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motorbike in Thailand

2018 Grateful 11

I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

2016 Grateful 25

I can’t explain my faith. I have no particular need to. I know it works for me and that’s what matters. I’m not much for organised religion even though I go to mass most Sundays and have daily conversations with my God. While there’s a lot about the Roman Catholic Church that I don’t like, it’s the faith I was born into and it’s too much trouble to change. Anyway, religions are man-made institutions, riddled with their associated foibles and prejudices. If there’s a perfect one out there, I’d be surprised. But at their core is the simple ethos: be kind, be true, be honest, be faithful. Not all that difficult really and yet the faithful manage to screw it up on a regular basis. I remember a quotation by Kofi Annan that I read on the walls of a church in Malta:

The problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other.

It’s no wonder that the world wonders where God has gone.

That said, from the outside looking in, Catholicism has to seem a little mad. Our churches are full of gilded statues while our people in many parts of the world are starving. Churches in Liverpool and Birmingham we built on the back of tithes from Irish workers whose kids went without food so that the priest could have shoes and the people could have a place to workship. In America, too. Catholic immigrants built the great churches and tithed and lived in fear of the almighty.

IMG_6050 (800x600)A stranger walking in to a Catholic church might wonder what the chap on the cross is doing. They might also have a hard time understanding the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation or buying into either. And as for confession… that for many looking in that seems like a free pass to do what you will when you want.

For me, though, the most wondrous part of all that is Catholic are the Marian Apparitions.  They’re spread around the world – four in France, one in Ireland, two in Belgium – seventeen in all said to be approved by the Holy See (this varies mind you… man-made institution with man-made reporting and all that). The first was Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531. The most recent was in   Kibeho, Rwanda in 1981.

Fátima has been on my list of places to visit for years. The multiple apparitions here puts it high on the Roman Catholic Pilgrimage Trail.  In 1916, three children – Lucia Dos Santos aged 9, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 8 and 6 – saw an angel who appeared to them three times, paving the way for Our Lady. The stories of Fátima sound fantastical but the miracles accredited to those who believe and pray to Our Lady are legendary.  I was amused to read the that

railing a little at the idea of someone telling me what’s worthy of belief.

Francisco died on 4 April 1919, Jacinta died on 20 February 1920, and Lucia lived till she was 97, dying on 13 February 2005. Now there’s a woman I’d have liked to have met.  All three are buried in the Basilica.

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IMG_6027 (600x800)I didn’t expect Fátima to be so… well… new.  I know my dates and I know that’s irrational. It is massive. The square is bigger than St Peter’s Square in Rome. If there were 200 people there the day we visited, that was it. We were lost in a place built for hundreds of thousands. On 13 May and 13 October, it is said that a million people come to pay homage.  The Basilica and its colonnades are fabulous   The new church, finished in 2005, can hold 9000 people and is said to be the largest in Portugal. IMG_6030 (800x600)

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IMG_6039 (600x800)Pilgrims walk (?) on their knees to the Church of the Apparition where rosary is regularly said. They then do three circuits, again on their knees, all the while saying the rosary. Those in the know had come prepared with their knee pads. I had a badly bruised knee from a spill I’d taken a week previously and with no pads just managed the one turn. But, of course, I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t realise till an hour into it all that there’s a procedure. If you go as a pilgrim, bear right to the Nativity and IMG_6035 (800x600)pick up your brochure there. It’ll tell you the rest and give you the prayers to be said and tell you where to say them. If you go as a tourist, enjoy.

I’m not sure what I had expected. I’m very glad I went, if for no other reason than lighting the myriad IMG_6029 (600x800)candles I’d promised to light for various people around the world (you know who you are).

There is a quietness about it all, a sense of reverence, an almost tangible belief in something greater than human form. Was I expecting an apparition? No. Do I believe that it all happened 100 years or so ago? Yes.  Do I expect anyone else to believe? It doesn’t matter. As I said, my faith is enough for me.  And that simple realisation, I’m truly grateful.

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2015 Grateful 26

There’s nothing like falling flat on your ass to remind you of the importance of the little things in life. More than a week after the event, my world is still a series of little steps, intermingled with winces, grimaces, and more than the odd curse or three. It will take time, I know. And as patience ain’t one of my many virtues, it’s probably just as well that I live alone. There are times when my self-pitying bellyaching  annoys even me.

But despite the inconvenience and the pain, I’ve had a series of lovely days this week where everything seemed to come together. It ran the gamut from developing and delivering a successful pilot workshop on technical writing to spending a delightful ten minutes laughing out loud while reading a new line of greeting cards in Avoca.

Pigs

In between I rediscovered parts of Dublin that I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years met up with an  old friend I hadn’t seen in five, and spent time connecting dots over designer beers and baked eggs. The week ended pretty much as it began – in style – at the Hungarian Derby, a great day out that has become a firm fixture on my social calendar. I think my luck has turned. Two scratch cards I bought during the week were winners both. And finally, after three years of trying, I managed to call an exacta that paid 4400 ft for my 400 bet. I won’t be going mad on the money, but the significance of this turn of fortune isn’t lost on me.

The lovely Jess Leen, in her blog, Budaful, captured it all very nicely in a post earlier this week:

A river has its course and that’s what it will run, or so we are told. But if we think way back to the beginning, is a river not just free flowing, running wherever it may well please? We have that in common, us and the river. We are born untied to direction and destined to hit a rocky route every once and a while. But despite the unknown corners we round and the constant chance of a change in course, we are, like the river, guaranteed one thing in life. That is that the load we carry will guide us to see…

Life has a way of just happening. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that… My plan has always been to have no plan, but even that, in and of itself, is a plan. What’s important is being open to opportunties. Being ready to go with the flow. Being steady enough in my faith to know that if it’s for me, it won’t pass me. Recognising those moments when life calls for an empty-handed leap into the void is a skill honed by years of error-ridden experience. Experience for which I’m truly grateful.

Yes, I’m still bitching and moaning and finding it hard to decide between sitting or standing. And yes, it’s hotter than Hades here right now and there’s a heat-induced bad mood waving at me from the horizon, but when two pigs can make me laugh out loud and winning €5 on a scratch card can make my day, what’s not to love about the world?

The simple truth

Despite its religious significance, despite the hoards of pilgrims of all faiths who besiege it with a fervor that would make you wonder why there is any unrest in the world at all, and despite the countless millions of holy trinkets that embody the faiths of nations, the essence of the Holy Land was epitomized for me in one short piece of text, prominently displayed on the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

It wasn’t drafted by a great scholar, a famous theologian, or a savvy politician. It wasn’t the product of years of discourse or months of negotiations. It wasn’t designed to clever or witty or tweetable. It simply tells a story.

I’ve prayed to my God as long as I can remember. I’ve asked and been disappointed and then relieved as prayers went unanswered. I’ve asked, been happy and then disappointed when what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted at all but I was stuck with it anyway. It took many years to realise that despite my prayers, I get what’s given to me for a reason. Mine is not to second guess or even to figure out the reason why, but rather to accept my part in the divine plan and make the most of it. Everything happens for a reason.

Now, I’m well aware that sort of talk might cause some to retreat behind crossed index fingers and reach for the clove of garlic; others might go as far as to question my frame of mind. For one that can occasionally appear to have a brain in her head, it might defy belief that I could be so willing to believe that while the waters ahead may be unchartered, I have a map and a guide and complete faith that I’ll arrive eventually to wherever it is I’m supposed to be, with whomever it is I’m supposed to be with, whenever I’m supposed to be there – and not a shred of scientific evidence to back up that assertion.

As a child, I learned to pray by rote. Nowadays, my prayers are more like conversations. Open conversations. At times argumentative, at times truculent,  at times weary, always grateful.  While I might think I know what’s best for me, I’m rarely right. And when, piece by piece, a plan is revealed, I can either delight in the process or sulk … because it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. And I can sulk with the best of them. I’ve had plenty of practice.

My method of prayer might be unorthodox. I’m not overly concerned with religious propriety. I constantly remind myself that the Catholic Church, like all religions, is a  man-made institution and therefore far from perfect. I don’t agree with many of its teachings and mostly observe its rituals out of habit; it has little bearing on my relationship with my God. But faith I have, in spades.

I’ve long-since struggled to encapsulate what this faith means to me and how it manifests itself in my life. I’ve struggled to make myself understood when it comes to explaining rationally why I believe. I’m the last one you’d want in a debate on creationism vs evolution. But when I read this piece on the wall in Bethlehem, something clicked. If I went to the Holy Land seeking affirmation, this was it.

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2013 Grateful 35

A good friend of mine once told me that he envied me my faith. Another, a confirmed ‘dirt man’, thought that it must make life a little easier but wondered how I managed to be so matter-of-fact, while living in a world based not on scientific facts and figures – hard data – but on tenuous concepts and strange beliefs.

There’s a great expression used at home that has become a mantra of sorts for me – if it’s for me, it won’t pass me. End of story. Clean. Simple. Precise. What’s due to me will come to me – not necessarily on my schedule, mind you, but in the end, it’ll all work out for the best. Some might consider this trite. Others might think it  a cop-out. The very idea that each of us has a predestined life plan seems at face value to negate the concept of free will. I’ve long since given up debating the point – all I know is that faith works for me. Having faith, knowing with unqualified certainty that what is meant to be will be, believing that everything will work out for the best – call it faith, call it whatever – it works… for me.

In Latvia last week, we ventured north of Riga to the seaside town of Majori. There I saw faith of another sort – or perhaps the same, not that it matters much.

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At the site of the former Orthodox Church of the Kazan Icon, consecrated in 1896, people still lay flowers and attend ceremonies each Sunday at 4pm. This church survived two World Wars until one night, in 1962, when on orders from the state, it was bulldozed and razed to the ground.  Priests who served here included Jānis Pommers, the first saint to come from Latvia.

Though the church has been gone for longer than I’ve been alive, the congregation has kept the faith and fundraising continues to build a new church on the old site.

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To hold vigil here each Sunday in the belief that one day the building, the church, and its community will be restored… that is faith.

As antisemitism raises its ugly head in Budapest and Jews are assaulted at football matches, believing in the innate goodness of mankind takes even more so I  take heart in such acts of faith. This week, as I still feel the heartbeat from Salaspils, I am grateful, once again, for my faith; for whatever innocence or naivety that allows me to believe in the good in people and the sanctity of tomorrow.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Grateful 1

When I started this Grateful series at the start of this year, I had no idea of how it would work or what shape it would take. It’s been quite the experiment. In that first post, Grateful 52, I wrote: I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if more people took the time to give thanks – to themselves and to others. Thanks for the little things that make life worth living. Thanks for the people in our lives who keep us sane. And thanks for karma – who, will, at the end of the day, make sure that all wrongs are righted.When I wrote that first Grateful piece, little did I know that I’d be writing the last one for 2012 from Kona, Hawaii.

IMG_1351 (800x600)Today, we visited the Painted Church in Honaunau. I’ve been there a few times and it hasn’t lost its charm. It was built 1899 by Father John Velghe who decorated the inside of the church with his paintings. Fr Velghe was a Belgian priest of the order of  the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Society – the Picpus Fathers. Located on the slope of Mauna Loa, a 13,680 feet volcano mountain, it overlooks the Pacific ocean and those buried in the cemetery have a gorgeous view.

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The small wooden church is both simple and intricate and, perhaps, fancifully, I believe that it’s all the holier for it. To find a church that is open without a resident caretaker comes as such a surprise. To see a stand outside selling crafts with an honor box beside it, was enough to restore my faith in human nature.

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IMG_1372 (599x800)The paintings are a little faded and when the sun hits, it’s hard to see what they depict but the overall effect is still quite wondrous. There are six pillars inside the church, each with something inscribed. While we were there today, this guy was telling his wife that the inscriptions told the stories of the wall paintings. But he was wrong. I checked. Each contains one of the six mottos of St Benedict, after whom the church is named.

O ke kea hemolele ko’u malamalama – The Holy Cross be my light
Hele oe pela i Satana – Begone, Satan
He poino kou mea i ninini mai ai – You have poured forth trouble
Aole o Satana ko’u alakai – Satan is not my guide
Ua oki oe me kou mea pau wale – Stop with your perishable things
Nau no e inu kou poino – Drink your own misfortune.

In the groIMG_1354 (590x800)unds, there’s a monument to Fr Damien, who so famously worked with the lepers of Kalaupapa.  [I didn’t know that leprosy is known as Hansen’s disease.] His story, too, is a remarkable one of simplicity and courage. In a world where religion has been the cause of so much hardship, I’m reminded by what Kofi Annan once said: the problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other. In this small community of Honaunau on the island of Kona, the faithful are doing an admirable job of staying true to their faith. And it shows.

As this year draws to a close, I’m grateful that my faith takes me places that I might otherwise miss; I’m grateful for the friends who travel with me as I make my way through life; and most of all, I’m grateful that I believe.