Columns

December 30, 2015

A new dawn brings just the same hope as a New Year

When you reflect on it, a year is such an artificial thing. Quite arbitrarily, we choose a day to mark the beginning of yet another 12-month period. However, nature and its seasons, the world and the heavens, are all impervious to human time. Each day, the earth turns endlessly around the sun. Nature grows and declines, not according to our clock, but on its own terms. We are just spectators of a natural drama which unfolds at its own pace. And so, the difference between December 31 and January 1 is really just one of perspective. The sun falls and then rises on the same world. The only real difference is that the sun will stay a little longer in the sky. Time is particular to human beings. We remember the past and project into the future, all of which requires a sense of time. However, this does not mean that we should become chained to the clock…

 

December 23, 2015

A fictional priest brought me face to face with all God’s grandeur

Last year, a film called Calvary was released. It tells the story of Fr James, a Catholic priest played by Brendan Gleeson. Fr James ministers to a small Irish town where human life unfolds in all its tragic drama. The film was lauded by critics and clergy across the world. Without giving away its remarkable plot, Calvary shows people at their best and worst. It depicts a place crying out to Heaven for redemption, and that is something which Fr James offers to each of the protagonists. That I am only able to write about it now, so long after its release, is testament to the profound effect that Calvary had on me. I had written a book on Catholicism, yet I was no closer to the truth of what it really means. In Fr James, I came face to face with spiritual grandeur at its most sublime. He is…

 

December 16, 2015

Love is the best Christmas gift – but it can’t be found in shops

It is a time of year when the soul should be at peace. The endlessly dark days are banished by lights that shine from every window. And yet, so many of us have never been more stressed or anxious. Anxiety levels seem to peak as we enter the last lap before the great feast. Already, I have witnessed road rage, people shouting and numerous acts of aggression in shops and supermarkets. It is as though Christmas is causing us to become the very thing we should not be in this season of love. Invariably, there is a certain degree of stress in advance of Christmas. Gifts must be bought, the pantry stocked and the house decorated. Most importantly, everything must be right for the sake of the children…

 

December 9, 2015

Take the time to send Christmas cards… they are a gesture of love

I have retained so many of them, so many memories wrapped in yuletide joy. As they fly through the letterbox, there is a scramble to see who they are from. In a world of instant
communication, where people rarely commit anything to paper, the Christmas card is a towering symbol of real communion. Sending a Christmas card involves effort and time, neither of which we have in abundance. What makes them so special nowadays is that
people make the effort to do something that could easily be done by text. Except, of course, that a text costs virtually nothing, demands no effort and can be deleted in an instant. Writing a card requires a certain ritual, one that few of us still practice. It demands selecting and purchasing your cards, boiling the kettle and, over a hot brew, carefully crafting your sentiments. You don’t have…

 

December 2, 2015

How the grave of St Nicholas strengthened my boys’ faith

A photo sits on my desk, an image that reminds me of tender times. Back then, we had only one child and he is perched on his mother’s knee. Beside them sits Santa Claus waving to the camera. I vividly remember that morning because we waited for an eternity to see Santa. When we finally entered his cabin, our little boy was hungry and restless. As Santa held out his arms, our son dashed back into mine. Times change, of course, and it wasn’t long before our annual trip to Father Christmas was the highlight of the year. For my children, however, Santa is not just a figure who satisfies their Christmas cravings. They know him as Saint Nicholas, a person whose…

 

November 25, 2015

The days are dark – but we still have light in our lives…

Not much time from sunrise to sundown. We may as well be dwelling in a shadow land, a twilight zone in which we seem only half awake. People say: ‘I hate this time of year’, and yet time is what we make of it. As the last light fades, I look out towards the hills to see them shimmer in the dying sun. Soon, I am standing alone in the dark and it is not even five in the afternoon. It is time to light the lamps, but not those powered by a switch. A room can be lit with a dozen bulbs and yet still remain cold. It is not light itself that fills a space with warmth, but a special kind of light…

 

November 18, 2015

My boys’ books casting a spell more powerful than Hogwarts

It began like any other day. I was sitting quietly reading a book when up beside me jumped our seven-year-old. He was clutching a copy of Roald Dahl’s novel, Matilda. I said nothing, but simply observed him from the corner of my eye. He settled himself and then proceeded to read in a whisper. To my delight, every word was perfectly pronounced. For two years now, he and I have sat together each afternoon reading his school books. Each page is heavily illustrated and short on prose. The fact that he now speeds through them shows he is making real progress. This, however, was something quite different…

 

November 11, 2015

Why society is sustained by two words

They are two small words, and yet they possess such power. ‘Thank you’ is something we say every day, something we very often utter without thinking. Saying those words is, however, a gift of self, of the heart and of love. It is true that, in giving, we should look for no reward. All the great religious traditions urge us to give for its own sake, to never let ‘your left hand know what your right hand is doing’. After all, a gift offered with the expectation of return is no gift at all. While that may be so, we still long to hear those precious words: ‘Thank you.’ It is not that we demand to hear them, but simply that they sanctify our human transactions. They serve as a blessing on those to whom they are uttered. Sometimes, we have nothing to give except those words. Sometimes, our lives are so…

 

November 4, 2015

A trip back in time to a truly sacred place

People change, times change, but some things simply stay the same. As my eldest son and I pushed open the heavy wooden doors, it was as if we were walking back in time. The great vaulted ceilings, the statues, the scent – all were as beautiful as I remember. For years, I had longed to revisit St Joseph’s Church in Terenure in Dublin. As a boy, I heard an American tourist say: ‘This is not a church but a basilica!’ For me, it is that and much more. Built in 1905, St Joseph’s stands with Romanesque grandeur at the centre of Terenure village. Inside, there is the great marble altar featuring a sculpture of the slain Christ. Two of the stained-glass windows were designed by Harry Clarke, a man whose art was synonymous with sacred beauty. At first, my son thought…

 

October 28, 2015

A cartoon and apple-bobbing was sheer joy

My grandmother was a simple woman. By this I mean that she lived an uncomplicated life, one that, by our standards, seems almost primitive. Yet, even though she had little, she never neglected ceremony or celebration. This was especially so at Halloween. As the day approached, she would gather apples, nuts and an assortment of dried fruits. There were no chocolates, sweets or crisps, but only nature’s gifts and plenty of them. Halloween started like any other day, but, at the dawn of dusk, …

 

October 21, 2015

All the warmth of humanity on view on a chilly autumn stroll

I take the first step and hope for the best. It is cold and a cloud of dew still hangs in the air. As I progress, autumn leaves of yellow, brown and red crunch beneath my feet. I look up to see that the trees are almost bare. Gone is their summer splendour, only to be replaced by autumn rags. Worn out and dishevelled, they appear to weep for lost seasons in the sun. It is as though the world is falling apart, yet where there is death, life springs eternal. The grass has stopped growing and is covered in leaves. However, with its glistening mantle of fresh dew, …

 

October 14, 2015

How churches can unite all generations

I sat beside Rosie, a sprightly 81-year-old with painted nails and an outfit that would be the envy of any teenager. ‘We were married here in 1960,’ she said, ‘but my lovely man is now in Heaven.’ For the entire Mass, this joyful woman gave me a running commentary on all the characters that had shaped her community. Rosie and I were at our local church to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee. Our eldest had been invited to …

 

October 7, 2015

Courtesy and grace make a child blossom

Last week, while dropping our youngest to pre-school, I saw something that made me smile. On a board outside the front door was a note saying: ‘This week we are focusing on grace and courtesy.’ How marvellous, I thought, that children so young are being schooled in such beautiful virtues. I then praised the teacher for this wonderful initiative. She informed me, however, that grace and courtesy are essential components of the Montessori system. To practise them not only enhances the child’s personal development, but also leads to ‘a more pleasant environment wherever the child may go’. It is terrific to imagine little four-year-olds being taught grace and courtesy. That is because…