The Lord hears the cry of the Poor; the Lord hears the shiver of the Cold


Winter Sun from

Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
 And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.

There were four of us in our noviceship - Matthew, Chris, Tony and myself. And in the summer of 1999, just after we had all been ordained and were about to be sent our separate ways, we all decided to have a reunion. And it happened that this was the time of a total eclipse of the sun, the 11th August, 1999 – a once in a lifetime event that was going to be best seen in Cornwall, where Matthew’s mother lived. So we all gathered at Matthew’s mum’s place for the event. And it was a beautiful autumn day; we were out on the lawn and there was sunshine and there was birdsong and there was a bottle of wine on the table and everybody was having a good time.

Initially we thought we must have missed it, because it happened a few minutes later than we expected. But then the first thing that happened was that the birdsong suddenly stopped. And then we all stopped talking. And there was a dead uneasy silence – a horrid silence - the most profound and deadly silence that I’ve ever heard. It really was as the song says, a ‘silence that like a cancer grows’. And then over the following minute, it suddenly grew dark as if someone was turning down a great dimmer switch in the sky – a long black cloud coming down until it was dark - too dark to see. And it really did feel like we were knocking on heaven’s door. And then, very suddenly, it became very, very cold. And the cold dark silence went on and on and on. In actual time, it was only a few minutes, according to the astronomers 7 minutes and 10 seconds; but it felt like half a lifetime. Plenty long enough for us all to begin to wonder if it would ever end. And I thought how easy it must have been for ancient peoples who knew nothing of the true causes of these events to believe that it must be some Evil One blocking the sun and blocking out all light and warmth and goodness. And, if you will forgive one more song reference, I thought of Bonnie Tyler singing about ‘a total eclipse of the heart’. And I realised that this is just about as close as I’ll probably ever get to feeling what so many people feel – those known to everyone who does pastoral work – the people who live lives of quiet desperation, feeling alone and friendless in a cold, lifeless, loveless, faithless, hopeless, alienated world.

Then, out of all that cold, dark, empty silence there came a noise – a noise I could not immediately recognise – like a very quiet rustling. It continued for minute after minute, getting neither louder nor quieter. And after those few moments listening to this, Matthew got up, took off his jacket and with great affection, put it across his mother’s shoulders. Immediately the noise stopped; it had been her shivering.

A few minutes later, as the light and the warmth and the birdsong returned, I thought about that as the truly authentic Christian response to evil in the world. We do not claim to change the world, at least not all at once; only to listen to it, to silence ourselves so that we can hear one person’s shiver, and respond to it in whatever way we can. That is not the answer to all the evil that there is in the world, but it is something we can do.

And that is our hope for this Advent – to silence the self, to silence all the selfish consumerist noise, so that we can hear the sound of the slightest distress in a person that we might just be able to help. It is in this way that we hope to fulfil our call to Prepare a way for the Lord in our World – to make straight his Paths – and to make our little part of God’s world fit to receive its Saviour. The Lord hears the cry of the Poor; the Lord hears the shiver of the Cold. And the Lord sends us to do something about it.

Paul O'Reilly SJ