You’re going to Moyross? God bless you, are you sure? Its a ....rough place. Not very nice. Desperate. Drugs. Murders. Are you sure you want to go? Be careful.
Our Irish hosts were concerned when we shared our plans to get up before dawn and head out to one of Limerick’s more infamous and troubled neighborhoods. Before we had come to Ireland on our latest trip, I had read about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and their work in Moyross and something drew me to the idea of visiting them Crazy enough, but I’m learning to respond to that tug when it happens--there is always something God has in store for me to learn. And so, on our next to last day in Ireland, I called the number listed on the website.
I introduced myself and explained what I wanted, and the voice on the other end paused for a moment then said familiar words in a familiar accent. You’re not from around here, are you?
I’ve gotten used to the idea that all I have to do is open my mouth in that lovely, green land to be identified as other, shattering my cherished illusions of anonymity. I wasn’t prepared for the surprise my response brought back to me. The brother on the phone was not only American--I expected that--but from Kennesaw, a bedroom community of Atlanta not far from my own home in Tennessee. And his pastor as a young teen had been the same pastor of mine with whom we travelled, the man whose desire to visit his sister in Killaloe had brought us within striking range of Moyross in the first place. With God, there are no coincidences.
Still, it was with increasing apprehension that I sat in the car as my groom made his way through the grey, damp dawn toward Moyross. Our GPS couldn’t find the address, so we relied on dead reckoning and a few general instructions our hosts and the brother on the phone had finally supplied, one of which was to pass a closed, burned out store. Never a sign of prosperity and peace in a neighborhood, that. As we drove, second thoughts crowded my mind as I reflected on what he had said. Have I really done it this time? Are we going to be all right? Please, Father, keep us safe. I’m not entirely sure why I got this cockamamie idea to go, except to make images of these men’s hands, but we are on our way. Please, Father, keep us safe. Even if we’ve set out on this for the wrong reasons, keep us safe, use our work.
We found the general area of Limerick in which Moyross is situated at the first light of dawn. Our appointed time--ten of eight--approached, and we were still wandering about like the Israelites in the wilderness. Finally, we spied an open gas station and stopped for directions. They put us closer to our goal--the name Moyross surfaced on a sign--but still not there. Another stop to ask a man in a white van where the Friars lived. More directions, another miss. We were asking a third time when the white van passed and the man inside beckoned. Follow me.
We did, and he took us right to the spot, the promised red van in front of council houses and all. As we thanked him and got out, I noticed Mary in the yard, the statue whose image had set my mind working about this place, these men in the first place. Through the window, we saw a tall, dark priest pulling a chasuble over his head. I looked around at a grim, grey settlement on a cul-de-sac. I’ve spent more than my share of time in precincts like this in my former life, and the very atmosphere brought memories crashing back.
Memories of cops calling me in the middle of the night and insisting that they meet and escort me to the scene of violent death, offering protection and comfort to me in the middle of chaos. Memories of onlookers hanging back, scuttling in the shadow as we did our work, some of them as familiar with this kind of end as we were ourselves, but with no place to go to escape from it. Memories of going home again, to my safe and clean and bright part of town, always accompanied by a thick, black plastic bag that held death. Always in the service of giving voice to those who could talk no more. Here is how I was done to death. Here is the one who did it. Back to my role in the justice, if not of God, of man. And in spite of my familiarity with such places, my fear would not go away. It was with an edge to my heart that I stood back as my groom knocked on the door of the friary.
The brother I had spoken to met us at the door and we entered, a spare, beautiful chapel with a carved wood altar in the little room to our left. Before long the tall, dark priest entered and the mass began, an oasis of American familiarity in the midst of Ireland. So accustomed had we become to the rhythms of the Irish mass that we had to be reminded--invited--to come to receive the cup. At the end, we prayed the prayer of the companions of St. Francis. The words silenced me and all I could do was pray them in my heart....lukewarm because of sloth...languid because of idleness, half-alive because of negligence, it indicted me, but then promised in spite of being surrounded by inextricable dangers , grace and prayer and humility and charity. All, I know, that I need.
And the grace and charity were not long in coming. I have grown accustomed to Irish hospitality and the friars shepherded us into their kitchen for breakfast and fellowship. Good, strong coffee--a rarity in our travels--toast and peanut butter, cereal--and the conversation that I have learned unearths the connections between us that the Church already promises are there. We showed the the tiny book of the Hands Project and the card we had made up.
Wait. You did this? I have this card. I’ve seen this work. It’s beautiful.
Not only are there no coincidences with God, He’s got a great communication network too. We laughed at the discovery and set about making images--of drying dishes, holding steaming mugs, putting on sandals, a very Franciscan thing to so. Soon we were out the door, across the way to a garden interposed between two of the plain, grey houses bundled up against the day that was, though fully light, cold and damp. cutting us to the bone as only Irish cold can do.
There used to be a derelict house here. In those houses there, on either side, the families had a son murdered. When they tore down the house, we decided to plant a garden.
A garden, with chickens for eggs and ducks for pleasure and a pond and a greenhouse overseen by Christ Himself, in statue and in print. Fitting, that a garden should be here, for it is in a garden man first met God and in a garden that God as man retreated before the crucifixion that would open the gates to that first garden once more. What better than a garden, with its cycle of birth and rebirth, green and vibrant signs of the power of new life, to stand in the middle of this troubled place?
Too soon our time wound to a close. As my groom captured a few more images, I sat in the kitchen and talked with the brothers, asked them about their needs.
We live simply. Mostly our needs are food. We beg for our food. We even begged for the van outside.
There it was, the reason God dragged me across a great ocean and past my own inhibitions to talk with these men, this man. Beg I thought. How uncertain, how demeaning, to have to rely on charity, to have to ask for the very means of life. Then How ashamed I am to have taken breakfast from these men, under these circumstances. How extraordinarily generous of them to have offered it.
No. Think again. The thought interposed and sent my other reflections fleeing in shame almost as soon as they formed. We all have to beg and we all rely on charity. Not in the deformed sense that modern society sees it--condescension to the weaker and puffing up of the giver, but in the sense the Church teaches: that I love God above all things and because I do, I love my neighbor as myself, as God loves me. Without restraint.
None of us comes to God’s table by right, by justice, only by grace, in a sense, only as mendicants. And we are fed beyond our needs, so much so that baskets and baskets are taken up after to be distributed later. The Friars know what I am only slowly learning: that God’s life flows through me only as much as I realize I have nothing and need everything from Him. And that only in giving the life of God in me away, freely and cheerfully, even to the stranger who calls up out of nowhere and horns his way into my life, unbidden and unexpected at inconvenient hours, making peculiar demands on me and my time, do I really receive what I need. Generosity, it seems, comes not from abundance, but from the poverty of spirit that recognizes--really recognizes--my utter dependence on God, and the faith the knows He really does--and will--see to my needs.
One last image to be made, that of the Mary statue, she whose hands were missing because of vandals. Fitting, somehow, even in its sadness. The first hands who brought us Jesus now need other hands to do her work, just as her son does. In this place, it is the hands of the good friars.
And they are making progress. It is also somehow prophetic that the other vandalism of the statue is that the head of the snake at the Blessed Mother's feet has been crushed.
As we left, the sun was beginning to struggle out from behind the clouds and the soft rain had stopped, at least for a time. We said our goodbyes, and walked to the car. I looked around at the row of houses and remarked without thinking, This place is beautiful.