Today was a good day. Not because anything remarkable happened. No, it was simply one of those "day in the life" days when you suddenly look around and remember that you are alive.
Days are funny things. I think about them a lot. They are like miniature lives. We know that the vast majority of days will be forgotten, and yet each one seems of such overwhelming importance at the time. What a strange system it is, that our existence should be broken up into these units of time! I am fascinated by that question people increasingly ask each other these days, and that I believe is an import from America: "How has your day been?". It seems to presume that we judge experience in 24-hour chunks rather than moment to moment. Nobody ever asks, "How has your hour been?", and but rarely, "How has your week been?". I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask, "How has your month been?".
And yet it's not entirely true to say that we live day to day. When a movie or a book or a work of non-fiction confines itself to a single day, this seems exceptional and notable to us, and like an artificial limitation. Our minds are always flashing backwards and forwards, and we are usually immersed in plans and projects that take us mentally far beyond that single day-- or else we are absorbed by some immediate matter which makes us oblivious of any time-frame beyond that of the moment. And yet we are never entirely unaware of the day we are in, that "You are Here" spot on the map of time.
I often marvel at the giddy profusion of our days. Every adult, and even every teenager, has lived so many days that he or she simply can't keep track of them. We can never take in our whole life's experience at a glance. We can go weeks and months without thinking of a particular period in our life, even if that period was very memorable. I have always felt a thrill when I hear someone say something like, "I spent the entire day going through my album collection", or "I remember the day I spent cycling around the coast", or "We were working flat out the entire day, we got sandwiches in instead of having dinner".
People say that you should live every day like it's your last, that you should make the most of every day. I'm increasingly unsure of the wisdom of this advice. If I really lived each day like it was my last, I would soon be stony broke, spectacularly obese, and probably in prison. Should we live life to the full? Of course. But I think living life to the full would have to include whole days watching old sit-coms while sitting in your pyjamas. In other words, if you don't have dull days, aimless days, routine days, melancholy days, you aren't really living life to the full.
Why is life so various? It didn't have to be, and I have always been haunted by a kind of amazement that it is. I've always felt fascinated by the fact that people expect certain satisfactions out of life, often while posing as complete pessimists. Everybody seems to expect recreation, and a challenge, and responsibility, and time alone, and time socialising, and time spent in "nature", and time to satisfy their creative urges, and time to cut loose now and again, and routine, and a break from routine. Whence come these expectations? Why do people who acknowledge life to be so rich an experience, and who look actually demand such richness, still insist on believing that human life is simply a by-product of impersonal forces of nature? This used to perplex me long before I became a practicing Catholic.
I started today with the morning commute, as usual. I like taking the bus. I walk to the bus-stop throuh the housing estate where I live, when the dogs and the pigeons pretty much have the place to themselves and play out their little dramas.
I was reading The Irish Catholic on the bus this morning, a special issue in tribute of Pope Benedict. However, I couldn't keep my eyes open and was dozing all the way to UCD. I can't rememeber if I dozed as I passed the Liffey, although I usually make a practice to stare into its waters and along its horizon. It is too easy to forget what a remarkable sight a river is.
I had a few minutes for coffee in UCD's Arts Café, which is a treasured moment of the day-- often the very best. In the morning, everything seems newly-minted, even the people. And the Arts Café in UCD is a pleasant environment, with bright colours and long, soft lamps and tables dotted around irregularly. During the day, at least during the term, it is so busy it's difficult to find a table, but in the morning it is always pleasantly half-filled. Of course, being a university café, people are often writing essays on laptops or reading Serious Books, which gives it a certain intellectual air.
Then work. I don't know what I did to deserve the job that I have. Working in a university library is about the most enviable job in the world, short of being a chocolate taster. Just being surrounded by books all day is exciting. (I always especially like the moment when I walk past the stands of current journals, which take in subjects from Methodism in Ireland to accounting, and I am filled with appreciation at just how many things are always going on in the world. You can tell from the headlines on the covers of the magazines that people and debates you've never even heard of are all the rage in the world of archaeology, or analytical philosophy, or business management.) The students are unfailingly polite and friendly and easy-going, although the "mature" students tend to be grumpy and difficult. At lunch-time, being a Friday in Lent, I went to the restaurant and had salmon, chips, carrots, cabbage and Pepsi Cola. I agree it doesn't sound very penitential. I ate it while sitting alone, still reading The Irish Catholic. UCD restaurant has recently been refurbished, but it still has rather a soulless air about it, mostly because the tables are ranged in austere straight lines, giving it a little of an exam hall feeling. But I do savour the hum of voices in the air, which might be my favourite sound in the whole world.
I left work early today, determined to go to confession in St. Teresa's Church in Clarendon Street. When I started practicing my faith, confession was probably the most difficult hurdle. It was especially difficult because today, in so many parishes, regular confession times are not offered so you have to grab a priest when you can get him-- and approaching people out of the blue is always something I found incredibly difficult. So I was pleased when I found that St. Teresa's offers daily confession, at a convenient time, from 5:15 to 5:30 each day. I also prefer a classic confessional scenario whereby I am speaking to priest through a grille in a confessional box. Until I started going to St. Therese's for confession, pretty much all my confessions were done sitting side-by-side with a priest. It feels more like a chat than a sacrament.
Today I had an old priest who I've confessed to a good few times. I was the first in the queue today. I'm always surprised at the queue for confessions in St. Teresa's. It's not just old women. It's all sorts of people, including many fashionably-dressed professional people.
I said my penitential prayers (which I always find extremely difficult, since my mind keeps wandering) before the beginning of 5:30 Mass. Evening Mass in Clarendon Street is always fairly well attended but this evening there were relatively few people there. The woman beside me used the old responses to the Mass. An African priest celebrated, with all the solemnity that usually entails. During the Eucharistic Prayer, he stopped as he was about to mention "our Pope Benedict", saying "our emeritus Pope Benedict" instead (I forget the exact words). It was a poignant moment.
I don't especially like attending Mass in Clarendon Street. I think it's a rather ugly church, with its walls painted a billious green, its modernist stained glass windows, its gaudy statues, its oddly jarring proportions, its poor accoustics. Nor do I understand why receiving communion at an altar-rail is more reverent than in a queue-- in fact, it always seems rather anarchic and hugger-mugger to me.
But the Mass is the Mass. Some of them are beautiful and satisfy our aesthetic sensibilities. Some don't. But every Mass is Heaven on Earth, quite literally. And even when you don't "enjoy" it on a superficial level, you walk out of it feeling an unfathomable satisfaction and refreshment.
I spent a few minutes after Mass praying before the Blessed Sacrament, as the church emptied around me. I find this kind of quiet, contemplative prayer very difficult-- to be blunt, I get bored. And yet nothing in the whole world seems to me as potent and as impressive as the sight of a monstrance standing on an altar in an almost-deserted church. I can barely find words to express how powerful a sight this seems to me. It is not impressive in the same way that a herd of rampaging buffallo or a massive explosion would be impressive. But, in its quiet and understated way, it seems more powerful. I am an avid reader of Catholic conversion stories, and I find it fascinating that so many life-changing moments seem to occur during chance visits to chapels and churches and cathedrals-- usually at times when "nothing is happening" in the ordinary sense.
I love the words of St. Josemaria Escrivia-- "When you approach the tabernacle, remember he has been waiting for you for twenty centuries". That exactly describes the feeling I'm trying to describe. We feel "This has been waiting here all along. This is what I have always been looking for. This is where all my life has been leading. This is what abides, through all the whirls and eddies of history." It is like the moment in the movie when the protagonist finally opens the locked door, or enters the secret garden, or comes face to face with the woman he has been seeking all over the world.
Though I don't like Clarendon Street very much, I do like the sensation of passing from the hushed space of the church to the busy, lively streets outside.
I had arranged to meet a friend at eight o'clock, so I had some time on my hands-- which is a delicious phrase in itself. I made my way to the Central Hotel in Exchequer Street, in that warren of little streets between Grafton Street and George's Street. The Central Hotel is home to the most perfect little sanctuary in Dublin, the Library Bar.
The Library Bar is so called because the walls are lined with books-- the best sort of books, old musty and gilt-edged and serious-looking books. The Encyclopedia Britannica and bound volumes of the Cornhill Magazine are typical volumes. The whole place has the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century gentleman's club-- heavy, pelmeted curtains, marble fireplaces, deep chairs, subdued lampshades, very tasteful framed paintings and prints of ships, hunting squires, racehorses, and so forth. And-- oh glory be!-- there is no music or television, ever.
The only problem with the Library Bar is that it's difficult to find a place to sit down. This evening, in fact, I was leaving it disappointedly after discovering that the place was full, before doing a Dick Whittington and deciding-- since I had such a yearning to take my ease amongst all that elegance-- that I was just going to hover by the bar until a table was free. And then-- oh joy of joys!-- there was no need, since I saw a table close to the fireplace, gloriously free. I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down, and sank into the book I'm currently reading-- a biography of G.K. Chesterton by Ian Ker. I had reached perhaps the most compelling part of the whole story-- his eventual conversion, after much soul-searching and struggle and a fair amount of drama, to the Roman Catholic Church.
This is going to sound horribly misanthropic, but I have to admit that I never enjoy having company in a pub or a café as much as I enjoy being there alone, with a book, looking up every now and again to savour the atmosphere, or to ponder my reading while staring out a window or into a decorated pub mirror. Nor can I think of a better way to read a book. The chatter and brightness and conviviality around you seems like a perfect counterpoint to that most intimate and private of activities-- reading. The hour passed all too soon.
And then I was on my way through the busy streets again, to meet my friend-- I will call her B. We were meeting in Whelan's, the live music venue in Wexford Street. Most of the time I've been there, I've been there with B.
Friendship is something that seems both strange and marvellous to me, since I had no friends until I was in my twenties. This is quite literally true, and not hyperbole. I was cripplingly shy and withdrawn, and B was one of my very first friends. I met her in the library where I work, though she has moved on to other things now. She was a confidante in the directionless, depressed days of my early and mid-twenties. I was so mired in negativity that it was a rather thankless role for her. We are pretty close to mirror opposites-- she's bubbly and outgoing, while I'm shy and fogeyish. We have had our tensions, but she never stopped being my friend. We are both mad about movies, and that helps.
I always felt out of place going to clubs and gigs, and now I feel more out of place than ever. I feel too old for that kind of thing. In fact, I can't help feeling that everybody there is too old for that kind of thing. Looking around, and seeing men and women in their late thirties and early forties and beyond, still wearing t-shirts proclaiming their admiration of various rock bands, still exchanging the kind of would-be witty banter that is appropriate to those kind of places, still determined to rock on, makes me wince more than a little. Nor do I feel the slightest sense of loss or regret at being past it, any more than I am nostalgic for my teenage acne.
Still, I tried to enjoy the atmosphere, if only as an outsider looking in. B's brother, who is an extremely talented songwriter, was opening for another act. I gave him several standing ovations, which were fully deserved.
When the main band came out, B and myself adjourned to the smoking area and spoke for the rest of the night. It was one of those deep heart-to-heart conversations that-- for men, anyway-- only seem to happen with female friends. B was reminding me how far I had come since I had first met her, back when I never went out, had never been outside Ireland, and had never even been to a party of any kind. Myself and B used to have these kind of deep conversations a lot. But it had been a long time since we did, and it left me glowing with gratitude for the gift of friendship.
I set out to catch (to use a phrase I find deeply evocative) the last bus home. I like to read a little bit of the Bible every day, so while I was waiting at the bus stop I got on my phone and accessed the "app" I have downloaded, which includes an e-version of the Douay-Rheims Bible. I read some verses of the first letter of the James, which contains the strange and haunting passage:
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if a man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass. For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was.
"For he beheld himself, and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was." I don't know exactly what the Apostle meant by those words. But, as the bus took me home, it made me think of that memorable passage in Chesterton's masterpiece, Orthodoxy:
We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.
Oh, Lord, let me remember! Let me never forget! And let me never cease to give thanks and praise!