Saturday, November 26, 2016

Theology at Carluccio's

It's Saturday of American Thanksgiving weekend, and a favourite little pastime in the morning is to take a stroll on Dawson Street, inspecting the artwork in Patrick Donald's gallery, and grabbing a latte to go.

Today's coffee stop was at Carluccio's, a bustling beanery across from the former residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.  I walked in, and was deluged with smells of pastries and scones, all decorated up for the holiday season, wrapped around the aroma of roasting coffee beans.  It was a perfect sort of prelude for our plunge into Christmas preparations.

I approached the cashier and ordered a latte.  And jovially, I asked, "Don't you just love this season? It's such a marvel!"  "What season?" asks she.  And dumbfounded, I replied, "The holiday season! All these colours, smells and packages, and anticipation!"

To which she just shrugged and said, "All days are the same for me.  I don't much care about the seasons."

I left with my latte, in a thoughtful mood, reflecting on my own belief that all days are not the same for me.  Tomorrow we will put out purple and rose candles, and start to hold our spiritual breath for the days of the Incarnation.  On the way home, walking through St. Stephen's Green, I took delight in watching hundreds of pigeons flying in a spontaneous but perfectly synchronous ballet around the entrance to the park (I suppose that delight was due, in part, to the fact that they left nothing on my head). Grafton Street was sparkling with lights and ribbons and evergreen and holly.  This day was not like any other day. Nor would it bear resemblance to those yet to come.

I grew up near Underhill, Vermont, the home of one of my local New England heroes, Snowflake Bentley.  A pioneer in the craft of photographing delicate flakes, he finally advanced a theory: no two of these snow crystals are alike.  So far, no one has been able to disprove his theory.  He called the uniqueness of snowflakes "little miracles."  Other scientists, while uncomfortable with his theological overtones, could not dispute the awesome theory he advanced, a creativity beyond mathematics, impossible to comprehend, all taking place within a fraction of an inch.

You can look out on a field of snow and see white.  Sad, monochromist perspective.  You can also look out on the same field and see a quadrillion miracles.

Whether it be snowflakes or days of our lives, the person who took my money at Carluccio's gave me a lot to ponder, here on the threshold of Advent.  Every day is a miracle: seasons, colours, songs, flights of birds – they all advance the mystery.  Each nuance of life is a point of inspiration, a dawning of wonder.  And here we are, poised to enter a new Year of Grace.  It will not be like last year, from the very second we awake.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Door of Humility

I've never been to the Holy Land, but I've heard that, in Bethlehem, there is a very small opening of stone that serves as the ancient portal to the Church of the Nativity.  For centuries, that doorway has been called the "Door of Humility," for in order to enter you must, by mere necessity, bow down very low.

It may not be as ancient, and certainly not as prestigious, but in order to make your way to the place where I work and dwell, you must also enter what I've come to call my own "Door of Humility."

As you stand in front of the entrance to Newman's University Church on St. Stephen's Green (and be advised if you wish to visit – you can walk by this facade and not even know you've passed the church), as I said, as you stand there you can see, to the left, a set of heavy wooden double doors, painted black.  These doors can be opened with great labour, and a long tunnel greets you, a tunnel that goes underneath the building to the east: Newman House, maintained by University College Dublin, the place where Blessed John Henry taught.  It's also the place, by the way, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away.

But back to the doors and the tunnel: the double doors were seldom opened, usually when the priests and their guests came in by horseback.  There are still metal rings in the inner courtyard walls that point to this practice, the places where horses were tied.  In order to make pedestrian passage easier, a small, lower door was built into the larger set.  It's only about three feet high, occupying the lower half.

So each day, as I go out and come home, I must bow and bend low.  Whether I'm about to meet a new composer or church musician, whether I'm coming home with things from the grocer (I want American peanut butter back in my life!), whether I'm conferring with a priest or religious who wants to "mark my card," (Irish for "giving counsel") – in all these settings and so many more, I must exit and enter by stooping low in order that other things might be achieved.

Our friends and guests who've visited us thus far are amused and delighted by this portal.  Eilish, our parish secretary, calls it something far less glamorous: she calls it the "donkey door."  My wife sometimes refers to it as the "hobbit door."

But for me, it will always be the "Door of Humility," a reminder that not all I want to accomplish can be done on my own terms or on my own timeline.  There are greater forces at work here, and my best stance, more often than not, needs must be a posture of bowing down and bending low, that I might understand completely the holy ground upon which I walk.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


For many years in our home on Woodhurst Road in Granger, Indiana, we had a plaque that was on the wall next to our living room fireplace.  It read, in Irish:

N'il aon tentéan mar
  do theintéan fein.

The translation is, "there is no fireside like your own fireside."

It is an old Irish saying, and this weekend both the poetry and the pertinence of this saying came back to visit us in a very real way.  

We had been working our way through a month of settling in here in Dublin, with all the calamity associated with such things – phones, bank accounts, repairs, more repairs, missed contractors, unfinished work... and then, out of the blue, our dear friend Fr. Denis Lennon rang in from Wexford. "I've two tickets to the Opera Thursday next," said he.  "Would ye like to be my guest?"

Of course we would.  We boarded a bus after the daily 1:05 mass and hightailed it down to the sunny south east.  Going to Wexford last weekend was like going home to family – the warm embrace of parishioners we'd known for years, the effervescent joy of a town as it hosted the annual autumn opera pilgrims, the warmth of the seaside and the hum of the parish we had come to love so well.  
Our home from the south, facing Iveagh Gardens

And then, 48 hours later, it was over, and we were headed – home. Walking through the Door of Humility (more on that later), we approached what has become our new home in Ireland.  The shoes of this label, "home," are beginning to fit: here was our kitchen, our pictures up on the walls, our dining room, our little hovels where the computers and reading materials are tucked away.  

And there, next to the fireplace, is the little plaque that used to sit next to our hearth in Indiana.  It is now perched next to another fireplace, now in the heart of Dublin.  

Home is different now.  We awake in the morning to seagulls (they gather in Iveagh Gardens in the dawn); when the winds are from the east, you can catch a tinge of salt air from the Irish sea.  You have to look a different way when you cross the street (not doing so is at your own peril). Church, and office, are only a dozen steps away from our front door.  But even with this proximity, there are miles and miles of work to be done.

"Home." In the midst of a move, it can become an even more powerful symbol than the four-letter snippet we throw around when everything is comfortable.  The hearth becomes an anchor.  The kitchen becomes a rock.

And all of these – hearth, home, roof, rootedness – are mere flickers of a flame, compared to the home we have in God.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Musician and Emmaus

Today marks four weeks since we landed at Dublin airport at 4:45AM, luggage galore, not knowing by a long shot what was awaiting us at Newman's University Church.

Long before we embarked, I had made many comments to my friends in the States, emphasising that it was necessary to "meet them where they were."  It was, and is, a statement to stand by.  And it also carries with it a whole host of challenges.

This is where the musician is likewise on the road to Emmaus, meeting them where they are.  Jesus had that storied encounter with the two people who'd decided they'd had enough of Jerusalem.  And he met them where they were – not demanding a discussion in his own language or a route on his own terms.  He walked with them, in their midst, entered their pain, explained things, broke bread with them.  No doubt it was an act of both patience and pedagogy –  the first real catechetical session, perhaps, after the Resurrection.

I've not had to think about retooling myself in a long, long time.  Essentially, "meeting them where they are" means just that – retooling.  At Notre Dame, I was free to experiment, always having the secure ground of the Folk Choir and a willing assembly.  But there's a new road – a new landscape.

For one thing, University Church is in Dublin's city centre.  Our "core assembly" consists of a lot of folks who are very faithful to daily mass – but they make this mass part of their lunch break.  So we have to be very careful to honour that period of their day – mass seldom goes beyond about 25 minutes.

This is the most important ground to walk, that of daily liturgies.  Many of the same Irish faces are there every day.  We get to know them, pray with them, walk with them through the seasons of the Church.

Even in that short amount of a lunch break, there have been touching moments.  The other day, as I was turning to exchange the Sign of Peace, a woman stretched out her hand and said "God bless you and all you're undertaking here."  It was a quiet but powerful moment.

And even given the time restrictions, there are a few musical moments.  Each day I play a quiet piece on the guitar while the assembly receives communion.  It adds no time to the liturgy.  But those who come are beginning to come forward and be grateful for the bit of music that's there.

From here, we build.  We meet them in their landscape and walk with them.  As Patrick once dreamt, we are here to walk among the people.

It's taken a few weeks to get settled, let the paint dry, connect up the wifi (still working on that), take over the choir (still working on that, too).  But life in Dublin is grand, and there's a host of things to write about.

More to come.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Go Irish: From Home at ND to Home in Dublin

At long last, the surreal waiting has come to an end.  Tuesday afternoon, Michele and I boarded Aer Lingus Flight #122 from ORD to DUB, along with five insanely packed suitcases and a Martin guitar.

And we lifted off for Ireland.

These past few months have been such a roller coaster: convinced of a new direction, understanding in your heart what's meant to take place.  And yet the mind still hasn't quite caught up with all the realities yet.

We bid good-bye to Notre Dame over a beautiful fall weekend, surrounded by friends.  Reality set in when we watched the Irish crumble to Duke, but this was a small pittance by way of what we carried in our emotional backpacks. We attended the 11:45 Mass, heard the Folk Choir singing one last time from the pews, and broke bread with supportive friends.

Now, at 550mph, we were being transported to a new culture, a new home, new pastoral realities, new music.

We had incredible tail winds, which put us into Dublin an hour earlier than our expected 5:15AM arrival. Deep in the night, the jet banked over Dublin harbour, bringing the lights of the city into view.  Down, down, into the dark – and then we landed.

Home.  A new home.

At 6:45AM, true to his word and in the emerging dawn, Pat O'Kelly met us in front of our new home, the "mews" of University Church. He gave us the keys, brought us into the kitchen, showed us the basket of provisions he'd brought in for us. ("It would be a sin if you came to us and found an empty fridge," said he.)

Up all night, the new home still filled with contractors and construction folk, Michele and I took to the streets of Dublin to purchase things for our new digs.  We walked through St. Stephen's Green, the stunning city park that is now our front yard.  We discovered new stores, bought plates and cutlery, and got back in time for the 1:05 daily mass at University Church.

There is a large black wooden gate that faces St. Stephen's Green, and when doors are opened up, it brings you to our courtyard.  That gate has a small silver plaque on it that says:


To my knowledge, we're the first lay people to ever live in this Presbytery.  For that matter, I wonder if we're the first lay people to ever live in a Catholic Presbytery in Ireland.

Those tail winds that brought us to Ireland are the winds of change.  Some things are now beginning to change for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Here is a picture that I took this morning of the nave of Newman's University Church, 87 Saint Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Having left our home at Notre Dame, my place of work for the last 35 years, this is now my new home, my new place of prayer, and my new vineyard.  This week I'll be meeting with parish musicians, choristers, and sacristans.  The labours will soon begin.

"Go Irish!"  The phrase means something else to me now – something far more serious than a rallying cry at a football game.  This is no game.