Tower rising out of the centre of the cemetery. Photo: Fr Tim Mulroy SSC
During my vacation back home in Ireland, much of my time is spent visiting family members, neighbors and friends in the countryside. While Irish society has changed in many ways in recent decades, I particularly notice the impact that rapid advances in information technology is having on the day to day lives of rural communities. Everyone feels that impact, though naturally the younger generations are more at ease with it.
While the information revolution is rushing and pushing all of us towards the future, visiting my parents’ grave is a journey down memory lane. Walking slowly through the country cemetery, the inscriptions on the headstones evoke memories not only of family members, but also of neighbors, relatives and parishioners who have gone on ahead to meet God face to face. Some of the tombstones are new or are well maintained, while others are neglected or have fallen into disrepair. None of this matters: as I look down and around, I sense the fleeting nature of the world that I once knew so well, and feel my own mortality in my gut.
However, moments later, as I turn my gaze upwards, my attention is consumed by the majestic tower rising out of the centre of the cemetery. Built from stone, this gracefully curved monument stretches more than 80 feet into the sky. Constructed a thousand years ago as part of a monastic settlement, it was a fortress during periods of political instability, pillage and plunder. It was also a look-out post with small windows high up in its walls, peering out like eyes in various directions across miles of fields.
This round tower – as it is referred to by the local people – seems, then, to stand guard not only over the many generations of the dead who are buried at its feet, but also over the living, spread far and wide across the surrounding countryside. It stands as a fixed reminder of their mortality, of that day when they too will lie down with their ancestors at its feet. However, having stood among the tombstones, yet thrusting itself resolutely towards the heavens for a thousand years, it is also a silent witness to their immortality.
As I gaze on the round tower, I am reminded of Psalm 90. Addressing God, the author writes, “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back you mortals.’ In your sight, a thousand years are like yesterday come and gone, no more than a watch in the night.” Having stood watch over the living and the dead for a thousand years, the round tower invites me to contemplate not just this past millennium, but the grand sweep of history. Against the backdrop of eras and eons, we human beings are indeed – as the writer of the Psalm expresses it – “like grass that springs up in the morning, but by evening withers and fades.”
Reflecting on the fact that my days are numbered is not a morbid exercise, but rather an invitation to develop a larger perspective on myself and on the world. This leads me to consider what is important, valuable and permanent. The author of the psalm succinctly captures these sentiments in the form of a prayer request to God, “Teach us to know the brevity of our lives so that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
Leaving the cemetery, the first thing I do is check my phone messages, and then I realize that I too am caught up in the frenzy of instant communication even in the midst of the peaceful countryside. Yes, anytime, anywhere, my smart phone enables me to access a vast amount of information. However, as I catch a final glimpse in my rear-view mirror of the round tower standing among the tombstones, it continues to invite me to contemplate my own mortality and immortality in order to gain not more knowledge, but rather wisdom of heart.
Columban Fr Tim Mulroy is the Society Leader of St Columbans Mission Society and resides in Hong Kong.