The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!
After thirteen years living and working in Belfast I’m about to move back to England. Although Northern Ireland is within the UK it is politically, culturally and religiously a place apart. I have been an English ‘blow-in’ in the city of Belfast and in Irish church life. People often ask me what I’ll miss most about Ireland. My instinctive response is ‘places’. Landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, homes, churches, monasteries, concert halls, cafes, streets – it’s a long list.
To make sense of this theologically, I want to highlight the sacramental nature of place. In sacraments, the stuff of creation becomes both a sign of God’s grace and the means of conveying that grace to us. If that’s true of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and of water in Baptism, it can also be true of places, the physical environment of where we are. A theology of place encourages us to see God’s interaction with the particular: this field or wood or lake or street, or room; these people, this accent, this culture, this story. Some years ago, John Inge wrote A Christian Theology of Place, in which he argued for a recovery of the theological – the sacramental – significance of place. Modern Europeans – especially Protestants – haven’t sufficiently appreciated this theological significance of place and it’s taken living in Ireland to bring it home to me. But, as I look at the biblical narrative, it’s the same God who encounters Jacob at Bethel, Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Mt Carmel, Isaiah in the Temple and Ezekiel by the river Chebar. However, in each case the specifics of the place shape the way the encounter develops.
To start a conversation, here are some facets of a theology of place as Ireland has presented it to me.
Places of Revelation
It’s easy to succumb to a romantic cliche of meeting God in nature. Nevertheless, the ancient Irish Christians sought out the dramatic, the isolated, the peaceful and the windswept places for their monasteries and places for prayer. More recently, the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote of how specific places in his native Monaghan mediated the divine presence, even saying ‘…that beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God, was breathing his love by a cut-away bog.’ (The One)
Places of Prayer and Pilgrimage
There are places made holy by the prayers and intentions of those who visit them. In Ireland there are still holy wells in rural areas, still well-worn pilgrim paths up mountains like Croagh Pádraig. Traditionally, Protestants have not been so responsive to this – though the recent interest in pilgrimage suggest this is changing.
Places of Evil
Just as a place can be holy, the sacramental vehicle for conveying God’s grace, so it can be evil, resisting God’s power and drawing us away from God’s love and grace. In Ireland that evil is most often associated with violence. The ‘troubles’, with their bombings and large-scale loss of life are largely (though not entirely) in the past, but they have left behind a trauma that is associated with places where human dignity was defaced.
Places of Conflict
Part of Northern Ireland’s story is that many places have conflicting narratives of ownership and significance. This is reflected in disputes about the routes for marches and the names of streets (or of a city, in the case of Derry/Londonderry). Often these narratives have a theological underpinning that demands careful listening and sensitive critique.
Places of Healing
That evil and conflict can inhere in places suggests the need for places of healing where reconciliation and forgiveness can flourish. This, too, is sacramental. There is only space to name a few examples: Corrymeela, Clonard Monastery, well.com (a place for counselling and spirituality in inner city Belfast).
Places of Encounter
The arts journalist, Susan Mansfield, developed a ‘Passion Walk’ in Belfast. It involves downloading a set of audio files onto a phone and then listening to them as you follow a mapped route across the city. The result is quite remarkable: you listen to the passion story, with accompanying music and reflection, as you navigate the landscape of the city centre and harbour. As you take this journey, the familiar story of Christ’s trial, suffering and death takes on a fresh resonance as the narrative is set within these local places. The opposite is true as well: Belfast becomes a different place as you see it through the lens of the biblical story.
A heightened theology of place would make us more attentive to the presence of God in the specific situations we inhabit. And with that would come greater respect and care both for the created uniqueness of each place and for the human environment that develops there. It would also help us to appreciate the spiritual loss people experience when they are dislocated from the places that have shaped their lives, when they are displaced or have to emigrate. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land depends on being enabled to meet God in new – and challenging – places.