After Mass on Remembrance Sunday, this year, I ‘bumped into’ a parishioner and simply asked him how he was keeping. “Not so good really,” he replied, and so I asked him why. “I am really upset at the soldiers who have had their legs and arms blown off, trying to bring peace in Afghanistan – I can’t get them out of my head!” Just one week later, he apologised for being so emotional, and I hastened to assure him there was no reason to be apologetic.


A very dear friend of mine once came out with the profound statement that men have become very good at inventing ways to maim and to kill other men – not so good at helping those in need – the hungry, the homeless, etc.


Whilst my opening gambit focuses on war, its results are not that far away from the agonies then being suffered by another parishioner, who was in tears after the Heysel disaster, in 1985, when 39 Italian and Belgian football fans died at the European Cup Final. I know the situation is different, but the two images together, remind me once again, of how international events can affect people in their personal, everyday lives.

Psalm 39 (No. 38 in the Catholic version) has a most intriguing phrase in it, which in the translation that we use for the Divine Office goes like this; it is, in fact, the last sentence of the psalm:

“Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to no more.”

Sometimes a phrase from the psalms strikes you, as this one did for me. It reads like a phrase of utter despair, and could be thought to be saying: “God, you can do no good to me – or to us – just give me / us a break, so that we can have some kind of a life before everything must end, for all eternity.” And yet, deep in my own heart, that is not the way I think of God. I think of God being where my ‘home’ is, where I can feel ‘at home’, where I can breathe, relax and just be myself. How, then, does this phrase make sense? Who does it apply to? Perhaps, it throws light on the above experiences.

It could fit the ‘corporate life’ of people in our world, or of a nation – so it would seem. Our world has many nations that seem to live in perpetual suffering, where a break from what is happening would be a ‘godsend’, and, to be sure, what happens in them affects many of us. One such nation would be the Holy Land, another Iraq, and yet another, a country like Afghanistan. All these countries appear to suffer from problems caused by people who want to control, dominate – or eliminate – certain groups, and in saying this I make allowances for the fact that the actual situation, in these countries, may not be quite the same as that portrayed by the media. But, for God to look away so that the people may breathe again – gain some respite before nothingness – appears to be taking the view that God is, in some way, responsible? To ask that there be some relief from murder, domination, killing, murderous suicide bombers, systems of political control that causes lack of freedom, lack of movement, lack of jobs, money and safety … … I could go on and on … … is assuming, in one sense, that God is permitting such things, even if He does not directly will them; this argument allows men and women to misuse their power and influence, until at some stage, God calls a halt. In the meantime, can it not be good to have a break from it all – so that the oppressed may breathe again, before death comes!

There are places where people live in utter deprivation, caused by poverty and natural disasters, seemingly without any signs of easy cure. Haiti would be a country in point. One wonders how the poor people there can survive with all they have gone through; so many families bereaved after the earthquakes; so little sanitation; so much poverty and lack of basic necessities; so little normal living. And now, raging cholera that can kill in four hours! Again, probably, the actual situation is different to the images we form from absorbing the media stories – but, who knows? In this example, would it not, indeed, be wonderful if this situation that God ‘permits’ could change, for a period, ‘so that people may breathe again’ with enough food, water, good sanitation, secure health provision and the necessities of life?

For some people, a country such as England fits into the ‘model’ I have described. Here in the UK, there is relative wealth and a certain freedom for some sections of its community, but there is also malaise, a lack of moral uprightness, a sense that the young have challenges ahead – to face and overcome – if they are to enjoy a future of meaning, safety and reasonable security. I hear people say: “Thank God I have lived my life, and do not have to face it now as a young person!”, and: “I feel sorry for the young and worry about their future!” What standards will they live up to, as they see values ridiculed, religion and its teachings rejected – or laughed at – and the future uncertain. Worries, worries, worries are what people face! “God give us a break so that I may breathe before I depart to be no more.”

There is another psalm that we sing at the Divine Office which also gives the same message. In the hymn of Psalm 139 the words are:

O God, you search me and you know me.

All my thoughts lie open to your gaze.

 When I walk or lie down you are before me:

 Ever the maker and keeper of my days…..

Although your Spirit is upon me,

Still I search for shelter from your light.

 There is nowhere on earth I can escape you:

 Even the darkness is radiant in your sight. 

In all of this, God is just ‘too much’ – too much ‘on top’ of me: he does not even allow me to breathe! God is like this, for me, when I feel I cannot look him in the eye – so to speak – when I feel that He and I do not really see eye to eye. And now, we are beginning to get to the truth of the matter.  These feeling arise only because I have estranged myself from Him, and this is the reason the psalmist seems to be seeking a ‘break’ from God’s presence. God is just too ‘good’, too ‘pure’, too perfect’, in the face of my own deficiencies, my deceits and double dealing. Until I can ‘come clean’ with God, who knows me through and through, I will not experience the amazing gentleness of God – that amazing gentleness that God has for me, personally.   “God visits us like the dawn from on high,” or, as the Italian version of the Benedictus puts it: “as the sun rises in the morning” (Luke 1; 78).

The first psalm referred to in this blog, Psalm 39 refers to this personal sinning, and at the sin of jealousy and judging of others, but in the light of how ‘frighteningly’ short life is.

“I said: I will be watchful of my ways for fear I should sin with my tongue …..O Lord, you have shown me my end, how short is the length of my days. Now I know how fleeting is my life…. In you rests all my hope. Set me free from all my sins, do not make the taunt of the fool…take away your scourge from me. I am crushed by the blows of your hand. You punish man’s sins and correct him….” 

It is often the case that when disasters befall nations – even natural disasters – people attribute the cause of such tragedies to the personal sins of the people; on a personal level, when tragedy strikes, the individual can think this is because God is punishing me for what I have done wrong. I disassociate myself from this way of thinking; it is ‘riddled’ with irrational guilt – not the virtuous guilt by which we know the ‘fear of the Lord’. All too often, irrational guilt is linked with deep despondency, or discouragement – despair, to choose a better word – and that is the breeding ground for evil to enter into one’s life. It says: “What the heck – I may as well give up trying as there is no way I can live according to beauty, goodness or love”.  

Often, unwittingly, we create conditions in our personal life that leave us very unhappy, unable to find peace for the situation we find ourselves in; in this there may be a whole variety of reasons. Furthermore, this personal state of affairs could be a contributory factor to the disasters that face communities. However, we should never forget the fact that people, consciously, make personal choices – evil and wrong decisions – that are designed to stir up wickedness leading to corporate disasters, in the political field, or even in nature – take the effects on the environment, we human beings have wrought, for instance.  

Returning to the line of the psalm: “Look away that I may breathe again before I depart to no more,” I am driven to the conclusion, using that God-given instinct, that God comes to us without ‘pushing’ Himself onto us – not through force, but seeking our acceptance of Him. He comes like the gentle breeze, not in the ‘earthquake’, ‘wind’ or ‘fire’. He is immensely patient, waiting and waiting, for us to find Him, and then to feel secure in his Love. We do not really need to run away from him, even though – through guilt – we may feel like it sometimes. As we now come to Advent, to the time when we await his coming, let us grasp the realities of our situation – my situation, and that of the whole of humanity – and, calmly, let him come to fill our lives with his peace. 

As we do so, the anecdotes annotated at the start of this blog, are also relevant. Our own personal lives are deeply affected by what goes on around us – and even much farther afield. There, too, God can help us to live in Him, in joy and in peace, because we can pray for those less fortunate than ourselves; we can play our part in acting for the good of all, in practical ways – like supporting everything that points to unity, rather than division – and we can even offer our small contributions, in money, or in kind, to help those less fortunate than ourselves.