Advent Memories of Ireland on Retreat

I once experienced Ireland as being warmed by peat fires, laughter, and locals who rose from benches to sing old emigration songs. But now I saw it covered in what seemed a blanketed indifference and cold-heartedness.

My uncle, a Catholic priest, and I stood by an Irish strand in the shoe-box-sized village of Castlegregory on a July evening in 1992. We were watching my cousin Brendan play pick-up soccer with a dozen or so teens beneath an incensed Irish sky of salt, seaweed, and burnt sod.

It was the first night of a two-week vacation, where my uncle of fond memory would take us deep into the countryside and cottages of farming families who loved him. These were the days of unannounced visits, where after we’d pulled into a farm and my priest-uncle showed his face, women rushed into small kitchens to arrange for a tea and men were called in from the fields. We’d spend the next several hours in dens, parlors, and back porches overlooking wavy acres of farmland listening to tales of farm life and diaspora. 

This particular summer night is powerful in memory because I was enjoying my first-ever Guinness with my uncle. I was a recent college graduate who for years listened to him tell me stories of how Ireland had managed to own a piece of his heart and how its people helped it beat. We were listening to the happy noise of Irish teens at play when he suddenly spoke a sighing dirge into the space in front of him.

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“Oh Keggy…oh Keggy,” he said, in his tsk-tsking manner. “Ireland’s changed, and I don’t see it coming back.”

He was looking at the T-shirts of the Irish youth, emblazoned with images of Madonna and Prince, the San Francisco 49ers, and the movie Back to the Future. The cultural icons of 1980s America looked perfectly normal to me; I was blissfully unaware he had never seen these displays of cultural devotion on previous trips. At that time in Ireland, divorce and abortion were outlawed. Masses throughout our travels were packed with young families. The dizzying growth of the Celtic Tiger was still a few years away.

When my uncle died in 2000, Europe’s most Catholic country was well into becoming its least.

Over the years, I heard Ireland was a “must-visit” during the Advent and Christmas season. So, my wife and I arranged for a December stay two years ago this week, where we traveled to some of the same western coastal villages I’d visited on my trip thirty years ago. 

Although the faint Christmassy sounds of fiddles wafted through the air and thin strands of white lights draped like elegant streams of stars around window panes, the soul of the villages seemed long ago dead. It was difficult finding a weekday Mass, and when we did it was mostly emptied of folks. I once experienced this heartland as being warmed by peat fires, laughter, and locals who rose from benches to sing old emigration songs. But now I saw it covered in what seemed a blanketed indifference and cold-heartedness. 

Local village pubs were mostly dreary places where barkeepers poured pints in quiet. We entered overnight inns, where proprietors seemed eager to push through check-in formalities and disappear, never to be seen again. Leave the key on the table upon tomorrow’s departure.

We came to see that Ireland’s new god was its government. Covid was long since “a thing,” but the barreling soundtrack of our countryside drives were radio ads urging citizens to keep isolated and play it safe this Christmas season and get boosted. 

The bleakest memory, when darkness seemed to sweep right through me, came after finding a weekday Mass in a small ocean-side village on Ireland’s southernmost ring. We felt a shockwave of joy to see upward of 150 elementary and junior high students filling pews as we stepped in from the cold and windy morning into the ancient stone church. When we took our seats after the Gospel, we saw every child remained standing. There would be no sermon. The uniformed students were following protocol; Father was whisking them to the Mass’s conclusion. 

As I stood for the Prayer of the Faithful, I thought, My God, how could he waste this opportunity? And of course, the thought after Mass—fairly or unfairly—was that here were another 150 more who would soon be leaving the Faith.

The heartbreaking memory came back this past weekend, when on a silent retreat I looked through my small bedroom window at mostly Irish-like dreary days. Footsteps away was a steep cliffside that overlooked a wide expanse of the Potomac River, where sunsets cause tough men to cry. But you could barely see the water through the fog and mist.

I recalled the summer night when my uncle prophesied about Ireland. In ’92, he saw it wanted to be America. Other than a fibrous remnant of Catholics, today’s Ireland is a land of Catholic famine. As Ireland once yearned to be America, what is it that America yearns for? I’m afraid to guess, but I do know a rushed devotion to an ever-morphing new morality has become part of our fabric. The technological demon of AI is moving into unmapped places, and we have no idea where it is going. Other than a fibrous remnant of Catholics, today’s Ireland is a land of Catholic famine. Tweet This

Meanwhile, within an expanding civilizational moral wintertime, the Catholic Church has gone mostly silent on the only answer: living for God alone. The ancient and mystical traditions of the Church, the consequences of grave sin, and the salvific weight of the sacraments seem to have been replaced by the Church’s move to secular-minded synodal themes. The planet’s climate, accompaniment, new forms of blessings, and the like have grabbed the center stage.

On retreat, a gentleman with brain cancer stood up, after being encouraged by a priest. “This man shared with me that he has six months to live,” the priest said. “And he has joy.” The man, though, immediately muttered something under his breath about “maybe having a little longer than six months.” Then he smiled a small reassuring smile, and one hundred or so men exhaled as if we had just broken through the surface of thirty feet of water. 

I’ve been attending this retreat, on the first weekend of Advent, for more than thirty years. A kaleidoscope of retreat masters, solemn Advent themes, and good and bad memories have faded, but I don’t know if I’ll forget this one. The retreat leaders—one a nationally-regarded priest esteemed for his writings, the other beloved for his magnanimity—have, of late, bore the cross of violence. For the retreatants, the priests seemed to have slipped into the skin of the dying man.

In taking the cancerous man’s lead, the priests shared their secret and vulnerable places—breakdowns, collapses, broken hearts, small physical agonies, and their confusion and concern for the state of the Church. They smiled awkwardly as they bore their most humiliating pains, like they were pulling spikes from their fleshiest, most crucified parts, and holding them up for the men to see. 

The younger priest, a former college athlete whose pain causes him to occasionally walk like Frankenstein, collapsed twice this past year while celebrating Mass; the other lumbering priest fell into a sudden coughing fit before giving a talk on the Beatitude on “those who mourn.”

The two crucified priests are dying. But isn’t every single one of us? The priests stood as Ebenezer Scrooge’s cowled last ghost, pointing a bony index finger to a single event: die to your lazy habits or your soul will be damned. Bob Cratchit got the biggest goose in the house because Scrooge saw that his soul was doomed for Hell without an immediate and total conversion of heart.

The priests told us to stop trying to keep up with the world—or even to keep up with understanding the modern machinations in the Church. Pursue one thing, they urged throughout the weekend: become single-hearted for God. Pursual of God alone, they kept telling us, would help us to become holy, where eternal bliss was guaranteed.

James’ haunting words: “the double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8) humiliated each one of us. We knew we were not just double-minded but triple-, quadruple-, quintuple-, and sextuplet-minded (and more than that). We thought of the rectangular demon in our pocket. And we cussed ourselves, or at least I did. 

Difficult as it might be, the priests encouraged that single-mindedness for God could happen if we committed to spending greater time in Adoration and to make attempts to attend more weekday Masses. Rosaries needed to be said every day. They asked us to aim for confession, if possible, twice a month.

And their suggestion for confession stuck. Like the man with brain cancer, I am dying—in the undramatic fashion that we are all in the same boat. Rather than paying too much mind to the Christ-child’s quaint arrival this Advent, I am considering a death I’ve decided to undergo before December 25—or something that might feel like death. I will be making a general confession. The retreat’s tone reminded me of my own coming death and that I must be prepared for it.

In this strange wintertime in history and in the Church, I see how my own sin can cause me to slide into becoming like those Irish teens in ’92, many of whom, I imagine, later cast ballots for gay marriage and abortion. These were the votes that changed the trajectory and identity of a once-devout nation forever. 

For some time now, I’ve been awakening before dawn, lighting a candle, and working to contemplate God and those things I do that cause me to turn from Him. Of late, I’ve been calling to mind my sin—from my very first, when I stole a quarter from the “quarter box” on my mom’s bureau to buy a popsicle from a Good Humor man. I’ve gone on to mentally wade into the swallowing red tide, like the first time a school friend handed me a bad magazine. I have been writing them all down—or as many as I can remember—where I will unload them in a confessional like jagged chunks of coal dropped off by a black-suited Santa. 

I’ve never considered myself to be over pious, neurotic, or scrupulous, but I do feel a strong pull lately to fully feel the weight of what my sin has done to alienate me from God. Until recently, I’ve never considered the need to stare face-to-face at the horror and damage of what my sin has done.

We are dying in a very strange world. As the days grow shorter, and the natural world goes into a dormancy now, a pressing down sensation seems more palpable than ever to me. So much now is going sideways. In the blink of an eye, Catholic Ireland has mostly lost the Faith. It needs cleansing—and awareness of its past devotion of God. Ireland needs a general confession. It needs to feel the weight of its sin and what it’s done to darken its intellect.

It is easy this time of year to imagine the atmosphere of silence of the newborn King in the stable, with shepherds descending hillsides and the Magi traveling beneath starlight to adore Him. It is easy in Advent to imagine quiet Mary receiving Gabriel in the silence of her heart and wordlessly looking into the eyes of the child conceived in her to die. 

As I’ve been inventorying my long-held double-mindedness and the darkness of my sin, it has been rather easy in my Irish imagination to hear Mary quietly weeping. So few, she knows, will keep vigil on Christmas morning with a single-minded heart. Your single-heartedness is all He’s ever wanted, she says, it’s all He’ll ever request.

Still, Mary looks up from her humble station with her own request: “Will you take the humble King to live in you?” she asks, eyes welling with hope, “and let Him affect the remainder of your life, where all will flourish around you because you became the innkeeper who let Him in and wouldn’t allow Him to leave.” 

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tagged as: Advent Church Ireland

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