National Catholic Reporter
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Starting Point
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

Stillness in an Irish farmhouse


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

Tommy was an old man. He was a man of few words, but I knew him and his presence. Why? There were not many things to attend to. I was thinking last night about what I remember about him and his little house. Details came back to me -- his one teacup 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 remembered Tommy’s smile and his eyes, his hands and the way he held things with care. How he listened and nodded his head in agreement. 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 -- no marriage responsibilities. There was no summons, no voice that said to me pay attention. Rather, the being in a place of such quiet freed my mind and heart.

By way of contrast, there were many wedding receptions I attended with music and conversations and I remember little of those nights. The subtle power that is human presence was battered to near oblivion by a drive to fill such evenings with 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? I wondered.

The gospel is a summons. A summons to what matters. Sometimes it seems so clear to me that 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 adds 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 and, I suppose, the many combinations of them at best move us to be still and to listen, really listen, to who we are, to the hunger that is within us. What is it to be human? What does it mean to be yourself, to find who you are, to express and “be” who you are? There is a voice to 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, moving us to know that within 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.

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 welcoming fires of an Irish cottage and 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 Stephen Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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