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October 2016

Last Puritans: An Excerpt

From the conclusion:

As this book has shown, American Congregationalists have used their past in many different ways over the last two centuries: The Pilgrim story has been a source of unity, a reason for debate, and an occasion for moral instruction and corporate pride.  It has inspired serious thought and study, and it has created a yearning for common rituals and greater organizational sophistication.  History has served as entertainment and reason for travel, the subject of imaginative plays and tableaux and pageants.  To be sure, Congregationalists regularly misinterpreted and often trivialized their Pilgrim ancestors or at times used them to belittle their Baptist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian cousins.  More important in the long run, however, is what history helped Congregationalists to avoid.  At key points, as we have seen, it allowed them to stand aside from the competition to be the most "biblical" of all Protestants; it directed their passions toward tolerance and larger Christian unity rather than maintaining the purity of their theological system.  These choices brought their own set of problems, of course, and in the end contributed to the denomination's ongoing debate about its core identity.  But all told, the Congregationalists' story suggests that twentieth-century Protestant liberalism is much more than a one-dimensional tale of religious indifference or feckless decision making--though those elements are certainly present, as, of course, they are for everyone.  It is also, in the end, about paths not taken.  It is about people who learned to live with ambiguities, who chose to believe without demanding certainties. 

The Last Puritans

The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the PastThe Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past by Margaret Bendroth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a history of Congregationalism but a history of how the Congregationalists have used their history, particularly the Pilgrim story. She focuses on grassroots history, more likely to quote anniversary sermons and the letters of lay people than denominational reports. Plus she has a wonderful dry wit. I would recommend this both to people who enjoy church history and to the general reader of history for an appreciation of how history has been used in American life.

View all my reviews

To the Cliffs


Four pubs, a few sweater and souvenir shops, and a handful of beds and breakfast are all the buildings that make up the tiny village of Doolin, which didn't even appear on all the maps of Ireland we saw.  The draw is that she sits along the Atlantic coast opposite the Aran Islands and a three hour walk (or 15 minute drive) from the Cliffs of Moher.  This was our favourite stop on the trip, and coming early in the vacation, colored everything else we experienced.

We descended from the Burren and arrived in Doolin in the early afternoon on Saturday determined to walk the trail along the coast to the cliffs.  A marvelous afternoon greeted us, with clear blue skies and visibility for miles.  Locals told us there are only a handful of days each year like this one.



From the town one walks up a steep street to the entrance to a pasture that begins the official trail.  Funny signs warned of the danger of falling off the cliffs. Mom, who doesn't do a lot of hiking, was determined to walk with us, and I'm so proud of her for the four hours of walking, sometimes on difficult trails.

Wild blackberries lined the hedgerows.  Cattle and horses grazed in the pastures, some of which we walked through, not just alongside of.



The trail slowly rose, and with every turn there was another panoramic view of the islands, cliffs, the castle tower behind us, the Connemara across the bay.  We had dressed for a chilly wind off the ocean, but soon were shedding our layers as the afternoon warmed.  We paused often for pictures.  

A little stream wound its way through the green grass and then a little trickle as it ran over the rocks near the cliff edge before disappearing below me.  Any sound the falling water might have made was drowned out by the crashing surf below.  A strange mix of sounds--babbling brook and crashing waves.

The first hour and a half was most pleasant and brought us to our first really stunning view of cliffs, though not yet the famous ones.  Then the trail turned and the steep ascents began.  We took our time, rested often.  But the ascents were not the most difficult part of the trail.

Not far from the final ascent to view the famous cliffs, the trail turned inland, apparently some property owner didn't want the trail over his land?  The trail then dead-ended at a cow pasture with a sign saying to walk through the pasture to the other side where the trail would pick up again.  The pasture was a muddy, boggy mess and took us a very long time to traverse.  At one point we decided to walk around some cows to go further into the pasture, as the ground along the fence was so muddy, when we realized one of the cows was a bull.  "That's a bull," Mom said.  "Be careful."  "Here, let me get between you and the bull," I said.  He grazed on, thankfully ignoring us.  Only when we finally reached the other side of the pasture, where the trail began again, was there a sign "Beware of Bull."



Soon we were making the final ascent up a steep set of steps.  We watched teenagers above us cavorting at the very point of the cliffs.  Then the panorama opened up before us.  The evening light glowed upon the cliffs.  We walked on to the visitor's center.  At one point, Kelli slipped and fell, in a spot much less difficult than earlier in the day.  A man who helped her up said, "You survived a fall at the Cliffs of Moher."


From the visitor's center we looked along the rest of the trail that led from their to Hag's Head, but we were done, after four hours.  At the center, a well-designed building, buried in the side of a hill, the receptionist called for a cab to take us back to Doolin.  He admired that Mom had make the hike uphill instead of the other way.  He gave us stories about the area and stopped to take our picture.


Clints & Grikes


Kinvara lies on the southeastern shore of Galway Bay.  Our second day out from Dublin, after an enjoyable breakfast and plenty of hot tea, we drove along the coast stopping often to admire the beautiful scenery spread out before us.  Barren hills rose to our south, marking the beginning of the Burren, while green pastures sloped down to the shore.


In the village of Ballyvaughn we stopped just as the farmer's market was opening up.  I grabbed a wedge of one of the local cheeses, garlic and nettles flavored, and purchased a bundle of carrots.  The farmer selling the carrots was also selling parsnips that I thought looked wonderfully tasty. Commenting on the appearance of his produce, he responded, "Vegetables from the Burren are the best." I munched on those carrots every day the rest of the trip, each time remarking how tasty they were, so I have no cause to disagree with the carrot farmer of Ballyvaughn.

The Burren is an area of exposed limestone left over from the last glacial age.  The glaciers deposited both Mediterranean and Arctic plants on the Burren, and they grow side-by-side.  From Ballyvaughn we turned south, into the hills, approaching the Burren proper, but before we reached the rugged hilltops, we stopped at the remains of a ring fort, this one overgrown with grass and trees, such that I felt like I was in a fairy circle.  Maybe we were?



Then the road rose up through barren limestone.  Atop the hills are some prehistoric ruins, including a prominent passage tomb, the Poulnabrone Dolmen.  To reach it you walk across the strange rock formations of clints and grikes.  Clints are the surfaces and grikes the fissures.


But the land was not completely barren.  Flowers and other plants we abundant.  Cattle were grazing throughout the area.  Later we were told that beef grazing on the Burren were the best in the world.  Having tasted a local steak, I think I agree.

One interesting feature of the trip to Ireland was the abundance of livestock.  One saw sheep, cattle, and horses constantly.  Trails led through pastures. Animals walked over to fences to exchange a greeting with you. Almost every major scenic view included grazing animals.  I realized how little we now see and interact with livestock in the US.  Once a drive through the country was filled with sites of animals.  An Irishman explained to us that they do not use feedlots and other forms of industrial agriculture, preferring to graze their animals the traditional way, leading to better quality food.


The Burren was a magically strange place and well worth another visit some day.  In the village of Kilfenora we admired their Celtic High Crosses in the ruined churchyard and ate a warm and hearty lunch.  Kilfenora's bishop is the pope.  During the potato famine the town suffered so much that the pope took over the diocese in the intention to try and help the local population.  The irony of stuffing ourselves in a city that suffered misery during the famine did not escape us.

Early afternoon, we drove through the resort town of Lisdoonvarna and on to little Doolin, on the coast.  From there we had a most spectacular adventure.

Gulls & Crows

We departed Dublin in a heavy rain with a cabbie who ended up being a jerk.  He dropped us, in the rain, at the wrong place, knowingly.


Kelli then drove us to Newgrange, the premier Neolithic site sitting along the beautifully pastoral River Boyne. Green fields, cows, and sheep!  When we arrived the mist was hanging low over the river and pastures, but soon the sun came out and the skies were a most brilliant blue by the time we arrived at the tomb for our tour.


The building is 5,000 years old.  And the roof has never leaked.  Despite the large size of the exterior, inside is quite small.  A long passage to a small chamber with three smaller chambers attached.  Geometrical carvings, particularly the swirl, decorate some of the interior rocks.

We drove on to the Hill of Tara. The GPS seemed to prefer sheep paths to highways in getting us there--brave Kelli. Tara, legendary seat of the High Kings, is a chilly, wind-swept rise from which you can see far in every direction. At the phallic stone in the center we watched a woman trying to have a "spiritual" experience as she rubbed against the stone.  

At both Newgrange and Tara the sky will filled with cawing crows.  Ominous.  I felt like I was in a Game of Thrones episode and something awful was about to happen to me.  In Dublin there had been gulls everywhere. 


A enjoyed a lovely lunch at the cafĂ© at the base of the hill, recommended to us earlier in the morning by a local. At the table next to us sat a host of elderly characters seemingly from a British television series, generating our entertainment.

Then more driving along narrow roads--brave, brave Kelli--to the main highway where I fulfilled my lifelong non-desire of driving on the wrong side of the road. When I asked for prayer that I not kill us all, Mom and Kelli were not comforted.  I drove across Ireland in a few hours.

That night we spent in Kinevara where we dined at a castle with entertainment of song and poetry.


In the beginning were the words


Walk around Dublin and you very quickly notice all the attention to writers and the Irish literary tradition.  And not only James Joyce.  In fact, walk around most towns and you'll notice lots of independent bookshops.  I counted three in two blocks in Kilkenny.  And many of the tourist sites promote the literary heritage of a particular region or locale.  Even the touristy Medieval dinner in a castle we attended in Kinvara made homage to the writers who had stayed in the castle, include Yeats and Synge, but also local authors whose names, stories, and poems I did not know.  Maybe one reason I felt at home in Ireland was the deep respect for literature.

In Dublin we participated in the Literary Pub Crawl.  Two actors lead a group to four pubs and stops in between while acting out scenes from Beckett, sharing Wilde stories, reciting Heaney poems, etc.  Each pub was associated with the literary heritage of the country, frequented in the past and often present by its writers.  We were warned, though, that Dublin pubs are full of "writers" who are actually just alcoholics.

The literary pub crawl included a quiz at the end.  Guess who won?


I arrived around 5 a.m., and as the cabbie said, there's not much to do at that time.  I would come to realize that the Irish don't get going till around 9.  Breakfast in most places we stayed wasn't served until 8:30 and the one time we needed to leave a place at six, the day we were returning to the airport, it was an effort to get someone to unlock the carpark, check us out, etc.  I mentioned that in the states everything is hopping by 6 and was given a disdainful grunt in return like we Americans are stupid. "Not in Ireland," he said.


So, that first day, I napped.  Then Mom, Kelli, and I went on a historical walking tour of Dublin.  The tour is provided by history students from Trinity College.  Ours was informative and fun and very interested in asking about the American election, which happened almost every time we talked to an Irish person for any length of time.

It was while listening to his tour that I was first struck by how an experience of Ireland is coloured by the history of colonization and revolution.  Dublin is currently celebrating the centennial of the 1916 Easter uprising and notices were all over the country and Dublin was dotted with historical markers of where various battles occurred. 

After a late lunch of seafood chowder at the Stag's Head we walked through St. Stephen's Green and did some shopping before the pub crawl that evening, one of the highlights of the trip.


On day two we visited Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room of the library.  Walking into the library I had a spiritual experience akin to the one I had five years ago standing before the telescope of Galileo, overwhelmed with admiration for the power of the human intellect.

That evening Kelli and I attended choral evensong at St. Patrick's Cathedral.  I like hearing the good, old words of the liturgy.

That day I also bought five books to read.

Brandon's Creek


We followed the signs down the narrow, walled country lanes to the wide spot in the road where we parked and got out.  Across from us was a field of sheep, with Mount Brandon rising into the clouds behind.  In front of us was the Atlantic Ocean through a rocky break in the land.  We had arrived at the spot where Brandon's Creek flowed through pastures and into a small bay before the crashing of the Atlantic waves.  Goats were grazing on the steep cliffs above the creek.  We sat on a stacked stone wall and listened to the creek and the surf and the wind.

"Can you imagine setting off in a tiny boat from this spot, looking out on that ocean?"  "No," Mom replied.

For this is the spot where in the sixth century St. Brendan the Navigator set sail on his seven year voyage that, according to legend, took him to North America and back.  Over the following days I often thought of this moment on the edge of land and ocean and the sense of mission that would drive someone to risk everything. 

My trip to Ireland was rich with holy moments and revelations, of these I hope to write in the coming days.

One revelation was that I have never felt less like a foreigner in a foreign land.  I felt very at home.  I may be more Irish than I realized.  Some of this is my gift for gab and my sense of humour.  The Irish are among the friendliest people I've ever encountered.  Moments after greeting someone you could be in the full swing of conversation, way beyond surface pleasantries.  Politics came up a lot.

One of my favourite moments came in a shop in Killarney, County Kerry.  The clerk asked where we were from.  Oklahoma, my sister said.  "You get bad winters there," she said.  I responded, "Not too bad, but I live in Nebraska where they are significantly more."  The clerk said, "But you're used to that, right?  Being 'significantly more'?"  Ouch, sassy.

A strange aspect of the travel is hearing the dark sides of Irish history, the colonization and attempts by the British to ethnically cleanse the island of its native population, particularly the many reminders of the famine.  Mom wanted to visit the Cobh Heritage Center which narrates the story of Irish emigration.  While the center celebrates the strength of the emigrants and their lasting impact upon the development of other nations like the US, Canada, and Australia, I left the exhibit with a sense of grief and horror.  Underlying all the joy, the beauty, the music, and the friendliness is this dark history.

And so I work to understand what I experienced and learned from this vacation, so let's tell the story, beginning with my arrival in Dublin at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12 when my cabbie said, "Not much to do this early."