31 December 2009

From Byzantium to beach walks: a year of hoping and coping

A year in Facebook status listings

Patrick Comerford

My year opened with a double-page feature on Byzantium in the Athens News, and closed with a guest column on my beach walks in Skerries in the Skerries News; it opened with heavy snow, and closed with heavy snow. The heavy snow and the floods this year were just some of the portents – alongside the failure of world leaders to reach an agreement on climate change at Copenhagen – that global warming threatens every one of us with disaster. In between, we had floods throughout Ireland. And the Murphy Report on clerical sexual abuse was one more sad episode in a year that has been a sad one for Ireland, politically, economically and socially.

At a political level, the Government has managed to punish the poor and those who are dependent on social welfare payments for the crimes of those who are responsible for the economic mess we are in. The punishment was instant and merciless for the poor, while those who became rich as they created these misfortunes have gone unpunished, without trial, and without any of us seeing justice being done.

Jurisprudence demands not only that justice is done, but that justice must be seen to be done. But we have yet to see any justice being done when it comes to dealing with irresponsible bankers and property speculators. The last decade has been known to many as the “Noughties” – but we all know too who the “Naughties” have been.

The money to recapitalise the banks has been delivered on demand, while the bankers continue to pay themselves massive bonuses with our taxes. Yet the Government is unable to find the wherewithall to raise the money needed for new school buildings, to keep hospital wards open, to maintain standards in dental care, health care and education, or to build the infrastructures this country needs if we are going to seize the opportunities that become available once the recession ends.

The ESRI says the recession should end by the second half of 2010. But as cabinet ministers tried to convince us a few weeks ago that we had turned the corner, I wondered – I just wondered – whether we had turned around that corner into a blind alley or a cul-de-sac.

It has been a disappointing year too for the social mix that was once Irish society. One report recently revealed that up to 50 per cent of our recent immigrants have left once again. I had hoped we were moving towards a society with a little more cultural and social diversity. But that hope has diminished in the last 12 months, and I harbour real fears that Irish society will become more racist if the current economic trends and consequent unemployment figures continue.

And yet I drew great encouragement from meeting so many of my old school friends from the class of 1969 at Gormanston 40 years after we sat the Leaving Certificate. If we are a good cross-section of Irish society in all the areas we work or in which we have commitments, then the future of Ireland is in safe and capable hands, in the hands of people I have confidence in and can trust.

And who could not have taken courage and inspiration from the Irish Triple Crown, Grand Slam and defeat of the world champions, South Africa, as well as the awesome performance by Leinster?

Internationally, there have been some glimmers of hope. The inauguration of President Barack Obama has allowed the world to breathe a deep sigh of relief. He has already delivered on his promises on reforming US healthcare policies, and while he has yet to deliver on his promise of nuclear disarmament and an end to the nuclear arms race, at least those promises are there and are alive.

He may not have earned his Nobel Peace Prize yet, but at least it represents the global sigh of relief that the Bush Administration is well and truly gone. The wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, but Iran and North Korea are no longer being marginalised as the axis of evil or being offered a clenched fist, and the Muslim world has been offered “a new beginning.”

While the news from the Middle East continued to be horrifying and depressing throughout the year, there were some tiny signs of hope too. The Irish aid convoy trying to reach the besieged Gaza Strip was one sign of how Irish people could respond to the situation there, and the irrepressible opposition protesters in Iran demonstrate a persistent courage that defies the stereotypical images of Iranians that were projected by the Bush Administration. They are not demanding much; indeed, their demands are quite conservative; but they are brave and courageous.

Living with sarcoidosis

In Quemerford in Calne, Wiltshire, a day after receiving confirmation of the diagnosis of sarcoidosis

During the year I have become all too familiar with my GP’s waiting room, and the consultants’ rooms, the coffee shops, the corridors and the wards of the Beacon Clinic, the Blackrock Clinic, Saint James’s Hospital, and the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Tallaght. I have had tests, probes, consultations, explorations, scans, XRays, analyses, weekly injections and surgery.

Without going through all the boring details, the climax came with a ’phone call while I was in Bath confirming the diagnosis of sarcoidosis. The good news, I was told, is that I do not have lung cancer. That took me aback, but then I should have realised that they had to test me for that too.

Both sarcoidosis and my severe deficiency of Vitamin B12 leave me sapped of physical energy at the most unsuspecting and unexpected times. I have pains in my joints, particularly in my knees, fingers and wrists, my glands are swollen, I have a constant feeling of pins and needles under my feet, shortage of breath, a persistent dry cough, and many sleepless nights with sweats and cramps in my legs and feet.

A clear blue sky over the beach in Skerries ... my walks on the beach in Skerries have been a life-enhancing part of living with sarcoidosis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

But my spiritual, mental and intellectual health seem to be as good as ever, and in recent months I have been emotionally boosted by long and regular beach walks, particularly on the beaches of Fingal in North Co Dublin, including Malahide, Portmarnock, Donabate, Portrane, Rush, Loughshinny, and Skerries, as well as beaches in Laytown and Bettystown, Co Meath, in Bray, Co Wicklow, on Achill Island in Co Mayo, and in Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford. And it was so wonderful to walk on beaches in Turkey and Greece this summer too. If the year started with the Athens News and ended with the Skerries News, then those places also symbolise the breaks and the beach walks that have helped me to cope with sarcoidosis. As I have said throughout the year on this blog, I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis will never have me.

Travel at home and abroad

During the year, I travelled throughout Ireland for church-related events and work, staying in Sligo for the clergy conference, Armagh for the General Synod, and Cork during ordinations, as well as staying in Kilkenny and Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, returning to Wexford, revisiting childhood memories in Lismore and Cappoquin in Co Waterford, spending a weekend in Galway before the floods, a day on Achill Island at a funeral, visiting Glendalough and Rathdrum in Co Wicklow, and attending ordinations in Dublin, Waterford, Kilmore, Co Cavan, and Castledermot, Co Kildare.

I had over half-a-dozen visits to England. I spent a weekend in Newcastle with my younger son on a trip primarily focussed on visiting Saint James’s Park, the home of Newcastle United. The Revd Christopher Woods invited me to Cambridge to preach at Candlemas in Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the Revd Alan McCormack invited me to preach in Saint Botolph’s Church in London.

Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge, in front of my rooms ... the year seemed to open with snow and to close with snow (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2009)

But heavy snow in February stopped me from getting from Cambridge to London, my flight from Stansted to Dublin was cancelled, and I was grateful to Christopher and to the porters at Christ’s College whose kindness and hospitality allowed me to stay on while I was booked onto another flight to Dublin from Birmingham. Eventually, the journey back to Dublin turned out to be almost as long and certainly as adventurous as my initially-planned stay in Cambridge.

I was back in Lichfield a few times during the year too, staying at both the Bogey Hole, Pauline Duval’s bijou guesthouse in Dam Street, and at Gill Jones’s house in the Cathedral Close.

In Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, I stayed at the High Leigh conference centre for the annual conference of USPG (Anglicans in World Mission – the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). I also had a few days in July in the West Country, visiting Bath, Bristol and Chippenham, staying once again at the White Hart Inn in Calne, and spending some time in ancestral village Quemerford.

I was back in Cambridge in the summer too, staying at Sidney Sussex College during the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. This year’s theme was Love, and our lecturers included Bishop Kallistos Ware, Sister Magdalen, Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Professor Sebastian Brock, Professor David Frost, Dr Marcus Plested, Father Michael Harper, Dr Alexander Lingas, Father Alexander Tefft, Dr Christine Mangala Frost, and the Revd Professor Andrew Louth. The summer school also included a one-day retreat in the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex.

Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, with the entrance to the chapel on the left and the entrance to H Staircase on the right ... my rooms were on the second floor, just above the end of the Virginia Creeper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

It was good to meet so many old friends at the Cambridge Summer School. Paul Murphy, who had been a theology student with me at the Kimmage Mission Institute in Kimmage Manor in the mid-1980s, turned up for a few drinks in the Eagle, as we caught up on news of old friends, shared our experiences of sarcoidosis, and exchanged stories about our friend Breffni Walker, who died earlier this year. And there were other late nights in the Eagle too.

During the weekend before the summer school began, I attended Choral Evensong and the Sung Sunday Eucharist in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This made it all the more difficult to hear the news about the circumstances of the death of the Dean of King’s, the Revd Ian Thompson.

At the end of the summer school, Frank Domoney, an old school friend from the Gormanston class of 1969 and who had turned up in February to hear me preach in Christ’s College, turned up once again in Sidney Sussex to bring me on a delightful tour of Saffron Walden, some of the pretty and charming villages around the area of East Anglia where he lives, and to see Audley End House.

I did a few other tourist things in Cambridge that I had never dared to do before, including taking a punt on the backs. Cambridge was marking the 800th anniversary of its foundation, but in Cambridge and Lichfield they were marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. In Cambridge, it was a matter of pride that Darwin had been an undergraduate at Christ’s, while in Lichfield I stay regularly in a house that looks on the gardens of Darwin House, where his grandfather Erasmus Darwin lived.

I returned to Lichfield a few times this year for my own personal retreat, spending time in prayer in the cathedral and in Saint John’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In Lichfield they were also marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. Both anniversaries led to some of the radio interviews and programmes during the year.

Travel in Europe

I was in Madrid for the first time in late April and early May. The May Day march was colourful, and it was a delight to see so many older people that day wearing the Spanish republican flag as lapel pins. With hope, courage and endurance, they must have faced so many long, dark days under Franco and now they were showing pride in their hard-won freedom to express their political views.

There was a place for me in the sun in Samos this summer (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

At the end of summer, I was back in Turkey and Greece, staying in Kuşadasi on the western coast of Anatolia and visiting Samos in the Dodecanese islands, as well as visiting Ephesus and the mountain-side town of Sirince, from which the Greek-speaking population was deported en masse in 1922.

Ministry and mission

A year reflected in a collage of tagged photographs posted on Facebook

The new MTh course is now up-and-running in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, with 19 new full-time students and five part-time students on the course. In addition, there are eight students in Year III completing the BTh course and students in Year II and Year III of the distance learning NSM course leading to awards from Saint John’s College, Nottingham, and the Open University, and there are some additional students whose MA or PhD theses I have been asked to supervise. This year, we were also joined by two new staff members, Dr Katie Heffelfinger, as Lecturer in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics, and the Revd Paddy McGlinchey as Lecturer in Missiology and Pastoral Studies.

It was a real pleasure throughout the year taking my turn the chapel in CITI and in Christ Church Cathedral, preaching and celebrating, and to take part in the CITI Ash Wednesday retreat in the Orlagh Retreat Centre and in the CITI carol service in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Cathal Brugha Street.

I was a visiting preacher in a number of churches during the year, including Rathfarnham Parish Church, Rathgar Methodist Church, Saint Columba’s, Swords, Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Saint John’s Church, Clondalkin, Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Saint Michan’s Church in inner-city Dublin, Saint Patrick’s, Donabate, Saint John’s, Kilkenny, and Whitechurch Parish Church, and took part in services or spoke in parishes in Malahide, Rathfarnham, Saint Stephen’s, Mount Street, and in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns. I also preached at the service in Saint Mary’s Church, Old Ross, marking the tercentenary of the arrival of the Palatines in Co Wexford as refugees from Germany.

I led retreats or quiet days for the churches in Bray, Co Wicklow, at the Dominican Priory in Tallaght, and the Anglican Franciscan Third Order in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street. I took part in the God Friday service and the SIPTU memorial service in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green. And I was invited to read the Gospel at the funeral of the Revd Dr Breffni Walker in the Spiritan Church in Kimmage Manor.

Another dear friend who died during the year was Teresa Lawlor. She was only 50 and she had been a very talented musician who had a very diverse career that included being a harpist in Bunratty and working with two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Sean Mac Bride in Dublin and Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She was one of seven sisters, each as intelligent, challenging and thoughtful as the other.

After many years of working with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I stood down as chair earlier this year. But I remain on the MTh Management Committee, the BTh Co-ordinating Committee, the NSM Co-ordinating Committee, the General Synod, the Standing Committee and the Council for Christian Unity and Dialogue, as vice-chair and secretary of the Interfaith Working Group, on the chapter, board and music committee in Christ Church Cathedral, and on the board of USPG Ireland and the council of USPG in Britain. I also continue as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an honorary position held in the past by Sean Mac Bride and John de Courcy Ireland.

At the Hiroshima Day commmemoration service in Merrion Square, Dublin, on 6 August 2009

But another real commitment and pleasure is the annual sale during the August Bank Holiday weekend in Portrane, to raise funds for Hand-to-Heart, an Irish agency providing aid to parishes and projects in Romania and Albania. This sale is organised each year by my cousins Mary Lynders and her four daughters – if Carlsberg did sales teams they probably couldn’t do as well as these gifted and zealous women.

In my family, we also had a nephew’s wedding in Dalkey, and the baptism of my niece’s third child in Lucan.

If Carslberg did sales teams they couldn’t do one as good as my Lynders cousins in Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Culture and publications

Bath and Cambridge were among the cultural highlights of the year, along with the publication of my review of the Byzantium exhibition at Royal Academy in London in January. I was also involved in the programme for the major exhibition, Icons in Transformation, during the summer in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with a lecture on the Cretan School of Icons and its contribution to Western Art. But another cultural highlight was Leonard Cohen’s return visit and concert in Dublin in July. During the year, I was also elected a Fellow of the Academy of Saint Cecilia (FASC).

There were radio and television interviews and broadcasts. I continue writing my monthly feature for the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory), as well as writing occasionally for The Irish Times and the Church of Ireland Gazette.

I was also asked to write this year for the Lichfield Blog and the Skerries News and had chapters published in the book China and the Irish, published by RTÉ in the Thomas Davis Lecture series, and a chapter in Celebrating the Oxford Movement, published by Affirming Catholicism Ireland. The Kilcronagahan Community Association published my story of a romantic affair between Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek writer, and Kathleen Forde, the daughter of a Church of Ireland rector, as A Romantic Myth? Kilcronagahan’s link to Zorba the Greek. And I am looking forward to a paper being published in the Field Day Review within the next few weeks on the life of Joseph Stock, who was Bishop of Killala in 1798 when French forces landed in Mayo and took him prisoner.

But one of the most interesting publications I was involved in this year was one I made no contribution at all. During one of my weeks as canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, I stumbled by accident on the exhibition on The Irish House organised by the Dublin Civic Trust, including exhibited items of stucco art and sculpture by my great-great grandfather, James Comerford. My unbounded enthusiasm led to an invitation in December to launch a new publication in association with this exhibition. It was a wonderful tribute to my great-grandfather, and it was an appropriate start to the Christmas season.

At the CITI Carol Service in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s at the end of the year

I hope you had a blessed Christmas and that the new year ahead of us in 2010 is one filled with many blessings.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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