TAKE NOTHING FOR THE JOURNEY

I am drawn back once again to this place of unutterable emptiness, the choir. Unlike the mediaeval Dominican churches of Sligo and Burrishoole, this one has lost its high altar, though the sanctuary area is quite clearly defined. I am sitting opposite the sacristy door, and it is easy to imagine one of the mornings without number when priests came in procession through it to celebrate Mass.
Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus:
Let us bless the Lord for the Lord is good,
Whose mercy endures for ever.

 

Approaching the altar the priest bows deeply and prays: Aufer a nobis, Domine: take away our sins, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter with pure minds into the Holy of Holies, through Christ our Lord. The Holy of Holies is laid open by the death of Christ; through the Mass his death is re-enacted in all times and places. "Mythic time" can now come to earth as "sacramental time". This kind is different from chronological time; it loops in and out of eternity. The Greeks saw Chronos as a monster that devoured its offspring; but sacramental time sustains us with the body and blood of Christ.

Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem.... The Creed is like architecture; it is the architecture of the faith. It is like entering a cathedral and looking around at the great spaces. It is the story of what has been and what will be. Et incarnatus est. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The eternal God has entered the world of time. God has entered our time and not swallowed it up. Nietzsche refused to imagine this possible. "God is a thought that makes all that is straight crooked and all that stands giddy. What? Would time be gone and all that is transitory only a lie?" Yet there it is: the firm faith of the ages. Sub Pontio Pilato passus.... He did not suffer in some kind of cyclical time, like a Hindu god, but on a precise and publicly verifiable date in history, "when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea." Sacramental time is the same kind of mystery as the incarnation itself: the presence of the eternal in our time. Time is not swallowed up, for all that Nietzsche can say, just as the human nature of Jesus was not swallowed up by his divinity. He rose on the third day... and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. "I will see you before the Tribunal of God." The story is not exhausted in human lifetimes; I look for the resurrection of the dead, et vitam venturi saeculi, the life of the world to come. Amen! the choir responds. Amen! sing all the generations of brethren who offered Mass at this altar. Their Amen lives forever in the heart of Christ. Despite the disbelief of Nietzsche, Amen! Despite the cruelty of Cromwell, Amen! Despite the ravages of time, Amen! Amen! Amen!

Memento Domine, omnium circumstantium. Remember, Lord, all those who are standing about. Someone you love, said Eckhart, though he or she may be thousands of miles away, is closer than someone beside you whom you do not love. The choir is empty, yet it is swarming with invisible presences. At the foot of the altar kneel the two who died by the sword on that spot: Gerald, a young student and David a lay-brother.  Present also is Henry Burgatt, who according to the story was once given the gift of invisibility even in this life: when priest-hunters were searching for him they could not see him though he was praying in the room and was plainly visible to all the Catholics present.  There are others here too: two priests who are not only invisible but anonymous, and who did not escape the priest-hunters; and countless others of different periods. They are all here present; they are my contemporaries in sacramental time.
Cromwell's fellow-Puritans wielded another sword, the sword of derision. Their 'Jack-in-the-Box' was a mockery of the Real Presence in the tabernacle; the box had "hocus pocus" painted on the lid, a corruption of the words of consecration, hoc est corpus.... Yet in spite of all that can ever be said or done, "this is my body which is given for you."

I once saw and held in my hand a chalice that was used on this altar by the community that lived here. Every year the Dominicans of Limerick bring it back here to its home and use it at a Mass celebrated in the ruins. The long story of the faith takes up every detail that helps to make its continuity visible.

"This is the chalice of my blood," flowing through all the generations, joining their many stories to the Christian story.

"As often as you do these things, you will do them in memory of me."

Donagh O'Shea OP, Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on time and place
Dominican Publicans, Dublin 1990 (2nd edition 2013)

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