THE LAND OF THE SACRED CAPE
I live in Wexford town, a Viking settlement that was built up around a working harbour on the Slaney estuary. The fishing boats pull up alongside train tracks that lead northwards to places like Wicklow, which gets its name from a Viking meadow or southwards to Rosslare, which means the middle peninsula.
A 2nd Century map by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy labelled a point along the South East coast of Ireland as the Sacred Cape, a mysterious name that has almost been lost to us through the unfolding vicissitudes and blessings of time. I often ramble along the shoreline or across the ancient countryside paths witnessing first-hand the breadth and depth of creation. Each walk is a celebration, a precious opportunity to contemplate the glory of the Creator reflected in the landscape and its inhabitants.
Many conservation areas follow the coastline of County Wexford – the polders and dunes of Cahore; the sandhills of Kilmuckridge; the seawater covered sandbanks of Blackwater and the Long Bank; the hills and dry heaths of Screen; the mudflats, sandflats and reefs of Carnsore Point; the coastal lagoon and perennial vegetation of the stony banks of Our Lady’s Island Lake; the embryonic shifting dunes of Tacumshin Lake; the reefs, long shallow inlets, vegetated sea cliffs and fauna of the Saltee Islands; the mudflats, salt meadows and dunes of Bannow Bay; and the long inlets, bays and sea cliffs of Hook Head.
Intimately linked to this coastline is the Slaney River Valley with its old sessile oak woods, mudflats, water courses, alluvial forests, estuary, salt meadows and astonishing range of wildlife, such as mussels, otters, lampreys, salmon and harbour seals. Another conservation area borders the county as if protecting it from the rest of Ireland, the Blackstairs Mountains with rippling hills ascending towards the heavens produced by a collision of granite and slate rock moulded over millions of years, an enduring caress of God.
Along the shorelines of the Sacred Cape, three nature reserves hug the sandy coastline. ‘Ballyteigue Burrow Nature Reserve’ is a nine-kilometre-long shingle spit near the coastal village of Kilmore Quay harbouring features, such as sand dunes, mudflats and salt marshes. It is home to wild grasses, delicate flowering plants, rare lichens, incredible invertebrates and graceful birds. Moving northwards, the ‘Raven Nature Reserve’ began its life as a long narrow sand spit protecting the mouth of Wexford harbour. Over one third of the world’s population of Greenland White-fronted Geese overwinter here. They feed by day on the neighbouring ‘Wexford Wildfowl Reserve’ and return each evening to roost in the relative safety of the sand bar, just off the southern tip of the Raven. The area is rich with wildflowers and butterflies.
When we visit such appealing places, we can’t help wondering at the diversity of life on our planet, the Kingdoms of Life that make up the branches of the great ‘Tree of Life’ that unfurls like a desert flower over eons of time. In the wonderous growth of this ‘Tree of Life’, living species were shaped through interaction with the natural world thus revealing the growth patterns of this one precious tree. Atoms, elements, molecules, moons, stars and galaxies all play their part in a cosmic dance of impossible beauty. The relatedness of all things reflects the unity of all matter and the solidarity of all living things. We exist together upon the planet, an enduring reflection of the Ultimate Truth who created us. Accepting our origin from the ‘dust’ of the universe and our kinship to all life on earth is a profound spiritual experience made possible by God’s grace and grandeur. This insight of connectedness, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, nurtures within us feelings of humility, belonging and joy as we journey upon the life-giving pathway that brings us closer to God. This is our journey of faith.
Often, I come upon the messiness of life, the decay, the pain or the loss of life that burns ever so sharply in the great mystery of being. It could simply be a sapling planted loosely in the soil struggling to stay anchored in the biting wind or an overturned insect with its legs waving frantically towards the sky. In forlorn moments, it feels overwhelming and threatens to erode my faith through the unmerciful battering of the cold winds of doubt. Yet, nature helps me to see that each story is buried deep within the web of life governed by the natural cycle of birth, life and death. So much death but so much life too. It is miraculous that life has continued to flourish despite the ongoing struggle. When dark thoughts infiltrate my soul, I remember a line from the first chapter of John’s Gospel - ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. Is it any wonder that Gospel means good news?
The light of transformation shines brightly amidst the darkness of struggle. Just as the light of God’s love has guided the precarious flourishing of life on our planet from the beginning, our faith is a lamp which continues to guide us even to eternity. This is the truth brought to us by Jesus Christ. God delivers life out of death. A widow’s son lovingly restored to his mother, the young daughter of Jairus in Capernaum, the brother of Martha and Mary named Lazarus, the helpful and much loved Tabitha in the city of Joppa, the young man Eutychus who fell from a window and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. We are people of the resurrection.
The eternal glow of the Kingdom of God always permeates my explorations amongst the Kingdoms of Life. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the growth of a mustard seed that grows into a large bush upon which the birds of the sky dwell. He also compares it to the yeast that a woman mixed with wheat flour until the dough was leavened. Within a few short sentences of sacred scripture, we hear Jesus referring to species from three different kingdoms of life: Plants, Animals and Fungi pointing to the interconnectivity, vital relationships and interdependence of creation. It is through the germination and growth of the mustard seed and the yeast within the interconnected web of life that transformation occurs. This is the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the coming together of the power for growth within each one of us within the larger web of God’s creation.
‘Every living thing’ has ‘the breath of life’ (cf. Gen 7:21-22). Curiously, it is also this ‘breath of life’ that signals our spiritual experiences. Our experience of reality deepens as our awareness sharpens. Every day, we encounter mystery played out in our deepening sense of connection with the tapestry of life and the intricate patterns of the natural world. Simply being in nature and knowing that we are a part of something bigger is a constant gift. When we are open to deep-rooted spiritual experiences, we are more fully alive to the divine spark that prompts us to better know and love God.
In Genesis, the first act of God is to create light. In early Christianity, baptism was known as ‘photismos’ or illumination. Through the light of God, the living community of the faithful reflects the rich and diverse web of creation – interconnected, related and interdependent – a dynamic reflection of the Holy Trinity. Every time I light a candle in Church, I thank God for the resplendent light of truth. In a very real way, each one of us is a messenger of light within an intricate web of light that extends far beyond us. As we work towards bringing God’s Kingdom of radiant light into the world, we banish the darkness a little bit more. Every single light makes a difference, every single light belongs to a larger truth and every single light is a tangible experience of God’s light on earth.
Just as baptism is the sacrament that invites us into illumination by living water and the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the natural world created by the Holy Trinity is also filled with sacramental signs, fed by the living waters of the rivers and streams that pour into the great seas. We see reflections rippling across the surface of the dynamic waters of the earth and contemplate the hidden depths within. From early childhood, water captures our attention. With God’s grace, the happy child leaping into a muddy puddle becomes the joyful adult sitting peacefully by the seashore contemplating the majestic flight of the geese. We are surrounded by sacramental signs for God fills the universe completely – the cells of living things, leaves, flowers, insects, birds, mammals, the moon, the sun and galaxies – all reveal God’s language and speak of the divine.
Greenland White-fronted Geese fly in family groups of wavering lines that are easy for us to recognise reaching Ireland on the cold northerly winds that trumpet the onset of winter and leaving again on the warm southerly breezes that herald the spring. Each sunset, these geese depart the fields to roost overnight in the relative safety of the sandbanks of Wexford harbour. Each dawn, they flock back into the fields of the North and South Slobs, where they spend the short winter days grazing on rye grasses and the roots of buttercups and clover. They also feed on crop roots that have been especially grown for them by the work of human hands. It is this work of human hands that reminds me of the celebration of the Eucharist, a sacred fulfilment of our creative work with nature, a sonorous note in the symphony of our role within creation.
Every time I see these geese, I reflect on sacramental symbols, visible signs of God’s presence. The awe-inspiring movement of thousands of birds across an incandescent sunset or glittering dawn always stops me in my tracks. It is an almost indescribable moment of true joy, a feeling of intense humility joined with a deep feeling of belonging that could only originate from love. My sacred response is Amen, a covenantal cry from the heart. By witnessing the fingerprints of God around me, I become ever more aware of the reflection of God within me, gradually revealing my true image beneath the dying embers of my lingering independence. We are united in mystery. I, God and neighbour. This is what it means to be free. So be it.
My quiet visits to the Franciscan Friary in Wexford town alert me to the holiness and wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi who lived a fruitful life in harmony with God, with others, with nature and with his deepest self. Moments of life-filled grace steer us to God’s abiding presence: the sheer extravagance of creation, the interconnected journey of just one local migrant to our shores, the relationality of each and every one of God’s creatures and the interdependence of all being. I marvel over the soil, the clover, the buttercups, the water, the clean air, the attentive raising of young goslings and the long difficult migration in harmony with the earth’s seasons. To me, the book of nature is indivisible and so much the richer for it. When we strive to truly comprehend the interconnectedness of all creation, we reach for God who is both present in his creation and exists far beyond it.
Birds navigate according to weather patterns, food sources, the earth’s magnetic field and the location of the sun by day and the stars by night. This is the unfolding story of the universe itself which speaks powerfully of God’s providence for: ‘God made the two great lights - the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night - and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good’ (Genesis 1:16-18).
The magnificence of nature is a freely available endowment of God, a watercourse of natural grace, a gift that we bring into the Church with us to be renewed and elevated through worship. This is where we express thanksgiving, acclaim God’s glory and offer up nature’s gifts worked by human hands for consecration through which all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to our heavenly Father. It is where we celebrate the memorial of Christ, express communion with the whole Church of heaven and earth and respond ‘Amen’ to the concluding words: ‘Through Him, with Him and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever’. It is a celebration of creative presence, embodied wisdom and eternal love.
When we say ‘Amen’, we honour the glory of creation in Christ just as we welcome the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist, we share in God’s own life through a radical transformation which penetrates the heart of all being leading to the transfiguration of the entire world. Each time the priest raises up the Eucharist, he is responsible for bearing the weight of the world upon his fragile shoulders in a cosmic act that unites heaven and earth. It is a daring act of tremendous courage, a truly sacred moment that offers us a taste of divinity.
At special moments, as I sit and watch with a sense of attentive expectation, I see beyond the confines of the building. The flapping wings and the wild call of the Greenland geese beckon my soul outwards where I hear the crash of the waves upon the shoreline and the still quiet song of all creation. From the sacred heart of Jesus, the whole universe comes pouring out. Galaxies, grace and geese unfold before me enveloping the entire earth in a profound mystery of hope that pulses to the rhythm of the psalms, echoing the heartbeat of God.
Through the Eucharist, we offer ourselves, our works and all creation to Christ. This gives us an insight into the final fulfilment for which we and creation are destined, a new creation of heaven and earth where the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven and rests elegantly upon the earth. This is our destiny. Through witnessing the Greenland geese glide across the cold wintry waters of the Wexford coastline, my eyes, my ears and my heart open even wider to Christ. As the geese gracefully descend, weary from travel to dwell upon the protected grounds of the Raven Nature Reserve, I glimpse the great work of love that Jesus accomplished – the redemption of the world. We are all witnesses to this wonder as we journey along the road to heaven, a revealing pilgrimage for our hearts that brings us closer to God.
The splendours of the natural world offer us an abundance of gifts that instil in us powerful feelings of awe and reverence. When we walk in God’s presence, we walk upon sacred ground where even the geese speak of grace. As we wander the shorelines of the Sacred Cape, we can look and listen with attentive minds and open hearts. God puts all things under our feet and above our heads to restore our souls, rejoice our hearts and enlighten our eyes.
Within the radiant glow of the three lamps of the Trinity, we receive through the sanctifying grace of our sacramental way of life the creative power to transform ourselves, the embodied wisdom to overcome our selfishness and the life-giving love to bring reconciliation and healing to ourselves and the earth community. Each time we bless ourselves in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we draw closer to our triune God. In this way, we find a truer path as the image of God on a journey that encompasses the connectedness, relationship and interdependence of all creation. ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen’.
This morning, I strolled out amongst the lively breezes of the Wexford shoreline. Over eons of time, long before the birth of humankind, the oceans shaped the land that I walked upon. Near the limits of my vision, I spotted a wavering line just above the horizon and my heart lifted with joy. It felt sacred. A teardrop rolled down my cheek and became one with the waters of the earth. All existence began to diminish and fade into the soft cadence of the sea that stretched out beyond me to where God’s geese fly.
May God Hold You in the Hollow of His Hand.