Here’s a great Irish saying: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
The Irish are a communal folk, and this proverb reminds me of the festive crossroads gatherings that my Irish ancestors from Galway and Mayo would have in rural areas before the Great Famine wiped out so much of the population.
It brings to mind the aching need for community that I have and that I think we all share.
I first heard this phrase one Sunday morning when I was listening to Krista Tippetts’ National Public Radio show, “On Being.” Frequently, I hear mere snatches of her program as I prepare to leave for Mass. I was so intrigued by the phrase and the author who had incorporated it into his book’s title that I ordered his book on the basis of that alone.
“In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World,” by Padraig O’Tuama, is a reflection on the journey we make together. O’Tuama is a poet and a theologian from Belfast, but my favorite part of his book is still the title.
I’ve been reflecting on our deep need for the strength and solidarity that we draw from community. Particularly, I remember a health crisis that my family encountered many years ago.
Our children were young, and we were immersed in our parish, in our work in the archdiocese where we lived, in the little parish school where we had made so many friends. In other words, we were blessed to live in a time and place of great community.
The response to our family’s need was swift and overwhelming. Only now, from a distance, am I able to fully appreciate the way our community gathered us into its arms with food, flowers, phone calls, offers of help, babysitting.
Our every need seemed to be anticipated and met. And gently: No one pushed anything.
Did I want some friends from the moms’ group to come over and clean my house? No, didn’t need that. Did I appreciate the baskets of pre-wrapped school lunch items they produced to make mornings so much easier? You bet.
Jesus is our great example of a person who valued community. He treasured his private time with God, of course, the place where he drew strength and comfort.
We all need that alone time. But he used those retreats into the “lonely places” mentioned in Scripture to recharge his batteries for his presence in the world.
Think of all the dinner parties recorded in the Gospels. Imagine the need Jesus felt for community when he encountered fishermen or the tax collector Matthew and humbled himself to ask them to follow him. Revel in the great friendship we are told Jesus had with Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus.
Think of the depth of friendship that must have existed between Jesus and Mary of Magdala. How else to account for one of Scripture’s most touching encounters, the meeting in the garden after the Resurrection?
We all need shelter. Sometimes we want community and it seems to fail us. Sometimes we don’t know how to ask for help. And often we don’t hear the groaning of another that is an expression of his need for the shelter of our presence.
I feel the need to draw from both the great well of community that I have sometimes experienced and the dryness when community seems like no more than a creek bed with a small trickle. Both of these can be God’s way of saying, “Listen. I have things to teach you about being there for others.”
Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column, “For the Journey.”