I was living in Hoboken and working at the church in Manhattan. Over the first year I was there preparing for my ordination I got to know some church members quite well. I really didn’t expect things to change much after I got ordained. After all, I was the same person both before and after.
Julie and I had been friends throughout my first year and she’d always called me ‘Michael’. She’d looked after my cat when I was away. She’d recommended a local diner and a visit to St Patrick’s Cathedral, both of which I’d loved. Anglo Irish Catholic, she was sweet, with just enough of an accent to make me homesick for Kilburn and my Irish neighbours. But now I was ordained I wasn’t ‘Michael’ any longer. I was ‘Father’.
I was on my own in the kitchen washing up when she came up behind me. “Father”, she said, “Will you bless my rosary for me please?” She laid a pretty set of rosary beads on the counter between us.
I didn’t want to tell her that I didn’t believe that blessing a set of beads would make a blind bit of difference to them, and I was too embarrassed to tell her that I really didn’t know how anyway. However, I’d seen it done in movies, how difficult could it be?
I took a pretty glass from the shelf and filled it about half full with water. I thought “bless the water, then use the water to bless the rosary. Easy peasy”.
I put the rosary on a piece of kitchen paper and placed the glass beside it. I prayed that God bless the water, sanctify it and make it holy. I then took some of the water, sprinkled it on the rosary asking God to bless that and the person who kept it and prayed with it.
Suddenly the room swam thick with God’s presence. A sound like a rush of wind or the beating of wings filled the space. Everything seemed to focus on the beads, and for a moment they looked different, other worldly. I looked at Julie. She had a look of quiet awe and satisfaction. I could feel my heart beating fast and my head swimming. And then suddenly everything was as it had been. Julie picked up the beads and whispered “Thank you Father” , before leaving the room.
After I’d had a cup of tea, stopped shaking, and tried to process what had happened, I went to see my mentor. She was surprised; not at what had happened but that I hadn’t expected it. “It comes with being a priest” she said.
And it was more than a dozen years before I understood that she didn’t mean that there was something special about me or my calling.
The problem with believing that there’s something special about you, or even the role that you play, is that you have expectations about how God should act. God should hear your prayers. God should react to all your supplications. God should bless your work. It was part of the deal. I was a priest. God was my employer. It’s like thinking that God should do something or behave in a certain way because of who I am or because of what I do. I sacrifice, and God should bless me. I pray and, God should act. I preach, pray, bless the sacrament, God’s Spirit should fill the place. Oh dear, what hubris.
God didn’t bless the rosary for me. God blessed it for Julie. What had happened said nothing about me and everything about God. It said nothing about my calling and everything about God’s Grace. It said nothing about what should happen and everything about what can happen. A priest is poor, has nothing ever to offer God, and only has for others what God offers in each moment. It took me 15 years to learn that very simple lesson.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’” Luke 6:20.
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