A Community and Place for the Slow Work of Peace
The first community I visited on my sabbatical pilgrimage was the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, a community that has been engaged in the slow work of peacemaking and peace-holding in the bloody conflict of Northern Ireland.
The timing of my visit to Ireland coincided with two significant events. The recent referendum in the UK to leave the European Union, so called Brexit, resurrects political, cultural and economic barriers that existed between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of sectarian violence. The Brexit referendum was coupled with strong election results for the stalwarts of Irish reunification, Sinn Fein party – and poses a threat to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which has kept guns out of Irish politics for nearly 20 years.
The seeds for what would become Community of Corrymeela were first planted, not in Ireland, but in horror of WWII Germany. It was there that Raymond Davies, a young Northern Irish YMCA worker was captured and placed in a Dresden POW camp. And it was from this vantage point where he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden that killed 50,000 civilians. When Davies returned home to Belfast, he sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church and was appointed as a chaplain at Queens University ministering to men like himself who were putting their lives back together after years in combat. Soon Davies and some of his Queen University students began meeting regularly and seeking earnestly to find a truly Christian response to the human habit of war. This was by no means a theoretical undertaking, for soon Belfast became ground zero for sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
The place called Corrymeela, came about when Rev. Davies and some of those same students learned that a holiday home with spacious grounds was coming on the market. For them it crystallized what Corrymeela would ultimately become. They bought the property, and a new chapter opened. In those early days, Corrymeela was used as a refuge and summer camp for Belfast children, Protestant and Catholic, who desperately needed a break from the unrelenting and seemingly random sectarian violence that was becoming the norm.
Of this place, the first thing a visitor notices is the breathtaking land- and seascape of Corrymeela’s location.
Perched high on a bluff, the site offers ocean views that are inspiring. To the north is Ratlin Island, a large landmass with its shear cliffs that give it the appearance of a giant ship. To the northeast, the Irish Sea reaches toward the Hebrides islands of Scotland. A volunteer directs my gaze to the northwest, where a line of whitecaps are running perpendicular to the shore. This line, which is actually a reef, is thought to be where the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea meet, or, perhaps given Irish history, where the waters wage an eternal struggle – one of the few that predates Ireland’s almost-as-ancient conflict with Britain, Scotland and itself.
Over the past half century, Corrymeela has become a sign of defiant hope no matter how bleak the Northern Irish situation, by quietly and persistently encouraging greater cross-community co-operation, including many residential courses and workshops. At a service celebrating it’s 50th Anniversary in 2015, its leader Padraig O Tuama said “Corrymeela believes in the power of people telling their stories, of shared hospitality, of telling the truth about the present, of turning towards each other and finding strength.” Check out Padraig O Tuama’s extended interview with Krista Tippett.
A Lenten Hill Walk
Within hours of arriving at Corrymeela (Monday, March 13), I was introduced to a member of the Corrymeela community. Eleanor Duff is a wiry 70-ish woman, who, after learning of the purpose of my visit, insisted that I would participate in an ecumenical Lenten “hill walk” that, in fact, was an 8+ mile mountain hike up and over Carntogher Mountain in County Derry. Organized for March 16, this hike was one of five weekly walks scheduled during Lent. The Lenten theme was “care for creation.” The ultimate aim, like many Corrymeela programs, was to offer low-key opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to spend time together doing things that will foster relationships.
Eleanor picked me up early at Corrymeela and we drove the downward winding mile or so to the village of Ballycastle where we grabbed our things and transferred to another car – joining two other members of Corrymeela, Brian and Roger. It was raw, windy and threatening rain as we drove to the Villiage of Swatragh.
Our day was to begin with a brief prayer service at Killelagh Church (Church of Ireland – Anglican) so we drove there and met 15 other people involved in the hike. The plan was to begin our walk with a short prayer service at the church. We waited for the rector to open the church doors and lead our prayer service. The priest was a no-show. It turned out that the sudden death of a parishioner caused the rector to miss our meeting, and he had no telephone number to call. None of us knew this, of course, and it was only later that it occurred to me that this was likely a tense moment as half of this mixed group had never met each other, and some could have easily interpreted the priest’s absence as an intentional slight or some kind snub (e.g. We don’t want Catholics grubbing up our church.) Our leader for the day, a Corrymeela member called Dougie Taylor, was clearly pained by this moment and went to some lengths to assure us that an emergent event must be the cause of the priest’s absence. He then called us to gather together and led us in the prayer service that was planned for our beginning.
Prayers said, the group of us climbed into the cars of were dropped off at the trailhead 8 miles away. About 16 in all, we began our hike in a valley between two mountains, and we proceeded to climb right away. The graveled road took us over small streams and by green and brown fields as far as you could see. After about 1/2 hour we reached a plateau of sorts and four of our party – the women from the Catholic parish of St. John the Baptist Granaghan – turned back so they could prepare a meal for us when we finished our hike at their church. Only later did I realize what wonderful act of welcome their joining us for the first part of our hike had been. They wanted to get to know us – and the first stage of our hike was no small feat.
As we climbed, I become aware – can feel it in my body – how much this landscape is food for my soul. I look out at the expanse of green and brown fields framed by stoned walls and dotted with sheep – a there is a spaciousness that opens up inside of me. I looked at the rough gorse bushes, just then flowering. I put my hand on a stone wall that’s absolutely covered by grass and flowers, and pressing down, my hand sinks in 5 or 6 inches because the grass just grows, dies, grows anew, and dies – this over hundreds and hundreds of successive generations. You just can’t wrap your head around how any country outside of the tropics could be this fertile. And for all its fecundity and its gentle landscapes and vistas of hills and valleys with streams and rivers inexhaustibly pouring themselves out, it is paradoxically a harsh and hard landscape. Rocks and stones and bouldered cliff faces. And a 40-mph headwind hurling a cold and penetrating mist that is oddly akin to fine desert sand – both working through every kind of fabric, either coating you in dust, or covering one’s most protected parts with a skein of freezing water that drives the cold into your muscles and bones.
And just as I’m about convinced that this eight mile walk is truly a Lenten fast from all that is warm, just then I notice that the sun is working its way through the dark clouds. Watching the sky, it looks like the melting of ice. The light is at first hazy and weak, then starts to burn through – and watch as the sun begins melting the whole shelf of cloud that just 15 minutes ago looked like a solid mass as gray as slate. And then, you’re at a resting place. It’s not the top, but it isn’t far. But Dougie brings us to halt at the back of a cliff face that offers just enough of a tangent to the wind that we can get clear of it. And we sit, on clumps of rocks made soft and green by the grace of God, and the wind and the wet are no longer beating us up. And there is silence, as we each dig into our packed lunches and gratefully eat and drink tea and water. And we doze at the calm, quiet of our sheltering cliff face.
St. Patrick’s Day
Shortly after lunch, we came down the mountain by a different route – walking through dozens of rock and wire-hemmed pastures and along a one-lane paved road until we came to the place from which we started five hours earlier. We got out of our wet and muddy clothes and drove over to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and entered the ornate sanctuary. We were greeted by Fr. Kieran O’Doherty and the women we had met earlier from the parish. We sat in the front of the church, and there were a handful of parishioners already seated who must have been curious about this ecumenical trek. And we prayed together. And the prayers we offered by members of our hiking party. And they weren’t Catholic prayers and they were not Protestant prayers, they were simple prayers to a God who loves us a mother loves her children, a God who we boldly call our Father.
After the service we moved to the Parish Hall where a great spread of food was laid out for us. Fr. Doherty and I were put at the same table and we listened to stories from the hike and the Corrymeela members gave a brief presentation. The main course was Irish stew, and as I took in our surroundings, I saw all kinds of green decorations – presumably for the school children who would be celebrating St. Patrick’s the next day. Fr. Doherty as our time was coming to the end, thanked our organizers for putting the hike together, and well all gave the women of St. John’s Parish our thanks and applause. And Fr. Doherty looked at me and said, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! And our leave-takng that night involved warm and close handshakes – the kind that pull you together and make it impossible not to meet the others eyes. And we smiled and said, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And we meant it, and it meant something more to me than I knew possible. For in celebrating the feast of this pre-reformation saint, a man who was not Irish, but came from the Britain as a slave, we were noticing and naming a unity that binds us more than anything can separate us.