John Arnold: The Bible and a pop song left an indelible print on my mind

John Arnold hopes that a return to Lourdes is on the cards soon, so he can honour dearly departed friends in a simple 'stone casting' ceremony
John Arnold: The Bible and a pop song left an indelible print on my mind

GREAT SONGWRITER: Pete Seeger, who wrote Turn, Turn, Turn in the 1950s, which was recorded by The Byrds and The Seekers.

I MUST admit, I’ve never read the Bible from ‘cover to cover’, though a copy of the book was always in the house.

Some faiths seem to have a massive affinity and ‘gra’ for the Bible, Bible studies and quoting its contents. I’ve seen this especially amongst some groups of what are termed ‘Non-Denominational Christians’, they really and truly take the Bible as the word of God and try and live out its message to the fullest.

Now, I always had a bit of a difficulty with some of the archaic words used like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and so forth. 

It’s the best-selling book in the world apparently and whether we read the New or Old Testament, it provides so many outlines for life and harmony and good behaviour.

It’s not just from the Book of Wisdom that so many pearls of knowledge can be mined. All the different tracts translated into so many languages over so many centuries are rich in instructional nuggets of advice and, in many cases, common sense.

But there’s a lot of stuff in the Bible that’s hard to understand as it’s written in terms of a spirituality that I personally find difficult to comprehend. 

It’s not that I never studied theology or sacred scripture, but when passages are written reflecting the word of God – a God we know exists but that most people have never met - it’s not easy to get the ‘grey matter’ to absorb concepts and outlooks that are not normally seen in human behaviour.

One time, when I asked a learned cleric about my misunderstanding, he replied with a less than satisfactory answer: “You are not meant to understand those things - they are all mysteries.” 

Fair enough, but not a very enlightening answer nevertheless!

Maybe I’m too inquisitive, but having been reared on the precept that ‘if you don’t ask, you’ll never know’ I suppose I want to try and make sense of everything I hear and read.

In fairness though, there are some wonderful, beautiful and awe-inspiring passages in the Bible and my favourite by an Irish mile is that gorgeous reading from Ecclesiastes – the reading about how everything has a time.

You know, the very first time I heard the words: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” wasn’t at Mass of a Sunday or at some such religious ceremony. No, ‘twas on the radio, or the wireless as we used to call it.

A pop group called The Byrds had a hit with a song woven from the words of Scripture back in 1965 when I was just eight. The American folk legend Pete Seeger, back in 1955, had taken the words of the first eight verses of the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes and made them into a song which was first recorded four years later. It was to become the classic Turn, Turn, Turn. The Byrds then recorded it in the mid ’60s and it became universally popular.

Now, the contents of this Biblical work are not easily understood - why is there ‘a time for hate’ and ‘a time for war’? These seem alien concepts in a book like the Bible, but then again, one should never judge a nook by its cover, or so they say anyway!

‘A Time to Hate’ seems an odd one alright but over the years I’ve seen logic, even wisdom in those words. For example, I hate bigotry, I hate racism and I hate exploitation of any sort, so aren’t I quite entitled to say that truly there is a time to hate?

Should war ever be right? The Bible says there is a ‘time for war’ and a ‘time to kill’. I suppose the concept of ‘a just war’ comes into play. Edmund Burke said that for evil to prosper, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing - just stand idly by - so there seems to be a strong opinion in favour of waging war for a ‘a just cause’.

The problem of course is in trying to define the criterion!

A year or two later, the brilliant Australian foursome The Seekers released their version of Turn, Turn Turn featuring the talented and beautiful Judith Durham and the three boys. There is a fantastic video of them in a vineyard picking grapes as they belt out this song. Maybe because of the Biblical connection with vineyards, fruitful vines, and wine I think this video of over half a century ago is one of the most amazing productions ever made.

To everything - turn, turn, turn

There is a season - turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

So, in the 1960s, as a child, I was bewitched and smitten by the words of a song written by an American activist and a Hebrew scribe 2,000 years ago. Fast forward then over 40 years when I made a trip to Lourdes in France to mark a significant ‘turn’ in my life, having attained five decades on this earth.

Readers will know of my love affair with Lourdes and how it has developed over the years since that visit. Lourdes and that piece from Ecclesiastes are now inextricably linked for me.

In the last dozen years or so, I have many times gathered with friends of a June evening on the bank of the River Gave in Lourdes - across the river from the Grotto. I was inspired by the lines

A time to gather stones together

A time to cast away stones

And so when a member of our ‘Lourdes Family’ dies here at home in Ireland, I take a stone from their grave and with ‘Stones In My Pockets’, the next time we go back to the town by the Pyrenees those words are spoken.

I felt that by bringing a stone from a grave where ‘stones have been gathered together’ and putting them in the river at Lourdes at ‘a time to cast away stones’, we link the deceased person forever with the place they loved so much.

We have a simple ceremony by the river, holding the stones in our hands as the name of our departed friends are repeated. Then that reading from Ecclesiastes is said and when we come to that line about ‘casting away stones’ they are thrown into the river.

We have had emotional and tear-filled gatherings there, but I know when family members return to Lourdes, they truly can and do find a sense of peace in that special spot.

With the Covid pandemic, we’ve had no pilgrimage to Lourdes since 2019 so I certainly now have stones in my pockets. Hopefully next year the organised pilgrimages will return once more.

Please God, I may get a few quiet days in Lourdes this month or next, days of walking, no talking, and reflecting on the meaning of life.

To everything, turn, turn, turn

There is a season, turn, turn, turn

And a time for every purpose under heaven.

I was at a funeral in Clonakilty recently and one of the readings at Mass was from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Noreen would have liked that, I thought, as the last journey she made from Ireland was to Lourdes in 2019.

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