Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Fair

I was to Ireland a few years ago with friends. We rented a house in Ballyhaunnis in County Mayo and from there took day trips to many places. It was a wonderful trip. On the last full day that we where there, we decided to drive to a place near Shannon Airport and to stay there for the night. We planned the day ahead of time, mapping out things we wanted to see and do along the way.

We were driving through a small town and noticed many people walking toward a park. We knew that something was going on. We found a place to park and then followed the crowd. They were all going into a large park in the town and to our delight saw that a fair was in full swing. As tourists, we felt that we had stumbled upon something that was truly Irish every way. The unexpected emergence of such a small town fair was a treasure of wonders for us.

There were many booths. People were selling crafts and goods of all kinds – baskets, hand made clothing, glass figurines, home-made jams and jellies, works of art made from wood and marble, delicious looking breads and pastries – these and more were offered for sale.

There was a woman who sat behind a large spinning wheel and she had all about her the shawls, hats, gloves and other items of clothing that she had made. The wool was of every color imaginable. She was a large woman who wore a loose fitting long dress and her hair was long, thick and wild. I was struck by the contrast between her finely knit items of clothing and the free-style explosion of her hair.

A pig and her eleven little piglets were a star attraction. They were in a wooden pen and children lined the fence-liked sides of the pen, reaching in to touch the piglets. The mother did not seem to mind, yet she appeared to take a head count every now and then. The farmer who brought them would occasionally reach down and pick up a piglet and hand it to one of the children. The faces of the children were beautiful – eyes wide in a joyous wonder as they were able to watch and even touch the baby pigs. There was also a small cart with baby goats and these were as well picked up by the children and held with an obvious sense of tender love.

People danced to Irish music on a platform in the middle of the park. There was a small band and as they played Irish tunes, the couples moved back and forth in traditional Irish dances. I had the feeling, looking at their faces, that the different steps of the dance communicated something known, special, but wordless. The movements conveyed the meanings. I saw smiles and nodding heads as different steps were taken.

We stayed for the afternoon, letting go of whatever plans we had originally made. It was a very special and memorable detour.

I was at the Atlanta Eucharistic Congress all day yesterday. Thousands of people were there. It was held in an enormous convention center close to the airport. I was at a booth set up by our Abbey Store and we sold religious items and different monastic foods. My cards and books were there and I signed books for some people and was happy that my cards were admired by people. Children looked at the items and their faces reminded me of the Irish children at the fair.

There were many booths at the Congress, all of them of one religious theme or another. It seemed that every religious organization, religious order and archdiocesan affiliated group had a booth. The Knights of Columbus, Catholic Charities, the Daughters of St. Paul and the Legionnaires of Christ: These and many others occupied the booths and tables that filled the enormous room.

On the one hand, it all offered proof of the many faceted nature of Roman Catholicism. Most telling were the many different nationalities and cultures that were represented by the people. It is natural in our day and age that whenever there are large gatherings of people, there will be different languages, modes of dress, colors of skin, types of food. On the other hand, it begged the question as to where it is all going in terms of transformation. The church is changing. Right before my eyes was telling evidence that a new world is coming into being. It is an exciting and promising world.

I think I know why the memory of the Irish country fair came back to me. I was on a road, with friends, sure of what my day was going to be like as we rode along. Then we saw a crowd and they were smiling and happy and all heading in one direction. We pulled off and followed them. And in that detour were one surprise after another – all gathered in the country fair. It showed what people can do and be for each other with who they are, what they make, how they laugh and move and dance.

Each booth at the Eucharistic Congress hinted at a world yet to be. I had the feeling that many of the items and ways of life offered were a bit worn, tired perhaps from centuries of usage and the long-familiar. But each booth has potential. Each booth harbors possibilities.

There were two Chinese men outside, sitting on their haunches and smoking cigarettes. They worked for one of the food vendors and were on a break. They were chatting away in Chinese and laughing. I have read that there are tensions within the Chinese world, too, as that world is changing and moving. China is vast and the dialects of the one written language are different when spoken or sung. But people need to understand each other. Those two men obviously did – as many of their brothers and sisters are struggling to understand each other.

And there was a man from Africa who was selling hot dogs and he saw me taking his picture and smiled a huge, happy smile and asked me to take his picture again and again, which I did. And that made him even happier. It shows in the picture. “You take one, then two, then three and maybe even four pictures of me!” he said, laughing as the words tumbled from his mouth.

Two very young and pretty Latino girls approached our booth and gazed at some wooden crosses in wonder, and then picked them up. One girl kissed the cross and the other seemed embarrassed by that, then looked at me and shrugged her shoulders and giggled. Then they both laughed.

A young boy whose picture I took came up to me later and asked why I took his picture. The question seemed innocent enough – he was simply curious. I told him I like people, young and old, and take their pictures to remember them. He nodded his head, picked up a bar of “Bible Candy,” said it looked weird and asked if it tasted as weird as it looked. I laughed and said I never tried it. He said he wouldn’t want to try it, either, and put the candy back down and walked away.

Many people asked me to bless objects yesterday: rosaries and pictures, medals and crosses.

How does Good bless us?

Well, on this day, I like to think and answer to that has something to do with using our gifts, and dancing, and sharing our different foods and ways of life. And if people pass near us, on their way to a planned destination, maybe we will attract them and welcome them to our Fair. And we will dance, and know without needing to say, what the moves mean. Some things say more without words.

A religious sister approached me when I took my habit off. Beneath my habit I wore blue jeans and a white shirt. I wanted to go outside and take pictures and did not want to be noticed as a monk. “You should wear your habit always,” she said. I nodded and went outside. That is when I saw the Chinese men, sitting on their haunches, and wondered, as I looked at them, about God and Fairs, detours and surprises. I seem to be always thinking about such things – it is a habit I have, whenever I go outside, away from the familiar.

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