‘God is Still Smiling’; a seaside meditation

A morning with John Philip Newell, Jean Purdue and Mary T Malone. 

A generous friend spoils us with a place in the Algarve for a holiday.   Generosity is grace and God is indeed very good. It is a time to ramble and to drink in the beauty around us.  It is a time to stop being busy and to appreciate what is there. It is time for a very leisurely Eucharist.  It is a time to stroll around the Gallery of life and to enjoy nature’s surprises. It is a time to sing with the ocean and to dance. 

I went for a wander with Monsieur Jean Perdue.  He took along Manon and Catherine. Mary T Malone joined in and John Philip Newell wanted to have his say.  They were delightful company.  It had to be real Eucharist. 

It was a time for the sea.  My stick helped me along. I made my way to the beach. 6 a.m. is a special time. It is a virgin beach – untouched and undisturbed. By 7, I sit and enjoy the company. Eucharist continues.  The seductive voice in a guided meditation (all in the mind!) takes me into the silence. I am told to listen to the breathing of the ocean.  The harmony of breath between us isn’t obvious but the gentle giving in, does banish the invasion of thoughts. I smile as I listen. The whisper of a female (in my head) tells me that I am a typical man: I can’t let go, to the breath of the ocean. I have to think and organise my mind. Everything is silent except the breath. The birds chatter as if they crave attention. No wandering human intrudes. I am alone. Sounds and smells and spray and the rising sun say hello but do it ever so quietly.  

I am blessed into gratitude and then delight. Softly I emerge from such a moment of acute awareness of the simple whispers of God around me. The seductive voice of my ‘leader’ – tells me to become sensitive to hands, feet, body and quietness. And the rest. Do I open my eyes, I say to myself. Well at that moment there  was no-one else there!   If those eyes open, I might even see a little better! 

Now I did realise that de Chardin’s Altar was there. The world. The Table. The astonishing beauty. The crowded story of history – friends, family, companions, parishioners.  Why have I been always so thrilled with the liveliness of the world of God around me?  Why has it been such a happy place?  Why is ‘my church’ so privileged and so astonishing? Twenty years in Finglas today and and still amazed and delighted daily at the revelations of God among us. A very happy God – indeed the God of surprises. Some say the church is dying – our Church. Has it ten years? Is it full of misery? Is it a kill-joy?  Has it destroyed rather than gifted the world? The elements are there but the reality of excitement and wonder is overwhelming.  If the dull version has taken over –  that Table, that Altar has never been experienced.  Let that contrived and contorted version go.  Accentuate the positive. Taste the ‘gift.’

My companions have joined me. Jean Perdue takes me on his barge (his bookshop) to find the source of his sadness and the source of his joy. His discovery of Manon’s letter stirred his soul.  He has wasted twenty years. He drifted back into regrets at what he had missed and how he had died in his heart because he was afraid to live. The memory of the Tango evokes the fuller human being he could have been if only Manon had stayed with him. (‘A little Paris bookshop by Nina George’). If only the Church too could get on that barge and go on the search. If only the Manon of our lives could wake up the inner wonder of faith and love. If only we realised that we as Church need the Tango. To take off our heads and let the heart, emotions and feelings into action.  If only the masculine hadn’t taken over. The explosion and madness of loving is our Manon; is our Tango; is our Church waiting to be reborn. 

John Philip Newell takes up the conversation. (‘The Rebirthing of God.’) He doesn’t mention the Tango or Manon but he talks of the ‘Christian household’ and the dying and rebirthing. He is full of hope. He moved from his experience on Iona and is vibrant. He takes the metaphor or symbol of the ‘Roofless Church’ (TheNunnery on Iona).  He doesn’t see it as derelict. He  is happy to see the roof off. It is open to the elements; open to the imagination of God; open to the excitement of discovery anew of the God who calls us to ‘live life to the full.’ The ‘joie de vivre’ is splashed everywhere.  We don’t have to be natural optimists. It is never the blind faith that God will solve everything but rather the humility to catch a perspective where we accept that our minds cannot grasp the depths of God. Faith and God and that Table surely stirs the deep juices of the soul. We can only answer Thank you.   

Mary T Malone is losing her sight but she sees more than most of the sighted people. Her historical sweep recognises the maleness of our church and the loss to its evolution in the way of Christ. She isn’t in any sense anti -man but sad at the corruption of faith by losing ‘the Tango’ effect in the continuous revelation of God among us. In the rigmarole of the male-presentation of faith, so much of Jesus Christ was lost. The Table has fed us bland food at times. The Eucharist hasn’t had the enthusiasm, excitement and exuberance of faith. Poetry was sacrificed for flat prose. Grace was shaped into controlled structures. 

The sea still breathes. The sun is almost up. I need to go back before people arrive. I go back with Jean, Mary and John.  Why have we reached such a sad impasse?  What is God ridiculed in us?  That ‘joke de vivre’ seems to  be in short supply. We can delve into the past.  The maleness of the church is now paying the price.  The wildness of women was needed to scuttle the safe certainties of men. We needed to let go and dance the Tango! 

Jean is described as ‘ becoming as  adept at avoiding thinking as he was at stepping around open manholes.’  Somehow much of our Church stopped thinking over the centuries. The ‘students’ were immersed in the minds of the greatest thinking of history but somehow we read about them rather than learned how to think. We are decorated with priests who are rich with qualifications and have become semantic pedants. They may be good at crosswords but are hardly much use at launching their thoughts into the mess of ideas where God can be at home. Much of education in the widest sense has been involved with packaged thought rather than drawing out the best in everyone. Our theology got informed by a static philosophy which made it stodgy and crudely killed what faith or Liturgy could become. 

The Tango was never danced. The barge didn’t set sail. The roofless Church didn’t happen. We set it down and fixed it. The robots took over. We rather needed a tent. And should have become nomads in faith. We had to wander and know that God could speak any and every language in every place. We never had to protect God but we tried to cover God’s eyes lest he/she might be upset or shocked. Fixed places. Fixed views. Fixed structures were the death knell. 

It is time to leave my friend the sea. Tomorrow morning will come and we will talk again. We will harmonise our breathing together. The seduction will occur.  Other companions may join me.  It was Eucharist. It as the Table. It was the Tango. It was the blind woman opening eyes. It was the Roofless Church singing with the birds. It was a lovely morning in the Algarve.  I am grateful. I was fed. De Chardin was right. Let’s dance. This is the Altar.   The Church isn’t dying. It is waking up. The barge is ready. A sacrament is ‘a smile on the face of God.’  God is still smiling. 

Seamus Ahearne OSA

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  1. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey says:

    Thanks for taking us along as well, Seamus, by sharing your reflections. A breath of fresh air, and clearly a source of beauty and energy for the daily round, the common task.

  2. Phil Greene says:

    Thank you Seamus, and echo Sandra’s thoughts, and thank God for your friend, without whom we would all be the poorer!

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