A couple of years ago, a friend and I were riding horses around the Irish countryside during a summer vacation, and we kept coming across signs posted on telephone poles and fences with these words spelled out in clear, bold, plain letters: Cut Your Turf & Hold Your Bog. We understood vaguely that these signs must refer in some way to the famous Irish peat bogs, but we couldn’t fathom what the real meaning of the message was: Cut Your Turf & Hold Your Bog.
When we asked locals, we discovered that the signs are a rallying cry in a controversy over land conservation. The Irish government and the EU have designated some peat bogs as conservation areas, and have banned the collection of peat (which the Irish call “turf”) from those bogs. Turf has been used for centuries in Ireland as a heating fuel, although as such it is perhaps more a part of Irish heritage than necessity, these days. The signs we saw represent an odd conflict, since they too call for a kind of conservation: the desire to hold on to a traditional Irish way of life, and the rights to cut turf on land long held by families for that reason. But bogs take about 100 years to replenish after they’ve been cut. And these days when most turf is cut by industrial machinery and not by hand, it’s estimated that 40% of Ireland’s bogs have been depleted or destroyed in the last twenty years. So if you cut your turf, you may not have very much bog to hold on to for very long.
The peat bogs of Ireland hold another fascination, since a great host of unusual objects have been found buried and well-preserved in the peat. In addition to the cooking vessels, spear heads, jewelry, ancient tools, and crockery you’d expect to hear about, hundreds of barrels of butter have also been found in the bogs – placed there to preserve the butter, then forgotten about I suppose. A recently discovered well-preserved barrel was dated to be 3,000 years old (though the butter is sadly now past its use-by date). Most famously, the bogs have given up their dead – ancient human bodies with the skin still intact (preserved by the unique characteristics of the bog environment). Two years ago the oldest such body ever found was discovered in an Irish bog, and has been judged to be about 4,000 years old. If you cut your turf and hold your bog, who knows what you will find buried within the dark, wet peat?
The modern Irish poet Seamus Heaney has reflected that “if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was ‘found in a bog.’”[i] But the poet realized that it was not just a material culture that was preserved in the bog, it was something more. He said, “I began to get an idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it.”
“A landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it.” This is a fascinating idea on Maundy Thursday night, when, whether you know it or not, we are reflecting deeply on our collective Christian memory. We are, in a sense, digging into the peat bog of Jesus’ story to extract again a crucial part of that story that took place on the night before he was handed over to suffering and death. More to the point, we are bringing up an ancient Body, and making the claim that a great deal more than the skin is intact. We are digging into ancient Christian memory, and finding that what we have is not just well-preserved, it is still living.
That, at least, is what the church has long believed she is doing when she follows our Lord’s instruction to “do this in remembrance of me.” The remembrance, in this case, is not expected to be a mental exercise, or even a tradition of story-telling. It is, rather, intended as a digging down into the bog to find a memory that has been not only long-preserved but is still breathing, and that was put there deliberately to keep it alive and intact, just like the butter in the bucket.
In a very real sense, this living memory is the energy of the church – certainly it is in this parish. Whether or not you are here to see it dug up and consumed day by day is hardly the point. The point is that even when the boiler in the undercroft stops heating the church, as sometimes happens, this fuel keeps burning, this memory keeps breathing, this Body keeps living.
At various times in history it has seemed quaint at best, and downright odd, or at least counter-cultural to cling to this living memory of the Mass, the Eucharist, the way we do in this parish, just as it seems odd to think of the Irish tramping out to the bog to cut turf to burn in their stoves. Coal and oil and natural gas have long since replaced turf as inexpensive fuels that are far more efficient. Likewise, there are many aspects of modern life that make the Mass look outmoded, to put it kindly. But there is something authentic and real about cutting turf, drying it, and bringing it home to burn in the stove: there’s something Irish about it, even if not all the Irish do it anymore, like speaking Gaelic. And whatever there is that’s Irish about it is made all the more so by the poet’s observation that the turf itself is cut from a landscape that remembers everything that has happened in and to it, a landscape that doesn’t easily let go of the cooking vessels, the spear heads, the jewelry, ancient tools, and crockery, the barrels of butter, or even the bodies. Which is why the cry goes up to Cut Your Turf & Hold Your Bog! It’s another way of demanding that the Irish remember what it means to be Irish and not just another far-flung corner of the European Union.
And there is something real and absolutely authentic about what we do here tonight, about coming together at an altar, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and sharing it, just as our Lord did, and instructed his followers to do in remembrance of him. In fact, there may be nothing more authentically Christian than this simple act, this deep memory that we repeat over and over because Jesus expected his disciples to, and so do we. Gathered together like this, on this night, we become like a part of the landscape that remembers everything that’s happened in and to it. And we take our spades and dig deeply and directly into the dark, wet peat of Christian memory.
All kinds of things may come up with the peaty memory. I think of my grandmother’s funeral mass, and of a Palm Sunday when my mother played the violin, and of a boyhood Easter when my voice soared easily to high B-flats, and of Masses said in the Australian bush, or in churches around Jerusalem. I treasure these memories; they are the turf that I cut and the bog that I hold.
And you will have your memories that the Mass connects you to, as well.
And the church has a larger collection of memories that we bring up with the peat: of papal masses, and crusaders’ masses, and pilgrims’ masses, and nuptial masses, and masses for peace, and for harvests, and for saints, and in monasteries, and palaces, and in country churches, and in catacombs. All this living memory comes up when we dig into the peat tonight: the landscape that remembers. But that is not the half of it.
Tonight of all nights we dig that spade into the sweet spot of the bog that holds the memory of that first supper, and we bring up the Body. There is nothing more fundamentally, authentically Christian than this act, and the corporate memory that comes with it.
Bringing up the Body of Christ from the landscape of his church, from the dark, wet bog of the Mass, we do not marvel at how wonderfully preserved that Body is after all these years. No, we rejoice to behold again and again that he is alive and with us (nothing else could account for this long, living memory)! And un-like the Irish bogs, we need not fear that we can exhaust the supply of God’s grace – for it is inexhaustible.
To do this day after day is to hold on to, live into, and to refuse to let go of the thing that makes us who we really are, and that is so much more than a memory. To do this is to Cut Your Turf & Hold Your Bog.
Cut Your Turf & Hold Your Bog! Return again to this landscape that remembers everything that has happened in and on it! Reach out your hand to take a morsel of the dark, wet turf that is given for you! Hold on to this memory! Bring up the Body! Taste and see: there is nothing here well-preserved! For this is Life itself! Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Maundy Thursday 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” A lecture given at the Royal Society of Literature, October, 1974