Sometimes when I have trouble writing I go through the archives and read my own completed works. Today I dug this one up and thought I’d share it with you. It is a true account of my own experience at Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin: A heathen goes to church
Dublin, Ireland. Sunday morning. Two women – a Catholic and a heathen – hurry along St Patrick’s Close in Dublin’s southwest. It’s cold. The sky is bleak and grey in all directions. Icy fingers of wind lick at their hair and steal in between layers of polyester and cotton. The sharp angles and grey stone of St Patrick’s Cathedral’s steeple and spire rise above the surrounding buildings, like a warning rather than a beacon. As the cathedral comes into view the wind rushes in circles and it starts to rain. The two women look at each other. ‘God knows you’re here,’ the American says.
What am I doing here? The question runs rampant in my mind, growing shrill with each step. It’s been decades since I visited a church, much less set foot in one on Sunday. So, why am I galloping along the silent streets of Dublin in a hurry to make the 8:30 Eucharist? The truth? I’m a tag-along. I haven’t come to pray or listen to the choir; I’m not here as a pilgrim visiting one of God’s sacred houses. I’m here to offer moral support to my travelling buddy whose need for her God surfaced in the middle of our adventure in Ireland’s capital.
This is not my experience.
As we approach the Cathedral, looking as bleak and grey as the sky, I am relieved to see the Dean, ready in his robes, at the Cathedral’s entrance. Familiar faces are greeted with delighted smiles and handshakes; unfamiliar faces, like mine and my companion’s, with a warning: the Cathedral is not open to tourists until after the services and there are to be no photographs taken. Betrayed by our cameras or has the Dean detected the presence of a heathen?
My American companion explains we are only here to attend the service. His face opens to us with the same delight he showed his parishioners. With a quick glance at his watch he motions us in. I can’t be sure if it his good will or his timetable that wins in the end, though I think God is far more forgiving of tardiness than the Dean’s Sunday schedule.
Soon after the last few worshippers step through the great doors, they are sealed behind us. As I look down the nave of Ireland’s oldest and largest church, a feeling of terror grabs my ankles and won’t let me move. Ahead of me, my companion has already progressed forward, her heels kissing the tiles. She shuns one bench after another until she disappears into a box pew. The space between us yawns. Others are shuffling and settling into their seats with suitable haste. An elderly woman smiles and encourages me to move on to a seat. My discomfort gives way to duty and my feet begin to shuffle along the tiles. I feel like the class nerd as I slide in beside my companion.
As the service begins, a sense of relief settles in me. At the same time I am aware of a rich ambiance within the cathedral. It is a universe of arches and vaulted ceilings. For more than 800 years St Patrick’s has been a place of worship. Ghosts of reverence cling to the pillars and stained glass. Countless prayers, old and recent, murmur in the corners and dance down the aisles. They manifest in the reverberations of the choir and haunted phrases of the organ. St Patrick’s is a mausoleum for prayers, a chronicle of hope for the past eight centuries. It has survived political disorder, plague, famine and war, held to its foundations by the invocations of its parishioners. The essence of this church is more than just a sensation, it is an awareness that even a heathen like myself can’t deny.
Now and then I remind myself to pay attention to the service, mindful not to offend anyone by appearing too interested in the architecture. My best effort fails and my mind wanders again. What lies beyond the arches and towering walls or the balcony above the choir stalls? What do the banisters and helmets mean? There is history so deep here it would take months of chiselling to uncover even a fraction of it.
In the row in front of me, a young man bows his head. His shoulders tremble as his prayer joins the throng. This has been a long journey for him, perhaps a holy journey to pray where, centuries ago, St Patrick himself is said to have baptised converts to Christianity. I hope God finds his prayer. My gaze falls on the older man sitting to his left, a man with a red nose and oversized suit. He strokes his furry chin, lips moving in a private conversation with his God. As the service ends he chats with a couple sitting across the aisle. He is no visitor to the church. This is his parish. He’s been praying here all his life. He was baptised and married here, raised his babies under its roof, and even shared a joke with the Dean.
A small, perhaps self-indulgent part of me envies him. Because he belongs here. Because he claims more than just knowledge of the church’s history; he is at once its beneficiary and a part of it. His own legacy will live here when he’s gone. His memory will be safe within St Patrick’s Cathedral.
As the great nave empties, accompanied by the organ, prayers become a part of the building’s fibre. A heathen, humbled by her experience, retreats into the grey world outside happy to leave a small piece of herself to the building.
© Sharon M Egan