The Day I Went Back to Church

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There are an estimated 3.7 million church buildings in the world. I am willing to walk into one of them. And only on one day of the year.

The church is the Dublin Unitarian Church. It’s Good Friday. The streets of Dublin are empty as people file into the great cathedrals of Ireland to commemorate the crucifixion. The people shuffling through St. Stephen’s Green towards the massive greystone building could have come from any other corner of Ireland on this day. We’re all bent against the cold wind of another Irish spring, our shawls and scarves and woolen coats flapping as hard as the banners around us. But we’re not here for Scripture readings or sacred oil. We haven’t come for chants or prayers or homilies read in loud booming voices as choirs raise hymns in the lofts. We’ve come for a reason much more solemn, much more raw. We’re here for the reading of the dead.

The congregation is a small collection compared to those who are crowded into St. Patrick’s or St. Mary’s elsewhere. We’re dwarfed by the old stone columns and soaring stained glass, a dripping wet, motley collection of world-worn people who greet each other with soft words and warm smiles. Strangers remain so for a minute or less until they’re brought into the circle. A few of us sit alone, near the back by the door. Most of us cluster forward into the warm.

Here, there is no Catholic or Protestant, atheist or pagan. No one cares that I’m an ex-Catholic, now godless. Such divisions are petty at the best of times, and on this afternoon they’re absolute sacrilege.

There is a ceremony of sorts. A god is invoked, a song is sung. We huddle together in the pews. Strangers hold hands. Protestants rest their heads on the shoulders of Catholics, the tears beginning to brim even before the reading starts.

Someone – a priest, a lay person, it doesn’t matter – stands and begins the list.

“Anthony Abbott, of Manchester.” Shot dead by the IRA in Ardoyne.

“Paul Witters, of Derry.” Killed by the RUC at the age of 15.

“Kathleen Irving, of Belfast.” No one knows who set off the bomb that killed her, but bombs murder all the same regardless of religious affiliation.

The Tricolour flutters in the breeze as the names continue. First one person will speak, then another. Some say only one name, others several.

“John O’Reilly, of Drogheda. Gary McCartan, of Belfast. Bertha Armstrong, of Enniskillen.”

There’s a woman a few pews down from me, holding a framed picture in her hands. The young boy has a haircut not seen since the late seventies but the tears pouring down her cheeks come from a wound that could have been dug out yesterday.

“Fran O’Toole, of Bray.” Shot by the UVF 22 times with a machine gun. Murdered alongside the rest of the Miami Showband for no other crime than playing music..

“Sylvia McCullough of Gillford.” She was sitting in the wrong bar at the wrong time.

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I don’t say any names. I keep my head bowed and let it wash over me, a silent vigil to the still forms I saw in Omagh.

It’s a different sort of prayer. No pomp, no ritual, just the primal rage and grief born out of forty years of religious warfare. While the churches of Ireland fill the coffers of the cardinals and talk about sacrifice and redemption and original sin and atonement, we remember our dead.

And we are the only ones, on this rainy Good Friday.

It’s either one long prayer or thousands of short ones, but they go on for three hours. 3,500 names. Infants and old people, men, women, children, policeman, militants, constables, civilians, all caught up in the games that our parents and grandparents played over crosses on the walls and lines drawn in the sand. The wind grows a bit stronger. Maybe someone left a window open. Or maybe the ghosts can hear us.

“William and Letitia Younger, of Ligoniel.” A man and daughter, stabbed in their home.

And with the intonation of the Youngers, the names finally cease.

We clasp hands, wipe away the final tears. Those who came alone stream out, or sit for a while longer, staring up at the glassy angels. There are invitations to dinner and promises of catching up over pints. The church empties, until next week, next year. The candles go out.

The list of the dead has not grown longer in fourteen years. The sound of reconciliation is the echo of names not spoken.

Happy (belated) St. Patrick’s Day.

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This post was originally conceived as a response to “Your Church Stories,” by Rachel Held Evans.

 

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One thought on “The Day I Went Back to Church

  1. Was following the links and related posts, reading stuff on your blog, and came across this. Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s incredibly moving and gets across the tragedy of these real-world conflicts so effectively.

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