Our time in Dublin just happned to include June 16 - Bloomsday. Bloomsday is the holiday that celebrates the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. His great novel, Ulysses takes place on June 16th. Although I was not in the "right" part of Dublin to take in the celebration, I did see a the banners celebrating Bloomsday and a few people dressed up in Edwardian clothes, going to the sites included in the novel.
I have to admit that I tried and failed at Ulysses. I barely got by a few chapters until I just couldn't figure it out. I have enjoyed Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man as well as his first book, Dubliners, a collection of short stories. I decided that, since I was going to be in Dublin, I would take Dubliners with me for another read. It was an amazing experience. All the streets, the parks, the pubs of Dublin became a bit more real to me as I read Joyce and his descriptions of his city.
While on the bus ride out to Newgrange, I picked up the book and read the first story, The Sisters. All of the sudden, I remembered the impression it left on me when I first read it. It is a story of a young boy, who finds out that an ailing priest whom he had befriended, died the past night. He is angry at how superficially all the adults are taking this. The priest made a huge impression on the boy. The boy reflects, "the duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and towards to secrecy of the confessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever found in himself the courage to undertake them."
The priests decline toward death started when he dropped a chalice. One of the sisters recalls, "It was the chalice he broke...That was the beginning of it. Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still...They say it was the boy's fault. But poor James was so nervous. God be merciful to him!"
I always held that image in my head as I went into ministry: dropping the chalice. For me, it was a symbol of that moment when a person consciously or unconsciously decides to stop the struggle to live and look forward to death. I've seen it time and again in ministry. People put up a valiant fight, then one day, it just gets too heavy - death is more preferrable to life.
Rereading it, dropping the chalice reminded me of the weight of ministry. Often, ministry is so filled up with the day-to-day, the mundane ordinary stuff that has to get done, that I don't realize what my calling is. I then am reminded of my seminary days, when I was in awe of what I was called to do, and filled with a sense of unworthiness. Nonetheless, God did call me, as God called other men and women to somehow handle these sacred mysteries - to handle the body and blood of Christ. To preach God's Word to people. To be a vehicle of God's presence. No wonder the priest dropped the chalice, no wonder he got so nervous.
In some ways, I think God blesses us with the ordinary, so that the awsome mystery and gravity of what we do as ministers does not overwhelm us. T.S. Eliot said that "humans cannot take too much reality." I think that is what happened to the priest. Ultimately, the reality got to him, it overwhelmed him with its weight and sent him to his death.
James Joyce had a lot to say to me in Ireland. He really is a writer that plumbs the depths of our life. He understood the gritty reality of life as well as the spiritual side. I am grateful that I had the perfect occasion to encounter his writings once more. Now, perhaps with a lot of help from a companion book I can try to work on Ulysses again.