Saturday, August 4, 2012

Saturday Mornings in the Virgin Mary Church, Ballymun

It might be the best part of my whole week.

I wake on Saturday morning, glancing at the time on my mobile phone, and remember-- with a rush of pleasure-- that it isn't a workday and I don't have to haul myself out from the blankets at the usual uncivilized hour. I settle back gratefully into the pillows.

I like settling back gratefully into pillows, sinking back into the pool of sleep. But I am sometimes troubled by the words of Socrates before his execution, when he was facing the possibility that his death might be mere oblivion; he said that few men have experienced anything more serene than a night of dreamless sleep, and that such a death would be an improvement on life. Would a true proponent of philosophical utilitarianism, keen to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, be willing to keep the vast majority of mankind under perpetual sedation?

It is a perturbing thought, and one that makes me feel guilty if I take too much pleasure in slumber. I feel I am voting against life with my eyelids. So I am glad that I have something to get me out of bed early on Saturday mornings, being an appalling sluggard.

I made a stab at becoming a daily Mass-goer a few months back. It never worked out. However I tried to engineer it, it ended up involving mad rushes for buses or long detours from my usual route, and the sacrifice of half the evening.

The only legacy of the attempt is Saturday morning Mass at 10 a.m. in the Virgin Mary Church, ten minutes walk from my house. It's a good legacy.

All the seasons of the year are wonderful, and every hour of the day has its own beauty. But we all have our darlings. And for as I'm concerned, none of the spectacular sunsets and blazing noons and storm-lashed nights ever minted-- no, not even the solemnity of the small hours-- can compare with the thrill of morning. I mean every sort of morning; the exciting winter mornings where it is still dark outside and being out before the sun gives you a strangely conspiratorial sensation; the foggy mornings where everything around is softened and mellowed by haze; the summer mornings when the sky is flooded with glory.

The "sister" churches of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, in Ballymun, gave up trying to hold separate daily Mass more than a year ago. I remember the day the parish priest announced the change; "these are the facts of life, folks", he said, in a heavy voice. He said he remembered the time, not so many years ago, when there were hourly Sunday Masses which often had standing room only. Now there is only one Sunday Mass in each church, and daily Mass alternates between them.

I often wonder about the people who used to come to Mass ten years ago and now don't. Did they suddenly stop believing in God?

The Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary Churches are almost identical twins. They are not beautiful, or even pretty; at least, not to anybody but me. I've even heard them described as "hideous". They are small churches with brown brick exteriors, and the minimum of decoration inside; a few rather bland statues, a biscuit-coloured crucified Christ hanging above the altar, little more. The Virgin Mary church has a stained-glass scene of the Ascension (I think) on the wall behind the altar. I read somewhere on the internet that it was moved from St. Pappin's, the Famine-era church in Ballymun. It is illuminated from behind by a bulb; the light is switched off after Mass and the glowing colours disappear. This always seems a rather comical moment to me.

I walk past Supervalu and then Centra, whose staff are often still wheeling their pallet trucks of milk cartons into their shops. I walk past walls on which are pasted recruiting posters for diehard Irish republican groups, still fighting (in their own minds) the eight hundred year war. I tread the stony, beaten path across a field to the Virgin Mary. There is usually four or five cars parked outside.

In the church porch, a notice informs me that the church is a sacred place and eating, drinking cans etc. is "wholly inappropriate". Other posters and notices dot the porch walls, comforting evocations of everyday life.

I push the door and step into the church, blessing myself in the white bowl of holy water just inside. I genuflect awkwardly, but with a kind of defiant heaviness, trying to mask the self-consciousness I can never seem to quite get over.

There are about ten people in the church by now, scattered across the hard wooden pews. They are mostly middle-aged to elderly women. They are saying the rosary as I enter. The woman leading the recitation rattles off the decades like salvos fired against the gates of Hell.

I go to my accustomed pew, to the right of the altar. That pew, the pew ahead of me, and the pew behind me are often empty. I kneel on the cushionless kneeler and say a private prayer, knowing it is as much for the sake of show as for my own sake, but not feeling guilty about this. Why shouldn't I help build the atmosphere?

There are rarely more than twenty people in the congregation. It is always the same people; mostly old women, a few younger women, an African couple with boisterous chidren, a beaming African man who sits a few pews behind me and is my go-to guy for the sign of peace, a few other characters.

Unlike Sunday Mass, with its fuller congregation, the Saturday morning people tend not to chat before the appearance of the priest. I wish every Irish Catholic went to Mass regularly; but there is something very pleasant in this more intimate, focused gathering.

The priest appears, rings the bell, and we rise.

Sometimes it is the parish priest from Dublin who celebrates; but usually, on Saturday mornings, it is the priest from Burkina Faso. I remember how, when he first celebrated Mass in our parish-- perhaps two years ago-- he could barely get through a sentence of English. It was painful to listen to. People began to shuffle and mutter.

But now it's a different story. Every week he seems more confident, surprising us with new rhetorical flourishes, although he retains some endearing quirks such as "our today Gospel". In his St. Patrick's Day homily, he repeatedly referred to St. Patrick as "our hero".

He is a fine priest, quicker to reprimand and rebuke than our often cosy Irish clergy. He preaches with gusto but seems shy underneath. He often tells us stories of life in Burkina Faso, its poverty, its exploding Catholic population. On Holy Thursday, I came late to a session of Eucharistic Adoration and he was the only one still there, kneeling before the Host, utterly lost in his devotions, breaking into spoken prayer from time to time.

There are no hymns on Saturday mornings. There are no prayers of the faithful, no Gloria, no second scripture reading before the gospel. Is it wrong of me to prefer this slimmed-down, unmusical ceremony? Saint Augustine famously wrote that "he who sings prays twice"; but I find my spirits dampened rather than raised by the banal jingles that we sing on Sunday. To be perfectly honest, I am not even that enthusiastic about the classic hymns (except when they are sung as recessionals, and have a triumphal, valedictory air to them).

I dearly love Saturday morning's silent, sparse, dignified liturgy, celebrated by a little congregation in a chapel-like church, while white sunlight streams through the clear windows and suburban sounds drift from outside. I prefer it to any High Mass graced by a Palestrina choir in a packed cathedral dripping with marble. Somehow, the weight of the mystery-- the unimaginable mystery of consecration and communion-- seems more palpable here.

The sign of peace takes a long time. Most of these people know each other and a token handshake of their closest neighbour won't do. Most of the time I get irritated when the sign of peace is overdone; here it seems appropriate.

We come to the mystical heart of the Mass.

I have given up trying to "take in" what happens when I receive Communion. It is like trying to imagine eternity or picture a completely new colour. I tell myself that is not my mental state that counts; it is the objective reality of the consecrated bread and wine. I remind myself that nothing in the universe, no supernova or black hole, is more amazing than what the priest and the ministers of the Eucharist are dispensing, so undramatically.

We kneel for the closing prayer. In the Holy Spirit Church, they stand for this prayer; here, although most of the congregation attend both churches, they kneel. The contrast pleases me greatly.

The priest gives his final blessing, and (most of the time) disappears into the sacristy. On Sundays, this is the moment the Mass dissolves into social mingling and chatter. Not on Saturday mornings, though. On Saturday mornings, some of the congregation linger for more prayers, while others drift out with only a few friendly exchanges. The aura of devotion still hangs in the air as I leave.

Outside, Ballymun has become a little busier; but only a little. The morning is still dew-fresh. As I walk home, I look forward to the fried breakfast that I am never entirely successful at keeping out of my thoughts during this Mass. There is a whole new day ahead of me; a day the Lord has made.


  1. Beautiful post. Like you, I attend a no-frills Mass on weekdays at my Dominican parish here in Los Angeles. The simplicity and lack of music draw me closer to the 'mystical heart of the Mass', as you put it.

    The only downside: I find midmorning Sunday Masses, with their musical interruptions and hammy cantors, a trial. Fortunately, I only have to endure these distractions when I commit the error of sleeping in, which is now rare . . .

  2. A kindred spirit! I guess there is no "right" time to celebrate Mass, but I always find it easiest to "lift up my heart" in the morning. We also have daily Mass in the university where I work, in a very simple chapel, and I find that very beautiful too; especially as it has skylights, which bathes the chapel in sunshine.

  3. We had a missionary priest from Tanzania staying at our parish recently -- he spent almost a year with us. He too struggled somewhat with the language, especially in the beginning. But even then, and throughout his stay, his ars celebrandi and his homilies were arresting. I miss him. We sent him home to Tanzania with funding (I think) for 2 water wells for his village. He's the son of converts and would tell us about the burgeoning Church in Africa. Deo gratias!

    As for the die-hard Masses - i.e. Saturdays and, in my case, weekdays at 7am, I agree! No nonsense. I feel - rightly or wrongly - a more palpable "church universal" and a sense of family those days with those folks - than on Sundays in a full, chatty church. I know it's not at all about feelings. In the end, I thank God for his priests and for the generosity of daily Mass, and for my access to it... such steadiness is like life support.