The day I drank poison and developed spidey sense

The day I drank poison and developed spidey sense

So I drank some toxic lamp oil on Saturday. The oil was mistaken for water, and I drank it while purifying the chalice at Mass. My weekend wasn’t pleasant, but I’m totally recovered now.

The chapel in the house I’m staying at eschews wax candles. Instead, the altar is adorned with oil lamps made to look like candles. That probably sounds weird, but it looks fine:


“I can’t believe it’s not a candle!” Right?

I like these oil lamps pretending to be candles. They’re a neat and elegant solution to wax spills and wastage.

Now here’s a picture of the oil used to fuel the lamps:


If you smelled this, you’d smell nothing

This oil is clear, it is odourless, and its viscosity is similar to water. In other words, it looks and smells like water. At Mass on Saturday morning, one of the cruets was mistakenly filled with lamp oil instead of water. I purified the chalice immediately after communion, first with wine, and then with the lamp oil. It was only after I had swallowed the oil that I realised.

I went straight from the altar to the bathroom to rinse my mouth out with water. And then I did a very foolish thing. I returned to the chapel for ten minutes of thanksgiving. In other words, I resumed my normal routine.

Me praying my Thanksgiving after Saturday's Mass. (Recreated. May be slightly dramatised.)

Me praying my Thanksgiving after Saturday’s Mass. (Recreated. May be dramatised.)

Office workers at New York’s World Trade Centre who survived the collapse of the twin towers on September 11 fled the buildings as soon as the first plane hit. They were bewildered that co-workers carried on as normal, some making phone calls, others walking into meetings. But under such circumstances, head-in-the-sand behaviour is surprisingly common:

Research has shown that, when a fire alarm rings, people do not act immediately. They talk to each other, and they try to work out what is going on. They stand around.

I read that quote years ago, and memorised it. It startled me. It took no effort at all, to recall the article from which it comes: The Fire Alarm is Ringing. What Are You Waiting For? And yet, when the proverbial fire alarm sounded on Saturday, I stood around. I felt fine, admittedly. But still, I had ingested poison, and then I resumed my routine. (You have permission to yell at me.)


Thank you. Your feedback is noted. Please stop yelling now.

Finally, when I had finished praying, a full fifteen minutes after I swallowed the oil, I returned to the sacristy and inspected the label. It warns:

“HARMFUL OR FATAL IF SWALLOWED. If swallowed, call a Poison Control Centre or physician immediately. DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING.”

A call to the Poison Information Centre was reassuring. Fatality arises when the oil enters yours lungs, which happens if the oil goes down the wrong way, or if one aspirates during vomiting. In my case, I had sculled the oil in one gulp, without coughing or spluttering, and so the poison was localised to my gut. In there it’s painful, but there’s no long-term harm.

Hopefully, next time I will remember the lesson of September 11. When faced with unexpected danger, break routine. Don’t be an ostrich. Keep your head out of the sand and react immediately.

But apart from that lesson, the poisoning episode has also given me a new talent: I can now smell odourless lamp oil! I remember the taste of the oil vividly. In the immediate moment, the taste was not unpleasant. Yet when I recall the taste now, nausea overwhelms me and my stomach aches. Yuck.

Because I know the taste, I can smell the oil! It is subtle. Very subtle. But where others smell nothing, and so still mistake the oil for water, I smell the oil. I’m all over the proverbial Pepsi challenge. Point unscented lamp oil in my direction, and I will dry retch every time!

I see this as a positive development. My very own spidey sense, by which I can always avert repeat accidents. I’m virtually like Spider-Man. But actually, I think I’ll answer to Iron-Gut from now on.

“Good morning Fr John.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that. Call me Iron-Gut Corrigan.” 😉

Recommended movie

So I’m on my annual course this week and next, which mostly consists of study. We’re studying Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis, and doing some always useful revision of the Catechism and moral and pastoral theology.

But the annual course isn’t all work. There’s a few sight-seeing trips, and an occasional movie. I don’t watch many movies — the annual course and long haul flights is it, generally. I think this makes me more discerning, and demanding, than less. I used to persevere with average movies (— and mediocre books, and bad wine —) until the bitter end, but now I walk away much sooner. Life’s too short for bad wine. And the rest.

Hence I’m very confident that anyone who heeds my advice on this occasion will not be disappointed. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a great movie. It’s laugh out loud funny and fast paced. It evokes a sort of Harry Potter universe, wherein the kids are responsible and the adults are insane. But it’s not fantastical — it’s mostly observational humour, and occasionally absurdist.

It’s also unmistakably Kiwi. Anyone who liked Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby will love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. It’s much more family friendly than Gormsby, which is also a big plus. Rotten Tomatoes gives this one a very fresh score of 98 per cent. It is a very safe DVD purchase. I guarantee you’ll love it.

And — refreshingly — the trailer is very true to the movie. So here’s a useful preview.

Silent retreat

Silent retreat

My annual retreat begins tonight. It’s silent, so there won’t be much blogging this week. (Just a few scheduled posts I’ve cobbled together during the flight to Sydney.)

I’m looking forward to a week of rest at the beautiful Kenthurst Study Centre — but not too much rest. Spiritual retreats may be physically restful, but they are still hard work. I’ll have to be generous in the time I spend in prayer. I’ll have to fight sleep. I’ll have to combat boredom. I’ll have to put my own concerns on the back burner, and attend first and foremost to the Lord.

Since the retreat begins on the day of her canonisation, and we celebrate her feast day for the first time tomorrow, I’m asking St Teresa of Calcutta to pray for me during the retreat. With her prayers and God’s grace, I hope to match Mother Teresa’s spirit of prayer, and her generosity of time in prayer — at least for this week. As a start. I’d be very grateful if you could pray a short prayer accordingly.

I’ll keep in mind the intentions of all my blog readers. It sounds a bit funny, because I have never even met many of you. But then again, I’m always having to pray for “whats-her-name” and “whose-it” in the parish, recommending “faces” to the Lord on the assurance that he knows their names and intentions. So praying for anonymous readers isn’t much of a departure from the norm. God knows what He’s about.

St Teresa, pray for us!

A taste of city life

A taste of city life

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!

TV Mass

TV Mass

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.)

Suddenly there wasn’t any Christmas anymore; just
a dead tree

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.

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