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Finding God through the streets of Dublin

Stephen Noon SJ is a British Jesuit novice on an urban pilgrimage of Dublin, as part of a short experiment to go beyond his comfort zone and to test his vocation. He began the 3-week pilgrimage without food or money on Monday 26 June and he finishes up this week.

Stephen initially decided to walk from Dublin City Centre to St. Columcille’s Well about 11km south, a place he chose through his connection with the saint (Ireland’s St. Columcille is also Scotland’s St. Columba). He looked to a single Cross in a grass field some distance away and said: “It is a picture that sums up my day in many ways – God in sight but seeming just that little bit out of reach (and it is me who is stuck in the hedge). I am doing this pilgrimage without money or food and so today has been about hunger and humility (and occasionally humiliation, when some requests for help were turned down). I think it is going to be harder than I first anticipated!”

However, he found consolation in the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin City two days later. “I had lunch at Brother Kevin’s soup kitchen and sat chatting for a while to a lovely man called Thomas who gave me some good tips about food in the evenings (something that I have been most worried about). There was a sense of no-judgement acceptance, something that isn’t always the case in our modern world.” And he found light again the following day: “Generosity has been a big theme today. I spent a couple of hours at Dublin Mosque and was welcomed for lunch, conversation and a time of prayer. It was when we began talking about how we experienced God’s presence in the daily practice of our respective faiths that I, at least, felt the most powerful connection was made. We had something that was different but also shared.”

On 3 July, Stephen connected with the locals: “I spent this morning being shown around Drimnagh, a working-class suburb of solid 1930’s council houses (now mostly privately owned), by a man who had lived there for over 75 years. It is the first time I have had the privilege of a guided tour on my pilgrimage and it was a great way to do it. I was introduced not only to the history and sites but also to a wide range of people – over tea after mass, in the day centre and on the streets as we walked round. If I was to choose one word to describe the experience, it would be ‘community’. It is a place of lifelong connections, something increasingly rare nowadays, with some of those I spoke to arriving in the area all those decades ago as the first occupants of their home.”

Two days later, the Jesuit novice met homelessness head on. “I went for lunch at one of the ‘penny dinner’ places in town and sat opposite a man in his early 50s, David, and we ended up talking. David has just become homeless and it was heartbreaking listening to his story. He became estranged from his family after the death of his mother and then when crisis hit a few weeks back there was no family safety net for him. So, he is living in a hostel, having his things stolen, and has attempted suicide as he sees his life crumble. There was nothing I could do to help, apart from listen and tell him that I would pray for him.”

On 8 July, Stephen worked through his challenges. “I was not in the mood for the pilgrimage today when I started and was grumbling about my breakfast (not the sort of thing I would usually eat) and then worrying about how I was going to feed myself tonight and tomorrow (on Sunday the various places I’ve being going to are closed). It struck me as I began my walk out to Poolbeg that I had my attitude all wrong. Instead of filling my head worrying about what might or might not come, I should instead be grateful for what I had received – a good, free breakfast and lunch – and trust that something would come my way for the rest of the weekend. And with that shift in attitude, the day took on a much brighter aspect.” He ended up at a place called The Light House run by Dublin Christian Mission, who gave him a “great meal” and food to take away.

The Jesuit novice reflected on ‘the power of good’ during his third week on the streets, represented by a modern stained-glass window depicting a Church in the center of a blue and red Cross. He turned to the founder of the Jesuits for nourishment: “After eating, I sat thinking about a meditation in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola where he asks us to consider the approach adopted by evil in the world and, in contrast, the approach adopted by the good (the side of Christ). It is very obvious how evil works, we see it every night on our TV news, but at that moment it struck me that I was getting an opportunity today to see some of the hidden work of good in the world.”

He went further: “Through the kindness of the volunteers or the prayers of countless people across the city (and across the world) the side of good was quietly, gently and powerfully at work, and it did feel very powerful. There was a hidden, often unnoticed or unremarked upon goodness there and it was different from the power of evil, and more than a match. The darkness often grabs the headlines, but today I could see that in so many ways light fills ordinary spaces and ordinary lives.”

Stephen reflected on his vocation through his pilgrim experience: “I’ve come to realise that there are very few coincidences and so as I walked out of town this afternoon, to visit Glasnevin Cemetery, the question that kept on coming into my head was ‘so, exactly why are you here?’. The answer, I think, is somewhere in the experience of sitting this evening, on a park bench in the north inner city, slightly hungry, slightly tired and slightly sore and still thinking ‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else’, because this path that I am on, pilgrimage included, is one that brings me a deep sense of happiness.”

On the Jesuit novice’s second last day of pilgrimage, he pondered the theme of change and transition as he visited a flag flown for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, at the Catholic Library in the capital. He noted that a quarter of the Irish population attended the mass at the Congress and 200,000 used to visit the library each year, but that the situation has changed dramatically since then. He also noted the growth of homelessness in Ireland, but looked to the ‘power of good’ in the Capuchin Day Centre who provide thousands of meals and food parcels each week, and there is a waiting list for volunteers.

And he walked to the statue of Our Lady ‘Star of the Sea’ in the North Bull Wall at the entrance to Dublin harbour. The statue was unveiled in 1972 and was funded by workers and companies around Dublin Port. Stephen says: “It looks out over the port and is a sign again of changed times – it’s construction is very much from a different era it seems.”

As Stephen finishes his urban pilgrimage through the streets of Dublin, he looks to continue his novitiate training. You can find a full account of the pilgrimage on his photo journal.

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