Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the trees

In the weeks before she died my grandmother saw a Ruru in her room, an owl I believed this was a good omen a messenger.  My grandmother also saw lots of people come to visit her, people that most others didn't see.  But it was the Tuis heard by my sister around our grandmother's house and in the trees that seemed to have the clearest of messages. Waking before dawn still adjusting to a new time zone and re-awkening to an old world I too would hear them call.  Their song a melodic chorus reminded me of their visits to the Kowhai tree which grew outside my childhood home.  An iridescent blue black with a white tuff around its neck it is easy to see why the early european settlers called the Tui the Parson Bird.   The Tui though has much more to offer than religious platitudes.   My grandmother was going blind so hearing their dawn chorus must have been a comfort and a soothing sound to wake to.

The Tui is endemic to New Zealand.  Other native song-birds include the Kokako, the Piopio and the Huia the latter two both now extinct.   The story goes the Huia was the first to sing the dawn chorus.  Once it had called out to the rising sun the other birds would join in.   We can only imagine what the sound must have been like.   Today we hear a fraction of this song and it is the Tui which has taken the role the Huia once claimed.

My grandmother was impatient to die declaring that neither God nor the devil wanted her but she still had things to do and tasks to complete so she lingered longer than anyone imagined.   People from the past and present sought her company knowing that the old woman would soon be travelling on.  Before I returned to New Zealand she came to visit in my dreams.   In one she called out in fear of the dark but was soon comforted by a beautiful light and the arrival of a large ship.  In another we sat in my great grandmother Rongoheikume's wharenui while my grandmother sat reminiscing with my grandfather who had passed many years previously.  In the last she came just before I woke to say goodbye.

My grandmother was superstitious.  Once when we gathered in her dining room upon hearing of the death of a family member a Piwakawaka flew in and circled above us chatting before flitting out.   She didn't like this.  Nor did she like peacock feathers as she believed they brought bad luck.  And as she got older her home became a place of memories of people who had died and she became a little afraid.   Afraid of the dark.

The Tui's call at dawn must have been a heart warming sound for a woman whose world was becoming smaller and darker as her eyesight failed her.   Refusing to move out of her home, she dwelt in a place which must have felt desolate at times but for the blessing of her carer a devoted and loving woman and the visits of family and friends.   My grandmother persevered.

When I visited earlier in the year I could see she was getting ready to travel light.   Letting go of hurts and giving thanks for life my grandmother was ready to die.   Philosophical and with a wicked sense of humour  she had journeyed through a life at times  treacherous and dark but she carried on.   She was tough, her mind and heart ticking over with a steady beat.  Even close to death she requested she be woken if a visitor came to see her.  She loved people and in her last few months she had a steady stream of visitors.  I believe she also found the visits of the Ruru and Tui a blessing but more than anything it was the song of the Huia I hoped and imagined she  would wake to.  The song of a gatekeeper to the seventh heaven the Huia would be the guardian which when the time came would carry my grandmother up through the trees and beyond to a place where she would rest and laugh and be.

On an overcast day we gathered.   The women of the family carried her coffin out of the house and the men carried her into the chapel.    I stood before them as a priest and a grandson.  Family spoke and sang, cousins offered beautiful words and prayers in maori, a poem written by my brother  inspired and an Irish blessing was shared.   And as we lowered the coffin into the grave on the day that was also my birthday I imagined her, glint in eye with a glass of vodka in one hand regaling all with rude stories and naughty jokes and I smiled.

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BEANNACHT (Irish for blessing) by John O'Donohue 

On the day when The weight deadens On your shoulders And you stumble, May the clay dance To balance you. 

And when your eyes Freeze behind The grey window And the ghost of loss Gets into you, May a flock of colours, Indigo, red, greenAnd azure blue, Come to awaken in you A meadow of delight. 

When the canvas frays In the currach of thought And a stain of ocean Blackens beneath you, May there come across the waters A path of yellow moonlight To bring you safely home. 

May the nourishment of the earth be yours, May the clarity of light be yours, May the fluency of the ocean be yours, May the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow Wind work these words Of love around you, An invisible cloak To mind your life. 

Photo of Lake Taupo by Hana Ransfield.

"Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the Trees"   Words from the Song "Reconnect" by Maisey Rika.

Wharenui - House

Piwakawaka - Faintail (type of bird)

A Long Slow Night Walk Home.

Regan O'Callaghan Night walk home Sachaqa Art Centre, Peru, Amazon, watercolour visual diary


A Long Slow Night Walk Home.

In 2004 I made the decision to relinquish full-time parish ministry to focus on what I believed I should be developing - an art ministry.    I had sensed even before I was ordained to the priesthood that I was a round peg with no hole within the Church of England and that I would need to forge my own way forward.    I had come to this conclusion in part through working in a parish as a pastoral assistant and observing and experiencing the running of a busy west London church.

The church was a good training ground for this future priest and was led by a faithful and hardworking vicar who taught me a great deal and even though I came to love parish ministry especially after I was ordained there was a deep sense of knowing that the creative/artistic itch in me would not go away and would need to be expressed.   Enrolling at theological college I sort permission to miss mass on a Tuesday so I could attend a life drawing class.  Permission was granted praise be!

I knew in time the demands of parish ministry would require a great deal of commitment but I wasn't willing to let go of the artistic skills I had learned and developed over the years.  I believed they were too important and could be used within a priestly ministry.   So after completing my curacy and after much soul searching I gave up my stipend and became self-employed.  A few art commissions thankfully started to come my way and I continued leading art and religious education projects in schools and churches.    Initially my income was tiny so I did house for duty for a couple of years but again this had its restrictions so eventually I stepped down from all parish duties, which also required me to give up my flat.   Along with this I ended up giving away most of my material possessions and stepped out into the world to see where the creative spirit would lead me.

Sounds crazy and it probably was for not only did I give up a roof over my head, a stipend, a pension, security, but also a community role, a church family and a little status.  Nevertheless, I held onto the advice a priest friend once gave me which was to remember that priesthood is not defined by parish ministry, wise words that some priests should really meditate on.

I say this because it has become quite clear over the years since I have stepped back from parish ministry that some clergy are quite dismissive of what I am doing.  Some are envious and some are strangely threatened and undermining.  For the ones who have been dismissive I believe their actions are motivated by ignorance and perhaps a little pomposity.  For those who feel threatened, try to bully or undermine I would suggest are operating from a place of insecurity.   To all of them  I would say  I am not out to prove anything and that the work I do is not really way out or "unchristian" it is just different and hopefully it opens people's eyes to the gospel in different ways.     To allow one self to be creative often means taking risks.  Is this not the role of the priest?  Are we not called to share the gospel and step out in faith?  The little white collar we wear is only made of plastic.   It doesn't offer much protection to shelter or hide behind and certainly doesn't indicate immediate trustworthiness of the wearer.  That really does need to be earned!

But I am thankful for clergy who have supported and encouraged me along the way.   One's confidence does need a boost every now and then.    These men and women are beacons of hope in what at times has been a difficult and dark journey. I can only admire and give thanks for clergy who selflessly, creatively and tirelessly continue to serve while retaining a sense of humour, vision and hope!  I understand that ministry can come at a cost indeed some of the most hurt and damaged people I have met have been in religious orders.   Is it their religion that  has not served them well for cynicism and bitterness to prevail?  I am not sure but thankfully for many, including some stung by religious institutions the priesthood is still regarded as an honour and the ministry of service as a privilege.   As I see it, if as followers of Christ we believe in a creative God, a God who created the universe then surely we ourselves must be creative and hopeful!

So where to from here for this artist/priest?   Well the 'itch' hasn't let up and I am about to start an M.A in Fine Art.   One rather probing but apt question asked by the lecturer interviewing me for a place on the course was "are you open to change?"  My reply? "Oh yes!"