Mending walls and building bridges

Anthony Towey

During the summer I had the pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland for a Catholic schools’ conference where the counties of Donegal and Derry meet. The scenery is breathtaking – a spellbinding place where the land jousts with the sea in collisions choreographed by the untamed elements. At turns inspiring and intimidating, the area has most recently provided the scenic canvas for Game of Thrones, a spectacularly gory fable of dragons and derring do which has captured the imagination of millions across the globe. Strange, familiar, unforgettable – as a typical tourist, I took photos to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it.

Odd, then, that since returning home, the scene I have replayed both in my mind and on my telephone were the pictures I took of the border between the two counties. My host took me along a road that marked the boundary in the most banal, unremarkable manner possible – on one side the UK, on the other the Republic of Ireland – though you would have needed a local knowledge to spot the difference. Odd too, however, that while barriered by nothing more man-made than hedgerows, all I could think of was Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall.

For those unfamiliar with the poem, it is the rumination of the author as he undertakes repairs alongside his neighbour. He seems conflicted by the task – on the one hand he opens with ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall’, on the other the received wisdom that ‘good fences make good neighbours’. In an elegant mind play, Frost’s meditation leaves one torn between a desire for the reassurance of secure demarcation and the freedom implicit in unbounded domains.

We can see analogous tensions between specificity and universality at play in the UK where the Brexit disputes continue to reverberate but also in the USA and Israel-Palestine where walls are seen as either symbols of liberty or impositions of oppression by different groups. But the Church too has long struggled to balance a sense of its uniqueness with a sense of its universality, arguably taking until Vatican II to articulate what I’d call a coherent ‘Tolerance Theology’ through the seminal constitutions and decrees such as Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae.

In fairness, this is hardly surprising. In his ministry Jesus could be exclusive, inclusive and somewhere in between (cf. Mt 10.6, 28.18, 15.24–28). The Gospel testimony unmistakeably conveys the tensions inherent in the proclamation of a Kingdom which the disciples reasonably expected to be ‘earthed’ in the historical Israel but which Jesus located not so much in place and space as in grace and truth (cf. Acts 1.6 and Jn 4.21). It hardly gets any clearer in the post-resurrection imagery which has all nations in one baptism (Mt 28.18), all tongues in one voice (Acts 2.8), all the elect called to one banquet (Rev. 21.1). And the master evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, lives a life defined by his belief in the singular Lordship of Christ for the hope of universal redemption (Col. 1.15-20).

On the one hand it seems to me that the Christian can’t decry all walls just as she can’t open all gates. Mother Teresa’s sisters live a strict community enclosure which enables them to serve those the world doesn’t want to see. Just as a monastery needs choir and cloister, a Christian family needs a privacy for its own integrity and growth in love. However, the life of Jesus was an almost permanent trespass of social borders, and we belong to a Church that prays the healing prayer of a pagan at its most intimate moment. ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof’ (Mt 8.8) – a prayer whereby our very Communion becomes a proclamation of médecins sans frontières.

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ In the multiplicity of pastoral settings and innumerable private and professional contexts, we can be faced with the problem of when and when not to cross a line. If the unique claims of the Church can appear sectarian, then the very idea of ‘Catholic education’ may be perceived as deliberately divisive – a point of specific reflection during the conference I attended this summer and this edition of Pastoral Review. Yet just as a family steeped in love will love, so will a school community steeped in love build bridges, tear down barriers to fraternity, overcome obstacles to truth, justice and generosity. And particularly if demarcation is mere prejudice, social presumption or a politically imposed injustice, the task of all Christians is to find ways to become smugglers of grace.