The Magi got much clearer and more definite responses.
“Has anything happened on the island since I was here?” It was far too leading a question to ask an island resident. But listen to the pauses and the silence as well as the evasive answer and you might guess whether anything significant has transpired and even where you might look for it.
I heard about John W., only in his sixties, who died recently after a long illness and a turbulent life on oil rigs and at sea before returning to the island with a Chinese wife. Everyone liked her and spoke of how loyally and lovingly she cared for him throughout his last illness. With her he found five years of an emotional and domestic stability he had not known before. Until the day before he died he smoked like a chimney and indulged his passion for betting on the horses until his vision failed and he could no longer see the television. Shortly before the end he put on a party for his friends on the island, which is to say almost the entire island. ‘Why should you have all the fun at my wake without me there’, he asked them. They came and had a long great craic even though he had to go to bed early.
Changes don’t happen alone. One leads onto another; so, we ring in the changes like bells tolling, continuously yet seemingly unexpected. St Augustine knew what time was until he had to describe it. Heraclitus said of the river of time that we never go down to the same one twice. Continuity and change and sometimes: a finality like the last sound of a fading gong. New Year only reminds us that time ever flows, flies like an arrow in one direction till it falls. John’s absence means many things, one thing to Min, another for the islanders. It means we will no longer see a quiet, self-possessed Chinese woman walking the lanes of this Irish island taking a short break from her carer’s work.
These deep thoughts melted in the practical world during my first walk on the island after several months. Looking up to the crest of the hill I saw not just the Cross which is lit up at night and is visible from the mainland as soon as the island comes into view on the road from town. There was also a strange new thing, awkwardly present, like an unexpected guest wearing the wrong clothes and uninvited. A single wind generator, a three blade turbine, a blow-in rudely taller than the 1950 Jubilee Cross.
Retrospectively the silence that my innocent question had evoked became more understandable. This was something that had happened alright and people had their feelings about it. Without notice or consultation, it had appeared on public land for private profit. But if people spoke about it at all, they spoke guardedly. It was an event, unlike John W’s departure, that could cause division and resentment for years to come. Any personal remark travels fast through the ether of a small community and acquires spin as it travels. I could hear the danger of my own too direct comment.
We spend much of our life denying death. When other unpleasant things happen we instinctively find ways to deny them too. Isn’t this what must have happened in the cases of clerical child abuse over decades? You begin by downplaying its importance. It will go away. Wait and see. Don’t cause unnecessary offence. God will take care of it with time.
In the case of an illegal and anti-social wind turbine you begin by describing, with some glee, how it broke down immediately it was turned on. But it is not easy to seriously discuss its rights and wrongs if there are no structures for discourse, no civic institutions except extended families where blood is thicker than water and stronger than the wind. It is the procrastination of unfinished business anywhere that feeds corruption in homes or in communities or states.
Well, at least there is the liturgy. Here we experience sacred time not subject to the intrusions of fashion or faction or individual whim because the sacred can’t be created even by the highest magisterium. It takes time to mature and for words to acquire the resonance and layered familiarity of funerals, weddings, anniversaries and the flow of ordinary days. But a fresh new missal with its often dissonant piety and false sounding archaisms, hard to understand and hard to read aloud, lay open on the altar, reminding us that nothing is sacred, even the sacred. No one I spoke to, lay or clerical, likes it. Maybe, in time, like people and scandals and the wind it will go away.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)