Recently I was asked how my trip to Ireland impacted my faith and spirituality. I loved this question because it wasn’t in the Irish people or even in the Irish Churches that I felt God’s hand. It was in the land itself, three places in particular.
The first was in the Burren, an otherworldly expanse of limestone rock landscape that stretches for 150 square miles through Counties Clare and Galway, and in some places, is a half mile thick. The area gets even more rain than the rest of Ireland, and the climate is oddly temperate, so the rock is dotted with an unusual variety of plants and animals tucked into its crevices.
In the midst of this desolate appearing region is a structure called the Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb dating back to sometime around 3500 BC. This tomb wasn’t the original resting place of its inhabitants– their bodies were kept somewhere safe until only the bones remained, then the bones and special personal objects were placed into the tomb. It is atop a small hill, so it can be seen as an eerie focal point from surrounding areas.
As I climbed up that small hill, the heavy rain let up. Gusts of wind swirled around me and Irish mist kissed my face. Although not allowed past the rope that loosely surrounds the structure, I was close enough to be awestruck by beauty of those ancient stones.
My daughter wandered a few feet away on her own, and I thought about the families who once lived here. Their lives were so different from mine -different worries, different fears, different struggles, different joys. And yet, here was a sacred place where they felt a lot like I have, a place where they honored and mourned their dead, sending them on their eternal journey with personal objects to comfort them. Over five thousand years ago they cared for their dead and grieved just like we do. Throughout the whole world and throughout time, human beings all share this common experience of sorrow and loss, a fact that should make us all a bit more compassionate and charitable to each other.
The second site that deeply affected me was the Cliffs of Moher. I’d seen magnificent ocean landscapes before, like the California pacific coast highway, the rocky beaches of Maine, the wide beaches of the North Carolina Outer Banks. I’d even seen the Cliffs of Moher in my favorite movie, The Princess Bride. Even so, nothing prepared me for seeing them in person.
Also in County Clare, the cliffs stretch about five miles along the Atlantic. These are not cliffs that slope gently down to the sea – they drop straight down 700 feet to the ocean crashing below. Guests hike along narrow paths that in some places are literally an arm’s length from the edge. That day’s weather vacillated between sunshine glinting off the water to bouts of heavy rain that made me fear I might slip on the muddy path. For a little while all I could do was concentrate on Jordan’s sneakers moving in a straight line in front of me. But whether it was raining or sunny, the Cliffs were breathtaking. I was captivated by the sheer beauty and height and majesty of those cliffs, worked upon for millions of years by the ocean tides and shaped into something glorious. It reminded me of how God works on us. The “force” might be sickness, or grief or financial woes, but God can use those forces to mold us into something beautiful. And God always sees that beauty in us, even when we don’t.
The third thing that struck me was the ubiquitous dry rock walls that covered the countryside. Apparently, as farmers worked the rocky fields they uncovered so many stones that they decided to pile them into low walls instead of carting them away. The rocks are stacked lower on the outside, higher on the inside, in such a way that no mortar or grout is required to hold them in place. Despite their precarious appearance they can last for hundreds of years. The space between the stones provides shelter for animals in the winter and blooms with wildflowers in summer. The landscape is crisscrossed with these beautiful stone structures. These are neighborly walls, that sheep might not cross but neighbors easily can, nothing like the high privacy fences we use.
So, to answer the question, my trip deeply affected my spirituality. It reminded me that humans are so similar despite our many differences, created and treasured by a God who infinitely loves us all. And God uses His incomprehensible power to mold and shape us into something beautiful even through painful hardships. And finally, that we can use those hardships to make walls of beauty instead of walls that keep other people out. My trip gave me hope that if I let God shape me and wear away my rough stony edges, and if I don’t build walls that block people out, my faith too will grow into something of incredible strength and beauty.