When my cousin, Kathy died, her husband John, a gardener, found some salvation in going to his allotment each day and working the soil as he had done all his life. We are creatures of habit and doing the things we know how to do habitually is a great ease and comfort to us.
When my own wife, Maggie died, I threw myself into writing every day, since writing, and before it, preaching had been the habit of my life for so many years. We are creatures of habit and the writing gave me a powerful focus for my distressed heart and mind. Out of that writing came three books published and three more left on a shelf. But the writing was a source of salvation. It kept me from despair and from idleness and from aimlessness.
Being bereaved, suffering the loss of the one you love, casts you back on yourself and we fear and find out that we are not enough for ourselves, not by ourselves anyway. Sorrow cuts us off temporarily from others and we find ourselves solitary in sorrow. Sorrow confines us and solitary confinement becomes our condition of life. It takes time for us to emerge once more into the broad light of day.
Just now, the Siberian cold and the avalanche of snow have also brought solitary confinement to many people. We find ourselves trapped in our cabins, thrown back on our own resources, our meagre resources at that, and desirous to get out and into the wider world soon. This freezing entrapment brings home to us how very much we need one another.
A letter appears from the Vatican entitled Placuit Deo, which is concerned to advise us about the real meaning of salvation since our modern world seems to be veering off into highly privatized notions of what human salvation might mean. We are warned of two dangers. Thinking we can save ourselves simply by our own efforts, and thinking that our subjective peaceful state of mind is all that we need to achieve. Both of these dangers ignore true human connection in life. They are solitary fantasies.
In my Redemptorist days I was amazed to discover how intently and urgently Saint Alphonsus would go on about the vital importance of prayer. It seems such a boring subject and something that people are not inclined to. But as I got older I began to understand that prayer is a matter of coming home to your self and to discovering that God already dwells in the human heart. Connection is there for the asking and people are beside us for our comfort. These are the two vital connections of life: Loving God and loving one another. We have not been left orphans.
On Redemptorist missions the first sermon of the week was always on salvation. In fact Saint Alphonsus wanted to call his band of brothers the Congregation of the most holy Saviour. As a young priest I would dutifully preach about being saved from our sins in those days of confession-centred religion.
If I got into the pulpit today perhaps as a wiser old head I would preach about the dangers in today’s world – individualism and subjectivism. We need saving from these dangerous conditions, from the solitary confinement of human living that these selfish ways promote.
I sit in my wee cabin in Scotland and look out on a bleak snowy and freezing cold day and I know I cannot save myself. I can come home to myself in prayer and ask the good Lord to save my soul from despair and to fill my heart with his grace. And I can reach out to my neighbours for help in living through the hard times that come to us all.
In creating us God has also saved us because he made us like himself. He made us for health and happiness, and togetherness, and gives us the powers for both, grace to live with God and grace to live with one another.
4 March 2018
I’ve been a priest for 54 years. I have my horror stories and torn my hair out in despair of the institutional. Mary McAleese’s talk was long overdue. It scratches the surface. I see two big issues: 1 – the church in the northern hemisphere is dying rapidly and needs palliative care; 2 – I find it hard not to see lower clergy like myself and the people in the pew as co – dependent, enablers of an institution that has lost its way and become abusive.