Faith Matters

Grace moments grow as 'heart speaks to heart'

Witnessing an attack on a Catholic Church in 1970s' east Belfast had a profound effect on the young Alan Abernethy. He went on to become a Church of Ireland bishop but before that, while at Queen's University, he met Brendan McAllister, a Catholic, forging a lifetime's friendship. The two men took part in a 4 Corners Festival event on Sunday and here, Mr McAllister speaks of the 'grace moments' of a friendship that bridges the divisions of our society

Brendan McAllister talking at a 4 Corners Festival event hosted by St Anthony's Church in Belfast's Willowfield area. Picture by Bernie Brown

IN 2018 the Australian Trappist writer Michael Casey published a book entitled Grace: On the Journey to God.

In the introduction he says that his aim is to help the reader "to listen to the voice of God in their heart" and also "to look back on past years and to wonder at what God has done in our lives".

Although we have to "look ahead to the future, we also have to remain in contact with the pattern of God's action in the past. This is the work that leads to wisdom - as it were, to extract all the juice from what our years of discipleship have taught us".

When I look back at the relationships I have had, across the divisions of this society, I see a rich orchard of people that is part of the landscape of my life.

Among the trees I have been leaning up against is that of Alan Abernethy, occasionally shaking his branches and intrigued by the fruit that has fallen, still full of juice after all these years.

I come from Newry, a town that is reckoned to be 95 per cent Catholic and nationalist in its civic and communal culture.

When I arrived at Queen's University in September 1975 at the age of 18, I had been in Belfast four times in my life, one or two more times than I had been in Dublin.

I remember my father breaking down the Monday morning I left home for Belfast, even though I would be back on Friday evening.

You might think that sounds very naïve and sheltered. In many ways it was, but I had already lived through tumultuous years.

By the time I went to Queen's I had taken part in four election campaigns for the SDLP; I had worked for two years as a part-time barman in a pub frequented by the Official IRA; one friend was in the grave and another was in gaol.

My teenage years were fairly consumed by the Troubles, by the failure of politics, by communal division and by terrible violence.

Looking back now, I can see that a young person coming of age in a divided society cannot come to know themselves if they do not come to know 'the other' 

I was thinking about this recently when I read the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga reflecting on those who had most influenced her work.

She highlighted the American novelist Toni Morrison who, she says, taught her "that articulating pain and the failure of hope" was the stuff of literature.

You could say that articulating pain and the failure of hope was the stuff of politics in Northern Ireland in 1975.

Through that winter the violence continued to cut a torturous path through our lives.

The Shankill Butchers were roaming the streets at night. In January 1976, the O'Dowds and the Reaveys were murdered in Co Armagh, quickly followed by the Kingsmill Massacre.

It was in those dark times that I first sat down in a tutorial with Alan Abernethy.

Our tutor was the wonderful Adrian Guelke, a political scientist and exile from apartheid South Africa.

Alan wanted to be a priest and me, a political journalist. Over the course of that first year and subsequent years as students, we were deliberately exposed to the fundamentals of politics: philosophies; ideologies; constitutions; structures of governance; electoral systems; international relations and case studies from world history.

It was all very heady and fascinating for our young minds. But perhaps in both of us, a question was niggling about all this academia: "And so, what does this mean, in human terms, for how we should live our lives?"

And while our course of studies aimed to impart knowledge, it was not necessarily going to make us wise.

When John Henry Newman was made a cardinal in 1879, he chose as his motto "cor ad cor loquitur" - "heart speaks to heart".

I think that that was the spirit of our friendship. We were both looking out at the world through a spiritual lens and, at some point, we each wanted to say to the other: "Look; come and see what I see and tell me what you think."

Brendan McAllister, pictured left, with his friend Alan Abernethy, the recently retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, in St Anthony's Church, Willowfield. Picture by Bernie Brown

And so we took each other to respective services. I suppose it was a bit like having a home game when it was Catholic and an away match when Alan was on the home side.

It was that way for both of us and, as such, there was a bit of discombobulation when in unfamiliar territory.

It's important to point out that neither of us had any strategy in all of this.

I had no interest in converting Alan and, as far as I know, he had no such hopes for me.

We were just being ourselves and, in the process, becoming more than ourselves; we were becoming a bit of each other. This, you could call 'brotherhood'.

Back to Michael Casey, the Trappist monk, reflecting on grace.

Casey says that self-knowledge is the most important discipline for those who aspire to live a spiritual life.

Looking back now, I can see that a young person coming of age in a divided society cannot come to know themselves if they do not come to know 'the other'.

And this is one of the reasons why Alan Abernethy was so important to my spiritual and civic formation.

He was the first tree to be planted in the cross-community orchard that still bears fruit in my soul and in which new trees are still being planted.

Peace does not begin after violence and conflict. It begins within it. And it grows out of the ground formed by relationships.

Grace has been described as "the reality of God acting on and in our lives".

And God's reality is much bigger than the one we are born into and even grow old in.

But I thank God for that piece of the bigger reality that came to me in the friendship of Alan Abernethy.

Brendan McAllister is a trainee permanent deacon in the Diocese of Dromore and Interim Advocate for Victims and Survivors of Historical Institutional Abuse.

He was speaking with his friend, the recently retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor Alan Abernethy, in St Anthony's Catholic Church in Willowfield on Sunday February 2 at 'Grace Moments', part of the 4 Corners Festival.

4 Corners Festival continues

Tonight, Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown will respond to readings from the powerful book Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles, by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis.

The book is based on interviews with 120 people, mostly Presbyterians, in which they talk about living through the Troubles.

Tomorrow, Stephen Travers from the Miami Showband will share his memories of the attack which stole the lives of his friends and left him badly injured.

He will talk about his life and the songs that inspired him, motivated him and kept him going.

The festival concludes on Sunday with Fr Peter McVerry SJ, who has worked with the homeless for more than 40 years, and Ruth Koch, the NI director of Tearfund.

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Faith Matters