Shortly before the New Year, my younger brother Dave called with an irresistible offer: a nearly free six-day trip to Ireland. It took about five minutes to say yes, especially since Dave even had the itinerary planned: two days each in Dublin, Athlone, and Galway.
With some quick Google searches, I learned that Dublin, Ireland’s capital, is a historic, diverse, and intellectually rich city on the east coast. Drive straight across the country on the M6 and you’ll hit Galway, a touristy town packed with wandering minstrels, quaint shops, and fantastic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
In contrast, the small city of Athlone, smack in between Dublin and Galway, doesn’t have much to offer visitors. Before we arrived for our two-day stay, experienced American travelers and even Irish folks warned us that Athlone is “a waste of time.” We tried to change our itinerary at the last minute, but we were stuck with our hotel reservations.
So we came to Athlone, and we weren’t impressed. It wasn’t hard to see why one travel site claims the town’s “higgedly-piggedly” streets show “widespread evidence of decay and dereliction.” Instead of quaint shops and cultural diversity, Athlone is packed with predictably named eateries—Sean’s Bar, Larry’s Pub, Shamrock’s, and Murphy’s Law Pub (with a cheery sign that reads “Smile . . . it will get worse”).
The local paper, the Athlone Advertiser, ran a report on the Irish Business Against Litter (also known as the IBAL), a yearly ranking of 42 cities. In 2013, trendy Galway fell from 15th to 28th place, prompting a defensive city spokesperson to bristle, “We are the finest city in Ireland . . . [We’re] a vibrant, lively place, a hub of culture, commerce, trade, and education.” In contrast, after Athlone moved up from 26th to 22nd place, a City Council spokesperson soberly responded, “We’ll try to keep it under control within the resources we have.”
That’s the essence of Athlone—it’s an average town (22nd out of 42) whose people can offer only “the resources [they] have.” Unlike Dublin or Galway, Athlone’s depth and riches won’t reach out and grab you.
My brother and I started to explore the city, walking the “higgedly-piggedly” streets; talking to the locals; eating its finest fish and chips and real Irish beef burgers; and visiting its museums, shops, and most famous attraction—the Athlone Castle. In the process, we discovered that Athlone isn’t just a place to pass through or go around. This average, ordinary, “waste of time” town holds some remarkable treasures.
For instance, the Athlone Castle, recently remodeled for tours, stands on the west bank of the River Shannon that cuts the city in two. The bridge over the river has been the scene of battles, blood, and heroic virtue. On the night of June 21, 1691, those who supported William of Orange’s claim to the throne stood on the west bank and for 10 straight days launched the heaviest bombardment in Irish history. As 25,000 Williamite soldiers prepared to cross the bridge and crush the Jacobites (those loyal to James II), a brave band of Irish soldiers tried to dismantle the bridge. They were quickly slaughtered, but that merely inspired a gutsy young Irish sergeant named Custume to yell, “Are there 10 men here who will die with me for Ireland? The bridge must go down.” So hauling axes and crowbars, Custume and his team rushed out and laid down their lives to do just that. This is the stuff of movie scripts—and here I was standing close to the spot where Sergeant Custume grabbed his crowbar and led his daring charge into the jaws of death. Not bad for such an “ordinary” place.
I also learned that one of my spiritual mentors, the English theologian John Wesley, had often passed through Athlone, preaching about 135 sermons over four decades. During an early visit, a few ruffians tried to pelt him with eggs and stones. But Wesley kept returning. In April 1748, Wesley recorded his frustrations with the townspeople’s slow response to the gospel. As he wrote in his journal, he was confident “many heard,” but suspected they “felt nothing.” When the Word of God did seem to take root, it didn’t produce dramatic results. Instead, it involved what Wesley called “a slow and even motion.”
The most beautiful aspects of family and friendship are found in seemingly humdrum places.
“Slow and even”—that’s the spirit of Athlone, and it has a certain charm. On our second day there, for instance, Dave and I walked into a local restaurant and had the entire place to ourselves. So the waiter, a well-educated young Irishman named Aidan, sat with us for an hour as we breezily discussed American TV shows, both kinds of football, and the best things about Ireland. The self-confident but frenzied folks of Galway wouldn’t have had time for that kind of leisurely conversation.
En route back to America, I started to wonder if life in Athlone has something to teach us about the spiritual journey. We live in a culture (and even a church culture) that often belittles ordinary places, people, and experiences. We’re on a hectic hunt for what I call a “spirituality of spectacularism”—the expectation that our lives should constantly exude big and impressive spiritual moments. We churn with discontentment because relationships—friendships, marriages, small groups—bear the weight of spectacularism. Worship services and sermons can’t just be average. When it comes to ministry, it’s not enough to faithfully love a neighborhood or a few families. No, we have to “change the world.”
Spectacularism contains a half-truth: As Christians, we know a God of amazing love and power, and we’re bound for a place that’s infinitely more beautiful and fascinating than Galway or Dublin. But the Bible also cautions that life on earth can often feel like visiting Athlone. That’s why the apostle Paul urged us to adopt the quiet, hidden virtue that helps us draw sweetness out of any place—the virtue of contentment.
Paul put it this way: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12 NIV). He could have included “whether in Dublin, Galway, Athlone, or even worse.” In the next verse, Paul spells out the secret to finding contentment no matter where we’re planted: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Christians apply this verse to all kinds of situations and activities, but in its immediate context, it focuses on one thing—the strength Christ gives us to live contentedly in all circumstances.
Certainly, God provides excursions into Dublin or Galway, but when and how long we stay in spectacular locations usually isn’t within our control. I’m convinced that real life usually happens in the Athlones—those uninspiring, sometimes even drab places, relationships, jobs, and ministries where God asks us to say with Paul, “I can live with contentment through Christ who gives me strength.” As my brother Dave and I discovered, sometimes the richest experiences, the best stories, the most valuable lessons, and the most beautiful aspects of family and friendship are found in seemingly humdrum places.
It’s in our personal Athlones—yes, even there—that we can feel God tap us on the shoulder and gently whisper, “There’s goodness here, My friend, but you have to look for it. Walk My streets, listen to My story, eat My food, love Me for who I am, and you’ll find beauty here, too.”