He Went Away on a Journey

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says:

“…he… (the owner of the vineyard) went away on a journey.” (Mark 12: 1)

This short statement is part of a parable that Jesus tells his listeners. The parable is particularly aimed at the religious leaders and authorities who are resisting Jesus’ teachings – to the point where they are conspiring to have him killed.

The parable is known as “The Parable of the Tenants” and is about a landowner – God – who rents his vineyard – creation – to tenants – us. But the core theme of the parable concerns those tenants who are hard-hearted and unloving. In the parable, these tenants enjoy the fruits of the vineyard but have no intention of paying any rent to the owner, and even after the landowner sends his men, and ultimately his own son (Jesus), the tenants resort to violence and even murder in a vain attempt to keep the produce for themselves. These cruel and selfish folk really believe that they can take ownership of what is not theirs to own.

Jesus ends the parable by asking his listeners what will the landowner finally do to these ungrateful tenants. The answer is obvious to all, even to the religious authorities who clearly get Jesus’ point and the fact that the story is really about them, and they are then all the more resolved to do away with him. In reacting this way, they of course are actually validating Jesus’ parable!

I began by mentioning the short statement: “he went away on a journey”, and although the parable has a profound and pointed message to all who would choose hate over love, I want to focus in this short blog on those few words because I think they are pregnant with meaning for what is a thorny issue for all seekers of the truth – the seeming absence of God.

The parable (as indeed all Jesus’ parables) is about the reality of human life. And by stating that the landowner – God – “went away”, Jesus is emphatically confirming that, to all intents and purposes, God appears to be absent from our lives and our world. God has “built the vineyard”, which is to say, has created our world, but no sooner has He done this than He departs the scene! And although Jesus goes on to suggest that the departure is only temporary and God will return at some time in the future, it is a departure nonetheless. God isn’t in the vicinity. He’s not around to interfere or react one way or the other. This absence of the vineyard owner seems to give the tenants the impression that they are in charge and accountable to no one. Isn’t this the truth of so many in our world today? They have effectively decided that God is non-existent and that they have the sole right to do what they want with the world and its fruits. This of course is crass stupidity borne of pride.

Jesus also suggests that before God comes back, He will however send emissaries: His servants, those who believe in Him and speak His word. These prophets are all the holy women and men who through the ages heed God’s commands and preach His truth even to the cost of their own lives. We may also say that God’s emissaries are everything that speaks of Him: the universal desires deep in our hearts, the glory of nature, and the undeniable dynamic of love. God is absent but nonetheless His Spirit touches us through all the aspects of our life.

And then of course, God sends His own Son… There seems to be a naivety on the part of God, for He appears to think that these nasty tenants will respect His Son. Jesus is however once more foretelling of His suffering and death at the hands of evil men.

We might ask why did God go away? Why did He not stay nearby and oversee His tenants? Surely that would have forestalled any trouble and kept them in line? The only answer I can give is… love. God is love. He cannot be false to Himself. He cannot force His love on us. He cannot oversee and manipulate our freedom. He had to go away.

The truth is of course that God is… here. “We cannot not be in the presence of God.” (Richard Rohr) But His almighty power is constrained because otherwise our freedom would be constrained. His seeming absence is the very proof and ground of His love for us.

Hard truths maybe, but this truth can set us free,


So Sad

I’m sorry to have to say this but I have turned all blog comments off.

The sad fact is that I am inundated with spam and trivia, ranging from indecipherable foreign language (usually it seems Russian script) to advertisements for drugs, especially viagra, and of course the inevitable porn rubbish.

Up to now I have tried to go through all comments and identify any that are of relevance, and there have been quite a few, but this means I have to spend ages sifting through appalling rubbish. Believe it or not but today there were well over 1,200 comments!!!

If however you really did want to contact me then please use my email feedback@poemsforpilgrims.com which I do try to check every few days.

wishing you every blessing, in His love,


The Biggest Question

Some years back I wrote a poem called: Who do We Belong To? At the core of this poem is what my old philosophy lecturer emphasised to us students: it’s the questions that really matter in life. In other words, find the right questions and learn to live within them, more than always pressing for and demanding answers – answers which may actually mislead and disappoint. That said, if we are ever to come close to getting authentic answers, then it will largely depend on whether we have asked / are asking the right questions.

In this regard, what then is perhaps the biggest question of all? What is the most important question that any human being can ask? Remembering that we are not so much concerned with the answers, perhaps many folk would suggest that the key life question is: “Who am I?” Possibly closely followed by: “Where did I come from?” and “Where is my life going?” Another key and troubling question is: “What will happen when I die – is there an afterlife or is death the end?”

For me, and this might be a personal opinion, the core question of all follows on from what we can say is the reality of being human: we are a social species. Note that this assertion is not based on any religious faith perspective but rather on an empirical observation of life. Human beings are naturally sociable, so much so that loneliness can be a killer. Perhaps the worst torture of all is solitary confinement – which can cause people to lose their sanity completely. “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox is a grim account of this, and hugely worth reading.

What then is my ‘biggest question’ of all? Who do we belong to?

You will note that I haven’t written: “Who do I belong to?”, because that misses the point of our true human nature. Who do we belong to, seems to me to be the better question, and it is for me the best and biggest question that we should try to ask. Note also, the key word – belong – this suggests relationship which again is at the very heart of what it means to be human.

I suppose I should now refrain from suggesting any answers! However, let me suggest some possible responses.

Some folk would answer my question by saying: “It’s obvious! I belong to myself. Nobody else has any right to tell me what to do or think.” Perhaps this might be the commonest response in our largely secular society today? In this response, people maintain that, for example, their body is their own property. If they want to smoke and risk cancer or an early death – well, that’s their right. If they want to get tattooed all over – again, it’s their right. This common but – to me – selfish response clearly negates the ‘we’ aspect of my question.

Another common response to my question might be: “I belong to my family or ethnic group.” While this surely posits a wider and more outgoing vision, it surely allows for such things as war and competition for scarce resources. After all, my tribe is everything. Hitler presumably loved his German people and was prepared to commit genocide to give them ‘room for life’. Attitudes such as “Make America great again” and “England for the English” are – I think – sad and narrow minded nationalisms which automatically exclude other societies, even to the point of justifying such evils as racism and slavery. I suspect that if most people were honest, this attitude would really be their modus operandi in life.

Some folk might respond: “We belong to humanity”. This, it seems to me, is a much more socially responsible attitude which encompasses all peoples and avoids the errors of nationalism and tribal conflicts. Nowadays, many would adjust this position to: “We belong to creation” – allowing all creatures some value and right to their own existence. People who own this life stance can be very loving and inclusive in their behaviours, having respect for diversity and our precious natural world. You also don’t need to be in any way religious to hold this belief.

Another response might be: “We belong to God.” Hmm.

What do you think? Is there a bigger question than my suggestion, and if so, what? Maybe that’s the question???


We are All going to Die

When I joined the monastery as a novice back in the 1970s it was the custom to get up at 5am when the local clergy came on retreat. We had to be up and have finished our prayers and our own breakfast in time to be able to serve at table for the clergy’s breakfast. Part of our early morning routine was a period of meditation in the main chapel and it was the custom that one of the novices would read a passage from a spiritual book as a source of material for the meditation.

There is a story told, and as far as I know it is a true story, about a young novice who, struggling to get up, had to rush down to the church and forgot to pick up the book which it was his turn to read to the entire community – priests, brothers and novices. When he realised the book was outside in the passageway and there was no way he could now get up and fetch it he was terrified of being told off. When the superior asked for the meditation passage to be read out somehow the young novice had a moment of inspiration and he blurted out: “We are all going to die!”

When you think about it, that’s not a bad thought to contemplate on.

It’s been said that the trouble with most people is not that we think we are mortal, which of course we are, but rather that we at least live as if we’re immortal (which again, from a faith perspective we are!). The point of that observation on human nature is simply that most people rarely think about their own death, if indeed they think about death at all.

And yet, death is coming to us all. The prospect of death, our own death, lurks somewhere in the back of our mind, and frankly most people, even religious people, try not to think about it.

For folk who don’t believe in an afterlife, death is quite simply the end. Maybe the way of dying is fearful but death itself is the big full stop.

For folk who do believe in an afterlife, the way of dying may still hold terrors, but it would also be simplistic to say that all these spiritual people are at peace with the prospect of their own death. What I mean by that is that for many of us we have been indoctrinated to believe in alternative states after death: eternal bliss for the good and eternal desolation for the bad. And many good and decent folk still worry as to which destination they – and their loved ones – will end up.

So, perhaps the most honest thing to say is that death, the thought of our own death in particular, is fraught with worry and uncertainty. Some believe it is the end, others believe that it isn’t the end but nonetheless that its quality is at the behest of God, and for many people they have been brought up with a scary notion of God who may well condemn them to everlasting torment. I was to some degree brought up in that frame of mind but thankfully I have grown to understand a very different and more loving and merciful God.

When all is said and done, I think it is still a sobering exercise to spend some time – certainly not being obsessed all the time – but some time just being aware that one day, sooner or later, we will cease to breathe.

Imagine, if you’re still reading this, that you have a single day left to live in this world, or even perhaps a single hour. Cripes! What would you do? Would you go and hide in a dark corner and sweat tears of fear? Would you perhaps rage about and smash things up? Would you desperately try and sort your affairs, write that will, send those long intended emails, etc?

Perhaps you might try and pray, even to an unknown God?

I believe it to be true that in the midst of battle when certain soldiers who profess to be atheist are wounded and dying, they call out to God. It’s as if our deepest soul knows who it belongs to, and at that awful liminal moment, our professed beliefs amount to very little and our god-given nature takes over. Death of course is called the great leveller – no time for sham or pretence. As Kierkegaard said, all people adopt a stance. And at the moment of death that stance can be ripped away.

I’m going to try and practice what I preach and spend some time in quiet reflection, meditating on my own death. I invite you to do likewise, and see what you observe and feel, without stressing too much on rational thought or negativity.

But nonetheless, please don’t obsess about this!

Some people may look forward to their own death, for various reasons, some of faith, some even of relief from painful and terminal illnesses, but for most us, death still remains a fearful and unsettling thought. But perhaps, just now and then, we should be unsettled from our comfortable and taken-for-granted lives?

In Him who we come from and to whom we will one day return,


Holy Ground

It’s well over thirty years since I left the active ministry of the Catholic priesthood, and if someone asked me what if anything I missed the most from that ministry I would have no hesitation to say: hearing confessions. I don’t regard myself as having been a great priest but I do think I had a certain gift when it came to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as confession is properly called in the Catholic Church.

The normative form of the sacrament is individual ‘auricular’ confession whereby a single penitent and a single priest celebrate the sacrament together in privacy and with confidentiality assured. This sacrament was always for me what I would call ‘holy ground’. By that I mean it was a sacred and precious event where penitent and priest were joined by the presence of Christ the Redeemer who manifested His wonderful forgiveness for sins committed and healing grace to do better for the future.

In particular, I had a technique, a simple question, which gently, without any probing or pressure, encouraged the penitent to do more than just ream off a list of sins which sadly was all too common. This rote listing of sins was often an ingrained habit of the penitent and effectively meant little to them and had precious little effect in the way of personal transformation – which is the real core purpose of the sacrament – indeed of every sacrament. This ‘going through the motions’ of confessing a virtually meaningless list of sins was not really the penitent’s fault – rather it was so often due to the pathetic lack of any proper instruction and encouragement to use the sacrament as it should be celebrated. I think for many priests celebrating confession was a case of “quick in, quick out”. Unfortunately this lack lustre attitude tended to be the norm in so much of the Church practice of my youth, and certainly before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

My approach to the sacrament gently encouraged the penitent to – only if they wanted to – open up about what was really bothering them. This could actually be anything but their sin – often more a case of where other people had wounded or were wounding them. As such it may have veered somewhat away from the central purpose but became for them and me a very special and intimate counselling session, often producing a healing moment. That encounter had tremendous value in itself.

But even when it was entirely to do with their sin – but again I would have to qualify that as saying ‘what they thought of as their sin’ – it was wonderfully special. I don’t mean that in any voyeuristic sense: most folks’ sins are fairly banal when all is said and done. Why do I say wonderful – after all, we’re talking about sin: doing bad things and failing to do good things?

The simple truth is that the very act of coming to confession implied that the individual was sincere in wanting forgiveness. At the very least they were well intentioned, and that is most acceptable to God. They may well have had a poor notion of what exactly was sin in their life: sometimes exaggerating and sometimes minimising, and often missing the real fault, but their desire for forgiveness was almost always sincere. Otherwise why were they doing something that was accepted as difficult: shedding light on their ‘soggy mess’ and the humiliation that came with it?

The incredible thing was – and this may be hard to properly explain if you haven’t experienced it – in opening their hearts and trying their best to articulate their failings, they were most lovable in their honesty and vulnerability. This honesty and vulnerability entailed a real humility on their part – again, so acceptable to God. And a vulnerability that also placed a very sacred trust on me, which I hope I never abused.

The sacrament of confession, meaningfully celebrated, is a wonderful thing, and I know that many people left my confessional with lighter hearts and that in itself was a moment of grace. I know that God may well hate the sin but without doubt He truly loves the sinner.

The sacrament was therefore often for me a graced moment and I’m not exaggerating when I call it holy ground: a precious and intimate meeting of two souls, both sinners, and a profound encounter with our merciful God. I pray that all priests realise the great duty and the great privilege they have in being able to offer people such a wonderful encounter.

Please pray for priests!