In this, the week of Martin Luther King Day, I was invited to give a radio reflection on the theme of ‘breaking the rules.’
I have to admit, I’m not a big rule breaker but I do admire people who do break the rules, if it’s for a just cause. Like the suffragettes who chained themselves to railings in protest against women being denied the vote in Britain. Or Rosa Parks, a black woman who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white passenger at a time when those buses, like society, were strictly segregated.
It’s interesting as well that I’ve chosen to spend most of my adult life with L’Arche, some of whose intellectually-disabled members occasionally do things I wouldn’t dream of doing, for fear of disapproval.
One example is a communion service that was once celebrated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie for the L’Arche Liverpool community. As the Archbishop was giving out communion, one of those receiving was a man who was also called Robert. He took the host, broke it in two and handed half back to his namesake. Runcie wrote later about how touched he was by this gesture. He said it spoke more to him about the meaning of communion than any number of theological books on the subject. I have a fond memory myself of going to the local Anglican church on Sundays with one of the intellectually-disabled women in the L’Arche house where I was living at the time. My friend was very tactile and at a certain point in the service she would wander up to the front and give the vicar a big hug. I’m not sure what the congregation made of it but I think the vicar sort of liked it!
Jesus was a serial rule-breaker. Healing people on the sabbath was one of his crimes. Also, in common with some of my friends at L’Arche, he often did things that might be frowned upon in some quarters, like eating and drinking with the kinds of characters that nobody else wanted to eat and drink with.
I’ll probably continue to be wary of breaking the rules myself. And I’ll probably continue to worry about what others might think if I was to do something a bit out of the ordinary. But how inspiring it can be to see others who are not afraid to do the right thing, even if it might get them into trouble.
This was the latest in several very apt cards that Peter has sent me over the years. One time, it was a picture of a bus stop in Callan (in fact, the bus stop in Callan!). On the Perspex screen, almost invisible to the eye, there is a little verse from the second book of Corinthians, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ Back in August, when I’d been on the way for my L’Arche CEO interview I had suddenly been beset by doubts and as I was walking up that main street in Callan I remembered that verse in the bus shelter and went over to read it. Those words gave me comfort then and have continued to give me comfort in my occasional moments of doubt or desolation.
Coming to Ireland has certainly been a step in faith for me, and I have been carried along, in part, by the kindness and friendliness of a multitude of people. Yes, there have been one or two low moments, but alongside that many moments of pure joy.
One of which was in Keoghs bar on a Saturday night where I joined a bunch of musicians, including Peter with his mandolin, for the monthly session. The mic was being passed from one person to the next and when it came to me for the first time I sang a song that Peter introduced me to, ‘The Voyage’ by Johnny Duhan. It has been especially poignant for me in these weeks, following my own voyage in faith. The next time the mic arrived in front of me I said I was going to sing my wife’s favourite song. When I got to the chorus of ‘When you were sweet 16’ it sounded as if every single person in that crowded bar was singing along with me and, with the different instruments as well doing lovely harmonies, it was an utterly magical moment.
Then it came to my third song and I decided to tell the story of how I first met Peter. We had been on a week-long silent retreat for new L’Arche assistants in 1989 and had shared a room. We didn’t say a word to one another for the entire week (we both took the silence very seriously) but we played music together each day during the liturgies. We next met in 1990 on a formation week for house leaders. It was held in a very quirky convent in England called Cold Ash (mention that name to anyone of a certain generation of L’Arche UK assistants and you will get some interesting responses!). Again, we played music together each day. And then in 1991 we were at a L’Arche event being held at another convent in a place called Ditchingham on the Norfolk/Suffolk border in England. And yes, we sneaked off one night to the pub and were allowed two songs each. I did something by U2, ‘All I want is you.’ And I did the song that I sang again thirty-two years later in a bar in Callan; another song which is particularly apt for me at this time of leaving a place and, albeit temporarily, the person I love. It was ‘The Leaving of Liverpool.’
I’m always struck by how our stories weave in and out of one another’s, and how we can touch each other in the most profound ways. How blessed I have been so far in my Irish adventure. And what incredible gifts can be in store for us if we but take that step in faith…