Posted August 03, 2009:
A Flame in the Snow

by Sandy Lynch.

"Participate or leave!" These were the first words Father Sharkey ever spoke to me, and did I ever burn!

"He can’t do that!" I thought. "That priest can’t kick me out of a prayer meeting."

I was a new guest at Madonna House—a non-Catholic guest, a very non-Catholic guest. When we were invited to attend a charismatic prayer meeting in Catherine’s cabin, I wandered over to check it out.

Sitting quiet but wide-eyed, I watched all the action of vocal praise and the laying on of hands. My non-participation and obvious curiosity gave rise to Father Sharkey’s ultimatum. Let me tell you, for years I resented him for that.

In due course, I became Catholic, married, and had children. Then, one year, my husband, kids, and I went to Cana Colony, Madonna House’s combination vacation-retreat. Father Sharkey was the priest serving the retreat.

I confronted him with his audacity of kicking me out of a prayer meeting. "What? Did I do that?" replied a surprised Father Sharkey. He apologized, sort of, and my resentment disintegrated. I asked him to be my spiritual director.

There was something otherworldly about going to talk to Father Sharkey in his poustinia—walking on an island along a dirt path under towering pines, past the Byzantine-style chapel, the outhouses, the stacks of firewood, and up to his log cabin. I imagined myself in a Russian novel going to see my staretz.

His cabin was simple—a room with a bed, a large desk cluttered with papers, a wall covered with icons, a table, dishes, some food, and a wood stove. He often had an orange peel burning on the stove top, scenting the room with citrus.

As a spiritual director, Father Sharkey listened well and was clear and direct.

He could be very direct. On one occasion, he halted my outpourings midway. "You have to correct that behaviour right now. If you don’t, I won’t give you any more direction."

Oops. O.K. I left, I corrected, I returned. Actually, it was a relief to be able to deal with sin so directly. There was no waffling with Father Sharkey.

Father Sharkey was an excellent teacher. My husband and I attended some Scripture classes he gave at St. Joseph’s House, Madonna House’s mission in the local area.

He went verse by verse through several books of the Bible. I missed chunks of his vast knowledge because I tended to fall asleep (something he never berated me for) but there were the moments of flight when he would explain some aspect of the Faith, and our minds would be illuminated.

Father Sharkey loved challenging questions, but he would not put up with bad theology or wishy-washiness.

I saw him stop a Mass to scold someone in the back pew, stop a conference to correct the speaker’s theology, and challenge a philosopher making misleading statements.

Father Sharkey burned with a faith that came out in his actions. There is a story about a young monk who went to a Desert Father and, telling him that he kept all the commandments, asked what more he could do. The Desert Father spread out his arms. As his fingers burst into fire, he roared, "Become a living flame!"

Father Sharkey was on fire. He may have singed us a bit, but he loved us and wanted our deepest good.

Once he lent me a book, Flame in the Snow, a wonderful biography of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian poustinik and saint.

We have long snowy winters here, and I am borrowing that title to say that Father Sharkey was our "flame in the snow."

Thank you, Father Sharkey, for teaching me how to participate in this grand and glorious thing—a Catholic life.

Sandy Lynch, who met her husband John in 1970 when both were working guests at MH, now has five grown daughters and lives in Combermere.


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