I was helped, my heart rejoices and I praise him with my song
Being outside of my community and my daily routine of prayer and the Eucharist for most of the past month, and being on my own in community for the previous two weeks while Bro. Francis was away has made me realise just how precious it is for me to live in a religious community, especially one where my confrère(s) know me and my story pretty well, know my weaknesses, and yet seem to love me for who I am.
As I write this, I am on my own in an otherwise empty presbytery in Weymouth where I have been for most of the past month, working as a Chaplain in the Olympic Sailing Village. I have driven back to Southampton for my days off as much as possible to try and have at least an occasional connection with my normal daily routine. It has taken a lot out of me, but it has been important to make that effort, I feel. I've discovered here, more than at any other time in the last 22 years of religious life, that I most certainly do not have the vocation to be a hermit. I am very bad at organising a daily routine on my own (with times for personal prayer) and sticking to it.
Last night, I sat down at about 7pm to begin watching the night session of athletics at the Olympic stadium on my laptop, but the BT Openzone wifi connection that I have been relying on here these past few weeks (no TV) started to misbehave and cut out every few minutes. By 8pm I felt like giving up and just listening to the radio on my phone, but at that moment I felt a very insistent demand inside of me to go and get my breviary (= prayer book) and to say Evening Prayer instead, something I have been very lax at doing when on my own here. I have prayed with my Chaplain colleagues once a day when on duty - morning or evening, depending on what shift I am on - but have been so caught up in the Olympic dramas as they unfold when I have been on my own at the presbytery that I have not taken the time to sit on my own, take a step outside of the excitement of these amazing few days and consciously make time for God.
Well, that evening he came a-knocking!!
I think one of the reasons that I have sought consolation through burying myself in the Olympic experience is that these past 9 months have been so challenging and emotionally draining (losing both my parents being at the heart of that) that it is a real pleasure (at least superficially) to have something like this to take my mind away from the pain I am carrying. Generally when I pray in community I feel that pain - or to be more pecise, am aware of it - but at the same time feel God's protection from it; that the pain is ok, that it won't overwhelm me, that Jesus will always be with me in the pain. But I think that here in Weymouth I have been avoiding personal prayer times to try and give myself some time off from having to deal with/face/acknowledge the inner wounds that are the source of the pain. But events of the last few days have shown me that it was my will and not God's that was at work in this choice.
Four days ago I had to visit a solicitor back in Southampton to get papers signed in relation to the administration of our family's inheritance. I heard the same day that a former pupil of mine had committed suicide and this shook me very badly. He was only 21, 2 years younger the my nephew had been when he took his own life 5 years ago. I was brought back to the realities that I have been running from during these Olympics (especially in relation to my family's story of suffering). The clouds came down and darkness enveloped me and I felt completely alone... because I had, albeit indirectly, chosen to be alone from God and not because God had abandoned me, and this despite working in a spiritual apostolate as a Chaplain at the Sailing Village.
This evening when I finally gave up on the wifi connection I had such a strong, undeniable feeling come over me that God had been there all along these past few days, weeks even, gently knocking at the door of my heart, patiently waiting for me to be distracted enough to actually notice him. This translated itself as an urge to go back to my bedroom here and pick up my breviary. I say pick up, rather than open, as I felt what I can only describe as an irrational urge to hug the book!! At that moment an image came into to my mind, one that is for me perhaps the most powerful and moving of these whole Olympics:
- Sir Steve Redgrave, 5 times gold medalist, coming over to Sir Chris Hoy, now 6 times gold medalist, who was in the midst of in an interview at trackside in the Olympic velodrome, taking him in his arms and giving him a big bear hug and telling him how proud he was of him. Hoy was genuinely moved by this and said to the interviewer how much he looked up to Sir Steve and how he would always be for him the greatest ever Olympian. And then, just when you thought this encounter was over, Redgrave hugged him again...
... and when I took hold of my breviary and held it to my chest it was as if I felt God hugging me. I came into the lounge where I am now and turned on the iTunes playlist of my favourite ever
songs (Christian and secular) on my laptop, playing them through external speakers I'd brought with me. I shut my eyes and opened my breviary at random. I landed on Evening Prayer of Week 1 (of the 4 week cycle): Psalm 27. These were the words I read:
Hear the voice of my pleading
as I call for help,
as I lift up my hands in prayer
to your holy place...
... Blessed be the Lord for he has heard
my cry, my appeal.
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts.
I was helped, my heart rejoices
and I praise him with my song...
... Save your people; bless Israel your heritage.
Be their heritage and carry them for ever.
How beautiful is that?
There is a profound lesson for me in all this. Even though I might feel that plunging myself into my work, or the Olympics, or some other such all-encompassing pursuit might be a way of finding relief from the pain, all it seems to ultimately do is take me to the point where the work stops or the Olympics end and I find myself on my own in the dark with all that pain bearing down on me to the point where I can bear it no more. Just as it did a few months ago in school when I reached a breaking point in terms of my inability to carry on fulfilling my full set of professional obligations as a teaching Brother.
Going to the solicitor 3 days ago gave me a taste of what it would be like if I'd carried on like this until the end of the Games this Sunday... the emotional vacuum that would have remained with nothing but darkness to fill it. Having said that, I will be back at my community at that point so the shock would have been lessened, but the unhealthy state I was in spiritually would therefore have been camouflaged and perhaps gone relatively unnoticed. So whilst these last few days have been very tough, I'm glad they have happened.
It has made me wonder why I never feel this way when I am on my own on my bike undertaking one of my crazy long-distance, multI-day sponsored cycles. But on such rides I spend much time listening to modern Christian music on my iPod (never loud enough to block out the traffic... I realise how dangerous that can be), and I end up praying along with the lyrics, as I am now while I am typing this. During the rides I go through moments of emotional catharsis when listening to these songs and am generally much more aware of God's presence with me than I think I have been here in Weymouth. Using such songs (and other "secular" pop songs from the past 30 years) that have become so personal to me is, in fact, my favourite form of personal prayer. I sometimes seem to forget just how effective these songs can be at turning me back/opening my heart up once more to God. It is ultimately why I am so passionate about sharing them with others, especially young people.
Indeed, since starting to write this and listen to those songs 90 minutes ago I feel as if the darkness has gradually started lifting, paradoxically so, as the light outside has dimmed and the room here has become dark.
But I am now happy here in the darkness.