Whether you’re looking for the perfect holiday gift for a reflective, spiritual friend – or wanting to take some time out to nourish yourself this Advent season – the latest book by Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (Hodder & Stoughton 2015) is an ideal aid to contemplation.
Just to be clear – the book isn’t aimed specifically at the Advent season. Rather, it is a book for all seasons. The warm (and wounded) spiritually that Ó Tuama expresses through stories, poetry, and biblical reflection takes the reader on a journey over many years and many places. Ó Tuama’s voice is beautiful, capable of evoking both laughter and tears.
The Cork-born Ó Tuama has been based in Belfast since 2003, and is currently leader of the Corrymeela community. He has been described as ‘the most highly placed gay Christian leader in Ireland.’ The book draws on his varied experiences: as a community worker in Belfast, times when he concealed his homosexuality as an earnest young Christian in an environment where it was considered demonic, travelling, and at home on the island of Ireland.
The title In the Shelter is taken from the Irish proverb, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live’ (ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine).
And above all, it is people that shine through Ó Tuama’s words, from the children he worked with as a chaplain in the De La Salle Pastoral Centre in West Belfast, monks at Taizé in France, friends ‘playing on the borders of religion,’ survivors of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and – of course – Jesus.
Ó Tuama organises his words around Jesus’ greeting of ‘peace be with you’ when he arrives in the room where the disciples are gathered after his resurrection. Ó Tuama explains that in the Aramaic of Jesus’ day this simply meant, ‘hello.’ So each chapter title begins with ‘Hello to …’ and takes the reader into encounters with beginnings, troubles, shadows, change, and power, amongst other themes.
Every story, reflection or poem can be read as a free-standing meditation or part of the wider whole of each thematic chapter. Many of these stories have sticking power – they are gracefully told and Ó Tuama’s words linger with you long after having read them.
Take this excerpt from his reflection on a small, tragic event he witnessed one day in Belfast (p. 96-97):
I was walking around Belfast once and I saw a woman pushing a child in a buggy. It was a grey day, and people were moving from one place to another, they were buying credit for their phones and matches for cigarettes, milk for tea, and they were paying bills.
The woman was pushing the buggy, and in it there was a two-year-old child, and the child was squirming and making complaining noises. The woman stopped, walked around so she could see the face of the child, and screamed:
‘I f***ing hate you.’
She screamed her hate loudly.
Life in the city continued. People continued to buy food and items to make their homes look good. People wondered if they could afford a bill and people admired clothes in shop windows.
This is not a story particular to Belfast. It could happen on any street in any city. It is not a story particular to one economic class either. This was ten years ago. I am sure that child is still alive.
Hello to hatred.
The truth we hear from the story of the woman with the child is that we all have our breaking points, and when we break we say more about ourselves than about the one who is the victim of our breaking. I will fall, and in my falling, I will drag you with me, and I will drag you to my own hell with me. It is an awful truth, but it is a truth lived out in most – although I want to say every – human experience. Can we stop it? I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I think we can find a way to name it, to greet it, and acknowledge it.
Hello to what we hate. It has much to tell us.
There is more memorable writing when Ó Tuama recounts how as a chaplain he encouraged children to meet Jesus in their imagination. It would have been easy for these stories to have been reduced to the ‘cute’ or the sickly-sweet. But Ó Tuama honours the children’s experiences and demonstrates how they make profound observations on the nature of Jesus, even as he wonders if in ‘translating’ the children’s observations he risks dictating to them what their experiences mean (p. 71). For example (p. 69, 72):
An encounter that has stayed with me ever since it happened was with a boy who was soon to make his confirmation. He was a happy person, at ease with himself and his classmates. When we were talking about meeting Jesus and engaging with him, he said, ‘When I met Jesus, he knew my name, and I was thinking about this as we walked along. When you told us that we could say anything we wanted to him, I said, “How do I know you are who you say you are?”’ This struck me as christologically pristine in its enquiry, and I asked whether Jesus had responded. The pupil said, ‘Yeah, he looked at me and he told me the story of my life’. I asked how that felt and he said ‘Nice’.
… One young person said that Jesus was black and wore a suit, and another said he was a comfortable kind of man, trustable, who’d keep your secrets. One young girl said, ‘Being with Jesus was like, it was like, it was like sitting next to a cosy fire’. I thought of all the words being used that day around the world to describe Jesus of Nazareth and wondered if any would surpass those.
Last month, the Chicago Tribune named In the Shelter as one of six ‘books for the soul’ suitable for gift-giving. Indeed, it is a book that brings pleasure as well as insight. It can be read and re-read, savoured for its rich reflections on the human and the divine.