My friend Richard and I first met when we were part of the group of new assistants at L’Arche Kent at the end of the 1980s, a group which included L’Arche UK’s first ever Korean, Yim Soon, the woman who was to become my wife. Richard was a member of the music group at our wedding, which also had in it Lucy Winkett of St James’ Piccadilly.
Richard, in his post-L’Arche life, is a senior social worker in the field of mental health and he lives in Lewes in Sussex with Susan and their two utterly gorgeous little girls. We don’t get to see other too often but when we do we have a great time: re-telling some of the stories from our treasure trove of shared history and interesting characters; and catching up on the latest news. I’d barely seen him since starting at the Irish Chaplaincy just over two years ago so there was a lot to tell: both about how I came to be part of this very special organization and about some of the incredible adventures I’ve had.
We were in a newly-opened bar in Lewes, a bit off the beaten track, and Richard was just off to get the second round of beer (yes, I’m afraid it was yet another lapse from my Lenten alcohol fast! Hey, we hadn’t seen each other for a long time…). I looked around the pub and, to my surprise, saw a familiar face. Now, a few days before, on my way to work, I had bumped into Anton, the Belfast-born actor who lives in Camden and who performed at our concert in St James’ at the end of January. He had told me how, the night before, somebody had said to him how much she had enjoyed the concert and hoped we would do it again. I assured Anton that we were indeed planning another and that he would be on the bill. Well there I was in a back-street bar in deepest Sussex and there was Anton! He was as taken aback as I was, and he told Richard about the time he had performed in the play ‘Irish Chaplaincy- 60 Years On’ (that I’d commissioned from ‘Irish Theatre’) in Wormwood Scrubs prison and how it had been the most amazing experience of his life; and he told how he and I had bumped into each other the other day and about the person who had asked about the concert. And this, on an evening when I had been telling my friend about some of what I would call the ‘grace-filled’ circumstances that had led me to the Irish Chaplaincy and into subsequent situations. Richard and I were both agreed that some of the things that happen to us in our lives, and some of the encounters that take place at particular times, can surely not be explained as mere ‘coincidence’.
Back at the house later on, the guitars came out and Susan produced her violin and we had a great session till the early hours which included an old favourite of ours, ‘Over You’ by The Undertones. I went on to sing the Fureys’ classic ‘When you were sweet 16’, which I’d especially enjoyed singing the previous day at a care home in West London where I go once a month to perform Irish songs. Richard was clearly touched by the song (as was Susan) and explained to me that his mum and a brother of hers (a Servite priest who I’d actually met 30 years ago and who had introduced Richard to L’Arche) used to sing it when he was a child. And I found out for the first time that Richard’s mum not only had been born in Northern Ireland (her family having moved to England when she was in her early teens) but not far from my own mum, in Co. Down.
I’m struck more and more by how inter-connected we are; by how our stories weave in and out of each other’s; and by this mysterious action of grace which appears to be at work in and around us and which binds and re-binds us together in the most incredible and joyful and healing ways.
It is a small world, and a very wonderful one.