been here.”

The front door opened and shut with such a bang that Victoria swallowed on the biscuit and almost choked. Anne stood up. "They're here!" she whispered. “Be prepared for a hostile reception.” Heavy footsteps marched across the hall floor, down the two steps and in walked Anne’s brother with his Austrian visitor. Damien took one look at Anne’s guest and nodded a curt hello before walking over to the coffee pot. He poured coffee into two cups, neither of them uttering a word as his girlfriend remained standing there staring at Victoria. While she continued to take in every detail of the woman sitting on the sofa, Victoria in turn looked up at the European lady.

Her skin was pale, an off-white colour that raised a question. Her eyes, blue as the ocean and cold as ice, were fanned by dark spiked lashes which tilted up at the edges, curved by dark beliefs and heavy mascara. She was tall and slim, strange and disturbing at closer quarters. Her long hair, black as the raven and glossy as shimmering silk fell across her shoulders. As she stood there with a smile that left one cautious, a door closed quietly in Victoria’s heart, bolted from the inside. Giving a short laugh, that seemed one of disbelief, she walked across the floor, moving in a way that carried the perfect imitation of a model walking across the catwalk. Then, the dark haired woman, seeking a distraction fumbled through her shoulder bag, before placing her hand over the silver pendant hanging on her neck - the pendant that Victoria continued to look at.

Victoria stood up. Slightly taller than the dark lady, she introduced herself and then said “You must be Damien’s girlfriend?” The European lady flung her hair back in a dramatic gesture. She finally spoke in a polite and courteous manner, her Austrian accent giving an air of mystery to the English language. "Hello, I’m Caitlyn." She could almost pass as royalty with her full length fur lined coat and Russian hat. Lifting her face upward with a defiant expression, she waited for attention. Unnerved by Victoria’s direct look and indifference to image, she turned to her boyfriend, her eyes signalling for him to say something. ‘She is like the lone ice princess’, Victoria thought. ‘A sad and beautiful princess, who has secret meetings in the forest; an initiated female who has danced naked before the full moon, for her masters, and drank from the chalice of the pagan gods, giving her body and soul over to the night rituals containing lies and false promises.’ No one knew what either woman was thinking as Victoria remained silent, keeping her inner thoughts to herself, while the Austrian visitor kept her thoughts hidden from her boyfriend watching on. Damien threw the remainder of his coffee into the sink and walked out. His girlfriend followed, throwing one last glance at Victoria - a dark look that refused to remain hidden behind a professional smile.

“Do you know anything about Wicca witches?” Victoria asked as they prepared lunch. “I know that some of them wear a pendant, a five-pointed star with a blue stone in the centre. It’s used as a symbol of Wicca.” “That’s right,” Victoria confirmed. “What she’s wearing is known as a pentacle. But for many folk who don’t know about these symbols, it is just another trendy piece of jewellery worn around the neck. For the practising witches and those involved in pagan ritual, it is a sacred symbol, possibly blessed in their pagan ceremonies before wearing them."

That night Victoria couldn't sleep. It was three o’clock in the morning when the front door opened and closed downstairs. She sat up in the bed. Suddenly the handle of her bedroom door slowly turned around until the door opened and Anne arrived in without a sound. Waving in silence, she pointed to downstairs. “What’s going on?” Victoria whispered. “My brother has just arrived in but she was here all the time and we didn’t know. He must have let her in a few hours ago or else she has a key. We have to pray the rosary.” Anne took a blanket from the chest of drawers beside the bed and stuffed it along the base of the door before she lit a blessed candle. “If she’s creeping around the house, she will see the light on here so that blocks it out.” Victoria grinned. “Are you sure you haven’t been involved in strange gatherings as well?” she joked with her friend. “Hey, I’m a colourful character, just look at who Our Lord chose. He knew what He was doing.” They both started laughing, but knew things were more serious than they cared to admit. “She has been burning incense in the living room,” Anne whispered, pulling up a chair. “I have been out on the corridor for a while. There is a horrible atmosphere.” “So that’s why I couldn’t sleep!” Victoria said. “Probably,” Anne continued. “I waited at the top of the stairs and watched as she came out several times. I could smell the incense.” “Okay, we know now what we are dealing with here.” Victoria whispered. “This is serious. There’s a saying that goes when one is going to prayer...’burning incense invites spirits in, burning a blessed candle keeps them out.’ It looks like we have some kind of witchcraft going on here.”

“So what’s the plan?” Anne asked over breakfast, “now that you’ve got some sleep after you prayed more.” Victoria smiled. “Right, first we need to pack our bags and have them ready to put in the car at a moment’s notice; I suggest you pack a little extra.” Anne looked taken aback. “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yes, I know we have to do this, and then we wait. If this woman is involved in what we think, and they are in a sexual relationship, which is step one for her, then you can’t tell your brother. He won’t believe you because she may already have some kind of hold on him. She carries all the hallmarks of what we think she is. She burns incense, has some good wine for when Damien calls to the flat, or drinks with him here. She may even tell him some sob stories, and I know Damien from being here last year. He is quite gullible and overly compassionate. The sob stories are an old trick which always seems to work for them. Then he in turn opens up to her. She will offer him a body massage with her oils, maybe burning a little incense to create a certain mood. That’s all it takes. It may not be all in that order or all of the same, but it’s the general run of how those involved in pagan worship plan their first steps for their intended.”

Victoria was restless. Something was up. She kept looking out the window at the falling snow and paced the floor but didn’t know why. That evening the two friends returned to the adoration chapel next door. Time passed as the two worshippers stayed longer than intended, aware of the all-powerful majesty of God, as they rested in His divine presence. God would not let His servants down. Unknown to them both, they were being prepared for the trials ahead that every true follower faces. Their willingness to be present before the Lord was all He needed. It was here, in the confines of the beautiful chapel of adoration that Jesus the Lord, was working quietly in the souls who love him. Walking home, the air was fresh and pure, but not for long. The North winds were gathering and the eye of the pagan storm was heading towards Anne’s home. Victoria spoke to Anne. “You are in danger, we both are. She knows we know. It’s time to get our luggage into the car.”

Back in the empty house Victoria picked up the phone and dialled a number. “Hi, Sr. Bernadine, do you happen to have a few rooms vacant without notice?” “Sure honey, I was only wondering lately if you will be out on a visit to us soon.” “Is it alright if it’s pretty immediate, but it could be quite late in the evening?” “Of course! Whatever time is right. I’ll let security know to expect you. Just give me your car registration number again so he can open the gates when he sees you arriving.”

It was late in the evening. Anne walked into the bedroom, her face ashen. “What’s wrong? Anne, tell me!” Victoria persisted. Tears fell down her friend’s face but no words came out. She looked towards the prayer room. Downstairs heavy rock music suddenly filled the house and Victoria froze. The visitors had arrived and they were pretty loaded with wine. Alarm bells rang loud and clear. Victoria followed Anne to the prayer room and saw why her friend was ashen. The small silver crucifix and the painting of Our Lady were both turned upside down. Turning the painting upright, Victoria then took the crucifix, kissed the five wounds of Christ and put it in her pocket. “Get the car keys, quickly! It’s okay, everything’s okay. God is with us.” The sound of the music increased in the living room, “Who’s down there?” Victoria asked, as they ran back to their bedrooms, grabbing their toiletry bags and handbags. “My brother, a few of his friends and his girlfriend,” Anne replied, still shaken. The music became louder; the last reminder that time was running out, as the undertones of the heavy rock band threw aggressive vibrations into the partying group and throughout the house. Victoria stood at the top of the stairs while Anne tip-toed down a few steps, leaning over the banister to check the living room door was still closed. Then signalling to Victoria they ran down the stairs, across the wide hallway and out into the street. Once outside they caught their breath and walked quickly to the car. Seat belts on, they began to recite the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Fifty minutes later they arrived at the convent, the automatic gates opening when security recognized the driver. It was so good to see Charlie again, Victoria thought, as he shone the torch light onto the faces in the car. A man of deep faith, not many knew that in his nightly watch he prayed often while others slept. Once inside, they went straight to the beautiful chapel. There, before the Most Blessed Sacrament they knelt and gave thanks to the Lord that they had arrived safely and at peace! Resting in His presence Victoria and Anne knew there would be no going back. Those who put their hand on the plough don’t look back. And for some - they don’t go back.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Courage to Love

The rain poured down playing hop scotch on the puddles along the road. Rachel jumped to the side of the path as another car zoomed by, sending a spray of muddy water on her white trousers. "I don't believe it," she cried in annoyance, brushing away the dirty water. A Toyota car slowed down and pulled up beside her. "Hi there," the driver called out, "Aren't you from Linden Vale? My name is Patricia Mulvey. I saw you coming out of the train station and heading towards the bus stop. Would you like a lift home?"

A delighted passenger dropped her weekend bag on the back seat before jumping into the front of the car, happy to be rescued from the torrential downpour. She fastened her seat belt, sat back with a sigh of relief and closed her eyes. As she sat there she became aware of a peace and warmth in the confines of the grey Corolla. "Home for a long weekend?" the young driver asked, moving out onto the empty road towards open countryside. "Yes, just four days. There are great flight offers now with Ryanair from London. Book a month in advance and you get a twenty euro return ticket." "Wow, why don't you take this car, work in a factory for a few days and I'll head to London!" Rachel laughed. She recognised the woman's face from shopping in her father's store but didn't know her personally. It was good to be home. Her thoughts returned to the plane journey to Dublin. Before arriving at the airport she had wondered would it bring back the memory of her last visit home – the memory of her boyfriend waiting to take her into his arms when she walked into the arrivals lounge. To her surprise no such emotions or memories returned. When she did arrive she only knew a deep peace in her heart and a closeness of the presence of the Lord as she walked through the airport. She was still amazed at this new awareness of God's grace at work in her heart and soul that signposted her life in a whole new direction.

It was the same peace she experienced again in the car when she turned to look at the driver. As she did so, her eyes fell on a little icon of the Sacred Heart on the dashboard. "You have devotion to the Sacred Heart?" Rachel asked with interest. "Sure do, couldn’t imagine life without Him." For a moment the young vivacious woman with her short dark curls and hazel eyes looked solemn and lost in thought. Her hands tightened on the steering wheel before that joy of life returned to her face. "What do you do in London?" she asked, quickly changing the subject. "Secretarial work, but only three days a week now as I recently got involved in a prayer group which organises Catholic conferences for evangelisation." Patricia gave a quick look towards her passenger as a car zoomed by. "Really, are you serious?" The question opened up a conversation that was going to lead to an unexpected day out for Rachel. All too soon they arrived into their hometown. Patricia was about to say something, then hesitated. "Please do say it?" Rachel prompted, sensing again that wonderful Spirit of God's presence. "This may sound a bit much, seeing as you are just home for a few days, but would you care to join me tomorrow on a pilgrimage to Knock Shrine. I have the day off. I really need a day of prayer but I would be glad to have a prayer companion travel with me. It’s about a two hour car journey. I could pick you up about eleven a.m?" "Sure, why not!"

Saturday arrived and the two pilgrims set out for Our Lady's Shrine, Knock. "I was thinking maybe we could have lunch in the hotel before we go into the Shrine?" Patricia suggested. "We'll have plenty of time for confessions before the three o’clock ceremonies begin." Rachel was amazed by the sudden change of events. Little did she think on a surprise weekend trip home she would be doing a pilgrimage. It was a long time since she had last been to Knock. While she waited for Patricia to park the car, she thought of the time she had spent in the beautiful apparition chapel over a decade previously. She walked over to the historic site once again and knelt down. Suddenly she felt as if she was drinking from a river of purest water that continued to pour into her heart and soul, running over a parched interior land. A few minutes passed when a gentle tap on the shoulder reminded her of Patricia’s return. It was time to go and have lunch before their afternoon of prayer began. As they walked across the grounds of the Shrine, Rachel suddenly felt a new curiosity about the beautiful Lady who had appeared to the astonished villagers in 1879, a curiosity that would lead her to prayer and to the friendship of Mary in the coming years. God had His plans and this visit to Knock was the first step towards a new life for the two pilgrims now on their way to lunch.

"How long have you been married?" Rachel asked as they waited for the lasagnes to arrive. "I have left my husband," Patricia answered without hesitation. "I lived on his farm but moved into a rented apartment in town only a week ago. I don't know why but I'd like to tell you about it, yet you are single and free I’m sure from all such worries or pain." Rachel remained silent. Her thoughts raced back to those moments in the rain when her pilgrim companion had pulled up in the car. This young woman who called out and smiled with a warmth which was easily felt. She thought of when she sat in the car and experienced the same warmth and peace from the good humoured woman who had grinned when she looked at the hanging raindrops clinging to Rachel’s long damp hair. This was the same woman that carried suffering love.

"Please do talk about it if you would like to?" Patricia nodded, rubbing her palms along her jeans in an unexpected nervous gesture. "I married Noel knowing that we would be living with his mother on their farm. Of course I had concerns about it as every newly married woman wants to be alone with her husband, especially at the beginning of their marriage. Noel worked early until late on the farmland.” Rachel knew what was going to unfold. Patricia continued. "So I arrived on the farm and was up with my husband very early every morning eager to help. I had no idea his mom did not want me there. When Noel went out to tend to the animals I prepared breakfast for the three of us. Whatever I did in the house, I was doing wrong.” She stopped as her voice broke with the weight of the emotion coming through. “When I cooked the breakfast, it wasn't cooked right. When I ironed the shirts, they were returned to the ironing board and left there. This was the least of what was happening. Then I discovered my husband was not being told the truth. This was the final warning for me as I came to recognize the workings of a strange possessiveness in the most frightening way. No one could see what was going on.” Rachel nodded as the picture became clear. "Then", Patricia continued, "Noel started going to the pub, saying he was only going out for one pint, but he would not return until the early hours of the morning falling in the doorway. When the subject came up about Noel and a drink problem, I was told by my mother-in-law I resented him having a drink or two after a hard day's work." Patricia looked directly at Rachel, her sad eyes now a mirror of visible suffering and humiliations. "How long did you endure this domination from his mother?" "For six months until I realised I was a victim of her psychological abuse, just like her son is. Every night I prayed seeking help and the answer came. I went to the Catholic Marriage Counselling Agency. Noel wouldn't go. After several conversations with a confidential and supportive team I found the answer in my own heart. I was to leave the farm, get my own place and wait and pray that my husband will join me where we can begin our married life together in our new home. I tried every way to talk with Noel’s mom but she is in denial with her own problems. So the day I left the farm was the day I became free. I cried when I walked into the apartment but I knew I had done the right thing. Noel's mom was furious and the rage that welled up in her when I was leaving, left me in no doubt I was getting out in time. My own mom was wonderful and helped me move my luggage. Now I wait for Noel. He has to make the same decision and in the pain I have in my heart, I give it to the Lord in the hope that it might be used for my husband. As to whether he will make the right decision, only time will tell.” A quick glance at her watch and Patricia exclaimed, “Heavens above! Its two thirty. Before we get confessions and go into the Basilica I need to purchase something in the gift shop. Will you come with me?"

Rachel looked on as the shop assistant wrapped the picture of the Sacred Heart. "This will be a lovely gift for a new home," she smiled at Patricia. "Be sure to have the new home blessed on the First Friday, that's a special day of devotion to the Sacred Heart." The Basilica stood a short distance from the shrine shop. It was packed with pilgrims when they walked in. The Mass had begun and the only empty seats were in the choir where they were directed to by a friendly steward.

After a homily full of encouragement on the virtue of hope, followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the visiting bishop invited all those present who were ill to come forward for the anointing of the sick. He reminded the pilgrims that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was only for those who had an illness. The pilgrim did not need to state the illness, but was invited to come forward for the anointing or to raise their hand where they were seated, if they were unable to walk up to the altar. Rachel opened her eyes to see Patricia stand up and walk up the aisle joining other pilgrims. When she returned, she knew she could not intrude on Patricia’s sacred moments of private conversation with the Lord. She did not know what illness her friend had; neither did she feel she should ask. In her own heart she already knew that she was in the company of a special soul and this was a day that would be remembered. At the end of Mass the pilgrims were invited to hold up any religious objects they had to be blessed.

All too soon the day was over and Patricia dropped Rachel off at her front door. "I will think of you when I'm back in London." Patricia nodded, that warm light in her eyes returning, which spoke of a beautiful friendship with her Creator. "We were meant to meet, that's for sure." They embraced each other knowing that their conversation and meeting was not by chance. Rachel also knew that such suffering love would spill over into the wounds of her husband’s heart leaving him with his own decisions to make. He had not betrayed his wife in unfaithfulness. He was a prisoner of his own mother’s emotional hold that held him in family chains. Only the truth would be the key that would unlock those chains for them to fall away. Patricia knew that and embraced the cross that carried a courageous love beyond her years.

The plane touched down in London. Rachel walked through the airport to see Anna and Paul waiting outside. They looked so happy in their mission life and work. It was good to see them. As the car moved into the city traffic Anna turned to her friend. “So how was the trip? Did you feel any regrets not getting engaged and not being together now?" "No, no regrets Anna, only peace. There are no regrets when we have made the right decisions!" "Well, that's just wonderful,” Anna breathed a sigh of relief. “We have a meeting tomorrow evening in your house if that's alright? We need to plan our work for the conference. Welcome back to the big city!”

Rachel cut three flowers in the garden and went back into the house. She turned right at the top of the staircase and walked into a small alcove where there was an altar to the Sacred Heart. It was the First Friday of June. She removed the faded flowers and put a vase of fresh water on the table. Then beneath the image of the Sacred Heart she placed a red rose in the vase. "This one Lord, is for Patricia and Noel. This one is in thanksgiving. And this rose is for my own intentions, in the hope that I will continue to be led by Your Spirit of Truth in the way of love.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Penitential Prayer

It was a glorious summer’s morning in the month of June 1961. The driver whistled away with occasional bouts of robust chorus as he steered the heavy vehicle up a steep narrow hill and down around the pleasant vale. Just a mile away a black and white dog sat in the warm sun, her sleepy disposition one of blissful contentment, in the quiet country farmyard. Suddenly her ear shot up, and she jumped up barking excitedly towards the cottage farmhouse. “Alright, alright, Sheba, I hear you. I’m getting my shopping bags.” The slender Border Collie raced along the country road, excited to escort the truck to the cottage gates once again.

“Good morning! I could hear you singing a mile off,” the elderly lady called out as Martin turned off the engine. “There’s no better place to sing aloud than in the heart of the country, and what a beautiful sight it is, Kathleen.” The plump red-haired woman plonked her bags on the steps of the well stocked vehicle as the driver opened up the back doors. “What would I do if you didn’t come out here, Martin? I give thanks to God every time I hear the sound of the truck arriving. Sure how could I go all the way into town with no transport. I might make it on the bicycle, but I would never be able to carry my groceries back.” “I’m only too delighted to drive out this far,” he replied. “Isn‘t it good business for me and if the customers can't get into town then the shopkeeper needs to go out to the customers!”

Kathleen stood on the steps of the lorry and handed the shopkeeper her grocery accounts book. “I hope you have a nice piece of salted bacon for me today and a few pounds of the Indian tea you get from Dublin?” She looked up at the shelves laden with varied items, then glanced down at the boxes on the ground shelf. “Did you bring the Guinness, Martin?” “Let me see now, did I bring the Guinness? Did the bar next door have any Guinness left?” he mumbled to himself, rubbing his chin and feigning uncertainty as he caught Kathleen’s worried look. “Aha, here we are! One bottle of stout for the best stew in Ireland.” “Now Martin,” Kathleen chuckled, “you know I don’t put the whole bottle in, just half a glass measure, the small glass mind you!” “Sure with a bottle of stout like that there’s eating and drinking in it,” he joked. Kathleen went into the fit of giggles that sounded like the keys on a piano running up and down in a scale. It put Martin laughing and Sheba barking, joining in the fun.

It was time to get going. Ten houses done, eighteen more to do. It was getting hot. The shopkeeper opened the top buttons of his shirt, with one hand remaining on the steering wheel as he drove along the quiet country road. Suddenly he pressed on the brakes as a big black car turned the sharp corner and stopped inches in front of him. “Glory be,” he whistled, “that’s the bishop’s car and that’s the bishop himself sitting in the back.” He looked into his side mirror, putting the truck into reverse gear. “No point in me asking the bishop’s driver to reverse a short distance,” he said to himself, “I’ll have to do it and go back the entire side road.” “Wait, don’t reverse!” Martin looked up to see the bishop walking towards the truck. He stopped the lorry and jumped down from his high vehicle to stand in front of the man in charge of the western diocese. A great inadequacy swept over the young man and he knelt on the narrow country lane, the pebbles pressing into his knees. “I’d sure be glad of your blessing, Bishop Flanagan.” With his head bowed, waiting, the bishop took in this humble gesture unable to miss the string of the Brown Scapular peeping out between the top buttons opened on the man’s shirt. The birds and the animals of the fields watched on as the softly spoken words in Latin, addressed to the shopkeeper, were held momentarily in the summer breeze and carried like a poem to the heart of the brown haired man kneeling. The short prayer ended with a blessing in English as the bishop raised his hand making the sign of the cross over Martin. The shop owner stood up, brushing the dust from his trousers and saying his thanks. The bishop told Mr. McGuire he was returning from a visit to an elderly relative who had let him know about the mobile grocery store and he was delighted to have met the man himself!

The big black car reversed into a nearby country yard and once again the bishop raised his hand, this time in farewell as Martin’s truck passed on by. Tears filled the eyes of the young father of three. Why had he felt such awe and then a sudden solemn silence in those moments on his knees. Can a simple country man have a prophetic sense of the prayers he had just heard said? Yet he didn’t understand Latin. But soon he would understand the meaning of those silent moments. For now he had no idea what lay ahead. Instinctively, his hand sought the brown fabric of the scapular, only then realising his buttons were still open! He grinned, “a country man to be sure, that’s what that lovely bishop is.”

It was three weeks later that the solemnity of those silent moments where he knelt, would return to Martin. He had only two houses left to call on when the accident happened. It was a warm evening and the sliding door of the truck was part opened. A chill in the air was creeping in and the driver decided to pull the door shut while keeping an eye on the narrow lane ahead as farmers were returning home on tractors from their work in the fields. The door seemed stuck, so once again Martin pulled the handle towards him, this time with a harder tug, while one eye remained on the road. Disaster struck! Before he knew what happened or how it happened he was thrown from the seat out onto the rough road and landed with a heavy thud between the ditch and dusty lane. The big double tyres loomed nearer as he watched on helplessly, unable to move. A sharp pain stifled his voice as the rolling vehicle moved towards his side. Martin slipped under a blanket of darkness.

Sheba stood up and whimpered. She was restless. She walked back and forth to her mistress, continually whimpering and pawing the door. “What’s wrong Sheba?” Kathleen went outside. Martin was late passing by. She should have heard the truck an hour earlier, but still no sign of it. Sheba raced across country fields, returning twenty minutes later barking loudly. Beckoning to her mistress, she raced back along the road. Kathleen followed on her bicycle. Then she saw it and dropped the bicycle against the hedges.The front of the truck was buried in the thick ditch - a few meters from where Martin lay. “Go Sheba, go, fetch help!”

The news spread throughout the town and countryside. Prayers were ongoing for Martin and the terrible accident. Prayers that asked to save his crushed hip and wounded body. In his unconscious state, his spirit looked to Our Lady and was strengthened within him as his body fell into exhaustion and acute pain as he was prepared for surgery. To the hope and relief of his anxious family, friends and customers, the young shopkeeper came through the emergency operation, but there were serious hurdles to get over and nothing was guaranteed. The doctors did all they could, but they could not ease the pain that would continue as the hip had been badly damaged. There was no more they could do.

Lying on his bed during the weeks that followed, Martin was thinking about what he would do. In his quiet suffering he offered it to Our Lady, a penitential prayer with each darting pain, that she might take it as an offering to her Son. It was in those moments, late at night, when the pain prevented him from sleeping, that he heard the call to Fatima.

It was the following October that the trip was arranged. Martin was delighted to be travelling to Portugal with a fellow townsman. The two men arrived at Fatima, awe and wonder written all over Martin's face as he stood in the place where Our Lady had spoken to the young children. It was there, at the holy shrine, that he prayed for guidance about his pained hip. On the second day he thought of bringing a gift to Our Lady, but what kind of gift? Then he saw them, sitting outside a shop, the most beautiful lilies, unstained in their heavenly white, with the sweetest scent emanating from their pure beauty. Minutes later, he placed the flowers before the altar where he stood with his walking stick, and bowed in heart to Our Lady of the Rosary. “Remember me a sinner, to your beloved Son."

Some time after he returned home, Martin heard about a surgeon in Dublin who might be interested in his case. He could not go on in pain and with the added worry of his mortgage and young family to look after, the future looked dim. It was time to write to the new surgeon.

Dr. Staunton remained quiet for a few minutes after he put down the x-rays. He looked at Martin and then back at the x-rays once again. “This is a very risky operation, Mr. McGuire.” Martin remained composed. “It is high risk.” Silence sat between them as the surgeon sat back in his seat. Then he leaned forward. “But I’ll do it.”

The surgeon was not to regret it. The operation was a success after a six hour battle in surgery. After the operation, when the surgical gown was removed, replaced by pyjamas, Martin whispered to the nurse for his scapular. Placed over his head, he felt the brown fabric brush against his heart and tears of gratitude slid down his cheeks as he fell into a sedated sleep.

Ten weeks passed. It was a quiet winter morning. Sheba opened her sleepy eyes. That rumbling on the ground, it was familiar. Suddenly she jumped up barking, running excitedly along the side road. Kathleen smiled, and put away her rosary beads. “Buíochas le Dia,” she whispered - Thanks be to God.