Friday, 15 May 2020

Lilies of the field - a refection for the feast day of St Brendan, 16 May 2020

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Matthew 6:28,29.

So says Jesus, an acute observer of the natural world, when he urges his disciples not to worry about tomorrow, because today’s trouble is enough for today. The fields and hills of Galilee in his time abounded with wildflowers and other living creatures, testifying to the lavish love God shows for all his creation. But in my lifetime,  here in Ireland as in so much of the world, modern farming practices – crop monocultures, weed killers, insecticides - have greatly reduced this wonderful diversity of life, except in ‘unprofitable land’ like mountains and bogs, and small areas preserved accidentally. We have been making a mess of the beautiful living planet God has given us – I call it out as blasphemy.

Graveyards are often the last pieces of unimproved grassland in the neighbourhood, and Killodiernan in North Tipperary, within 5km of my home, is one such. It is a place of pilgrimage for me at this time of Covid-19 restrictions. The short turf is densely packed with many species of wildflowers and grasses growing as a sustainable community, which emerge and bloom in succession throughout the season, before being mown in the autumn. At this time of year early purple orchids star, alongside bugle, and wispy clouds of pignut, amid the last of the cowslips and primroses. 
The star of the show - Early Purple Orchid
A stand of Bugle
Wispy clouds of Pignut
 Other species will take over soon, including mouse-ear hawkweed, germander speedwell, quaking grass, and three more kinds of orchids, until late summer paints the graveyard blue with devils-bit scabious. This is a rare survival, an ever-changing, beautiful tapestry of colour and texture, preserved by the accident of the church being built here, and managed sensitively by the church wardens for wildlife. Other local pastures must have looked like this to the delight of our forebears for hundreds of years, before they were reseeded with rye-grass and fertilised to maximise productivity.

This type of grassland is not natural, however. The climax vegetation here would have been woodland after the last glaciation. What we see now is the work of human beings over millennia, who felled the trees and worked with the grain of nature to make a living from the land. And since the graveyard was enclosed, generations of faithful worshippers have left their mark too by planting other exotic flowers, including snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells, montbretia and fairy foxgloves, now naturalised. What we see now is a product of both change and continuity.

Fairy Foxglove from the Dolomites clings to the lime-mortared wall

And Killodiernan church itself is a product of both change and continuity. The present building replaced the medieval parish church a mile away, in ruins since the 17th Century. It dates from 1811, as recorded on a date stone. 

Originally a simple barn-church with tower and small gallery, it was built to hold 150 people with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Drawings by James Pain c.1830 show box pews and a central pulpit and prayer desk between the two windows on the north side of the nave. The present chancel and vestry were added in 1879, when the box pews and central pulpit were removed, making way for east-facing pews, with pulpit, prayer desk and altar table at the east-end. One of the north windows was bricked in to make room for the vestry, and a pot-bellied iron stove was also installed to provide heating, since replaced by electric heating.
Killodiernan church sits comfortably in its graveyard

Today our human society is in the grip of the corona virus, disrupting our society and its economy, and bringing sickness and death to many. We do not know what the future will bring. We hope for a return to some kind of normality, but we know it will not be what we have been used to. And even when the pandemic passes - as it will - we know that we must face up to the twin existential crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, brought on by our over-exploitation of natural resources, in other words by sinful human greed.

But Jesus tells us not to let anxiety overwhelm us. We are enfolded in the love of the God he calls Father, and guided by the Holy Spirit. There will be change, but there will also be continuity. The natural world burgeons with new life, driven by the inexorable seasons. The caring response of our communities to Covid-19 shows that we can respond to challenges we face. Our task is to work to overcome today’s evils, while making the new world more like God’s kingdom than the old world we leave behind. We are in much the same situation as St Brendan and his monks when they launched their currach into the sea in search of the island of paradise.

If you doubt this, I recommend a pilgrimage to a little bit of heaven near you – seek and you shall find!

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