Thursday 29 September 2016

Lighthouses for the soul

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30

Kylemore Abbey
Kylemore Abbey

People who know me well know that I am not a regular church-goer. But I have a confession to make. While I don't go to church services regularly, I do often go into churches.

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This wasn't always the case.

I can remember as a teenager in boarding school the Mercy nuns extolling us to "drop in" to the onsite chapel to say a prayer when we were passing. I never did.

It was many years later that my interest stirred. I was an agricultural reporter covering meetings up and down the country and would sometimes stay over locally. Waking up early and alone in a strange town I would often go for a breath of fresh air and find an open church.

I might wander around, looking at the artwork, glance over the parish newsletter or other literature but mostly I just sat and let my thoughts go where they would.

I often had the place to myself. If there were other people there, they would probably salute and then go on about their business. Nobody ever looked at me askew.

What I found was a sense of welcome, quietness and strength. Is it the presence of spirit of a Higher being or just the pleasure of some quiet time in a well-kept sturdy, often beautiful, building? Or is there also something else?

I remember once reading about how it seemed to become easier to get the New York Times crossword "out" as the day goes on and the suggestion that this may be due to some sense of collective knowledge.

Perhaps something similar happens in churches. So many people have been here over so many years, yes, to worship, but also in unity, to share good times and bad. Maybe the expression of so much shared emotion has seeped into the walls and fortified them so we can feel this strength all around us, as support and encouragement.

Generally, I think the older the church, the stronger this sense. So perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the most moving places I have visited are very old - Holy Cross Abbey in Tipperary and Balquidder in Scotland.

Dating back to the thirteenth century, Holy Cross takes its name from a relic of the True Cross or Holy rood and was a medieval pilgrimage site. Balquidder has been a place of worship for at least 4000 years. It was regarded by the Celts a "thin" place, where earth and heaven are very close, and this is something I myself felt there.

For whatever reason, I now love going into churches.

Especially on holidays, we always end up in some place of religious worship. The specific denomination doesn't come into it. I was in a mosque once, in Cairo, but otherwise they're usually Christian because this is what we come across.

Last summer, we were cruising down a road on Achill when we came upon St Thomas' church, Dugort. We also visited the church at Kylemore Abbey and, on a Saturday evening, on our way down Croagh Patrick in the spills of rain, met a priest on his way up to say mass in the church at the top.

We woke up in Sydney for Easter last year and, as we were getting a lunch-time flight, I dragged every one out of bed to attend a service in what Google maps had indicated might be the nearest suitable church, the Anglican Christ Church St Laurence.

I am often struck at how churches were built at difficult times. The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny which has a stunning pair of giant seashell holy water fonts at the main door was built during the famine.

For me, I now see churches like lighthouses that help me navigate rough waters. I especially like to find a church, like the Augustinians' in Limerick, in the midst of the city. There are an oasis of calm a few feet away from the madding crowds and their strife.

As a young child, the church I visited most often was Rathkeale in County Limerick, which was the parish of both my parents' families for generations. It was and still is a fine building, befitting what was once the county town.

I know I have flitting between various Christian religions and apologise to those who feel offended by this. I recognise that so much hurt has been caused by churches, meaning their members but that is not the fault of the churches as in the buildings, which are all houses of God.

At this time of year, the vast majority of us will visit a church. Often this is for societal reasons but maybe we also get something more.

Happy Christmas!

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