It is just a little custom, something that I got into the habit of doing after my first trip to Ireland. If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you know that a hazard of the trip will be a pocketful of odd coins, completely useless upon your return home.
Here is my custom: For years, I would manage to keep one of those coins in my pocket, and every May before the Folk Choir made an overseas musical tour, I would go down to the Grotto, take that coin that I’d been hanging onto, and say a prayer to Mary. I figured it was most appropriate to pray to the Mother of God before a pilgrimage; to the woman who knew exile and pilgrimage so well. As a mother, she more than any would keep her daughters and sons safe on the road.
For several excursions I kept this habit of dropping a single Irish coin into the slot at the Grotto and lighting my candle, whispering a prayer for safe passage at the same time. But as so often happens, life came along and interrupted this little ritual, for after the third trip to Ireland with the choir, my father passed away.
I remember my last moments with the earthly temple which I had known to be my Dad. After all the grieving and crying by the family, in that precarious moment when the coffin was shut, I asked the funeral director for a last few moments alone with him (I am the eldest son and figured it was my due, after all the experiments that came my way because of this dubious honor). I asked that the casket be opened one last time. I prayed to Mary, and to God, that Dad would have safe pilgrimage to a place in their presence. And then, for some reason known only to my Maker, I reached into my pocket. My hand came across something that I had been saving: a single Irish coin. I took it out, and placed it in the pocket of Dad’s suit coat. “For your journey,” I said. Then I closed the coffin.
It so happened that I had the opportunity to be in Dublin for the Football Game Across the Pond, more than a decade ago. And as fate would have it, I was there for the Feast of All Hallows. There, on a cold and blustery autumn night as little goblins scampered around the neighborhood of Raheny pleading for nuts and fruit and an occasional Cadbury bar, I sat for my evening meal with old friends. Anne Marie had made cuilkullin, a traditional meal for Halloween made from potatoes (what else?), kale and onions. I could hear the wind howling outside. I thought of my own children celebrating Halloween across the Atlantic.
But here is the thing that brought the night to life for me. As I was sitting down to my meal, I happened to glance down at the plate, and there, slightly hidden by the vegetable-laden dish, was a bright new Irish coin – a twopence. When I asked my hostess whence came this little monetary offering, she offered me a mysterious smile and said, “You know, on the Feast of All Hallows the Irish have been known to keep their doors unlocked, that the souls of our ancestors may come in and sit and warm themselves by the fire and gather strength for the rest of their journey.”
Of course, you may think, it was my gracious hostess that put the coin in my supper. But whom, may I ask, put the thought in her head? Or linked these two symbols so preciously together in my life? You may see the story as you wish. I, for my part, see the hand of God at work.
Here we are on the doorstep of November, the month wherein we keep holy the memory of our ancestors, those who have gone before us marked with a sign of faith. I can tell you this: the marks of our ancestors are vivid and real. I see those that go before me, woven in little symbolic ways, threaded through my life in a tapestry that surrounds me and supports me and keeps me warm. When I doubt my father’s safety, when I wonder where are the souls of those whom I love but now cannot touch, it is somewhat easier to remember them when I think of how my father, and my Father, visited me through the gift of a simple coin.