Last summer I got to go to Iona, where I first learned of St. Columba. This summer I got to go to Derry, where Columba worked before going to Scotland. He always seems to be popping up on me. In fact, I went to Mass at a church built on the spot where Columba’s monastery was. We had a free day that Saturday, and I had been wondering around Derry, looking at churches. I had already seen the Church of Ireland cathedral, St. Columb’s, as well as St. Augustine’s, a small church founded by Columba which now sits within the walled city. But the Catholic churches can’t be in the walled city, so I left through the Bishop’s Gate and followed the map I had Googled earlier in search of St. Coumba's Long Tower Church where I could actually participate, not just tour.
I was immediately in a residential section and felt totally out of place. I followed the map, which took me down a street so narrow and obscure, I wasn’t sure if it was a real road or just an alley; I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this path on my own. Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I briefly thought to myself. The tall walls next to the sidewalk had long metal spikes at the top, and gateposts had IRA tags. But once I turned another corner, I found a beautiful church tucked away in the corner of a not-so-beautiful neighborhood.
It was the Feast of Corpus Christi, and it also was the first day of the novena for St. Columba’s feast day next week. St. Columba is the town’s patron saint, and the church even has its roots in the monastery he ran in Derry, so his feast day was a big deal. His stone is set in a monument just outside the church; it’s the base of a life-size statue of Christ on the cross with the women and St. Columba. Inside, there were statues of St. Patrick and St. Columba and banners in Columba’s honor, including the alter cloth which read in green writing “holy patron of our town.”
I got there very early so that I could sit and look at the detailed alters and stained glass. There were a handful of older people there, which is typical for me, to bring the average age down a few decades. After I set in a pew, I realized the man in front of me was probably schizophrenic; he was having muttered conversations with people not there, including hand gestures and head turning. At one point, he began hitting his hand against the pew in front of him and repeating, “The Lord is my Shepard” over and over. There was pain in his voice, as if he were battling demons and that line was all he had to fight with. I admit, he unnerved me, and I considered moving. But I didn’t, partly because I had recited part of the same psalm moments ago and I found the coincidence compelling. And partly because I always feel safe in a church. And the man should feel safe and welcomed too; next to a hospital, this should be the best place for him.
Closer to Mass, more people showed up. There were multiple lines for Reconciliation, which I’m not used to seeing. Most families lit candles, which I don’t see a lot of either. The mass was, well, normal, because all Catholic churches use the same readings and responses. I was a bit disappointed in no incense; I was hoping the Irish use it more than Americans. The only confusing part was going up to receive the Eucharist. There was no line, nor order. Everyone just got up at once and clustered around the rail as spaces opened up. It was confusing, but it did serve a lot of people quickly. It was organized chaos (Know what’s better than organized chaos? Organized structure).
I loved the odd architecture, the ornate alter, and general beauty of this church. I know many people claim that church is the community and not the building, but a beautiful building can do so much. I look at the poor neighborhood and think of the years of discrimination and suffering the members of this congregation have faced. They deserve a quiet refuge. They deserve a beautiful place. A beautiful church can be an oasis. We give our riches and talents into making a work of art to honor God and give to the community instead of keeping it for ourselves. When I go into an ornate church, I don’t see a rich church; I see our wealth. It belongs to the little old church lady. It belongs to the confused man. It belongs to the unruly child. It belongs to the nervous visitor. I’m part of the Church, so its wealth is mine. Its beauty is mine.
After church, I went back up the path, which didn’t seem so scary now. It started to lightly rain, and I laughed at how stereotypically Irish it all felt: a post-Mass walk to a pub in the rain. It felt familiar and safe, a contrast from how I felt finding the church. But that's how one should leave church: more secure, more confident, happier.