Belfast Telegraph

In times of sorrow, we find refuge in the House of God

By Alf McCreary

Many people returning from holiday may have worshipped in churches elsewhere, and they may have been inspired or depressed by what they found away from home.

Quite recently, I went to a well-attended service at Westminster Presbyterian Church at Vero Beach in Florida, and a kind woman named Sandy, who drove me to and from Orlando airport during my visit, told me that up to 1,000 people attend Sunday morning services at her Methodist Church, which is also at Vero Beach.

By contrast, I attended a Protestant Church service in France some years ago, where my most vivid memory was mainly that of the medical team who rushed into the building to treat a woman who had suddenly taken ill.

Such experiences of Church life elsewhere help us to compare what our own Church offers to us locally, and this week I was impressed yet again by the quiet role of the Churches in general.

I saw a woman on television who said she was going to church to mourn for the people who were at that point missing after the explosion at a mill in Cheshire, and who were later found dead.

She said that she rarely went to church, but following the explosion, she felt it was "the right thing to do".

She reminded me of one important aspect of our individual and community lives - namely that when a major tragedy takes place many people seem to gravitate towards a church.

These include non-believers, and people who rarely go to church. However, it seems that when we are faced with the reality of death and suffering, a church atmosphere helps us to try to deal with the inexplicable.

Many of the long-established Churches have a particularly comforting atmosphere, as the result of decades - even centuries - of prayers and praise offered to God in those buildings.

Sometimes the silence of a church puts people off, by making them feel slightly uneasy, but others, like me, can find great peace, solace and an opportunity for deep reflection in a building which is sited on holy ground.

The importance of the Church at the heart of our community is sometimes best illustrated by the historic churches of both main religious traditions.

In Northern Ireland, we have several magnificent cathedrals, all of which I have visited.

They include the Protestant and Catholic cathedrals of St Patrick in Armagh, though the very reality of two different cathedrals in the name of our common patron saint shows how far we still are from acknowledging that we all worship the same God.

There are also two great cathedrals in our capital city - St Peter's Cathedral in west Belfast, and St Anne's Cathedral near the city centre.

I have spoken in St Anne's more than once, and I have also attended many formal and less formal services there, at Christmas and other times of the year when the building has been packed.

Recently, however, I went to the funeral service for the mother of one of my friends, and I was impressed at the way in which this large cathedral was also a very personal setting for a grieving family, and their friends. It reminded me yet again that the Church in its different denominations can provide solace, refuge and inspiration on all occasions.

The very fact that it is there for people of all backgrounds is a guarantee that Christianity, at its best, will continue to remain at the heart of our society, whatever the secularists say.

Belfast Telegraph


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