Last year on a quiet Sunday evening my father died. For weeks I’d visited him in a hospital ward and sat by his bedside window as the autumn light faded. The doctors had made it clear that his life was ebbing away. But that did not prepare me for the end of a parent’s life.
During our last few days together I read aloud his favourite verses from the King James Bible. The ones that come to mind, so many months after the event, are from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel.
‘In my father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also…’
He had been a minister who for 42 years had pastored churches, preached and visited, prayed for the newly born, married the young and buried the dead. Like any clergyman who worked throughout The Troubles, he had tried to be a comforter when bitter tears were shed – tears of remorse from prisoners he had visited in gaol and tears of unrequited grief from parishioners who had lost a loved one, killed for an unfathomed political cause.
One Sunday lunchtime, my father interrupted his meal to answer an urgent knock at the door. A young man in his church had been shot dead that morning. I knew that young man well. I had played in a football team with him in the Belfast Churches League. He had been a member of the choir that would sing an anthem at his funeral.
That young man had been a fledgling recruit to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Later I would read an account of his death in the autobiography of an IRA volunteer – a man who would himself fall victims to assassins.
Shortly after the paramilitary ceasefires came in 1994, I took my father for a drive one December day. Snow had fallen and the roads were treacherous. Nonetheless my father asked if we could visit the cemetery at Milltown. We parked our car on the Upper Falls and walked through the gate into the famous graveyard. It soon became quite clear why my father was determined to visit Milltown. We made for the Republican plot, where IRA men and women who had died in The Troubles lay buried.
I possess two vivid recollections of that visit. The first depicts my father gazing at the grave of a young Republican who had been shot dead in the conflict. He turns to me and says something like this –
‘You can see, can’t you, that these young people really believed in what they were doing?’
In the second image, a woman who has driven her car up the narrow road between the rows of graves is trying desperately to reverse out of the graveyard without knocking down a number of headstones. Her situation is made worse by the frozen snow and slippery path. My Protestant clergyman father walks across from where I stand to guide that woman slowly out of her dilemma, on a wintry patch of Belfast earth where our all our breaths have turned to mist in the bitter air.
These memories rise into view at unexpected moments.
But one such moment is maybe worth recalling more than all the rest.
Reading the Irish News one day last year, I looked at the column penned by Republican ex-prisoner and journalist Jim Gibney. He paid a gracious tribute to a Catholic priest who had passed away – a man who visited political prisoners on a regular basis. And he referred to the Scripture that the priest had read to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, as the young Republican lay dying in the hospital wing of the H blocks in the bleak prison known to its inmates as Long Kesh. It began:
“My father’s house has many rooms……..”
And of course I recognised these words, refracted through a modern translation, as the ones in which Christ bids farewell to his disciples on the eve of death. But it was also the passage that I’d read to my father just a few weeks before.
Since then I have pondered how such ancient texts of sundered love and living hope still underlie our long-divided faith, rising up at unexpected moments to speak into darkness.
So can the wisdom found those texts unlock the trap of tears, despair and anger in which we still seem caught?
And if so, how?
My father’s house has many rooms.
This is an edited version of an article on the Compromise After Conflict blog. This version is published with the author’s permission. The author’s name has been with-held at their request.