A FEW WORDS ON WHAT I REMEMBER
Folks, I need to be careful with this one because it’s the only poem in the book where Stephanie, my X, appears. We were married for 20 years, divorced for more than that, and are still on reasonably good terms, I think (she said she was going to buy my book).
Two things to say about Stephanie: first, she is in no way to be confused with the Elven Queen, whom you’ll meet in later poems. Second, she was raised in a very Irish-American environment (baptized at Saint Francis de Sales on the upper East Side of Manhattan). Like most people, I can pass for Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, but Stephanie is the real deal.
However, from time to time, Stephanie has had problems with the Catholic Church. I understand that: it’s hard to be a woman and a Catholic at the same time. It’s hard to be gay and Catholic at the same time. Jesus, sometimes it’s even rough to be a heterosexual male and a Catholic at the same time.
All that aside, in 1998 I was very involved at Saint Patrick’s Church in Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, it was a struggling urban parish. It’s now gentrified: God works in mysterious ways, particularly in real estate. Stephanie didn’t mind my involvement, but she wanted no part of it.
I thought a trip to the ancestral homeland might help. Ballintubber Abbey, not far from Cork, is important to me. It claims to be the church in the English-speaking world where mass has been said continuously for the longest time. That’s a very round-about way of saying it was the only Church in Ireland – and England – that never closed even under the persecutions of Henry, his depraved daughter Elizabeth, and Oliver Cromwell. I’m not sure the claim is correct; there were probably other churches in the north and west of Ireland that also never closed, but it’s a good story.
And every July, the Abbey organizes a pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick. As the poem tries to make clear, the pilgrimage can be hard on the knees. But that’s Irish Catholicism for you. It’s not an easy, joyous thing, like what Latino Catholics often have. We were oppressed in our own country, and the commitment to the faith requires a conscious act of will. Some Irish Catholics are honestly devout Catholics, but more might be described as defiant Catholics. Sometimes it’s hard.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to miss the easy beauty of Italy, with its art and its churches. Okay, sometimes it’s a little over the top, like the symbolism of Saint Peter’s Square, arms out stretched for all. The joke is that if you work in the Vatican and Christ returns and is walking through Saint Peter’s Square, the best advice is to “try to look busy.”
But it’s impossible to look busy when people are offering you bread and prosciutto and are passing around good, rich chianti. Sometimes the pilgrimage of life is hard, but sometimes “the perfect way is without difficulty” – a pilgrimage of grace. That’s the best.