But the most important man, the man who was my spiritual director for over twenty years, was Fr Aengus Dunphy of the monastery in Portglenone. Last week, at the ripe old age of 92, Fr Aengus left this world to begin a whole new life in the company of his beloved Lord.
As luck would have it, I was in Rome when my friend died. In many ways I am sad that I was not here when for his passing but there are also many reasons why I am glad I was out of the country. Let me tell you a little about him and the unique type of individual he was.
Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century saint who wrote down all the teachings of the church in a proper logical order that has never been surpassed. If you understand Thomas Aquinas you can understand every teaching of the church and the reasons behind it.
After an introductory meeting, Fr Aengus and I agreed to meet every Thursday evening at 6.30pm. These talks soon took on a regular form whereby Fr Aengus would enter the room and announce, before he sat down, what we were going to talk about.
Very early on he taught me something significant which has stood me in good stead during my life. Read it slowly because it is the most important lesson you will ever hear in your life: I write it down as it was given to me.
“Turlough,” said Fr Aengus, “If you ever find yourself disagreeing with a moral teaching of the Catholic Church, you change your mind: don’t expect the Church to change to suit you.”
I protested about men like Cardinal Henry Newman who had challenged the Church’s perception on certain aspects of teachings but Fr Aengus said, “Turlough, you haven’t got the intellect of Cardinal Newman.”
That put me in my place and before I go any further let me say that I was to learn that Newman challenged the Church about perceptions, not moral teaching.
Why was this lesson so important?
Think about it for a moment.
Forget the notion about ‘not hurting other people,’ that has long since gone out the window. The phrase ‘I can do what I like as long as I don’t hurt anyone else,’ was always a cover for saying that I can do what I like.
Take the great new fad in the world for euthanasia. People come up with all sorts of sayings such as ‘it is my life and I shall do what I want with it, I shall end it when I want and I have dominion over my body. Why should I put up with unbearable suffering?’
All this sounds great, until you have a fifteen year old who has unbearable suffering after being dumped by a boyfriend/girlfriend and decides to end it all, leaving a broken family behind.
However, I digress; this is not the principle benefit of accepting the teaching of the Church unquestionably.
The great benefit of accepting the teaching of the Church is that in order to do so we have to come to the teaching of God with an attitude of humility.
“I will accept the authority of God as expressed through his Holy Catholic Church,” is a totally different way of viewing the world than ‘I shall do what I like, no one will tell me how to live.’
Fr Aengus knew this and he knew how seductive the illusion of power that goes along with this latter kind of thinking can be. The second way of looking at the world, ‘I shall do what I like, etc’ comes from an arrogant heart full of pride, while the first, accepting the authority of God as expressed by the church, is an act of humility.
This act of humility allows us to experience God in a much more deep way. It does not guarantee that we shall always do what is right; there are many people who could testify that I have failed numerous times. But it does guarantee that we shall always come back to God with an attitude of sorrow and seeking forgiveness.
When he was 14, Fr Aengus heard the Rev (later Bishop) Edward Galvin give a talk at St Kieran’s College Kilkenny, where he was a boarder. Bishop Galvin was the founder of the Maynooth Mission to China, or the Columbans, as they became known. At the end of his talk Bishop Galvin said, “Who knows, boys, some day I might see some of you as priests on the banks of the Yangtze River.”
“You’ll see me,” said Fr Aengus and that day he decided to become a priest. He never made it to the Yangtze River. Instead he ended up in Mount Melleray and then in 1957 he came to Portglenone as abbot.
He was a man dedicated to God and he was a man of iron will.
“The day I entered Mount Melleray I said to myself that no matter what happens I am not leaving here. If I had not made that decision I would have left quite a few times,” Fr Aengus told me on several occasions.
At that time, the monks rose at 1.30am to do Vigils and start their day. They went to bed at 6.30pm. Fr Aengus also told me: “I made a decision the day I entered that as soon as I heard the bell I would get up. I have stuck to that.”
Michael was his given name and Aengus was the name he took when he made his solemn profession. I used to look at him the odd time and say, “You don’t look like a Mick!”
“What does a Mick look like?” he would reply, and he would feign laughter. He was good fun.
Another of his favourite sayings was “Every good action comes from us responding to the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that without me you can do nothing; now nothing doesn’t mean a little, it means nothing. When we get up in the morning we are responding to the prompting of the Spirit. Every good thing we do in the day is in response to the Holy Spirit. If we do what is right all day long, we should end up a little closer to heaven every evening.”
What a simple but profound way of looking at the life of the Christian. Fr Aengus used to call this the ‘dignity of an ordinary day.’
During the last few months of his life he talked regularly about dying and even here he taught me so much. It was almost like a pantomime. He would say something like, “I’m going to die soon” and I would reply that he had been talking about dying since he hit eighty. I would also tell him that he would live til he got the telegram from the Queen.
“God, I don’t want to be here that long,” Fr Aengus would reply.
“I have been rehearsing what I am going to say to Jesus when I meet him,” he would often say. Doubt about the existence of God or of meeting Jesus would never enter his head. He spoke of Jesus as we speak about our best friends.
“Well, what are you going to say to him?” I would reply when he mentioned meeting Jesus.
“I will look at him and say ‘you are a merciful God.’ He has promised not to be too hard on those who ask for his mercy and I’ll ask him to have mercy on me. I suppose I’ll do a while in purgatory. I don’t think I’m going down below.”
Fr Aengus had complete confidence in the love of God. He knew that like all people he was not worthy of the Kingdom of God but that it was a gift from the Father in heaven. But he also knew that God was true to his word and that if he asked for mercy he would receive it.
“All we have to do is remember to ask for mercy. If we can do that then Jesus will not let us be lost. Jesus did not come and die for us to be lost; if we show any hint of repentance he will save us. We may have a long time to do in purgatory but we will not be lost,” he would say.
“No one in the monastery is supposed to do his own will,” I would remind him of what is written in the Rule of St Benedict, and when he tried to object I would remind him that his current abbot had placed him here and he was to be obedient to the staff. It was good fun, me quoting the Rule and him trying to wrangle his way out of it.
Although he was obviously relieved from his monastic duties, Fr Aengus still liked to do the Divine Office, right up to the last few days of his life. We would do Evening Prayer and Night Prayer with him in the evenings and leave the book ready for Vigils and Morning Prayer. As his mind grew frail sometimes he would forget where we were in the prayers and would repeat himself, but up to the end he bowed his head every time he said the name of Jesus; he loved the Lord.
For the last month or two he had difficulty sleeping, but even this he put to good use.
“When I waken during the night I try to say a rosary but I never get past ‘Our Father.’ Just think about that,” he would say. “The creator of the universe who made everything in this whole wide universe is our Father. Every little insect and plant, fish and creature, gets its food from him and he is our Father. I often dwell on the thought of this mighty God who has created everything, being a Father to us.”
Fr Aengus was also the man who gave me the great saying: “Our God is a Great God.”
A few years ago, I don’t really know how long, we were talking about God and his love when Fr Aengus told me some things that God had shown him and almost in ecstasy he said, “Our God is a Great God.”
Fr Aengus was a man on fire with the love of God. The staff of Anniscliff House, who were very good to him, probably considered him a cantankerous old man, but he was nothing of the sort. He was not used to having people tell him what to do. I’ll tell you an amusing story.
One evening a couple of weeks ago Fr Aengus was in particularly bad form about something that wasn’t going his way. He was about to say something and I stopped him, saying that it would add days to his purgatory.
“Ok,” he said, “I won’t hurt your sensitive ears,” to which I replied, “Ok then, say it. And I shall do the days in purgatory for you.”
His retort was immediate and brilliant: “I’ll do my own purgatory, thank you; I have my dignity.”
How do you win with an answer like that?
Towards the end he would often quote Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me...Let me sing to the Lord for his generosity to me, let me sing to the name of God the Most High.”
Fr Aengus taught me that there is nothing to fear in death: it is only the passing from this life to the next. All we have to do is to persevere to the end and let God do the work for us.
On the day I left for Rome I went to Anniscliff House and spoke to my friend. I asked him if he would be here when I returned and he said he did not know. I sat beside him and held his hand as we said the Lord’s Prayer together. He blessed me with the sign of the cross and told me that God loved me.
I asked him that if he was gone before I came back to be sure and tell my daughter Shauna that I loved her and to pray for me. He told me she already knew that.
It was too much for me and I broke down. I had a good idea that this was the last time I would see my friend alive; we parted with a hug.
I got the news in Rome that Aengus had gone to see how great a God our God is. On Tuesday, the day of his funeral, my wife and I spent a quiet day of reflection at the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, and we attended Mass for him in the evening.
The Orthodox Christians have two marvelous sayings that give me great joy: ‘Those we have loved and lost are not gone far away. They are where we are now.’ And the second is ‘The graves of upright men are in the hearts of their friends.’
Only once in a lifetime do you meet a man like Fr Aengus. But his teaching and friendship shall stand me in good stead. I shall see him again in the place where there is no more pain and stress, in the company of the angels and our friends.
I think he is watching me write this and saying, ‘Go on, Turlough, tell them that our God is a Great God, never tire of believing in Him and never grow weary of doing what is right.’
Goodbye, old friend.
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