Orthodoxy & the Environment
Holiness of Place: Images from Ireland
by Robert Flanagan
Fall 1999 / Winter 2000
"Nowadays, with so much of its surface in wreckage and filth, it is the Earth that faces us with moral demands. The spiritual merges once again with the natural, from which, disastrously, it has been separated for some centuries." If we are not given opportunities in some places to escape the triumph of the trivialization of modern life, "we are all impoverished, in our relationship to the past, to nature, to the influence of solitude and space." [Tim Robinson, Oileain Arann, a companion to the map of the Aran Islands, p 84]
Tim Robinson, in the twenty years he spent mapping the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, hoped to give a gift to the islanders of the value of their own place, and to impress on outsiders the great need to support them in their "priestlike task." "To live on Aran is a rare and demanding privilege;" he says, "it is to be the inheritor of something both awkward and valuable, like a Stradivarius, or intangible, like a talent that rewards long commitment."
During our trip to Ireland this past November we were allowed a glimpse of another attempt to preserve something awkward and valuable, another reminder of our relationship to the past, to nature and the influence of solitude and space.
Rather than at the edge of Ireland we spent time in the very heart of the country. In County Offaly is a small town called Ferbane (Fir-Bann) with its parish church of the Immaculate Conception. The pastor of the parish, Fr. Frank Grey, has been restoring the hundred year old church for the last 8 years and, in so doing, has employed local materials. "Everything meaningful must be local," he said. "Some places need to create a heart for their new community. We in Ferbane need to discover the heart that is already there."
In the front of the church is a baptismal font made of bog oak. The parish sits on the edge of the Bog of Allen, and for centuries the local people have dug turf from the bog for their winter heating. Often pieces of old trees would be found, preserved for 6,000 years and more by the lack of oxygen in the layers of peat. Most often these are left aside. Fr. Grey, and a local sculptor, Michael Casey, have taken large roots of bog wood and cleaned and polished them into striking and useful liturgical art. The font looks as though it might be a winged being, seven feet tall, holding the bowl of water for baptism in its hands. Another piece, in a side chapel, serves to hold the consecrated Eucharistic bread for adoration by the churchgoers.
It was this second piece that was most striking to me. This devotion to the "Blessed Sacrament" is familiar to me from my early years as a Roman Catholic. The body of Christ is reserved for adoration and using this particular piece of bog oak to hold the body of Christ connected that practice with the some Orthodox elements I have come to know in later life. The piece of wood was not tall but quite wide, and concave in shape. The body of Christ was held in its deep center, so that the side arms seemed to sweep out toward the person in front of it, gathering in all of what made that person up. In this it was strongly evocative of the icon of the Holy Trinity called the "Hospitality of Abraham." That icon, too, seems to reach out toward all that stands before it, gathering it in to itself, sweeping it up into God. By that same token, the sculpture seems to embody the title of Fr. Alexander Schmemanns wonderful book, For the Life of the World. At the same time that it gathers up all that is in front of it, it also shares itself in an outward motion, offering all that it is and has, that is the whole of Christ, with all of life. This dual motion, gathering in and sharing out is the essence of hospitality, of the Trinitarian life, of the life Jesus Christ - truly human and divine.
So, what does this all say about the holiness of place, and the priestly function of preserving that holiness in the communion of place and people?
First, as Robinson says, the spiritual merges with the natural. We as Christians can say it even more strongly, that creation in all of its forms, is filled with the Spirit of God. Fr. Alexander Men says that the tiniest bird is more an icon of the holy than anything painted on a board. This wood from the bog is an icon for the local place, for the holy that is in it. It speaks to us of the hospitality of the earth, of creation of creation being the image of God in his generosity to us. The form of the bog wood says this to us, but the earth itself says it to us in its gift to us of something it has held dear and cared for over millennia of time, and now given back to the local inhabitants.
Second we must attend to the purely local character of this gift. One of the common failings of human beings is to see the greener grass on the other side of the fence, to pay more attention to what we dont have than to what is ours. The use of this bog wood, humble refuse of 6,000 years ago, reminds us that we must value the local, what is home to us. That we can find right here, under our noses, what is most needful, what is most helpful to our lives both physically and spiritually. And that we must value the local by preserving it, even more, by celebrating it.
Third, the local history of the people is confirmed as sacramental in itself. This confirmation is the result of the specifically priestly function of offering an essential element of the local landscape to God by naming it and calling it good. Without that priestly function being performed, we are all deprived of an important element in recognizing the holiness of place.
As I think of the place where I live, on the edge of the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, I think of the charred remains of the frequent forest fires in the barrens. During these fires the cones on the pine trees fall to the ground and are opened up by the intense heat. They then can let go of the seeds for the trees that will replace them. Those cones have the same omnipresent quality of the bog wood. They are ordinary in appearance, of no consequence because of their numbers. But they carry the same sacramentality of place that the bog wood does for much of Ireland. It is local, it is important to the physical world and the culture of a large area. Both bog oak and pine cone carry the image of the dying, buried and risen God we worship. Both of them, and any local, natural part of creation has the potential to teach us the value, the sacredness, of the place in which we live.
+Robert Flanagan is a member of The Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ