(From the July - September 2017 issue of VOX.)
VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams and Chloe Hanan from Agapé had the privilege of meeting Eileen in Kilkenny during the Finding Faith Tour. Here, Ruth shares about that encounter and retells Eileen’s moving story.
There are a few rare occasions in life that leave you with a sense of awe and wonder. This was one of them. It was as if, for that hour or so, on a glorious Friday morning in May, the window table became holy ground.
As I walk into the hotel dining room in Kilkenny, a beautiful, elegantly dressed lady looks up, waves and smiles. She thinks I’m Chloe at first. “No, I’m Ruth. Chloe is on her way,” I explain.
“I’ve no idea why I’m here,” she tells me candidly. “I’m just doing a favour for a friend. She asked me to tell you my story.”
“Thank you,” I tell her, ordering an Americano from the waitress before I explain about the Finding Faith Tour. “I’d love to hear your story!”
Eileen takes a sip of her tea, unfolds and smooths out the neatly written notes she has prepared and launches into her story. Somewhere along the way, Chloe arrives and slips into the chair next to me, but it barely interrupts the flow.
Eileen is 74, she tells us. Although there are years of pain behind her beautiful eyes, it is still hard to believe!
“I come from Tipperary,” Eileen explains. “I was the second youngest of seven, and we were a very religious family. Of course, we had rosary, confession and Sunday mass. The God I knew was very angry and judgemental. He lived in the church and I went to see Him once a week. He was somebody I respected and tried to be good for but He didn’t come home with me.”
Eileen’s mum died when she was just 19. Four of her sisters became nuns, but Eileen met and married T.J. They bought a farm and moved to Kilkenny. Soon two girls and a boy arrived. The young couple set up a milking parlour and a herd of cows and did up their gorgeous farmhouse. Everything seemed perfect with the prospects of a bright future.
Then, T.J. became ill. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and after a while, Eileen found herself as his primary carer.
“My husband spent the last few years of his life in a wheelchair. He kept hoping every month that he would get better but he was deteriorating fast. I had to dress him and shave him. And of course, the farm was gone to pot and we were losing money.”
T.J. had developed Motor Neurone Disease. With low blood pressure, he experienced blackouts and was growing increasingly weak. He knew he was dying. During the annual Novena to Holy Cross Abbey, T.J. said, “I think I’ll take a grave here.” Their son Philip, just 11 at the time, told him, “I’ll visit you every Sunday, Dad.”
One month later, on Sunday 7 October, 1984, Eileen came home from the shop having done her “good deed for the day.” (She remembers helping a neighbour to get a tank of gas.)
“Philip, you go away out and play,” she told her son. They were the last words she would ever say to him.
Shortly afterwards, Philip’s friend phoned and Eileen sent her daughters to fetch their brother. “The hay barn where he was playing was out of view. The two girls came in so upset saying that Philip was dead. The whole house was in uproar. We tried to phone 999 but we couldn’t speak. The woman on the phone was giving out, thinking we were making a joke. Eventually, a neighbour came and then our local GP and that was it. My son was dead. ”
Philip had died in a tragic farming accident. Numb with shock and grief, Eileen did her best to shield her husband from the pain. “I knew he was terminally ill.” A year and nine months later, T.J. died at the age of 52.
With no income coming in, the debts had been piling up. Both the farm and her beautiful home had to be sold. Eileen was broken-hearted and angry. In a few short years, she had buried her son and her husband and lost her home.
“I blamed God. Sometimes I came to the church door, but I was so vexed and angry that I couldn’t go in. I felt God could work miracles but He had taken everything from me.”
Eileen began a desperate search for answers. “I decided to find out who this God was and why He was out to get me. I lived in churches, crying out for answers. ‘Why me? Why would you do this to me?’ I begged Him to answer me and to show Himself to me, but there was only silence.”
Eventually a friend invited Eileen to attend an Alpha course run by Fr Joe in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. She thought, “This is my chance to get my answers.”
“On that very first night, I heard three words. They still ring in my ears. ‘God loves me.’ I kept saying that over and over. ‘God loves me. He loves ME.’ I forgot everything else. Still, I didn’t know Him or much about Him, but to think that this God who I had never met loved me! I knew I had to learn all I could about Him. I continued the ten sessions of the Alpha course and loved every bit of it.”
The following year, Eileen helped to run Alpha in her parish and eventually had one in her home. She was learning about a loving God, a God who was alive and who lived within her.
“I was very determined that it wasn’t going to be second-hand information. I had to find it out for myself. I was hungry for answers. There were times when I spent all day long reading the Bible. I was constantly looking and searching, and I came across the verse, ‘Those who seek me will find me.’ Those words came alive to me.”
Eileen became a reader at mass, volunteered with the Samaritans, and even formed a little group for parents who had lost children. All the while she was still searching.
“Finally, I decided to have a Bible group in my home. I wanted to read the Bible from cover to cover. In 2008, a group of seven started at the very beginning and took a chapter each week. We read the Bible right through. It took five years and we never missed a night. We were so hungry. It was a beautiful time, and I learned so much.”
Eileen had completely changed. From a woman who was so full of anger and envy, she became someone who was quick to offer help and comfort to others, reaching out and joining voluntary organisations.
“And even yet it is painful and very sad and lonely,” her eyes fill with tears and Chloe and I find ourselves wiping our own eyes.
“But I wouldn’t change and go back. It draws me to those who are suffering as I was. I put an arm around these people and I know what it is to be there. I learned in hindsight, God was there through all the traumas and in all my suffering. He was in my boat and He brought me to the other side. And today I can thank Him.
“I don’t know where I would be today without Him. When people see the joy in my life, they think I don’t have trials and suffering and pain. But the joy you see is because the Lord is on my side. Every morning when I wake up, I raise my hands in praise and love and joy and surrender my day to Him.”
“I know my joy comes from Him. I learned I can’t hold on to all my old stuff. I had to let go and make room for change. I love the story of Job. He lost everything he had, just like me, and he said, “I know that my redeemer lives.” I can say the same. All I want to do is get to know Him and the power of His resurrection. Jesus is alive and His word is alive and active. Sometimes it just jumps out at me.”
Thirty years on, Eileen still misses her husband and her son every day, but she knows she will go on enjoying life.
“Jesus lives in me and loves me unconditionally. I am rich in so many ways. And I am happy. There are times I don’t know myself. I have changed so much. I have so little and yet I have so much - a life worth living.”