It is possible, Hamlet said, to be bounded by a nutshell, and yet relish a sense of immersion in infinite space.
Hamlet’s paradox springs to mind as I try to explain, to myself and to you, what I find extraordinary about the Shekina Garden.
This garden occupies a very small space in a very big and very wild valley, Glenmalure. And within that small space there are many other smaller spaces: gazebos, nooks, benches in hidden corners, a narrow passageway.
And yet the feeling I experience in Shekina, whether as a whole or within one of its component chambers, is always one of expansion, of stretching beyond, of reaching out into a here – and – how where normal considerations of scale lose their significance.
Take the main lawn, for example. On one level, it’s an uneven and unexceptional hankerchief of neatly mown grass. It’s surely the opposite of what the landscapers of Big Houses had in mind, when they tried to create a sense of infinity stretching away towards the horizon, beyond great windows.
But if you sit on one of Shekina’s little benches – there always seem to be more of these than you remember from your last visit – you may find that there is enough expanse in any of these various vistas to calm an unquiet mind.
And if you let your eyes fix on the patch right under your nose, you may find that you are gazing at a mini – ecosystem, where a dozen plants and animals collaborate and contend in the dance of evolution. As your focus sharpens, this patch of ‘grass’ may reveal tiny flowers like eyebright.
This exquisite miniature is as lovely and complex as any orchid, though it’s true that you would need a magnifying glass to fully appreciate its subtle botanical architecture. For the moment, though, its name alone is a kind of serendipitous reminder of the possibility of clearer vision.
Shekina offers many options for walking ‘mindfully’, as the Zen tradition puts it. Slowing down until one is aware of the rich texture of each footfall and footrise, aware of the breath, and intensely aware of one’s immediate surroundings, the garden offers a cornucopia for the senses, an for what they tell us about ourselves in the world.
I like to wander from the patio down to the water lillies, with their blooms echoing the lotus in season, and where we find perhaps the only piece of pre-modern sculpture, a diaphonously clad nymph about to gather water.
Water is a theme of the lower garden, and turning to the right you can follow the stream back uphill. But first pause, to take in the mysterious door to the wilder world beyond Shekina, a door now so wonderfully encumbered with ivy as to be almost invisible.
For someone of my 1960s vintage, the door brings memories of Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, where a mysterious little door led to a “magic theatre”, where the price of entry was our rational minds.
Entertaining and ecstatic as that theatre could be, the entry ticket was too costly, and it feels very good to feel the wind of everyday reality on my face as I move past the door. Hamlet went on to say that his enjoyment of ‘infinite space’ was spoiled by ‘bad dreams’, and Hesse’s magic universe, at least as interpreted by the high priests of psychedelia, turned out to have more nightmares than revelations.
The world itself is miracle enough, and Shekina always reminds me of that. That world does not exclude intimations of otherness, but that otherness, in my very limited experience, is always a path towards a truer self.
Why does all this happen here? Why would someone without any formal religious beliefs, someone haunted, as so many of us are, by a sense of outrage at the crimes committed down the ages, and still today, with the blessing and protection of religious institutions of so many denominations, feel any affinity with the Shekina Garden?
That is a question I have asked myself periodically, as I return for another quiet time sitting in one of its many spaces, walking its pathways, or talking to its maker, Catherine McCann, and her venerable friend, Charlie O’Connor.
For Shekina is, quite explicitly, a sculpture garden inspired by specific Christian beliefs, with some space for the insights of Buddhism.
I suppose the answer is much the same as I would give when someone asks why I like to sit absorbing the afternoon light as it is refracted through the rose window in the church of Santa Maria del Pi in Barcelona, or bathe in the very special quiet of the tiny chapel of Santa Maria de Eunate on the Camino de Santiago.
We may reject the dogmas of the world religions, including the existence of any personal or individual God, and of any personal survival beyond our marvellous bodily existence. We may reject and where necessary combat the institutions that would impose these dogmas beyond the doors of their churches, mosques and temples.
But I do not see the values I live by as based on such rejections: the life of an agnostic is not based on negatives, but on a joyful and celebratory affirmation of this life.
And ‘this life’ is no simple thing: even to those of us who base much of our world view on science, it remains full of existential mystery and wonder. And we would need to be deaf, dumb and blind not to recognise the insights, generosity and beauty at work in the lives of many of those who embrace the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or the Buddha, or Mohammed.
Shekina is full of such insights, generosity and beauty. This is manifest in the garden Catherine has created, in its generous blocks of unshowy blossoms, in its sculptural use of shrubs and trees.
And of course it is also manifest in the sculptures, most of which do not rely on explicit religious symbolism but rather, in their evocation of space and expansion, teach us something of freedom, the joyful realm of the mindful human spirit.
Above all, it is manifest in the lives and persons of Catherine and Charlie, sparkling with joy but also deeply sensitive to the sorrows that are also an essential part of our human experience.
And beyond the garden, beyond the sculptures, beyond Catherine and Charlie, lies the surrounding majesty of Glenmalure, its rugged mountain ridges and, nearer at hand, the magnificent oaks of Ballinacor estate across the river.
I’d like to leave the last ords to a Christian poet who inspires many environmentalists who, if I can put it this way, share his faith but not his beliefs. This is Wendell Berry, writing about the trees of another beloved – though doomed –woodland. It expresses, far better than I ever could, something of the experience of visiting Shekina:
To see them standing was to know a prayer
Made by the Holy Spirit in the air
By that same spirit living in the ground.
The trees in their high branches made the sound
Of air replying to that prayer.
Imperial light sang in the leaves it made.