Amongst my favourite books are those which don't have their edges trimmed. Instead of neat guillotined sides there is a roughly textured layering of paper sheets, not a concession to economy but an aesthetic delight that makes each page unique, and when lying on its side, gives the whole book a soft sense of happenstance, the binding together of different sheets into a finished whole that looks so right that any attempt to machine it into uniform neatness would be unthinkably crude.
Imagine then a large geological volume with sheets made of rock, miles long and wide, lying on its side with the edges facing the sea, grey and green in colour, and formed over millions of years. The layers are clearly differentiated but belong together, the geological pages lie flat one on another and their edges are untrimmed. And if you can imagine that, then you have some idea of what The Burren is. A massive geological structure and substructure that dominates northern County Clare. We visited it and walked on it, over it, alongside it by the sea. And looking at those places where it layered its way down to the sea was like standing beside a gigantic volume of natural history, created millions of years ago.
The Burren has some of the most diverse fauna in the world. Even the small area of seashore we explored displayed all kinds of small plants, flowers and grasses.
Laid aeons ago,
layered stone pages.
Barren Burren rock,
diversity of flora -
We also visited a number of Irish pubs, and as well as the company and conversation, I took time to look at some of the pictures and writings on the pub walls. In several we saw fading photographs or pictures of three very different historical figures. I couldn't help sensing that the fading pictures were slow process reminders of a slow relinquishing, generation by generation, of the Catholic faith, the Christian tradition that has so defined the history, culture and spirituality of Ireland. There were often pictures of Jesus or Mary; sometimes a photo of JFK; and often images of John Paul II (and the present Benedict XVI) - but I was interested in the reluctance to remove the pictures of the Pope of the people. A long conversation with two Irish friends, over a wonderful meal and an afternoon of meandering, themselves no longer regularly practising their faith, but a tangible sense of loss, and anxiety that their grown up children, and their grandchildren would be very different people living in a historically changed Ireland, leached of the dynamic cultural colour that comes from shared religious belief.
Whatever theory of secularisation we buy into, and however we interpret the decline of Christian faith and belonging in Western Europe, there is something profoundly unsettling in living through a transition away from those values and convictions that have, like the Burren, been laid down over generations till they all but defined the human landscape. And the Church of Jesus Christ, in its varied traditions and expressions, is called now to exist in a place where familiar landscapes, known topography, cultural comfort zones and previous privilege are being swept away with the same ruthless thoroughness as those last glacial ice flows that stripped vegetation and topsoil from 1200 square kilometers of NW County Clare, leaving a more barren surface - but one where smallness, diversity and beauty could still flourish.
And maybe that is as good a metaphor as I can think of for the reinvention of the Christian community - flowers in rocky places, beauty surviving an ice-age environment, Christ-embodying community flourishing in a globalised world where human value, and humane values might otherwise perish in an inhospitable climate.