Did you ever consider your un-lived life, or lives? If things had been different what might you be doing? Where might you be living? With whom? It’s an interesting question. Once you start to reflect on your unrealised potential it brings us in touch with all those who formed us for good or for ill. This type of reflection can tap us into a residual resentment, or at least lack of acceptance, or alternatively to a gracious acceptance that brings us deep peace and gratitude. It’s good to remember from the outset that everyone has an un-lived life. Even in the most fulfilling life there is the pain of choice and with it the realisation that we can only do so much.
The first of my un-lived lives is a political one. The general draw back then, when I was a teenager, was to politics, maybe social work, and even then to teaching. Medicine was some vague peripheral notion which, as a consequence of both lack of ability and lack of application, never even taxied down the runway never mind got off the ground. Teaching won out, albeit in the context of religious vocation, the latter which I could not have foreseen.
To what degree my appetite for politics was shaped by my environment and to what degree it was nurtured by a particularly good teacher and subsequent reading I am not sure. The environment, of course, was politically highly charged. The years from I was nine to nineteen were bookended by the arrival of the British army into Northern Ireland and the deaths of the ten Hunger Strikers. Despite the provocative utterances of Dr. Paisley and Mrs Thatcher and appalling atrocities such as Bloody Sunday, largely through having very fine parents and God’s grace, I stopped short of signing up for the IRA. Having said that, even these combined benign influences could not arrest my recurring teenage fantasy to blow up Number Ten, Downing Street. In reality this was never going to happen given my fear that, despite my taking every precaution, someone might get hurt.
I guess even then I was sliding more towards Jesus than any of the other influences competing for my adulation and imitation. These influences included: Che Guevara, Bobby Sands, Ronald Reagan, Charles Haughey, Bernadette Devlin, Katharine Hepburn and Golda Meir. Some, though not all, of these were gradually replaced in my gallery of heroes with Thomas Merton, Teresa of Calcutta, Edmund Rice, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Today it would be hard to trump, Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, as my ultimate hero. Some of my minor un-lived lives include: members of the Cistercians, Christian Brother leadership, literary and political life.
I think when we reflect on those who helped form us we must not neglect family members, close
neighbours, teachers, priests. I recall my grandparents and I am conscious of the debt of gratitude I owe them.
In another un-lived life I am married….thirty years now. I am still as crazy about her as when I first met her. Seven children later I love the life we have. I love our house, old, filled with character, a house that we, mainly her, my Michelle, have made into a home. The few skirmishes we have had were very short lived mainly because I could not bear even the slightest, most temporary of estrangements. I love our dogs, the craziest, cheekiest feisty collection of boxers and parson jacks as you’ll ever meet. I tolerate the cats mainly because I know Michelle loves them….Of course I am not married, nor have I children, and whatever about the father they missed, perhaps from the point of view of life partner, maybe someone had a narrow escape. I guess that is just a clumsy way of saying that I think I would have made a better father than husband.
What’s going on here? Is this some multiple personality manifestation, or a dressed up collection of ‘if onlys’? What happens for you when you reflect on your life like this? Where does such imagining bring you? Will you come the next step with me and move from recrimination to thanksgiving?
Yes, for whatever I have sacrificed, whatever my loss, whatever my sadness, I give God thanks for the privilege to serve as priest. I give God thanks for all the opportunities, most especially for being able to explore a deep personal relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. I give him thanks for my rich life. Yes, I am grateful for joy.