Finding miracles and inspiration in unexpected places
The new book from our friend and contributor, Eddie Gilmore,
Darton, Longman and Todd, ISBN 978 1 915412 48 5 Paperback 192 pp
Cardinal Vincent Nichols got to see this book before we did! He writes:
‘From a faith-filled perspective, and drawing on his own personal, musical and professional experience, Eddie shows us how important it is to have hope in our lives and to be connected with each other and the world in which we live. In this way, we can glimpse the miracles and opportunities that are in our midst and use them for the benefit of all – the universe does indeed provide!’
Eddie’s first book was titled ‘Looking Ahead with Hope’, so there is a theme evident here. Hope is tougher than optimism, it means being with someone when the optimism has run into the sand, when income has gone, the home is in jeopardy, the prison sentence never seems to get any shorter, loneliness is a daily companion, health and vigour are ebbing away. Through his upbringing in an Irish family in Coventry, his education, his work with L’Arche and the Irish Chaplaincy, Eddie knows these realities, made worse by the pandemic.
Now he feels it’s time to encourage us all to recognise the daily miracles of hope and healing that pass before our eyes, the people whose lived hope is rebuilding communities across the world. Eddie takes us through some events of his post-covid year, introducing some of the characters he meets in that time. He reminds us that the Irish are a nation of singers, a gift that holds people together at home or in exile, a Gift from the Universe that he himself exercises for friends, prisoners, elderly people — and delegates to meetings!
It is important for each one of us to recognise the signs of these post-pandemic times and to bring hope to those we meet day by day or just the once, in passing.
Eddie Gilmore may not be your typical Chief Executive Officer, but he has been CEO of the Irish Chaplaincy since 2017, after belonging to L’Arche for 28 years. He writes regularly for a number of publications including Catholic Times, Intercom (the journal of the Irish Catholic Bishops), and Independent Catholic News. Eddie also contributes to BBC Radio’s ‘Pause For Thought’.
Silence can be a moment of revelation, writes Eddie Gilmore of the Irish chaplaincy. Here’s a paragraph from his reflection, where a hike across Wales opened that possibility to him. As ever, the whole article is worth reflecting upon, but here’s that taster.
When I was fourteen I was on a school trip to North Wales and we were hiking one day across the high and remote moorland when the guide asked us to stop dead still and to listen. Having grown up in a city, and in a house where my sister liked to have Radio 1 playing all the time, and where the TV was usually on non-stop, it was probably the first time I had heard that sound of silence. And what an amazing sound it was. It lasted just a few seconds before some of the others started giggling but it was a little moment of revelation for me.
What revelation could we receive if we stopped the noise for a few minutes? That said, I used to find silence following a noisy lawnmower around some extensive grounds, part of my mind concentrating on the machine and the grass, the rest, eventually turning to silence.There are many entries to the bliss of solitude.
Undiluted Christmas cheer does not last long for Christians, at least we are soon shaken out of our liturgical high spirits. Yesterday we had the feast of the first Christian Deacon Stephen; today the long-suffering, beloved disciple John, imprisoned on the Island of Patmos, ‘for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ (Revelation 1:9)
Let’s hear from Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish chaplaincy talking about supporting the families of prisoners today. Here is one paragraph, you’ll find the full blog post here. Thank you, Eddie.
I’m always incredibly touched to meet people who have a loved one in prison. We often say that the family members also serve a kind of sentence, and there are all kinds of difficult feelings that they live with like shame and guilt. This was acknowledged by our excellent morning speaker, Mary from Accord, the marriage care organisation. She spoke of the importance of self-care, looking after oneself, and we all need to be reminded of that sometimes. I could have listened to Mary all day. There was then time to chat with those on our table about any issues. I was sitting next to a lovely woman from Co. Clare whose son is in prison in Devon. “He did something stupid,” she explained. I reassured her that each and every one of us in the room had done something stupid in our life but by the grace of God we hadn’t ended up in prison because of it. She went on to say that he had been lucky to get enrolled in a workshop each day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. that repairs old bikes for sale on eBay, and for which he earns £12 a week. He is indeed one of the lucky ones, since many prisons in England and Wales are still enforcing ‘bang up’ of up to 23 ½ hours per day, partly due to a chronic shortage of prison officers. This young man is lucky as well in that his mother, in spite of the distance and the expense, will be making regular visits to him. It is this maintenance of family contact that has been shown to be the single most significant factor in eventual successful rehabilitation.
Many readers of this blog will recognise the name Eddie Gilmore. We’ve shared a number of his blog posts for the London Irish chaplaincy and it’s good to have a selection of them gathered together in this book, Looking Ahead with Hope.
It’s a teasing title. No human can look ahead without looking back; try it sometime. The important thing is to believe that we – and more to the point, God – can build on the past. If that’s going to happen we need to get down to the bedrock of grace at work in our lives.
That grace often manifests itself in Eddie’s life in the form of music: singing at his mother’s 90th birthday party or a L’Arche retreat in the French Alps – Eddie was with L’Arche before joining the chaplaincy, the lack of singing as church congregations returned as covid retreated.
Eddie revisits those lock-down days, learning to live with people for 24 hours a day, long walks with family members, open-air conversations with passing acquaintances, the pluses and minuses of communicating by Zoom. We got through, but looking ahead, what have we learnt?
There could have been no singing and no party for his mum’s birthday in lockdown time, which put a stop to many of the chaplaincy’s ministries. Music was important in prison ministries too. The old, well-known songs awoke something in the hearts of the captive audience members, giving hope of another life outside prison. Special food on days the chaplaincy team were able to gather people together: it was in HMP Chelmsford that Eddie learnt to enjoy bacon cabbage and potatoes! There, too, Eddie reflected, that ‘for a couple of hours we’d been fellow human beings, enjoying good food and music, and one another’s company.’ And the musicians were changed by the experience (p73).
This book will inspire you to look ahead with hope, because Eddie Gilmore knows how to look back in gratitude. A Christmas present that somebody you know will be grateful for.
Looking Ahead with Hope, Eddie Gilmore, DLT, £9.99. See the DLT site, where there was a good discount offer as we went to press.
I was wondering why I had heard nothing from Eddie Gilmore for a while. Well, he has been to Korea with Yim Soon, to mark their thirty years of marriage. Congratulations!
Eddie posted this account of his holiday, which got off to an inauspicious start in and around various European airports, but turned into a great treat for the soul. Let’s rejoice with Eddie and Yim Soon, and before the memories fade, be grateful for the blessings of the summer that has now brought us to autumn, a time of reflection and new beginnings. At L’Arche Kent we’ll be planting bulbs for a start!
Here’s an extract from Eddie’s story:
Having left home on the Friday I finally landed in Seoul on the Monday. It was hot and humid, the monsoon season had just begun, and I was exhausted: hungry too, since you don’t get fed on planes the way you used to. After a couple of nights with Yim Soon’s eldest sister Son Ja, whose apartment was mercifully close to a mini-mountain with wonderful views over the city, we were picked up by Son Ja’s daughter Son Young for the three-hour (if there’s no traffic, otherwise it’s seven hours!) drive East to the Sorak national park. It’s a place that holds special memories for me: good walking, beautiful waterfalls, also its close proximity to the East Sea, where we had some fun times on the beach, partly due to the mountains being closed to the public due to the heavy rain. Thankfully they were reopened for our day to Daechongbong and Yim Soon and I were on the trail at 8 a.m. having dropped our bags at the temple where we would be spending the night. We were on the top at just after 2 p.m., having almost given up a couple of times on what seemed impossibly steep sections. I’m glad we pressed on and we were rewarded with stunning views over the lower peaks and all the way to the sea. We made it back down to the temple just in time for the final check-in at 6.30 p.m. but having missed dinner! No matter, we were both too tired to eat but what a good fatigue it is that comes from extreme physical exertion. There was a ‘full Korean breakfast’ on offer at 6.30 a.m., the only condition being that we had to wear the ‘temple robes’ that had been assigned to us on arrival which were grey trousers and a yellow jacket. I’ll wear anything for a good meal!
There are some Christian movements that shun the giving of Christmas presents. One such is Christian Science, whose founder Mary Baker Eddy told in a paper ‘The Theology of Christmas Presents’ how, instead of giving them gifts, she sat still and thought about ‘Truth and Purity’ for her friends till they were much better for it. This was derided by G.K. Chesterton who declared Eddy’s stance to be ‘un-Christian’ and who points out that ‘Christ Himself was a Christmas present’. He writes as well that, ‘A gift of God that can be seen and touched is the whole point of the epigram of the creed.’
Admittedly, the consumer spending spree that begins ever earlier in the year can get a bit out of hand, and even lead to some people ending up in debt. But how lovely it can be to both receive and to give presents, especially ones into which a lot of thought and love has gone. And the gifts don’t have to be expensive. We do ‘Secret Santas’ at the Irish Chaplaincy (a fine tradition; and one enjoyed as well, by all accounts, in 10, Downing Street!). There is a £5 guideline and people interpret that in a variety of ways. I hit the jackpot this year. I received a large white furry Christmas stocking emblazoned with the letter ‘E’ and containing a string of flashing lights (which I love) and a glass container with a Christmas scene inside that snows when you shake it (which I also love) and lights up when you press a button on the bottom! And can be hung on the tree! The Secret Santa in question had, in addition, bought a large box of chocolates for all the team and a signed photo of Jamie Carragher for Declan’s son who is a Liverpool fan. I was so touched by that.
My furry stocking has duly been hung up next to the fireplace and I wait in anticipation of it being filled with little treats when I come downstairs on the morning of December 25th. I’m aware that I might find it empty but that’s the thing about present giving, and, I suppose, life in general: sometimes you’re in luck, sometimes you’re not! But in luck or out of luck, we may never know, through our own giving, how we may have touched another person.
Chesterton argues in his riposte to Mary Baker Eddy that if the three kings had simply brought ‘Truth and Purity and Love’ to that stable in Bethlehem then there ‘would have been no Christian art and no Christian civilization.’ Rather they brought actual, physical gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. OK, they may not have been the most practical things to give to the mother of a new-born, but how many of us want practical gifts at Christmas? Don’t we want instead something to make us smile, to feel special; to feel known and valued and loved: in short, thoughtful gifts, which is precisely what the gifts of the kings were.
In the words of Handel’s Messiah, ‘For unto us a child is born’, and that, surely, remains the greatest Christmas gift of all.
He in the evening, when on high
The stars shine in the silent sky,
Beholds th' eternal flames with mirth,
And globes of light more large than Earth;
Then weeps for joy, and through his tears
Looks on the fire-enamell'd spheres,
Where with his Saviour he would be
Lifted above mortality.
Meanwhile the golden stars do set,
And the slow pilgrim leave all wet
With his own tears, which flow so fast
They make his sleeps light, and soon past.
from Poems of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Volume II via Kindle
Eddie was writing about the stars yesterday, so an opportunity presents to complement his reflection with a poem. I was talking to a friend who had been moved to tears by a television drama, and remarked that certain saints had written of 'the gift of tears'. My friend was grateful that the fountain had welled up within her.
Here we have a 17th Century poet, writing in English though living in Wales. He was twenty years old when Galileo died. Science did not erode his faith but enhanced it, intellectually and emotionally, the sight of the 'fire-enamell'd spheres' moving him to tears of awe at creation.
By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, always happy to share his wisdom with us.
Having now attended, in person, my first hybrid conference I had a chance to compare the experience of attending virtually and attending in the flesh.
It was the AGM and annual conference of CCA, Community Chaplaincy Association, of which Irish Chaplaincy is an associate member, and it was being held at the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, a charity founded in East London in 1147 and described on its website as ‘an extraordinary urban oasis’. It truly is! There is an immediate sense of calm upon entering, with lots and lots of lovely, tranquil spaces, both inside and out. I had a little explore before joining the group and found in the grounds the old chapel which was reconfigured so that a huge floor to ceiling window was created in one of the side walls giving a view of the beautiful garden and a giant oak tree. And right outside the chapel is a little enclosed terrace with fountains. It really was my kind of place, somewhere where I could just sit in peace for hours.
One of the most valuable elements of conferences for me has always been the informal conversations that take place in between the formal sessions. This one was no disappointment in that respect, and the conversations were well fuelled by mid-morning coffee and pastries, a tasty lunch, and tea and cakes in the afternoon. You just don’t get any of that when you attend ‘virtually’, which many people did. There they were on a large screen, and they even got a bit of gentle teasing from Jackie, the Chair: “Sorry, we’ve got to leave you now to go for our coffee and pastries!”
There was yet another little treat in store, with an opportunity to go to the chapel for a mid-day prayer at 12.45. I was the only one who went and the man there lighting the candles as I arrived seemed pleased that he wouldn’t be conducting the service on his own. We got chatting after the prayer, and my ears pricked up at the clear trace of a Belfast accent. He had heard of the Irish Chaplaincy and said how much he liked our website. “How do you know about us?” I asked, pleasantly surprised. His wife, it turned out, was Debby, CEO of London Gypsies and Travellers, with whom I’d had some contact. Kevin told me that she spoke very highly of our work. We could have talked all day but I had to go for lunch where I ended up sitting next to Jackie who, it emerged, had once worked as an actress and had appeared in Casualty!
Those encounters with Kevin and Jackie and everyone else during the day; so too simply going to a different place and observing people and life on the way: it was so stimulating. It was a very different experience to attending virtually, which I have done several times over the last eighteen months. I sit there in my chair on my own and I really do try to concentrate but I end up turning the camera off and checking and sending emails; and then I get fidgety and walk around the room; and then I lie on the floor to listen; and then invariably I fall asleep! How many virtual conferences have ended for me in sleep! And I feel a bit rubbish come the end of the day.
By contrast, I was still buzzing the day after the CCA conference as I travelled up to London again for our first hybrid team meeting at the Irish Chaplaincy! There were six of us there in the flesh and three people on my laptop screen and it worked just fine and there was plenty of good-natured banter and laughter. All were agreed that we would all come together once a month for an in-person meeting followed by lunch together. And we’ll continue to do certain other meetings via zoom. One of those who had been on the screen came in to the office a little later and the seven of us headed over to Temptation Café for lunch to mark Fiona’s birthday. Dessert was taken back in the office in the form of chocolate cake, and it was a welcome return to an old Irish Chaplaincy tradition. Several people contacted me the day after to say how much they had enjoyed it. I also had found it immensely uplifting and energising.
And then the week after that there was the CSAN Directors conference, which had been due to be in Rome but because of continuing Covid uncertainties took place at Hinsley Hall in Leeds. As said already, I find immense pleasure and value in the informal encounters that take place between sessions. And I was delighted with the reunion in the evening of Sean (whistles), Jim (bodhrán) and myself (guitar). We were in fine form, and we were joined at one point by Jo and Andrew of CJM music who had given us such fantastic musical input during the conference.
In the middle of one tune I noticed a woman enter the bar who wasn’t part of the CSAN group. I gave her a little smile and she explained to me later that it had encouraged her to come in and stay. She had been up in her bedroom, the sole person there that night who was not part of the group, and had hear the music from below and had felt drawn to it. She stayed right to the end and sang a couple of old Irish songs herself, beautifully, and told a bit of her story. Amongst several various or potential things in common, she and I knew somebody at Taizé where she’d once spent a couple of years. I told her that she would be getting a mention in my latest blog, which would be making the point that some things just aren’t possible via a zoom screen: things which may be considered dispensable but which are in fact vital to our innate human need for connection. And so Sorcha becomes the second person living in London but born in Belfast to appear in this particular piece!
It will be interesting to see how the hybrid working culture develops. Zoom is here to stay and we couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to. And indeed it makes certain things possible that we never could have imagined, for example people in different countries or cities being able to meet together without having to hop on planes or trains. Mind you, in-person can be hard to beat, especially if it involves live music, coffee and pastries or chocolate cake!
Not long ago I met a fellow parishioner, now retired, whose view of the world was decidedly pessimistic. The conjunction of climate emergency, introverted nationalism, individualism and any number of other evils had really hit home to this man whose working life had been full of selfless service. Perhaps covid-19 finished off any optimism he might have felt towards his fellow humans.
Another fellow parishioner, whose own working life has been as full of selfless service, is Eddie Gilmore; regular readers of this blog will agree that his outlook is hope-full, so it’s a joy to find some of his writings from the Irish Chaplaincy website in a new book, Looking ahead with hope, soon to be published by DLT.
Eddie does not gloss over the difficulties of the time we are living through but he subtitles his work ‘Stories of Humanity, Wonder and Gratitude in a Time of Uncertainty’, thereby nailing his colours to the mast. This is a beautiful world and we should be thankful for the privilege of living in a time when, for most of us in Western Europe at least, we have plenty.
We can eat, we can share food in fellowship. In fellowship we can sing and sing together, pray and pray together, walk and make a pilgrimage together. Togetherness and fellowship is a theme of this book, and for Eddie that means being and singing with prisoners and lonely Irish exiles, with friends from his time in L’Arche, with a group of pilgrims brought together as if by chance. It means cycle rides with friends, walking through Kent, or through France and Spain on the way to Santiago.
Eddie’s style is conversational, friendly and respectful to the reader. This is a book to enjoy and to give to family and friends. Happy, hopeful reading!
For forty years now, Prisons Week has encouraged Christian individuals and churches to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people caring for those affected by crime inside and outside our prisons.
Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind.
Today is Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marking the beginning of the week of prayer, which runs until Saturday.
Here’s a reflection from our friend Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, which supports Irish prisoners in England. It shows how effective this ministry can be, in God’s good time.
“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.
One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.
With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.
My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”
Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”
(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)