Father Paul Murray OP is Irish by birth. He now works in Rome where he teaches at the Angelicum University. He is also a poet. There is so much of extraordinary value in his book, Scars, of both thought and poetry, that it’s difficult to know precisely where to begin.
He deals with affliction, anguish and suffering in their many forms and also with forgiveness, compassion, martyrdom and the healing power of words, poetry and music. This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking book.
The author reminds us of the words of the 17th-Century poet, Henry Vaughan: “Afflictions turn our blood to ink.” So much truly great poetry and literature spring from deep suffering and anguish.
Fr Murray considers St John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul and he reflects on The Spiritual Canticle. He writes: “John’s first great poems were written at a time of utter desolation in his life. Attempting, with St Teresa of Avila, to start a reform of the Carmelite Order, he was imprisoned by some of the unreformed brothers, beaten, tortured and almost starved to death. But it was there, in that situation of complete affliction, John found his voice as a poet. And a number of the poems he began to write are considered among the greatest mystical verse ever composed.”
Fr Murray is a fine poet himself and many of his poems are in this book. He tells the story of a friend of Beethoven’s, Dorothea von Ertmann, whose small children had died one after the other. Needless to say, the poor woman was grief-stricken. Beethoven invited her to come to his house and she later described to the composer Felix Mendelssohn what happened.
Mendelssohn wrote about this incident in a letter he sent to the composer Hayden in 1831. He wrote: “She (Dorothea) told me that, when she lost her last child, Beethoven was at first unable to come to her house any more.
“Finally, he invited her to come to him, and when she came he sat at the piano and merely said: ‘We will now converse in music’, and played for over an hour and, as she expressed it, ‘He said everything to me, and also finally gave me consolation.’”
In discussing the different forms and definitions of martyrdom, Fr Murray tells us about a Catholic woman called Felicitas, a Rwandese Hutu, about 60-years-old, who welcomed and sheltered Tutsi refugees in her own home during the unspeakable horror that took place in that country in 1994.
She was an auxiliary of the Apostolate in Gisenyi. She and many of those she sheltered were found and murdered. At the last moment, she was heard to say to the other terrified women with her: “The time has come for us to give witness. Let us go!” As they climbed into the lorry that would take them to their cruel death they sang and prayed together.
There is so much that’s truly wonderful about this fascinating book but for me the highlight is Fr Murray’s heartrending but uplifting story of the young black man, Christopher, whom he met and befriended on death-row in South Africa during the apartheid time. He was permitted only to speak to the prisoner through a glass window.
On his first meeting with Christopher in prison he asked the young man did he ever pray. No, he replied, but to the priest’s surprise, he asked him to teach him. “At first, I made some brief comments about prayer, and then I suggested we say the Our Father together. Christopher bowed his head and closed his eyes. And, as we started the prayer, there was a look of concentration on his face which I will never forget,” he writes.
“At my next visit I brought Christopher a Bible, and I could tell from subsequent meetings that it made an immediate impact. I say this because, on a subsequent visit, as soon as he entered the room he could hardly wait to get to the window. As soon as he sat down he asked me, his eyes shining with joy, if I had ever read the story of the Prodigal Son. ‘Tell me’, I said, and that’s exactly what he did! I don’t know, to be honest, if I ever listened to a better sermon in my life.”
He goes on to share with us the unbearably moving and truly inspirational letter that Christopher sent to him before his execution and one would have to be made of stone not to cry reading it. It just goes to show how compassion and love can change one’s life.
This is a book that will stay with you for a very long time.