Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iona By The Lake

The triangle dinner bell rang out in the air.  Normally used to call the family from the beach into meals, my father stood on the small cement door step ringing it over and over to let people know we were preparing for our Saturday night liturgy—Mass. 

My parents bought a small log cabin with lakefront property in Sussex County, NJ somewhere back in 1966 or  67.  It had been a dream of my father’s to have such a place to take us from the city on weekends, vacations, and perhaps for my parents to use when they retired.  The latter was never to be as my father, himself, was so attached by relationships to the city that the cabin remained a retreat for them as needed or desired.  It was also available for our entire extended family and friends through the years for their enjoyment.  It is still in our family and my nieces and nephews and their children all enjoy it.

After they bought the cabin, my father’s brother also bought one, and then friends from the parish where we lived in Queens, and their friends, and the circle extended  from Sunnyside/Woodside right up to our weekends in Glenwood Lake in NJ.  It was wonderful.  Along with family and friends, our parish priests were included and often came to relax with the families on a day off or for a weekend respite.  We had, I am certain, the greatest parish priests.  I know all the horrors we read about in the Church, and God knows we have learned of far more in our work in Good Tidings, but our priests were priestly priests, as the Irish say, or “priests’ priests.”  It was good  priests like them that made the later recognition of the reality of bad priests so horrifying to us all!  Our priests were part of the community, and truly welcomed among us all.  One in particular, Father Patrick McNelis was beloved by all.

Father Pat came to our parish newly ordained, a baby priest.  The parish taught him how to be a priest—our school of hard knocks, baptizing our young, marrying our lovers, praying with our sick and burying our dead, and walking with us through each event, rather than simply stepping in for a ritual.  When I was 12, after my Confirmation, I approached Father Pat and asked him to be my spiritual director.  I was not sure what that meant, but I’d read that holy people had them, and I wanted to be a saint—so he was selected to help me!  He patiently and graciously agreed, knowing that I was 12 and totally innocent of all I was saying, he remained available to me for the rest of his life…  He was also available to the rest of our parish and was part of our extended community at Glenwood Lake.  Fr Pat would come to the lake and on Saturday evening after our day of swimming, using my parents huge living room, he would offer Mass for us all around the table my parents set for it.  Family and friends, answering the triangle bell calling them for the Eucharistic Supper came, from beaches, from canoes, and homes, and gathered for worship together.  After praying together we shared a common supper and, being Irish, the night went on to dawn as the ceili continued.  Without ever naming who were were, or what we were doing, the Finnegans and Hourigans, and friends gathered in that little Irish house, a cell community and worshiped as our ancestors did for centuries. 

Years later, when we were living in our home in Pennsylvania, my elderly widowed mother finally moved from NYC and lived her old age with us and our daughter.  She read anything she found in our house, which is like library of theological resources.  One morning she walked from her room to the kitchen, leaning on her cane, with a paperback book in her hand.  She’d just finished reading it.  She tossed the book on the table and looked at me with those beautiful blue eyes and stated, “Well, now we have a name for what we’ve always been!”  The book, LIVING BETWEEN WORLDS, by Philip Sheldrake was an introduction and explanation of Celtic Christian spirituality.  She, as I had earlier, recognized ourselves in the book.  We had preserved and had lived by many of the “old ways” without naming it or discussing it as distinctively Celtic.  We simply were who we were, who we always were.  We remain who we are!

My mother, at the age of 80, stood with me by the sliding door of our dining room, on November 2, 1997, All Souls Day, looking out into the woods where we live.  All Souls Day, continuing the Feast of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead was always a sacred time in our family.  I chose that day deliberately so my ancestors, easily passing through the thin veil, would celebrate with me.   We were preparing to leave for the Church for me to be ordained a Catholic priest by consecrated Old Catholic and Independent Catholic bishops.  She held my hand while looking into the woods, and said, this is the day God has been leading you to all your life.  This is what you’ve been searching for all these years, into the convent and out of it, into community life and out of it, in your ministry with priests and now finally doing what it is that God has wanted all along—becoming a priest.  This is what God wants.  I love you, and am so happy to be part of this in your life.”

My mother was a happy, good-natured old woman who grew old gracefully enjoying her life with us.  She easily shared laughter, but was never one for talking emotionally or wasting precious words.  Those words were saved for the moments that were sacred, and I will never, as long as I live forget receiving her blessing that morning, as I stepped beyond the restrictions of the Roman Catholic theology stating that women cannot be priests.  My mother recognized my priesthood.  My mother blessed my priesthood, even as she had dedicated my life to Mary the Mother of God at my baptism, and deliberately named me after our patroness, Catherine of Siena, raising me to be a strong woman in her like.  A couple of hours after that, she walked with me to the altar, faced the three bishops at my ordination and presented me to be ordained a Catholic priest in the
Celtic Christian Church.  We had found our Celtic home.  We never rejected Rome and all the beauty it preserved for us.  We simply re-embraced our Celtic heritage, our Celtic expression of that treasure which is our Faith.  On her deathbed she blessed my husband Joe telling him that he was “a good husband, a good father, a good son-in-law, a good priest, and a good bishop!”  On her deathbed she asked me to say her funeral Mass.  This old Irish-American woman, daughter of immigrants who themselves had been profoundly affected by their ethnic and spiritual history in Ireland, had preserved and passed to me my greatest heritage.  Her legacy to me was love.

I was not able to celebrate her funeral as a priest.  I was so struck with grief when she passed that I hardly remember the entire event beyond her actual death, a beautiful and peaceful death in our living room as she gazed upon the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree.  I also knew that if I had done so, many in my extended family would have been confused and felt guilt-ridden to receive Communion because most were still practicing Roman Catholics.  Charity demanded I allow them their Faith expression at such a time.  Nothing diminished my own.

Looking back, knowing Church history, and my ethnic history as I do, and knowing my family history, I recognize that our cell community, both at home in our apartment in Queens NY, and in our little log cabin on Lake Glenwood, was truly our preservation of our Celtic center of Faith, our Iona located by the little lake in Northern New Jersey.

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