A couple of weeks ago I offered you a literary picnic, an element of which was The Parable of the Pencils as written and told by Fr. Brian D’Arcy CP. During the course of his wise counselling to the work of his hands the pencil-maker reminded the newly made pencils not to forget you always have an eraser at your disposal! Its use being to correct the mistakes made. In practical terms Fr. Brian reminded his human hearers that no matter what mistakes I/we make, I/we can always correct them and start again. There is always a second chance. In the early days of Lockdown, I discovered that the power to erase doesn’t just lie within the brief of either pencils or human beings, but also vans !
Venturing forth as a man on a mission during what I welcomed as the gift of an hour of exercise I arrived on Hollinbank Lane (Heckmondwike) in search of a plaque erected a few years ago by the Spen Valley Civic Society. What I sought was the permanent reminder of an explosion which took place at Ellison’s Chemical Works at White Lee on 2nd December 1914. It claimed no less than ten local lives. In its wake chaos and devastation descended on many families and their properties. My interest in this event stems from the fact that one of those killed was James Alfred Morton, a Catholic, with an affinity to St. Patrick’s School-Chapel, as it was then, on Darley Street. Expecting to find a grassed area with an obviously located mounted plaque, the resulting fruit of that initial foray was absolutely nothing. Retracing my steps on the way back to Holy Spirit Presbytery, again I failed to find what I was seeking. Terrier-like I set once more, on a different day, of course, having on the first day reached the limit of my hour of fresh air. This time spying another human being – a rare sight in those late-March days – I called across to ask, as he was a resident on the Lane, if he could tell me where the plaque was located. With his directions I ventured just a few steps to find what I had been looking for. The very obvious site of the memorial which is not on a verged area, but in the middle of a footpath, led me to question why I had failed to see it on my initial outing. Was I overdue a visit to Specsavers? Not so. The answer lay, as memory recalled, in the fact that a van had been parked on the footpath on my first visit, thus erasing the plaque, taking with it the memory of both the people and events from that particular geographical area at the beginning of the Great War.
With the passage of time connections with the horrific occurrence of that far-off Wednesday afternoon naturally diminish. Today those events are mainly limited to stories shared amongst family members recalling their past, and those, like myself, with an interest in local history. Thank goodness for the plaque recalling The White Lee Disaster which reads: Near here on 2 December 1914 ten men were killed and six injured by a blast which destroyed the factory of Henry Ellison Ltd. The men were making picric acid, for use in artillery shells in WW1. Many nearby homes were badly damaged. As the Hollinbank Lane area flourishes today with numerous houses now built in the vicinity of the 1914 explosion it is hard to imagine the scenes of devastation captured on photographs reproduced in the local press over a hundred years ago are those of the same area. New life and rebirth came to that vicinity, aided and abetted by the passage of time. The opportunity to start again is the beginning of a process. Second chances are initiated by tentative steps being taken in a forward direction. The tragic events that took place at Ellison’s factory also brought forth new and green shoots in the evolving area of health and safety with the passing of the Munitions of War (Explosives) Act in July 1915 which was an attempt through legislation to better control the manufacture, storage, carriage and sale of explosives.
This weekend as a faith-community we begin the process of starting again, with the opening of our churches for the celebration of public Masses. Even in writing those words, I am aware that not all of our Diocesan churches will be opening at this time, as for a variety of reasons they are simply not ready or able to do so. Similarly a Methodist colleague told me this week that his churches would not be opening until September at the earliest. There is certainly no race in beginning this process, and behind the scenes a vast amount of work has gone on to bring us to this point. So much of which has and will continue to be reliant upon the efforts of individuals who have given generously of their time to volunteer as Stewards to shepherd and guide in good practice and habit that which is a way of keeping everyone as safe as we can. As we are beginning to put one foot in front of another in an attempt to make a fresh start, I am conscious that legs and feet may not be as strong as once they were.
Sacred Scripture gives us many images of new beginnings, some more welcome than others. Our first parents were rather nonplussed at finding themselves being turned out of the Garden of Eden to start afresh. We can smile at the imagined look on their faces as having enjoyed the comfort and security of an intimate friendship with the Creator-God, they suddenly found themselves expected to work for their living. God did offer them a leaving gift, however, before closing the gates behind them, as we hear: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) Clearly the garments bearing God’s designer label were deemed more appropriate for their new way of life than the leaves with which they had covered themselves earlier!
Elsewhere, again from those rich and, oftentimes, very beautiful, beginning stories, we learn of Noah’s gratitude and appreciation towards God in the aftermath of the Flood. Having emptied the Ark, we hear that the first thing he did was to build “an altar to the Lord [on which] he sacrificed burnt offerings” (Genesis 8:20) in thanksgiving. This is exactly what we are about this weekend offering our Sacrifice of thanksgiving, Holy Mass, for the first time as a community since Friday 20th March.
A further scriptural image comes to mind as I visualize people coming to Mass this weekend, being asked to queue, perhaps, and observe social distancing, most definitely. It is the story of the blind man who is given back his sight at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22 – 26). Part way through the healing process, when asked by Jesus, “Can you see anything ?” the man responds by saying “I see people, they look like trees walking around !” (v.24) It is a strange response, and begs the question of how he knew what a tree looked like. Realistically it is probably a reference to his having had some, although very limited, sight earlier in his life. For some of those entering our churches this weekend and during the coming weeks their first impressions will be of the differences they notice within our sacred spaces – the arrival of sanitizer, a lack of votive candles, an inability to purchase a card, the use of facial coverings and gloves … things being done for the common good, and within the collective, for the well-being of each and every individual. These will be (either in thought or even vocalised) the trees mentioned by the blind man whose sight is beginning to return. At the end of the miracle-story we are told: “Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” (v.25) The purpose of opening our churches is to bring us together, as a safe and confident collective, to return to Almighty God the gratitude and appreciation we feel in the sacrifice of Holy Mass. In essence we are doing exactly what Noah did. Scripture doesn’t record the periphery events surrounding the life of Noah and his family at that time. The primary focus was on his offering to God. The detail of the length of Noah’s hair or what he and his family looked like after having been holed up in the Ark for forty days was simply not important.
A few weeks ago we all celebrated our shared birthday: Pentecost (Whitsuntide), the birthing of the Church, ourselves as the People of God. This new beginning came no less than fifty days after the resurrection of Christ from the dead. During those days the Apostles, Our Blessed Lady and others joined in prayer, either alone or, when it was safe to do so, together. From a place where the doors were locked out of fear (John 20:26) that small group of believers, our ancestors in the Faith, were called out by the Holy Spirit to live in a new way, a manner which was both new and different. Many of us, I am sure, can relate to that first-post Easter experience this year. Perhaps never more closely have Christians walked in the footsteps of that embryonic beginning to our faith lineage.
How the early followers of Christ lived attracted the attention of others who quickly observed that “all the believers were together and held everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.” (Acts 2:44 – 47) A couple of millennia later we too are being called to live in a new and different way. Our roots in both prayer and community-spirit remain strong and firm. Together we travel the road ahead. Like any fresh start or second chance it brings new and rich opportunities. Being less concerned and distracted with the necessary differences which surround our new beginning will give us the opportunity to focus on the significant and important. Our individual and collective joy is the ending of our Eucharistic fast and the ability, once more to be a part of something that was given to us in an upper room long ago as a taste of the heavenly banquet on earth when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:19 – 21)
In ending this letter, I do so with a quiet confidence about our process of beginning afresh. If the last few of months have taught the majority of us anything, one aspect of the commonality of our learning experience has to have been a deeper appreciation and sense of gratitude for what, all too often, we’ve taken for granted whether that enrichment and enhancement on life’s adventure are people, possessions, experiences or events. As God’s people – the Church – there is no higher moment of appreciation and gratitude than in the celebration of Holy Mass. The Eucharist is our ultimate act of Thanksgiving.
With this new start will come an end to these weekly “Ramblings”, which have reached out to those both near and much further afield. As I sign-off enjoy and be inspired by these words of John O’Donohue taken from his work Benedictus – A Book of Blessings.
For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening,
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,