As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a Catholic visitor from America over Christmas. I was very intrigued as to what she would think of Ireland's religious landscape.
(For my part, I was staggered by the conspicuousness of religion in America-- or in Richmond, Virginia, to be specific. Churches were everywhere. Baptist churches predominated, but every other Christian denomination and other religion seemed to be present-- Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Judaism, Episcopalian, and many I didn't recognize at all.)
One of the things that struck my visitor was a shopping centre oratory I took her into-- the little chapel in the Ilac Centre. "You'd never get this in America", she said-- and really, there is something odd about these little sacred nooks in palaces of consumerism.
The oratory in the Ilac Centre is actually a favourite spot of mine. The riot of flowers before the tabernacle, the solemn and ever-burning sacred heart lamp, the rather ornately carved figure of Christ on the cross, the commemorative plates upon the pews requesting prayers for the dead, the noticeboard whose notices change slowly enough to preserve the atmosphere of stillness but not too slowly to create an atmosphere of death-- I love it all. (I am rather intrigued by the opening to the left of the tabernacle, from which I occasionally hear noises-- who is there? I'm always too timid to look in.)
The noises floating in from the shopping centre itself-- the pop music playing on the public address system, the hum of voices, and the jingle of the arcade games located right outside-- only seems to deepen the silence within. It does indeed seem to be in the world, but not of the world. The positioning seems ideal to me; the sacred and profane, cheek by jowl, the figure on the Cross not a historical character but utterly relevant to the chocolate-eaters and lottery-players only feet away. If only they would step inside.
In fact, there is a steady stream of visitors, perhaps split half and half between Irish (usually elderly) and non-nationals. Most stay for a few moments. Some, especially the old, stare at the face of their Saviour for more protracted periods. Worshippers rarely look at each other; the space is too small to do so without embarrassment. Strangely enough, this leads to a funny sort of impersonal intimacy.
I have recently discovered another shopping centre oratory; one that, strangely enough, I had never entered before, despite having been a habitué of the shopping centre for many years. That is the oratory in the Omni Centre, Santry.
This feels very different to the dark, cramped oratory in the Ilac Centre. Its walls are white, and light floods in through the stained glass windows. It hasn't got pews, like the Ilac Centre oratory, but wooden chairs in a few short rows. There is a tabernacle, a hanging cross with an ebony-black Christ sculpted upon it, a few small statuettes, a magazine rack of rather Millenarian-looking pamplets, and (most interestingly) a series of Eastern Orthodox icons along the left wall. A framed information sheet on the back wall describes the icons, which are collectively known (it tells the reader) as the Deesis. The icons and the pamphlets give the space a rather exotic atmosphere, at least to me, recalling the farther horizons and more fevered pockets of Christendom.
Despite the brightness, or because of it, the oratory has something of a funeral home feeling-- not an entirely inappropriate or unwelcome assocation, since prayer should always turn our mind to the Last Things.
This is less busy than the Ilac Centre oratory, although people (nearly always old people) still come in every five or ten minutes. Sometimes people walk in and walk straight back out again (on opening the door, you have to turn a little corner to see the oratory itself). Perhaps they were merely curious. Perhaps they are embarrassed to find someone actually praying. Perhaps they were looking for somewhere quiet to make a mobile phone call.
I remember, too, visiting the oratory in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. I only visited once; I remember a narrow, dark room. It seemed better-frequented than the others. I got the impression it had gathered a little community around itself.
These oratories are interesting as monuments to a particular moment in Irish history. A moment when Ireland was moving towards a consumer society, but still contained enough popular piety to make such installations desirable. I can't remember seeing an oratory or even a prayer room (or "contemplation" room) in Dundrum's more recently-built temple to Mammon. I wonder when Ireland's last shopping centre oratory was built.
I like them. Cathedrals and historical churches have never appealed to me very much; they have enough people to love them already, many of them tourists. I like chapels and oratories and humble little suburban churches. I like places of worship that were founded in living memory. I like modern stained glass and concrete blocks and low ceilings. I like stylized stations of the cross. In most things, I am as anti-modernist as the Amish, but I don't want religion to be a museum piece. In a plain suburban church, I feel somehow closer to the god of the Patriarchs than I do in a centuries-old cathedral full of carvings and tombs and inscriptions.