January 2006 Reflections

Multiple choice quiz:

Living on bread and water, freezing cold temperatures and no heat, hiking long distances through a meter of snow, showering by pouring a pot of icy water over your head, visiting remote monasteries and attending 5am services, and standing through several hours of prayer a day….

This describes:
A. Clearly some bizarre, medieval penitential Advent program.
B. Liza’s idea of a great vacation.
C. How Liza spent her Christmas break.
D. All of the above. We all knew Liza was a little strange.
E. Only B and C. It’s not penance when you enjoy it!

Clearly, the above description of my adventures does not describe time spent in Ireland. After my classes finished in early December, I went to visit churches and monasteries in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania with two friends (one of whom is Muslim and the other Jewish). It was challenging, beautiful, slightly insane, and absolutely amazing. We explored remote churches up in the mountains, visited the only self-governing Roma settlement, listened to everyone who wanted to talk to us about religion (including priests, grandmothers and shopkeepers), and probably picked up all kinds of parasites drinking from various miraculous springs of water.

It was especially amazing to see the revival of the church in Albania. Even the matins and vespers services that I attended were filled with people, most of whom seemed to be under the age of 30, and in every town that we visited, new churches were being built and old ones restored. Thus, the churches we visited contained everything from detailed medieval frescoes of purgatory to modern stained glass windows of Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II.

Again and again, I find myself falling so completely in love with the church. And fascinated by it — how different it is, in Ireland and Albania, Egypt and Denmark, Michigan and Philadelphia — and yet the fact that there is something universal there, underneath all that diversity, although I can’t quite grasp it. Too easy to say that the common element is Christ, when even he appears completely differently in each of them. I don’t know; but my lifelong love affair with the church in its many forms shows no signs of abating, and even if it would probably be wiser and vastly more spiritually stable to base my faith on God rather than on the church, at the end of the day it is still the church that I love more than anything else in the entire world, and I wouldn’t know how to change that if I wanted to.

Although it may be surprising to some people, my interest in the Orthodox Church is actually very much connected to my life and studies here in Ireland as well. The religious demographics of Ireland are changing rapidly due to immigration, and in places such as Dublin the Orthodox Church has established a significant presence even over the last five years. My own parish here in Ireland has a very close relationship with the Romanian Orthodox Church, and so I have been to get to know some of their members and have been able to see the vibrancy of that congregation. They have been wonderful about welcoming the members of my church to their services, or having a joint service of Christmas carols together. Like the Orthodox Church in Albania, many of their members are young people — and without all of the antics that Western churches often resort to when they are trying to keep their young adults “entertained”.

I think I can easily say that my church here in Dublin, Saint Bartholomew’s, is one of the best things that has happened to me during my time here. I haven’t found the same Anglo-Catholic tradition that I had been used to here in Ireland, which has been difficult at times. But the people at St. Bart’s have been extremely welcoming of me, and my involvement there has given me a wonderful opportunity to build relationships with Irish people outside of my academic program. As a student, I have to say that there’s something really wonderful about being invited to dinner at a “real house” (as opposed to a dorm), with people who aren’t all between the ages of 20 and 25!

One of the more random but (to me) delightful things is that I seem to have a tendency to run into Irish nuns whenever I go out to do my shopping. (This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I shop at the discount stores.) I always really want to bounce up and say “Hi! You’re a nun! Guess what? I want to be a nun too” but usually opt for the (only slightly subtler) method of simply grinning at them until they come over and ask if by any chance I’m interested in the religious life.

Unlike many of the other Mitchells, my classes started up again on January 3rd, and so as I write this the semester is already well underway. I’m taking a somewhat easier schedule this term since there are now essays to write and a thesis to start thinking about. There is a very good, intensive class on Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations that is taught by two professors from the University of Birmingham, and a class on ecumenical ecclesiology, which I am probably the most excited about. In addition, I have a classes on theological ethics, the politics of development, contemporary Islamic politics, and Buddhist-Christian dialogue. It’s hard to believe how quickly the year has been going. My classes will end for the year in early March, and after that I will only need to focus on my research, so the end of the structured part of the program is actually not far away.

But there are many more adventures to come — churches to visit, countries to explore, nuns to talk to…oh yes, and research to do. Many thanks to all of the people who have made this possible; it’s been a wonderful year.

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