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.