March 9 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Love killed the Beast from the East

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS on the ‘snowpocalypse’ that prompted parishes to live the Gospel — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

Well, I really jinxed things last week, didn’t I? Little did I realise, when I mentioned the Vatican under snow and the chill winds blowing outside my window, that a day or so later ‘the Beast from the East’ would have us all in its icy grip. Indeed, you could almost see this grip, as jagged icicles hung from the eaves like the talons of Nosferatu.

But, before the snow closed the schools, there was normality. St Columba’s had embraced the theme of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight, inviting us to ‘come on in’ to Fairtrade. Various departments around the school had got into the swing of the campaign and there was a competition for the best door decked out in a Fairtrade theme. As no other celebrity judges could be found, I was called upon to do the honours.

And let me tell you, it was a very hard job. So much thought and hard work had gone into these creations, it felt wrong somehow to single out just one winner. One entry, however, had to be disqualified: the religious education department. The reason for the disqualification was staring me in the face. My face. Perhaps hoping to curry favour and sway the judge, they had added a photograph of yours truly alongside the caption ‘Fair trade: Just what the doctor ordered!’

Although it pained me to do so, I had to set their entry aside. Not even I could justify giving the top prize to such a craven attempt at bribery, especially when I learned that my coupon only appeared on the door once word had got out that I was going to be the judge.

In the end, it was the home economics department which got the top prize, so I will be expecting a lot more millionaire’s shortbread in future. As to relations with the RE team, well, let’s just say things are a little frosty. And so to the weather.

Like many people, I was seduced (and deceived) by that spell of pleasant weather a couple of weeks ago. There was a discernible heat in the sun, the daffodils were budding, and washing could be seen hanging out to dry—all harbingers of spring in these parts.

Those of us who dusted off the patio furniture were soon to be exposed as overly-optimistic fools, as the Beast blew all these springtime hopes away in a blast of Siberian fury. As you know, I jokingly refer to my parish as being ‘above the snow line,’ but those words came back to haunt me as the church and the ­surrounding streets were buried under a thick (and impassable) canopy of snow.

Unlike the Big Freeze of 2010, which was more picturesque than perilous, this time it was really nasty. The high winds dumped layer upon layer of dry snow and, worse still, caused it to drift. After a day of unremitting snowfall, my car disappeared behind a shoulder-high wall of the white stuff.

Trapped in the house, I fell into doing what everyone else was doing: taking photos and videos of the ‘snowpocalypse’ and posting them on social media. If nothing else, these served to signal to the outside world that I was still alive.

It is ironic that the term which has come to represent the fragility of pampered 20-somethings—snowflakes—was also the cause of widespread panic among their supposedly tougher elders. Perhaps this was Mother Nature’s revenge for turning one of her most beautiful creations into a lazy cliche? A gang of snowflakes can cause havoc, let me tell you.

The depth of the snow and the poor conditions of the streets hereabouts meant that, for two days, the church remained cut off and there was no public Mass. I do not know when, or if, this has ever happened before. The social media platforms on which I was posting images of the Bow Farm tundra also served to get the message out that people should stay at home: the church was closed. That was not a decision taken lightly. We have devout octogenarians who would have strapped on snow-shoes and harnessed huskies to get here, but at no small risk to themselves.

We received messages of thanks from worried family members who had been trying to restrain their elderly parents from attempting to force a path through the snow for fear of committing a serious sin. As always, the serious obligation to attend Mass has to be set alongside a duty to oneself and one’s family. I very much doubt God feels his majesty diminished by a faithful soul having to sit out the worst snow we have seen round here for 40 years.

All in all, I found this enforced hiatus a little strange. With no one around the house for the best part of four days, I did go a little stir-crazy. Although I had Jasmine to keep me company, I was conscious of the lack of human interaction. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and wonder at this dishevelled doppelganger looking back at me, wandering around mid-afternoon in pyjamas carrying a bowl of custard or a plate of party food unearthed from the back of the freezer.

While other clergy might have utilised their confinement to catch up on administrative tasks or plan future sermons, I simply ate. Stories of empty shelves and panic-buying at local supermarkets and shops only served to fuel my appetite for whatever I could find in the cupboards. Even an old tin of cream crackers—packed, I think, when Mrs Thatcher was still in Number 10—was prised open and sampled. They were a bit off, but I persevered.

It wasn’t just food that was in short supply. Our shipment of Scottish Catholic Observers didn’t arrive either and this sparked another outburst of civil unrest among the folk along the Bow Road. A scarcity of milk and bread was bad enough, but not being able to read this column was just too much for some people. Rumours began to circulate. “Jeanie says St Mary’s have got theirs.” Someone claimed to have seen one sticking out of a Bag for Life outside a supermarket.

What truth—if any—there was in these purported sightings, I cannot tell. Who knows: perhaps one day copies of ‘the snow edition’ will appear for sale on the internet at vastly-inflated prices?

The approach of the weekend meant that I had to snap out of my binge-eating reverie. A call was put out for snow-shovellers and, sure enough, a small band of folk (ranging in age from six to over 60) turned up at the appointed hour to get to work.

In the space of an hour they had already cleared the paths and side doors of the Church and created a little entrance into the car park which would, alas, remain out of bounds due to the depth of the snow.

There is, somewhere in that collective effort of priest and people, a metaphor for the Church in our times. We have to roll our sleeves up and get on with the work in hand: whether we see that as clearing the approaches for those coming from outside or digging the Church out of a drift in which she has become immured, it is a job too big for priests (or bishops) alone. On the contrary, left to our own devices, it is all too easy for the clergy to become trapped in our own routines, as surely as the blizzards held me captive in the presbytery.

As we shovelled and joked, with Jasmine running excitedly among us through the snow, it occurred to me that we were, in that moment, living a line of that Sunday’s Gospel: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’ (John 2:17; Psalm 69:9).

That’s why these people had ventured into the biting cold: not to oblige me or earn points, but out of a desire to free the house of God in their midst. The Beast was fierce, but love was stronger.

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