Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Corrymeela: Understanding the Croi

By Guest Blogger Philip S Lomneth

Almost two months ago, I arrived in northern Ireland to study conflict. Now, I’m at a retreat center on the beautiful northern coast with an organization dedicated to peace building. Instead of working with disadvantaged youth throwing paint bombs and rioting on the weekends, I work with kids; guiding them through team building activities and helping them learn how to cooperate. I walk along the road and see newborn lambs, bright spring daffodils, and waves crashing on the beach, not the murals of Belfast or the peace lines dividing cities here. To put it simply, it’s a far cry from what I thought I would be doing.

I work with an organization called Corrymeela, a group that had its start before the Troubles, standing on the foundation of promoting peace and reconciliation both here and throughout the world. From inception, Corrymeela was an open community, welcome to people of all faiths (or none), from all cultures, from any political affiliation. Thus, when the violence picked up and separations between Catholics and Protestants grew more pronounced, Corrymeela took a role in promoting cross-community understanding and healing of divisions. Corrymeela continues its work in this area, yet as the community grows more global, and more diverse, they struggle to maintain their identity and fundamental values.

At the center of Corrymeela’s site on the north coast, you find the worship space, the Croi. As the Irish word for heart, the Croi takes the shape of two chambers of a human heart with both a large and a small room flowing into one another. But the Croi is also shaped like an ear, and as a consequence, even when you whisper, someone across the room can hear all you say. To say the least, it can make for an almost ethereal worship experience, hearing words reverberating off the walls and people across the room whispering in your ear.

In the center of the room sits a small wooden table that always displays four objects: a candle, something from nature, a Celtic cross, and a Bible. Here, in the worship space open to all people, sit symbols of the Christian ethos pervading Corrymeela. How can Corrymeela claim to be an open community when the worship space blatantly displays religious symbols from a specific tradition? And if they discard every vestige of their beliefs, what authenticity do any of their actions have?

I came to Northern Ireland to study conflict and I land at a peace center, a place open to all, yet tied to a very specific set of beliefs. At first, it seems like a complete paradox: what does peace have to say about conflict (except maybe, “No!”) and how can a strong identity also be open to all? It is the tension between conflict and peace, identity and openness that allows Corrymeela the ability to do great things.

What is conflict? What is peace? Does a peaceful society entail a society without any conflict? These questions and more press down upon me as I work here, and I think Corrymeela lives out the answers more than verbally articulating them. To best illustrate this, I’ll try to work with the conflict mentioned above: that between openness and a determined sense of identity.

During my first days at Corrymeela, I commented on how wonderful living in an international community was. At a table we would have six people from six different countries, and four different mother-tongues. The center director quickly reminded me that with such a group also came an increased chance for disagreement since six different value systems, six worldviews came together at this place. Greater diversity certainly carries the possibility of conflict as well as greater understanding. Too often, people focus on one or the other to promote their agenda and fail to see the problems or the possibilities the other holds. We say to be strong in your identity, proudly display who you are, you but sometimes forget how often what we hold closest to us may hurt the other. Or we go too far the other way, claiming we are all the same and that no need for separation exists. Yet, in this instance, we disregard a person’s very identity.

Back to the heart, back to the Croi. The heart is our core; it is where our deepest emotions, our deepest feelings, emerge from. Would it be too much to say that from our heart our identity arises? And yet when we open our heart, is that not when we love? When we open our heart, we give from our core while also allowing others to enter: to give a part of them to us. When we open our heart, when we both give and receive, we may both hurt and be hurt. When we hold our faith closest to ourselves it is something we deeply wish to share, yet our faith may harm those closest to us while exposing ourselves to attack.

Here is where Corrymeela adds great insight into reconciling differences. Remember that the Croi takes the shape of both the heart and ear: Corrymeela encourages us to listen using our heart. I know it sounds cliché, but the Croi, the listening heart, models an open community. To be open is to be vulnerable and to be open is to share: to share what matters, we share from the heart, from what is most personal. But for an open community, a personal community, to stay open, people must listen to one another; certainly hearing the words people say but also the passion driving what people say. When the words sting the inner-most chambers of our hearts, we must strive to hear the force, the inspiration that encourages the words to come out. And when we speak, sharing from our heart, we must listen to the heartbeats of those around us: what calms them, what scares them, what causes them pain?

This is the open community Corrymeela strives to create: one that shares from the heart while acknowledging the pain and power of doing so, and thus the necessity of listening beyond the words people say. As they create this community they make their vision for a future a reality; not one without conflict, but one at peace.

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