FATHER FRANK’S LOG: 16th – 23rd JULY
I spent the best part of two days this week, Monday and Tuesday, trying to uncover from somewhere inside my head, the name of a writer whom I have heard speak, and some of whose books I have read, but her name just wouldn’t come to me. I knew she was English, and that she was a Catholic spiritual writer, poet and theologian, so I tried every combination of words I could think of to search the internet. It wasn’t that urgent, it was just that something she wrote came into my mind but her name wouldn’t. Before long, remembering her name became an obsession. I knew there was a “G” in it and I lay in bed on Monday night going through all kinds of combinations of names with a “G” in them. I knew also that her name always reminded me of a former Conservative minister in the Thatcher government so I was trying to think of that motley crew as well. Still the name wouldn’t come. I came into St. Mungo’s on Tuesday morning and tried another internet trawl, but to no avail. I then went off to hear Confessions and to celebrate the lunchtime Mass. And then, just after returning to the office, and when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, it just popped into my head. Her name was Edwina Gately. I had gotten the “G” right, and the Conservative minister was Edwina Currie.
I felt a great sense of relief and a return to sanity.
Isn’t it amazing the things that are hidden and waiting to be uncovered, and I don’t mean just inside of our heads. I’ve always remembered two stories that appeared in the media between 1983 and 1986, when I was first based in St. Mungo’s. The first was about a newly married couple who bought a house in Aberdeen. Before they bought it, this house had belonged to an old lady who died and there was still some of the old lady’s furniture in the house, and one of the items was a big chest of drawers. Now, the bottom drawer was stuck very tight and they had to get a lever to prise it open, and when they prised it open there was a hundred thousand pounds in notes lying there in the bottom of the drawer, which this old lady had seemingly just stashed there and forgotten all about it. The other story was about a lady who had in her house some old family heirlooms and she decided to have them valued. Now, among these heirlooms there was what she took to be an old lamp, but when it was valued it turned out not to be a lamp at all, it was a Ming vase, about 600 years old, and it was worth, at the time, a quarter of a million pounds. Two treasures hidden in the depths, waiting to be uncovered.
For a few years afterwards I would occasionally use those stories to encourage reflection on what great treasures might be hidden within us that we don’t realise we have, and that may need to be uncovered; like the gift of faith, or, most especially, the great treasure we have within us that is the gift of Christ himself. Jesus talks about a pearl of great price, and about treasure hidden in a field, that are worth surrendering all we own in order to possess, and He’s talking about the mysteries of the kingdom that have been planted deep within us, but that we may easily forget about if we neglect our spiritual lives. St. Paul talks about a treasure in earthen vessels which finds expression in a beautiful St. Louis Jesuits’ hymn which has the refrain: We hold a treasure, not made of gold, in earthen vessels, wealth untold; one treasure only, the Lord, the Christ, in earthen vessels. Just to imagine that Christ dwells within us, these poor earthen vessels, through the Holy Spirit, but that we might forget about Him and not realise the treasure we have.
Here is the remembered quote from Edwina Gately that started all this:
We are too complicated. We have made God too complicated. We have been so anxious to define and to control, that God has been lost in all the definitions, the rituals and the rules. God is. And that perhaps is too simple for us.
FATHER FRANK’S LOG: 9th – 16th JULY
I had to travel over to Ireland last week for meetings, one of which was in Belfast and the other in Dublin. I travelled back on Thursday to be here in time for a wedding rehearsal. We have a few weddings in St. Mungo’s this summer but not too many. I also have to travel back to Ireland next month to celebrate a wedding in Mount Argus. It’s not something I’m going to be doing regularly, but this is a rather special couple and I’m looking forward to it.
The last time I travelled from Scotland to Ireland to celebrate a wedding was almost 20 years ago when I was parish priest in Prestonpans. I knew the groom’s family well and so I was happy to make the journey. The wedding wasn’t in Mount Argus but in the bride’s parish, a rather remote country church up in the hills of County Wexford. The family of the groom had told me that with winding paths, confusing crossroads, and rambling hills, I would never find the church by myself, and so it was arranged that, on the morning of the wedding, I would join them for breakfast in the Arklow Bay Hotel, where they were staying for a few nights, and then join in a convoy of cars going to the church.
As we left the hotel the rain was pelting down and visibility was very poor. I had been asked to bring the groom’s rather formidable auntie with me, and also his grandmother, a gentle, beautiful lady, who was without doubt a most important and distinguished wedding guest. I managed to keep contact with the cars in front until we got to the outskirts of Gorey, one of the main towns in Wexford. Unfortunately, it was market day in Gorey, and the traffic was absolutely chaotic, branching in from all directions. In the pouring rain, I lost touch with the convoy as we crawled through the town, and by the time I got out on the other side and picked up speed again there wasn’t another car in sight, except the tailback coming into the town for the market from the opposite direction.
I had a sinking feeling that I was lost and so I pulled into a garage and asked if they knew where this church was. My stomach sank even further when I heard I had to join the crawling traffic back into Gorey and take a turn at some monument in the middle of town, heading up into the hills, that obviously I hadn’t seen the others take. I was telling auntie and grannie that we were fine, but in truth I felt there was no way we were going to make this wedding in time, presuming that we ever found the church at all. Winding paths, confusing crossroads, and rambling hills, was absolutely right, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how unhelpful the signposts were.
The wedding should have begun by this time, except that there was a priest and two very important guests still missing. I was imagining the consternation. In the back of the car auntie was panicking, but grannie was calm and prayed the rosary throughout. As I sat at another crossroads, close to despair, and wondering which way to go, suddenly a wedding car drove past us with a glowing and flowing bride in the back. Confident that there couldn’t be more than one wedding out in these wilds, I followed behind it and arrived at the church with just enough time to get ready and be in place before they had finished the pre-ceremony photographs outside. Even the rain had stopped. Thank you once again Saint Anthony!
Here is a lovely reflection for couples by John O’Donohue, from his book Anam Cara: When love awakens in your life, in the night of your heart, it is like the dawn breaking within you. Where before there was anonymity, now there is intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage; where before in your life there was awkwardness, now there is a rhythm of grace and gracefulness; where before you used to be jagged, now you are elegant and in rhythm with yourself. When love awakens in your life, it is like a rebirth, a new beginning.
FATHER FRANK’S LOG: 2nd – 9th JULY
I’ve been asked many times recently if I have any holiday plans, and the truth is I find myself in a bit of a quandary. For many years now I’ve taken the two weeks of the Glasgow Fair to come home and stay with my brother Patrick, who would also take those same two weeks off work, and I would use it as a time to relax and rest and catch up on family. Now that I’m living back in Glasgow, I am able to see the family much more often, and so there is not the same need to take those two weeks at home. So, what I am going to do is not yet decided. I was thinking back to past holidays. I have never been one for too much sun, and the idea of lying on a beach for two weeks horrifies me. I much prefer a city with churches, galleries and museums to visit, nice places to sit and have a coffee and watch the world go by during the day, and simple restaurants to enjoy the local cuisine in the evening. I also enjoy quiet places where I can walk in the hills or by the sea, and read, and leave the world behind for a while.
Before I joined the Passionists, I went for 5 years in a row to the Isle of Barra. I went with a group of friends whom I had got to know through the young adult retreats at Coodham, the Passionist Retreat House in Ayrshire, now sadly closed, that had such in influence on my life. We went to Barra because there were two other people we had got to know through Coodham who were teaching there and they had told us how beautiful it was. Our first visit started disastrously as, immediately after depositing our bags in the guest house in Castlebay, we went for a drink in the local pub. We decided to have a game of darts and, full of the holiday spirit, we got a little bit boisterous. The owner of the pub, perhaps fearing that these six lowlanders were going to be troublemakers, decided to bar us, and when we said that we would just go to the Castlebay Hotel instead, he said that we couldn’t, because he owned that as well. So, there we were, first day of the holidays, and barred from the only two pubs on the island. Fortunately, when the pub owner saw us all at Mass together on Sunday morning, he decided that we might not be such bad guys after all, and so he relented, after which we were on our very best angelic behaviour. But our friends were right, Barra is a stunningly beautiful place, and we fell in love with it, and so we returned to it again and again.
During my lengthy formation years with the Passionists I had never gone back to Barra, but shortly after I was ordained I was asked by the parish priest in Barra’s North Bay, whom I had met during my diaconate year in Rome, if I could cover for him for a few weeks while he returned to Rome to defend his doctoral thesis. I got the necessary permission and gratefully agreed. It was a totally different experience from those previously. Firstly, because I flew instead of going by ferry, and so I had my first experience of circling the island while the cows were cleared from the beach so that the plane could land; secondly, it was winter time and not high summer, and it was at times bitterly cold; and thirdly, North Bay was much more remote than Castlebay, so it was quite a solitary experience. But for all that, and perhaps because of it, it was a wonderful experience, and one that I will treasure always. I looked after three churches and at one stage I had to do the burial of a man whose body had been brought from the mainland. The cemetery was out on the tip of the island at a place called St. Brendan’s Point. We could only take the cars so far and walk over fields the rest of the way. It was so cold my hands were turning blue holding the book for the burial prayers. When I finished the prayers, the grave was filled in, and people knelt down on the ground to recite lengthy litanies in Gaelic. When I got back to the car I had to spend some time rubbing my hands together to get some feeling back, so as to be able to put my hand in my pocket to retrieve the car keys. But still I remain thankful for such a unique and abiding memory.
My thoughts returned to Barra recently with the tragedy at Manchester Arena when Eilidh Macleod from Barra was among the dead and her friend Laura Macintyre was seriously injured. May Eilidh rest in peace Laura know healing, in body, mind and spirit. Amen.
FATHER FRANK’S LOG: 25th JUNE – 2nd JULY
This week, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we also celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Canonization of Saint Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. During my diaconate year in Rome (1982-83) I had the privilege of visiting most of the places connected with St. Paul of the Cross including the house in Ovada where he grew up; the church sacristy in Castellazo, where, during a 40-day retreat, he kept a spiritual diary and wrote the first Passionist rule; the peninsula of Monte Argentario where the first ever Passionist Retreat of the Presentation was established; and of course, throughout that year, I lived in the Passionist Retreat of Saints John and Paul in Rome where Paul spent the last years of his life, and where he died on 18th October 1775. It was a wonderful opportunity to steep myself in the story of our holy founder before coming home to be ordained in St. Mungo’s on 18th June 1983.
My most vivid memories revolve around little rooms. The first little room was in Ovada where he lived and grew up with his family, the room in which his mother used to frequently hold up a crucifix for him to gaze on and talk to him about how much Jesus loved him and suffered for him, and of how the cross was a remedy for all sorrows; the second little room was that tiny sacristy in the Capuchin Church of St. Charles in Castellazo where Paul made his 40-day retreat. The diary he kept, recording his physical and spiritual experiences during that time, has become a spiritual classic, and he also wrote the first rule of the Congregation before he ever had any companions to live it, but the words came from the heart, he said, and it was as if the Holy Spirit were dictating it all to him. It was a cold and damp little room, but it fascinated me, and what captured my imagination most was the little desk and chair where he actually did the writing that was later to become so much a part of my own life.
The third little room was on Monte Argentario, in the first ever Passionist Retreat. I had gone there to make my own retreat before being ordained a deacon in December 1982. There was a cell (which is what monastery rooms are called, just in case you think he was in prison), and it bore the name of Paul of the Cross on it, a tiny little room no different from the rooms of the other religious, and very sparsely furnished, just as it was in his own time. Of course, I could contrast that with the wide-open space of the mountain and, as it so happened, the week of my retreat was one of dramatic thunder and lightning storms, and I would go out onto the mountain and feel the power of God, and imagine Paul himself on that mountain crying out to God in the face of the many struggles he faced in getting that first monastery built.
The fourth little room was back in Saints John and Paul’s in Rome, the ground floor room to which Paul was moved during his final sickness unto death. In an alcove leading from that room there is an altar, and each day, while he was still able, Paul was helped by his brethren to that altar to celebrate Mass. One of the things a fledgling priest has to do in his diaconate year is to practice celebrating Mass, so that you know what you are doing when the time comes, and can do it with due respect and reverence. And so, perhaps the greatest privilege I had, was to be able to retrieve the key to that little room whenever I wished, and practice celebrating Mass in the very same little space, and on the very same altar, where St. Paul of the Cross celebrated Mass daily, and indeed celebrated his final Mass before his death.
Out in Bishopbriggs where our Passionist community now live, I occupy a little room, the smallest of the four bedrooms, but you know, wonderful things can happen in little rooms.
“When you are alone in your room, take your crucifix, kiss its five wounds reverently, tell it to preach to you a little sermon, and then listen to the words of eternal life that it speaks to your heart; listen to the pleading of the thorns, the nails, the precious Blood. Oh, what an eloquent sermon!" (St. Paul of the Cross)