Archive for December, 2009

A Smile Called Jimmy

This week I want to send a New Year greeting to everyone from a Leylander who I think could help us with our New Year Resolutions. To smile amid all our difficulties would be a positive contribution for 2010, and this poem, recited at his funeral after Holy Communion amid some emotion by Nobby O’ Brien, a “brother” of Jimmy in Phab helps us. In the photo in last week’s blog you can see the whole body and face of Jimmy shaking with joy as he was with his friends in Morecambe Bay. He was always ready to smile. 

To understand the poem here are some notes of explanation. 

Phab stands for Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied. There are Phab clubs all over the UK. Jimmy joined Lancashire Phab and was a part of that “family” as he was of his own family, that of the parish and the British Legion club of Leyland. 

Jimmy was “no perfect boy” not only because he was an “ordinary lad” like all others, but also because born with cerebral palsy he could not talk or walk like able bodied people do.

Jimmy was away at special schools in most of his formative years to late teens. 

He had a three wheeler blue car until he was unfit to drive it. I remember him in it in the 1980’s.

Borwick Hall is a residential country house near Lancaster used by many groups, often young people for time away from home.. 

When in his last years at school, Jimmy learned how to make furniture with rushes. Hence the reference that “in many homes there is a stool made by Jimmy”.

“In a North East town god had brewed a brown” refers to the famous Newcastle Brown Beer that Jimmy drank in fair quantity. 

A poem in memory of Jimmy Jones

as a tribute from his brothers and sisters in the family of Lancashire Phab.


In Leyland town a star fell down and birthed a smile called Jimmy

No perfect boy, but still mum’s joy when she saw her smile called Jimmy

His hero dad was oh so glad when he held his smile called Jimmy

This family strong would not wait long to look with pride on Jimmy

His special face, of scowls, no trace, would beam a smile called Jimmy.

A shining jewel, he went to school and shared his smile called Jimmy

Then hour by hour real gold would shower from the boy the loved called Jimmy

He grew to youth and proved in truth that there is a smile called Jimmy

James Jones by name, to Phab he came and brought a smile called Jimmy

He took his place and stood the pace, this golden smile called Jimmy.

With Pete and Pop he would often stop, the smile they knew as Jimmy

In his car of blue his legend grew as did this smile called Jimmy

In this 3 wheeled jet you were well met when he beamed his smile called Jimmy

At Borwick Hall James Jones walked tall and left a smile called Jimmy

On flag days cool James was our jewel as he brought his smile called Jimmy.

In many homes we have a Jones, yes a stool that’s made by Jimmy

At Rossal school, Jim sure looked cool as a tune was played for Jimmy

Jim was on parade on the esplanade as the band they played for Jimmy

In a North East town god had brewed a brown

that would fuel a smile called Jimmy

In many a bar Jones was admired from afar

as he quaffed this smile called Jimmy

Now Jims called home to his maker’s throne

and the sun is now a smile called Jimmy

So on your darkest day you can proudly say

that you knew a smile called Jimmy.

God bless you Jimmy Jones, a legend in your own smile. 

Written and lived by Nobby O`Brien, Jimmy`s brother in the family of Lancashire Phab.

Joy Among Us

Have you ever thought, I wonder, how often children can become our teachers?  I’ve noticed, when talking to children about reconciliation, that the issue often concerning them most is how they have treated their mums and dads, brothers, sisters and their friends. It is interesting how often brothers and sisters “fall out” and, in regards to girls, how easy it is to fall out with their friends, never mind their families. With boys the same thing happens, and yet, the “making up” has a different ‘texture’, and can sometimes come about more easily.

Pope Benedict, in his most recent encyclical, “Charity in Truth” shows how “micro-relationships” (with friends, family members or between small groups) are very much linked with “macro-relationships” (with politics, relationships in society and between nations). What the children experience is actually only a reflection, on a minor scale, of the major issues that result in violence, war and, untold suffering. It is, most often, human relationships that affect us so deeply.

Joy in our hearts has a lot to do with joy in the way we relate to others. Truly, it is a delight to see how much joy there is in our Parish community house and, on the whole, within many Parishioners, despite the many challenges that might well pull people down – right down to their knees. How is this possible?

Jimmy Jones has, for me, shed some light on this matter. We buried this friendly parishioner, who was taken to God on the 10th December, just two days ago. The Chapel was crowded, and some quite famous people were present –  people whom he admired and loved –  and who loved him in return. The occasion was one of joy, tinged with tears – in fact, a close family member of his said: “That ceremony will remain in my heart a long time.” There is a photo attached of Jimmy with the ‘Hoghton Weavers’ who used to come for him when their ‘gig’ was local to Leyland. What a smile he had – his whole body used to shake with laughter!

Jimmy was born with cerebral palsy some 60 years ago, and was unable to communicate with ease, nor could he walk properly, having to be wheeled about by loving carers, or members of his family.  Certainly, he was special!  Soon, I hope to put on this ‘blog’, a poem written for him by a member of PHAB, a family of people that supports and is made up of those – physically and mentally – with learning difficulties. Jimmy was a ‘star’ among them, with a smile that is the centre of the poem. He was a ‘star’ for his family, a ‘star’ for his parishioners, a ‘star’ for his neighbours. His friends – of all types – came to the funeral, and probably, a majority of them were not used to the religious ways of our Catholic Church.

How did Jimmy come to have such joy? First, he was content with his own lot, and here, it is certain he had to achieve that contentment by means of a struggle throughout many years, as he saw others, who were able-bodied, around him. Secondly, he had the gift – and the power – to love others. You and I may wonder – where did that come from, in such a pure form? He could not “do” much for others; it was very hard for those who did not live with him, closely to understand him – yet … the proof was among those who made the effort, in snow and ice, to come to his funeral. Such questions demand an answer, which is that ‘at bottom’ he was concerned about people and the things important to them – he used to ask me how my brother was when he was dying, he used to ask me about my family – and this was typical of him. Despite a body that was severely handicapped, his mind was sharp. He was also very human, and had a great sense of humour.  In all honesty, I do not wish to put him on a pedestal – he will never be ‘canonised’ – but I am sure he is already there, in Paradise.

Jimmy had a very deep, personal relationship, with God and this he took care to cultivate: he knew God, and he knew that God loved him, through his family experiences, through his relationships with others, through his friends. He maintained that close relationship with God through prayer and his receiving of the Sacraments regularly; in fact, he received Holy Communion on the day he died – some of us think this the fruits of a mini-miracle – for later he will have met Jesus, the same Jesus whom he met his last day on earth in the Eucharist.

God always makes himself available to all, for all to know him – whoever we are. Of course, we do have to ‘listen’ to God, and follow his ways in our own ‘style’. God alone is the source of true joy in this world of ours – a ‘vale of tears’ as described in the “Hail Holy Queen”, and it is a ‘vale of tears’ for many.  But, as for Jimmy, tears, challenges, suffering were all transformed into joy and, if it could happen for him, it can happen for anybody.  It can happen for you and for me!

There are many different ways to know God. For some, it may be through the beauty of nature and here, perhaps St. Francis is THE example – the saint who saw all creation as brothers and sisters, rain, sun, ice, snow, mountains, streams etc. as well as men and women. For some, it may be through God’s presence in their intimate being, and St. Teresa of Avila may be a good example – the interior castle within us, with its many rooms. For others, it may be through prayer and contemplation, and perhaps St. Bruno, who founded the Carthusians, those hermit monks, provides the example; some through the teaching of others – like St. Dominic – some in bringing the good news to the world, as the missionaries do.

For many – and certainly for me in today’s world– the best way to find union with God is through our brothers and sisters. By going out of our way to love all those who are our close companions (and those far away) in accordance with the teaching of the Gospel (and this could be the subject of another blog), we can guarantee that we will find union with God. This does not take away the necessity for prayer – but rejoicing in God, who is the God of nature, or whatever – could provide the ‘focus’ we need to find joy, to find, therefore, the ‘purpose’ of Christmas.

Those children have got it right – when it comes down to it; how we relate to others is the measure and the ‘road’ to the Love of God, ‘bubbling up’ in our hearts as Jimmy Jones smile and joy all over his body showed. We will soon discover that it is only with God’s help that we can continually love our close neighbours, and so we come back to the personal relationship with God that lies at the heart of each Christian person’s life –  life which is then transformed into the ‘community of family’ – of those who live ‘in Love’. For, on this journey to God, we need help and support not only from God himself, but from others.

God himself sent his Son Jesus, the Word of God, to be that baby in Bethlehem –  the baby born for each one of us – personally.

Sense Of Family

For me – and, I suspect – for many others, the period in the ‘run-up’ to Christmas tends always to become a bit ‘silly’, but more than that, it is a time when the ‘evil one’ is well known to try and get his ‘claws’ into people. This is because this special time is a moment of grace, and he who is the master of lies, will do all he can to destroy unity and joy, and bring division and sadness into peoples’ lives. To fight these negative influences, I think it best to do as well as possible all the things that have to be done: for me it is to recognise, quietly, the great vocation I have as a monk and a priest, to write Christmas cards, attend the various performances of plays, concerts and functions that are offered us by the schools, also by prisons and organisations all around.  At the same time, we should try not to to interfere with others too much, except to respond in every situation with love – even when that is hard to muster –  and especially when we are tired. People call on my time to share conversations and something of themselves, and of course, it is good to be wanted and to be able to enter into their lives, listening with them to wherever the conversations lead, under the benign eye of love. But, I have also called on the time of others, too, and invariably the response has proved helpful to me. Love seems to help in all sorts of various ways, smoothing paths, relieving tensions, throwing light on the circumstances that gave rise to the conversation, and even to provide guidance about what actually should be done. 

The theme of priesthood is in my heart and mind at present.  A very good book called, “As The Father Has Loved Me”, contains a short, daily meditation on priesthood. In this ‘Year of the Priest’, I use it each day and, on Wednesday, the title was “As at Nazareth”.  Many of those who read these words will know that, only recently, I was in Nazareth, the home of the Holy Family, and saw both the small “space” – the home of Mary – where the Annunciation took place, the house of Joseph, where he taught Jesus his trade – probably as a builder rather than a carpenter – and the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus would have gone to collect water, the only source of water in their days, in the then tiny hamlet of Nazareth. They were a small group of ‘virgins’, living in the complete harmony of a family. 

The meditation was about the Holy Family, and it concerned priests who also need to belong to “family”. It talks about the priest who reaches retirement and old age and describes as  ‘absurd’ and ‘against the teaching of Jesus’ if such a person, perhaps old, decrepit and ill, were abandoned and left in loneliness. Equally, it would of course be absurd and sad for a young priest to feel alone and abandoned. Rather, a family house was used to explain the meditation, where diocesan priests live in one house, together, in a way appropriate to their vocation, a way that is both attractive and beautiful, because from this shines out the harmony and love of ‘virgin’ men living together. It could be an ‘open home’ for seminarians to visit, brother priests as well, and, of course, the lay people, because where Jesus lives (as at Nazareth) there would be a sense of communion and love – with no generation gap between young and old – and a welcome for all. 

Looking around at our diocesan priests in England, it seems sad and regrettable to me that so many are living alone, without the company of others in close harmony and love. It may be a necessity, and it may be the way diocesan priests prefer to live. However, we as Benedictines, who do live together, have something of this ‘priestly house’ atmosphere – but, of course, in another way.  We have no possessions of our own, and so we do not have the independence of the diocesan priest. We belong to one community of brothers, unlike diocesan priests who are a “brotherhood of priests”, but not under a “charism” – a common rule – and their “brotherhood” is much looser than those in a Religious Order, and indeed rightly so. 

Yet, we monks do have adult male companionship: we do have the old and young together; we can be a place of welcome for fellow priests and for others who come and visit, parishioners searching for what they need, as well as others who come from further afield. We have had, in our Leyland community, old men like Fr. Wilfrid Mackenzie, who made a great contribution to our life together – and younger men, for, at last, there is one, in the present community where I live, who is younger than I.  Strangely, it has been my lot, for most of my monastic life on the parish, to be the youngest monk in the house. We are blessed, too, with lay people who live and work closely with us, sharing the burdens of the day with us in many different ways – but also sharing in this ‘sense of family’. 

It is not possible for a monk and priest to comment on the lives of those who are diocesan priests, but the need for “family”, in some real way, seems to be a universal need. I hope my brother diocesan priests have this experience of family in some truly meaningful way.  Should they fail to experience it, then I hope that, as monks, we can share this sense of family with our fellow priests towards our mutual support, as indeed, diocesan priests support us monks in many ways, too.

Prayer And The Priesthood


What kind of things does one expect from a priest? It seems a good question to ask  in this ‘Year for Priests’ and as a fellow priest, putting myself into the shoes of a lay person, I would expect priests to help me to know God. But, if a priest is not a person of God, then surely he cannot teach me about God; so therefore, another thing is the priest’s call to Godliness.

What about unanswered prayer? I have a friend who tells me that he is continually praying to God for his help, but never seems to be heard. This has not discouraged him in his quest for God, though I cannot  find any easy answers to his question. There is that ‘corny’ story about the Catholic priest who got very angry with God, because he had prayed and prayed to win the lottery, but God had never let him win.  I didn’t think this would be helpful – but, could it just be so? To take the story to its conclusion, one day God was really fed up with this priest pestering him, so, in the end, he answered the angry man directly: “It’s all very fine,” God said, “but you must do your part and at least buy a ticket occasionally!”

“You must do your part” is the key-phrase. But, if that is true, what then is our part when we are asking for help in difficult situations of betrayal, or loneliness or spiritual battles? I think it is our initial response and effort to join with God in what we are praying for, though our part is taken over by God who is in our response from the beginning. For instance, suppose we are praying for somebody (or even myself) who is in a bad way, say ill, or in financial difficulties, or in disgrace. Then we should not only pray but do our part, practically, to help our case in whatever we can. We must get involved in the answer to our own prayers, and that involvement may take us out of our ‘comfort zone’. If the living God is to help us, we must be prepared to change ourselves, and let God in.

In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that “whatever we ask in his name he will grant”. In his name?  What could that mean? Scholars of scripture and spiritual people tell us that this includes: being united with God, especially in prayer, and for us Catholics, if possible, in the Eucharist, and being reconciled with God in our neighbours. It may be that, sometimes, we think the latter is ‘impossible’, but at least in our hearts we can desire it, and pray for those people with whom there seems to be an irreconcilable break. Jesus also taught us to “love our enemies” after all.

A spiritual writer and priest put it so well: “To ask for something in Jesus’ name does not mean that we invoke him, verbally, and then go on  to desire whatever our turbulent, divided heart, appetite, or wretched mania for everything and anything, happens to hanker after”. That is going about things virtually two-faced.  No, asking in Jesus’ name means entering into him, living by him, being one with him in love and faith. When we pray in his name, what we ultimately pray for is for the Lord to grow in our lives, to fill our existence with himself, to triumph, to gather into one our scattered life”. This is why St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us, praying the one prayer “Abba, Father”.

A few weeks ago, at the Liverpool assembly for Justice and Peace, I met a committed Irish Doctor who helps asylum seekers. He asked me what motivated my life, and I told him that it was living for, and seeking after ‘unity’. When I said: “The start and, perhaps, the greatest challenge is to find that integrity and unity in myself, first of all”, I found him looking at me strangely. He then said: “That is the most difficult thing for us all,” and I then realised we were on the same ‘wave-length’. This is what is asked of us, and this is what can truly motivate our lives.

That priest and spiritual writer has helped me: he is what I would call a good, ordained priest, because he threw light onto my questioning friend about unanswered prayer. He must have been godly to write what he did above. And, it is not just ordained priests who can live out and act on these things – but also the lay person who is called to be a priest, a prophet and king.

Evidence For What We Believe

“Father Jonathan, can you answer me a question, and no offence: how can Fr. Martin believe so strongly when there is no evidence for what he believes?”

This question was put to me this last week and it made me think. Fr. Martin Haig is a monk who has come back to our parish where he lived and worked for a time to see his friends. I know Fr. Martin quite well, and have lived with him over a few years. To live with another is to get to know them. He is now living in the 9th decade of his life, is amazingly vigorous for his age, interested in many things, and he certainly believes in God, and loves God. I cannot speak for him but it makes me question myself. Why do I believe when I cannot see God, or feel him or touch him? Or at least that is what other people might think who do not have faith.

For me it is not quite like that. I can say that there is evidence for God in my life and in the lives of those with whom I associate. He is the “person” who really does converse with me, not in the same way that I have a conversation with another person, but in ways that are real. It is not a psychological state, but something I know and can talk about. For instance this morning during prayer it came to me about the fact that we are according to St. Paul, “in Christ”. This means that Jesus, who walked and talked in the Holy Land that I have recently been to visit, who suffered, died a cruel death, and rose from the dead by the power of God is in some way “identified” with me. Now I know that I do not deserve this gift, I know that there are times when I am not the kind of person that Jesus would like to identify with, yet, despite all that, through the union I have with God that is real, I can say that I am “in Christ” and He is in me. This made a kind of love and devotion for God well up in me, a kind of “feeling” that is not a “feeling-in-the-ordinary-sense” but somehow deeper in my being, and I felt in awe of God who loves ME so much. I repeat: it is not necessarily something I deserve, but it is true. It made my prayer real; it made God real and I told him from my heart that I want to be His and that I thank and praise and worship Him for being so good to me.

I found myself saying to another person: “the thing is that our religion is all true – it is not made up, or based on something untrue. I know it is true because all my life I have tested the teachings of our faith against my experience, and it always makes sense, even in times of personal darkness and trial. That does not mean I always live up to the way I should to be a follower of Jesus, but that does not take away from its “truth”".

The person who asked me the question about Fr. Martin went on: “I was listening to him talking and he was saying things that showed he really does believe. I am not sure if God is there or not, and I am not sure that I could make the leap of faith that must be needed”.

This “leap of faith” interests me. Is it really a “big leap?” It clearly is for somebody who is struggling to find faith of is bemused by the presence of monks in our parish community who have strong faith. I do not think however it should be a “big deal” so to speak for anyone who is really trying to be a sincere Christian. It could be though that God has given me a lot of help and support, because I know so many people with a clear belief in God who are loving, kind, at-peace kind of people. They know their place in the world; they know their need for God, and they will be “in communion” with God through prayer, through God’s Word and the sacraments daily, and who are close friends. Their lives have been transformed by God and his Love. They may still have many trials, but that does not affect their sense of purpose, their loving nature, their goodness and the peace they radiate.

The real issue for people who “cannot-make-the-leap-of-faith” may be they cannot face up to the life changing consequences of faith. Perhaps people begin to realise that faith means a change in their life-style, and they do not want to do it? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that could be the case.