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  • Sean O'Leary

Wilderness Notes at Ballyvaloo

Ballyvalloo Retreat and Conference Centre rests gently upon the fields of Blackwater overlooking the great sweep of the Irish Sea. I like to ramble in the wilderness of the shoreline between the comforts of the Retreat Centre and the vast expanse of water that draws my soul out over the horizon.


Ballyvaloo is a very special place, at once deeply rooted yet connected to all that lies beyond. I write here about the thoughts that germinated and grew in the freedom of this holy place, a sacred space that spans the threshold of the wilderness.


As I contemplate the work of all those who support the mission of Ballyvaloo, I cannot help thinking about the web of life with its innumerable threads that intersect within each person. Each thread travels further out along infinite pathways that lead towards eternity. The air we breathe, the food we eat and the social connections we make all exist within the great web of life that sustains us.


The wildflower swaying in the ocean breeze, the seaweed stranded across the rocks at low tide, the crab scuttling sideways along the strand, the seal eyeing us from the safety of the water, the seagull flying overhead, the rolling wave that crashes onto the shoreline at our feet, the wind that whispers in our dreams, the sunlight that brings life-giving energy to earth and the moonlight that streams through shadowy darkness - all speak of a grand and gracious providence that is beyond our reckoning.


We are not cast adrift upon the earth for we are born out of this immense web of life. When we are too proud of our own agency or too saddened by a deadening isolation, we see everything as separate. We struggle to find a sense of balance in our lives and fail to perceive the connectedness of all things. At such times, we know what it is to be alone in the world.


Yet, there is no separate world out there for nothing is isolated in nature. Something lies before it, within it, beneath it, above it, beside it and after it. Our souls are lovingly crafted by the hand that governs this web of invisibility. This is a reality more concrete than any solid substance in the known universe.


All the living things of the earth possess an unfathomable fertility, a barely visible radiance, a fragile power, a mystical integrity and a shared but unique language of its own. All life is sharing for one cannot flourish without the other. This mysterious unity illuminates the supernatural heritage and destiny of all created being. A sacred flame breathes within, which speaks of the power of transformation, reminding us that the entire universe is on a journey.


Throughout the history of the web of life, a tentative agency germinates within the fledgling souls of all life culminating in the emergence of the human person. The divine flow of existence that runs through the majestic river of life empowers us to more fully experience the miracle of existence. No ordinary thing can exist outside of the great web of being. Every soul exists to live in harmony with this Spirit of Belonging.


Within nature, we become more alive to the dynamism of the living earth and know that we are a vital part of the epic story of life. Nature is part of our existence and we are part of nature’s existence. We are not simply archivists of reality, recorders of history nor dispassionate observers of the natural world. We are made from the dust of the universe: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is a blessing to be alive, to just live upon this earth. Sometimes, it is enough to live a simple life in thanksgiving for the great gift of life that we have received.


Countless generations of life have led us here, to this moment, now. It is only through the Spirit of Belonging that we begin to gain wisdom. In the wild places of the earth, we are free to wonder anew about the connections that bind us. This is the wellspring for profound knowledge. Deep within our souls, when we awaken to the striking truth of the wilderness, we grow in harmony with the giver of life.


The natural world leaves a sacred impression upon our souls. We flourish not just for ourselves but for all life on earth and the entire universe. When we disregard this divine truth, we diminish our own souls. When we diminish our souls, we obscure the truth.


When we observe the universe, we learn how it was carefully prepared over eons of time for our arrival. Even the smallest change in the long history of the universe would have made earth uninhabitable and our existence impossible. But, nothing is impossible with God. And so, our being is saturated by the divine order and sacred rhythms that bind the forces of nature with all living things. The sacred language of God weaves its way throughout all creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

We are the voice of Creation for we speak for everything on earth. To be able to speak for all living things, indeed for all matter is no accidental occurrence. It is no small thing to be given the power of speech and the freedom to use it wisely. It is God-like. When we speak less about our own needs and more about the care of the world, we transcend our own lives and attune our souls to the sublime language of our Creator. To look inwards at our own soul is to contemplate a reflection of God.


Across the windswept sand dunes, I sometimes imagine a church bell pealing, a deeply resonant voice, a signal of our origin, mission and destiny. But, it is in nature that we dwell in the handiwork of God. Within the sanctuary of St. Brigid’s Church in Blackwater, the local priest blesses everything used in the service of God. How could we fail to recognise that everything is in the service of God?


Just two thousand years ago, a mere eye-blink in the history of life on earth, the Son of God entered the same web of life that we share today. The divine Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. During the final three years of Jesus’ life on earth, he frequently spent time alone, sometimes without any human companionship at all as he spent time in the wilderness. Even when he was surrounded by people, Jesus was often misunderstood, ignored or abandoned.


At the end of his life, Jesus was mocked, tortured and cruelly put to death. Yet, he persisted with his divine mission willingly taking on the mantle of the crucified God who suffered for our redemption.


As Jesus hung upon the cross, the weight of his body pulling downwards made his breathing horrendously laboured. He too struggled for breath in this world until he breathed his last. But before his last breath, Jesus summoned all his strength to cry loudly – ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. The moment of stillness had come, a moment of stillness that we share as we contemplate the cross.


To breathe in is to inspire, to receive life-giving air and the oxygen needed to drive our internal functions. It is a pathway of connection that links us to all life on earth. To be denied oxygen is to experience the most terrible deprivation imaginable. God bore this isolating pain for all creation.


If nothing else, the suffering that we experience and bear witness to in this life helps us to awaken to the connections that sustain all life, to experience a sense of boundless belonging and to look beyond the confines of our individual selves in our search for meaning and purpose.


As I walk along the shoreline, my thoughts turn to God’s handiwork, an enduring source of consolation and joy. The ebb and flow of the tides remind me of the constancy of change. Nothing in this world stays the same but nothing is ever truly lost.


Every part of our life, the joy and the sorrow, brings us closer to Christ. We all follow in the footsteps of the crucified one as we journey along the way of love that brings us back to our Creator.


Such thoughts always help me to glimpse the timeless presence of God who preserves all goodness for ever and ever. At this moment in time, it is good to be alive and it’s nice to see the light from the sun.


It is time for a cup of tea and some much-needed conversation, a turning together of words that mirrors the divine nature of Christ. Just as the Word was made flesh, our flesh can form words, a powerfully creative force that reaches out beyond all existence to the glory of God.


I ascend the sand dunes and admire the wildflowers. As I catch sight of the retreat centre, I look forward with hope, to all that awaits.