Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Present Tense of Hope

The readings at church this past Sunday came from II Kings 4:42-44 in which Elisha miraculously feeds 100 men with 20 loaves, Psalm 144 for which the congregational response was “You open wide your hand, O Lord, and grant our desires,” and John 6:1-15 in which Jesus feeds the 5,000. Father Padraic, whom I got to know last year, gave a lovely homily that emphasized God showing up in history, ultimately through the incarnation where he walks up another hillside to feed the people as he opens wide his hands on the cross. It was a fabulous homily for an English major.

But as any of my regular readers may recall, God’s presence was an issue of serious question for me this past spring. Furthermore, though Ireland has proved to be a refreshing holiday from my characteristic melancholy, the intensive language school has a tendency to push each of its victims to his breaking-point throughout the summer, and Tuesday ended up being my day to snap. That afternoon I found myself unable to study and hounded by all the questions that I knew where waiting for me in the US, and I left my homework and went to the cathedral to pray.

And eventually Father Padraic showed up beside me, having uncharacteristically decided to do his evening prayers in the cathedral that day, and finding me crying in front of the crucifix he asked me if I’d like to get a cup of tea with him. We walked to a nearby cafe and talked for about an hour.

“But there are sometimes God doesn’t seem to show up,” I interjected at some point in the conversation, thinking about the situation this past spring. “And I can’t walk away unless God starts providing more people. Sometimes there is no one else...”

“Watch out with those kinds of words,” Father Padraic interrupted me. “There are six billion people in the world. You only have a vague idea of what God is doing with one of them.”

“I know...” I admitted. “I know I shouldn’t say any statements with words like ‘no one’ or ‘never,’ but it certainly seems like God stands aloof sometimes.”

“Maybe you’re asking for the physical proof like Thomas was,” Fr Padraic suggested. “Unless you have the categorical evidence that you can see and touch you will not believe in the risen Christ. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. The call of the Christian is a call to hope in the risen Christ.”

I never thought of myself as a Cartesian materialist demanding physical proof. But maybe he was right; one way or another, he was certainly dead-on with suggesting my need to grow in hope.

“What do you mean by hope?” I asked. “Is hope in this case a future thing, hope that God will work everything out in the end into a beautiful story that makes all the evil worth it? I have plenty of that, but a hope for the future can often lead to a despair in the present.”

“No,” he assured me, “it is a hope for the present, hope that the risen Christ is alive now and working miraculously whether or not you see him. Your friend back home, for example, might have 50 people in her life right now; it is a hope that God is using the other 49 as well, whether or not you see it. It is also a hope that God is taking care of you, using people in ways they are not aware of to meet your needs, like when I came to the cathedral this evening when I would normally be elsewhere. You are not always given the chance to see him, but he is risen.”

The next morning was the feast of St. Martha. At mass we celebrated her belief in the resurrection that she had in the midst of her grief, hope that was not only in the future tense, but also the present:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to him, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Irish Holiday

I thought I couldn’t be anymore smitten with the Irish than I already was. Then today happened.

The friends who offered to let me stay in their home this summer were returning from a month-long holiday yesterday, and over the weekend they emailed me to ask me to make sure their van would start, since they would need it to carry their luggage from the bus stop. I tried it, and the battery was dead.

No bother. I called the generous landlords to see if they could help me jump it. They were on holiday.

No bother. I knocked on the door of one of the many taxis that sit along my bustling street yesterday morning to see if he could jump my car. However, not only did he not have jumper cables, but the taxi company had a policy against it. He pointed out that there was a mechanic on the little side street by my house, and I made plans to go there after class. There would be plenty of time before my friends returned that evening.

After class, I went to the mechanic. It was closed. As I stood there helplessly trying to come up with my next plan of action in this failing mission to get the van started in the next couple hours before my friends returned, a young man poked his head out of the internet cafe next door distractedly and asked me if I needed help. Boy did I ever.

After I explained the situation to him, it suddenly became his personal mission to get my friends’ van started. “I don’t have jumper cables, but I might no someone who does. Come inside.”

I followed him to the backroom where he explained my situation to his older co-worker. Suddenly my plight became both of their personal missions, and after they determined that neither they nor their boss had cables, they discussed the feasibility of a push-start.

“We’ll need some more people,” they mused at the description of the bulky 15-passenger van, “but we can do it. Lead the way.”

As we rounded the corner to my street, the busiest road in Cork along which the van was parked, the older fellow barked into the open door of a pub, “Hey, come here. We need your help.”

“Aw Paddy...” the young guy sipping his pint at the counter complained.

“None of that. Come on,” he ordered, and the young man acquiesced, trialed by a young woman. The neighborhood was in on the fun. Adrenalin was running, and it was clear that Irish treat push-starts like an instant holiday sort of like snow-days back home in the American South.

With five people gathered on the busy street around my friends’ van that I was not insured to drive, the situation had spun far out of my control, and I could simply join the gang, hoping the guy in the drivers’ seat would hit his breaks before the van hit the car parked in front.

When it became clear that we would not be able to achieve the required speed between the parked cars, the men decided we would push it onto the street when there was a break in the traffic. They laughed at me when I acted nervous about the idea, so I stopped protesting.

Still no go. “It’s fooked,” they concluded, and parked the van illegally beside the road.

“I’ll go to my brother’s and see if he has jumper cables,” the original guy from the internet cafe offered. “You’ll need to sit tight in the van so it won’t get towed. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”

What could I do? I poked my head in the house to get my Greek books, and began my homework in the driver’s seat, wondering what I would do if the stranger never returned.

But true to his word, he did return, though without coming up with jumper cables.

“You know who might have them?” he asked, and directed me to another shop across the bridge, telling me to ask the owner if I could simply borrow the cables, bring them back to the internet cafe, and return them after starting the car. Wondering how quickly the van would get towed while parked illegally on the busiest street in Cork, I ran to the shop.

It was closed.

Feeling bad about how long the ordeal had already taken but needing to move the van as quickly as possible, I returned to the cafe.

“No-go; it’s closed. Tell you what, can you just give me the number of a mechanic or something who could drive out here and jump the car?”

“I could do that...” he began, until he had a burst of inspiration and bolted out the door after someone who had just walked out. Again, he explained my plight, and again the man did not have jumper cables.

“I do have a rope,” he mused. “I could tow your van a bit; we could probably get enough speed for a push-start that way. Tell me, does it have any battery at all, like?”

So there I sat in the passenger seat with the internet-cafe-stranger behind the wheel of my friends’ van that I was not insured to drive while the next stranger connected our cars and pulled out onto the busiest road in Cork. Finally, the car started.

As the internet-cafe-stranger stepped out of the van and I slid over to take the wheel and navigate the maze of narrow Irish city roads in a 15-passenger van back to where I could legally park, I tried to thank him for his two hours of help.

“Not a bother,” he brushed me off. “Make sure to drive around a bit before you turn it off to make sure it charges up, like. You should be grand.”

And with that he was gone, with the indifferent nonchalance he might have shown if he had just helped me tie my shoe.

I realized after he was gone that we had never even so much as exchanged names.

(Incidentally, when my friends returned and I told them the saga, they informed me that there had been jumper cables in their back seat all along. But if I had known that, I would have missed out on yet another example of why I love the Irish.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Mass Card Office

This post is not particularly meditative, but it sort of goes as an illustration of what I was talking about in the last couple posts about the peculiar branch of the Church known as Irish Catholicism. This post needs an Irish Flannery O'Connor to write it, I think, but you'll have to do with me.

Yesterday I had my first experience of a strange cultural phenomena called The Mass Card Office.

After the Saturday exam I had my classmates over for lunch, and when the last of them prepared to leave my friend Seamus’ schoolbag (they don’t seem to call them backpacks here) was missing. There was another mysterious schoolbag in its place, and when we looked inside we found the name of Hector, the Augustinian seminarian who had left earlier.

Since Seamus is a local who lives a 45-minute bus ride outside of town, I didn’t want to leave him stranded in the city without his books, so I went with him to the priory to hunt down Hector, the fiendish schoolbag thief toward whom the good-natured Irishman directed many an empty threat. There was no answer when we rang the doorbell at the priory, so Seamus and I walked to the next door, which happened to be the tiny mass card office nestled between the church and priory.

It was a tiny little room with a small wall full of cards and a lady encased in a glass ticket-booth who spoke to the customers in a sharp raspy voice through the small holes in the glass. We had evidently come at a busy time, and when we explained our plight she directed us to the back of the line until she could get a hold of the folks at the priory.

“Now, you’re not Catholic, right?” Seamus asked me.

“Not yet,” I answered.

“That’s right,” he smiled. “Well, welcome to the mass card office. I doubt you have a Protestant equivalent.”

We tried to keep our voices down as we stood between the open door into the church where people were gathering for the daily Rosary recitation and the glass counter where the wrinkled woman tried to hurry through the long line of customers buying mass cards, which (I gather) one buys when a mass is celebrated in someone’s honor.

“Male or female?” the woman’s sharp voice barked behind the counter at the next customer as she tried to hurry through the line.

“Male,” came the answer from the customer who laid her purse on the counter to fish out her wallet.

“Dead or alive?” she barked again, her Corkonian accent following its infamous reputation for speed.

“Dead,” the customer breathed quietly.

“Young or old?” The words whizzed out of her mouth like bullets.

The bereaved relative did not have a simple response to the sterile question, and she fumbled for an answer. “Oh, I don’t know... somewhat midlife, I suppose...”

At this point, Seamus and I were on the verge of being horrendously irreverent, and we mumbled something about needing to get some air, fleeing the mass card office as if it were on fire. As soon as the door closed behind us, we exploded in laughter.

“If that experience does not make you question whether or not you really want to become Catholic,” Seamus managed to get out when he had gained control of his laughter, “I think I would lose some respect for you! I think the mass card office must have been somewhere on those 95 Theses...”

(Perhaps after my past few posts my Protestant friends are wondering why I am still hanging around with the Irish Catholic Church this summer. There is much wonderful to say about it too; those are just less anecdotal and harder to blog about. Mass today, for example, was wonderful, and I’m sure I’ll get to writing about these sorts of things too...)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Treading clouds of glory

I had the chance to attend a Pontifical High Mass at the cathedral downtown last weekend in celebration of it’s 150th anniversary. It was quite the spectacle: a Cardinal came in from Sydney to celebrate it, the cathedral was sparkling from the week of preparation, and the entire Latin service was chanted by a flawless choir. I enjoyed the chance to see (and hear and smell and touch) the cathedral used the way it had been intended, to hear the liturgy as it had been sung for centuries. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Then this past weekend, I happened to stumble on the regular monthly Latin mass at the same cathedral. The contrast was striking. The Irish priest butchered the Latin that he raced and mumbled through, the congregation had no idea when it was supposed to sit or stand or kneel (nor could, from what I could tell, the priests), and the choir could not even sing in unison with the organist, much less with each other (on-key was nowhere on the trajectory).

It was Latin mass the Irish way, from what I could tell: they did it because they are infamously hard-core Catholics, and doing it at all is more important than doing it right. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Irish succeed at saying anything in unison at their masses even when it is in English; perhaps it is their way of being individual, or perhaps with the varied rhythm of their speech they cannot say anything in unison to save their souls. One way or another, I had to check myself to keep from giggling.

There was something beautifully farcical about the picture; I think if I were a cartoonist I would try to draw it. They gathered in the saturated richness of their inheritance of marble, stained glass, and craftsmanship of generations of their predecessors, performing the time-honored ceremony our spiritual ancestors have been crafting for centuries, and there within the wealth of beauty and substance they could not so much as follow the tempo of the organ, and did not even seem to notice.

It was the perfect contrast of polish and roughness, beauty and tastelessness, thought and carelessness, somberness and ridiculousness. The Irish sit on the shoulders of giants as if they are barstools, and tread on clouds of glory as if they are yesterday’s newspaper. They are beneficiaries of riches they hardly know are there to be probed.

Indeed, aren’t we all?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

An Irish Peace

And deep it settles in—a heavy peace
That dwells beneath the lighter molecules
Of warm kinetic energy and cools
The bones like Irish summertime, a feast
Of drizzling fog with grace enough to cease
For scattered smoke-breaks, not for busy fools
Who break the age-old rhythm in the pools
Of holy mackerel and clams. Release
Your thousand questions, pilgrim, for there may
Be answers yet, and they require more space.
So empty them like sugar grains in full
Teacups at breakfast; sip them for today.
The world is chilly, dark, and deep, but grace
Is deeper still and donned in Irish wool.

(Incidentally, this is indeed still my listening-blog and not my poetry-posting-blog, despite the fact that I've posted three of my poems in the past month. It just so happens that listening to "the Irish spirit" produces a lot of poetry in me.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Risidual Banshees

The ancient druids in Ireland, so they say, carved circles onto their monuments and tombs in commemoration of the sun, their primary deity. It is said that when Saint Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, he carved crosses over them. In the very places of their worship and devotion, the cross would stand and surpass even the awesome sun itself.

Surpass it certainly, but also, as it turns out, include it.

I don’t know if this was intended by Patrick or the early craftsmen who craved the symbol that would eventually become known as the Celtic cross, but the awe of the natural world that is involved in the druid devotion structured around seasons and celestial bodies certainly remained central to the Irish people, a significant and peculiar chunk of the Christian faith throughout the centuries.

This inclusion is not a comfortable, idealized union that involves the best of both and sounds enlightened to our post-modern ears; it also involves some of the bad of both. The same Irish whom Pope John Paul II commended in his visit to Ireland for their faithful devotion, telling them that “every Sign of the Cross and gesture of respect made each time you pass a church is also an act of faith,” made the same signs of crosses to protect themselves from The Gray Man or sheerie or banshees when traveling at night through ominous places in the Irish wilderness. The same Irish who remain deeply Catholic with a strong devotion to the Eucharist are also known for their (perhaps equally strong?) devotion to the pint. The cross has come, certainly, but the snakes are still around.

And perhaps I am learning that God is not frazzled by our residual banshees. If God can see the faith behind Jepthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in the book of Judges enough to include him among the men of faith in Hebrews 11, then I have no doubt he sees the delightful, beautiful, nuanced faith of the Irish, foibles and all (and, it must be noted, not everything that looks like a foible and smells like a foible to an outsider is indeed a foible). Perhaps that gives me hope that he sees mine as well, that he even gathers up my banshees into the redeemed picture and makes something beautiful of it.

They are a lovely people, the Irish.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mildew Conservatory

It’s happened to me before.

For the past week, I had been noticing a strange smell in a corner of the laundry-room/kitchen in the old European house where I have been house-sitting for the past two-and-a-half weeks. But maybe it had always been there, and I had only just noticed it. It’s not my house, after all.

And after all, these old European houses all have their own unique personalities, and odd smells in particular corners would be the least of this eccentric house’s quirks. It’s a good thing that I, being such a well-traveled, adaptable person, do not mind the idiosyncrasies of old houses. I rather like them, odd smells and all.

Even if the odd smell bears a striking resemblance to mildew.

...Until on a whim this afternoon after washing some dishes, looking for any excuse to postpone the next plunge into my 800 Greek vocabulary flashcards, I happened to open the dishwasher for the first time.

Oh, that’s what that smell was!

And I wouldn’t be blogging about it, except that, as I said above, it has happened to me before. Many times. The odd smell in my kitchen for weeks this spring (who knew that potatoes are not actually non-perishables?). The odd smell in my car last year (you don’t want to know what that ended up being... let’s just say cars should NOT smell like road-kill on the inside!). Each time, I go about life as if the smells are not there, commending myself for being so compliant to life’s quirks.

So today as I went through the process of running the half-full dishwasher with its well-aged mildew, scrubbing each dish by hand afterwards to get the residual blackness off them, and washing the inside of the dishwasher by hand to try to find the nooks and crannies that held onto the mildew through the wash cycle, I pondered how much easier it would have been to have simply run the dishwasher a week or two ago when I first noticed the smell.

It feels too trite to shift into a spiritual analogy about unattended garbage or paying attention to warning signals, though the analogies could be there and be just as applicable as the physical lesson about following my nose. In either case, whether in my soul or in my kitchen, I am learning that there is little virtue in being easy-going at the expense of wholeness. Patience and long-suffering are virtues; a mildew conservatory in the dishwasher is not. I am learning that there is a difference.

At least I got out of those Greek flashcards...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Joy of the Saints

I spent most of my life trying to guard against laziness in my Christian walk, against the trap of thinking “Let us sin more so that grace may abound,” against the fear that Christ might ever say to me “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat,” against any such temptation to think that what I do does not matter. I imagine that any of my readers who don’t know me assume that, with the frequency in which I write about Grace, I must have one of those quiet gracious spirits and love reading books by Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen. In truth, I still can’t stomach them. I can’t stand people who talk about Grace all the time, who make it sound like what we do does not matter, who suggest that the Master will reward the labourer who begins at the eleventh hour as much as he who had begun at the first.

Maybe one day.

But in the mean time, Grace is preposterous enough of a concept that it just might be true. At any rate, I am slowly realizing that, were my life a Shakespearean tragedy, my great tragic flaw is not likely to be laziness. Whether or not I destroy myself through my driving burden to change the world or my lust for spiritual refinement is another story. And Grace, preposterous, ridiculous, scandalous Grace, would be the compelling plot-twist that would turn even that tragedy into a comedy in the end.

Anyway, I pondered this concept at an outdoor cafe where I tried to dodge the sporadic Irish rain on a Sunday morning, right before walking into the Cathedral downtown and sitting in front of the wooden crucifix. Behind that severe display of suffering, suffering raw and intense enough that all our suffering is included within it, was a glorious display of stained glass and marble statues of rejoicing saints, all of which seemed to declare to me one simple message:

“The work has been done.”

A cathedral is a place of celebration, celebration that Christ has sent us to reap what we have not worked for, that Others have done the hard work and we are reaping the benefits of Their labour. It is finished, One might say.

For a girl named “Industrious,” joining in that celebration takes just about all the faith I can muster. Entering into the joy of the saints, the countless throngs who surround the throne and forever sing hymns to the glory of His name, who celebrate Christ’s completed work in the cosmic story of history, may take a whole life to prepare for, for a melancholy wrestler like me.

But it would be a good life’s work.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


The hill of Slemish wraps herself beneath
Green blankets, wool of living sheep, and time.
A million Irish evenings sink their teeth
Into her weary, mute, volcanic grime;
But she will stoutly take a million more,
Not as a conqueror, but one who’s done
The most she could and takes a nap before
Her pint of Beamish with the morning sun.
For Ireland wears suffering like a well-
Worn t-shirt, and the scars are covered in
Green blankets, matty wool, and time, and tell
Of beauty running deeply as the sin.
“Come rest,” she says, “for beds are for the clever.
The fight goes on, but beer won’t last forever.”

Suffering wuz here

After a lull in the conversation in the graveyard at Ballintubber Abbey, the old Irishman who had become my self-appointed tour guide turned the conversation to me. “So, are you just from the United States, or is your family from somewhere else?”

“Well, on my mom’s side I’m Polish and Czech,” I answered.

The man’s eyes sparked, as if the stranger he had been introducing to his homeland had suddenly turned out to be a long-lost cousin. “Ah, so your people have suffered too!” he exclaimed.

I realized two things in that moment. Number one, I realized that each of the legends he had spent the past half-hour introducing to me from the various nooks and corners of the churchyard was laced with suffering—the suffering of Patrick, the suffering of the medieval priest for whom the Abbey was founded, the suffering of the church during the violent persecutions of Cromwell, the suffering of generations of parishioners who attended mass in the crumbling church on the dirt floor, the suffering of the poor community that had been volunteering on nights and weekends for decades to restore the building.

Number two, I realized that I had not noticed number one when he was telling me the stories.

There are cultures who wear suffering like a badge, and others who wear it like a crutch (my ancestors wore it like a cattle-prod). The Irish, on the other hand, seem to wear it like a t-shirt. It is unmistakably present, but so comfortable and expected that it may be unnoticed. They are a happy people for it; as the frantic economic crisis hits the rest of the world, the Irish who have always known poverty are taking their blows and plodding forward in their lovely indifference. They can’t afford much, but at least they can afford a beer at the end of the day; if you’d care to join, they might even offer to buy the first round.

A friend back home who exhorted me to receive some of “the Irish spirit” while I was away this summer had voiced their position on suffering this way: “Well, we did the best we could, which was clearly not good enough. Oh well. Let’s go get a beer.”