Sadness and the return of the black dog

Wine makes me melancholic, but I haven’t needed alcohol to feel melancholic these days. The black dog has been nibbling at my feet all week, and the only escape is the sanctuary of sleep. Thankfully, I have had only the occasional confrontation with the black dog in the last year or so, but he has pinned me against the wall right now.
While he can appear without warning, several factors facilitate his appearance. When they coalesce, I am trapped. For how long I never know. Fortunately, it is usually a relatively quick visit, and I can scramble towards the light again.
The first Christmas without my parents left me feeling orphaned. Being a bachelor with no family of my own, my Christmas always revolved around my parents – enjoying their cosy fireside presence, being entertained by my father’s annual indictment of the appalling rubbish on the telly, taking them on mandatory visits around the family circle, the long, lazy, chocolate-fuelled days lapping up their unconditional love.
Many times this lonely festive season, I have heard my mother’s voice call out in my dreams, pictured her sitting across from me at mealtimes policing my use of the salt cellar. I have smiled at the memory of my father surreptitiously slipping sugar in his tea when her back was turned.
In the four Christmases since my father’s passing, the time spent with my mother became even more significant. She missed him as only a true lover can, her tender heartbroken, and she missed her sisters who had always come home for Christmas but were now going home to God. Though children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren surrounded her, she missed the company and companionship and connection that her life partner had brought her and I missed it too. My first Christmas without both of them was as bad as I had feared.
The dawn of a new decade inevitably induces nostalgia. I have been thinking of the fine Redemptorists who died in the last ten years and of those who have left. When I joined four decades ago, I saw life and vibrancy and young seminarians with long hair strumming on guitars. I smelled excitement and possibility. I saw my future mapped out; I’d be one of a merry band of brothers crisscrossing the country filling churches with good news.
Now I see change and decay and good men in obvious physical decline, and the black dog sneering at me about a futureless future and a life misled. I look at a clerical church that is 200 years behind the times and wonder if the changes that are needed will ever come about. I despair that the entrenched culture of clericalism and careerism that facilitated the abuse of the most vulnerable and the misuse of power and money can ever be destroyed.
I look at flames devouring Australia and waters inundating Venice and wonder whether puny politicians and myopic vested interests will ever begin to take climate catastrophe seriously. I scan social media and online comments pages and weep at the hatred and racism and sexism and homophobia and abuse that little people hurl at others and how, for all our technical and scientific progress, tribalism and fear and misogyny and insecurity continue to drive wedges between individuals and peoples and nations.
I preach all the time about the importance of practising present moment awareness, of living each day in the now, of appreciating every moment. But when my chronic pain spikes and the black dog appears, I want to flee from the present moment; I withdraw to my room. I stop reading. Even my wit dries up. I just want to disappear. I seek solace in slumber.
As long as the black dog lingers, each day is a going through the motions. I fulfil my duties as well as I can; I continue to preach to the best of my ability; I pray and place my melancholia before the God of compassion and love, and I know that any day now the black dog will scuttle away defeated and I’ll be back to myself, and those living with me will be obliged to endure my remarkable wit once again.

A decade of highs and very lows

I’m not sorry to see the back of the teens. The last decade has been the most difficult of my life, and while it hasn’t been all bleak, I have little reason to look back on these years with any fondness.
It was a decade of losses. I lost my parents and many other close loved ones. This was the first Christmas without my mother, whom I miss beyond words.
I lost my health and have had to live with daily chronic pain since the summer of 2014. During the first couple of years, the pain was so intense and my self-pity was so all-consuming that I did not want to go on living.
I lost my innocent belief in the power of medicine and medics to alleviate pain and not merely to treat a patient as just another client to cross off their list as soon as convenient.
I lost my job in Redemptorist Communications that gave me joy, routine and a sense of purpose.
I lost my reputation as a responsible, ‘reliable’ priest, having been officially sanctioned by the Vatican.
I lost my home in Dublin and my parish chaplaincy in Rathgar where I felt stimulated as priest and pastor.
I lost any lingering delusion of being a young man. I had to accept the reality of rapidly advancing middle age and that my best years, and any possibilities of new beginnings, were now behind me.
I lost hope for the future of the Redemptorists (and of religious life as we knew it) in Ireland and the Western world. I am one of the last generation of Irish religious.
As fascism, narrow nationalism and right-wing populism gained momentum across the world, I lost hope that people, brought together through the potentially unifying power of social media, would focus on what unites rather than divides.
I lost the naive assumption that social media would bring people together and be a force for good rather than become an easily manipulated tool that undermines democracy, spreads fake news, and feeds people’s worst instincts.
From being a life-long lover of US politics and the US presidency, I lost respect for the office of president and for the party of Lincoln, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Eisenhower which allowed itself to become the willing poodle of an insane, dangerous demagogue.
The tragedy of Brexit damaged the affection I had built up for Britain following the Good Friday Agreement and the queen’s successful visit to Ireland in 2011. Now we see the worst of England, a country pining for a glorious past it will never recover. It’s hard to forgive the injury the Brexiteers are doing to the cause of harmony in Europe and especially to the welfare of the people of the island of Ireland.
The last decade brought many positives too.
I have gained four family members, grandnephews and grandnieces, that are a source of wonder and joy.
I found a warm welcome and extraordinary support from the Redemptorist community in Limerick, which helped me through my early days of physical pain and wallowing self-pity. It reminded me of the value of religious life.
I have discovered that my preaching has improved with age and enjoy the task of putting a challenging and engaging homily together.
I have – I think – become more tolerant and pleasant to live with. Suffering has made me more human and improved my sense of humour.
Without deadlines to meet, I have read far more and more widely than in the past and would like to think I am more educated now.
As I have aged, I have become more liberal/progressive/lefty in my views. The downside is that I am also more intolerant of those with whom I disagree.
My reading has helped me to see the world from a feminist perspective and to be even more ashamed of my church’s failure to include women as equals.
The election of Pope Francis filled me with hope, to which I continue to cling. He is trying to effect real change in the face of stiff opposition from powerful forces in the curia and in the church who seek to stifle him at every turn.
I am delighted that the 2010s has been a good decade for the LGBTI community in Ireland and many other countries with the introduction of marriage equality and other rights. However, much remains to be done, especially concerning protecting those who are transgender.
The last decade has been good too from a sporting point of view. Limerick won the All Ireland hurling title in 2018. Having attended five finals which they lost, I thought I would never see the day when the McCarthy Cup would come back to Limerick. Their unexpected triumph filled me with happiness.
The same goes for Liverpool FC. Under the wonderful Jurgen Klopp, the team is playing with a style and panache I never dreamed possible ten years ago. When they win the Premiership in May, most of my dreams will have been completed.

Words delivered at the funeral of my mother, Breda Moloney (4 July 2019)

My mother always hoped she’d die before my Dad. That way, due to my father’s popularity, she’d be guaranteed a reasonable turnout at her funeral. Though my father predeceased her by more than three years, mother’s worries were unfounded. She was loved, respected and admired in her own right as witnessed last night and today.

Emotions are raw at one’s mother’s passing. No matter how old she was or well prepared, no matter how eager she was for the journey, or how frail her body and mind had become, nothing can prepare you for the loss of your mum. The longer the life the harder the letting go; the more intense her presence the more jarring her absence; the deeper the love the more broken the heart. We don’t feel cheated or betrayed (she lived a long and good life), but neither are we satisfied, for there was life in her yet, and she died in a way we would not have wanted.

Our dominant emotion is one of gratitude. She lived for four score and ten years, a noble and full life. For almost all of that time she was robust, independent, physically and mentally sharp, our undisputed reigning monarch. We marvelled at her wisdom, the well of knowledge and insight she had accumulated and dispensed unsparingly. Her sagacity always astonished us. We delighted in her sharp brain, still on top of things after decades of active service, always clued in, figuring out practical solutions to problems we couldn’t solve, a brain that, even in her final illness, could rattle off epics like Young Lochinvar to anyone willing to listen.

So much has changed since she was born the year of the Wall Street crash; society today bears no comparison to the stable, rural setting of her younger years, but she took all those changes, whether in technology or social mores, or in understanding of the complexities of human relationships and gender and sexuality, in her stride. Change never flustered her.

We adored her quick wit and telling phrase and sharp retort. A skill she passed on to many of the next generations.

We marvelled at her gritty determination. I think of her undertaking those steep, almost perpendicular, lung-bursting walks around the loop on Cape Clear island. One morning, at the summit of the hill, pausing for breath, we encountered a young couple breathlessly pushing a buggy toward us. “Tough walk, this,” the man observed. “Especially if you’re 82 and a half,” my mother retorted. Just as with being faithful to her recent physiotherapy exercises, she met every challenge head on. She refused to be defeated.

We admired her strong work ethic. The Redemptorist founder, St Alphonsus Ligouri, made a vow never to waste a minute; to make good use of every second God gave him. Though she never made a formal vow, my mother also never wasted a second. She always had to be doing something constructive. For years she got up at dawn to milk cows, feed calves, wash churns, care for her growing family, her bed-bound mother.

In her twenties, with her brother George, she trained greyhounds, won lots of races, knew almost every dog track in the country. Later, she kept a large coop of hens and ducks, supplying local shops with free-range produce.

Almost 50 years ago, we installed an ultra-modern milking parlour, capable of milking eight cows simultaneously. It was marketed as a ‘one man milking parlour,’ but my mother asserted there must have been a flaw in the product or marketing plan, because the one man always required the presence of one woman too.

She made and repaired our clothes, knit thousands of jumpers and cardigans, supplied schools with their uniform knitwear. During peak season, she knit five jumpers a day. At night, she would sow or knit as she watched TV. She frowned on idleness. She couldn’t understand how my father and I could watch TV with idle hands and empty heads.

We worshipped her supremely gifted hands. Hands that not only washed and milked and baked and cooked and crafted and wallpapered and sowed and gardened and farmed, but also that bathed the ulcered feet of her own mother, and helped raise 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and cleaned and changed my ailing father when he could no longer do so himself; hands that enthusiastically rubbed my back, easing my chronic pain. Hands that cut her sisters’ hair when they visited from the convent. Dexterous, industrious, sensitive, soothing, graceful, gentle, healing, Godly hands. Hands at rest at last.

We were privileged in her love. There is a classic devotional book by St Alphonsus Ligouri called The Practise of the Love of Jesus Christ, that offers prescriptions for living a holy life. My mother never read it, but she didn’t need to. She lived it. True love is not grasping or self-obsessed or begrudging. It is never selfish or manipulative or self-seeking. True love forgives, serves, sacrifices, empathises, always makes allowances. True love lives for others. My mother was the most other-centred person I have ever known. What made us happy made her happy; what made us sad made her sad; what troubled us troubled her; what delighted us delighted her. She loved us when we did our best; loved us when we let her down. She loved us unequivocally, unconditionally. 

She was lucky in her birth family, the Ryan Georges, and in her husband, Mick Moloney, a hard-working, simple, virtuous man – and they were lucky in her. About four years ago, as my father sat wheelchair-bound and helpless, and I sat beside him crippled with back pain, we watched, as booted and rubber glove-clad, and carrying scissors and bucket, she scoured the hedgerows sourcing nettles for dinner (which she cooked with cabbage several times a year). Full of admiration, my father said, “Where would we be without her!” He knew every day of their 55 years together how deeply fortunate he was to have her. Without her he would never have reached the age of 84; without him, she would never have had the purpose and love that gave her life meaning.

She was the classic home bird, spending her life in the house in which she was born on 18 February, 1929. Her life centred on home and family. She was profoundly shy (unlike my father, who loved to talk). During her final year of school, she was sent as a boarder in Doon. She loathed it, she couldn’t bear being away from home, even if the distance was barely a mile. She stood for hours at the top floor school window facing East, hoping to catch a glimpse of any family member making their way into the village. She loved nothing more than being out on the farm with her brother, George, and her father, Tommy.

Lately, she missed no longer having a phone. It was a cry of loneliness, of grief. She didn’t have a phone because most of those to whom she spoke every day were with us no more. Not having a phone represented those she had lost.

She despised old age; hated lacking independence; hated needing constant attention; hated being a burden, hated being unable to knit or play Suduko or do the things she used to take for granted.

My father’s sudden death began her slow decline. It shocked her so much she had a breakdown, post traumatic stress. She never recovered. She used to imagine he was in bed with her, still by her side. When one loses a partner after half a century together, the one left behind is no longer fully alive.

If ever a person was ready to go, it was mother. She prayed for it. She longed to join Mick, and her infant son, and her parents and brother and sisters. Her bags were packed long ago. She was prayerful, devout, righteous, conscientious (like my Dad), who lived the beatitudes, who modelled the Sermon on the Mount. She and Dad were Christians in the proper simple sense.

Today’s gospel speaks of the wise person who built their house on rock, the rock of faith. Mam built her house on the rock of faith. Nothing could shatter it. No storm could bring it down. It protected her through the up and downs, the joys and sorrows of her long, good life. St Paul’s soul-soothing, Spirit-saturated, reassuring words to the people of Corinth were addressed to my mother also: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into people’s hearts, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Mother was our matriarch, our anchor, our stronghold, our shield, our fount of wisdom, our conscience, our rock of ages, our best selves. We were blessed, and will remain forever blessed, to have her as our mother.

Now, going to her place of rest atop her beloved Mick, she can say confidently with St Paul, when his work was done: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Hounded by the black dog

The black dog has been hounding me for the past week or so, that feeling when you are low and listless and each day becomes a struggle.
The black dog grabbed me and held on tight. Only now is his grip beginning to loose. It’s not always easy to identify what springs him from his kennel but, I think, several factors have been at play.
The usual January blues have done their thing. It’s that time of year when the Christmas buzz has dissipated, but the all-enveloping seasonal darkness remains.
There has been a spike in my chronic pain. Cold weather exacerbates the constant ache in my back, which of course is not helped by the January blues. Medication does little for my pain. Doctors can do nothing. All I can do is struggle on.
The state of the church in Ireland and the world has left me feeling low. The post-Christmas assembly of Irish Redemptorists demonstrated with crushing clarity just how fragile we have become as a body of men and how fragile is the state of religious life in the western world. What will we be like in ten years’ time? How can we plan for the future when it appears there is no future? How different it seems now from the organisation I joined straight out of school almost 40 years ago.
The state of the world hasn’t helped. The Madness of King Donald and the British Tory Party, as well as the coming to power of extremists such as the new Brazilian president and the clinging to power of autocrats such as the current Venezuelan president, has left one feeling angry, bemused and worried for the future. Our bright, progressive, tech-driven world is threatened by the primal forces of fearful populism and narrow nationalism.
There is also the peculiar loneliness of the long-distance celibate, the tsunami of aloneness, of lack of intimacy, of disappointment and regret, that occasionally washes over and engulfs and almost drowns.
There has been nostalgia for days past, when I was busy and occupied, and thrilled to the buzz of the editor’s office.
So I wonder in the midst of all of this, what have I achieved over my almost 57 years of life? What, if any, difference have I made to the world or the church? What have I contributed over 30 years of active ministry? It’s a desperate seeking after validation, scratching beneath the surface of my existence to see if I have left any visible imprint for good. I know I have, though, when hounded by the black dog, I see just the trace of a blurred line on a tattered copybook.
All I can do at this stage is to try to be good, be honest, be loving, and a little prophetic if I can. And if I can manage any of that, and smile a bit more, then I am doing something meaningful.

Medical update – Up and running for SCS surgery

For the first time in six months I travelled to the capital yesterday to attend an ‘education day’ in preparation for my spinal cord stimulator (SCS) surgery. The event took place in a city centre hotel and was facilitated by a leading member of the pain intervention team at the hospital I attend.

Seven prospective recipients of the SCS surgery and their companions attended. We were required to bring a companion so that he/she would know about the procedure and be there to offer support afterwards.

It wasn’t difficult to identify the chronic pain sufferers in the room. All one had to do was look at their faces.

I had already researched all about SCS surgery but I found the day to be both educational and entertaining. It was clear that our facilitator knows her stuff. She told us that more than 500 people in Ireland have had the surgery to date, with a success rate of more than 85 percent. Success is defined as experiencing a decline in pain levels of 50 percent or more. Some patients have done much better than that, even becoming entirely pain-free, while a few have experienced little or no relief from the procedure. They don’t know why it works for some and not for others.

Given the delicate and invasive nature of SCS surgery, there is always a trial period of about two weeks to test whether it will work for the patient or not. If it is making a positive difference, then the device will be implanted permanently.

The surgery requires that incisions are made in the upper and lower back so that leads can be placed along the spinal canal and then to the battery device itself, which is usually placed in one of the buttocks. You can turn the device on or off, or up and down, by using a remote control gadget similar to a TV remote. The device is programmed while the patient is in hospital, and can be modified remotely by the pain management team afterwards, if required.

The recovery period is lengthy. The patient is asked to be as still as possible for three to four months to give the leads a chance to take root solidly in the proper place along the spine. Sudden movement can cause the leads to move out of position, which would then require more surgery to return them to their proper spot. Nobody wants to have to go through that.

Then we were given the list of ‘Don’ts.’ Don’t bend, don’t lift, don’t pull, don’t twist, don’t stretch, don’t push; don’t make any sudden movement that might dislodge the leads. And all of this for three months. Don’t drive for four months. Don’t go back to heavy work for up to six months. Healing and recovery require that we do as little as possible for the remainder of the year, so that by the end of it, hopefully, we can live full lives again.

Almost as discommoding as these instructions was the news that we can’t take a shower for about two weeks after the procedure or until such time as the stitches are removed. Given the nature of the surgery, there is a high risk of infection if the wounds aren’t cared for properly. As the instructor put it, nobody ever died due to the lack of a shower for a couple of weeks, but lots of people have died as a result of serious infection.

Though the instructor didn’t downplay the risk of failure, she was keen to tell us about success stories, and there are plenty of them. She also promised that, if we wanted, she could put us in touch with a patient who had a similar pain history to our own and had successful SCS surgery, who could function as a friend and support along the way. An excellent idea.

All that remains now is to be given a date when to show up at the hospital for the two-week trial period. That could happen any time within the next few weeks.

I journeyed back to Limerick last night (after an hour-long diversion at Portlaoise had added to an already very long day) feeling optimistic that the SCS will ease my pain enough to allow me to function properly again. And that would be a delight.


 

The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.

Things that give my joy

A short list of things that give me joy (in no particular order):

• A Liverpool win

• A piece of chocolate of any kind

• Seeing my mother

• The end of another day, when I can fall asleep and escape from pain for a while

• A Munster or Ireland rugby victory

• A good homily well preached (or article well written)

• Any sign of renewal or reform of the church

• Family members doing well

• Receiving a thoughtful message or kind word

• A day when pain doesn’t spoil things