November 2020: Editorial

The tattoos of God …

In London, while doing ‘supply’ in a parish, I had a sad and tough funeral. A 24-year-old girl, an only daughter had taken an overdose, went into a coma and died three days later. What do you say in the face of indescribable tragedy? A young woman, full of life’s promise and possibilities dies an absurd and pointless death. Her family are left shrouded in grief, hurt, anger and unspeakable pain.
A few days after the funeral her parents came to see me. They wanted to know more about the words that the funeral sermon was based on: ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, a seal upon your arm; for love is stronger than death.’ This was the reading that the family had chosen for their daughter’s funeral. As a family they straddled the paths between doubt and tentative belief.

In the sermon, they latched on to something I had said, that the entire bible was summarised in this sentence: ‘love is stronger than death’. Our Christian faith rests on this belief that love is stronger than death and our hope is that we are all sealed upon God’s heart.

The young girl had a brother, whose inner struggles showed a withdrawn aloofness. I had wondered what the entire funeral ritual and prayer meant to him. Then to my surprise he contacted me to meet in neutral ground and we decided in Trafalgar Square. He was wondering about having a tattoo on his arm with the words, ‘set me as a seal upon you arm’ in memory of his sister. He wanted this as a mirror image, as it was personal to him and only decipherable when it was reflected back to him in a mirror. I was speechless for this grieving brother, because God’s word was received in his broken heart of personal loss.

November is the month when we remember our dead. We proclaim that it was on the cross that Jesus sets us as a seal upon his wounded heart. We are all sealed on his outstretched arms forever: the young girl, her father, her mother, her brother with a new tattoo. The 32 homeless people who died in Dublin in 2020, as well as the following members of Irish public life who died this year, Brendan Bowyer, Kieran O’Connor the Cork footballer, Tony Dunne – Irish soccer legend, John Dallat – SDLP, Richie Ryan – MEP, Harry Gregg, who survived and saved many in the 1958 Munich plane disaster, Betty Williams – Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1976), Seamus Mallon – SDLP, Larry Gogan, Marian Finucane, Keelin Shanley, Gay Byrne, Pat Collins – fiddle player, Eugene McCabe – author, Pat Smullen – jockey, John Hume SDLP and Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1998), Garda Colm Horkan and ALL who have died from Coronavirus.

‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’ said Saint Irenaeus (130-202). This is a very different definition of glory from the reputation won by being an offensive aggressor that often masquerades as success. ‘Glory’ is life, integrity, humanity, compassion, forgiveness, decency and the courage to speak for the voiceless, to bridge the gap between idle rhetoric and harsh reality. John Hume, Colm Horkan and Betty Williams – among others – lived in an Ireland where they fully recognised that the suffering of one and the suffering of all cannot be separated.

The sole mission of the Church is to be in solidarity with people who silently face the wraiths and whispers of doubt and uncertainty. Our faith is about the story of one who died so that we may live forever – in God’s eternal embrace of love. This is a love which is stronger than death.

‘A society grows great when old men plant trees
in whose shade they know they will never sit.’

Greek proverb quoted at the end of Seamus Mallon
and Andy Pollak’s book: A SHARED HOME PLACE.