Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of St. Margaret of Scotland. From 1996 until 2001, I was parish priest of St. Gabriel’s in Prestonpans, in East Lothian. They were very happy years for me. On an occasional day off, one of the places I liked to go to was Dunfermline, the Royal Capital of Scotland, which was given city status last May as part of the late Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations. St. Margaret is buried there, in what was once an old Benedictine Abbey. However, even more poignant than a visit to the abbey, I loved to make my way through the town to St. Margaret’s Cave which, according to tradition, was here favourite place to go and pray. When I would go there, I was always reminded of the old Joni Mitchell song, the Big Yellow Taxi, which had, as part of the chorus, the words – they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. St. Margaret’s cave is entered through a small stone building that quietly sits in the corner of what is now a city centre car park. When you enter the building, you can enter a passageway that winds down 87 steps, deep below the surface. As you descend, as memory serves me, there are some wall paintings depicting her life, and you are accompanied by some Gregorian Chants being piped through the system. When you reach the bottom, there is a statue of St. Margaret, and a prayer book, recreating the scene of her praying there. I always enjoyed those visits, and it got me to thinking about favourite places to pray.
My first thought was to remember visits to St. Ninian’s cave at Whithorn. When I was living in Ireland, and coming home to Scotland for summer holidays, I would come off the ferry at Cairnryan and, instead of heading straight to Glasgow, I would occasionally take the detour to Whithorn and visit this special place of prayer. At the little car park there is an inscription with one of my favourite Celtic prayers - Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Deep peace of the Price of Peace to you. You then pass through a wooded area which suddenly and spectacularly opens up onto the shore and, in the distance, across a very stony beach, you can see Ninian’s Cave. It was certainly a place of solitude, and a perfect hideaway to be alone with God. There are 10 crosses cut into the cave wall, and lots of little stone cairns, which I assume represent the prayers of pilgrims over the years.
I then remembered my own diaconate retreat, back in December 1982. I was studying at the Gregorian University in Rome at the time and, after completing faculty exams, I was due to be ordained a deacon before Christmas at the Passionist Monastery of Saints John and Paul. I received permission to go and make my retreat at Monte Argentario, at the Passionist Retreat of the Presentation of Our Lady, high up on a hill on a peninsula, north east of Rome, on the Mediterranean coast, which was the first ever Passionist Retreat established by the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross. It has been said that, if there is anywhere on earth which was dear to St. Paul of the Cross, it was Monte Argentario. He had initially lived there as a hermit, withdrawing into solitude, but later it became the home of the first companions of the founder, and therefore the site of the first ever Passionist Community, and it was, for me, a very special and privileged experience to make my retreat there.
What is my own favourite place to pray? I have had to move house quite a lot during my time as a Passionist, and in each location I would find a spot that was conducive to my own way of praying. Being back in St. Mungo’s, but living in Bishopbriggs, our little oratory there is the place of my day-to-day encounter with God. Apart from that, I am glad to have Schoenstatt not too far away. I have made a couple of retreats there and I like the little chapel, the beautiful walks within the grounds, out along the river, along the disused railway lines, and up into the Campsies. But at the end of the day, God is everywhere, and in all things. Where I am, God is, and, in any given moment, that can be my favourite place, wherever it may be.
As always, protect yourselves, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.