Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Homecoming

When I was a child, the word "home" made me sad. Home was where you went after the fun and excitement of a day out-- a trip to the beach, for instance-- was over. Home was the epitome of dullness.

I don't remember when this changed. But now, the word "home" might be the word that it is most soul-stirring to me. The idea of home is not only peaceful and welcoming, but exciting. I imagine it is the same for most people.

I can't explain this. I am wary of forming any theories about how children think and feel (apart from those thoughts and feelings I distinctly remember), since childhood now seems like a faraway country to me. But maybe we feel a sense of belonging in childhood that we lose in adulthood and are always seeking.

I think that the story that has made the deepest impression on the Western mind is Homer's Odyssey. And I think that this, at least in part, is because it is the story of a homecoming.

The last line of the poem to Michelle that I read out at my wedding reception is "When I see your face, what I am looking at is home". It was the strongest ending, and the best way of expressing love, that I could think of.

Converts to the Catholic Church, or lapsed Catholics who return to it, frequently describe it as a homecoming. There is a show on EWTN called The Journey Home, entirely dedicated to conversion stories.

I had a little bit of a homecoming myself this weekend.

Regular readers of this blog might wonder why a newly-married man seems, from the description of his daily doings, to be living the life of a bachelor. The sad truth is that myself and Michelle are not living together yet. She had to return to America a little while after the wedding and there are various practical obstacles in the way of her coming here. We hope they will be resolved soon, but we don't know when. It's very upsetting and I ask for your prayers that we will be able to sort it out soon. (I will be in America for Thanksgiving, though.)

I am learning what an amazing lack of tact and sensitivity many people display. I've tried making it as obvious as I can that it's a subject that bothers me and that I don't want to be reminded of it or discuss it. This doesn't hinder many people from consistently pestering me about it.

I feel very self-conscious to be married but not living in the same place as my wife. I try to avoid being asked about it.

One of the consequences of this is that I haven't been attending Mass in my home parish of Sillogue/Shangan in Ballymun. (I am currently renting elsewhere, but I go home to Ballymun at weekends.) It's not that I knew very many parishioners in Sillogue to talk to. But I knew a few, and the parish priest (who is a wonderful priest and man) was heavily involved in the paperwork and preparations for the wedding, besides being my frequent confessor.

When I've been in Ballymun, on Saturdays and Sundays, I've found myself making forays to other nearby churches-- Our Lady of Victories on the Ballymun Road, Our Lady of Dolours in Glasnevin, Our Mother of Divine Grace in Ballygall, and (once each) the Blessed Margaret Ball Chapel in Santry and Our Lady of Consolation Church in Donnycarney.

I was very attracted to the Blessed Margaret Ball Chapel, which is small and cosy and whose liturgy was surprisingly reverential and formal. I also liked Our Lady of Consolation, especially the fact that it had subdued sacred music in the background before and after Mass.

But I felt out of place. I was truly surprised at how strong this feeling grew. I felt as though I was sickening for my home parish.

Parish. There's another interesting word-- a warm word, a friendly word, a word for which there is no real secular equivalent.

The parish of Sillogue/Shangan, Ballymun, contains two churches, five minutes walk apart. They are pretty much identitical; low-roofed, brown-brick, sparsely-decorated, chapel-like buildings. They were both built in the seventies-- as a matter of fact, the first churches built from the "Share Collection" which Irish readers will recognise as the usual second collection on Sundays.

Everybody seems to find them ugly except for me. I love them. I really love them.

No, it's more than that-- they are actually my ideal. It's not that I'm completely averse to ornate places of worship-- I loved Westminster Cathedral in London, for instance-- but in general, my taste runs to plainness in ecclesiastical architecture.

But perhaps my taste was formed in childhood. The Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary were the churches I grew up attending-- though my attendance was far from weekly (in fact, it was restricted to intermittent periods in which my mother dragged me and my brother along). I had my first Holy Communion in one of them (I don't remember which). My sister was married in another (again, I don't remember which one). More recently, my mother's funeral took place in the Holy Spirit church.

The thing is, though, I don't really have happy childhood memories of either. I didn't like Mass. I found it depressing and forbidding. I do remember enjoying Midnight Mass once or twice. But that was more for the carols than anything else.

Perhaps their unlikely charm was filtering into my soul, unawares.

When I began to practice my faith, I didn't go to the Holy Spirit, my nearest church. I was too nervous. I didn't remember exactly what you did in Mass, in terms of genuflections and responses, and I didn't want anyone who knew me seeing me all at sixes and sevens. I went to Our Lady of Dolours in Glasnevin instead. (I was rather embarrassed when a friend from school turned up in the same pew as me, once.)

When I'd got comfortable with the liturgy, I plucked up my courage and walked into the little church I'd walked past so often.

It was a very strange sensation. It was almost ten years since my mother's funeral, and the church seemed larger inside than I remembered it. There was also a strange feeling-- I don't know how to describe it, or to explain it-- of surprise that there were people inside it at all. It's as though you were to look into a doll's house and see life going on in there. I was so used to it being an exterior, it was strangely strange to see there was, not only an inside, but stuff happening inside. And the real wonder was that the stuff had been happening all along.

(This is a sensation I've often experienced. Sometimes the close-at-hand seems stranger and more exotic than the faraway. I never left Ireland until my late twenties, but since then, I've been to England, America, Germany, Italy and Austria. Now, that still might be modestly-travelled by modern standards. But my point is that, when I walk to my family home through an avenue that I rarely pass-- one that is ten seconds away from my front door-- that avenue seems strangely more exotic and different than Virginia or Bavaria did.)

Even after that first Mass, I was nervous. I would walk around the vicinity of the church until just before the Mass, postponing my entrance, to ward off the danger of anyone actually speaking to me.

And I delayed going to confession for weeks and months. The hurdle wasn't confessing my sins to a priest. The hurdle was simply approaching the priest. Week after week I steeled myself to do it and week after week I chickened out-- well, what was I to do, when the priest was mobbed by parishioners after the Mass, or disappeared into the sacristy?

But I did eventually go to confession. And then again. And then again. It was a major ordeal for months and months.

But slowly, I began to feel at home. After about a year, the parish priest knew my name (though I never quite knew how). I started going to the Virgin Mary on Saturday mornings, as well as the Holy Spirit on Sundays. (This is a fairly popular post I wrote about those Saturday mornings, which became a highlight of my week.)

I went to Eucharistic adoration on the evenings it was held, and to the inter-parish Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Ultimately, I volunteered to be a Minister of the Word, though this was shortly before my marriage and I only ever took to the ambo a handful of times. But attending the meetings drew me closer to parish life.

And I began to feel at home in both these churches in a way I've never really quite felt anywhere else.

I am the kind of person who gets attached to people and places. I always feel happy when I walk around the Tesco in Ballymun, since one of my happiest childhood memories is following my mother around the aisles, back when it was Quinnsworth and then Crazy Prices, often while reading the Transformers and Eagle comics. (Unfortunately, it will probably be shutting down soon.) It's rather embarrassing that a supermarket-- the very embodiment of crass, soulless capitalism-- was one of my first channels of the sublime, but there you go.

In the same way, working in the same university for twelve years has left me anything but sick of it. It's as though every foot-step I've taken in its corridors and halls and walkways, every cup of tea I've drunk in its cafés, every little drama of my own life that's been played out against its background has made me more a part of it, and it more a part of me.

But my attachment to the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary churches is something special. I only realized on Sunday how special it was.

It had been four months or so. I knew that the parish priest had been scheduled to move in October. I would miss him a lot, and I don't intend to lose touch forever, but it also made me feel a bit more relaxed about going back and not facing The Questions.

I went to the back pew, rather than my usual second-from-front pew. Trepidation mixed with the wave of sentiment washing over me.

Here they all were-- the young-ish fellow (who I'd been scared of when we were both kids) joke-flirting with an elderly lady, the jovial fellow who took round the collection, the dignified old gent who always wore a suit and tie. All the small-talk, all the shuffling, and joking, and greeting, and all the silent private prayers. Here was the immaculately-dressed Asian family, a husband and wife and two energetic children, earnestness etched on both adults' faces. Here was the statue of St. Martin, the statue of Our Lady, the simply brass tabernacle on the low altar, the organist playing a few warm up chords-- all the sights and sounds and smells that had been so familiar. And here I was, too, at last.

And that infinite sense of ease, of belonging, of relief-- like sinking into your favourite chair, or laughing with an old friend, or watching one of your favourite scenes from one of your favourite movies. Except not quite like any of those.

My experience of life is that, most of the time, we make more out of what happens, and out of what we feel, than is justifed. We really have to exaggerate, because we crave deeper and more meaningful experiences than our daily life allows us. We are like a raconteur embellishing a story, or a news reporter trying to draw out drama from a news conference, or a colour writer exaggerating the eccentricities or atmosphere that he encounters. We do this in our conversations, and we do it in our private thoughts. It's entirely benign and even admirable.

But sometimes-- gloriously often, as a matter of fact-- life surprises us and we find ourselves grasping for words to explain how significant an experience was, or how powerful. That is how I felt on Sunday. I kept thinking, "I was expecting an emotional reaction. But I wasn't expecting this."

There was a new priest, a young African priest. I heard one parishioner complain about his homilies, before Mass began. So I was expecting a bad homily, and was surprised when he delivered one of the best homilies I've ever heard-- a meditation on Our Lord's visit to the house of Zacchaeus that was Scriptural, historically informed, and to the point. It was interesting, too-- and pleasant-- to hear the priest use the apostolic address "dearly beloved", time and again. It seemed to radiate the wonderful vibrancy of the African churches.

A few people nodded and smiled at me, but nobody spoke to me, and nobody quizzed me-- thank goodness.

I don't expect I will settle down in Ballymun myself. I expect Michelle and I will find a parish of our own, or several parishes of our own, through the years. I'm sure I will come to love those, too.

But somehow I don't think any church will supplant the place of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary in my heart. And I hope they remaining standing through all my life, so I can return from time to time, and feel that I've come home.


  1. That's great that you can get that sense of belonging. I don't personally feel attached to places or people. I can get used to places and people so that I'm comfortable around them, but not attached to them. That might be because I'm not the most outgoing person.

  2. Is it that you rarely get attached or you don't get attached at all? I'm not outgoing either. Maybe you just haven't found that sense of belonging yet?

  3. I can't say I've ever been attached. I try to think of people or places I've known throughout my life, and none that come to mind make me feel like I particularly miss them or that I have a special connection to them.

  4. I guess different people are made differently. I get ridiculously attached. Michelle and myself attended a two-and-a-half day, immersive pre-marriage course. At the end I was rather depressed it was finished and we would all go our separate ways and not see eah other again. And Michelle knew that would happen!