This week, I feel like a city priest. For a week now, I’ve been anointing the dying, and arranging funerals, and burying the dead, every day except Sunday. And the rest of this week offers more of the same.
I’m accustomed to a funeral every three or four weeks, so six funerals in six days is definitely a thing. It gives me a taste of the life of my suburban counterparts, who carry this sort of workload all the time. In my case, I think it’s related to the unusually cold winter conditions.
Confession: it is wreaking havoc on my interior life. I’m spending three or four hours in the car each day, rather than the usual one or two. (Maybe that detail is still unique to the country priest!) Driving, at least, lends itself to praying the psalms and the rosary.
But all my time out of the car is spent ministering to people, and time constraints limit even that. There is little time for meditation before the tabernacle, and no time for spiritual reading. As someone who strives to be a contemplative in the world, I’m feeling very shrivelled right now. But I suspect I shouldn’t dialogue with that. I’m called to be a contemplative in the world, which is distinct from the calm routine of monastic life.
One thing I am very much conscious of: activism is fatal to priestly ministry. I think a priest who does not pray is a fraud. His spiritual reservoir is quickly exhausted, and when he’s running on empty, how can he give to others what he does not have himself?
On the other hand, it is inevitable that duties of ministry will occasionally preclude the usual prayer routine. Right now I feel like one of the disciples, joining the Lord for a spiritual retreat in the wake of the devastating death of John the Baptist. Only to be confronted by a large crowd which moves our Lord to pity, and requires me to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
At this rate, World Youth Day will be a time for me to rest and recharge. Blessed be God!
Two weeks ago, I concelebrated the Saturday Vigil Mass in a very large suburban parish in Melbourne. I was introduced as a friend of the assistant priest (we were in the seminary together) and I mentioned I’m a country priest from Ballarat.
Some people weren’t satisfied with that. I struck a vague chord of recognition which was only resolved after Mass. The penny dropped for one, and others agreed. “Don’t you appear on Mass For You At Home?” By sheer coincidence, I appeared the following week (last Sunday), and I’m on again this Sunday too.
I committed something of a faux pas during last Sunday’s Mass. I left my homily notes at home, but fortunately they’re on iCloud, so I referred to my phone during my homily. The producer wasn’t keen. “It looks like you’re checking Facebook.” It’s hard to argue with that.
Fortunately, the notes for all my other homilies were on paper, so it’s smooth sailing this Sunday. I think. It’s hard to remember when it was filmed six months ago.
On the plus side, I was struck down with a bad case of the flu last week, and I really struggled to think hard enough to prepare a homily from scratch. I was able to use my TV homily as a foundation, and fill it in with references to current affairs. (Sad to say, when preaching about the cross and suffering, the day’s headlines will always abound with examples.)
If Christmas really is “the most wonderful time of the year” (though I’ve never liked that song), the days between Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord might qualify as the least wonderful time of the year.
It’s in these days that Christmas draws to a close, the tree is removed and the lights are dismantled. I don’t have the heart to get rid of the Christmas cards yet — that can wait until the Presentation of the Lord. I know the hard-core also keep their trees up til then, but I think by 2 February there’d be more pine needles on the carpet than there would be on the branches.
As I removed the decorations from the Christmas trees in the parish church and presbytery, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited came to mind.
The strange spectacle of an undecorated tree, standing tall, dry and dead, evokes that most evocative of scenes, when Cordelia secretly observes a priest decommissioning a Catholic chapel
He took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.
So this thing happened last week, which left me a bit nonplussed. I think readers of this blog could help.
Someone on Facebook asked me for advice. That in itself is no big deal. Priests are asked for advice quite a lot. Usually I can speak from experience, or I can quote the advice of the saints and spiritual masters.
On this occasion, though, I was asked about something which I’ve never considered before, and which maybe I’m not very well equipped to answer. That’s where readers can help!
My Facebook friend is in a novel situation, living alone for the first time in their life. So how do you learn to live alone, in a way that is happy, healthy, and holy?
At first glance, a celibate priest seems qualified to answer. “Celibate” means precisely that – living alone – and the priest, like any Christian disciple, aspires to be happy, healthy, and holy.
But there are a few hiccoughs. Firstly, although I have just turned 34, in all my life I have lived alone for a grand total of 11 months. That’s how long it’s been, since I moved to Casterton last October. So I’m hardly an expert in this.
Secondly, my interlocutor is a lay person who is discerning marriage. Those circumstances are quite different to my own. My celibacy is a permanent state, which permits me to deliberately become a contemplative in the world. I often long to be “alone with the Alone,” because, I suspect, this is how God made me. But a single person who is called to married life is only temporarily and circumstantially celibate. So my already very limited experience may not be relevant at all.
I’ve come up with three pieces of advice:
1. Buy enough food for the next two days only. That means you’re eating fresh food, and you’re not throwing out piles of food that have gone bad. It also means you’re not not-leaving-the-house for days on end. It’s always healthy to frequently encounter people face to face, even if it’s confined to buying groceries.
2. Exploit this time of solitude to grow more deeply in love with God. Foster the habit of visiting a nearby church every day, if only for five minutes, sitting or kneeling before the tabernacle to make a spiritual communion. For a Christian, loneliness is only ever an illusion, because we are members of the communion of saints, and the Lord is always calling us into deeper communion with him.
3. On your way home from your daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament, stop at a café and enjoy a coffee. There’s a strong subliminal message abroad that being alone is something shameful, or at least pitiful. I think that’s an expression of the pernicious materialism which afflicts our culture. It bears repeating: the Christian is never really alone. Becoming comfortable with one’s own company is an important counter-cultural witness to ourselves, much less to others.
I expect many readers can shed more light and share greater wisdom. Have I missed something? Am I wrong about something? Let me know!
This week I’m on my annual retreat at Kenthurst, north of Sydney. Five days alone with the Lord. (Notwithstanding another twenty priests also on retreat!)
The retreat director is Fr Max Polak, who was my spiritual director when I was a seminarian. He moved to Melbourne six months before I joined the seminary in 2005, and he was parish priest of St Mary’s, West Melbourne until 2013. Now he lives in Sydney, so it will be great to catch up with him.
I won’t be blogging in real time, but I’ve prepared a series of blog posts during the flight to Sydney, so there will be a scheduled post each day this week. More than my recent average, that’s for sure!
You might remember the retreat centre in Kenthurst accommodated Pope Benedict prior to Sydney’s World Youth Day in 2008. There are some photos at www.opusdei.org.au.
One of the photos depicts the Holy Father presenting a gift to the retreat centre at the conclusion of his stay:
It is a replica of the Mater Ecclesia mosaic which looks over St Peter’s Square. Its installation in 1981 was the initiative of Pope John Paul II, but a few members of Opus Dei also had small roles in its history, so this gesture of Pope Benedict resonated in a particular way.
Kenthurst’s mosaic of our Lady, Mother of the Church, now graces the narthex of the chapel. I’ve asked our Blessed Mother to pray for me especially during my retreat, that I am attentive to the inspirations I receive from her Son, and that I’m faithful to the resolutions I consequently make.
I’ll pray for all my blog readers, as well as my parishioners. Godspeed.
I’ve enjoyed a very pleasant first day of spring, which also happens to be my 34th birthday.
(The pressure’s off this year. Last year my spiritual director observed that our Lord had died at 33. Alexander the Great and Catherine of Siena died at that age also. So he suggested I make sure my thirty-third year is a fruitful one!)
I have received a great many birthday greetings via e-mail and Facebook, but I’m afraid I haven’t received any via text message. That’s not to say they haven’t been sent. There are dozens of unread text messages on my phone right now. But the problem is, I can’t see them.
I dropped my phone last week. For a few days I persevered with a smashed screen, but my fingertips were cut to ribbons. I thought an el cheapo screen replacement would do the trick — and it did for 24 hours, but since Thursday the backlight on my phone has malfunctioned.
With the help of Siri I can still make and receive calls, so my phone is not quite an iBrick. But as far as iMessages and text messages are concerned, the situation is hopeless. I’ve tracked down the solution to my problem, but I’m not keen on soldering with a microscope, so I think I’ll have to replace the whole phone — eventually. In the meantime, I’m not receiving messages, so please accept my apologies if you’ve sent one and I’ve ignored it. It’s nothing personal.
Thanks for the birthday wishings and blessings. It’s been a good one!