The other day I went to Mass for the first time in years. Standing in the room I noticed the familiar signs; the stages of the cross, the dim lighting, the – almost brutalist – architecture of a stone chapel and the dim flicker of the candles lit in prayer. I suppose you could say that I’m somewhat of a lapsed Catholic, I was baptised, communed and confirmed in the faith but whether it was an individual choice or simply one of routine and ritual is another question.
On the day of my Conformation, for example, I took a sponsor. I was 13 and I approached the altar and was asked by the Priest, as I was now coming of age, whether I was prepared to keep up my promise to my Faith. My parents had been doing that for me, in essence, since I was baptised and at conformation I was expected too adopt the task from them, continuing to grow and have faith in line with my religious beliefs. It wasn’t a legally binding contract, granted, but for some it was absolutely just as important and certainly unbreakable.
As the years continued I began to become disillusioned with Mass, rather than religion in particular, as the act of going to Church (and possibly saying my prayers before bedtime) was about all that my membership to the religion seemed to require in my life. So when I’d get up on a Sunday morning and need to organise my day around attending a specifically timed mass at my local church, it tended to react violently with me given I naturally associated it with something else I was required to do – something I had no choice in doing.
My Dad once told me that he had left the church as a believer for a few years, and then rejoined in later life, deciding that once he’d been away it was easier to come back of his own free will – instead of feeling he was forced to be there by his parents or routine every week. I’d tried this, and it never really gelled in the way I felt it would, and on reflection I think that my father recaptured his faith because of his subsequent relationship with and marriage to my Mum. I believe it to be her faith and his love for her that brought him back to that cycle; and he continues to do so today.
When I spent time in the home of ex-fiancee, she and her family attended mass on a weekly basis, always at the same time in the same church on a Saturday night.
The church was in a tiny rural village in Southern Ireland, just across the border from the family home in Northern Ireland. I always found it strange that they seemed to me more religious in this community than we were in Dublin. But of course, on reflection, I realise for them it was much more than simple religious adoration. Their very lives affected by the politics of Northern Ireland, their identities were shaped and labelled by their religion. And since the abolishment of the border, it made sense for them to be making this gesture by attending mass in such numbers – an affirmation of their culture and themselves rather than necessarily their beliefs.
And here I am, standing in a cold, badly lit room thinking about all this. Because there’s no trappings of modern life, there’s no tablets or mobile phones, and even talking is discouraged. If anything the silence is deafening as you wait for something to happen. The whole nature, and acoustics, of being in a church means it gives you are thinking about things because nothing is distracting you. Kind of like going to the cinema, switching off your mobile phone and immersing in cinema. You’re purposefully turning off the outside world.
There’s so much stimulation in life these days. So much opportunity to engage, to label, to interact and to speak. You’re often stimulated to the point that if you’re not a voice, if you’re not expressing yourself in some outlandish way, then you’re nothing. Look at relationships; man meets woman, man meets man, woman meets woman; but we’re constantly told that we don’t have to settle for anything – there is so much choice and possibility that it’s becoming harder to commit to a longer term relationship. Finding someone truly special, someone you can really commit too, can make you very lucky indeed.
I often feel that in 30 years time, this simply won’t exist.
As I glance across at the darting candles, the flicker of the flame, they greet me unlike anything else. I mean we light candles in our own living rooms on a daily basis, but the candles in church, they’re something else, right? You truly believe that each flame represents a prayer; a wish, a hope, a desire or even a life. You feel something when the candles are expunged.
In 2018 I got the chance to visit Lourdes in France for the first time. Asides from the heat, the other overwhelming factor was the nature of the event. Everywhere we go we’re being told that religion and faith (ecumenical or otherwise) is being taken from our lives. But here I saw people of all ages, of multiple nationalities and personalities and all engaged in devotion. I saw the candles and the water and the blessings and it was – simply – divine. A chance to step away from the trappings of the world, to stop and look around.
The organ sounds – my concentration is broke – and several people delight in singing out of key. The priest emerges, his vestments overflow and a golden staff overwhelming; you’d think this was a particularly special event, but it’s just a quiet Tuesday morning mass…there’s no more than 20 people in this room. He walks to the front of the altar, gives his own thanks and praise, and welcomes us to the ritual.
The familiar has returned.