Nevertheless she persisted

Rev Nóirín Ní Riain’s remarkable journey of resilience and faith from Glenstal Abbey all the way to ordained ministry.

This title is popularly known as a contemporary gathering cry for the women’s movement. However, although not directly quoted, these three words are biblical, summarising two Gospel passages that continue to inspire me; one from Luke which is known both as the parable of the ‘unjust judge’ and the ‘persistent woman’.


The other, the Matthew narrative, is a strange insight into an apparent blind spot of Christ. The veil of psychologically impaired vision is lifted through the tenacity and determination of another woman, this time the mother of a very sick daughter.

She will not give up and refuses to go away until he listens and heals and at the end of the day he does. The motto that creates the sure world between faith and justice in these Bible stories is this: In order to free the space to follow your dreams, you must persevere with steadfastness and determination.

When I was born in County Limerick, Ireland in 1951, Roman Catholicism was thriving. I revelled in the rituals. Morning and evening prayers to my Guardian Angel, attendance at everyday Mass, saying the daily Rosary, praying nine Hail Marys to Mary’s mother, St. Anna on Tuesday before 12 midday when a surprise that day was promised. All of which I do to this day.

Captivated by all these practices, my one desire, like so many other young girls then, was to become a priest. That yearning came to a stark, traumatic ending at the age of seven. My brother, three years older, laughed when I shared my life’s ambition with him.

One afternoon. out of my parent’s bedroom I came, having ‘said’ my own Mass to an imaginary congregation. “You’re a girl; you can’t even be an altar boy”, he said. Yet my relationship with my God continued to grow even stronger despite the exclusion. I secretly created my own private sense of ministry within the confines of this system of beliefs.

I continued to find new ways of bypassing the alienation although never consciously. I was subtly being led and I followed obediently in the true sense of that word which draws its source from two Latin words – ob audire – meaning to listen keenly.

Soren Kierkegaard advises us how to review our years. “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” In other words, memory and hope for the future dwell within the one circle of experience. Despite all the harrowing turns on the road of life, looking towards the past, I now see four providential calls to carry on within the confines of a flawed, misogynistic establishment.

My mission to encourage and deepen all that is sacred and close to the divine in others never waned. In some ways, the impossible became possible through the struggle of segregation. Firstly, there was my life as a singer.

Although I trained on the classical platform in UCC, I soon found it contrived and concealing the real-me, my authentic voice. Simultaneously I had been studying and singing a religious repertoire of song.

There was such a treasure of diversity of style, possibility and nuance to proclaim the divine through the sound of Gregorian chant, our own traditional religious song and chants of other world religions. I stepped into the sound of the sacred and I could remember who I was and what I was being called to do.


Without consciously choosing, that was my ministry for many years; to return to the beginning of time when sacred song was the portal to God for singer and listener. Those prisms of singing were never abstract performance. They were simply aural icons, conduits, doorways to the divine and I was the sounding board.

But it did not stop there. Now I wanted to put words on how hearing, listening and their sister silence can be the easiest and finest access towards a living God presence. In other words – “Listen that you might live” the prophet Isaiah believed – a force ever ancient, ever new.

Although I had no degrees in theology, I kept believing and praying that if it was true for me, then the medium, the grace to express it would appear. And it did.

In 2000, the director of the Department of Theology, Dr. Eamonn Conway, in Mary I, University of Limerick listened. In 2003, I was awarded the first doctorate in Theology from that University. Theosony, (Greek Theo/ God and Latin sonans sounding), was the new word that came to me to sum up the argument in favour of a listening God.

This study was motivated by articulating a deep life experience of my own God through the sense of hearing, listening and silence. During this investigation and beyond, I lived on the grounds and followed the daily prayer cycle with the monks of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick.

Day by day, freed a sacred space beyond the veils of language which was communal prayer. Eventually, after sixteen years, I longed to move on. Time crystallised and let in the light of my next step in ministry. In 2017, I was ordained a One Spirit Interfaith minister bringing full circle my childhood longing to care for others spiritually.

Pure wisdom

To conclude, I can never leave what I have outgrown to this day without welcoming the treasures I grew up with. “Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater” as the clichéd adage says. Scriptures, Jewish and Christian, are pure wisdom; the Psalms are universal self-help best sellers; the Book of Job and Ruth are better than Netflix documentaries and TED Talks on aging. Keep the Gospel of John by your bedside and you’ll sleep well.

Perhaps, like Jesus in the Matthew narrative and the unjust judge in Luke, the Church, someday, may have a change of heart but how long we will have the stamina to stay on is dwindling rapidly. Nonetheless we will persist and dwell willingly in the invisible embrace of the divine.

Nóirín Ní Riain is a singer, interfaith minister, and doctor of theology.

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