(I am currently on an eleven day diocesan pilgrimage to Ireland. Our pilgrimage group is visiting different religious and cultural sites in the central and southern part of Ireland. The following is a reflection on our visit to the ruins of the monastic city of Glendalough.)
Glendalough is a glacially-formed valley in Ireland that is within an hour’s drive outside of Dublin. The name means “glen of the two lakes”. The glen is remarkable for its peacefulness and beauty. In the sixth century, St. Kevin arrived in the glen seeking a life of prayer, penitence and contact with nature. The reputation of the holy man grew and other people came to the glen seeking Christian community. A monastic city grew and thrived there for centuries. Scholars estimate that at its height around one thousand souls lived within the monastic city with non-monastics (merchants, tradesmen, etc.) living outside its walls and pilgrims arriving continuously from all over Ireland and Europe. The monastic city became a center of faith, learning, peace and life within the dark and often violent times of the middle ages. The city was destroyed around 1368 A.D. by British troops and now all that is left are the stone ruins of a once thriving faith and cultural center.
Today, as I toured Glendalough and learned its history, I was reminded of the stunning mosaic above the main altar in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. In the center of the mosaic is the cross of Christ and from the cross sprouts branches calling to mind the saying of Christ that he is the branch and that we are the branches and that the cross is indeed the “tree of life”. Within the twists and turns of these branches are found different images of culture and life: artists at work, people performing music, laborers, people learning and many more such images. The mosaic testifies that life flows from the cross of Christ and that it is life that both transforms and builds culture. The monastic city of Glendalough was a living testimony of this truth. In a savage and brutal time a man began a community that, informed by the Christian faith and the light of the Gospel, developed learning and truly aided humanity. I would say that Ireland and in fact all of humanity is in a better place because St. Kevin and his followers took the light of the Gospel seriously and, by so doing, raised the human condition.
The monastic city of Glendalough and the mosaic of San Clemente remind us that Church and faith build culture. This is an important memory for Christians as we live in a time steeped with revisionist history and agendas seeking to cast the Catholic Church solely in negative and demonizing terms. These tendencies portray the Catholic Church as an impediment to human progress rather than the catalyst that it has historically been and also continues to be. History records that St. Kevin’s faith, and the vision of the monastic city, brought light and hope to a truly dark and dangerous time. This is just one example of a multitude throughout history and around the world.
We, as Christians, must be prepared to do the same today. I would even go so far as to say that we cannot but do so because it is within the very makeup of who we are. The mosaic of San Clemente demonstrates this almost organic connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and the growth of human learning, light and hope. God is the source of all knowledge, light and truth; therefore, to encounter Christ is to encounter truth and light. It is easy to tear down. It is not easy to build. The Christian faith builds culture and life and this work shines forth even more brilliantly and truly when the surrounding ethos has nothing to truly offer the deepest yearning of the human heart.
Does this mean that we need to seek out our own Glendaloughs and retreat from the troubles of our age? First, I would say that some men and women are called to the monastic and eremitic witness but not the majority. Second, I would say that St. Kevin and monastics and hermits of all times do not “hide away” from the human condition but rather, have the courage, guided and impelled by grace, to enter fully into the human condition. The community founded by St. Kevin became a faith and cultural center precisely because it grew into a community of authentic humanity. A “growth” made possible by the light of the Gospel. The Gospel leads to true humanity; the “world” (despite loud protestations to the contrary) is what often fears the human condition.
What do we Christian do in this age and every age? We cling to the light of the Gospel and we allow this light to develop an authentic humanity that is clearly distinguishable from the shallowness of a worldly ethos. The Christian monastic living in a monastery separated from the rush of the world is called to do this as well as the Christian disciple living in the non-stop movement of a major city. The light of the Gospel leads to an authentic humanity which, in turn, creates a human space where life can be found and true friendship can be encountered.
Today, we each need to be a “St. Kevin” – trusting in the light of the Gospel and living an authentic humanity.