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Starting Point

Sitting with God for a stretch


His name was Tommy Boyle and he lived in a farmhouse in Ballyhaunis, Ireland, in County Mayo. I stayed with him for a while during a summer many years ago. He had a small farm, though he did little farming. He got by, living a simple and uncluttered life. He had a sheepdog named Pansy. I had never seen a sheepdog before and was amazed at the talent she had for rounding up the sheep and moving them along.

I was thinking last night about him and his little house. Tommy was an old man of very few words, but I got to know his presence. There were not many things to attend to. Details came back to me: his one tea cup and the tiny radio he had, the way he held his cigarette, pictures on his wall and the drapes in the one room that was the first floor. I recalled the play of light through the windows in the morning and the green of the fields that stretched behind the house and the small stonewalls that had probably been there for centuries, walls that served to mark off property. I remembered Tommy’s smile and his eyes, and the way he held things with care, how he listened and nodded his head in agreement to things, how we sat by the fireplace at night just watching the fire.

There was not much to do when I was there: no land to tend, no oxen, but a few sheep. Tommy had no marriage responsibilities. There was no summons, no voice that told me to pay attention. Rather, being in a place of such quiet freed my mind and heart. A very ordinary life and its simple setting offered me its charms. It was a quiet life in and through which much was absorbed. Those things that were absorbed were telling and important things, for there is power in what is simple and abiding.

By way of contrast, many wedding receptions I have attended were filled with music and conversation, and I remember little of those nights. The subtle power that is human presence was battered to near oblivion by distractions, activity, movement, an inflation that fueled every sense into overdrive. Often I would hear people say what a wonderful time it was. Was it really?

The gospel is a summons to what matters. We know in our hearts what really matters, but there are so many things to attend to, we have a hard time being still enough to “hear” who we really are.

I do not think that religion or spirituality add a thing to human life. They do not offer us something or someone that we might miss if we did not go to church or seek a spiritual path. Both religion and spirituality at best move us to be still and to listen, really listen, to who we are, to the hunger and yearning within us. What is it to be human? What does it mean to be yourself, to find out who you are, to express and be who you are?

There is a voice in your heart. You know your need to love, be loved, be still, be present. Spirituality has to do with these as they speak within us. There lies the source of peace, happiness, beauty. A world exists in everyone. And yet we can spend years chasing so many things, hoping that if and when we catch them they can provide what was within us all along. But we do not stop long enough to let it rise to the surface of our being.

Spirituality is a summons that involves a willingness to listen and follow, and leave behind the claims of land, yokes and ties and to risk sitting with God for a stretch of time and letting him love us into what really matters, into what we really are.

I sat many an evening with Tommy Boyle. There was not a lot to say or do. We watched the fire, talked some, and I felt myself absorbing, slowing down. Looking back, I wonder if Tommy felt that as a priest I had something to offer him in a religious sense, perhaps some knowledge, a blessing, some encouragement. He passed on some years ago. I still want to take his stillness to me.

It is early morning here. There is light just beginning to come through my window, and even though I have no fire to warm me I am comfortable. I am in the warmth of an old man’s kind ways. I listen to the yearnings in me to remember, to be still and to trust in the truths of an Irish summer that came and stayed when I sat still, without a thought of running after them.

Fr. James Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002