20 July 2014

A summer afternoon strolling in
the ‘Best Garden to visit in Ireland’

In the grounds and gardens of Mount Usher this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a warm summer day, with temperatures in the mid-20s, and earlier in the day I thought I was going to spend the afternoon walking a beach in either Bray or Greystones after presiding at the Eucharist and preaching in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge.

However, by the time two of us reached Bray on the N11 early in the afternoon, we realised that Bray would be crowded today for the Bray Air Show. We continued on, accidentally missed the turn-off for Greystones, and on a whim decided to turn off for Ashford and to go for lunch in the Avoca Garden Café at Mount Usher Gardens.

My initial impression was memories of the Tea Gardens in Grantchester near Cambridge on another summer afternoon. But this turned out to be a unique experience.

Lunch in the Avoca Garden Café at Mount Usher Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

We had:

● one herbed Fivemiletown goat’s cheese crottin and marinated beetroot salad with rocket, spelt, candied walnuts and caramelised apple puree;

● one plate of homemade Falafel with baba ghanouj, beetroot tzatziki, caramelised onion hummus, couscous and pita;

● two large jugs of water, generously laced with mint and chunks of lemon;

● and two double espressos.

This was my first time in this Avoca café, and it turned out to be one of the most relaxed as well as one of the tastiest lunches I have had this year, and after strolling through the garden setting of the café I could have headed back feeling I had a beautiful afternoon.

4562 Two double espressos in the Avoca Garden Café at Mount Usher Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

But I had never visited Mount Usher before, although I have passed it hundreds if not thousands of times while it was on the main road between Wexford and Dublin before it was by-passed. Looking at the time and the blue skies above, and recalling the joys of a visit to the National Botanic Gardens earlier this month, we decided on impulse to spend a few hours strolling through the gardens.

Mount Usher was voted the “Best Garden to visit in Ireland” by BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine and is one of only three top-rated gardens in Ireland in The Good Garden Guide.

Mount Usher is laid out across 8 ha (22 acres) along the banks of the River Vartry as it tumbles over a series of cascades on its way to the Irish Sea. It is a fine example of a true “Robinsonian-style” garden with its free-flowing informality and natural design.

Mount Usher Gardens were created by four generations of the Walpole family over a period of 112 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Mount Usher Gardens were created by four generations of the Walpole family over a period of 112 years from 1868 and were preserved by Mrs Madeleine Jay from then until they were taken over by the Avoca group in 2007. The gardens include many champion trees of Ireland and Britain, as well as some 4,500 different varieties of trees, shrubs and plants.

The Walpoles were greatly influenced by Ireland’s most famous gardener, William Robinson (1838-1935). When he started, gardening was based on what is now called formal Public Park annual bedding. It allowed the rich to display their wealth as the bedding plants required expensive staff to grow and maintain them. Robinson rejected this approach and advocated a natural style which ever since is known as “Robinsonian.”

Mount Usher is probably the oldest and best-known of the gardens inspired by Edward Robinson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Robinson admired the way cottage gardens had been maintained for hundreds of years, and believed a garden should be based around perennial plantings and that its art is working with nature to create beauty. He revolutionised gardening and virtually all gardens in this part of the world owe a great deal to him. Mount Usher is probably the oldest and best-known of the gardens he inspired.

Edward Walpole, the garden’s founder, passed the property to his three sons. The youngest son, Thomas Walpole, was an engineer, and his contribution to the beauty of the place included designing and building the curved weirs throughout the grounds.

Are you ready for a tour around Mount Usher Gardens? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Today there are over 5,000 species of plant in Mount Usher, many of them rare and exotic, all grown organically, painting a cacophony of colour throughout the season. We took a copy of the new Mount Usher Tree Trail brochure and set off on an afternoon walk through one of Ireland’s Greatest Gardens.

If Co Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland, then Mount Usher is the Garden of the Garden County.

Here are some more of my photographs from today’s visit to Mount Usher without any further comment. I hope you decide to visit the place yourself.

There is little to joke about when
it comes to the gnashing of teeth

Gnasher and Gnipper in the Beano always seemed to be ready to gnash their teeth

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

Sunday 20 July 2014,

The Firth Sunday after Trinity

11 a.m., The Parish Eucharist.


Genesis 28: 10-19a; Psalm 139: 1-11, 23-24; Romans 8: 12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In my imagination, when I was a child not only were the summers long and sunny, but weekend entertainment was simpler and less complicated. The highlights of the weekend seemed to be Dr Who and Dixon of Dock Green, and the weekly editions of the Eagle and the Beano.

I may have been just a little too old (16) for the first appearance of Gnasher (1968), the pet dog of Dennis the Menace in the Beano.

The G tagged onto the beginning of the name of both Gnasher and his son Gnipper is pronounced silently, just like the silent P at the beginning of Psmith, the Rupert Psmith in so many PG Wodehouse novels.

Most of the Beano speech bubbles for both Gnasher and Gnipper consist of normal English words beginning with the letter “N”' with a silent “G” added to the beginning, as in “Gnight, Gnight.”

I was a little too old for the introduction of Gnasher, but nonetheless my friends in my late teens and early 20s loved Gnasher and Gniper, joked about those silent “Gs” and even recalled how as children we had joked about “weeping and G-nashing of teeth.”

There is very little to joke about in this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43). The idea of people being thrown into the furnace of fire is not a very appealing image for children, and so to joke about it is a childhood method of coping.

But throughout history, humanity has stooped to burn what we dislike and what we want to expunge, and we have done it constantly.

We have been burning books as Christians since Saint Athanasius ordered the burning of texts in Alexandria in the year 367.

In the Middle Ages, and sometimes even later, we burned heretics at the stake. When that stopped, we burned anything deemed to be an occasions of sin.

They were burned publicly as an accompanying theme for the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino da Siena in the early 15th century. These included mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards … even musical instruments, and, of course, books, song sheets, artworks, paintings and sculpture.

In his sermons, the book-burning friar regularly called for Jews and gays to be either isolated from society or eliminated from the human community.

Later in Florence, the supporters of Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects, including cosmetics, art, and books in 1497.

And, more recently, the Nazis staged regular book burnings, especially burning books by Jewish writers, including Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein.

Extremists of all religious and political persuasions want to burn the symbols and totems of their opponents, whether it is Pastor Terry Jones burning the Quran and effigies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in Florida or jihadists burning the Twin Towers in New York.

‘Gather the wheat into my barn’ (Matthew 13: 30) … a barn on a farm at Cross in Hand Lane, outside Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The limits of our extremists seem to be defined by their inflammatory words.

But who is being burned in this morning’s Gospel reading?

Who is doing the burning?

And who will be weeping and gnashing their teeth?

Contrary to the shoddy reading of this passage, Christians are not asked to burn anyone or anything at all. And, if we have enemies, we are called not to burn them but to love them.

In this Gospel reading, Christ speaks by the lake first to the crowd, telling them the parable of the wheat and the weeds (verse 24-30). The word that we have traditionally translated as tares or weeds (verses 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 36, 38, 40) is the Greek word ζιζάνια (zizánia), a type of wild rice grass, although Saint Matthew is probably referring to a type of darnel or noxious weed. It looks like wheat until the plants mature and the ears open, and the seeds are a strong soporific poison.

Christ then withdraws into a house, and has a private conversation with the Disciples (verses 36-43), in which he explains he is the sower (verse 37), the good seed is not the Word, but the Children of the Kingdom (verse 38), the weeds are the “Children of the Evil One” (verse 38), and the field is the world (verse 38).

The harvest is not gathered by the disciples or the children of the kingdom, but by angels sent by the Son of Man (verses 39, 41).

It is an apocalyptic image, describing poetically and dramatically a future cataclysm, and not an image to describe what should be happening today.

It is imagery that draws on the apocalyptic images in the Book of Daniel, where the three young men who are faithful to God are tried in the fires of the furnace, yet come out alive, stronger and firmer in their faith (see Daniel 3: 1-10).

The slaves or δοῦλοι (douloi), the people who want to separate the darnel from the wheat (verse 27-28), are the disciples: Saint Paul introduces himself in his letters with phrases like Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ (Paul, a doulos or slave, or servant of Jesus Christ), (see Romans 1: 1, Philippians 1: 1, Titus 1: 1), and the same word is used by James (see James 1: 1), Peter (see II Peter 1: 1) and Jude (see Jude 1), to introduce themselves in their letters.

In the Book of Revelation, this word is used to describe the Disciples and the Church (see Revelation 1: 1; 22: 3).

In other words, the Apostolic writers see themselves as slaves in the field, working at Christ’s command in the world.

This is one of eight parables about the last judgment that are found only in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, and six of the seven New Testament uses of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων) occur in this Gospel (Matthew 8: 12; 13: 42; 13: 50; 22: 13; 24: 51; and 25: 30; see also Luke 13: 28).

When it comes to explaining the parable to the disciples in the second part of our reading (verses 36-43), the references to the slaves in the first part (verses 27-28) are no longer there. It is not that the slaves have disappeared – Christ is speaking directly to those who would want to uproot the tares but who would find themselves uprooting the wheat too.

The weeding of the field is God’s job, not ours. The reapers, not the slaves, will gather in both the weeds and the wheat, the weeds first and then the wheat (verse 30).

Farmers are baling the hay and taking in the harvest in many places already. In a few weeks’ time, many farmers will be seen burning off the stubble on their fields to prepare the soil for autumn sowing and the planting of new crops. In this sense, the farmer understands burning as purification and preparation – it is not as harsh as city dwellers think.

It is not for us to decide who is in and who is out in Christ’s field, in the kingdom of God. That is Christ’s task alone.

Christ gently cautions the Disciples against rash decisions about who is in and who is out.

Gently, he lets them see that the tares are not damaging the growth of the wheat, they just grow alongside it and amidst it.

But so often we decide to assume God’s role. We do it constantly in society, and we do it constantly in the Church, deciding who should be in and who should be out.

The harvest comes at the end of time, not now, and I should not hasten it even if the reapers seem to tarry.

The weeds we identify and want to uproot may turn out to be wheat, what we presume to be wheat because it looks like us may turn out to be weeds.

We assume the role of the reapers every time we decide we would be better off without someone in our society or in the Church because we disagree with them about issues like sexuality, women bishops and priests, and other issues that we mistake for core values.

The core values, as Christ himself explains, again and again, are loving God and loving others.

It is not without good reason that the Patristic writers warn that schism is worse than heresy (see Saint John Chrysostom, Patrologia Græca, vol. lxii, col. 87, On Ephesians, Homily 11, §5). We do not need to demythologise this morning’s reading. Christ leaves that to the future. This morning we are called to grow and not to worry about the tares. That growth must always emphasise love first.

When governments and security forces have said they are rooting out violent jihadists from society, the average, gentle, ordinary Muslim has suffered grossly. When some members of the Church have sought to “out” or “throw out” people because of their sexuality they have caused immense personal tragedy for individuals and their families and friends – weeping and gnashing of teeth indeed.

How painful it is that recent wars waged in the name of democracy and freedom have eventually violated the basic concepts of human rights and dignity. In claiming it is targeting “terrorists” in Gaza in recent days, the Israeli military have murdered innocent children playing on a beach, innocent women and children in their homes, in hospitals and in schools.

When I want a Church or society that looks like me, I eventually end up living on a desert island or as a member of a sect of one – and there I might just find out too how unhappy I am with myself!

But if I allow myself to grow in faith and trust and love with others, I may, I just may, to my surprise, find that they too are wheat rather than weeds, and they may discover the same about me.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on Sunday 20 July 2014.

Wheat growing in a field in Donabate in Fingal, north Co Dublin, this weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)


Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
as you give us the body and blood of your Son,
guide us with your Holy Spirit,
that we may honour you not only with our lips
but also with our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.