A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
THE fourth Sunday after Easter is traditionally designated as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ in the Christian Liturgical Calendar. The theme is based on the Gospel image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
Many will argue that they felt abandoned by the ‘Good Shepherd’ over the last year. After all, the Good Shepherd did claim to “come that we may have life to the full.” I may not have experienced the fullness of life over the past while but lately I have come to appreciate that I have indeed been ‘shepherded’.
I took the plunge last week, having exhausted all excuses for not venturing into the sea before now. Friends had discovered the benefits of year round swimming during Covid and had encouraged me to take the great leap of faith into the freezing waters. No excuses last week… some glorious days… so I headed out to Dunmore albeit with a wetsuit… still a bit wimpish…
I was amazed to discover that even though early morning, there was quite a few either preparing to dive in or already in the sea. Even more amazed to be made feel so welcome by the community of swimmers. The benefits of the dry robe extolled; I was even gifted one. I was informed by a channel swimmer that I should only do 12 strokes out and 12 strokes back to acclimatise to the cold. Even strangers stopped to chat. And then to experience the bracing and invigorating effect of the sea water. I wondered if all this was a hint of the shepherding promised by the Lord in Psalm 23: “goodness and kindness shall follow me”.
‘It was spiritually uplifting to be immersed in the beauty of the natural world, a beauty which reflects the universal spirit animating all creation’
I went cycling along the Blue Way from Carrick to Clonmel 10 days ago. The route, the old tow path, follows the bank of the river along all the way to Clonmel. After a very busy week, it was uplifting for the soul to be immersed in the tranquillity of this beautiful environment. The river flowing gently along the valley flanked by the foothills of the Comeraghs on one side and Slievenamon looming on the other. Again I thought of the promise of the Good Shepherd… “near restful waters he leads me.”
I stopped off to visit an artist friend on the outskirts of Clonmel, socially distanced in the garden (I was vaccinated recently). It was a spacious garden with some beautiful flowers and trees with bird feeders suspended from the pruned branches. I was fascinated by the many different species of birds which landed to feed.
My friend told me that over 20 species of birds frequent the garden. On a beautiful sunny afternoon, languishing in the tranquillity of the garden, I was captivated by the radiant beauty of the colours of the plumage of the birds, chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, bright golden yellows, vibrant greens and orange. Even the modest sparrow could reflect a beauty that I would never notice on most days. “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives us repose.”
It was spiritually uplifting to be immersed in the beauty of the natural world, a beauty which reflects the universal spirit animating all creation, the spirit which Christians identify as the Holy Spirit. I thought of The Good Shepherd, “reviving the drooping spirit”; if only we could give ourselves time to find rest for the soul.
My friend brought out some of her paintings. I was particularly enthralled by one painting of a hen… it captured the beauty of the plumage, the shape of the beak, and most strikingly, the eye. This was a hen with attitude I thought, standing proud of her contribution to human nourishment.
Art, as a form of beauty, enriches and nourishes the soul. Kadinsky, the famous Russian artist, acclaimed as the pioneer of a modern abstract art, wrote extensively on art and spirituality. He claimed that “great art can turn us away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.” The Good Shepherd guiding us along the right path.
A day later, a friend recalled for me the story of Archbishop Van Thuan who spent 13 years in communist prisons in Vietnam. In one of his publications, the Archishop chronicles the experience of prayer in prison. “Catholics had smuggled in a New Testament. Divided it into small pieces and distributed these pieces among the Catholics who began to learn the passages by heart. Since the cells had floors of sand, when they heard a guard’s footsteps, they would hide the Word of God by burying it in the floor. In the darkness of night, the prisoners would recite in turn the part of the New Testament each had already memorized. It was an impressive and moving experience to hear the Word of God proclaimed in the silence and darkness of the prison. To be in the presence of Jesus the “living Gospel” spoken by the prisoners with all the strength of soul…”. Even the non-Christians also listened with respect and admiration to what they called the “Sacred Word.”
Here was the bishop, in the valley of darkness, but confident of the presence of the Good Shepherd, who was there “with crook and staff” to guide him through the darkness.
Many reject this faith vision of reality today as it cannot be proven scientifically. But I leave the final word with the great theologian Hans Kung who died in early April. In his memoir, he recalls coming home “radiant” when he realized, “I can swim… the water’s supporting me”. For him, this experience illustrated “the venture of faith, which cannot first be proved theoretically by a course on ‘dry land’ but simply has to be attempted: a quite rational venture, though the rationality only emerges in the act.”
We have spent many moments walking in the valley of darkness in the past year. Hopefully we have been ‘shepherded’ through this dark valley and now look forward to a new dawn as restrictions are eased.