Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Secrets of Life, Secrets of Time

One of the last things we did in the West of Ireland was take a trip out to a beautiful set of gardens, Brigit's Gardens, (her name is spelled correctly ... It is the ancient spelling) out past the angler's paradise of Oughterard. This is a relatively new attraction in the landscape of Ireland, and it is modeled on a unique concept: putting together a park that is deliberately Celtic, a place where people can trace their heritage, and perhaps even see how that heritage is linked to the Catholic tradition.

Along the way, over and over again on this pilgrimage, we have seen how peoples and cultures have dealt with time: how they calculate it, how they celebrate their seasons, and most especially, how all of these ancient chapters eventually got folded into the grand liturgical year which is now our Catholic heritage.

And here is something quite astounding: as Catholicism moved and grew from nation to nation, it didn't eradicate customs, traditions, or even calendars. Rather, it assumed them, gathered them in, reinterpreted their focus and set them on a Christological course.

You can see this worked out, on a grand scale, in the Christian liturgical calendar. Sol invictus, the ancient Roman holiday of the sun's conquering of death (immediately after the winter solstice) became the celebration of Christus sol invictus: Christ, the sun of justice – Christmas. The great prefigurer of Christ, John the Baptist, finds his feast day set in perfect symmetry around Christmas: his feast is on the 24th of June, six months earlier.

The ancient Irish calendar was very different from its neighbors. It used four seasons, but those seasons were based on agrarian cycles. The seasons were Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtine, and Lughnasa. The festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") began on the Feast of All Hallows: Halloween. The Irish celebration of spring, Imbolc, began on the first day of February. And here again, saints' days moved in alongside the pagan customs, providing a redefinition and refocusing of the day.

In Irish spirituality, Brigid is also the patroness and protector of the four elements: earth, air, wind, and water. So it would make perfect sense that Bhríd, Mary of the Gaels, would have her feast day set for the outset of the planting cycle.

The garden we visited put all of this in a beautiful alignment, as you can actually see from the picture of the compass points here.

As we were walking through this park, I asked one of my friends about the Celtic thrust of the place, wondering if they were attempting a new-age spirituality and merely glossing over Christian influences. "The Irish," she said, "wouldn't see these things as being opposed to one another. They would see Celtic and Catholic as complementing one another."

And that would seem to be the way of it, I think. Catholicism's remarkable journey has been one that hasn't approached cultures with a "either/or" stance. Faith met them on their own ground, listened to their stories, watched their celebrations... And made them part of the family.

What has bound our journey together, from country to country, is a sense of wonder before the mystery of Time.

From the streets of Rome to the flagstones of Galway, from Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (see the Meridian Line sundial pictured here) to Brigit's Garden in the foothills of Connemara (a similar, year-long sundial appears below), we have seen how the human family is fascinated by the movement of time, our sacred passage through the seasons. Just look at these two amazing calendar devices! They are thousand of miles apart, and from completely different cultures. But they share an undeniable common thread: an attempt to unpack the secrets of life, seen through the lens of time.

This trip to the West of Ireland has been such a beautiful pilgrimage for me and Michele! Music to absorb, a gentle culture to admire, mountains to climb, stories to share. Through it all, we have also been looking to Dublin, our next stop, where in just a few short weeks we will be returning with half the Notre Dame Folk Choir. But more on that in the next posting!

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Location:Rosscahill, County Galway, Ireland

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