God teaches me things in the most unexpected places and times. In my late teens, I had read a book called, The Voyages of Saint Brendan the Navigator & Tales of the Irish Saints, by Lady Gregory. Beginning in the sixth century, Irish monks sailed the North Atlantic Ocean in small, ox hide-covered boats, establishing monasteries on various islands, some very remote, some otherwise uninhabited, some no more than rock hills standing above the ocean surface. The monks lived on the tops of these formations, whose ruins can still be seen today. The steep ascents to the tops of some look death-defying. A strong gust of wind could blow a man into the ocean. Life on these almost uninhabitable rocks was rugged and harsh.
One of the tales in the above book is about a pale-skinned hermit, with long white hair and beard, who lived for years in a cave on one of those islands. He prayed constantly, and several times when he was without food, an angel brought him consecrated communion bread to eat.
As a typical American kid, I was familiar with every kind of movie, comic book, and T.V. hero--pioneers, cowboys, Indian fighters, soldiers, spies, Batman, Superman, you name it. But to me, these Irish monks were the manliest of men, the heroes among heroes, the toughest of the tough.
When I was in my twenties, with some vacation time coming, I bought a roundtrip ticket to Ireland, with no thought whatsoever of any mythical monks. I had no particular itinerary. Upon my arrival at Shannon airport, I simply rented a car and proceeded to drive haphazardly around the country.
A few days into my trip, after touring the Dingle peninsula, I saw a sign for the city of Tralee and having nothing better to do, decided to head there. I had heard of the name Tralee before. As a child, I once heard my father refer to a pretty girl as a Rose of Tralee, and at family parties, my mother or one of my aunts would occasionally sing a song called, "The Rose of Tralee."
As I approached Tralee in my rental car, I saw hundreds of hitchhikers heading into the city as well. People hitched rides everywhere in Ireland, but I had never seen so many in one place. After eventually finding a Bread and Breakfast place that miraculously had a vacancy, the landlord asked, "Are you here for the festival?" Apparently, the city was having a festival, which featured a beauty contest in which the winner was crowned, The Rose of Tralee.
The city was chock-a-block with tourists and young people from all over Ireland. Advertisements hung from every lamppost, tree and telephone pole. Trash from overfilled and overturned garbage cans spilled all over the sidewalks and streets. Numerous young people had camped in a park near the city center. A few had Sleeping bags, some blankets, and others slept right on the grass. The entrance to the park had bathrooms, of which the campers made heavy use, with soaking wet floors and toilet paper scattered all around. Young people wandered around, some without shirts or shoes, looking hung over. It was a Gaelic Woodstock.
I went into a saloon. The proprietor crowed with delight to several patrons at the bar about the America tourists who not only tipped so extravagantly but liked to buy round after round for everyone in the house. Overhearing this, I decided that I couldn't afford to delight this barkeep, and did a quiet Irish goodbye.
Walking further in town, I came upon a Catholic church. I had a curiosity about what church in Ireland was like, so I went inside and stood in the back. Mass was underway. A feeling came over me of the incongruity of several hundred people attending Mass in the center of a city that was in a fever of tacky commercialism and bacchanalia. The prayers of the consecration had already begun. And I suddenly suffered a case of spiritual arrest.
The priest on the altar was the image of the hermit which I had carried in my head all these years. And as the priest said the words of consecration, he adored and prayed to the real body of Christ, with his whole voice, words, and body. He was the monk in the cave.
After the consecration, the prayers felt lifeless, and I left. But outside, as I walked the streets, my mind churned with the irony, the paradox, the complete contradictory unexpectedness of what I had just witnessed: That this is the Incarnation--that Jesus is present and lives in the heart of commercial, crowded, garbage-strewn, partying, drunken, greedy, fornicating Tralee and everywhere.