The Illusion of Ordinary

sun on mist through trees

I recently moved from a very big city in England to an outrageously small town in a remote corner of Canada. This community is home to about 1000 people and its closest neighbouring town is an hour away. But none of this came as a surprise to me when I arrived here, as this town is where I was born and raised.

The city had been such a great place to be Catholic! I found it easy to believe God was doing big things when everything around me was so impressive and dynamic! There were so many beautiful churches, prayer groups of any style you like, and all kinds of brilliant faith and social events. Best of all, I was surrounded by other young Catholic friends who became like family and inspired me to go deeper in my faith. Over time, I began to feel as though my eyes had been opened to spiritual realities all around me which I had until then been oblivious to. I was seeing my prayers answered in powerful ways, and came to know God as a very real Father who was involved in every moment of my life and provided for all my needs with incredible generosity. My sense of purpose in this deeper relationship with him satisfied a hunger that I had previously tried anxiously and unsuccessfully to fill with other things, and I felt more free and at peace than I ever had before. In short, my new understanding of how real God is had caused me to become a very different person, and I didn’t want to go back to the way I was.

When I came back to my hometown, I literally increased the Catholic young adult population by over 33% (the other two members of this demographic being my sister and her husband). So as you can imagine, I could no longer rely on stimulating events and novelties to energize my faith. I also felt the strong pull of my old life, and the expectations of the people who have always known me. I was afraid that in the crushing ordinariness of this spiritual and social desert I’d lose sight of what I’d experienced in England. I couldn’t let that happen. I could not allow myself to slide back into the belief that life is ordinary and boring when I had so recently learned that it’s actually dramatic and miraculous. That would be a kind of death! So I decided if I couldn’t see God in big things, I would have to start seeing him in little things. I asked the Holy Spirit to breathe life into me and my surroundings, and I pleaded with God to show me he was here with me in this little town just like he had been before.

Of course he was here, and even though I should have known that, he was kind enough to reassure me. I had arrived just after Christmas, and at one point my little niece noticed there was a present under the tree with my name on it, so she brought it to me and asked if she could help me open it. She pulled out the gift – a set of Dove body care products. Then at the bottom of the gift bag she found an ornament that had fallen off the tree. It was a dove! I took it as a sign the Holy Spirit had heard my prayer, and was revealing himself to me exactly where I was. I still have that ornament hanging in my room to remind me of this fact.


I gradually became aware that in this little town, God was often asking me to pray for little things and sometimes for little people. At one point in my supply teaching work I encountered a four-year-old girl who was painfully shy. She would rarely speak in class and at playtime would always stand next to the teacher instead of playing with the other kids. When I noticed this I felt really sad for her. The next time I was there I asked God to draw her out of herself, give her confidence and help her to form good friendships with the other kids in her class. Later that day at the end of playtime I was trying to round up all the kids from the playground and get them lined up by class before they went inside, but I noticed three little girls way out at the other end of the field, struggling to walk back through deep snow. At first I thought, “Come on, girls! The whole school is waiting for you!” I sent two older girls to run out and help them. As they got closer, I realized one of them was the little girl I had prayed for. She had been playing with two of her classmates! It was a little thing that felt like a major victory!

I even discovered that God speaks through my least favourite hymns at church. Once during mass I noticed my dad was coming down with a cold, and he was supposed to be going on a long trip the next day, so I said a prayer for him. The next hymn was “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” – one I find particularly grating. But this time, one of the lines jumped out and resonated with me: “He is your health and salvation”.

The next day I asked my dad how he was feeling. “Fine. I thought I was going to have a bad cold! Weird.”

God has been showing me that he is just as much in the little things as he is in the big, sensational things. He’s been challenging me to look deeper at life in this little town and see that the ordinariness of it is actually an illusion. It often reminds me of the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Any passer-by that night might have looked at it and seen nothing but a poor family trying to put their baby to sleep in a feedbox-turned-cradle. Only a few people were able, by God’s grace, to see beyond that and understand the disadvantaged child in the manger was actually the Son of God. Don’t be fooled! “Ordinary” is nothing but a thin veil over the supernatural reality of every human being’s existence.


One true, good, beautiful world: Bridges between Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’


Our faith proclaims the oneness of all things in Christ. Saint Paul encapsulates this beautifully when he writes:

He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and earth: everything visible and everything invisible, thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers – all things were created through him and for him. He exists before all things and in him all things hold together, and He is the head of the body, that is, the Church.

He is the Beginning, the first-born from the dead, so that he should be supreme in every way; because God wanted all fullness to be found in him and through him to reconcile all things to him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, by making peace through his death on the cross (Colossians 1: 15-20).

This oneness means there is a natural order at play in the world. The world was made to reveal Christ – his love for the world expressed through his life, death and resurrection. Again, ‘God wanted all fullness to be found in him and through him to reconcile all things to him.’ The Church talks of a ‘Culture of Life’ for this very reason – the ‘issues’ society likes to deal with individually just cannot be compartmentalised. Abortion, contraception, euthanasia, care of the most vulnerable – sick, elderly, unborn or disabled people – they’re all different sides to the same coin. Our attitude to one cannot contradict our attitude to the others.

John Paul II’s Theology of the Body gave us the tools to understand and communicate that life is gift, and humans have integral worth as persons at all stages of life. Pope Francis appears to make both a departure and a natural extension from this teaching. He has won admiration from within and without the church for not fixating on the controversial ethical issues that people have previously associated with Church teaching, but concentrating instead on injustice, poverty and care for creation. Nevertheless, Laudato Si’ demonstrates an entirely integrated worldview: ‘We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’

Francis is able to move easily between social and ecological injustices because he believes they are both expressions of the same sickness – a commodification of all of creation which causes the powerful and the ignorant to use people and nature as means to ends, whether knowingly or unknowingly. He calls us to reassert the createdness of all living things, which protects their dignity and prevents their exploitation. He also wants us to experience deeply the connectedness of all living things, and so to be mindful of the impact our choices make on the rest of creation – animal, vegetable and mineral. This is the Gospel, flowing from the same source as the Theology of the Body. Francis’ call to respect creation and John Paul’s call to respect our sexuality both require a change of heart – a new set of eyes to see things as they are and not as we would have them to be.

This change of heart, if we allow it, has the power to transform the way we see everything. And although Francis does not linger on the matter, he devotes a paragraph to synthesising ideas relating to society, ecology and sexuality:

155. Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man”, based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”. It is enough to recognise that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognise myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”.

Here, Francis gives us an idea of what really lies at the heart of the transformation we need if we will ever be able to adequately care for each other and this world. Jesus’ first gift to us is our own lives – our very selves. We must first receive this gift in its fullness before we can be a gift to others or receive the rest of creation as a gift. If we take time to contemplate His presence within ourselves, He will enable us to see Him outside of ourselves and to come to know that there really should be no distinction between between our inner and outer lives, between us and them, between society and nature. This should fuel us to take up the challenge Francis has set to all believers – to examine the messages we transmit with our lifestyle choices and to choose a more integrated way of being in the world.


But…He said he loves me


Around two years ago, I was at my part time job when I got a text from my friend asking me whether we could talk. After work, I went to her place and she was in tears. I asked her what was wrong and she told me that her boyfriend had come over to visit and used her computer. When he left, she realised that he was still logged unto Facebook and was about to log him out when a girl he had been talking to, suddenly started a chat on Facebook. She then saw the history of their conversation and could see that her boyfriend had been flirting with that girl and even told the girl he wanted them to meet. My friend then said: ‘But he said he loves me’.

I couldn’t help but go back to the beginning of their relationship. My first concern arose when my friend suddenly disappeared, I could hardly get hold of her. Furthermore, I didn’t see her at Mass anymore, which was worrying as we first met at our university chaplaincy (after Mass). When I finally got through to her, she told me that she had a boyfriend. To which I replied (probably not my best answer): ‘So that’s why you are not coming to Mass anymore?’ and she got annoyed with me (rightly so). I was concerned back then because I always thought relationships should not pull you from your friends. Anyways, I thought maybe that was just I being jealous of her happiness so I let go.

The thing is romantic relationships are not meant to pull you away from your family and friends. I know it may seem thrilling to elope with your partner or go out with a guy who is the complete opposite of you and doesn’t believe in God. But let’s ask ourselves this question: ‘When you are both old and have grey hairs, will this be enough to sustain your relationship?’ For flesh and bones alone are not enough to sustain a relationship. What I mean by flesh is that this initial attraction you feel for a guy. That alone isn’t enough to sustain your relationship. For a relationship to be fruitful, God must be within. That’s why we should worry if a romantic relationship leads us away from our family and friends. Is this relationship based on the Lord? Does it go beyond flesh? A way of looking at it is, if I stood before God with this man, will I be standing next to him or hiding him behind me? Relationships are meant to make us holier. This is not to say the liability of our holiness is the responsibility of a guy but, rather that we don’t feel in the relationship that we ought to hide our faith because it’s killing the vibe.

Now, back to my friend. She was mostly hurt because she was confused. She didn’t understand why her boyfriend will do such a thing after telling her he loved her. So I told her this: ‘’maybe he really thinks he loves you’’ and she looked at me puzzled so I added: ‘He may think he loves you but what if he doesn’t know what love really is? Just because he said it doesn’t mean he understands the meaning of it. He might think he does but clearly what he has just done, proves that he doesn’t’.

This experience made me reflect about miscommunication not just between couples but also in general.

For example I used to be an avid football fan (this must be due to the fact that I have 4 brothers who love football so they introduced me to it during my teenage years.) Let’s say, I come to the USA to visit a friend and I tell this friend that I love football and my friend decides to treat me to a football match. We arrive at the stadium and we start watching the match. I then realise that this isn’t football, this is American Football. My friend may look at me and say: ‘But you told me you like football’. That statement is true but the definition of football varies per continent. I still love football, but not the football my friend thought I liked.

Love is similar. Unfortunately love has been tainted by culture and someone’s definition of ‘love’ may not be yours. That’s why Jesus came down from heaven. To show us what love is because, back then, they were already confused! I still can’t believe Sodom and Gomorrah was in Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible; we didn’t even make it past the first chapter to damage love. To understand love, we need to look at the Lord because only HIS definition of love is accurate. I love the fact that Jesus Christ didn’t stay in heaven to tell us what love is, He came down) to show us love.

So my friends, when a guy says ‘I love you’, asks him what he believes love is. And don’t just take him on his words, look at his actions.  We cannot give what we don’t have, so in order for us to recognise love, we need to know what it is. And we will know what it is by encountering Christ, most especially in the sacraments.


Careless talk can cost lives


It’s hard underestimate the power of words, and for me, fewer are as hard hitting as those spoken by Jesus in Matthew 12: 36-37

“I tell you, on the day of judgement, men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

And yet, barely a day goes by when I don’t have a “…probably shouldn’t have said that” moment. Ninety percent of the time I’m complaining about work; being tired, being overloaded…you get the picture. Whilst the utterance of these ‘careless’ words doesn’t necessarily pertain to serious sin, there remains that ten percent of the time where my “…probably shouldn’t have said that” becomes a “…definitely shouldn’t have said that” because I have spoken carelessly about another. If I reveal unnecessary information about a person or speak negatively about someone without due cause, then I’m guilty of a sin Pope Francis quite bluntly describes, as murder.  

From a simple dislike of someone, to using information for self-advancement, many of us falsely rationalise gossip. As for myself I have been guilty of sharing information just to seem interesting, or exaggerating the flaws of others to seem less blameworthy. Whatever the intention, there is no such thing as innocent gossip. When we do it, we commit offences against the very thing we are called as Christians to live; the Truth. In 1 John 2:9 we are told that ‘he who says he is in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness’, and that ‘anyone who hates his brother is a murderer’.

This may sound harsh, but if we think about the effects of gossip it’s easy to see why it’s such a serious matter. The bible warns of slander and calumny many times. The recurring theme is usually that no act ever occurs in isolation; there is always a trigger and a consequence. In the Wisdom of Solomon 1:11 we are told to ‘beware of useless murmuring and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul’. This used to make me think I should spend the rest of my days in silence; but a priest once helped me think about it more clearly when he likened gossip to bursting open a feather pillow. All the feathers fly out in different directions, some remain near you, and others are carried out through the window and blown away with the wind. Just as it would be hard to retrace all the feathers, so it is with gossip. Once we say something, we lose control of that information and can never really know how it may be distorted and affect a person’s life.

There are of course instances where sharing information is necessary, but this requires careful consideration about what is shared, with whom and what our ultimate intention is. We don’t need to reveal the truth to someone who doesn’t have the right to know it.

So, ways to avoid idle words (and this doesn’t mean taking all the adjectives out of our sentences). We need to pray for the grace to be aware of them. Acts have a trigger as well as a consequence and if we recognise why we gossip, then we can nip it in the bud, and chose instead to respond or react with love. Jesus said one of the most important commandments is to love our neighbour as ourselves, and how many of us would be saddened to think of being misrepresented in the way we sometimes misrepresent others? Although the words of Christ are piercingly direct, we are given the tools and encouragement to use our words diligently, and be justified before him who is the Truth.


We need to talk about virtue


How many sins do you come across every day? Loads I bet: theft, murder, environmental destruction, sexual violence, war crimes, political corruption, bullying, tax evasion, drug offences, driving offences…to name but a few. The daily newspapers and nightly news programmes parade a vast array of sins before us every day. Sin certainly appears to be newsworthy these days.

Because we hear so much about it, we have become very good at talking about it. For example, there are myriad ways to describe the act of killing – first and second degree murder, voluntary and involuntary man-slaughter, crimes of passion, self-defence, suicide bombings, honour killings, abortion, fratricide, genocide, regicide, capital punishment. We also have lots of words for describing the negative side of people’s personalities: greedy, self-centred, manipulative, jealous, boastful, insensitive, lazy, aggressive, domineering, attention-seeking, biggoted, close-minded, impatient. We have an extraordinarily large vocabulary when it comes to describing sinful acts and personality traits.

Sin is undoubtedly a part of this world and it would be naive to ignore it. But when I turn on the tv or radio or log in to social media, I begin to think that sin is dominating the agenda. And so I agree with the statement made by the priest character played by Brendan Gleeson in the movie Calvary:

“I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.”

Well said. Let’s talk about virtue then!

How do we generally describe good people? “Nice” is a word that we use a lot. A really good person might be described as “OMG soooo nice.” In Ireland, probably the nicest compliment you can pay somebody is to say that they are “sound.” People who are entertaining also tend to get a good rep – great craic. But these are very general terms, My hunch is that we are not as well practiced at being more specific about people’s qualities and virtues. I say as a result of a recent experience which had a big impact on me.

I have just finished a four-day walking pilgrimage for young adults in Co. Wicklow, just south of Dublin. On the final night during the meal, everybody was given a postcard with their name on it. The postcards were circulated around the table until everybody had written one virtue of the person on their postcard. The exercise had a big effect on us all, probably because we weren’t so used to hearing about and appreciating our own virtues.

We need to talk about virtue. If we don’t, then we will forget how to talk about it and possibly forget how to live it. That would be a very sad state of affairs. Like so many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Thankfully, one of the benefits of belonging to a faith tradition like Christianity is that the tradition has a memory that you can draw on. If you’re looking for virtues, then a good first port of call is the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus describes what he considers who live blessed and happy lives. Here is a beautiful sung version by the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey.

Another helpful exercise is to write down 10 virtues that come to mind. Here is mine:

Courageous, faithful, understanding, wise, reliable, carefree, conscientious, knowledgable, perceptive, reassuring.

Niall Leahy sj

Are you asking the right questions?

photo credit: pedrojperez

‘That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. Surely life is more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, however much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?’ 

Every Wednesday, those who gather for the Pure in Heart holy hour hear these words spoken. Matthew 6:25-34 may not be an obvious choice of scripture for Pure in Heart to take as its emblem; there is no mention of sexuality, chastity, purity or morality. If these were the only words of Jesus’ that you were to ever hear, you would think his only concerns are that we live like the rest of creation – in the moment, utterly dependent on the Father’s providence, and to recognise our inherent beauty and worth. Yet these things lie at the heart of purity, beneath the lifestyle choices we make.

The roadblock: fearful questioning

As we journey deeper into God, we hear the Lord inviting us, ‘You trust in God, trust also in me’ (John 14:1). We long to do as He did, putting His whole life in the hands of the Father. Though we may desire this, so much fear stands in the way. In his book In the House of the Lord, Henri Nouwen observes we have become so accustomed to being fearful we no longer notice it. He explores how our fear reveals itself in the types of questions that preoccupy us:

‘Fear engenders fear. Fear never gives birth to love. If this is the case, the nature of the questions we raise is as important as the answers to our questions. Which questions guide our lives? Which questions do we make our own? Which questions deserve our undivided attention and full personal commitment? Finding the right questions is as crucial as finding the right answers. A careful look at the Gospels shows that Jesus seldom accepted the questions posed to him. He exposed them as coming from the house of fear [Nouwen lists some examples]. To none of these questions did Jesus give a direct answer. He gently put them aside as questions emerging from false worries […] Therefore Jesus always transformed the question by his answer. He made the question new – and only then worthy of his response.’ 

The scripture that came to my mind when I read this, reinforced by hearing it week after week, was Matthew 6: 31-33. Jesus exhorts us, ‘do not worry, do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?” It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.’ Nouwen’s prompt to take a good look at the questions I ask with my life exposes the ways I still live like a gentile within. It all comes down to the questions that lie in the heart. It is entirely possible to go to Mass, have a committed prayer life, live chastely, and still be uncertain whether God will provide.

The way forward

The good news is that prayer and sacraments are the means by which God gently uncovers our unbelief as well as our great worth. Jesus knows when he asks us to lose control that this terrifies us. He saw through His disciples’ questioning to the fear that lingered in their hearts even though they had dropped their nets to follow Him. As with them, He wants to help us replace questions born of worldly anxiety, fear and self-sufficiency with questions that empower us to live like God’s children. My heart sincerely desires to give God all of my trust and to be surprised by his loving care for me, but do I give him much opportunity? Often I don’t, but sometimes I do.

Trust in God is itself a gift received, but like all virtues, it grows when we practice it in little things. We can exhaust ourselves straining to hear answers to big questions like, ‘Where should I live? What work should I do? Where is my husband/wife/community?!’ We desperately try to trust God in all these things, but do we trust him when we’re running late and the bus hasn’t shown up? Do we trust Him when we get exasperated with own weaknesses that His grace is nevertheless at work within us? If we seek His kingdom first, everything else follows. The point of all this personal growth is never oneself. However, it is only a heart that loves and trusts God that is free to love. Shortly after reading Nouwen, I came across this short video of Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV, of the Sisters of Life:“>

As an answer to prayer I didn’t even know I’d made, she gave me a question to steer my heart towards the future: ‘The most important question in your life is, “What will you do with your love?”’ For all of us, especially the young who are discerning God’s call, ‘what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed’ (1 John 3:2). I encourage you to put aside your fretting, your attempts to figure it all out, and ask how you will love God today – with this body, this heart, this life you have, through the people He has placed before you.


Why I come to Pure in Heart

photo credit: pedrojperez

I first came to Pure in Heart after realising that it was becoming increasingly hard to grow in my faith without encouragement or anyone to talk about it with. Moving to London I found myself in a bigger struggle than ever between the worldly and the religious lifestyle. Although I’ve always had a strong faith and regularly attend Mass, I’d spend most of my time with people who were not religious and often found myself in situations and environments which were not fruitful or satisfying. Spurred finally by an encounter I had in Confession where I grumbled about living a bit of a duplicitous lifestyle, I was advised to find a Catholic community.

I remember speaking to someone after Mass at Westminster Cathedral, who told me that Pure in Heart met each Wednesday for an hour of Adoration with the Rosary, followed by a talk or discussion centred on Theology of the Body (ToB). Without the slightest idea what ToB was, and slightly anxious that I might not be pure in heart, I decided to go. In that first peaceful hour of adoration, surrounded by Catholics of a similar age, I felt it was an answer to a prayer.

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What gives me the right to forgive myself?


This was the question I was pondering today in prayer, and as I was mulling it over, a statement popped into my head:

“Do not call unclean what I have made clean.”

I knew I’d heard that before, although I wasn’t exactly sure where, so I looked it up when I got home. There it was in Acts 10:15.

I thought about the idea of forgiving myself for quite some time. I wondered how it was possible, and even if it was, what it would actually mean. Does forgiving myself mean deciding that what happened wasn’t really that bad after all? No. Does it mean I’m going to erase this mistake from my mind and never think of it again. No, that’s not humanly possible. The old self acted in a way that hurt so many people (not least of all me). Forgiving myself means letting that self die, burying it like a seed in the ground, and letting the painful lessons I’ve learned from that mistake become nutrients for the completely new self slowly springing up. What’s going to happen to the new self if I keep digging up the old self to see how small, hard, and ugly it was? The best case scenario is its growth will be stunted, and worst case, it will die and I’ll be stuck with the old self that I just couldn’t let go of. I can have the old or the new, but I can’t have both. Does God want me to be the person I was? No. Does he want to cultivate that new and improved version of me? Absolutely. So who am I to tell God I’m staying in this hole I dug for myself when he is calling me out of it?

I’m free of my sins not because I said so – I’m free because when I turned away from those sins, God commanded my release. Staying in my little prison cell after he’s opened the door is just adding monumentally to the self-centred foolishness that put me there in the first place. By forgiving myself I’m not condoning my mistakes, I’m allowing God to help me become a completely new creation. I’ll be stronger against sin now that I know its heavy price, wiser in my future choices, more humble because I know my weaknesses, and more forgiving because I’ve been forgiven.