I went to church today. Doing so is not a regular activity for me. I find no answers in a Sunday mass, no solace in religious pilgrim.
But last night, I received some bad news. Not the, "I dented the car" or "Had a fight with my sister" type, the truly bad kind of news - when someone you care about is dying and there is nothing you can do.
There have been a number of occasions in my life when I've felt a certain kind of despair or sadness and I've found myself in a church. Sometimes I pray, sometimes I don't. Even when I do, I don't expect my prayers to be answered.
But like many Irish people, I was raised in the Catholic faith and the buildings of sacred ground is as familiar to me as my own reflection. I can go into any church and the smell of the incense and the still peace within transports me back to the simpler time of my childhood. There is a comfort within the familiar.
Walking home earlier on, I felt the desire to go into a church and light a candle for the person I care about. Tiptoeing in, I made my way to the only stand that had a lighting candle. It was only when I got there that I realised this particular area was devoted to Saint Anthony - the saint of miracles.
I lit a candle for my friend and in lieu of being able to make a deal to prolong their life, I instead asked that their passing be as peaceful as can possibly be. It was after this I saw the prayer hung on the wall for St Anthony. Reading through it, I came to the line where you make your personal request of what it is you want. Lighting another candle, for myself, I asked to find peace, happiness and love. A tall order, but if you can't put great expectations on a saint, who can you?
After saying an "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" (an initial stumble over the first line, I got there), I blessed myself and walked back out into the sunshine.
I went to that church not because I've had a call from God or because I'm looking for faith, I did so because the ritual of it is comforting. I like being able to take the action of going to someplace quiet and respected to momentarily reflect on things and do something to mark what is happening.
Doing so didn't give me any answers about death, but it made me remember that death is a part of life. It is the greatest ritual of all. It is oft said that you can be certain of two things in life; you are born and you die. It is only the details in between which are not a given.
I think of my memories with my friend and I find comfort in them. I think of how meeting them enriched my life. I think of the details, the memories, I have because of them. I think of their family and wish with all my heart there was something I could do to ease the pain they're going through and the grief that will inevitably come.
As humans, as individuals, we are both small and powerful. Death makes mortals of us all, but it is what we do with our lives which becomes immortal. The connections we make, the people we let in, the risks we run. I've never been one to let life pass me by; but when confronted with mortality - my own or someone else's - I'm forced to acknowledge that the days we have our numbered.
They won't go on forever, dying is something we all have to do. The ritual doesn't change. But in the time we are given, what we do and who we do it with matters. It's what matters most of all. In the thousands of quotes there are on the subject of death, it is this one which stays with me right now:
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
― Victor Hugo