6 – The Ice Window Looking

THIS RELENTLESS heat wave continues.

The news is full of drought stories, heat related deaths, forest fires, all of that here and abroad. But lest the news channels leave us frightened as we bake they counter balance fire with flood, show other stories about our own and various countries where the deluge is upon us!

I am a winter person.

I cherish ice and snow.

Cold is my elixir.

Normally today would be my day off, a day away from the phones and doorbells of the rectory…but not away from being priest.

I am here where my little bedroom air-conditioner is. A doctor ordered concession because of the effect of heat upon me. As I came up the stairs late this afternoon, after a necessary trip to the Capital, I could hear the young assistant was in and I knocked on his door to offer him a share in my treat for myself, some chocolate pastries.

He’s a wise young man who works out at the gym and he declined the offer graciously. When I mentioned I’d given up on taking my day away due to the heat he smiled and said he was sticking close to his air-conditioner as well!

So I sit here in my study on the edge of the cool air and peruse more of those original notes for this book and came across a memory of an incident that, at the time, had a great impact upon me, whose import was made clear by my Spiritual Father. (The original reflection was triggered while I was looking out a car window the winter I was being driven back and forth from The Community to the hospital for tests to see if I had a brain tumour.)

ON THE DRIVE into the doctor’s this morning my brother priest pointed to the frozen river and noted how it seemed this winter’s extreme cold and thick ice appeared to have increased the usual number of ice-shacks for fishing.

Immediately I recalled an incident from some years ago when I was first a pastor in a rural parish.

One of the women came to me after morning Mass asking me to go with her into the nearby city, to the slum area, to comfort her friend, a single mother of several children.

The mother’s oldest, a lad of barely fourteen, had gone missing.

 I agreed and we went immediately.

As we arrived the street was filled with squad cars, fire trucks, an ambulance, people milling around, some sobbing.

Instantly my heart knew to call upon Our Lady and to pray for the God’s mercy upon the soul of the boy.

The woman ran into the house while I asked the nearest fireman to tell me what had happened.

The boy, as boys of that age are wont to do, on an errand to the store for his mother, apparently took a dangerous shortcut on his way home across the frozen river which separated the housing project from the ‘ better’ homes.

He was near the middle of the river when the ice gave way.

Someone saw him fall in and called 911.

Crawling on their bellies, roped together in case more ice would give way, the firemen were within a few feet of him when the boy, perhaps exhausted, sapped of strength by the cold, had slipped beneath the ice.

With the fast current they were unable to retrieve the body.

In the spring, when the ice was gone and high water abated, they would come back and look for the body.

I headed into the house where the woman, the mother, the children were all sobbing. I closed the door behind me to shelter them from the curious. The police and firemen took off their hats and helmets and stood in silent prayer while I held the sobbing mother and prayed for her.

One of the children, about eleven, the younger brother of the dead boy, tugged on my sleeve after awhile and asked me where his brother was and I told him simply in the heart of God.

      “ And where’s God? “

I thought for a moment, saying in my heart: Mother Mary help me.

An idea came suddenly and I asked the boy’s mother permission to take him outside.

Night had fallen, the police and firemen with their equipment were gone, neighbours had either gone home because of the cold or where already by now in the house with food and comfort. So the boy and I stood in the street, alone.

Thankfully any near streetlights were either burnt out or broken, so you could look up and see the night sky which seemed exceptionally brilliant with stars that night.

I told the boy that God lives beyond where all light comes from because He is light.

“ So, pick a star you like and behind the light, in the heart of God, is your brother.”

Though not exactly theologically precise it clearly comforted the child’s heart.

Spring eventually came, the ice broke, the waters rose, subsided, the firemen returned for the search and eventually found the boy’s body.

The same woman came to me and asked if I would perform a funeral service even though the little family was not Catholic and could the boy be buried in the parish cemetery, she would raise the money for the plot.

I agreed, but there was one problem, for though the ice on the river was gone the ground was still frozen below a foot from the surface and out in the country burials were never done between freeze-up in late fall until the ground naturally thawed in late spring.

She agreed and wondered aloud how to tell the poor mother there could be a delay of weeks?

We both fell silent. Then it was like we had the same inspiration and agreed we’d call around to the nearby farmers and beg them to open the grave.

As word spread about the situation..the boy’s death, the mother’s plight, dozens of men showed up. They worked all day, through the night, back-breaking labour with pick and shovel.

They fought the ice’s grip on the earth and they won!


In the morning the little family was driven from the city.

When they arrived at the grave side they were not alone, for the farmers and their wives and children came to keep them company.

They answered the prayers, sang the hymns and then, to my surprise, for they had not told me of their plans, when the grave had been filled in they ushered the mother and her children to the parish hall for the traditional funeral lunch.

In reply to my telling him about this incident my Spiritual Father said:

      It was the drowning boy within you, you were seeking to retrieve from the icy water.

DEATH has already appeared frequently in this writing.

 I find myself this evening wondering why?

Am I an unwitting Hamlet?

For forty-five minutes, though it does not appear visibly on this page, I experienced a death of sorts in that my finger slipped and I hit some key that caused the entire tool bar on this machine to disappear. The young assistant here, the moment I knocked on his door said: ‘ Now what happened with your computer? ‘

I explained.

He came to my study and after a few minutes of clicking this and that all was well.

So why this series of opening chapters where death appears so frequently?

It is not something I planned.

No more than I plan any of my actions which cause me to be so computer-inept!

My heart suddenly understands I am asking the wrong question because it is ego-centric.

I should ask the Christ-centered question:

“ What are You showing me?”

The reality is that each time we choose sin we choose death over life, curse over blessing.

This is what God who is Love, God who respects the gift of freedom He places within us at our creation, persistently offers us: life or death, blessing or curse [cf. Dt. 30:19].

The choice is ours.

When recalling then, as I must, His tender mercy and proclaiming the truth His mercy is greater than our capacity to sin, I cannot hide the fact many of my choices before true conversion were death choices.

So death appears in many forms in this telling.

Physical death.

Sin death.

Christ has conquered death of both kinds.


However here too we are free to choose, for love us though  as unconditionally as He does, He neither forces eternal life nor mercy upon us.

In those ancient days of awaiting the long yearned for promised Redeemer already the Psalmist in laudatory and prophetic prayer recited the pardon of sins, healing of ills, deliverance from death and lavishness of love and compassion which is offered us. [Ps.103:1-5]

Dom Columba Marmion puts it this way:

 … We are destined to proclaim eternally in the heavenly city the triumph of grace over our weakness and over sin. We can sum up the whole mission of Jesus in this world in a few words: ‘ Jesus is the herald of infinite mercy to human misery.’

If, then, there is one divine perfection which we should extol above all others, it certainly is mercy. All the ways of the Lord in regard to us are simply the condescension of love. In the economy of the Redemption in which we live, God has compassionated our distress to raise us to the power of participating in His life……

 … By acknowledging his many miseries, man admits that he has no right in justice to become the object of the divine bounty: his sole title to grace is the constant admission of his unworthiness united to his desire to glorify the eternal mercy which has given him all things in Jesus Christ…..

It is when, in full knowledge of our wretchedness, we persist in hoping in His love that we really give glory to God. [g]


That’s what I am still lacking.

Not just the full knowledge of my wretchedness, but rather the admission not only of my need of His mercy but that He IS merciful.

The writing of this alone will not suffice, for that would be egocentric and everything about us, all that we are, all that we do, must be Christ-centered.

To be Christ-centered means to be centered on Him in loving response to the needs of my brothers and sisters, to be servant as He Himself who repeatedly teaches He came upon us as servant [Mt.20:28 & Lk.22:27] and on the very night He instituted the perpetual Self-Gift of Love in Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood at the same time showed us how to lovingly and humbly serve as He took towel and basin, knelt and washed feet [Jn.13 esp. V.15].

This reveals a dimension to the coming sabbatical more critical than any writing I may do.

Since I have been granted time away from active, per se, priestly work in a parish, then the fulfillment of the reality of ora et labora, work and prayer, means a willingness to enter deeply into the mystery of the desert, in particular the desert of the heart.

The ancient Fathers of the Desert, the followers of Abba Anthony, those men and women through the centuries known as hermits, recluses, the inhabitants of contemplative monasteries, some like the followers of Charles de Foucauld and Catherine Doherty living the desert life in the heart of great urban centers, these have known and know that when evil spirits tire of their destructive work among the souls in the cities the same demons seek out the desolate places.

To enter the desert is to be willing to engage in combat, against the devils, yes, but also to overcome the false self which is unknown to God.

More it is also to, in a sense, draw those same spirits away from attacking our brothers and sisters, in a sense to make of ourselves the target so our brothers and sisters might, if not escape entirely the wiles and hatred of the evil ones for them, at least will have some period of respite.

This is spiritual warfare in which Christ alone is Victor, but in which we must participate.

It is the war spoken of in Revelations when the evil one, having failed to destroy the Child and His Mother, goes and mounts warfare against those who are faithful to Christ [cf. Rev.12:17].

I have come to understand such is where the Holy Spirit is leading me through the instruction from my Spiritual Father that it is time for me to go and ‘ write, pray, paint ‘….this is the writing, the painting, with the help of grace will be iconography, the prayer, will be spending time alone, fasting, in the desert of my heart, yes, and in a little room somewhere He shall show me.

Somehow this is the place I have been seeking all my life, not so much a physical, geographical place, but the ‘ thin place ‘:

 ..a ‘ thin place ‘ where the membrane between this world and the other world, between the material and the spiritual, {is} very permeable.[h]

Not merely because of the need for personal atonement, as great as that is it would be sinfully self-serving, if that is all I shall do.


There is a hunger to allow the Spirit to plunge me into the immensity of the sacred kenosis, to be face to the ground beside He who Himself in the Garden was face to the ground for us.

To adore.

I don’t think we simply adore Him enough — can it ever be enough — anymore.

I don’t.

Do you?

To adore, intercede, to become by the action of the Holy Spirit, little by little, less me and more of Him.


One with the poor who cry alone, in the night, without hope.

To cry with them even if they know not anyone cries with them, for them.

This will not happen in any neat or comfortable way or in any way at all that I can possibly imagine or comprehend in this moment.

I must grow in trust.

Therefore I must become abandoned to Him moment by uncertain moment.

It will probably be most untidy.

Often seemingly incomprehensible to me as it already is to my brother priests in this rectory where I write in the dead of night while they sleep and this city, still broiling in the heat wave, is filled with crying poor.


Yeah in some ways it is utterly nuts to walk away from career possibilities, but priesthood has never been a career for me; sheer stupidity to think whatever effort is put into this writing will someday be read by others and a real fool’s errand to go to war – but then St. Paul himself called for such foolishness [ 1 cor.4:10] so long as Christ is the reason for it.

St. Paul describes the radical followers of Christ.

Having been in my life radically opposed to Christ there is justice at work here.

Tender- love- justice, as grace from Him.

My brothers are worried I am ruining my ecclesiastical career, that after the sabbatical I’ll not be recalled to active duty, so to speak.

If I had a secure tenure to come back to where would the foolishness be?

My desert does not/will not even give me the luxury of sand and rocks, not even the security of a cave or the penny-potential of reeds with which to weave baskets!

My demons are unlikely to scream and screech so as to disturb the neighbours or trash my little place as if I were a latter-day Cure d’Ars….God knows I am neither that holy nor humble.


Mine shall most likely continue to be the slimy scratching kind as befits one as poor and weak as I am.

They are no less dangerous for all of that.

My desert is first within the inner struggle to overcome the shame of a sinful and neurotic life, to repent for time wasted and stolen from Him; it is a wasteland which must be traversed through the inner mystery of physical and emotional illness, of weakness in faith and trust in Him.

My Spiritual Father was right about which boy had slipped through the ice, which one needed retrieving.

IN THE city where I grew up most of the school year was marked by the frosts of fall and snows of winter.

By day my routine was centered around school, though after my First Communion this often included serving the six or seven a:m Mass before school, and after school helping my mother with my increasing number of brothers and sisters.

The evening was ‘ my time’, especially if I could get out of the house and especially if it was dark out.

I came therefore to prefer winter to summer.

The dark fell sooner in winter.



In the dark when I was very young I mainly played street hockey or maybe with some boys I hung with we’d shoplift or hustle smokes or just be obnoxious.

In the dark I felt — cloaked — not in some imaginary Green Hornet sort of fashion but rather in that the ‘real’ me was protected.

I was less terrified interiorly because the dark itself was fearful and facing that fear took most of my attention and energy.

More and more in those years there was forming around my heart a hardness, greater even than the hardness of ice. I was beginning to become used to leading a double and secretive life, even before there were any real secrets to keep — it was almost like I was practicing for what was to come.


The tension of that double-life was increasing my anxiety, so much so that by the time I was starting to act out sexually with my peers I had no memory left of what it felt like to be either a child or unafraid.

Cigarettes, danger, pleasure, these became the ever more addictive antidotes to that constant state of fear but guilt would swamp me ever so constantly and so I’d, once I made my First Confession, flee to the confessional and for a while things would abate.

Mysteriously, though obviously by grace, at the same time my hunger for God, for holiness, grew.

Looking back from the vantage point of sixty years it seems in some ways unbelievable any child could have chosen to live like that, but I did.

True, family circumstances, neighbourhood, influence of others, etc., ancestry, there are all kinds of contributing factors that can, legitimately, be pointed at, but even with all of that being seriously considered, the truth remains I made the choices I made.

One night in the winter I remember we’d built a snow house in a vacant lot and I was inside it when it collapsed upon me. I could hear muffled laughter from the boys I was with who’d assisted in the collapse.

For a moment I wasn’t afraid, rather I felt incredibly safe in that cold darkness and wanted to slide even deeper into its embrace.

I recall my Father digging me out.

He must have been nearby or maybe my kid brother went and got him.

Just before he freed me there was a moment when light came through the thinned snow and ice and it was in that moment I became frightened because I could tell I was trapped in the dark.

I never played in a snow house again.