The coming of summer stirs our hearts. As the warm and welcome colours of June play across the fields and streets around us, those vulnerable hearts are moved again by an aching kind of remembering and longing first awakened in our childhood experiences of nature. Because Pope Francis believes that God’s extravagant love is inscribed into all such explorations and yearnings, he regards those memories as small epiphanies of incarnate grace.
Our friendship with God, he writes, is ‘always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning’. Many of us will remember a secret, graced place where, for us alone, the heavens and the earth were, as in Celtic mythology, only ‘thinly’ separated. There is something deeply touching in the evocative words and phrases the Pope uses in his encyclical Laudato Si’; ‘Soil, water, mountains – all that exists is a caress of God’. And he adds, ‘anyone who has grown up in the hills and fields, or who used to sit by the well to drink, or played outdoors in the streets or the neighbourhood square – going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves’ (84).
St Pope John Paul II, too, saw these unique times of disclosure, of a fleeting and timeless experience of ‘otherness’, as sacramental glimpses of an invisible and intimate connectedness with our Mother-Creator. In his beautiful book of poetic reflections ‘The Place Within’, he revisits unforgettable moments on his beloved Alpine slopes, on the seashores of his childhood, on each ‘present particle of that amazement that will become the essence of eternity’. In a delightfully incarnational way, both popes ask us to remember such glimmers as small, sensual sacraments, wee windows of wonder that let in a true and lovely light, especially perhaps when we need it most.
At home in the South-West of Ireland we lived in the shadow of the ‘Two Paps Mountains’ (Dha Chioch Danann), faithful companions during the seasons and decades in the life of our Mother-Earth. Named in honour of the goddess Danu, they reminded us to honour and respect all those who went before us – the pagans, the matriarchies, the Celts, the Christians – and of our common lineage and evolving understanding of God. It was at the request of the local people that I, as a young priest, celebrated the Eucharist on the mountain one summer morning. The magic mist (ceo draiochta) of folklore parted and we sensed the bright presence of a mystery beyond us. It was a sacramental moment if ever there was one. All of us, I’m sure, in that soaring, sacred space, were connecting with unspoken, unspeakable dimensions of our common being – another form of silent adoration never to be forgotten.
Both popes cherish the notion of ‘presence’, that divine indwelling within creation and humanity, within nature and childhood, to clarify their understanding of the implications of Incarnation. There is a Celtic and Catholic sensitivity to the reality of this invisible ‘radiant presence’ (100), of this life and memory in the rocks and rivers that bless those ‘special places’. This graced sensitivity to the invisible shimmering of divine beauty in ‘the very flowers and birds’ of nature is another example of a sacramental imagination – when the invisible world of a divine presence breaks through into, or out of, our tangible and visible world of the senses and daily experiences. Using warm and poetic words Pope Francis is inviting us to return to those sublime moments and places to refresh our souls.
Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors knew that God was no less revealed in the playful child as in the man who was raised from the dead. They knew that all children are small, unique faces of divine beauty and presence. And so they refer to ‘the deeper personal meaning of those places we played in’, those experiences that we wistfully tend to return to, those indelible traces left in us by our childhood homes and streets and fields – traces that, like the humanity of the Risen Christ, remain indelible even in heaven. In a sublime sentence theologian Karl Rahner writes ‘ . . . we do not move away from childhood in any definitive sense but more towards the eternity of this childhood in which that takes place which can only take place in childhood itself, a field which bears fair flowers and ripe fruits such as can grow in this field and in no other, and will themselves be carried in the storehouses of eternity’.
The days and places of our youth become so special to us in later years. The warm winds of summer make us vulnerable to forgotten moments, and they comfort our hearts. There is often an ache in us when we look back on our lives, and those places of blessed memories. Something of God was alive and well in us then. Small wonder that Jesus reached for a child when they asked him for a role-model to follow. Children still live in their ‘true selves’, as the Pope put it. And, of course, ‘to recover something of our true selves’, as he repeated, is the whole point of Christianity. In ‘Fern Hill’ Dylan Thomas provides a glimpse of that golden, eternal moment of truth:
Now I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy
As the grass was green.
The night above the dingle starry.
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes.
(Tablet article June ’17)