Thursday 24 December 2009

Christmas Greetings

Wishing you

A Very Happy & Blessed Christmas

and all the very best for 2010

The Petrograd Madonna painted in 1918 by Kuzma Sergeyevich Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939). This painting has an icon-like quality, reflecting the artist’s teenage work with icon painters at Khvalynsk on the Volga, where he was born. For me it is a reminder that the Christ-child comes to us in every age, even in the midst of turmoil and strife.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone

Winter Wonderland

The countryside around, like the rest of Ireland, is a winter wonderland, dusted with a light snowfall two days ago and frosted hard ever since, with hoar-frost glistening on every twig the pale morning light has not reached.
Frosted pink Hebe

It is very beautiful, but dangerously slippy on roads like ours that have not been salted. Susanna and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two days ago and booked ourselves for a dinner at the Whiskey Still in the village. But when we came to drive there, the car's wheels spun on the compacted ice just outside our drive entrance and we slipped back. Eventually, I let the car slide into the rough margin of the road where rough grit gave enough traction to breast the hill. And we enjoyed an excellent dinner, reminiscing about our Florida wedding and Sarasota honeymoon, spent in shorts sunbathing by the side of a pool, observed by a green-masked heron!

It is a hard time for the birds, which Susanna is assiduously providing with food and fresh water. The familiar common birds visit the birdtable and hanging feeders in a constant stream, including Chaffinches, Greenfinches, occasional Goldfinches, Sparrows, Dunnocks, Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tit's, a single hen Blackcap Warbler and a juvenile cock Blackbird. I can see them through the bedroom window, and observe their pecking order. The Blackbird rules the roost and the others stay away when he is feeding. Next in order are the Greenfinches, but they tolerate others feeding beside them so long as they are not too close. Then comes the Blackcap hen, who is faced off by Greenfinches, but agressively chases away all the smaller birds, like a garden fascist as I previously described it. The Tits and Chaffinches just muck in together.

Elsewhere in the garden, blackbirds maintain their territories despite the weather. I have just seen a Pied Wagtail exploring the gutter for insects outside my upstairs study window. Yesterday there was a Robin on the ground outside the greenhouse which was unable to fly, and later I found it dead and threw its little body into the hedge, where no doubt it will provide a meal for some other creature.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Nenagh bells rang out – and the people came

The Nenagh Churches Together team
l-r: James Armitage, John Armitage, Joc Sanders, Sr Patricia Greene,
Rev Marie Rowley-Brooke, Rev AnnaGretta Hagen (visiting from Norway)
photo by Padraig O Flannabhra

The bells rang out on Sunday 6th December to announce the Nenagh Churches Together prayer vigil for the Copenhagen climate talks, held in St Mary’s Church of Ireland from 4.30 to 6.30 pm. And the people came, from many different church traditions including Catholic, Methodist, Church of Ireland, and Lutheran. Some came for just a few minutes, others for the entire two hours, but between 20 and 30 were present at any one time, substantially more than attended the Day of Prayer for climate change in Teach an Leinn in October, according to the organisers.

The focus of the vigil was a table covered with a green cloth symbolising creation, on which were placed symbols of the faith shared by all Christians, a cross, a bible and a candle, together with a globe symbolising the beautiful God-given planet earth, now threatened by global warming.

In a calm, contemplative atmosphere, those present listened to readings and music, reflected in silence, and prayed for the success of the Copenhagen talks. They prayed too for the world leaders gathered there including our own – it is not nations that make decisions, but individual human beings, who must feel the heavy burden of their responsibility. And they also prayed for an end to the human greed which is damaging our God-given planet. Young people played a big part, among them: Thomas and Ellen Langley from Templederry who read prayers; and Leaving Cert student Maggie Starr who read her poem ‘It’s a sprint to the line’.

It is pleasing to note local TD Máire Hoctor was there - she will no doubt convey the message of the vigil to An Taoiseach Brian Cowan and Minister of the Environment John Gormley, who lead the Irish delegation at Copenhagen.

Afterwards people shared refreshments of tea, coffee and delicious home-made cakes, and chatted. Among comments overheard were these:
  • “Let’s hope that the governments can wake up and see what the average everyday people are seeing over the world”;
  • “The poor earth needs all the prayers we can manage”;
  • “It was moving and meaningful, and especially so because it was a shared witness with Christian traditions working together”.

The Nenagh Churches Together team look forward to working together on many such shared events in future.

It's a Sprint to the line, Or a race against time.
By Maggie Starr

In the dying sunlight of my evening,
My thoughts smell of burning fear.
I've over-dosed on my anger,
And the antidote has yet to be conceived.

We've blinded our views of previous failings,
Unwilling to comprehend their probable conclusion.
We've smoked this animal from his caving,
Our deafness anaesthetizes our guilt.

Our knowledge-seeking conscience have tasted the antidote,
Some have touched the formula in moral experimentations.
Our selfish race have evaporated the referee,
Our league must now trust in our own resourcefulness.

A great poet once said;
*"I had a dream, which was not all a dream,
The bright Sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander."

This problem is the religion of our age,
Self-righteous, intolerant based on dissent.
But, the best time to do something worthwhile,
Is between yesterday and tomorrow.

It's a sprint to the line,
Or a race against time.

*Lord Byron

Friday 11 December 2009

Unseasonable flowers

At last a fine sunny day after weeks of rain and dismal gloom! I went out to look around the very sodden garden, which is a mess because I have not been out to mow or tidy. I was surprised to find so many flowers unseasonably blooming and picked this bunch.

Here we see penstemon, primrose, tobacco, rambling rose Dorothy Perkins, lavatera, dog daisy, erigeron, hebe

And here we also see fuchsia, a David Austin rose and a South African diasy whose name for the present escapes me.

And if I had taken the long-arm with me I could have had Spanish broom and other rambling roses Veilchen blau, American Pillar and an unidentified giant shrub rose with tiny pink flowers.

We have survived the floods here, being on good high ground, though the road has been wrecked by the torrents of water that ran down them. Susanna drove into a pothole and her tyre went flat. The Shannon has risen far higher than ever known before. In this picture you can see the Lough Derg Yacht Club clubhouse with water lapping at its feet. The boathouses and jetties are all flooded, and you can see the angle made by the floating jetties in the background, beside the RNLI inshore lifeboat.

We have had it so much better than other poor souls in Cork, Galway, Clare and Kildare. It is heartening how the Irish people and agencies like St Vincent de Paul and the Irish Red Cross have rallied round to help their neighbours whose homes, farms and businesses have been wrecked, though the Government was rather slower, distracted no doubt by framing a swingeing budget.

People are wondering whether this is a sign of climate change. I don't think anyone can say so for certain, because climate change is a statistical thing. But climate scientists are saying we can expect higher winter rainfall in the West of Ireland, and more extreme weather events. I think it would be wise to take these floods as a wake-up call to start responding to climate change, by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as adapting to the difficult future we all face.

Friday 4 December 2009

Budget blues

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe - this article appeared in the December/January 2009/10 issue.

Minister of Finance Brian Lenihan

Can you visualize €1,000,000,000?
Ireland is in an economic mess – commentators, politicians and interest groups all keep telling us so. The Government promises us a harsh budget, and says that if we take the nasty medicine now we will all be better for it. Figures of billions of Euro in budget cuts and/or higher taxes are bandied about – on top of billions to recapitalise the banks, and yet more billions for NAMA. It is all quite bemusing, isn’t it?

€1 billion = €1,000,000,000

One billion 1 Euro coins placed end to end stretch 23,250 km

That’s more than 100 times the distance from Limerick to Dublin

€4 billion would fill one carriageway of the Limerick to Dublin motorway with 1 Euro coins

The hole we are in
As a citizen of this Republic, I feel I should try to understand our situation. So I have just been reading the November 2009 Pre-budget Outlook published by the Department of Finance – you can download it free from It summarises the context in which Minister of Finance Brian Lenihan will frame his budget for 2010. To my surprise it is quite easy to read, and at just 30 pages a good way to get an overview of our economic woes, even if it is rather depressing. For me, the key facts are these:
  • National output (GDP) has fallen by around 7.5% this year and is expected to fall by another 1.5% in 2010. Unemployment has soared; pay rates have fallen (in the public if not the private sector); prices are falling; consumption is falling; savings are up; investment is minimal.

  • The government deficit – the difference between what is raised in taxes and what is spent – has ballooned to around €20 billion in 2009, largely because tax revenues have collapsed and social welfare payments to the unemployed have surged.

We are faced with a classic deflationary spiral, like the great depression in the 1930s. Keynes’ remedy then was increased public borrowing and spending, to put people back to work and stimulate demand, leading to renewed confidence and a return to investment and growth. This is what other countries are doing now with stimulus packages, and it is what our government has been doing too, by increasing the government deficit.

But the Government says this can’t go on, because even if financial markets would keep lending to us, paying them back would cost too much. Last April they declared they would reduce borrowing by €4 billion in 2010 and another €4 billion in 2011, in order to get borrowing down to 3% of GDP by 2013. Most economists and politicians seem to agree that this scale of adjustment is necessary, though the trades unions argue that the adjustment should be over a longer period. I for one am persuaded a €4 billion adjustment in 2010 is appropriate.

How to reduce borrowing by €4 billion?
But the big question is how to do it. I believe our Christian faith demands social justice – a ‘preferential option for the poor’, in the phrase used by liberation theologians. Can there be any doubt that Jesus calls us in solidarity to protect the poor and the vulnerable?

I am therefore dismayed by the media chorus, on the one hand urging cuts in social welfare for the poor and vulnerable because consumer prices are falling, while on the other asserting that the well off cannot afford to pay more in taxes. Both arguments are nonsense, I think.

First, basic living costs for those on social welfare have not dropped as they have for other groups. Most of the fall in the price index is due to lower mortgage interest rates, but few on social welfare have mortgages, so cuts in line with the index would cause real hardship for those already struggling. St Vincent de Paul points out that the planned removal of the Christmas bonus already represents a 2% cut, at a time of year when poor families need to spend more on basics such as heat, light, food and clothing. A new carbon tax is expected in the budget. This will promote the transition to a low carbon society which we must make to avoid climate change catastrophe, and I am in favour of it. But the poor spend more of their income proportionately on high carbon fuels. Without compensating measures a carbon tax will increase fuel poverty. Social justice requires benefits to be raised, not cut.

Second, those who are well off are well able to pay more in taxes to help out their less fortunate fellow citizens struggling to live on social welfare. Most of those who profited from the bubble economy remain very rich. Sean Quinn, for example, has been able to pass €200 million to his four children this year, despite his losses in the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank. Salaries for Irish professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, business managers and government ministers, remain very high by international norms. Such people will suffer no hardship if asked to pay more. Those who suggest they would skip the country to avoid tax are arguing that we should give in to blackmail, as well as impugning their patriotism.

But more than this, income tax rates for those of us lucky enough to still have good incomes are very low by international standards, as Garrett Fitzgerald has been arguing. Most Irish taxpayers pay tax on income at rates between a quarter and a half of the rates in other western European countries and the USA. Even at higher income levels our rates are still a quarter lower than these other countries. These low rates of tax on incomes are a result of grossly irresponsible government decisions during the boom to fund cuts in income tax from stamp duties and capital gains tax arising from the housing bubble. If we want to enjoy decent health and education services and an acceptable social welfare safety net, we must all be prepared to pay more in tax. And ways must be found to relieve the interest burden on ordinary families who were persuaded to take out mortgages to pay absurd stamp duty on over-priced homes.

Back in April Brian Lenihan appeared to accept this, saying he would raise €2.5 billion in increased taxes in 2010, with a more manageable €1.5 billion in expenditure cuts. More recently he has been saying the whole €4 billion must come in cuts. Is he really preparing to throw social justice to the winds in budget 2010?

And what about overseas aid?
Social justice must not end at home. It should also apply to the poorest of the poor in the developing world. My own key test of Budget 2010, as it was last year, is what happens to development aid.

Ireland has a proud record for overseas development aid. Like all rich countries we promised to increase development aid to 0.7% of GNP to achieve the UN’s Millennium Goals, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. By 2008 we were the sixth highest per capita donor, giving 0.58% of GNP, on track to meet our commitment to achieve 0.7% by 2012. I awarded Brian Lenihan a cheer in October 2008 for protecting the overseas development budget for 2009.

But what has happened since then? The overseas aid budget has been cut by 24% since February - three times higher than the fall in GNP. This year, for the first time, 1 billion people are going hungry. This shames us all – our government has shamed us! To their credit, 30 TDs and Senators from all parties wrote to the editor of the Irish Times on 14th November earnestly calling on the Government not to cut overseas aid any further. I pray that Brian Lenihan will listen to them, and even restore this year’s cuts.

Friday 27 November 2009

Nenagh church bells to ring for climate change prayer vigil

Churches Together in Nenagh will mark the eve of the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen with a prayer vigil on Sunday 6th December in St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Church Rd, Nenagh, between 4.30 pm and 6.30 pm. All are invited to join the vigil for a few minutes or longer, whatever their faith or denomination.

The Copenhagen summit will be a critical test for world leaders. Two years ago in Bali they agreed to negotiate a comprehensive legally binding treaty this year to avert the catastrophe of run away global warming. Recent reports suggest that a political agreement is more likely at Copenhagen, paving the way for a treaty next year. But substantial delay would be disastrous for people everywhere, our children, and the planet - the recent floods are a wake-up call. Firm commitments are needed now to take action which is both effective and just.

The cross-denomination organising team explain why they believe the vigil is important. ‘World leaders know the eyes of the world are on them and they surely feel the weight of responsibility they bear’, says Sr Patricia Greene of Nenagh Catholic parish. ‘They need our prayers.’ Church of Ireland lay reader Joc Sanders says, ‘Care for God’s planet is a Christian duty. Our prayers should encourage the Irish delegation including Environment Minister John Gormley and Taoiseach Brian Cowen to step up to the mark in Copenhagen’. Cloughjordan Methodist James Armitage adds, ‘We in Nenagh will pray alongside millions of others around the world. God is faithful and we can be sure that He will respond in the way that is best for all creation’.

The team are arranging for the bells of all the churches in Nenagh to be rung from 4 pm. Catholic lay woman Liz Callery urges, ‘Listen for the bells. When you hear them, please make time to stop, reflect and pray for a good result in Copenhagen, even if you cannot join us.’

Saturday 14 November 2009

Nnenagh Churches Together Prayer Vigil - 6th December

If you are anywhere near Nenagh on Sunday 6th December, the Eve of the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, why not come to join us?

Or perhaps you might like to organise something similar in your own community!

Friday 13 November 2009

Rain and birds

Strawberry-like fruit of Cornus capitata
What amazing rain we've had over the last 10 days or so - and more is promised for the weekend! On Tuesday I emptied nearly a foot out of the wheelbarrow, which I wanted to use to pick up clippings from the Evergreen Oak hedge. And today there is another 2 or 3 inches. Of course the mouth of the barrow is bigger than its base, but that is still a lot of water.

Susanna has started to feed the birds again: the birdtable is out by the kitchen window, and the peanot holders are on the espalier wires. The tits found them straight away, as if they had just been waiting, just like the rats, who have been climbing up to the table. There are few finches as yet, although I see the usual winter gangs in the hedges - I suppose there are still plenty of berries for them. Blackbirds and thrushes have been testing the cotneaster berries I can see from my study, but they are not yet ripe enough I think, or they would have been stripped in 10 minutes. Somebody has been at the large strawberry-like fruit of Cornus capitata, but I haven't detected who yet - probably the thrushes. We have half a dozen of them, grown from seed by Susanna, all now flowering and fruiting.

A bird has nibbled the Cornus capitata fruit

The Cryptomeria japonica given us by Grania has really taken off this year. It is a form that retains its juvenile foliage, which turns copper in winter- you would almost think it has died, but it will come back to life again in the Spring.

Grania's Cryptomeria japonica

Sunday 1 November 2009

View from the pew - The mustard seed in Leipzig

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe - this article appeared in the November 2009 issue.

Last year my wife Marty and I visited Leipzig, not far from our companion Lutheran diocese of Anhalt. Within the inner ring road, built over the medieval city walls, the compact historic centre is being lovingly restored after decades of neglect in the former East Germany. One of its jewels is the Nikolaikirche – St Nicholas’ Church - where Johann Sebastian Bach’s Johannes Passion was first performed on Good Friday of 1724. There we first learned of the amazing role this beautiful 12th century church played in the events of 20 years ago, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Derek Scally wrote a fine article about it in the Irish Times on 7th October (you can find it by googling ‘Derek Scally Leipzig’).

Pastor Christian Führer

Pastor Christian Führer, now retired

The long road to 1989 began in 1981 with peace prayer evenings organised by Nikolaikirche’s pastor Christian Führer in 1981 in response to the Cold War arms race. Five years on, the Monday night gatherings were attracting just four people. Pastor Christian recalls, “I was ready to give up but one of the people attending said, ‘If we give up, then there is no hope any more’. Then I remembered the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that can still grow to provide shelter for many.” He carried on with the prayer evenings.

By 1988 the era of perestroika had come to the Soviet Union, and in East Berlin, the elderly Politburo was in denial about the need for reforms. In Leipzig, Pastor Christian could sense the longing for change. “The people had been silenced, by fear and the secret police, we provided a space for them to discuss taboo topics,” he says. Attendance at his Monday prayer meetings grew – from eight to 80, and then 100. On September 4th a group of young people emerged from the Monday meeting to hold up a banner reading: “For an open life with free people.” A Stasi agent ran forward to snatch the banner, filmed by a West German TV crew, with the footage seen in East as well as West Germany. A week later, the Nikolaikirche was full. Pastor Christian was jubilant but nervous: would the meetings remain calm as the pressure continued to build? “I reminded people of the Sermon on the Mount – love your enemy – and hoped they would take this message of non-violence with them from the church.”

The critical turning point came in October 1989. As East Germany approached its fortieth anniversary on October 6th, the regime was becoming more and more anxious to calm a situation which was out of control. Thousands of its citizens were escaping across the Czech border to Hungary, which had opened its borders to the West, and attempts to stop this resulted in more angry protests and police using water cannons and batons to drive back the crowds.

9th October 1989
The mood in Leipzig before the next Monday prayers on 9th October was increasingly tense. Pastor Christian urged three other inner-city churches to open their doors for prayers, so that as many people as possible would be inside, protected from the police. Local dignitaries, including the director of the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra and the area bishop, appealed for non-violence. Thousands of ordinary people left their homes, said goodbye to children and partners, and converged upon the city centre. Eye-witnesses tell of the turmoil of emotions they felt: terror, as they wondered if they would return home, mixed with determination, arising out of the despair of knowing that if they stayed at home nothing would ever change. The church was filled, with many Stasi agents as well as protestors.

Pastor Christian describes what happened as the service ended, “More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands. I will never forget this moment. A person needs two hands to carry a candle: one to hold it and the other to protect the flame – so you can’t carry sticks or stones at the same time. The miracle happened. Jesus’ spirit of non-violence seized the masses and transformed them into a real and peaceful, powerful presence. Troops and police officers were drawn in and became engaged in conversations. The crowds chanted ‘Keine Gewalt!’‘No violence!’ - and the police withdrew.”

Monday Demonstration in Leipzig

With an extraordinary 70,000 people behind him, the nervous pastor led the march around the Leipzig inner ring road to the chant, ‘Wir sind das Volk!’‘We are the people!’. To their amazement, they completed a circuit and returned, unhindered, to the Nikolaikirche. The next week, on 16 October 1989, 120,000 demonstrated in Leipzig after the Monday prayers, and the following week the number more than doubled to 320,000. The Monday demonstrations spread throughout East Germany, including Anhalt, proving that the majority of the population opposed the regime. This pressure led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, and the collapse of the East German regime, without a shot being fired.

In giving me permission to quote from his article, Derek Scally has this to say, “It was a huge honour to talk to the people from the Nikolaikirche. Many of them told me they still remembered clearly their anxiety from the evening, that they were walking into a second Tiananmen Square. Too little is known of the key role of the religious in the 1989 events.”

Prayer is action
This is a remarkable story that can truly inspire us. It shows that prayer can be powerful action. Out of a tiny mustard seed of prayer, a peaceful revolution was born. Some were in Nikolaikirche to spy, some half-listening, some cynical, some committed, some believers, many unsure. But prayer and action became one as they came together. Prayer is like a pebble in the pond, sending ripples far and wide – or like the steady drip which gradually wears away the stone. We too can plant a mustard seed!

Saturday 31 October 2009

The mission is a bucket of well-rotted compost!

What a strange season we are having. Today is Halloween, and we have not had a frost yet. I am still harvesting green climbing beans and romanesco broccoli, the Salvias and Dahlias continue in flower, many of the roses are having another go, and mauve Primula vulgaris sibthorpii, which normally flowers in Spring, is blooming its socks off.

Yesterday was rather wet and gloomy until late afternoon, when the cloud cleared to the North East and the sun broke through. As the last drops fell from the trailing edge of the cloud, a full double rainbow burst forth against the slate grey retreating cloud. A simply amazing spectacle, a reminder of God's promise after the Flood. If I had had my wits about me, like Daniel Owen I should have rushed for my camera. Instead I went out to pick the last of the tomatoes in the poly-tunnel, which need to be cleared out to make room for the tender Salvias and Dahlias. Susanna has taken the green tomatoes to cousin Lygia, who will make them into her renowned chutney, made to a recipe from her Indian childhood.

The Bishop has bidden everyone from all the parishes in the Diocese to come to St Mary's Cathedral in Limerick on Mission Sunday, November 15th, for a great celebration of mission. We are to choose and bring with us a symbol of mission from each parish. People in ours have been writing suggestions on a flip-chart in Church, such as Salt, or Bread. But the symbol I should like to see is a bucket of well-rotted compost! Surely as Christians our mission is to maintain the fertility of this beautiful garden of Eden on which God has been pleased to place human kind and so many other creatures, and to improve the texture of the soil in which God's kingdom is continuously taking root.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Autumn assaulting the senses

Tall lemon-yellow sunflowers reach for the sun

My self-indulgent morning routine is to check the email, catch up on the blogs I follow, spend a little time in quiet reflection, and take a leisurely stroll in the garden in my dressingown. Only then is it time for the business of the day. A couple of times a week this is punctuated by a breakfast shared with Suzanna - this morning it was apple pancakes with butter and gooseberry jam: no wonder I am overweight!
Out in the garden, Autumn assaults the senses in these golden October days, brought by a stationary anticyclone centred over Ireland. The Autumn colours startle the eyes: wine-red Cornus sibirica, Euonymus and Prunus 'Kojo-no-mai', the orange berries of Cotoneaster, and the yellows and russets of the hedgerow ash and the trees of Kilteelagh.

Wine-red Cornus sibirica

Spindle (Euonymus sp.) in the Drive Border

Kilteelagh trees from the front gate

We have had no significant frosts yet, and the tender autumn flowers sparkle in the sunshine: bright hoors of Dahlias, pink and white Nicotiana, and sky blue Salvia uliginosa - the latter reputed to be tender, but it has survived the last two winters outdoors here.

Bright hoors of Dahlias

Salvia uliginosa

Scuffing fallen leaves in the Lime Alley reminds me of childhood. A leaf falls vertically in the still air and I catch it for luck. From the corner of my eye I catch a flicker of white as a Cole Tit races to the sunflowers. The first heads have ripened - I do not cut them down until all have been stripped, and I hope to get some volunteers next year, as I did this.

As I pass the soft-fruit bed I spot a few late Autumn raspberries. Too few for a dish for two with cream, I say guiltily to myself, so I might as well eat them! They are very ripe, almost black in colour, but oh, the flavour! Sweet and acid at the same time, delicious. But the pips stick in the gaps of my teeth and red juice stains my fingers.

A strange rhythmic noise claims my attention. I look up to see a skein of geese, two dozen or so, flying in a classic 'V' south east, honking as they go. Where have they come from, and where are they going to? Perhaps they are Greenland White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons flavirostris), an exciting thought. Ten thousand of them, one third of the world's total, fly each autumn from far-away Greenland to spend the winter on the Wexford Slobs. But I'm not up to identifying them in flight.

From my study window, I see two Magpies chasing each other, one with something red in its beak. I go out to investigate and find a dead rat, half eaten, in the Labyrinth bed. Magpies are scavengers, doing the job of cleaning up which Nature has designed them for. But I can't imagine that they killed the rat, but perhaps a visiting cat did. Should I put out bait for the rats and risk poisoning the Magpies?

I've been trimming the hedge of Eleageanus ebbingeii at the back of the drive border, a big job. I want to keep it at about 7 foot, and like it to have a flat top to show off the shrubs and trees behind It is now in full bloom with rather insignificant white flowers, but their scent is magnificent. Close up it is almost overpowering and has been making me sneeze. It is a good hedging plant with grey-green laurel-like leaves, but can make several feet in a season. I had thought it thornless, but discovered to my cost that some plants have a few sharp little prickles, which drew blood painfully.

So I have been assaulted in my garden by all five senses!

Monday 5 October 2009

Nenagh Day of Prayer for Climate Change

The joint day of prayer for climate change held in Nenagh on Saturday 3rd October, St Francis’ Eve, was a great success, I think. As people came and went over the four hours, an average of a dozen or so were present at any one time to pray together, to listen to music, readings and reflections, and to share time in silence. On arrival all were welcomed and given a sheet to introduce the day of prayer, with background information about climate change and ideas for how individuals may respond, echoed by posters on the walls.

The focus of the prayer room was a simple table with a green cloth, symbolising God’s creation, upon which were placed symbols of the faith we share: a plain wooden cross, a lighted candle, and a Bible on a stand.

Prayers were led by Dean Langley of the Nenagh Baptist Group, Rev Brian Griffin and James Armitage of the Methodist circuit, Rev Marie Rowley-Brooke and Joc Sanders of the Church of Ireland, and from the Catholic parish, Sr Patricia Greene and Sr Rita Corry with a host of laity of all ages. It was wonderful to experience and share in the variety of voices and styles of witness coming from our separate traditions, joined together in common purpose to pray for the future of God’s planet.

Christian Hope is a gift we bring to others
For many people the enormity of the climate change crisis is so great that they feel hopeless. Like rabbits caught in the headlights of a car, they feel unable to do anything about it - even unable to think about it. But we Christians are not like that – we root our lives in Christian hope. Christian hope is a great gift that we have to offer our brothers and sisters of other faiths and none, to inspire them to take action. In that light, these were our closing prayers and readings.

Words from a letter from Taizé written in 2003:

  • Christian hope does not mean living in the clouds, dreaming of a better life. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. It leads us to discover seeds of a new world already present today, because of the identity of our God, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This hope is, in addition, a source of energy to live differently, not according to the values of a society based on the thirst for possession and competition.
  • In the Bible, the divine promise does not ask us to sit down and wait passively for it to come about, as if by magic. Before speaking to Abraham about the fullness of life offered to him, God says, "Leave your country and your home for the land I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). To enter into God’s promise, Abraham is called to make of his life a pilgrimage, to undergo a new beginning.
  • Similarly, the good news of the resurrection is not a way of taking our minds off the tasks of life here and now, but a call to set out on the road. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? … Go into the entire world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation… You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:11; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).
  • Impelled by the Spirit of Christ, believers live in deep solidarity with humanity cut off from its roots in God. Writing to the Christians of Rome, Saint Paul speaks of the longing of creation and compares this suffering to the pangs of childbirth. Then he continues, "We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly" (Romans 8:18-23). Our faith is not a privilege that takes us out of the world; we "groan" with the world, sharing its pain, but we live this situation in hope, knowing that, in Christ, "the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (1 John 2:8).
  • Hoping, then, means first of all discovering in the depths of the present a Life that leads forward and that nothing is able to stop. It also means welcoming this Life by a yes spoken by our whole being. As we embark on this Life, we are led to create signs of a different future here and now, in the midst of the difficulties of the world, seeds of renewal that will bear fruit when the time comes.
A prayer from Put People First
Lord, you make all things new- you are the God of the exiled - in times of darkness, uncertainty and fear we can only cling to you. Though we may walk through the valley of shadows, we will fear no evil for you are with us.

Lord, you are the God of the resurrection. In you lies our hope for transformation. You have shown us a glimpse of the mountain top, and we will keep walking that path with you. Give us the vision to see how things can be, and help us work together to achieve this.

Clothe our leaders with humility and grace to put actions before words, and bring greater justice and sustainability in this world.

A reading from Isaiah 55:6-13
"Turn to the LORD and pray to him, now that he is near. Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking. Let them turn to the LORD, our God; he is merciful
and quick to forgive. "My thoughts," says the LORD, "are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and
thoughts above yours.

"My word is like the snow and the rain that come down from the sky to water the earth. They make the crops grow and provide seed for planting and food to eat. So also will be the word that I speak — it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do.

"You will leave Babylon with joy; you will be led out of the city in peace. The mountains and hills will burst into singing, and the trees will shout for joy. Cypress trees will grow where now there are briars; myrtle trees will come up in place of thorns. This will be a sign that will last forever, a reminder of what I, the LORD, have done."

Alastair McIntosh, Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde, and a Quaker, has this to say about climate change:
"Technical fixes are certainly part of the solution. But I’d put it to you that the deep work must be this:
to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping at the altars of greed.
The crisis of these times is therefore spiritual. It calls for reconnecting our inner lives with the outer world - an expansion of consciousness.”

A prayer of St Teresa of Avila
Christ has no body on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours;
yours are the eyes through which to look with Christ’s compassion on the world,
yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,
and yours are his hands with which to bless us now.

A prayer from the Community of Longchamp
Come light, light of God, give light to creation, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.
We beseech you, bless every effort and every search,
Every struggle and every pain that seek to restore the harmony and beauty of your Creation.
Renew the face of the earth, so that every human being may live in peace and justice, fruits of your Spirit of love.
Blow your Spirit of life on your creation and all humanity.
Come light, light of God, give light to creation, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.
We beseech you, Lord, bless the fruits of the earth and the work of our hands and teach us to share the abundance of your goods.
Send rain to the dry soil, sun and fair weather where harvest is endangered by storms.
Blow your Spirit of life on your creation and all humanity.
Come light, light of God, give light to creation, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

We finished by saying together this Franciscan prayer
May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half truths, and indifferent relationships,
So that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears

For those who face pain, hunger and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to change their pain into joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness

To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

Saturday 3 October 2009

View from the pew - The glass is more than half full!

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe - this article appeared in the October 2009 issue.
NAMA, Lisbon, the Budget – and Copenhagen

“NAMA, Lisbon, and the Budget – these are the three immense and immediate challenges facing Ireland”– so said An Taoiseach Brian Cowen to the business luminaries of the Irish diaspora assembled at Farmleigh for the Global Irish Economic Forum.

Brian Cowan addresses the Global Economic Irish Forum

These are important issues, as we all know. Political and media attention is constant and shrill - and focussed on these three almost to the exclusion of everything else. The decisions to be taken are important – they will shape our country for many years to come - so let us pray that they will be the right ones.

But in all the hubbub, could there be a danger that we lose sight of other things? Climate change is by far the biggest challenge we all face in the 21st Century (for the facts see Two Degrees, One Chance). Within a very few years, every single one of us - in every country - must change the way we live and work, in order to protect our fragile planet for our children and grandchildren and the rest of creation. World governments have promised to agree workable and comprehensive action at the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen this December. It may be the last chance to do so before the planet passes a point of no return and suffers catastrophic run-away heating. So let us also pray for an effective and just agreement in Copenhagen.

This is what Nenagh Union will be doing on Saturday 3rd October in Teach an Leinn in the centre of Nenagh from 11am to 3pm, together with our brothers and sisters in Christ from local Roman Catholic, Methodist and (we hope) other independent congregations, in a joint day of prayer for climate change. Passers-by of all faiths and none will be invited to drop in for as long or short as they wish, to hear prayers and readings, share quiet time in reflection, and find out more about climate change.

So many crises, so many important and difficult decisions to be made! I would be spoilt for choice if I wanted to write about such grave matters – and looking back over the archive perhaps I do so too often. Are we in danger of losing sight of joyful things too? Forget all the dismal crisis talk – let’s be cheerful, it is a Christian virtue! Let’s think instead of how much we have to be thankful for – our faithful God has blessed us with so much.

Harvest Time
We have been blessed by September’s Indian Summer, haven’t we? It’s amazing how the spirits rise with a bit of dry, sunny weather - mine certainly do. Last Saturday I spent a glorious day in Cloughjordan at the Eco-Village open day and energy fair. I was much too hot in my tweed jacket and woolly jumper – I had to strip them off. In the balmy weather it was hard to remember that creation is in crisis!

2009 has been difficult for those who are farmers, the third bad summer in a row. Many will be disappointed with the return they have got from all their planning and hard work. But the settled September has allowed tillage farmers to salvage something from the difficult season. Yields may be down here in Ireland, but elsewhere in Europe they have been higher than expected, and the total world crop looks set to be a record. Prices will likely be low, but this will be a boon to those short of fodder because of the weather - Teagasc advises not to buy in expensive silage this winter, but to feed cereals.

Many more of us will be anxious about the economic recession and market collapse. Worries bubble up: Is my job safe? What about my savings and my pension? How can I stretch my income to pay the bills?

But let us see the glass as half full, not half empty! Just reflect for a moment on the breadth and variety of our harvest. We have the staples: we have wheat for bread and butter to spread on it, oats for porridge and milk to pour over it, barley for beer, hay, silage and meal for cattle. But there is so much more than staples for us to enjoy, isn’t there! There’s meat and eggs, cheese and yoghurt, fruit and nuts, vegetables and mushrooms, and gardens full of flowers! Many of us keep animals, and there are this year’s foals, and calves and lambs and chicks. But there’s also the fruit of our own bodies - our children and grandchildren born this year - thank God for them too!

Cause for celebration

Some of the produce from Joakim's Garden

My own harvest is as a gardener. In the picture you can see some of what my wife and I are enjoying at the moment: runner beans, beetroot, carrots, onions, potatoes, parsley, garlic, French beans, spinach beet, tomatoes, autumn raspberries, apples, pears, and wildlings from the hedgerow, blackberries and damsons or bullaces, as my mother used to call them. I forgot to include the frisé lettuce (plants a gift from a neighbour) and courgettes. And coming on there are romanesco broccoli, brussels sprouts, leeks and purple sprouting broccoli for the spring. We are freezing pounds of beans to enjoy over winter. Nothing tastes so good as what you have grown or picked yourself. And it is just as enjoyable to be able to give away the surplus. If this sounds like boasting, I can’t help it - God has been very good to us this year!

Above all perhaps we should thank God for our health and strength, and also for our intellects, our God-given cleverness. As every farmer knows, this bountiful harvest does not appear from heaven as if by magic: it takes hard graft and intelligent planning!

In this rich corner of the world today, we will not starve, as our forefathers so often did after a bad harvest. With the gift of cleverness we have invented ways to store food and to transport it, and economic and social systems to distribute it to where it is needed. If we consume a little less, it will probably be good for our health; and perhaps the whole planet will benefit. So let us be cheerful and follow the good advice of Deuteronomy: ‘You shall set the first of the fruit of the ground down before the Lord your God … Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.’

Let us all celebrate and enjoy our harvest!

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Nenagh churches day of prayer for climate change

If you are anywhere near Nenagh, Co Tipperary, on Saturday 3rd October, why don't you pop in to join us? You can also take in the Farmers' Market, and Nenagh's excellent shops and cafes!

A joint Day of Prayer
Nenagh Christians, including Catholic, Methodist and Church of Ireland, will join together on Saturday 3rd October in a day of prayer for climate change, to be held 11am – 3pm in Teach an Leinn, Kenyon St, Nenagh. They are inviting passers-by of all faiths and none to pop in for a few minutes, as long or short as they please, to hear prayers and readings, to share quiet time in reflection and meditation, and to find out more about the climate change crisis.

An unholy mess…
Church of Ireland lay reader Joc Sanders explains the background. "We are making an unholy mess of our planet, which we share with so many others of God’s creatures. The facts of global warming are clear and human beings are the main culprits. People have been putting excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, largely by burning coal, oil and gas, but also by cutting down forests and intensifying agriculture. Global temperatures are rising inexorably. As a result, sea levels are rising, extreme weather – storms, floods and droughts – are becoming more frequent, eco-systems world wide are being disrupted, and species extinction is accelerating.

"The poorest of the poor in the 3rd World are worst affected for now, but we will all suffer if global warming is not halted. People all around the world must urgently change the way they live and work to protect our fragile planet for our children and grandchildren. World governments have promised to agree to implement a workable and comprehensive package of measures at the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen this December. This may be the last chance to do so before the planet passes a point of no return and suffers run-away heating.

"News headlines may be dominated by financial meltdown and economic crash, but we must not lose sight of climate change as the most complex and serious problem we face in the 21st century. We are responding to a call by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to pray that God’s will be done at this critical time for the planet. For churches to come together is a prayer in itself, and what better day for it than St Francis’ Eve?"

What the churches will pray for
So just what exactly will the Churches be praying for together on 3rd October?
  • Church of Ireland Rector Rev Marie Rowley-Brooke says, "We will pray that God’s Holy Spirit will lead the Governments of the world to agree at Copenhagen to take action on climate change which is both effective and just."
  • Cloughjordan Methodist lay minister John Armitage adds, "We will pray too for Awareness and Awakening – all of us need to become more aware of our carbon footprint and our personal responsibility in this gathering crisis, and each one of us must wake up and start to walk more lightly on God’s good earth."
  • Agreeing with them, Sister Patricia Green of the Sisters of Mercy says, "We will also pray for God to forgive our human greed and selfishness that is driving global warming, and for God’s mercy on those who are suffering already."

Day of prayer team, left to right: John Armitage, Sr Patricia Greene,

Joc Sanders, Rev Marie Rowley-Brooke and James Armitage

Sunday 6 September 2009

View from the Pew - Swine Flu is not the end of the world!

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This article was published in the September 2009 edition.

We are in the early stages of an influenza pandemic, the first of the 21st century. Health professionals call it Pandemic (H1N1) 2009, but the rest of us call it Swine Flu. It is timely to review the situation and what we should do about it.

The science
The flu virus is very cunning. No more than a tiny bit of DNA hidden inside a protein coat, when it infects a cell in our nose, throat or lungs, it takes over the cell’s machinery and reproduces countless copies of itself. These infect other cells, making us seriously ill, until we develop immunity. And by making us cough and sneeze, the flu spreads itself from person to person in tiny liquid droplets in the air or on surfaces.

Our bodies are also cunning – our immune system has evolved to protect us from viruses, so that once we recover we can’t catch the same virus again – we become immune. But the flu virus is tricky – from time to time it changes its coat proteins so that our immune defences cannot recognise and eliminate it before it makes us ill.

In this pandemic, scientists believe, the new virus picked up some DNA from a form of pig flu – which is why we call it Swine Flu. Most people in the world have no immunity to it, so Swine Flu has spread rapidly world wide since first detected in Mexico in April – this is what is meant by a ‘pandemic’. Hundreds of thousands have already caught it in North and South America, the Far East, and in parts of Europe, particularly Britain. Now it is spreading in Ireland, with our rate of infection being about four weeks behind that in Britain.

We have had flu pandemics before - there were three in the 20th century: Spanish Flu in 1918, Asian Flu in 1957 and Hong Kong Flu in 1968. Flu is always a serious disease, but some kinds are much more severe than others. Asian Flu and Hong Kong Flu were quite mild, but Spanish Flu probably killed more people than the 1st World War.

Thank God, it seems that Swine Flu is a mild one - at least for the present: some are concerned that the virus could change again to become more lethal later on, as seems to have happened with the Spanish Flu. Most people recover fully at home in a week or so with no special treatment. 1 or 2 percent may develop complications needing hospital care, and a few die. The very old, the very young and those with certain pre-existing conditions are most at risk. As of late August, we have had just three deaths in the island of Ireland. Around three-quarters of Swine Flu cases are in children and young adults under 30 – older age groups who have had flu in previous pandemics may have some immunity.

Unlike previous pandemics, doctors can now treat patients with anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, but they are ineffective unless given within a couple of days of symptoms appearing. Anti-virals are not a cure but they help recovery by relieving symptoms, they reduce the length of illness by around one day, and they reduce incidence of serious complications such as pneumonia. If used too widely the virus may become resistant to them. Bio-technologists are also working to make Swine Flu vaccines to give recipients immunity. The first supplies may be ready in October and Ireland has ordered enough for the whole population.

Once children go back to school and we spend more time indoors in the colder weather, we will see a big increase in infections. The Department of Health has warned that 1 million people – a quarter of us – are likely to get Swine Flu this year, but I suspect this is no more than a guess and nobody really knows.

How should we respond?
Whatever we do we should keep a sense of proportion – for most people Swine Flu, however nasty, will not be life-threatening. The real issue for all of us is what we ought to do to reduce the impact on those at most risk.

Those of us who have had flu before, as I have, will know the symptoms: fever over 38°C and a cough, often with sore throat, muscle or joint pain, headache, chills, fatigue and runny nose. They come on quite suddenly and are much more severe than the heavy cold which we sometimes colloquially call the flu.

If you think you have Swine Flu, you should do everything you can to avoid passing it to others. If the rate of transmission can be slowed, there will be less strain on health services and fewer people in high risk groups will catch it before they can be protected by the vaccine. Vaccines will be offered first to those at most risk as well as health care and other essential workers, which is as it should be – it would be unchristian to try to jump the queue.

The HSE web site ( and information line (1800 94 11 00) provide good advice. In summary, if you contract it:
  1. Phone your GP – do not visit the surgery or A&E, where you may infect others. Your doctor will advise whether you need any additional treatment or monitoring.

  2. If your symptoms are severe or if you or household members are in a higher risk group, your doctor may prescribe anti-viral drugs, which are available free of charge. Ireland has stockpiled enough anti-virals to treat 55% of the population. It would be unchristian to demand anti-virals if you don’t need them.

  3. Stay at home for up to seven days or until well again, take paracetamol or ibuprofen to reduce the symptoms, take plenty of liquids, and discourage visitors.

  4. Women who are pregnant can take anti-virals safely, and paracetamol, but not ibuprofen.

  5. Contact your doctor again if you begin to have difficulty breathing or other unexpected symptoms, or you start to relapse after improving – you may need emergency care.

The HSE also advise that whether sick or not we should all follow hygiene and cough etiquette guidelines (see separate box). Face masks may do more harm than good except for health professionals.

Implications for parishes
It is good to see that the house of Bishops have issued interim advice about Swine Flu on the Church of Ireland website, but most parishioners will not see this. I feel clergy should also give clear advice to their congregations.

First, as a matter of common sense, people who feel unwell and may be developing Swine Flu should be discouraged from coming to church until they are better.

Second, there are liturgical implications. The Bishops advise that we can continue to shake hands at the Peace provided hands have been washed, since Swine Flu is transmitted primarily by droplets in the air. The Bishops also suggest that if infection levels rise it may be advisable for communicants to receive the bread only and not the common cup. They discourage intinction except for sick communions, as it is no safer than sharing the cup. And it is always open to those particularly concerned to share the peace with a smile and a wave and to take communion in one kind only.

Third, it is likely that ministers will fall sick at short notice. Parishes should review the availability of lay people to lead services should the need arise, and neighbouring clergy should perhaps discuss arrangements to cover for one another.

Lastly, the Swine Flu pandemic has created a great deal of fear as well as significant sickness among the community, and at this time it is our duty as Christians to remember those who are affected in our prayers.

Tuesday 1 September 2009


I've just been devouring Top of the Pile, an anthology of stories and poems written by members of the Nenagh Writers Group. I heartily recommend it (see here for details). My favourite piece is the very first, a short poem by my good friend and neighbour Duncan Bain, who has gone before us into the presence of his maker, to the great sadness of all his family and friends and his widow, Aggie. Here it is:
© Duncan Bain

The verdant woodland is my church serene
Where hymns the sighing zephyr in the trees;
I worship where the leaves are broadly green,
And list the droning prayers of humble bees.

Fragrance, as a fir-cone censer spills
Incense from a lofty soaring pine.
The tintinnabulating streamlet rills,
Thought, Prayer and Harmony are mine.

Soft Doves are Angels in the air,
Deep, warm, my hassock is the sod,
Here, with no other soul to share,
Sounds clear the voice of God.

The voice of this sensitive man with a deep love of nature speaks still through these beautiful words. Thank you, Aggie, for permission to share them here.

And my distant cousin Jocelyn Mertens has just sent me this lovely tribute to her own fellow gardener:
Mr. Eastlake In Late Summer
© Jocelyn Mertens, August 2009

That sound
As the moon glides up
That pause in the night
Between bird and bat
That vibration of
An opening bloom
That is the peace you give me.
This too speaks to me. I love to take a glass of wine out into the garden as dusk falls, to wait in the Lime Alley during that pause between the swallows and the bats.

Thursday 27 August 2009

An empty garden

Joakim’s garden feels empty again – the four grandsons and three daughters have all gone back to their own homes, variously in Kilkenny, Wales and England, leaving behind them very happy memories, many photos, and a large pale patch in the lawn where the tent was pitched. The big boys – Cal, Finn and Gabe - came for a week’s sailing tuition on Lough Derg (with Shannon Sailing - I can heartily recommend them). They had a super time I think, and certainly plenty of wind! Little Jonah came with his parents to be shown off and run charmingly around the garden. I felt sad to see them go, reminded of so many goodbyes said, but very grateful indeed that they should have come so far to visit Dad or Grandfather/Grandpa/Oompapa on his own turf. The jury is still out on what Jonah will call me: I prefer Grandfather, because that was what I called my mother’s father and I value the sense of continuity, but there are those who feel that sounds too Victorian and cold – I can’t think why, because though older than I am now, my Grandfather certainly wasn’t.

Flower-fairies - Jonah and Grandfather in Susanna's Labyrinth

Happy Jonah!

Boys make a sandwich (t-b Cal, Gabe, Finn)

The Tent
I've not been good at blogging the garden this month (mea culpa!), but here are some pictures of the garden in August:

Susanna is the sweet-pea queen of North Tipp!

Day-lilies and white Agapanthus

Blue Agapanthus

Coppery Sunflower

Salvia patens - a gorgeous gentian blue!

Salvia cacalifolia - I have a bit of a thing about Salvias!
I have managed the vegetable garden better this year - here we have leeks, brassicas (Brussels Sprouts and Purple Sprouting) with asparagus, potatoes, climbing beans and artichokes behind. Susanna's peas were most disappointing, but we are now dining on our own potatoes, French beans and spinach-beet, and freezing for the winter.

Friday 31 July 2009

A shaft of light before nightfall

The last day of July, and what a day we've had of it - rain from dawn until just before 9pm! Not exceptionally hard, often not more than a light drizzle, but unremitting. Even before today's rain, reports suggest this will be the wettest July since recording began in some places in Ireland. The third wet summer in a row.

Susanna continues to do well, and has today moved back to her own side of the bed, but I am still on cooking duty. A warming supper was what we needed: tagliatelli with meat balls in a tomato sauce. I ventured out for sage and a couple of bayleaves and came back dripping. A good flavour, though I say it myself, but most of the meatballs disintegrated into the sauce - another dish I haven't cracked yet, another challenge for the future!

Then as we ate, the clouds began to clear, bringing a shaft of sunshine from the West straight into my eyes. Knowing my shoes will be drenched in the wet grass, I am drawn out into the garden for the first time today.

I am reproached by the sodden piles of clippings from the Beech and Eleaganus hedges which I failed to collect yesterday before the rain began - please God tomorrow will bring a window to finish the task. I skimped on the Eleaganus this spring, and to get it straight I had to cut part of it back to bare wood, which I believe, fingers crossed, will sprout again. And once that's done, the evergreen oak (Quercus ilex) hedge by the road needs its annual trim - it is gradually creeping out and constricting the path.

The air is filled with flights of swallows, swooping low - several dozen over the garden, perhaps a hundred. On a dry day their cries fill the air, but this evening they are almost silent. I suppose the rain has prevented their feeding, and they are too hungry to waste energy on singing. They need to stuff themselves with insects to build up the energy reserves they need to return safely to sub-saharan Africa in a few short weeks. This wet weather must be a real threat to their lives.

I suppose the wet is good for my vegetables. I have never had such good brassicas - Brussels sprouts, Purple-sprouting broccoli and green Romanesco - though perhaps the barrow-loads of compost rotivated into their bed has something to do with it. And the climbing beans - Scarlet runners and three kinds of French beans, planted rather late - are close to the top of their poles. No trouble from the hares this year. We will be eating them in 10 days, but Susanna's dwarf beans started in pots in the conservatory have been cropping since early July. The rain has also suppressed bolting of the spinach beet, which we have been eating and giving away, and threatens to get away from us. Susanna's peas in the raised bed are a disappointment - I'm not sure why, but suspect they may be getting too little sun. And the potatoes are poor and showing the early signs of blight - I must dig them while I can, and perhaps I can get a late crop of peas from the ground too.

The wet must be good for the flowers too. Susanna's sweet peas continue to bloom their socks off - she has been able to get out to cut the seed pods, even though crutches prevent her from cutting bunches for the house. The Lobelia cardinalis, spared by the slugs this year, is about to burst. And the blue Agapanthus from South Africa is following on from the day-lilies and better than ever. The wonderful blue of Salvia patens has been joined by the slightly deeper blue of S. cacalifolia and day-glow pink Zinnias at the front of the croquet-lawn border, the first sunflowers at the back have opened butter yellow and copper, and the Dahlias are about to begin. S. uliginosa and S involucrata 'Bethelii' both survived last winter outdoors and promise to perform later on.

I made the mistake of reading the blogs commenting on the US Episcopal Church's recent General Convention and Archbishop Rowan Williams' reflection on it. The hatred and bile displayed by so many commentators is disgusting. Our Lord said (John 13:34-35), "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." If love is the test of discipleship, where may we find disciples today?

Sunday 12 July 2009

Imagining a Future of Abundance

View from the Pew is a monthly column I write for Newslink, the magazine of the Diocese of Limerick. This piece appeared in the issue for July/August 2009.

It cannot go on.
I think in our heart of hearts most of us realise that we cannot continue to live the way we are living now. The global civilisation we have built over the last 50 years – within my lifetime - is starting to falter. We are moving into a time of crisis. In the modern jargon, our way of life is unsustainable.

We are using up finite resources at an ever faster rate. The most obvious is fossil energy – oil, gas and coal – but there are others, including water and fertile soil. Already we have used up about half the oil on the planet; gas is following fast behind, and coal will inevitably follow, if rather later. The era of cheap energy is over.

Our agriculture and industries are damaging and poisoning the planet on which we live. The carbon dioxide we emit by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests is causing global warming, about which I have written before. Scientists advise us that at best this will be very costly, and at worse catastrophic, both for us and for all the species we share the planet with.

Growth and consumption drive this crisis.
The global economy is focussed solely on them – when they stop for any reason we have a recession such as we are experiencing now. So governments try to stimulate investment to produce more stuff, so they can levy taxes to pay for the services we all want; and corporations try to boost sales to get rid of the stuff they make, so they can sell more and make bigger profits. Advertising encourages people to desire more. Fashion encourages them to throw away the old to buy the new. People are thus encouraged to work ever harder to earn the money to keep consuming and throwing away. But all too often this is at the expense of their relationships, their communities, and even their own health, as well as the planet. Children see less and less of their parents; volunteering and community spirit dwindle; unhealthy lifestyles make more people dangerously obese. And for all the increased consumption of stuff, people are no happier than they were - even in important respects less happy, studies show.

We have no option but to change. If we do so sensibly we can preserve this wonderful planet, so that our children and our children’s children can continue to enjoy our bountiful inheritance. But if we don’t, change will be forced on us by chaos and catastrophe. If you are one of those who doubt this, you owe it to yourself and your children to investigate the issues. A good starting point would be to watch Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth (on DVD from Amazon, price £4.98) and Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff (20 min to view free at

The crisis is spiritual
Many people look for technology to fix the crisis of our time, and I’m sure that will be part of the solution. But I am convinced we need more than that. In the wise words of Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker and Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde,

The deep work must be this: to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshipping at the altars of greed.

Greed drives you and me to grasp more and more, to keep up with the Jones’s, as we ignore the damage caused to neighbours, the poor and the planet. Greed is at the root of the crisis. And greed is an old fashioned sin to which all human beings have been liable since the dawn of time. Our Christian faith has a lot to teach us about sin and how to overcome it. Jesus calls us to repent and believe in the good news, as the kingdom of God has come near. But how exactly should we respond to Jesus’s call in the face of this crisis?

I think we must all prayerfully seek answers to this question. Just as God loves variety, there will no doubt be a great variety of answers. But I believe that people in every parish should do so, and by God’s grace they are already finding their own answers. Here is a story about what a group of us in the Nenagh Union have been doing. Please let us know your stories!

Nenagh Carbon Watchers
For our Lent course this year a small multi-denominational group followed the Omega Climate Change course (see It is stimulating, focussed on the scientific facts complemented by a little theology, and I heartily recommend it - if other parishes are interested in running it I would be glad to share our experience. We looked at why it is urgent to act now; how big our individual carbon footprints are and how to reduce them; global justice issues; how quality of life can be good in a low-carbon society; and how we might take action.

At the end we were so convinced of the need to act now that we decided to continue meeting as the Nenagh Carbon Watchers group. Our first aim is to support each other in our efforts to reduce our household carbon emissions – repentance must be personal, and each one must confront his or her own lifestyle. It should save us money as well as helping the planet. And we also aim to promote in our community the changes in lifestyle needed to flourish in the inevitable low-carbon, sustainable future.

We took the initiative to ask the election candidates standing in the Nenagh area to outline their positions and tell us what they would do if elected. We published their responses on our website (, and local newspapers also printed the questions and a report on the responses. We were pleased to note that all who responded were positive – the need for change seems to be so widely agreed now that all are in favour of it, like motherhood!

A Future of Abundance
It is difficult to imagine what a low-carbon, sustainable future will be like, except in terms of what we must give up. It is easy to see such a future as poorer, greyer and less exciting than the present. It is tempting to fall into the trap of denial, to do nothing in the hope that the prospect will go away. But if we do we will be unable to make the sensible choices and we will be forced to suffer chaotic change.

I think we need urgently to re-imagine a future of abundance, and to do so as communities, so that we can begin to create it together in common purpose. Because the future can be one of abundance, and more fulfilling than today. What we need is a vision of the kingdom of God for the 21st century.

The Transition movement is one promising approach. This aims to stimulate groups within a local community to come together to envisage what must happen for the community to flourish in a sustainable future, to begin to plan for it, and to encourage stakeholders including local councils to buy into the vision. Started in Kinsale and piloted in Totnes in England, this model is rapidly being adopted in hundreds of communities in Britain and Ireland. You can read about in The Transition Handbook written by its founder Rob Hopkins (Amazon, price £8.28). The Carbon Watchers are actively mulling over whether and how to start a Transition Town initiative in Nenagh.

And I feel sure we can learn from the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, where construction started early this year (see

Thursday 2 July 2009

The most beautiful flower in the garden

It is raining gently as I write this, looking out over Susanna's labyrinth garden, so full of colour and variety of form. The sweet peas for which she is famous, grown this year up a half circle of canes around the famine pot, have not been picked for five days and are a riot of colour - I must pick them this morning, to keep them blooming. The tree-mallow which I cut down to the ground in the spring has bounced back and is now a blaze of shocking pink. The day-lilies she got from a specialist nursery in Britain are in full blow, varying in colour from lemon yellow, through orange, to salmon pink and a rich, deep red. And the flower-buds of the blue and whit agapanthus are just begining to burst.

But the most beautiful flower is not in her garden today - Susanna is in the Galway Clinic. She had hip-replacement surgery last Monday afternoon. It has gone well, thank God, the surgeon is pleased and she is cheerful. Although the wound is sore, she says the pain is much less than with her previous knee-replacements, and the pain she has been feeling in her knee has gone away, proving that it was referred from the hip, great relief to her. On Tuesday she was got out of bed to walk on a zimmer frame to the loo, yesterday she was able to swing her own leg out of the bed and sit in a chair and walk more, and today I think the physio will start her on crutches. Her main complaint is that they will not let her shower until Friday when they change the dressing!

In a little while I will drive back to Galway to be with her, and I shall be able to bring her a bunch of her own sweet peas and a punnet of her own strawberries, though I expect I shall be soaked if the rain doesn't stop!

Monday 8 June 2009

Thomas Berry - requiescat in pace

Thomas Berry, priest, cultural historian and eco-theologist, has died aged 94. I feel compelled to mark the passing of this modern prophet, who often referred to himself as a geologian - an Earth scholar.

He drew inspiration from a profound experience in childhood of a meadow filled with lilies, abounding with life. In later years he came to see this meadow as a deceptively simple test of goodness, writing in his essay The Meadow across the Creek:
Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good.
He saw the work of God in the continuing revelation of the world around him, and drew hopeful conclusions for the future of humankind and our planet, writing in his book The Dream of the Earth:

If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the Universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.

His prophetic insights can guide us all, I think, as we struggle to deal with climate change, and as our global industrial civilisation teeters on the brink.