It almost felt like choking, that alarming retreat from the living. It was like gathering for a wake in the old days before gentility took over, wild and emotive. It was like waking up groggily in an empty carriage on a never-ending train wondering what you’ve missed, why you’re there and where you’re going. That very day, I had navigated through a crowded main street, internal compass working overtime to find safe passage, steering myself away from ravenous browsers like an overworked ball in a Ping-Pong machine. The narrow Wexford main street might have been a shopper’s paradise on a bright afternoon, but it had felt like hell to me.
Then, I was in a chaotic sort of place feeling oddly adrift, my own back garden. I looked around me not quite certain of what I saw. There was just too much nature, its tendrils and growing shoots pressing down on me from all sides. I could not help thinking that the overgrown garden did not need me nor want me. Brambles scratched my forearms drawing blood. Not much blood but enough for me to retreat back towards the kitchen door. I heard rustling sounds in the undergrowth. Foraging birds? Whatever the noise was, the creatures seemed unimpressed by my solitary trip into their domain. I suppressed the alarming image of predatory ancestors from my mind, mostly certain that these feathery descendants could not harm me.
The light was muted. Green leaves ruled supreme stretching out in every direction. This was no pristine garden of benevolent delight. This was wilderness, untamed and primeval. If I stood long enough, it would cover me and absorb me into its unloving embrace. There was no whimsey here, reminiscent of a Paul Henry painting, nor pleasing symmetry. There was not even a single billowing cloud available to draw the spirit upwards. There were only the green, multi-layered organs of photosynthesis, all business-like and desperate for light and water and air, working mercilessly amongst the twisting shadows.
This was our banishment. Something had gone wrong and a virulent disease had conquered humanity sending everyone scuttling, whipped and fearful to shelter in their homes. It was almost like being expelled from Eden, judged and found wanting. Who or what to blame? A bat, a pangolin or a serpent? No, evil crept in as it always does - through the corruption of human desire - too much taking and not enough giving, too much our own way and not enough nature’s way. Is this how civilisation always ends, a slow annihilation, a grinding erosion, a reluctant letting go of our former way of life?
I watched the moving leaves suspiciously, like a guilty person, like an escaped convict that has been caught too often to believe in freedom. Darkness threatened to overwhelm me. Some animal screeched painfully in the shadows making my heart thud faster. ‘Samson’ shouted an unseen voice. Her voice carried from somewhere beyond the garden fence but still a deeply felt intrusion. ‘Samson!’. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, whispering of the wildness within.
The back garden made me feel like a prisoner at first. As I stood there contemplating the pandemic amidst the green growing things all around me, I remembered a joke that my Science teacher had told us in secondary school and searched the deepest recesses of my mind for the punchline. On a wet dreary afternoon just before exams, Mr. B had asked us somewhat grandly, ‘Why can’t plants escape from jail?’. There it was … the inevitable increase in attention, a new alertness, like robins landing on freshly turned soil. Mr. B did not normally favour esoteric discourse. So the answer was likely to be sensible.
We had guessed, wildly at first, but then with increasing seriousness. Still, the answer didn’t come until one boy quietly raised his hand. Alan, I think his name was. The class fell silent. Alan didn’t speak often but when he did, he was worth attending to. ‘Sir, it must be because there are walls around their cells’, he offered hesitantly, like a mendicant friar offering alms, like Louis Armstrong stepping out onto the lunar surface, like a philosopher who has happened upon a rare insight. To this day, I have never forgotten the fact that plant cells, unlike animal cells, possess a cell wall for strength. Wisdom, let us attend; the opening line of an ancient hymn about eternal truth, light-filled and gladsome. Oh Gladsome Light, where would we be without you? Darkness, most likely.
Nearly forty years later, I half smiled at the memory, the facial configuration feeling like a contortion of whatever was in my heart. Hesitantly, I moved out into the wilderness, one small step at a time. There was very little grass, just some low-growing weeds beneath the branches and overarching brambles. It was cave-like, a womb that spoke to me of the time before we fell into despair. A fleeting question raced through my mind: Had I found Eden? I crawled and rested, feeling hidden and somehow free. I lay down with my back upon the dry earth, my right hip complaining mercilessly with age and neglect. I grimaced, an altogether too familiar activity, proving to me that Eden was an ancient memory.
The canopy was impressive, low branches of a birch tree interwoven by thick brambles. It was like someone had thrown living streamers across the sky, child-like and full of an innocent wisdom. Whatever light there was began to fade but I still noted pinholes of sky beyond the living things that crowded overhead, tiny dots of silvery blue shining like stars upon a cathedral ceiling. Shadows blurred my perspective so that the entire canopy hid a whole host of invisible things, bringing the heavens closer. Immediately above me was more sky, stars and comets and other heavenly bodies. A lone church bell pealed in the distance reminding me of something too big to label, an ever-present presence. The earth turned and I had moved with it away from the light. I was blinded by shadow, but I knew that light flooded the planet somewhere.
‘Samson’ roared my unseen neighbour with a strident voice; an angry sound that could surely frighten angels and shatter the veil of heaven itself. I imagined Samson to be an unruly brute but at that disenchanted moment, I had nothing but sympathy for the dog. ‘Samson’, and then again ‘Samson’, this time even more loudly. I marvelled at the dog’s location. To call out with such vigour must surely indicate that the dog was miles away, perhaps even relocated off planet entirely, following the orbital path of Laika the Russian space dog. Whether the poor dog obeyed or not, a door crashed violently shut and then there was blessed silence. I felt like praying and lay still for a while looking upwards at whatever lay beyond my imperfect vision.
It felt like preparing for battle in the dead of Winter where there is only the coldest sense of mortality. I was in a grave of my own making. Stillness enveloped me and shielded me from myself by stripping me bear until there was nothing visible left. The light faded completely, and darkness fell as a thick gloom with neither shape nor boundaries. There wasn’t anything to see but I looked anyway, a tiny spark of curiosity keeping my spirit alive like a burning ember nestled amongst the hearth ashes.
I heard the wilderness living, almost as if I could sense the leaves breathing, gases circulating in co-operative exchange. Insects crawled and scraped and crunched. Leaves and twigs fluttered in the invisible breeze, etching out tireless testaments for the inquisitive soul. A seagull cried out over the rolling waves of the harbour. I lay upon the ground, wondering, like a pilgrim resting for a while on the eve before setting off for Jerusalem.
God’s garden protected me. For the first time that day, I sensed a deep reverence within my soul. I felt like early man welcoming the dawn, like the hunter returning to the fire, like the druid reaching the ancient standing stone or the poor sinner coming home after confession. I felt newish. I could sense everybody I’d ever loved lying beside me in that peculiar grave where death held no dominion. And what about all the unknown people who had also loved the people I’d loved? An endless chain of humanity took shape within my heart reaching out across the face of the earth and back through the depths of time. This is my body, words to live by in a cold grave.
Beneath the earthy breeze of the wilderness, I smelt love, a visceral sense that jolted me to my core; a fitting scent for paradise; intoxicating, aromatic, resinous like incense that floated through the air as a sacred mystery. Amidst the fragrant growing things, the stench of fear was fading, though it still left a burn mark, singeing my soul in some unpredictable way. In the darkness of that wild garden, I began to feel an aching beauty somewhere deep within me. Perhaps, I thought, the garden hid an ordered artistry after all. A warm breeze of benediction swept across my face, elevating my spirit. A new light glimmered through the branches, the faintest sliver of the moon, the orbiting body that man had once walked upon. It was not so very far away. It felt like an old neighbour fresh returned from distant lands, a Franciscan sister intent on exploring creation who reflects the light of God’s handiwork for all to see.
I must have slept. I woke to the dawn chorus where a multitude of birds sang together, each plaintiff call reminded me that all creation dwelled within one kingdom, the earthy territory of God’s glory; held together by a sacred covenant in which our separate lives spoke of one great Spirit, the kingdoms of life together reflecting the kingdom of God. I knew that the chorus would move like a great wave across the face of the earth staying with the light as the earth rotated, moving from east to west with the rising sun. This dawn in this place was a special dawn, a resurrection of sorts through which the renewal of the entire earth took shape, not so much a creation as a restoration.
The sea breezes woke up too reminding me that I was cold but still alive. There was no part of my life that other souls had not touched with their love, our unbreakable unity sealed by God and not easily lost even now. God save us all, the living and the dead. I remembered hearing the Church bell peal the night before. It had called to a confused person, a solitary man imprisoned, rotating blindly upon a planet filled with light. It felt good to remember that the dawn chorus sings out an eternal melody banishing the silent darkness, dismantling our solitude.
Sometimes, I pay too much attention to the intellect or to emotion and not enough to the will; the will to survive, the will to change or the will to move beyond whatever it is that stunts my growth. I don’t always see the light, hear the music or know which way to turn. Knowing death is the hardest part of life. The heart ceases to work properly and the intellect fails. The barely utterable horror of the experience clouds its meaning.
My night in the garden had chastened me, coaxing me back to life with a tenderness that I would not have thought possible. When you are filled with fear and behave like you’re the last person on earth, truth is hard to find. There is only a selfish sort of existence where there is precious little giving and even taking becomes an unhappy ordeal. This is a lesson that our first parents learned, a lesson that has grown in importance in the twenty first century, reinforcing the importance of preserving wisdom for all the generations to come.
In an unexpected way, the retreat from the virus into the wilderness brought me back to life. Hell is other people only when we’ve lost ourselves. That is one thing I know for certain. This is what God wants us to remember, even now. There is goodness in the world and there are people in the world: past, present and future. Without all of this, we have nothing of lasting value, our own present just a tiny part of the whole story of presence.
We cannot recreate an earthly paradise by destroying life, any life, at whatever stage of development it exists or wherever it resides for the sake of something as utterly lifeless as convenience. The whole history of life on earth is the story of becoming, of pathways revealing hidden potential that lead to endless possibilities. Eons ago, a single cell took shape, evolved and transformed to inhabit the entire world as the Tree of Life, a glorious celebration of biodiversity that is simply miraculous. A world in which we diminish the other should not be the world we strive for. It is not the life we’re meant for.
Often, it’s what we don’t readily see that matters and polite civilisation has a way of hiding the truth from us. Sure, we can read about it, but ordinary words aren’t enough. To read about love and to experience love are two entirely different things. I remember reading poetry in school and not having the faintest clue what it was really about. Our educational experiences are a sanitised version of life where we sit in neat rows celebrating self-sufficient individuality. The bleeding heart of real life is not like that at all. It is messy and entangled and downright confusing at times. The only real hope for us is to lose the myth of self-sufficiency and replace it with something deeper and broader; something that celebrates enchantment or mystery or divinity. Better still, all three.
I returned to the safety of my kitchen. Safety, now there’s a word that can choke us. It has almost become the pinnacle of human desire but if Maslow was right, its proper place is pretty low down on the pyramid of needs. It’s important but we shouldn’t stop there, not by any means. There are still mountains to climb, ocean depths to plumb and the solar system to explore. There is still the mystery of the human person to celebrate, flawed but striving to rise again, made whole through relationships that really matter. Belonging to someone, being creative, finding love and reaching for the infinite.
I could hear my beloved wife breathing deeply upstairs, lost in dreams of other places and other times, taking in the oxygen from the air and gifting carbon dioxide to the growing wilderness outside. Too early for breakfast, I went walking out amongst the deserted streets feeling like the first man to walk upon a pristine planet, like Adam waking up to a new awareness.
Everything had a muted familiarity in a way that offered the promise of something new. Without cars, the narrow streets felt spacious and liberating, more like the spontaneous pseudopods of an amoeba than the boxed walls of a plant cell. I went with the flow with no obstacles to hinder me, no weary faces either nor happy children nor wrinkled smiles to remind me of who I was or why we’re here. I found myself walking uphill and wondered about Calvary, which had suddenly teleported through time and space towards me. I felt myself treading upon its sorrowful slopes, alone yet not alone, no, never really alone for the connections that bind us trail out in all directions.
Without cars, the Church yard looked like an expanse of divine enchantment, my attention immediately drawn to the towering crucifix at the centre, its mysterious grace freed from the unhappy congestion of temporarily abandoned vehicles. It is amazing how a cacophony of motorised vehicles, even while parked, can obscure reality, hiding the depths of our ancient history. If you’ve ever had difficulty finding your car in a crowded car park, you will know something of the unnatural confusion caused by too many cars. In the distance, I could see Bride Street, all neat houses packed tightly in a terraced ribbon. Thomas Street and Joseph Street and Bridget Street lay nearby, faithful companions for a joyful union.
After acknowledging the quiet little streets, I sought out the groom. Finally, I stood peering up at his body hanging upon a massive cross, the stretched-out wounded figure protected from outside elements by its greenish patina, subtly transforming over the years, preserving the body. Here too was life as in the garden reborn, the exchange of elements no less vital. Here begins the lesson, an extraordinary lesson to be sure, one to be meditated over, appreciated and absorbed into the self. This is my body, words to comfort us in our heedless ways because despite everything, life continues beyond the darkness of the present moment. Always.
When the earth suffers, humans suffer too. As humans retreat from the landscape, I sensed hopefully the slow recovery of nature, which would no doubt be witnessed from above, via high-tech satellite and other less material means. Within days, the air would clear, lungs would breathe more easily, the earth would calm itself and wildlife would flourish at least for a little while, a blessed holiday from the madness of human activity and relentless consumerism. The impossible had somehow become possible and moved within our zone of attention. The pandemic was not just a human crisis but an opportunity to look at ourselves and our way of life.
To the north east, I saw the recently vacated building, the home since 1887 of the sisters of the Convent of Perpetual Adoration, a congregation who lived lightly upon the planet. Opposite stood the Christian Brothers monastery, not quite empty. This is a subdued sort of wedding that I’ve come upon, heart-breaking and resolute yet loving and eternal. The marriage continues even without the gathering crowds and faithful well-wishers.
The bride herself sat waiting to the east, welcoming the sunrise with each passing day. In these parts, she was known as the Church of the Assumption. She is a love made visible, the first to see the light each morning, her towering steeple reaching towards the heavens. I approached her longingly, like a leper seeking a cure, a blind man searching for sight, or a fool reaching for wisdom. The door was closed but I could see through the porch gates on the north east side, its open space speaking to me of the confusion caused by an empty tomb, an otherworldly sign of victory.
It reminded me of the Shepherds’ Field near Bethlehem and the simple pleasure of listening. We so easily block out the sounds that matter, the harmony of birdsong, the crisp rustle of leaves, the rolling waves of the ocean, the voices of our loved ones, the cries of the needy, the whimpers of a wounded earth, the bells calling us to worship or the host of angels summoning us to heavenly glory.
To truly hear, we need to suppress the tedious noise of restless living. I beseech you, if you can’t imagine what the shepherds heard on that calm silent night, that bright holy night, you’re really missing something vital. I cannot imagine going through life not even guessing at the glories streaming from the heavens afar or witnessing to the pure light of love or knowing something of the dawn of redeeming grace. It is song like, the way heaven and earth meet in the middle of everything, the fulfilment of nature and spirit.
I placed my hand timidly on the ruby-coloured sandstone rock, quarried locally in Ferrycarrig and crafted lovingly back together in the aftermath of the Famine, the Great Hunger that devastated the land and its people, the Church itself an enduring ensemble of hope amidst despair. Bowing my head, I said a prayer asking God to keep the light of goodness alive in our hearts during the dark times to come, an insufficient response to the precious mystery of God but an attentive response, nonetheless. My mind wandered for a bit until I found myself back home thinking of breakfast and the ceremonial sharing of meals, a tradition with co-operative roots in pre-history as early humans gathered for company and sustenance.
I heard my wife yawn from overhead, a sure sign that tea was required. I peered out at the wilderness of the back garden as I made the breakfast. When I stood on my tippy toes, stretched my body to the limit of its physical constraints and craned my neck upwards, I could just about see the top of the towering steeple of the Church. At the centre of it all was a cross glistening in the morning sunlight, its simple form drawing to itself all the secrets of God’s creation that grow from the good earth below and mixing them with the secrets of eternal beatitude from above, a mystical song of nature and spirit, the comingling of heaven and earth.
The abundant rhythm of the cross called to me, but I turned away for the moment, content to treasure its enduring message within my soul. Presence, the secret to living a deeper life. It is everywhere and it is inside us. I heard my wife’s footsteps upon the stairs. We embraced and walked hand in hand out into the garden, a lost wilderness reborn where we looked forward to sharing in God’s plan for a brighter tomorrow.
All life is sharing: if some part of this essay strikes a chord, please consider sharing it. May God give us a blessing for every trial and may we keep alive the light of God's love even in dark times.