01 March 2019

A creative invitation to
prayer and contemplation
in a church in Askeaton

The ‘Ionad Guí’ or Prayer Space in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent some time this week in the ‘Spiritual Garden,’ a walled garden beside my neighbouring Roman Catholic parish church, the ‘other’ Saint Mary’s in Askeaton.

Later in the afternoon, I visited the Ionad Guí is a new ‘Prayer Space’ in the east transept of the church, inspired by the traditions of Celtic Spirituality. It lays stress on the Celtic focus on God’s creation and on Jesus Christ as the high point of that creation and the key to unlocking the mystery of life.

This prayer space is simply set out with an emphasis on the need to be humble before God.

A notice in the church porch quotes a saint who once said, ‘There are many gates to the orchard of mystical truth.’ It goes on to explain that the parish hopes that, as ‘different people would have found helpful either prayer before the tabernacle or before the statue of Our Lady or praying the Stations of the Cross or even reflecting on the stained glass windows, so now some may find the new Prayer Space helpful in their communication with the Lord.

Explanatory leaflets are provided to help people understand the various elements in the Prayer Space, including the icons, which include an icon of Christ, an icon of the Transfiguration and a copy of Andrei Rublev's icon of the ‘Visitation of Abraham’ or the ‘Old Testament Trinity,’ and the water feature where the water in the ‘well’ comes from the River Deel nearby.

Together, the Spiritual Garden and the prayer space in Askeaton are inspiring ideas about how we can used sacred space inside and outside our church buildings in ways that are creative, inspiring and welcoming and that are invitations to prayer and contemplation.

The icon of Christ in the prayer space in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Walking the seven-circuit labyrinth
in the Spiritual Garden in Askeaton

The seven-circuit labyrinth with the Cross at its centre in the Spiritual Garden in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The exceptional run of good weather this week, with bright sunshine, blue skies and warmer temperatures gave me time this week to visit my neighbouring Roman Catholic parish church, the other Saint Mary’s Church in Askeaton, and to spend some time in the ‘Spiritual Garden’ and walking the prayer labyrinth.

The ‘Spiritual Garden of Remembrance’ at Saint Mary’s is a welcoming place, where visitors are invited to spend some quiet time in the hope that this is both enjoyable and enriching.

Everything in the garden is the work of voluntary labour. Work began in 2007, and the garden was blessed and opened on 30 May 2010. It is dedicated to all children who have died in infancy or before birth, and here they are remembered with love and affection. The welcome sign says, ‘We pray that their grieving parents and families will find some consolation and healing during their visit.’

Families are especially welcome in the garden, but this is not a play area. Visitors are asked to stay on the paths, not to walk on the stone-covered areas, not to climb on the waterfall, and not to interfere with the stones or plants. In addition, they are asked not to swing on the pergola, and to be aware that the bridge may be slippery.

The waterfall in the Spiritual Garden in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The labyrinth in the garden was laid out in February 2010 and is named the Cluain Riasc Mac Dé labyrinth after the townland in which the garden and the church stand (Cluain Riasc or Cloonreask, ‘meadow of the marshes’), and is dedicated to the Son of God.

This is a seven-circuit labyrinth, but it differs from the classical labyrinth in a number of ways.

Labyrinths belong to every major religious tradition. The classical, seven-circuit labyrinth dates back 4,000 years to Knossos in Crete, but it has a strong association with Christianity and is found in many ancient churches.

The 11-circle labyrinth flowered in the great mediaeval Gothic cathedrals, notably the one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, dating to 1200 AD. It symbolised a hard path to God, with one entrance (birth) and a clearly-defined centre (God).

Pilgrimages are an integral part of the practice of the Christian faith and, equally, are deeply integrated into the Christian tradition and are deeply engrained into the Celtic tradition. When pilgrimages to the Holy Land became impossible in mediaeval times, pilgrims used to walk to the cathedral as a symbolic journey to Jerusalem, and then walk the labyrinth in the cathedral to mark the ritual ending of the pilgrimage, with a view to finding Christ at the centre.

Labyrinths have undergone a revival in modern times as a way to spiritual growth and to heightening awareness of the human condition. I spent time some years ago walking the labyrinth in the gardens at Ealing Abbey in London, and there is a new labyrinth at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

There are many reasons to walk the labyrinth: to give thanks, to solve a problem, to take time out, to resolve a conflict, to seek guidance, to pray and be with God, to savour a joyful experience, to be in touch with nature and your surroundings. From time to time, a visitor might choose a different attitude when entering the labyrinth.

The signs in the garden suggest a Christian approach that is three-fold:

1, Purgation. As you walk from the entrance to the centre, let go of your worries and concerns.

2, Illumination. At the centre, quiet your mind and, in a prayerful state, open yourself to receive insight and clarity from God.

3, Union. On the path outwards, take ownership of the insight, integrate it into your life and become energised by it.

The pergola in the Spiritual Garden in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Walking the labyrinth can unify the intuitive, rational and spiritual aspects of the walker, suggesting how to cope better with ourselves and the world around us.

The labyrinth has an entrance porch and entrance corridor. These reflect the Celtic concept of an area of transition from the secular world to the sacred. Here you are invited to prepare or focus yourself in order to enter the sacred.

Life is a sacred journey. The labyrinth weaves its way between trees and rocks, over level terrain and rough, sometimes closer to the centre and sometimes farther away, often symmetrical but other times not so. Thus, it is the symbol of our journey through life, with its varying experiences, and God’s grace as the thread that leads us through life.

Equally, it represents the inner pilgrimage to the centre of our being. It shows that no time or effort is wasted as every step, no matter how circuitous, takes us closer to our goal.

The sign at the entrance to the labyrinth point out how seven is a sacred number in Christianity. The seven days of creation and of the week, the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments are examples of this.

Another sign then explains in seven steps how to walk the labyrinth.

1, Pause at the entrance. Become quiet and centred.

2, Choose your attitude: you can pray, meditate (use a mantra), or address some question or issue in your life.

3, Now enter. Stay on the path. It will lead you to the centre.

4, Walk slowly and at your own pace.

5, When you reach the centre, spend some quiet time there. If you wish, you may stand on each arm of the cross in turn and then at the centre.

6, Then retrace your steps, back along the path, to the exit.

7, The labyrinth is a body of prayer, a way to find your spiritual centre, or to help illuminate your path through life.

Flowering magnolia in the Spiritual Garden in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Throughout the garden, there are a number of appropriate quotations from Scripture.

By the waterfall:

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?
Or feel no pity for the child of her womb?
Yet, even if these were to forget,
I will never forget you (Isaiah 49: 15)

By a well:

‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened
and I will give you rest,’ says the Lord (Matthew 11: 28).

But many of the quotations are from Matthew 6, which seemed so appropriate this week as my mind turns towards Ash Wednesday next week and the Gospel reading that day (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21).

On the pergola:

Do not be anxious: do not say,
‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear? …’
Your heavenly Father knows you need them all.
Set your heat on his kingdom first …
and all these things will be given you as well (from Matthew 6: 25-34).

By some bird feeders:

‘Look at the birds of the air.
They do not sow or reap or gather into barns.
And yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ (from Matthew 6: 25-34).

By a bed of flowers:

‘Consider the wild flowers growing in the fields;
they do not work or spin;
yet not even Solomon in all his royal robes
was clothed like one of these’ (from Matthew 6: 25-34).

As I left the garden, I noticed a stone with some lines attributed to the Indian Sikh spiritual teacher Kirpal Sing (1894-1974):

Kind hearts are the garden.
Kind thoughts are the roots.
Kind words are the blossoms.
Kind deeds are the fruits.

Entering the Spiritual Garden at Saint Mary’s Church in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)