Stringing Pearls in Ireland and Charlottesville

Staff_McDermott, TomTurning and turning in the widening gyre

   The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

   Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

   The best lack all conviction, while the worst

   Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming, W B Yeats, 1919)

These words seem eerily descriptive of how things are right now, don’t they?

1476583_10201740399325496_267632618_nWe had no idea. Three days before the tragedies of Charlottesville, I stood on the Walls of Derry (Londonderry to the British) with the other 29 members of our group in Northern Ireland. We looked out over the turrets to the South where the rebuilt homes of the mostly Catholic Irish live — the Bogside. Prior to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, these neighborhoods were mostly impoverished and squalid tenant complexes. The 30’ high,10’ thick, mile long wall was built around the inner city of Derry in the early 1700’s to keep out the Irish farmers/laborers from the British plantation owners and nobility. It was also the very neighborhood where “Bloody Sunday” took place — sometimes referred to as the Bogside Massacre, when British paratroopers shot 28 unarmed civilians on January 30, 1972 during a peaceful march against Irish internment killing 14 people (memorialized in the 1982 U2 song, Bloody Sunday.)

Unknown-4It was surreal walking atop the length of that wall, looking inside on the centuries old portion of the city with stone buildings that now housed theaters, restaurants, government offices and shops. A beautiful cathedral, the Church of England, stood at the highest point. Now, almost 20 years into peace, the clearly Irish and mostly Catholic neighborhoods still displayed the orange, white and green Irish flag of the Republic while the neighborhoods on the North side of the wall brandished the red, white and blue Union Jack. That day, along the top of the wall, actors stood — some portraying the Irish peasants of the 18th century, others were members of the British Army pipe band, playing patriotic songs. It was done in the service of history and tourism, yet it couldn’t hide the sheer irony of the moment as a US tourist took a picture of his wife beside an 18th c British soldier (actor) holding an Irish peasant in shackles and shouting, “Make it look like you’re really suffering!”

The tour was very telling of the effort it took to get to peace in that country and the difficulty in keeping the peace — still allowing the exercise of free speech and public protests from the radical remnants of both sides (including the Orange Men parade which concludes with a bonfire and burning the Irish flag in celebration of William of Orange the 17c victory at the Battle of the Boyne — ensuring British/Protestant rule in Ireland).

Unknown-2But this was also why we were there in Ireland. In addition to our time spent at sacred monastic sites around the South and East, two days earlier we created labyrinths in the border town of Clones — a town which is bordered on three sides by Northern Ireland. Clones experienced extensive bombings, bus hijackings, killings and more over the 30 years of The Troubles. Twenty years of peace have helped to rebuild the town and bring about some growth, but many of the shops and buildings remained in disrepair.

Our group had come with the purpose of constructing a labyrinth dedicated to the pursuit of peace.The whole group worked on the labyrinths helping to measure the circuits while one or two cleared the paths. I think a number of folks were skeptical that this process could create a significant labyrinth (including myself and a few city officials). But as the work continued, a labyrinth (in the tradition of the Chartres design) began to take shape. Half-way into the project, city workers donned yellow vests and started helping, and a local graphic design artist ran off and came back 30 minutes later with two permanent signs to mark the sites, “Clones Labyrinth Project, 2017”. Then they brought us sandwiches, biscuits, and hot tea.

Once the first labyrinth had been finished, individuals and families began to show up to start walking it with our members. Our second design was one we hadn’t planned initially. One of our group noticed a triple spiral design on all the water meters in town. We were told it was an ancient Celtic symbol for the Trinity. So another in our group sat down for a couple of hours that morning and figured out how to connect the three spirals into a labyrinth. Three hours later we had a second labyrinth with children fascinated, laughing, and following where it would go.

20768206_1758424160838363_415129676195810938_nThe real joy was in seeing the town coming out to start walking. At one point, I heard a group of town park officials saying they’d like to line the path with bark mulch or gravel and plant wildflowers in the space between the paths to make them permanent.

That night our group walked a labyrinth alongside a local resident who had turned her home into a retreat center for reconciliation retreats. The center had a prayer cell, small rooms for lodging, and a large, 12-circuit 4’ hedgerow labyrinth. Two weeks earlier, she told us, a group of women came in from Derry.  Several of the women were doubtful of the experience and hesitant to walk the labyrinth. One woman in particular complained, “What point is there in walking around in circles? Can we do it quickly, then?” 

Hannah, the retreat owner, told us this woman’s son had been shot by an IRA “soldier” during a skirmish in 1986 in Derry. She was very impatient and bitter. But she did the walk anyway. Hannah noticed the woman’s walk slowed as she moved deeper into the path.

Unknown-7“When she reached the center, beneath the two birch trees,” she whispered to us in a soft brogue, “she stood there for 15 minutes or more. All of the others had finished the walk. We didn’t speak, but went over to the side and sat quietly. Finally, she came out, a gentle smile on her face, tears in her eyes, and she hugged me. She said, ‘I stood in the center and got angrier and angrier until, I swear to you, I could feel Conner there with me. It was as if he was holding me and saying it will all be fine, Mother. You’ll be fine, too.’”

Hannah said to me, “Wouldn’t this be a lovely thing if these labyrinths could provide a way for people to simply let go of their bitterness or dark memories or anxiety and open to hope? That’s what we think will happen.”

As I think about what was happening in the US this past Saturday as most of our group were flying home, I can’t help but think of the bigotry and prejudice and pain that has existed in N Ireland for so long. The peace they have now is fragile, but intentional. While protests and opinions are freely expressed, there seems to be a genuine effort to co-exist.

IMG_3931Thursday afternoon, toward the end of our trip, we stood at the simple gravesite of WB Yeats at Drumcliff Church, County Sligo. As I felt the rain on my back and was reflecting on one of his poems (cited above) and of the tenuous hold on peace in N Ireland, some inspiring words of Martin Buber came to me. The 20th c Jewish theologian and philosopher coined the phrase I use for this blog site, “the space between” — that sacred place between us where we meet God. He also has these inspiring words I thought of beside Yeats and for such a time as we find ourselves now.

“You can rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way– it will always be muck. Have I sinned or have I not sinned? In the time I am brooding over all this, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven here on earth.” 

Perhaps the actions of Charlottesville, like those in Northern Ireland’s history and those of so much around the world, suggest the “center is coming apart”. Certainly bigotry and hatred cannot be allowed to hold at the center. But surely we can start stringing those pearls of hope and delight in the world, and be a part of the change we wish to see.


I hope you’ll join us this Sunday as I continue the series, “why is THAT in the Bible?”. I’ll be looking at how some people see the authority of the Bible as if it’s a wall,

while others see it more like the breath of life.

eleven:eleven celebration

Sunday, August 20

“the bible — god builds a wall,

or is it more like breathing?”

rev. tom mcdermott


with brad thompson & the revolution band

featuring the music of

pink floyd, widespread panic, peter mayer,

elizabeth wills, and mavis staples.


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