I have just returned from a brief but very pleasant trip to Ireland. A mixture of work and family time, permeated with the rekindling of friendships with those whom we have come to appreciate, love and respect greatly.
Ireland as I have said on many occasions is such a paradoxical place; hospitality and hostility, friendship and feuding, beauty and ugliness, warmth and respect mingle with destructive sectarianism, racism and sexism. A land from where the gospel first came to most of the rest of Britain. A people and place seeped in faith but poisoned in part by a ‘religious spirit’ that substitutes relationships, freedom, grace and community for doctrinal creeds, divisive dogma and schismatic, confining church practices. Posters on church hoardings reflecting the negativity and hardline judgementalism of a fundamentalist church culture and not that of the One whom such posters purport to represent. As I drove through East Belfast to our Community Gathering by the side of the university near the city centre last night, I reflected on these posters with their biblical texts that punctuated my journey. Allegedly communicating ‘Good News’ ~ meaning Gospel, all I gleaned as I drove by them was that of sin, death, judgement and hell and what I must do to be saved. No text from the Gospels themselves, just chosen texts, mostly from Paul’s Letters, mostly from selected verses in Romans chapters 3 and 6 and consequently little or no conveying of God’s love, grace and compassion.
Ireland such a significant place in the formation and expansion of Christianity in the world is now being overwhelmed and undermined by the tides of secularism, materialism and drift away from church, both Catholic and Protestant. A society in many ways so generous and welcoming but whose ways seem too often to be steeped and bound by history, tribal conventions and cultural expectations. In such a context it is hard to be a nonconformist; to think outside the box, to question the status quo. To be different is to court the label of being disloyal, a traitor, deviant or heretic.
Yet it is in such a context that I have been privileged to witness new shoots, expressions of life and faith that carry hope for this beautiful place and its people. Traits of nonconformity are breaking out and bringing healing and hope.
A ‘community of prayer’ at Saul, (that we were privileged to be part of in its founding), gathering believers from both protestant and catholic traditions every Monday evening to share in Evening Prayer.
The ‘Settling’, a gathering of church and unchurched, several marginalised folk at Ballydugan on Sunday afternoons where people simply meet to talk, eat and work together in the gardens and grounds of Letterfinlay, sharing life stories, supporting one another through welcoming hospitality and listening, supportive hearts.
A youth initiative and café church established in Downpatrick to reach out to the growing numbers of unchurched young people of the area.
I was particularly encouraged by the three Community meetings I was part of this week. The conversation with Companions and Friends around the meal table exploring the possibilities of some form of “Community House’ at Ballydugan. A special place, a thin place, which carries with it elements of destiny and seeped over the years in prayer and the presence of believers seeking and serving God.
The ‘meeting’ that followed saw people gather from the area; at short notice, meeting with us, eager to hear, share and pray.
Then last night the joy of being with our Community folk in the café they hired for our Gathering. A bunch of radical nonconformists, deeply and authentically seeking God and exploring what it means to embrace Availability and Vulnerability in Ireland. A safe space where the ‘welcoming of the stranger’ comes naturally to a Community that embraces such values. Familiar faces, established and exploring Companions, along with new people, all contributing to a healthy, enjoyable and stimulating gathering.
It was great to see people who were joining the group for the first time; those who came having been recently on retreat to Nether Springs, others from a perusal of the website and another at the invitation of a friend. People from all walks of life and backgrounds of faith; medicine, media, law, architecture, public and charitable sectors, education, social, youth and community workers; single folk and married couples, young and old; catholic and protestant, churched, unchurched and dechurched and others who are just not sure where they are at but who are seeking. It is always a great privilege and joy to listen and learn from fellow Companions as to how they are seeking to embrace our Rule of Life, both alone and together in Community. It is in such meetings that I realise afresh the prophetic and radical nature of our calling as a Community. That there is a nonconformist stream that trickles through the very heart of our calling as a new monastic community, exploring A new way for Living. We are called to a contemplative way of life that engages with the church and the world. Praying and serving, being and doing in ways that renew or reimagine how we seek to live as followers of Christ in a changing world and in ways that are “almost monastic in nature but most of all enacting a fearful hope for society”.
On arriving and departing from Ballydugan I spent some time wandering through the grounds of Letterfinlay, the house where Shirley and I lived for a year back in 2006/07. A wild flower meadow has been planted in the gardens there, a sign and symbol of something simple, organic, bringing light and colour to the land and blessing to the birds, butterflies and a myriad of insects. A sign and symbol of what we had witnessed in our conversations and interactions with those whom we were privileged to be with over these past few days. ‘Seeds planted’ offering light and life, hope and healing, beauty and colour to the land and its people.
A good trip…Good people, Good place, Good Possibilities…