Rose Keating’s weekly column as published in the Waterford News & Star’s Well! magazine
LAST week, I walked into a church for the first time in months. Possibly years.
No, I didn’t burst into a ball of flames and/or implode/explode. Yes, I was surprised by that too.
I’m not a religious person. I don’t have a real faith of any kind.
I’m painfully agnostic. My belief system is a firm stance on the fact that I don’t know what I believe. I don’t even have the moxie to be an atheist. The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything, that I won’t ever know anything, that I don’t know if it possible for a human to know anything definite about the existence or nature of higher beings.
And yet, last week, I found myself standing in the musky, dark heart of a cathedral. The greatest plot twist of the century, surely – or, at least, the greatest plot twist of my Saturday afternoon.
I had woken up with a horrible flu; I was dizzy, feverish, had a blocked nose, and was coughing up a lung. I lay in bed for about an hour, sneezing and pitying myself, before I picked up my phone and called my mother for advice.
“Get rest, drink plenty of fluids, take some Panadol, and go to the doctors if it gets worse,” she suggested.
AWFUL advice, obviously. I told her so myself on the phone. No, the only way to cure this cold was to take matter into my own hands; if I wanted to get physically better, I had to make myself feel better – happy mind, happy body, surely.
“No, I think what I’ll do is go to town and buy a new top to cheer myself up,” I told her.
She wasn’t impressed.
‘The dress I had felt so good in earlier now felt like a giant, neon sign screaming ‘harlot’ in this quiet, solemn space.’
I dragged myself out of bed, slapped on ten pounds of makeup and a tight, black dress and hit the road.
At some point around Barronstrand Street, I was beginning to feel a little better. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and my volume was on full blast on my headphones. Penneys was mere moments away; I may have been sick, but I was invincible. Nothing could stop me.
But then, a nun stopped me.
And I mean, quite literally stopped me. She came out of nowhere, stepping in front of, beaming and saying something that I couldn’t hear. I took out my headphones and apologised.
“Would you like to light a candle?” she asked me.
“Um,” I said, articulately.
“In the cathedral, would you like to light a candle in the cathedral?” she clarified. She had an American accent and the most earnest smile I had ever seen. I’d never met an American nun before – I didn’t stand a chance.
“I’m so sorry, but I’m not very religious,” I explained.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure He won’t mind,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, grinning at me. She didn’t wink, but she may as well have winked. Reader, how was I meant to resist?
She took me into the cathedral, explaining that I would go up to the altar, light a candle, say a prayer, and take a piece of scripture out of a box next to the candles. Like a raffle, I thought.
“Are you Catholic?” she asked.
“I mean, technically,” I said.
Blind panic hit me as I walked up the aisle, breathing in the old, familiar smell of ancient stone and smoky incense. I shouldn’t be here, I was an intruder. There was a scattering of people praying in the pews; I felt like every single one of them was looking at me, sensing my wrongness. The dress I had felt so good in earlier now felt like a giant, neon sign screaming ‘HARLOT’ in this quiet, solemn space.
By the time I reached the altar, I had broken out in a sweat. I knelt on the ground, trying and failing to light the candle. I remembered that I was meant to be praying as I did this.
I don’t pray. I don’t know how.
Kneeling, my knees sore, the wick refusing to light, I prayed: “Hey there, I’m not meant to be here and I don’t know how to pray. Sorry, I’ll be gone soon. I hope the nun has a nice day? This is awful, sh*t, oh sh*t, you can’t curse mid-prayer, Christ.”
Eventually, the candle lit up. I took a piece of scripture from the box and scampered away.
As I scuttled back to the nun, I looked down at the paper.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it read, “Trust in God still and trust in me.”
Huh, I thought.
When I reached the nun, she touched my arm. It felt reassuring.
“Did you get a good one?” she asked.
“I actually did; it was – it was really lovely,” I said, and it was true.
She smiled, so bright in that dark building.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said, and it sounded like that was true too.
She didn’t ask me to stay, or to confess, or to get baptised, and it’s not very likely that I will. I’m still not religious, and I still don’t know if anyone was listening to my butchered attempt at a prayer.
But as I walked out of the cathedral into the sunlight, I thought about Sister Carolyn and her smile. I’m so happy for you, she had said. Maybe it was God, or maybe it wasn’t, but my heart did feel a little less troubled as I walked away. Maybe trusting in each other can work too.