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Jack Quinn’s for Joy

My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day  found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”

I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.

And oh what a party awaited me. The moment we stepped in the door we joined one great, grand swirl of Irish celebration. The long room was crammed to its every edge.  A bag piper rose to play as we entered, kilted and bold in the middle of the room, all purple-cheeked and bulging-eyed as he filled the pipes with song. Hundreds of feet kept a good tapping time, laughter boiled up like a drumroll from every corner, and voices rang like trumpets as people talked over the scream of the pipes. The faces in that dim room glowed like fireflies in a hot summer garden.

Everyone wore green. Eight or eighty, no respectable soul would come to an Irish pub on St. Paddy’s day without a token of emerald to honor the feast. Some wore glittering bits of jade or jewel, some were decked in the gaudy gleam of green plastic beads, some were clothed head to toe in forest, moss, sage, or emerald, every hue of the color of Eire. And then there were the men who swept by in kilts. They had that delighted pride of eye belonging to those who are dressed just right for a grand occasion. At least I had on my lucky green shirt, thank goodness.

I smiled as I stood, I could not help it. I leaned against one of the old walls to wait for our table with the breath of song and laughter in my lungs. I bumped elbows with strangers and swayed to the jigs flung out from the fiddler now on stage. When our name was called, we trundled upstairs to community tables stretching the length of a long, low room. Plates were piled with cabbage and corned beef, or fresh fried fish and chips. We settled in with a jolly bunch of strangers, exchanged names and stories, and set to the work of feasting. The music on this floor was softer, but no less pert. A band of fiddle, whistle, and bodhran kept our toes tapping the entire meal. Another explosion of laughter rumbled from the far end of the room as the fish salted my mouth.

And, “blessed be the day,” thought I. Joy welled up in me as if a new spring of water was struck alive at the core of my heart. Exuberance was a tide, rising in my blood and thought, a freed delight in the sheer gift of life. Forgotten were bills and furrowed brows and the dullness that comes from forgotten zest. Remembered was the ever-present possibility of glee, the limitless capacity of my heart to come alive to a fathomless joy, to respond to friendship, to lift up my soul to the cry of music.

A sudden silence came upon me then; one of those moments in which a part of myself stepped back, suspended in time, to ponder the scene and my abruptly joyous self at that table. Keenly did I look at the hundred faces lined in laughter, closely did I listen to the rumble of voices and music. I saw the clustered groups of people in sudden fellowship, watched as music wove us all into a pattern in which no one felt loose or at odd at ends. I saw the way good food and people pushed close for the eating made friends of strangers. I saw fun, plain and simple in the jigs and chips and tapping toes, saw the childlike mirth in the eyes of my family, felt the warmth of it in a blaze on my face.

And I knew again why feasts are of grave importance, vital events to be claimed and marked. Festal days must be kept with great resolution for this single glimmering fact; we are made for joy. We were fashioned for gladness with hearts formed for fellowship and spirits for singing. Feasts teach us to remember this core fact of our being as they fling us together and banish our listless thoughts and the loneliness that hovers like a fog around our hearts. Polite, isolated, technologically-tied souls in a sin-shattered world that we are, feasts remind us of friendship, they force us into a joy we might have forgotten in the midst of our busy, driven accomplishing of life. A festal day reminds us that in the beginning, far before pain broke into the perfect world, life itself was a feast to be eaten. Existence was a great song, our lives an answering dance, and in Christ, the broken music begins anew.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a dull-eyed ghost in my own modern life. I move about my days, working at this bill or that project in my quiet room. I bump about my hushed suburban house, drive my car along deserted concrete streets to shop in big, impersonal stores, and I’m lucky if anyone even waves. I work mostly on my little black box of a computer. When I get really lonely, I check my email, hoping for an offer of comradeship from my machine. Or I sit anonymously in coffee shops, wanting company, but wary of breaching the divide of polite silence that dictates correct, autonomous behavior. Add some grief, a dose of guilt, and I find I forget to fight for rejoicing, or even to remember that all good things have their birth in God.

Satan, I think, strikes a few of his best blows when he can persuade us that God is boring. That life with our Savior is a dull and dutiful upward climb toward a summit of righteousness always a little out of reach. We are close to defeat when we start to believe that God cares nothing for joy, that holy people are wage slaves to long days of righteousness. Work, pray, endure, and pay your bills, check off that list of upright deeds. And the image of God in our weary minds becomes that of a long-faced master whose only concern is our efficient goodness. We forget that we are called to a King who laughs and creates, sings and saves. That our end is a kingdom crammed with our heart’s desires. We forget that our God is the Lord of the dance and the one whose new world begins with a feast.

At Jack Quinn’s, I finally remembered this fact. Celebration cleansed my mind and renewed my hope. And I wonder, today, if celebration is a craft I need to learn, a practice of faith affirming the joy of my saving God. Perhaps my moments of chosen joy incarnate the beauty to which I believe I am being redeemed. On high days and holy days, yes, but also during the common days. A candle lit, a meal prepared, music played, and laughter exchanged; perhaps amidst the fear, the grief and need of fallen life, those moments cup a draught of new-world joy. God came that we might have life, and life to the full. St. Patrick gave his life to the proclamation of that very fact. I think I’ll join him by celebrating his day, and the God whose cosmic feast is about to begin. All joy is mine. Blessed be the day indeed.

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