Discernment of Spirits in the Bog

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Originally posted at: https://ignitumtoday.com/2020/09/21/the-bog-is-alive/

Written by Anja Renkes (Notre Dame)

Dia Dhuit! (God be with you in Irish/Gaelic)

This article and painting are part two of a triptych work that are complete when held together as a whole. The first article can be found here. The third will be published next week.

As an undergraduate, my passion for Catholic theology, painting, and Ireland took me to holy wells: sites of Irish Catholic popular piety. During weeks of field research in Ireland, an Irish professor guided me, ultimately inspiring the triptych painting described in these three articles.

Together, the three panels contemplate a holy well dedicated to St. Patrick on a mountain pass near Galway, called Mám Éan. The Irish Professor’s sense of humor and remarkable knowledge of practically every stone we came across at Mám Éan filled me with awe and joy. As he drove us to Mám Éan, he told me the story of the landscape as we drove across it. It is a rare gift to meet someone who can paint a picture with words — even more rare to find someone who orates with as much passion, love and deep care for the people and culture that animate the landscape as he does.

Following our visit to the holy well at the top of the pass, we slowly meandered through the bog as we headed down the mountainside. The professor allowed me to stop nearly every few feet to investigate the fascinating and complex ecosystem. He explained that the bog is made of layers of heather, decomposing heather, which holds it together. In some areas, the spongy, foreign surface recedes into a firmer, sparse, grass and stone-studded landscape.

The professor explained that the appearance of the bog changes according to what is eating it. When the bog becomes over-grazed, the heather disappears and grass starts to grow instead, preventing the layering of decomposing heather that produces peat, or turf. Turf is dried and used by the Irish to heat homes by fueling woodstoves.

This process of turf building as layers of heather decompose provides a helpful metaphor. Critically necessary, heat-producing, and life-giving turf could metaphorically symbolize the beauty of Tradition and the Communion of the Saints in the Catholic Church. Generations upon generations of holy men and women pray for and inspire us to strive for Heaven. The Tradition of the Church provides the faithful with theological, moral guides to navigate living in the Holy Spirit as human life on Earth shifts and changes.

The overgrazing of the bog could symbolize worldly influences that eat away our God-given desire for eternity in Heaven. Humans are uncannily like turf; however, humans have free will. When we are lulled into consenting to our own degradation, we contribute to the dwindling of the Body of Christ. Once the bog is gone, succumbed to over grazing and unnatural influences, it is gone. Although this ecosystem provides a helpful image for the spiritual life, the same parallel cannot be made with this last point.

We also encountered species of fungi and tiny flowers that were miraculous. They are nearly invisible to the naked eye — unless one stops and crouches down to inspect surprising flecks of reds, oranges, and purples in the mud and deep, deep green. In God’s eyes, we are these miraculous little flowers. Apparently insignificant, yet immeasurably valuable and precious in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. In His infinite love, God gave us free will and a Savior to extend mercy that we may choose to accept.

We fall into sin, forgetting our true identity as beloved sons and daughters in the Body of Christ. Yet, with a contrite heart and willingness to repent, anything can be forgiven and healed through Jesus’ self-emptying love in His death on the cross.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
~ Romans 8: 38-39

Through a commitment to the wide array of greens, yellows, and surprising flecks of unexpected vibrant color, I have sought to articulate the vitality and delicacy of the bog ecosystem in this left panel of the triptych. In the outstanding beauty and integrity of this unique landscape, the particularity of God’s love and radicality of His presence is revealed. The bog even provides a metaphor for our interior contemplation.

The sheep in this painting is not imaginary. The professor and I had a stand-off with a solitary animal on our descent. The presence of the sheep in the verdant bog and patchy grassland is meant to recall Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John. Jesus says,

“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
~ John 10:1-10

In sacred art, green pigment is “used to represent new life, regeneration and hope.” The deep green in the panels on either side of the center of the triptych are meant to surround the pilgrim, praying at the well out of love for Christ Jesus, in the victory of Christ in His Resurrection. In Jesus’ words, He has come “so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

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