Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 6: St. Patrick's Day, Comely Maidens, Pope Francis, Modern Drama

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

Last week I went to see a theatrical adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, directed by Jimmy Fay, in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. I am not much of a theatre-goer, being much more a partisan of the cinema. A notice that I saw in the theatre’s bathroom might help to explain my aversion. It read: “Our wonderful housekeeping staff clean these toilets daily. However, if they are not to your satisfaction…” Extending the luvviness to the cleaning staff is rather sweet, but it’s the luvviness itself that tends to make me break out in a rash whenever I breathe the same air as theatre folk—players and punters alike. Silly? Perhaps, but there it is.

James Joyce
However, A Portrait of the Artist is a terrific novel, and one that made a huge impression on me when I first read it. That was when I was about the same age as Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s fictionalised version of himself. Stephen’s climactic epiphany on Dollymount Strand electrified me, and I still consider it one of the most brilliant flights of lyricism ever written.
Disheartened, he raised his eyes towards the slow-drifting clouds, dappled and seaborne. They were voyaging across the deserts of the sky, a host of nomads on the march, voyaging high over Ireland, westward bound. The Europe they had come from lay out there beyond the Irish Sea, Europe of strange tongues and valleyed and woodbegirt and citadelled and of entrenched and marshalled races. He heard a confused music within him as of memories and names which he was almost conscious of but could not capture even for an instant; then the music seemed to recede, to recede, to recede, and from each receding trail of nebulous music there fell always one longdrawn calling note, piercing like a star the dusk of silence. Again! Again! Again! A voice from beyond the world was calling. 

Given my admiration for the source material, I decided I would give the play a try. And Joyce’s prose and dialogue are so good that I guessed there was only so much damage that even the most perverse dramatisation could wreak upon it. However, this production really did its best—or rather, its worst.

The young man is a young girl. How clever!
Nobody will be surprised that Stephen Dedalus was played by a girl. This kind of gender bending seems to be par for the course these days, when idiotic gimmicks like an all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest are routine.

Give Up Yer Auld Sins

But this wasn’t the only daft stunt that the director pulled. Joyce’s novel, though it certainly has comic and ironic aspects, is at heart a very serious and even solemn portrait of a writer discovering his vocation. It’s also a very vivid picture of Ireland at a crucial moment in its history.

However, the New Theatre company seemed intent upon playing it as a kind of bawdy farce.

The legendary Christmas dinner scene, where an argument breaks out in the Dedalus household on the subject of Parnell’s fall and the Catholic Church’s role in it, was played entirely for laughs. When the Director of Vocations at Belvedere College is advising Stephen on the possibility of a priestly vocation, Stephen is frolicking with a dominatrix in the background. And when Stephen goes to confession to confess his liaisons with prostitutes—a dramatic highlight of the story—he is simultaneously entangled with a devilish lady of the night. Most bizarrely, the priests on stage carry a plastic, near-life-size skeleton around with them—presumably to symbolize the ‘dead hand’ of the Church.

Now, nobody is going to argue that A Portrait of the Artist paints a rosy picture of Catholicism. The entire book hinges on Stephen’s escape from the ‘nets’ of language, nationality and religion in order to devote himself to the life of a writer. But Joyce was too much of an artist to go in for caricatures. He never denied the debt he owed to Catholicism. A Portrait certainly doesn’t present the Catholic faith as being something silly and tawdry, as this production did. It takes it very seriously indeed.

It seems that contemporary Ireland is both obsessed with Catholicism and incapable of taking it seriously. It needs the Church as a villain, but it will only accept it as a comic opera villain.

The night wasn’t a complete disappointment, though. The bathroom was indeed very clean.

Eamon De Valera, symbol of everything modern Ireland hates
 Those Comely Maidens

By the time this column appears, St. Patrick’s Day will have come and gone. There will be the usual complaints about paddywhackery, gay activists looking to politicise parades, and alcohol. Discussion of the saint who converted the Irish to Christianity will, of course, be minimal.

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, was the occasion of √Čamon De Valera’s infamous ‘comely maidens’ radio speech, the speech where he never actually used the words ‘comely maidens’. (This phrase comes from a misreporting of his words in The Irish Press.)

I remember the first time I actually read the text of this speech. (I had already encountered a highly critical discussion of it in my history text-book, but it only quoted snippets.) It was, strangely enough, on a bus-shelter advertisement in Ballymun. There was no indication of who had paid for the advertisement, if it could be even described as an advertisement. It was simply a photograph of the Ballymun flats, looking suitably grim, juxtaposed with De Valera’s words. I suppose some individual or group had commissioned it to make a political point.

At this time, I was a teenager, a socialist, and a confirmed anti-nationalist. Patriotism seemed pointless to me, a mere distraction from the all-important matter of working conditions and standard of living. But, in spite of all that, I was touched by De Valera’s words, and baffled by the ridicule they inspired.

"...whose firesteads would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age..."
What’s Wrong with this Picture?

What is objectionable about the following? “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.”

In an era of rocketing childhood obesity, surely “the romping of sturdy children” could only be welcomed. We have endless campaigns against ageism, so why should a reference to ‘the wisdom of serene old age’ be laughed at? And, when everybody and his second cousin is now condemning the greed of the Celtic Tiger era, why should it be ridiculous to hope for a people who were ‘satisfied with frugal comfort’ and who ‘devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit?’. Granted, the ‘happy maidens’ might want to have their own athletic contests (incidentally, there was no reference to ‘dancing at the cross-roads’ in the speech, either). But Dev was hardly implying that they should be barred from them.

I won’t pretend that, after seeing this bus shelter ad, I boarded the bus to school as a convert to De Valera’s social vision. But it certainly stuck in my mind, and started to tug at the threads of my teenage self-assuredness.

In the Ireland of 2014, the agrarian idyll evoked in this St. Patrick’s Day speech is no longer a runner, whatever might have been its viability in 1943. Still, it’s a noble ideal. So the next time someone makes a smarmy comment about ‘comely maidens’, why not ask them what the speech actually says and what exactly they object to in it?

Il Papa

Christ, Not Charisma 
A survey of the Pew Forum has found that there is not much evidence of a ‘Francis effect’, at least in America. The number of Americans identifying as Catholics has remained more or less the same since last year, as has the number of American Catholics attending Mass.

I think this finding is, in a strange way, rather heartening. It would be terrible to think that religious commitment was decided by something as superficial as Time magazine’s Man of the Year award, or the good opinion of television pundits.

This finding should (but won’t) be a discouragement to those who obsess about the public image of the Church. Christianity is not, thank God, advanced through marketing campaigns. It is, instead, the seed that grows as the sower sleeps.

I have no doubt that Pope Francis is doing wonderful work for the propagation of the Faith, just as Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II did. But the fruits of that work will not be measurable by surveys and short-term increases in congregation size. The life of the Church is measured in centuries, not by statistics. How many of the mega-churches that have sprung up in America and Korea, with their thousands-strong congregations and their snazzy worship styles, will still be going strong twenty or thirty years from now? 
David Tencer, current bishop of Reykjavick

Good News from Iceland
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano recently reported a Catholic resurgence in a surprising corner of the world. Apparently, the number of Catholics in Iceland has doubled in the last ten years, now standing at eleven thousand. As one website pointed out, this actually represents more than three per cent of the population. There are eight priests and forty religious, many of whom are young, and new churches are being bought and built.

The numbers might seem small, but what is important is that the tide seems to be going in the right direction.

I sometimes think that the Catholic world spends too much time concentrating upon traditionally Catholic societies like Poland, Ireland and Brazil, or young but vibrant Churches like those in China and Africa. Surely the entire world is our mission field, and the tiny churches in countries where Catholicism is a vanishingly small minority should be especially dear to our hearts, and present in our prayers.

Furthermore, Iceland is one of the most secularised countries in the world, and we should take a very special interest in the fortunes of Catholicism and Christianity in such countries. Secularisation is a wave that seems to be passing over the entire developed world, and while there is no reason to assume that the same pattern will be repeated everywhere, it does suggest the very important question—will there be such a thing as post-secularism?

Less exciting to Norwegians than the Bible. Probably old hat to them.
Signs of Hope

I believe there is reason to believe that the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

One remarkable phenomenon that may be relevant is the popularity of a new translation of the Bible in Norway. It became the country’s best-selling book of 2013, outselling Fifty Shades of Grey. A play based upon the Bible also became a huge hit. All this in a country with one of the lowest rates of church attendance in the world. (The percentage of Catholics in Norway, however, has been climbing steadily.)

The Catholic Church in England, which is also one of the most secularised nations in the world, is enjoying something of a quiet renaissance. Vocations to the priesthood are rising, as are the numbers of women joining religious orders. Some years ago the numbers of English Catholics attending Mass surpassed the number of Anglicans attending Sunday service. Meanwhile, in America, there was a sixteen per cent increase in seminarians from 1995 to 2013.

The Catholic Church in Sweden is one of the fastest growing in Europe, and while this growth mostly comes from immigration, the bishop of Stockholm (whose diocese covers the entire country) said in an interview with the Australian Catholic Weekly in 2013 that there “seems to be a growing interest among young people for vocations, especially for the religious life.”

George Weigel
 Are these small signs? Of course. But remember what Our Lord said about the mustard seed. And since the Catholic writer George Weigel described Ireland, not implausibly, as “the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”, we may inspire ourselves with the thought that we are in the very front line of the confrontation with secularisation..

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 5: Homophobia, Pope Francis, and the Magic of Movies...

Catholicism without Apologies: Chapter Five

I have to admit I've changed my mind about the first item in this article. The prediction I made, that the Iona Institute's threat of legal action against the 'homophobia' libel would be held over their head forevermore, didn't really come to pass. In reflection, they did the right thing, as the debate would have been even more strangled than it was if the 'homophobia' charge could be tossed around without any inhibition at all. Still, I think the argument I make here is worth at least considering-- perhaps not in this case, but in others.

I'm publishing this post on a very special date, and dedicating it to my dear wife Michelle-- indeed, this whole book is dedicated to her.

John Waters

The controversy over RTE’s apology to John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute is still rumbling as I write this column. Readers of this paper will be familiar with the story, but here goes anyway…

An Irish drag artist and gay rights activist appeared on an RTE television show (I didn’t see it), and apparently accused the Iona Institute and John Waters of homophobia, on the basis of their opposition to gay marriage. Mr. Waters, along with several members of the Iona Institute, threatened legal action unless an apology and a retraction were issued.

RTE, acting on their own legal advice, rather reluctantly shelled out 85, 000 euro in compensation, along with a somewhat mealy-mouthed apology. David Norris went on a march to protest this. Fintan O’Toole wrote an Irish Times article recounting an occasion when he was accused, in print, of hypocrisy for driving a BMW home from some left-wing demonstration, despite not owning a car at all. He forbore from suing his accusers, he says, out of respect for free speech. Meanwhile, Ivana Bacik complained about the Iona institute “lawyering up”.

Fintan O'Toole. I've seen him on the bus a few times.

As far as I can see, reactions to the incident in the Catholic press were entirely supportive of the Iona Institute’s action. Most commentators argued that a serious debate on same-sex marriage could not be held while its opponents were continually having their character defamed and their motives called into question. David Quinn, the director of the Iona Institute, argued in a televised debate that the Institute had no choice but to threaten legal action. Otherwise, he said, the accusations of homophobia would continue throughout the debate on next year’s referendum on gay marriage, and opponents of the referendum would find it impossible to get a fair hearing.

Sometimes Fintan O’Toole is Right

I don’t agree with him on this. I think the Iona Institute made a big mistake in taking the course they did.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased, as any sane person must be pleased, that RTE are lighter of 85, 000 euro. It's 85, 000 euro less for them to put towards more agit-prop documentaries and banal home makeover shows. I'm also a great admirer of the Iona Institute and of John Waters. And I think the personal abuse that has been dished out towards the Institute's members— especially Breda O'Brien—is utterly scurrilous. These people are defamed on a regular basis. The worst abuse comes from those nameless, faceless denizens of the Irish internet, who daily spit bile from behind their avatars and their weird pseudonyms.

Breda O'Brien
In spite of all that, I think that the Iona Institute has unwisely given a hostage to fortune, as well as gifting ammunition to its critics—ammunition which they have not been slow to use.

Fintan O’Toole, in the aforementioned Irish Times column, wrote that: “there’s a price to be paid for the considerable privilege of being granted an especially loud voice in the national conversation. With the megaphone comes a duty to protect freedom of expression and a vested interest in keeping it as open as possible.” Other supporters of gay marriage, less urbane than Mr. O’Toole, have accused the Iona Institute of fearing a free debate.

I actually agree with Fintan O’Toole on the fundamental principle involved. Free speech and the free exchange of views are so precious that even their abuse should be tolerated as far as reasonably possible. In the last issue of The Catholic Voice, as part of a very deep and thorough analysis of the controversy, Dualta Roughneen asked: “How much defamation, mud-slinging, sloganeering and shouting down is to be tolerated in the name of fairness”? I would answer: ‘A great deal’.

But aside from the basic principle involved, it would be prudent of Christians and moral conservatives to cherish freedom of speech, even beyond the point of defamation.  And here’s why.

Appealing to Caesar

The accusation of homophobia is a cheap shot, and everybody knows that it’s a cheap shot. Many people in this country already regard the Iona Institute, and indeed all opponents of same-sex marriage, as being homophobic. So it’s hard to believe that such throwaway slanders would really change how anybody viewed the spokespeople of the Institute, or indeed others who oppose gay marriage.  In truth, such childish gibes only rebound upon the accusers, since it makes them look incapable of making a sober and rational case.

But the accusation that the Iona Institute ran to their lawyers to shut down a free debate, though unfair, is less obviously unfair than the charge of homophobia. It will stick a lot easier, well after the marriage referendum is over.

This is an important issue. In our time, the traditional Christian worldview is coming more and more into official disfavour, and the expression of traditional Christian beliefs—not only regarding marriage, but a host of other subjects—is increasingly considered offensive, discriminatory, even a form of hate speech.  (The very week I write this, it was reported that a Spanish cardinal is being investigated by police in Spain after being accused of “hate speech” by a gay rights group.)   Appealing to courts and official bodies as the arbiters of what may and may not be said is, for this reason, a very bad idea for Christians. In the long run—in the not-so-long run, perhaps—they will almost certainly get the worst of it.
The time may soon come when Christians must defy the law in order to follow their consciences, and to proclaim the fullness of the Gospel. In that hour, do we really want to hear an echo of the words of Festus, in the Book of Acts: “You appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you shall go”?

Why are we Undoing the Pope’s Work?

The tug-of-war over Pope Francis continues, in newspaper columns and bogs and on radio panel discussions. Some liberal Catholics, and other left-wing observers, consider him something of a fellow traveller, on account of his apparently less rigid approach to Catholic tradition—the simple robes, the off-the-cuff question and answer session with reporters on the plane back from World Youth Day, the eyebrow-raising interview with America magazine, and passages like the following from his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:  ‘A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism’.

Conservative Catholics pounce, rather triumphantly, on those passages and interviews where Pope Francis proclaims himself “a son of the Church” and re-affirms Catholic doctrine on abortion, female ordination, and other controversial subjects.

Isn’t it obvious that, in doing this, both “liberals” and “conservatives” are going against the very spirit of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pontificate?

Probably liberal Catholics

Probably conservative Catholics

There is no doubt that Pope Francis is quite deliberately frustrating the media’s attempts to paint him as a “liberal” or a “conservative” figure. His canniness in avoiding the hot-button topics that make easy headlines, and instead concentrating upon proclaiming the central message of the Gospels, can only be a conscious strategy—and, so far, a wonderfully successful one.

A Moment of Grace

Surely this is an opportunity, even a moment of grace, for the rest of us.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics—or at least, Catholics in the developed world—have been embroiled in something of a feud between left wing and right wing, liberals and conservatives, “dissidents” and “orthodox”. And—as with all feuds—the longer it continues, the more emotion and ego and personality becomes invested in it.  It becomes difficult for either faction to back down, or to admit that they were ever wrong, or that they were uncharitable, or that the other faction has even a modicum of truth on their side.

Perhaps it is time to drop all the talk of “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, to have done with finger pointing and “I told you so”, and to join the Pope in his work of reconciliation and bridge building.

We know the promise that Christ made to St. Peter.  We know that Pope Francis is the inheritor of that promise. Our faith tells us that he is not going to compromise the dogmas and sacred truths with which he has been entrusted. Let us stop fighting over every word he utters, and join him in proclaiming the timeless truths that are more conservative, and more liberal—in the best sense of both those adjectives— than any other doctrine in the world.

St. Peter

Movie Magic

All through my twenties, and well into my thirties, I was a cinema addict. I have sometimes been to see three films on the same day. I’ve seen some movies up to five times in the cinema. For a long time, the first question anyone would ask me—rather to my chagrin—was, “Seen anything good in the cinema lately?”

The fascination extends back to my childhood. The first movie I ever saw in the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I was seven years old. (I didn’t realize that the seats folded down and I spent the first few minutes quite literally on the edge of my seat.)

I was enthralled. It wasn’t only the enormous pictures on the screen that set my imagination on fire. It was the exciting darkness all around the screen. Somehow, I had the sense that that darkness contained a great presence, a great mystery—although now I would consider it a great Presence, a great Mystery. It was not that the Mystery was any more present in the cinema than anywhere else. But somehow the drama and solemnity of the setting made me more aware of it.

I still love the cinema, and I still sicken for it if I’m away too long. But now that I am recently married, I have discovered that the small screen has a magic all of its own.  For some reason, watching a DVD with the one you love is even more transporting than a trip to the movies. Perhaps it is the lure of domesticity kicking in.

Thankfully, my wife is every bit as enthusiastic about movies as I am.

When I reach the end credits of a good movie, I feel that I’ve lived a whole other existence—that I’ve had years added onto my life (but in a good way!).

Stories and the Sacred

Human beings need stories. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity”. We carry within us a deep intuition that human life is a quest for meaning, that we were made for great things. We have an ineradicable sense that life is a drama, a journey, and that its destination is something bigger and better than any storyteller can ever imagine.

Thankfully, it doesn’t stop storytellers from trying…

I think it is wonderfully fitting that when God came into the world, he told stories, and that he himself provided the resounding climax of the great story that had started with the words, “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth.” No wonder that we, his creatures, crave narrative so much.

The Bucket List

Not that movies, even good movies, are always adroit at handling sacred themes. A recent DVD that myself and my wife both enjoyed was The Bucket List, a film starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two chalk-and-cheese cancer patients trying to live all their dreams before they die. When they come to discuss religion, it is rather frustrating to hear the following exchange:

Jack Nicholson: I envy people who have faith, I just can't get my head around it.

Morgan Freeman: Maybe because your head's in the way.

As though one’s head could ever get in the way of authentic faith! (The screenwriter had obviously not read John Paul II’s great encyclical Faith and Reason.)

But some movies do better. Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, is a truly mature and profound meditation on faith. And my favourite film of all time, Groundhog Day—a comedy about a narcissistic weather reporter, played by Bill Murray, who is compelled to relive the same day over and over until he comes to appreciate his life—succeeds in awakening in the viewer a powerful sense of God’s grace, and of the infinite preciousness of His gifts. This despite the fact that the most theological line in the movie is, “Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He’s not omnipotent, He’s just been around so long He knows everything!”

"I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace..."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

In my second article, I was still writing my 'View from the Pew' column in the diary format I would soon discard in favour of long articles on a single subject. At this time I was also more of a 'culture warrior' than I am now. The perils of being a culture warrior seem clearer to me now-- the danger of Catholics being seen as 'the angry brigade', the very real risk of becoming hooked on righteous indignation and dependent on the stimulus of an outside enemy, the ever-present temptation to get sucked into passing squabbles and lose sight of the big picture. However, some battles still need to be fought.

I don't at all apologise that I am posting a Christmas article in June. I have loved reading collections of newspaper columns all my life, and the 'untimely topicality' was part of the appeal. I like reading articles that were written during the Olympics, a general election campaign, the death of a historical figure etc. and which carried the flavour of that time-- the sense of immediacy. This, to be sure, is a very particular taste!

Catholicism Without Apologies 4: Christmas, Freedom of Speech, Catholic Schools, Eucharistic Adoration

Is there any sight more beautiful than a Christmas tree?

It’s become a venerable Christmas tradition to complain about the commercialisation of the season, and the appearance of Christmas decorations in shops by late October. The worst part of this is that everybody is tired of the whole thing by Christmas Eve, and the idea of a Christmas season lasting to the feast of the Epiphany becomes a foreign concept. It has become common for “Merry Christmas” to be replaced by “Happy New Year” as early as St. Stephen’s Day. (I insist upon replying with “Merry Christmas” when this happens.)

But, although the familiar complaints are perfectly justified, I can’t bring myself to disapprove of the early appearance of Christmas trees. A Christmas tree, even if it is not an explicitly Christian symbol, is a blessed antidote to so many of the worst tendencies in our modern society. It is jolly. It is innocent. It is sentimental. It is unabashedly traditional. In other words, it is cheerfully subversive.

The Christmas tree may not be a Christian symbol, but the atmosphere of hope and innocence and wonder that hangs around it has everything to do with Christianity.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that: “There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas”. But for a few weeks of the year, the modern world—for all its efforts to bury the meaning of the season under a mountain of merchandise—can’t keep itself from honouring the Christ child, even if it does so reluctantly and indirectly. After so many decades (even centuries) of secularisation, it has found nothing better worth celebrating.

I think that is cause to be glad, and it is part of the reason I don’t join in the annual panic about the “War on Christmas”.

The offending Legion of Mary poster

Belief or ‘Harassment’?

If the “War on Christmas” is not worth getting upset about, the same is not true of the global war on Christians. In many parts of the world, this war is being fought with bombs, bullets and incarceration. In Ireland, such things do not happen. But it sometimes seems as though we are hearing the overture of a future persecution here.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago famously said that: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Of course, the reality of free will means that we can never know the future for sure, but there are undoubtedly very worrying portents to be seen.

Earlier this month, the Legion of Mary branch in NUI Galway (which had been applying for status as a university society and had been granted ‘temporary membership’ status) had that status suspended because of a poster which they displayed on campus. The poster promoted the Courage Community group, which (as the text explained) “ministers to persons with same-sex attraction and their loved ones. By developing an interior life of chastity, which is the universal call of all Christians, one can move beyond the confines of a homosexual label to a more complete identity in Christ.” At the bottom of the poster was printed the slogan: “I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay.”

There were over seventy formal complaints to the NUIG authorities as a result of this poster, resulting in the disciplinary action. The Irish Times reported this statement from the university: “NUIG has a pluralist ethos and will not condone the production and dissemination of any material by students which discriminates against other students. Discrimination or implied or direct harassment, on the basis of sexual orientation and/or religion, is contrary to Irish and European law.”

The NUIG branch of the Legion apologised for any offence caused, while the national headquarters in Dublin said it had no knowledge of the affair. The communications officer of the Galway diocese, Fr Sean McHugh, while admitting that “the poster is about the call to live a chaste live, which is part of Christian teaching”, also said that the ‘don’t call me gay’ slogan was “offensive”.

We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

Now, I think it was imprudent of the Legion of Mary branch to display this poster in the first place. But it deeply disturbs me that there was no public outcry against this act of censorship by the NUIG authorities. Although the words ‘I’m a child of God, don’t call me gay’ were a bad choice and do seem provocative, it is obvious from the context that they were not supposed to imply that gay people are not children of God. Rather, they expressed the idea that the “homosexual label” is “confining”.

Voltaire never said this, but he should have.

It is quite plain that nobody was being threatened by this poster, that it simply expressed the traditional Christian understanding of human sexuality, one that is shared by hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and by hundreds of millions around the world. That this is construed as “harassment” in the Ireland of 2013 should make us all very worried. And this happened on a university campus, where intellectual freedom should be a cherished value.

It seems extremely likely that, if there is a new persecution of the Church in the Western world the charge of discrimination against homosexuals will be the battering ram of choice. And this will be all the easier if freedom of expression, and in particular the freedom to articulate the Christian ideal of sexuality, is not defended more ardently than it was in this case.

Happy Christmas!

A Heart-Warming Festive Scene

The box set of the first four seasons of Love/Hate is one of the most heavily promoted items for sale this Christmas. I have only seen a few scenes from this drama—it cured me of wanting to see any more—but I understand that it is well scripted and acted. Presumably everybody knows that the show is a no-holds-barred depiction of Ireland’s criminal underworld.

The cover image of the box set is particularly eyebrow raising, and (I think) significant. It shows a shaven-headed man screaming— whether in horror, or in fury, or in agony, or perhaps all at once, I can’t tell. But what does it say about modern Ireland that this is the image we have greeting us through the tinsel and holly in shop windows, and that this box set is at number three in the Irish DVD charts at the time of writing? We’ve gone from De Valera’s ‘laughter of happy maidens’ to a screaming skinhead. Is that progress?

Will They Ever Learn?

The never-ending campaign against religious schools flared up again this month, prompted by an article in The Irish Times in which Kitty Holland lamented that the Church of Ireland and Catholic schools in her area refused a place to her child, informing her that priority was given (in cases of over subscription) to children of Christian parents.  She wrote: “What is also clear however is that denominational or faith schools’ enrolment criteria impact in a gross and disproportionate way on children such as my son by excluding them simply because they have not been baptised.” Later on, that overworked word “discrimination” makes its inevitable appearance.

Kitty Holland, critic of freedom of association

Is liberal society not entirely muddle-headed in revering “diversity” but also setting its face against “discrimination”? The first seems logically impossible without the second, in some form or other.  There are obviously many forms of discrimination that are wicked. But how can any tradition, including a “faith tradition”, survive and prosper if it is debarred from keeping its own forms of association, celebration, symbolism, and so forth—even if that means, inevitably, that some people and lifestyles are excluded from it? Are not the flattening, homogenizing forces of liberalism and militant secularism the real enemy of all meaningful diversity?

Many correspondents to The Irish Times pointed out the most glaring fault in Kitty Holland’s argument—that she had concentrated her criticism almost entirely upon faith schools, despite the fact that non-denominational schools in her area had also refused her child a place. (Of course, religious parents are also taxpayers, and deserve to have the education they desire for their children funded from their own taxes. And non-believing parents are fully entitled to set up their own schools, if they so wish.)

Brave New World?

The part of Kitty Holland’s article that really jumped out at me was the closing line: “Schools are places for numbers and letters, not for icons.” I know this is not the sense in which she meant it, but it made me think of those names that you often come across in Brave New World-type science fiction stories, stories that evoke an utterly dehumanised future. In these, characters often have names like XT44LQ or ZZ93Z, to emphasise how all history, tradition and personality has been squeezed out of existence.

Orwell's 1984, imagined on screen
And is it really such an unfair way to read her words, after all? Shouldn’t school be about a lot more than ‘numbers and letters’? Isn’t it better for children to be instructed in some definite tradition, rather than being subjected to a mere drilling in useful knowledge, garnished with a few moral platitudes in ‘civics’ class?

A child who attends a denominational school may reject the religion taught there, either during their time at school or in later life. But even then, I think, the experience has profound benefits not available to students at a non-denominational school. The child’s imagination, sense of wonder, sense of the sublime, and spiritual awareness will be stimulated by those aspects of school life that are only really to be found in such a setting— by which I mean prayers, hymns, tales of the saints, Bible stories, commandments (as opposed to “values”), holy days, a coherent view of the universe and of our place in it, and—yes—icons.  They won’t get anything to replace all that in civics class.

Advent vs. Shopping Days

My two favourite churches in the world are the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary churches in Ballymun, which belong to the same parish, and which are the plainest churches imaginable. Nevertheless, they were the churches of my childhood, and I love them.

Last Tuesday, I made my way from the other side of Dublin to join in evening Eucharistic adoration in the Virgin Mary, part of the parish’s Advent preparations. It was nearly over by the time I finally took my place in one of the pews.

Sitting there in the prayerful silence, and gazing at the monstrance upon the altar, I couldn’t help thinking about the preparations for Christmas going on outside the church walls, as compared with the preparations taking place inside them. Outside, there was the frenzy of shopping, travel arrangements, and office parties. Inside, nothing at all seemed to be happening. 

And yet, I knew the real “action” was all happening inside—what Pope Francis recently called “the deep breath of prayer”. This is how the Church lives and grows through the ages, even if it as undramatic as the soft breathing of a sleeping baby.

All the revelry and decorations and Christmas trees only continue to make any sense, to have any relish in them for anybody, because people continue to follow the path of the shepherds and the Magi, to honour the Christ child in all earnestness. The Christmas tree is jolly only because the monstrance is solemn.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Short History of my Priggishness

Readers are warned that this post is going to be even more introspective and idiosyncratic than usual. Perhaps 'navel-gazing' is a better term. Nevertheless I feel the urge to write it. Nobody has to read it-- that is the great thing about blogging.

I wanted to write a few thoughts on my history as a prig.

I have always been a prig. I think I will always be a prig. I am trying to learn where priggishness is good and where it is bad.

Chambers English Dictionary, eleventh edition, describes a prig thus (and the definition is rather poetic): "A precisian, a puritan; a person of precise morals without a sense of proportion; a sanctimonious person, certain of his or her blamelessness and critical of others' failings; a coxcomb".

I think the only part of that definition that applies to me (in the sense I mean here) is 'a puritan'. I have always been a puritan, though my puritanism has been more aesthetic or cultural (or maybe behavioural) than moral. 

I have always had a craving for the purified, the consecrated and the intentional, over the mixed, the ambiguous and the matter-of-fact.

I have often written (to the point of tedium, I hear my reader think) about the Halloween party that fired my childish imagination. The thing that excited me was the sense of consecration-- this night was consecrated to all things spooky. It had a flavour and an atmosphere and a character all of its own.

A time to be spooky

I wanted, and have always wanted, everything to have a flavour and an atmosphere and a character all of its own. I wanted, from my earliest age, human beings to be avatars. I wanted each one to be a vessel of a particular ideal and way of looking at the world. I didn't really care what that way of looking at the world was, as long as it was there. Teenagers who were heavy metal fans I could understand. Adults who were proponents of some political viewpoint, I could also understand. But people who weren't really anything...who expressed no obvious view of the world, whether idealistic or hedonistic or otherwise....I couldn't 'deal' with them. They disgusted me, in the literal sense of that word.

Of course, I could never have expressed all this in words, as a child. But it was there.

I loathed what Yeats called 'the casual comedy' in his famous poem Easter 1916; the banal, business-like, humdrum attitude towards life that, the poem tells us, had been superseded in the Ireland of that time by the high tragedy of the Rising.

W.B. Yeats
The philosphical depth of that poem amazes me more and more, as I grow older. Yeats managed to encapsulate (and anticipate) all the debates about the 1916 Rising in one poem, indeed, in one phrase-- "a terrible beauty". But it has a philosophical depth beyond its historical subject, too. In one passage from the poem, one which I did not even understand when I read it as a teen, Yeats expressed both the seduction and the peril of this urge towards purity, towards single-mindedness:
Hearts with one purpose alone   
Through summer and winter seem   
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,   
The rider, the birds that range   
From cloud to tumbling cloud,   
Minute by minute they change;   
A shadow of cloud on the stream   
Changes minute by minute;   
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,   
And a horse plashes within it;   
The long-legged moor-hens dive,   
And hens to moor-cocks call;   
Minute by minute they live:   
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart...

Jean-Paul Sartre believed that human beings, out of a desire to escape from the existential freedom which we find so unbearable, aspire to become a thing rather than a person.  I don't believe this exactly, but I think it shows considerable insight.

Yeats himself, who said that poetry is created out of the argument with ourselves, was also drawn to the idea of purity in his own way. "One day when I was twenty-three or twenty-four this sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half-asleep: "Hammer your thoughts into unity." For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence." 

When I was a boy, I knew a couple called Holly and Harry. (I am changing the name and the details to protect the innocent.) When I visited their flat, i was delighted with their way of life. They had a piece of sculpture on their bookshelf, and a large and rather artistic painting on their wall. They gave me curry, which was unimaginably exotic, with chopsticks! They had poufs to sit on. I think there was incense involved, as well. It seemed to me they were living the refined way of life that I craved. 

Later on, I realized that they watched game shows and listened to rap music and followed sport like everybody else. And, to make matters worse, they quickly moved away from the aspirations of their early years. I felt unutterably betrayed and disillusioned.

In school, when I was about ten or eleven, we read a story taken from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was a tale-within-a-tale in which children are told how strict Sabbath observance was in their grandfather's day. Their grandfather (as a boy) goes out to play with a sled on a Sunday, when his own father is asleep, despite Sunday being utterly devoted to Bible reading and solemnity. My sympathies were not with the boys, but with the solemnity of the Sunday. I had never heard of such solemnity and consecration before and I craved it. 

Another time, I fell in calf-love with a girl who was several years older than me in school. I didn't know her name but she seemed to me like a vision of rather vampiric beauty. She had raven-black hair, slanted eyes and an alabaster complexion, and she moved and smiled with a demure grace. She looked very intellectual and as though she came from an upper-middle class family. I imagined her life as being one of art exhibitions, concerts, bike rides, intellectual debates around the dinner table, reading poetry in a meadow, etc. etc.

She should be reading poetry.

I remember how crushed I felt one day when the thought occurred to me: "She watches television. Of course she does. Like everybody else." I was about fifteen. I watched lots of television.

Lord of the Rings was a source of fascination for me; particularly Rivendell. I wanted everything in life, and everything in society, to be graceful and ceremonious and meaningful and stately like it was in Rivendell. Indeed, even the Shire seemed to me more gracious and ceremonial than the 'casual comedy' I saw around me.

I wanted this...

Not this...

...or this.
It is understandable that such a boy should be drawn towards cultural nationalism, as I was. When I learned about the Irish Revival, or the Gaelic Revival, of the late nineetenth to early twentieth century, it completely enchanted me. Indeed, that enchantment has never gone away, though I reacted against it for some years.

The Gaelic Revival was part of a wave of cultural and (important adjective) romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century and onwards. Romantic nationalism saw the art, folklore, dress, cuisine, literature etc. of a particular nation as being an expression of its national soul. Where those things had decayed, it sought to revive them.

(All my life, while despising revolutions of the destructive kind which seek to wipe the slate clean and start again, I have been fascinated by the idea of a revolution which transforms everything but which destroys nothing. The title of the much-mocked spoken word album by William Shatner, The Transformed Man, has always beguiled me.)

Thefore, in an Ireland that had been losing its national culture and ways of life for generations, a massive campaign was launched, amongst cultural nationalists, to revive our national language, our national folklore, our national games, our national music, our national architecture etc. in a particularly Gaelic idiom. Traditions would be revived-- and where there were no traditions, new ones would be invented.

This was manna to me. The essence of the thing was that which was unthinking and incidental would become deliberate and intentional-- that which was almost arbitrary would become meaningful. Dressing and storytelling and painting and eating and making speeches and sending Christmas cards would become an expression of the Folk Spirit, as well as everything that they were already.

I have never aspired towards the kind of 'spontaneous' national identity that some cultural nationalists aspire towards. I remember, in one Irish language class, the teacher taking one of my class-mates to task for writing, in an essay, that a particular Irish language writer had "a great love for the Irish language". "Nobody ever says that English writers have a great love for the English language", she moaned. "It's just the language they naturally write in."

But that was exactly what I did not want-- for Ireland to regain her national traditions and way of life just to become blasé about them. This was long before I came across a quotation of Chesterton's which exactly expresses my dislike of this attitude: "This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself". Chesterton somewhere else describes this as: "Losing a thing as soon as you find it."

Obligatory G.K. Chesterton picture
I will go further. I have never been able to really regret that Ireland lost her language and traditions and has had to regain them. I don't wish we spoke Irish today as the French speak French or the Spanish speak Spanish-- matter-of-factly. I think there is something heroic and life-giving in the project of revival. Chesterton said that the way to love something is to think that it might be lost. Ireland had lost so much, and yet-- would we have loved it so much if it had not been lost? Wasn't the 'turn' towards tradition in itself a noble thing, especially when it was an all-but-disappeared tradition?

Kathleen Ni Houlihan; Ireland's Uncle Sam
My cultural nationalism was a romantic, backward-looking, traditionalist, poetic form of nationalism, one that idealized the Irish countryside and traditional ways of life and that personified Ireland herself as Kathleen Ni Houlihan. I simply did not see the point of any nationalism that was not a 'thick' nationalism in this sense-- that did not want to "Irishify" everything in the national life.

When I realised that there were indeed nationalists who had contempt for this attitude, I was shocked to my core. Kathleen Ni Houlihan they considered sexist and outmoded and naive-- they wanted a bullish, anti-sentimental nationalism that wanted to make Ireland a progressive, modern, secular, multicultural nation. Aside from removing the British presence from Northern Ireland, and providing 'language equality' for Irish speakers-- because even seeking to revive the language was a bit too conservative for their liking-- they seemed willing to ditch the entire project of cultural revival. Wearing Aran sweaters and putting up paintings of Blasket Islanders in your living room were out. Bob Dylan songs and blue jeans and plays about tortured sexuality were in. This, in part, caused my strong reaction against nationalism for many years.

I'm not bashing gays-- but why does it have to be so tacky?
I could go on to describe the influence of my priggishness upon my religious faith, but this essay is already longer than I intended it to be.

I'll mention two things in conclusion.

The first is-- ladies and gentlemen, please do not consider me an out-and-out prig. Indeed, I harbour in my soul quite the opposite hankering, too, though it is not nearly as strong. There is a part of me that revels in 'the casual comedy', the infinite openness and indeterminacy of life, and of society. I do want to get outside, or at least to know there is an outside-- I do want fresh air. I have known the rather bracing sense of dizziness when it is borne upon one, through a snatch of overheard conversation perhaps, that other people have preoccupations and ways of looking at the world that are utterly different from one's own. I sometimes revel in the 'messiness' of modern liberal democracy. Louis Macneice's 'Snow' is one of my favourite poems. I even had these lines printed onto a t-shirt once:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

Louise Macneice, renowned tangerine eater
And yet I think the cleavage is not as simple as that, either. Just as Chesterton said that, if you leave a white fence to itself, it will not remain a white fence but become a muddy grey, so I think that the diversity of the world actually requires a solicitude for singleness and purification. Perhaps tangerines only exist through the unnatural selection of fruit-eating human beings over the generations, as certain dogs have been bred for their distinctiveness. Even if this is not the case with tangerines, you know what I mean. Volumes could be written on this tension, this paradox, this dialectic, or whatever you may call it, between essentialism and pluralism.

Finally, I want to leave you with an image. I have been practicing mindfulness for several months now-- something I dismissed as a fad, but I have been compelled to accept as having genuine scientifically-established merit, and something that is of particular usefulness to me. There are many forms of mindfulness, but I have hit upon my own favourite-- staring into the flame of a candle for twenty minutes, focusing entirely upon that flame. I call this ritual the j'tah, because it sounds rather Star Trekky. I just made the word up.

Staring into the flame makes me realise how important fire imagery has been to me all my life. In the Bible, some of my favourite stories involve fire-- the Burning Bush and Pentecost in particular. And one of my epigraphs you will find at the bottom of this blog is from our Blessed Lord: "I have come to bring fire to the Earth."

And then there is one of my favourite lines in all English poetry, the last line of this verse from the poem The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon:
The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

The wild fingers of fire are making corruption clean. That is what I have craved, intermittently, all my life. That is what makes me a hopeless prig. And, although there is much to be said against priggishness, I think there is something to be said for it, as well.