Lord, Have Mercy

About two weeks ago, I had a new prayer experience.

Prayer has been difficult this year. There have been days when I felt that I would rather do anything else in the world than pray. This is quite hard to hold in tandem with the compulsion I feel to actually pray. It’s a bit like putting the positive ends of two magnets together: the more that little (frankly bloody annoying) voice calls me to chapel, the further I run. YouTube, Facebook and FIFA 15 have been the beneficiaries.

Problem is, things fall apart without prayer. I mean, seriously. That’s the benefit of having had a regular prayer life, you see the difference, and most importantly, you feel it in your soul like a big anchor hanging around your heart. Things really have fallen apart this year, for me, and I have avoided God like the plague. Thus the vicious cycle: one ceases to pray, and things fall apart from the inside and the outside, but then we’re too afraid to return to the source, in case we fail again. Worse still, we don’t return to the source because we’re too ashamed, thinking that we have to make things right before we can speak to Him again.

So I eventually dragged myself into the Church, heavy hearted. I sat there, and as usual when nothing happens, I picked up a book. I opened on this paragraph:

Love consists in the fact that we do not love. As long as we haven’t grasped this by experiencing our own incapacity to love, as long as we aren’t at home with this truth, charity won’t be able to find a home in our hearts or flow freely within us. First of all, we have to accept the fact that we do not love, that we are incapable of breaking the circle that closes us in on ourselves. We must be absolutely convinced of this; otherwise, charity will remain for us just a good desire, a sterile seed incapable of producing genuine fruit.’

It really hit me hard, so much so that I began to squirm in my seat. At that moment, I didn’t know what it was that had hit me, only that the words I had read were true. I wanted to lay down, I felt heavy and depressed. I found that the gap between the altar and the tabernacle was just a few inches longer than my body length, so I lay there, still squirming. Then like the whistling steam from a stovetop kettle, these words left my mouth: “have mercy”.

The same pattern repeated itself over the next few days. It felt like a relief, and yet I was still sad afterwards. I carried my heavy heart into the session with my spiritual director. I told him what had happened and that I didn’t quite understand my response. He asked me how I felt now and I said “I feel like I’m mourning”. That was the nail on the head.

“What are you mourning?”

“I don’t know… I feel like I’m failing as a priest”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, in every area of my life, I’ve been falling desperately short of the ideal of the priesthood….”

“Is that your ideal?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so.”

“And the image you set up is dead?”

“Yes”

“Good”

It all started to click into place. I had been spiralling further away from God as I tried desperately to hold on to my own graven image of what I wanted to be for him. After every failure, I would pray for him to restore me to that state. But why would he, if he loved me? The image had to die, the sarcophagus had to be torn open. Brutally exposed to my total need and dependency, of my nothingness before him, I realised that I had to offer him precisely that, nothing. I did not love. I mean I did, obviously, in the human sense of the word. But not in the way I thought I was loving, not in the way we’re all called to love. I can’t love with the love God wants me to love. Only he can do that in me. Something has to die, and it is hard to let go.

That was why I was relieved at the words of Bishop Alan today, at our Mass for vocations. I expected the same old yarn about how you get happier every day as a priest, how it’s an exciting wondrous adventure. It really doesn’t attract vocations. Just tell the lads the truth, they’ll lap it up! Tell he did. He said, “as a priest, every day you should feel empty. You should remain empty so that God can fill you”. No glittering pitch, only a truth-laden gauntlet, filled with real redemptive suffering. If a man wants to be happy, there is no happiness greater, as long as he lets go of what he thinks happiness is or should be for him. If a man wants to love, there is no love greater, but he is called to be possessed of an eternal love not of his own making. To know mercy, something has to die. God became a man so that the old man, the graven image set up by sin, could die. From the tomb rose the new God-man. Only by this supreme act of mercy can the new man live, love and rejoice.

So I get to the end of the year renewed. I’m not under any illusions, I’m only at the beginning of God’s project. So much has to die. But I am so relieved, there is a crack in the tomb, light is peaking through. At the Mass today, while Bishop Alan pronounced the words “Behold the Lamb of God…” I looked down at the host in my hand and thought “bloody hell, what am I still doing here?!” and then I smiled. It was a moment of sheer gratitude. Lord, you are merciful, so tender and understanding, so gentle and kind. Have mercy on me, a helpless sinner, and thank you for calling me to be your priest.

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Mary Immaculate

This is a blog I wrote a couple of years ago for the Brentwood Catholic Youth Service web page blog. It’s a little late for the feast, but I hope you enjoy it anyway:

 

I imagine that many who read the posts on this blog will cite their mothers as the person of prime importance in their lives. If we could ask God who the most important person in his divine life is – outside of the communion of persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit of His own life – he would also say his mother. Just think, God created the very woman who was to bear Him into the world. It is no wonder that she should be in possession of certain favours that no-one else is in possession of. It is the supreme favour of God to Mary that we celebrate today. We believe that from the first instant of her conception in the womb of her mother, Mary was preserved from original sin.

Original sin is the state into which each of us is conceived. Destined for holiness from the beginning by God, we have this tendency to turn away from His plan, to wrestle against it in an attempt to be kings and queens of our own castle. It is a mystery which the story of Adam and Eve attempts to elucidate; Adam, tempted by the serpent and encouraged by Eve, takes of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, from the one tree God had forbidden him to take. This disobedience, this attempt to take by right that which was destined to be a free gift from God, is a mark or a stain which has passed itself down to every generation of man since the beginning. While its origin belongs to storytelling, its evidence can be traced throughout history in the actual sins of men and women.

As genetic anomalies spread and mutate over time, so has sin. From the beginning, however, God – the Supreme Doctor – had a healing plan. He would send his son, who would reverse the course of our inherited condition. By his teaching, he would teach us how to live with it and struggle against it. By offering himself at the Last Supper, he would give us a healing medicine and a food of spiritual nourishment when our condition overcame us. By giving His life on the cross, he took the disease down into the grave on our behalf By his resurrection, he presented our humanity back to us, cured, free and redeemed. To live the life of a renewed humanity is the gift and responsibility of everyone who has been baptised.

Mary is the guarantee of the promise which awaits us in heaven. She is free from the mark of sin, it has no power over her. We might ask ourselves why God didn’t just do that same job on all of us and be done with it. Surely he could have, but Mary is not an exception to the rule of our salvation. She is, rather, proof that the effect of Jesus’ death and resurrection do not just reach forward in time; it touches all ages, past present and future. Mary was preserved from the sinful condition of humanity because of Christ’s sacrifice. She is the key part of the story, the drama of our salvation. As man and woman first cooperated from a state of original holiness to turn away from God, so Mary’s “yes” is humanity’s response to God’s original offer as it should have been. She is the Mother of the Redeemer, and the first of the redeemed.

It is a sign of God’s love and respect for us that he would not force us to turn to him. As he did with Mary, he invites us to accept his offer of life and love eternal. As he did for Mary, he provides the conditions upon which that life is possible, in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary is our model, Mary is our hope, and thanks to her “yes” to God, the effects of original sin which we bear need no longer be a fatal wound, but rather the battle scar of victory.