I didn’t go to Mass last Sunday. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ll have to admit that I wasn’t that pushed about going anyway. Our new parish priest was being installed and the local bishop was paying an infrequent visit to Cherry Orchard. I’m not really a fan of pomp and ceremony in church; mitres and crosiers, incense and clarion calls (smells and bells) have little appeal for me.
While I was dithering about whether I should go or not, I had a phone call from Niki inviting me to breakfast and a chat in a local cafe – the only condition being that I was paying. Who could resist such an invitation?
Niki ordered what was probably the biggest breakfast I have ever seen – two of everything, eggs, sausages, rashers, black and white pudding accompanied by mushrooms, beans, toast and tea. Having already eaten, I ordered a more modest tea and toast. When breakfast arrived, Niki, who was obviously starving, tucked in and the food began to disappear at an alarming rate. As her hunger abated, Niki gradually began to break the bread of her recent life story with me.
Together with a number of companions, she had spent the previous two nights sleeping rough on the steps of a local church after it had been locked up for the night. As she described trying to get comfortable and warm lying up against the locked church door, I pictured the ceremonial opening of doors across the Catholic Church world to usher in the Year of Mercy.
She was grateful for the group of local people who came along after midnight with soup, sandwiches and spare blankets. Grateful too for her fellow rough sleeper who shared his last two cigarettes with her.
Niki’s days were spent walking the streets of Ballyfermot. She had to beg, steal or borrow to get €40 for her daily two bags of heroin, without which she could not easily survive. Her main source of income is shoplifting, usually razor blades and cosmetics from chemist shops. She then sells the goods in public houses where the customers, knowing her need, will often pay above the asking price. Most of the time, food is not top of Niki’s list of priorities.
Niki spends her days in a state of fear – fear that she won’t get her daily supply, fear that she’ll run foul of ruthless drug dealers, fear that she’ll be caught shop-lifting, fear that she’ll be picked up by the Gardaí to answer outstanding warrants, fear the she’ll come to harm if she falls asleep on the church steps.
At this stage, there was very little left on Niki’s plate. A difficult day lay ahead – very few local chemist shops are open on a Sunday – but at least she was well fed. We parted with the promise that we would keep in contact during the week as Niki continued to both feed and battle her addiction.
Niki walked off to become invisible again; I did what I often do when something has upset me – I went for a long walk. I was thinking of the locals who nightly bring soup and sandwiches to the homeless; of the man who shared his last cigarettes; of the pub customers who pay above the odds knowing the need – surely these people had entered through the symbolic open door into the year of mercy.
A second thought was troubling me too. I was thinking of the one whose message is “Fear not”, “Do not be afraid” and the level of fear which is Niki’s daily companion.
In the course of my walk, I passed our own parish church, where the Bishop and the newly-installed parish priest were standing in the church grounds greeting smiling parishioners and having ‘selfies’ taken. Soon the excitement would be over and the church door would be locked until a handful of the faithful arrived for daily Mass on Monday morning.
I once read somewhere that “if we don’t come away from the Sunday liturgy profoundly disturbed, then there is something seriously wrong”. My Eucharistic meal with Niki and the liturgical celebration which I didn’t attend both managed to disturb me but in very, very different ways.
Paul Hendrick - Scribbles from the Margins 7
You can read this and other stories from “Scribbles from the Margins 7 here < Scribbles June 16>