Today marked the Missioning Mass with the ACE Advocates community in Dublin. Clarisa, Patrick, and I traveled up with Fr. John-Paul, a good friend to Teach Bhríde, and provided the music for last night’s liturgy, as has become the monthly custom.
At last month’s Mass, I was called upon to deliver a post-Communion reflection, and I offer that now as my posting for this week. It’s the first step of many in the journey of saying good-bye to Ireland and the many friends I have made, and I hope it serves as a glimpse into the extraordinary two years I have spent here.
ACE Mass Reflection, Friday, April 8, 2011
A few weeks ago, Elaine wrote to me and asked if I would be willing to share this month’s post-Communion reflection. To be honest, I nearly declined her generous offer, because I’m much more comfortable behind a keyboard instrument than I am speaking from an ambo. I’m not going to share my thoughts on today’s Scripture passages; the music we’ve sung together during this Mass has already conveyed those thoughts more eloquently than I ever could. Instead, Elaine suggested that I might offer a few thoughts on my experience of living in Ireland and working in parish ministry for nearly the past two years, and since the season of Lent is itself a journey, I thought it appropriate to reflect on my journey of these past two-ish years, and on the journey that preceded it.
I think I’d have to start out by confessing that the thought most frequently running through my mind over the past 18 months has been, “How on earth did I wind up here?” Many of you know that I grew up in Kansas, and as cliché as it may sound, I know exactly how Dorothy felt when she opened the door of her ruined farmhouse and looked out at the land of Oz in all of its Technicolor glory for the first time. I’m sure she was thinking exactly what I’ve thought so many times since I moved to Ireland: How on earth did I wind up here?
When people from back home ask me what I’ve been doing since I left Kansas, I usually just say that I’ve been “Meandering, with direction.” I’ve been a musician my entire life, but I never had a clear sense of what it meant for my life. I’ve been a Catholic my entire life, and I’ve always loved my faith, but I never had a clear sense of what that meant for my life either. The only thing I knew with any real clarity was the fact that I really liked college, and that I was good at playing the academia game. So, every time I neared another graduation, I would ask the inevitable “Well, what do I do now?”, and somehow, the next step always presented itself, usually in the form of graduate school—another piece in the puzzle of my life that I was assembling without the box to tell me what the picture was even supposed to look like. I learned a lot of interesting things, studied and worked with a lot of great people, and kept meandering toward the vague notion that I would eventually have to be done with school and do something with my life. It wasn’t until I had wound my way to Notre Dame that the picture in the puzzle finally started to take shape, and it wasn’t until I visited Ireland for the first time in 2008 that it snapped into clear focus.
Which leads me to my second confession: in all of my Meandering with Direction, living abroad never once entered the picture. But suddenly there I was, traveling Scotland and Ireland, looking ahead to another year back at Notre Dame where my job would be to develop national outreach programming to further the mission and ethos of the Notre Dame Folk Choir at parishes around the United States—a delightfully vague job description that left a lot of room to wander and explore, until a fateful conversation in Scotland with Steve Warner, the director of the Folk Choir. In thinking about my work for the coming year, and in seeing the joy the presence of the Folk Choir brought to the parishes it visited throughout Scotland, I had begun wondering… so one random afternoon I said to Steve something incredibly eloquent like, “So, you know how I’m supposed to create national programming for outreach next year?” “Yeah.” “Well…what’s to prevent us from creating some sort of…international program for people who want to serve the Church in Ireland?”
I hadn’t even been to Ireland yet! But from the moment I asked that tiny “what if,” I found myself at the center of a twister that eventually carried me across the Atlantic Ocean and landed me in a beautiful house, in a beautiful parish, in beautiful Wexford, Ireland.
A third confession: it’s one thing to assemble theories about how best to serve the Irish Catholic Church while sitting at a café on the Notre Dame campus. It is quite another thing altogether to try to put those theories into practice on the ground in a new country, a new town, a new parish, and most especially, a new culture. When Chris, Martha, and I arrived in Wexford in August 2009, we had a few vague ideas of what we wanted to try in our parish, but the two of them learned very quickly what I had been learning ever since I left home: we weren’t in Kansas anymore. And we weren’t at Notre Dame anymore, either. We were in a place where people often meandered through their day, conversing with one another over copious amounts of tea, frequently using foreign phrases like, “Ah, sure we’ll sort it out.” Soon after our formal commissioning in the parish, people would stop us in the town and tell us how glad they were to have us there, how great a job we were doing.
We felt like we hadn’t even done anything yet!
Our parish supervisors had insisted at the beginning of the year that our greatest ministry was going to be simply a ministry of presence, and of witness, that simply by being ourselves, we were going to draw people in and encourage them to think more about their relationship with God. I think all three of us dismissed this initially, thinking that we were going to establish all of these great new programs and have them up and running within just a few short weeks, a month or two, tops. We learned quickly that it was much more important to discern where our parishioners were personally and spiritually, and that we were really being called to walk with them on their journey of faith.
A chance encounter with a man from Clonard really brought this home for us: it was very late on a November Friday night (or maybe it was very early on a November Saturday morning). Chris, Martha, and I were walking home from an establishment downtown we’d been known to frequent for trad music, craic, and yes, the occasional Guinness, when a man walking his dog on the opposite side of the street called to us: “Hiya! Are yous the Americans?” He had clearly been spending some time at a pub that evening as well, so we had no idea what to expect as he crossed the street to talk to us, but we were shocked when he said (and you have to read this with a thick Wexford accent), “Ye know, I see yous in de parish on a Sunday, and yous are brilliant. I mean, I don’t go to church every week, and we may not sing at de Mass, but we see yous dere every single Sunday, and just de way ye carry yerselves, ye make us all want to be better. So keep up de good work!”
Not one of us had ever seen that man before, and I’m not sure I’ve seen him since; I’ve certainly never talked with him again. But I’ve thought about that encounter many times, and it just reminds me that all of the liturgy planning and all of the choir rehearsals and all of the retreats and all of the primary school programs are well and good, but in this place, and especially in this ministry in this place, it’s about the relationships a person builds with other people. It’s about the journey. It’s about meandering with direction and embracing the chance encounters along the way, because those chance encounters can completely change the course of your direction.
As I look back on the journey that brought me to this amazing country, I realize that what appeared at the time to be scattered steps in my Meandering with Direction were actually stepping stones on a path carefully chosen for me by God, lined with people and experiences, and every single one of those stepping stones, every single person, and every single experience played some part in the creation of Teach Bhríde. I may never know how on earth I wound up here, but I do know that I will be grateful every single day for the rest of my life that this experience, and the people I have met because of it, were all part of God’s plan for me.
As my time in Ireland draws to a close, I know I’ll spend a great deal of time throughout the rest of my life looking back at the work that has been done, first with Chris and Martha, and this year with Jessica, Clarisa, and Patrick. I’ll remember the events that we planned, the workshops we hosted, and the small liturgical and musical changes we helped bring about in the parish working alongside our pastoral team. But as the years pass, I know the memories of the work itself will fade, and what will remain are the relationships that have blessed and defined my experience in Ireland since the moment I stepped off the airplane. I will miss this country tremendously, and I know that I have another long journey ahead in re-adjusting to the sometimes-frenetic pace of life on the other side of the pond, but I will carry the things I have learned with me wherever I meander from now on. I’ll fill my suitcase heart with the names and faces of the people who have taught me so much more than I could ever have hoped to teach them. So to the unforgettable cast of characters who taught me how to slow down, how to listen, how to sing, how to tell stories, how to take holidays, how to drink tea, how to drink everything else, how to be flexible, how to adapt, how to take risks, how to grieve, how to celebrate, and how to pray well with others: go raibh maith agat, from the bottom of my heart.