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NEWS UPDATE Long-time AO columnist, Pierre Whalon, Bishop-in-Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, will be in Baghdad from 19 to 23 February to meet with Iraqi Christians. Click here for more.

Hallo again to all.

The world is preoccupied with war this week. We've said what we have to say about it for now, and our prayers are with the people who are trying to find non-violent means of accomplishing its goals.

A rose

So our thoughts turn inward and away from war. We were recently reminded of a favourite quote from Wilfrid Sheed: 'If God had died in the blare of the 20th century and in houses too new to be haunted, one must seek him in the old quiet places, where he might still live on in retirement'.*

All of us seem to have a visceral understanding of what 'God is dead' might mean, even if we're not sure who coined the phrase, and when and how. In Friedrich Nietzsche's 1882 book The Gay Science, a madman uttered those words. Nietzsche was not referring to the literal death of God, but of the death of the shared cultural belief in God that had for centuries defined Western society.

As children, we took our parents' word for the existence of God, for we had no other choice. As we grew older, we found places from which we were certain that God had just stepped away a few minutes before we got there. Edward Sellner wrote

The early Celts believed in "thin places": geographical locations...where a person experiences only a very thin divide between past, present, and future times; places where a person is somehow able, possibly only for a moment, to encounter a more ancient reality within present time; or places where perhaps only in a glance we are somehow transported...**.

We have our favourite thin places, many of them in the lands inhabited by the ancient Celts, and some in lands that were unknown at the time of Augustine or Dewi or Anselm. The great cathedrals in the north of England—and the island of Iona—are the thinnest places we have ever been. Our parish church is a much thinner place than the buildings we frequent most of the week, one reason that we love to be there. The old quiet places are getting harder to find, whether places of brick or gardens of roses, but we know that God is easier to feel when we are in one.

The Persian conception of a garden is a high-walled place with water in it, as complete a contrast as possible to the dusty, arid, and untidy world outside. It is a very quiet place, a place of contemplation. And in Persia as in Europe, the rose is the most beautiful of flowers, the queen.***

On the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad stands an Anglican church, vacant for years, called St George's. Dusty and crumbling, it may have been a thin place for many Anglicans living in what was then Mesopotamia. Perhaps there were roses climbing its walls or scenting its garden. Still on a wall in that church is a plaque that reads 'In memory of the dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918. They died in every quarter of the earth...'

If I could begin again,
Time is something I would measure
In the generations of roses, evolving across
Gulfs we have no record of,
Eons without archives,
Eras without witnesses,
Without surviving portraits,

Roses flowering past the cliffs
Of thirty million years
Without intent,
In galaxies of tints,
In repetitious, variegated depths
Above the sinkholes of our wars,
Our vanishing points,
With hints
Portrayed in velvet;

If I could begin again,
I would measure time in the generations of
Roses, and not the succession
Of rulers of men

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, from A Monument in Utopia in Supernatural Love

See you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 16 February 2003

*Sheed, Wilfrid. The Good Word and Other Words. E P Dutton, 1978.
**Sellner, Edward. The Wisdom of the Celtic Saints. Ave Maria Press, 1993.
***Wilkins, Eithne. The Rose-Garden Game. Victor Gollancz, 1969.

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