Monday, February 27, 2012

Shopping for God

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.


  1. No, there's nothing at all like that in the US. There are chapels in the hospitals and sometimes in the airports and hotels, but my general impression is that they're more a quiet spot for individuals and are too non-denominational and low key to be interesting in and of themselves.

    Actually, though, I visited one of these when I was recently at an inner-city clinic that was an exception. The building it was in had been one of the city's main hospitals when it was built about a century ago, but it had ceased regular operations in the 80s and has only been in partial use since. I was walking down an empty wing of the building, looking at the rows of wood and glass phone booths built into the walls, the old mail tube system, and the ancient drinking fountains which obviously hadn't been used in decades (it was like a time capsule) when I came upon the old hospital's chapel.

    I was actually stunned when I walked in. The place was a mini (Anglican)cathedral circa 1900. The large baptismal font was made of carved stone. There was a row of hardwood pews and a full wall of elaborate stained glass windows depicting various saints and archangels to one side of the room. The quality of everything was generally superior to what you would find in even the richest new suburban church, even if there were still local craftsman capable of executing work in that style. The only modern element in the room was what looked like a professional quality drum kit next to the altar.

    To be honest though, I didn't much like being in the place. As I'd been walking through those halls, I'd found myself increasingly thinking on all of the sick and desperate people who'd passed the same way in the past century. If there were no supernatural ghosts in residence, that seemed to make it no less haunted. And, as you say, the place felt more like a tomb than a chapel. Eventually, it felt to me as if I were intruding and I left.

  2. There is an urgent poignancy to the religion in hospitals that can be quite disturbing. I remember always feeling depressed when I looked at the religious items available in a particular hospital shop in Dublin, maybe because they had such a "last resort" air about them. But at the same time, I also remember feeling touched by the sacred when I visited the same hospital's chapel-- and that was when I was still rather dubious about religion.

    I never heard of a chapel in a hotel, but then, I haven't been to all that many hotels.

    That drum kit is rather intriguing!

  3. "That drum kit is rather intriguing!"

    When I saw it, I had the partly comical, mostly disturbing vision in my mind of some doctor, nurse or orderly finishing their shift and then walking into that chapel and sitting down to maniacally bang away on the things into the the twilight hours, like the organist in that old movie, Carnival of Souls. If there's some weird congregation that's meeting in the deserted chapel of that derelict hospital, it'd be great to see one of their services.. or maybe it wouldn't.