Erin McBride was home for the weekend from the University College of Dublin where she was studying to become an architect. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother raised seven children on her own in a white-washed plaster house by the sea. Money and food were not taken for granted and Erin was taught to be thankful for everything, but today she was too upset for devotion or grace.
Erin’s mother was so concerned for Erin’s spiritual well being that she set up an appointment with Father Michael who was the parish priest for County Kinkerry. Michael was her mother’s brother and Erin refused to call him “Father”, calling him “Uncle” instead, but that would never do as far as her mother was concerned.
“He’s a priest for God’s sake!” her mother scolded. “You’re supposed to call him Father. Sometimes Erin, you just leave your common sense behind.”
Erin somehow managed to avoid making direct references to Michael but her siblings had no problem saying, “Hello Father,” “Good day Father,” “Bless you Father,” “Could you pass the salt Father?” No one seemed to have a problem with it besides her.
Erin managed to skip mass in Dublin but it wasn’t so easy when she came home for a weekend, and this time her mother was one step ahead and asked Father Michael to perform an intervention of sorts, to promptly put an end to Erin’s simmering resentment of all things related to God.
Erin knew how to stand up for herself but she did not have the strength to step out from under her mother’s constant elbowing this weekend. There was already too much mess. So off she went on Saturday morning huddled against the Autumn wind, trying to avoid the sloppy puddles of mud on the road.
“Mark my words,” she said to herself. “There’s no way I’m changing my mind!”
She approached the cathedral with reverence but not with reverence for the deity within, but rather in awe of its architecture. There were many great cathedrals in Ireland but this one here in her home town seemed especially breath-taking, perhaps because she knew it in intimate detail. She and her siblings had plenty of time to explore the cathedral while their mother dusted and cleaned every nook and cranny, twice a week, and sometimes more if there was a funeral or a wedding. Her mother took pride in everything she did and didn’t want to give an opening for complaints, and while the older children helped dust and polish, the younger ones rescued damsels in distress, and mimed epic acts of contrition in the confession booths.
Erin became so familiar with the details of the cathedral that she knew exactly which chairs and tables had nicks in the wood, sometimes etched intentionally by her more mischievous siblings who carved their initials in remembrance of themselves. She knew which floor boards were dried and coming apart and which ones to avoid when tip toeing through places that may not welcome children.
Over the years Erin came to know every builder’s stone and every piece of wood and iron in the cathedral. She knew their textures and which stairs had cracks in them because she and her siblings crawled up and down on them on their bare hands and knees while playing hide and seek. She knew their subtle variations in colour and saw faces and animal outlines in the marbled streaks and speckles within the granite. She tried not to look at or step on some of the tiles because the images were too scary, while others were her favourites, especially the one of the great white horse with the long flowing mane who looked like his eyes were on fire.
On special days when it was silent due to her siblings playing outside, she would lay on the limestone floor with her face against the coolness and hold herself at attention, being careful not to breathe so that she might hear the faintest sounds escaping from the stones. She heard far away music and chimes blowing in the wind and a deeper drumming sound like a slow deliberate heartbeat. She wondered if it had been trapped inside and gradually seeped out, or if it was just the echoes from the walls and vaulted ceilings of the cathedral. She also wondered if anyone else knew about it for she dare not speak of such things if it was not common knowledge.
As a child she came to know the architecture of the building by kids’ names. The semicircular vault at the far end of the building, the apse, she called her “favourite hiding place”. The open transition to the sanctuary, the transept, she called the “dancing place” where she twirled with her hands in the air, gliding across the smooth Irish Blue limestone floor. The cathedral lobby, the narthex, she called the “walk slowly place” because it was there that her mother, with seven children in tow, running like mad from home so as not to be late for mass, firmly told the children to “walk slowly”, as if they had casually meandered from home with all the time in the world to spare.
On bright days the sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and created mosaics of glorious colours on the mottled floors. Sometimes she stood in the light from the windows and held her hands out, flipping them back and forth to see if the colours looked better on her palms or on the backs. Sometimes she felt as if she could hear angels sing in the soft winds that whistled through the tiny seams in the window encasements that were long overdue for repairs. Once she even thought she heard one of the angels speak to her directly but the idea of it scared her so much that she ran to the safety of her mother’s side.
Today however amidst the gloom and confusion, Erin found it hard to appreciate the muse of her childhood. With a heavy sigh she opened the tall, dark wooden door and stepped inside. It was almost eerie as Erin ambled through the “walk slowly place” and watched the surreal scene unfold, as parish volunteers with nimble hands arranged flowers around the altar and an ever so tiny casket. Surely her mother must be stark raving mad to send her here at this time, and surely she must be equally unhinged to agree to come.
Father Michael stood near the front of the cathedral dressed in a black robe that cast a dark silhouette in front of the ascending rows of burning candles. He saw her come in with his already burdened eyes. Funerals and weddings were the usual mix of irony that enveloped his life. Some priests were good at funerals. They even considered it a privilege to be the one to usher the transitioning spirits from an earthly reality to a heavenly one. But Father Michael was not one of those priests. Funerals made him angry. Especially funerals for children who were dearly loved in the here and now. Especially a funeral for one of his own.
Father Michael was not good at hiding his feelings and today of all days, the last thing he wanted to do was to explain to his niece in some convincing way, why she had to embrace God with one hand and say goodbye to her young niece with the other.
Erin approached Father Michael and tried to say something but no words came out. She opened her mouth and tried again but not one single syllable made its way forward. She tried yet again to speak but she was ultimately left silent. Her own ears could not stand to hear what she had to say. Her own heart could not endure the reality of the terrible hints and visual clues that were all around her, the horrible truth that a beautiful young life had been cut short.
Father Michael, the professional that he was, came to the rescue and said, “Erin, I’m glad you came.”
It wasn’t that Erin disliked Michael, she just didn’t have much place for him in her life. Her mother tried to make Michael the ‘stand in’ for the children’s father who had “left and never looked back” as her mother liked to say, but Erin found it difficult to warm up to anyone who was “married to God”. She had heard many people say that he was a great priest. He practically fed and clothed dozens of families at considerable cost to himself, and when he was young he gave up a chance to compete in the Olympics in order to train for the priesthood. Michael was a good man, a strong man, but definitely not a man who had time to talk to Erin today.
“I am glad to see you too”, Erin lied. She paused and fidgeted and said, “Mom said, …”
“I know what your mother said”, interrupted Michael. “She cares about you. With all that’s happened she wants you to consider your own soul.” He looked directly in her eyes. It was the stare of a man who had no time to be subtle and no time to waste. “Erin,” he spoke sharply, “God loves you and has plans for your life.”
With that said Father Michael lingered for a moment but knew there would be no reply. A Mona Lisa smile caught on the corner of his mouth as he turned and walked away. Erin found it hard to tell if he was writing her off as a lost cause or if he really believed that she would eventually come to know God the way he did. Either way, she was off the hook from a long and painful conversation.
It wasn’t Michael that she had a problem with anyway, it was God. Why did God create people and then leave them on their own? Where was the creator of the universe today when her family had to endure a wake? Where was God any day for that matter? Didn’t God care about her niece? Didn’t God watch the news? She wanted to ask Michael those questions but oddly she felt ignored.
“What irony,” she thought. She dragged herself down to the cathedral, dreading the meeting with her uncle and would have done almost anything to get out of it, and now somehow she felt as if Michael had brushed her off.
“God has plans for me, indeed,” she said mockingly. “Where’s the evidence of it Michael?” she retorted under her breath as she watched the back of his black robe disappear behind a pillar.
Erin turned and walked past the confessional booths and ran her fingers over the familiar wooden carvings of lilies and lion’s heads. She and her siblings used to sneak into the booths when they were young and have a fabulous time taking turns, one pretending to be Father Michael and the other a distraught and profusely repentant parishioner, a feat for which many of them have since asked for forgiveness from the real Father Michael in the very same booths, and with the very same vigour. She slipped quietly past the holy water and turned a corner to climb the stairs to the bell tower.
Erin ascended the winding stone steps and counted each one as she always had. At the top, a brisk wind brushed her face as she leaned against the half wall and looked out over the town and the meadow beyond. The panorama view spread from the meadows with sheep and Irish ponies, to the coast where the heaving ocean cast waves upon sandy beaches and rocky cliffs. In the distance she saw the remnants of the old quarry from which the town had been built hundreds of years ago, and just beneath her feet was the graveyard, with a dismal empty hole where they would bury the little one.
She thought about her conversation with Michael and how it had been about as useful as any conversation she had with God. At least both she and Michael could soothe her mother’s nerves and say that they had a very nice chat, and that Michael had given her lots to think about. She would say it with emphasis and imply that she needn’t be asked any more questions because she needed a lot of time to consider the weight of it all. Her mother had always thought that Father Michael was brilliant, whereas Erin thought that Michael and God were both somewhat removed from reality.