Ancient words and stones that connect us to dearly departed

The Bible might have been quilled a long, long time ago but that doesn’t lessen its relevance today, so says John Arnold
Ancient words and stones that connect us to dearly departed

TIMELESS TRADITIONS: John Arnold recalls a moving graveside oration and casting a stone on the resting place of a dear friend

MAYBE it’s not a very Catholic ‘thing’, but growing up as a child and in National School, I can never really recollect seeing the Bible.

At home, I know we had a copy of a very old and ragged Bible, but it was in the back of the cupboard to the right of the fireplace in the room. It wasn’t a book that was taken down from the shelf very often, and as children we certainly never had it on our ‘reading list’.

I don’t know why, but we seemed to think of the Bible and the study of it as a Protestant trait, more associated with break-away Christian churches who lived by the actual teachings of the Bible - especially after the Reformation.

One way or another, I’ll freely admit it was only maybe in the last couple of decades that I’ve read a few more passages of the ‘oldest book’ of all time. 

I wouldn’t call it ‘Bible study’ or anything like that, but now and then, if there was a particularly interesting, unusual or telling reading at Sunday Mass, I might follow it up to see the full context of the piece.

I love the descriptive passages in the Bible where scenes associated with Christ and his followers are mentioned. I’ve never been to the Holy Land (on the bucket list though) but Capernaum, Galilee, Nazareth, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Judea and Samaria seem like places as familiar as towns and villages in County Cork.

Sometime, someday, please God, I may visit all these places and see in reality the paths and roads trod by the One who lived a short life on this earth but, 2,000 years later, still has a major influence on today’s world.

Yes the Bible is an amazing book. Though ‘published’ originally when very few of the world’s populace could read or write, it still remains the world’s No.1 best-seller - with an estimated five billion copies sold or gifted. It’s been translated into every known language and the English version we use today may well have come from the Latin Vulgate, Aramaic or Sanskrit.

Because it’s translated fairly literally, we still have thou, thine, thou art and other seemingly archaic terms but these don’t really interfere with the messages conveyed.

Apparently, it was back in 1959 that Pete Seeger (author also of Where Have All The Flowers Gone) wrote the song Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s a most exquisitely beautiful composition based amazingly on words initially written between two and five hundred years before Christ!

Many Biblical scholars claim the author was none other than that very wise man - King Solomon!

Seeger’s classic was a hit for both The Byrds and The Seekers in the 1960s and remains a firm favourite today.

Ecclesiastes is a book of the Old Testament and it consists of a series of philosophical orations or ‘lectures’. Chapter 3 of the Book contains 22 verses and Seeger was influenced by verses 1 to 8, which read as follows;

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

The words reflect certainty and order -a place for everything and everything in its place.

In recent years, this Bible reading is most often heard at funeral masses and farewell ceremonies as, in the midst of grief and uncertainty, it seems to calm troubled waters.

In the year 2002, my mother’s only ‘Twomey’ first cousin, May Forde, nee O Keeffe, died. Like Mam, May could literally talk the legs off a pot! She could ‘trace’ for Ireland - an attribute she received from her own mother, my grand-auntie Lizzie.

Many people are unable to distinguish the difference ’tween a third cousin once removed and second cousin twice removed, but May Forde had a mind like a genealogical dictionary.

Well, I was honoured to be asked to deliver a graveside oration after her burial in Dunbullogue Cemetery. I ended with the verses from Ecclesiastes which I felt were so apt.

May was a busy, busy wife, housewife, farmer, mother, storyteller and nourisher of family trees. Though always on the go, she had time for everyone and loads of time for talking. Truly she lived her life knowing ‘To Everything There Is A Season’.

Eight years after that, as I stood tearfully at the graveside of Jim Conway in Ballinacourty Cemetery in the Glen of Aherlow, the line “A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together” came to my mind.

I’d been in Lourdes on pilgrimage with Jim for the previous three years. He loved the little village of St Bernadette and helped me similarly fall in love with the place. I wanted to link his memory with Lourdes forever.

I took a stone from the sacred Tipperary soil that day and the following June a little knot of us gathered one evening by the bank of the River Gave in Lourdes.

We had ‘gathered stones together’ in Jim’s native place and now it was ‘a time to cast away stones’ - the stone was cast into the river, there to remain forever, thus uniting a special man with that special place forever and ever - amen.

Since 2011, I’ve repeated the words of King Solomon many times on that sacred river bank. Though written thousands of years ago, they still remain as meaningful today as in the era of the Wise King.

And, you know, over the years the way we often joked about all the letters Peter and Paul wrote to the Romans, the Ephesians, the Christians in Aasia, the Philippians and the Cretans, and we mused ‘Did any of them ever write back?!’ Then, last Friday, St Patrick’s Day, at Mass we had a reading from the second letter of St Paul to Timothy, another great missionary. It seemed a run of the mill epistle, but lads I got a fair auld shock when I read the words, ‘The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths’.

Wow! I thought, how could Paul be so correct in his forecast of what was to come nearly 2,000 years after his time?

The phrase ‘avid for the latest novelty’ is an exact description of the modern fads, the vacuous nature of so much of what is loosely termed ‘social media’- the way people nowadays behave so sheepishly by following the crowd, not thinking for themselves and being led by the nose by ‘influencers’.

St Paul warns against disregarding the truth in favour of ‘myths’ - oh how right he was in so many ways, spot on in fact. The Bible might have been quilled a long, long time ago but that doesn’t lessen its relevance today.

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