Thou who changest not, abide with me

Fr Jason Murphy's reflection will strike a chord with those who find strength in times of darkness...

I remember Sunday nights with particular clarity when as a first year student in Maynooth we gathered in the choir stalls of Junior Oratory at the end of the day, for Night Prayer. We had feasted for the hour or so previous on freshly baked brown bread still warm to the touch that had been brought back by a student from the high hills of Laragh, up where the air is clear, in that end of the parish known as Carraig Aileann.

We listened carefully each Sunday evening for the purr of the engine, as he returned from a McKenna Cup match or a first round intercounty league match in the depths of January. We waited for his mother’s car to pull up beneath the high archway that led into the most beautiful quadrangle that was St Joseph’s square. The smell of the brown bread would waft down the Long Corridor upon which we lived. Tea was made for the many who gathered in, creamed with milk that came straight from the parlour at the back of his house in Edrans. It was comforting and warm, a taste of home for that hour or so on a Sunday night.

Leaving behind the dirty cups and the crumb strewn table, we ran down the stairs into the oratory to take our places amongst the hundred or so first and second year students, each with his own place along the stalls.

The psalms were incanted as, to and fro, we recited the by now familiar lines of the breviary, looking across the wide expanse of the aisle that lay between us and the students opposite.

The dean kept a watchful eye from below at the door of the oratory for any student who was swaying too much from side to side as he walked up the aisle or was out of sync, in reciting the prayers, with the lads who sat in prayerful pose each side of him. For Sunday was a day when one might be tempted to catch the 66 bus as far as the ‘Hitching Post’, a hostelry that played soccer games on a big screen in the lounge bar.

At the end of the prayers, before we departed into the night of solemn silence, a hymn of the cantor’s choice was sung by the whole of the assembled community, varying from ‘The day thou gavest Lord has ended’ to ‘Lead kindly light’ or the great ‘Salve Regina’. But the favourite hymn of those gathered on a Sunday night when many of the voices had been well tuned after an outing on the 66 bus was most definitely ‘Abide with me’. It was much loved by the deep baritones and bases, some of whom stood in the stalls opposite, one a Tuam student who sat day on day beside the Laragh man in the midst of prayer. For him this hymn spoke volumes as around the walls of our tightly-knit community so full of enthusiasm for the lives of ministry that lay before us, the storms of change whirled. The headlines told forth of the dalliance of Bishop Casey and the scandals more serious of abuse that ensued. It seemed that the Church to which we had tentatively given these years of youthful fervour was crumbling before our very eyes; a church which was part of our DNA growing up in parishes all across the country.

‘Change and decay in all around I see’, the penultimate line of the hymn, reminded him of the road that lay ahead as we set foot unto a path devoid of the certainties others once knew. But that which we had forgotten in the whirlwind of change was that God was there in the midst of this turmoil and so it was that the line of the hymn, which became our sustaining prayer, was that which we departed on into the solemn silence, reverberating in our minds, ‘oh thou who changest not... abide with me’ and so it was that God who is and was and will be, remained steadfast throughout it all.

These days as we listen to news headlines of murder and violence perpetrated against the innocent and we watch on as the bonds of respect and decency, which once bound us tightly together in community, seem to dissipate, we cannot help but think that that which we have known is slowly passing away, the touchstone of certainty we once knew.

In these January days as the light is low and the days are short and the trees stand forlorn, when the warmth of spring has not yet called forth the early blooms, let this be our prayer, oh thou who changest not, abide with me.


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