The green rolling hills and the rugged countryside were lovely to behold in mid-April as a group of 25 of us from the U.S. boarded our bus and drove through the western counties of Ireland. Across the banks of the River Shannon, we began our religious pilgrimage, visiting ancient ruins of monastic sites such as Clonmacnoise and Glendalough.
These and other monasteries of Ireland were once great centers of medieval learning. When invading tribes devastated the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Ireland became the religious center of art and scholarship until Ireland itself was invaded and colonized by the Norman Kings of England in the 12th century. During the intervening period, Ireland hosted students and scholars and sent missionaries to establish similar centers of learning on the mainland. Within a few centuries Irish scholars were a part of almost every royal court. The Medieval period and even the Renaissance were ultimately shaped by the theology, literature, and arts developed by the Irish monks. My reading beforehand of Thomas Cahill’s national bestseller, How the Irish Saved Civilization, helped me to appreciate Ireland’s role in molding medieval Europe after the fall of the Rome.
Besides monastic ruins, we visited contemporary religious sites, such as the Convent of Mercy first opened by Mother Catherine McAuley at Baggot Street in Dublin, and a retreat center operated by the Brigidine Sisters in Kildare, the birthplace of St. Brigid. But of the many places on our itinerary, the one that affected me the most was the Clonard Monastery in Belfast, situated on the border between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. The monastery is located in the heart of the deep-rooted historical clash between Catholics and Protestants.
After the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Clonard Monastery brought together Protestant and Catholic political leaders to dialogue about a way to forge peace. At the core of its reconciliation mission is personal dialogue so that people begin to know each other on a human level. Nearly every Sunday Catholics and Protestants attend mass at the monastery and then worship together at a nearby Protestant church. Bible study groups, a fortnightly prayer meeting, a weekly silent hour of prayer for peace and unity are but some of its many peace programs.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, who is a poet, theologian, and conflict mediator working with the Monastery, spoke to our group about the necessity of dialogue, but said emphatically, "The work of dialogue is hard. Always there is the temptation to blame the other." The Unionists say their ancestors were planted in Ireland by a royal grant, a gift from the Crown of England, and therefore a gift of God. The Nationalists believe the land was stolen from their ancestors by England.
The land division was made visually clear to us by a long, curved 40-foot "peace wall," intended to keep the houses along the Falls and Shankill Roads safe from artillery fire and bombing. We asked Pádraig whether it is safe for Catholics to cross to the other side of the grey, metal barrier. "Except for two times of high tension (around Easter, which recalls the Easter Rising of 1916, and Orangemen’s Day on July 12)," he said. Some of us weren’t so sure and decided not to test his confidence.
The Clonard Monastery experience made me ask many questions. How can we learn to live well together? How can enemies become cordial, if not friends? How can we disagree with each other and bear no animosity or ill-will? How will we achieve peace across differences such as class, race, religion, gender, economic status, sexual orientation and gender identity? How will we ever experience world peace?
I have no ready answers to these questions, but am convinced that we need to ask them. These questions lie at the heart of the great Christian experiment; indeed, they are the enormous challenge posed to us by all the world’s religions.
I came away from Clonard with the conviction that peace in the Middle East and other hot spots all over the globe, peace with religious adherents (even extremists) — indeed peace on any social scale can be achieved only if we learn to work on the personal, individual level. Peace begins by talking with each other. As long as we stay in our own psychological neighborhoods, unwilling to venture out beyond the "peace at-any-price walls" we have erected, we are unable to hear the other’s story and open ourselves to see things from another perspective.
It is often difficult for us to be in the presence of those with whom we disagree. We may fear that our viewpoint will be challenged and we will appear intellectually inadequate. We tend to share from the head and try to prove a point of view with a logical argument. But we are more likely to touch the hearts and minds of others when we listen to their stories and share our own feelings and experiences.
My time at the Clonard Monastery was truly a meditation on the struggles of achieving peace. As Pádraig Ó Tuama said, "We are at peace and not at peace . . . nobody thinks that one small kindness is going to change a life. But it might change a moment, and in that moment, something small can grow." Only if we can become accustomed to talk personally and individually in our parlors and in our neighborhoods, will we be able to speak to each other as nation states.
Dialogue is the major building block for world peace. "The work of dialogue is hard," Pádraig said, but if Ireland can export to other parts of the globe the process of sitting down and talking with each other, as Catholics and Protestants are doing in Northern Ireland, perhaps we may once again say that the Irish saved civilization.
[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an executive coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]
Related - Living on a Belfast peace line