Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In a Country Churchard

I knew I was in Northern Ireland and not the Irish Republic when I took a stroll through a graveyard. The difference between the Protestant graveyard and the Catholic ones I was growing accustomed to in the rest of the country was quite surprisingly great, though they were both certainly beautiful. But as I wandered through the northern churchyard, weaving my way around cross after cross, I realized something that surprised me.

I was missing Mary.

Not just her. I was missing the human element that warms the Catholic graveyards I had been exploring in the towns down south, the statues of saints who have lived and died before us who may yet (according to Catholic theology) be actively praying for us who are still alive. A Catholic graveyard is an active place; even in its stillness it is a junction of the living and the even-more-living. And in that intersection, they have faith that the loved ones they bury are not actually gone, not anymore than Mary and the other saints are.

At least, so I gather.

One way or another, the marble crosses in Northern Ireland felt a little bit cold in contrast, as if they proclaimed a disembodied abstraction—an abstraction that was certainly true, and that the abstract pieces of me could touch, and that offered hope of reaching completely when I would eventually become an abstraction too. They were still quite beautiful, and probably a little theologically safer, but a little deader (if I can use that word for a graveyard), certainly a little farther away.

One of the headstones in a little graveyard in the town where Patrick had built his first church comforted its Catholic grievers with these words (right behind a little statue of a praying Mary):
Those who die in grace
go no further than God,
and God is very near.

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