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Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory

Bishop Burrows’ April Letter 2021


Rails of Resilience

Dear Friends

As many of you will know, one of my interests outside of work (although they often seem strangely to connect) is anything to do with railways. I long for a decent railway journey again… in the last twelve months I have scarcely been on a train at all. On one occasion, during the period when we were allowed to move within our own counties and feeling the need of a long walk, I walked from Kilkenny out to Thomastown and got the train back …it seemed an extraordinary adventure! How our world has shrunk …

The last long train journey I made was on January 30th of last year. The bishops of Scotland, Wales and Ireland had met for a conference in Inverness and at its close I travelled by rail to Holyhead, via Glasgow and Chester, and then onwards by sea to Dublin. (All my other episcopal colleagues from Ireland flew home!). But I look back wistfully now on that last long journey, amid beautiful and contrasting scenery. At the time I felt it was somewhat significant to be on the same day in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland on what was the final full day of the UK’s membership of the European Union. Now that journey also speaks to me of a strange and different past, when we travelled without restriction and breezed through ports and airports without a second thought.

Our world indeed has become smaller. In the Bishop’s House there is an enormous dining room table, which once lived in the Old Palace. It is normally the place where many meetings take place – the futures of so many colleagues in ministry have been determined as Boards of Nomination have assembled around it. Now it is over a year since the table has been needed for meetings of any sort. At present it is covered by an extensive model railway, which takes me in heart and mind to many places of which the miniature locomotives remind me, whether journeys on the Eurostar to Paris and Brussels or more ‘local’ adventures on the lines to places like Ballina or Youghal. I am glad to say I have not quite reached the level of madness where the model trains in the dining room operate according to a strict timetable, which requires the interruption of phone conversations to run them. Given the number of clergy who are for whatever reason railway enthusiasts, it is not surprising that I have encountered one or two whose passion actually goes that far!

Often on my regular walks within a 5km radius of home I observe the railway on the edge of Kilkenny, as an admittedly reduced service of trains continues faithfully to come and go. Kilkenny of course has particular interest for the train spotter, as it is not a ‘through’ station. Every train must ‘reverse’; trains from Dublin leave the station as they have entered it and then branch off at Lavistown to head towards Waterford. Thus, the train spotter gets double value for every train movement. As I watch the almost empty trains I slightly envy the few people who are on them, I speculate about what justifies their journey, and I wonder too about how long it can remain economically feasible to run a railway that (as far as my eyes perceive it) is virtually unused for much of the time.
There are many intersections, of course, between trains and the journey of faith; it is not for nothing that the railway is also called the “Permanent Way”. The fact that the trains still run is a sign of hope, a vivid reminder that a way out for us all is approaching, a challenge to look to the horizon and see the sun. In a curious way the almost empty trains are somewhat akin to streamed worship; very few can be physically on board but those who observe can still be taken on a journey and can find comfort in the continuing steady rhythm of things.

Like church buildings, railways also give me a sense of perspective and therefore of optimism. If the rails could speak, they would tell you that they have witnessed many past calamities, many bittersweet things, many sorrowful partings as well as joyful embraces. And through all of this humanity, like the trains themselves, has somehow journeyed on. Kilkenny Station contains a poignant reminder, for example, of the many volunteers from all creeds and classes who left that station to serve in the Great War. As I stand on the largely quiet platform, I find myself imagining vividly the scenes of those times – hugs and kisses, contrived bravado, crowded busyness, the hiss of steam and the clanking of metals …and then the train disappears from view over the horizon, the waving stops, silence descends, and the parents and sweethearts on the platform know in their hearts that they will never see some of those young men alive again. And quietly they drift away….
It is the lot of humanity, perhaps once in a century or even somewhat more frequently, to tread the bitter path of pandemic or war. We never thought it would be our lot; it has brought us pain, shrunken our world and robbed us of basic freedoms we took entirely for granted. Yet it has also been a lesson in love, in altruism and in bravery. We will not be quite the same after it. And those rails, that Permanent Way, speak comfortingly to me of the resilience and the adaptability of humanity, when we truly take the long view of things. For faithful people at this Easter Season, the Permanent Way can also be somehow a symbol of what St Paul calls the ‘more excellent way’ – namely the Way of Christ-like sacrificial generous love which no tomb could contain and of which frankly we have seen such outpourings this past year.

“Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”

ALLELUIA! My Lord, My Love is crucified and risen