Irish Papist

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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Jaunt on First Class

I had never been in an aeroplane until my late twenties, when I finally took a flight across the Irish sea to London. I'd assumed that the experience would frighten me, since I've always been scared of heights. I'd actually had several nightmares in which I was on an aeroplane about to take off and I was stricken with panic. I always woke up before the plane left the runway.

But when it came to it, I didn't feel the least bit nervous. The fact that everybody else seemed completely calm reassured me it wasn't a big deal.

I remember how strange it felt, as a lifelong anglophile, to see England come into view beneath us, like an enormous scale model. I remember the feeling of wonderment that I was actually standing in a foreign country, for the first time ever.

I first flew to America in 2011, to visit my American now-fianceé. We had met on a Catholic dating site, Catholic Match. I had been looking for a woman who took her faith seriously but the last thing on my mind was to embark on a transatlantic romance. It just happened that way. We had already met up once before, in London at the end of 2010.

I expected the long-haul flight to be gruelling, and it was. The first time was the worst. I'd chosen a bad book to take onto the plane-- The Lord of the Rings. I am not a Tolkien nut by any means and it's not my idea of easy reading. After that, I made sure that the only books I brought aboard a long-haul flight were familiar books that I found a straightforward pleasure to read (like The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens or Mary, Mother of the Son by Mark Shea).

The flight seemed to last forever. I didn't get dinner, when the trolleys came round, because I didn't realize it was complementary. I felt absurdly embarrassed at all the beverages and snacks that the air hostesses (too lovely a term to replace with "flight attendants") were pressing on me, until I reflected that I had paid hundreds of euro for the ticket and the cost of the food and drink would be trifling in comparison.

I've been back and forth across the Atlantic a few times since then, and it gets a lot easier. In fact, I've come to enjoy it. I enjoy the anticipation of waiting in the terminal, looking at the huge aircraft poised outside. I love the sense of adventure, the sense of bustle and excitement around me. What stories, I wonder, are unfolding or beginning in that very place, at that very moment?

I came to be such a fan of my favoured airline, US Airways, that I now have a little model US Airways plane on my desk at work. I love their corporate colours, the livery of their planes, the in-flight videos, their whole aesthetic.

On the last scheduled day of one of my trips to America-- in fact, the very trip on which I proposed to Michelle-- I found out that my flight had been cancelled due to weather conditions. The lady at the boarding gate, trying to find me a flight for the next day, told me she thought I would like the seat she'd found me. "Is it an aisle seat?", I asked. "No, but I think you'll like it", she said. Densely, I persisted: "As long as it's an aisle seat". She showed me the ticket she had printed, and even an unseasoned flyer like me recognized that the words "Zone 1" meant a first-class flight. "I'll take that", I said quickly. "I thought you would", she smiled.

I was ridiculously excited at, not only an extra evening to spend with Michelle, but also a first class flight home. I thought it was very likely that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I was determined I would enjoy every second of it and say "yes" to everything.

When the moment came, I felt strangely self-conscious when the "Zone 1" passengers were invited to board the plane first (although, in America, members of the military wearing uniform go ahead even of the first class passengers).

Inside, I quickly realized that the question of an aisle seat didn't matter at all, since first class passengers have all the room they need. I could actually stretch my legs as far ahead of me as I wanted (and I did, frequently).

I was surprised to be handed a little pencil-case-sized bag of US Airways freebies, along with various toiletries. I still have it.

A little later, an air hostess came around and asked me what I would like as a pre-flight tipple: water, orange juice, or sparkling white wine? This seemed like a stupid question to me. But it obviously wasn't, since the gentleman sitting next to me, actually asked for water. He was a thirty-something fellow with something of a go-getting look about him. No doubt first class travel was the norm for him, and no doubt he recognized from my general excitement and eagerness that I was a blow-in.

The revelations continued; a menu for dinner, proper plates, proper cutlery, a choice of wines, a personal computer screen for watching the in-flight movies. My neighbour availed of the computer screen, but I didn't. Somehow, reading seemed more suited to the august occasion than having my attention fixed on a screen.

The only thing that disappointed me was the bathroom. It was just the same as the bathroom used by the plebs in economy class. I don't know what I was expecting. Tiles and cloth towels and Imperial Leisure soap on a soap-dish, perhaps. Or maybe even a shower. Still, you can't have everything.

I had red wine with dinner (which came with an appetizer and a dessert, and not all on the same plastic tray like in economy class) and afterward, the hostess kept filling my glass-- which was a real glass, and not a plastic beaker. So I was pretty merry by the time we hit the ground.

Only recently did the significance of the whole experience sink in. There I was, determined to make the most of the opportunity, not to miss any of it, to drink it all in, because it was a freebie that came out of nowhere, one that I hadn't even paid for and that I would probably never experience again. But isn't all that true of every blessed moment of our lives?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Conflict Between Science and Religion...

...is a subject that absorbed almost all of my attention a few years ago, for a period of many months (at least), and one that holds next to no interest for me now.

I find science so boring that I would rather look through twenty albums of somebody's cat photos than read a book of popular science for its own sake. Nevertheless, one has to respect science's practical results and its predictive powers. Which I do, most reluctantly.

All you need to know about the conflict between science and religion is that there is no conflict. You might as well talk about the conflict between ballet and word processing, or the bitter feud between jam-making and synchronised swimming, or the no-holds-barred fight to the death between quantity surveying and needlepoint.

A good book to read is Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by the Catholic physicist Stephen M. Barr. The website Quodlibeta is also an eye-opener in many ways. I just read this article on that very website and I found it most enlightening.

Also, here are some interesting resources on near death experiences, telepathy, ESP and young Earth creationism.

(Calm down, I'm kidding.)

If that isn't enough faith and science stuff for you, The Iona Institute has a priest-physicist talking at the Davenport Hotel, Dublin, on the eighteenth of February. Admission is free. I won't be there.

And now I am going back to my happily non-scientific worldview.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Apology to a Stranger

I had this letter printed in The Irish Times today:

Sir, – I think it’s a good thing that Grace Egan is going to give up public transport and take her bicycle out of storage (January 28th), since she seems to dislike her fellow human beings, with their annoying propensity to cough, sleep, eat, have babies and otherwise make nuisances of themselves.

Seriously, isn’t our society privatised enough? Why do we seem to resent every intrusion of a common life, from political posters to the broadcasting of the Angelus bells to the agony of hearing somebody talk on the mobile phone, or even having to listen to a taxi-driver’s or a barber’s conversation?

I have been travelling on public transport all my life, and personally I love the daily drama and spectacle that it affords me. I like seeing what people are reading, hearing what people are talking about, and savouring the eccentricities and oddities that are often on show. Where Ms Egan seems to find the sight of a woman applying make-up on the bus “embarrassing”, I think it’s about the sweetest and most endearing thing imaginable.

And the conversations you hear on the bus are priceless. I remember hearing one couple speculating about a lurid-sounding movie called “Adopted to Die”, a poster for which they had spotted out the bus window, and which they assumed was a thriller about a child adopted by murderous parents – until they realised that the title was actually Addicted to Love, and that they had brainstormed a blockbuster together in a matter of seconds. Only on the bus. – Yours, etc,

MAOLSHEACHLANN O CEALLAIGH,

Sillogue Gardens,

Ballymun,

Dublin 11.


Now I read over it again, I feel bad for having accused the previous correspondent of disliking her fellow human beings. Her letter was written in a light vein and didn't deserve such an accusation, which I didn't seriously mean (as I, too, meant my response to be rather lighthearted, though I was also trying to make a fairly serious point).

In the unlikely event that you are reading this, Grace Egan, I am sorry for my harsh words. I meant nothing personal.

Dirty Talk

I went to see Lincoln at the weekend. It was a pretty good film, although it was also the kind of film that doesn't leave much of an impression in your mind besides, "Gee, that was a pretty good film".

I saw it in the Santry Omniplex, my cinematic Mecca. It was showing in Screen One, which is a cavernous auditorium. (By the way, what is the correct term for the individual screening rooms within a cinema? I've found myself struggling with this a dozen times at least. "Auditorium" sounds awkward, as does "screening room", "theatre", and "cinema" itself.)

Screen One is the only auditorium in the Omniplex that doesn't open onto the lobby of the cinema. Instead, you enter through a long recessed corridor. This actually adds an extra sense of occasion to the sort of big films that would be showing on Screen One. The walls of this corridor are lined with movie posters, mostly for upcoming movies, and I like to stroll along this corridor when I am waiting for a movie to start. (I am chronically early for everything.)

I love movie posters. Many movie posters are genuine works of art. Even the less inspired ones are usually pleasing to look at, since they usually seek to convey excitement, awe, grandeur and other stirring emotions.

This time, however, I was brought up short in my pleasant little survey when I came to the poster of a film called This is 40. Obviously seeking to convey the disillusionment of middle age and a marriage in the doldrums, it shows a bathroom in which a woman is in the foreground brushing her teeth, while a sullen-looking man is pictured behind her-- sitting on the toilet, his trousers around his ankles.

Maybe I am very repressed and overly-squeamish about bodily functions. But I find this kind of thing highly offensive.

Human nature is a funny thing. It's well known that toilets did not appear on the television screen until very recently. (In the nineteen-fifties the American comedy show Leave it to Beaver was pushing the boat out by even showing a toilet cistern.) Shakespeare and Chaucer were quite happy to indulge their scatalogical tendencies, but by the time television and cinema had been invented, it seemed the English-speaking world had decided our eliminative functions were taboo. (I'm no cultural historian, but this seems a fair enough summary to me.) The point I'm trying to make is that I don't think television and movies would have eschewed all reference to toilets or using toilets for such a long time unless there was a general social agreement that this was good manners. My guess is that people didn't want this aspect of human nature dwelt upon, or even mentioned, in their entertainments.

Obviously, that has changed now. I fervently wish it hadn't, and I wonder why it did. Some taboos make a lot of sense.

Everybody finds the eliminative functions unpleasant. That is why they are performed in private. As well as this, there is very little dramatic potential in them. You can tell 99.9999 per cent of stories without any reference to the "smallest room". After all, story-telling is always selective and it nearly always leaves out the duller, more routine, less remarkable aspects of life. We spend a third of our existence sleeping but this colossal slice of life is all but ignored when it comes to movies, novels, biographies and histories.

Now, leaving aside the matter of the "fine" arts-- which seem increasingly devoted to shocking and unsettling and disturbing those who purvey them-- I think it is fair to say that entertainment is supposed to give us pleasure. Movies are supposed to please us, at minimum, and hopefully to inspire and instruct us as well. And movie posters, surely, should do the same.

So why make a movie poster that makes me gag?

Nor do I understand why so many people, today, are willing to use curse-words and slang-words that refer to defecation-- and not only in the heat of emotion, or in earthy company, but in the most casual fashion and in almost any social situation. Anthony Burgess, in his book A Mouthful of Air, admitted that this widespread practice made him wince, and guessed that users of the "sh-word" and "cr-word" simply no longer retained any mental association between those expletives and what they originally described.

I'm not so sure of that. But either way, it seems a very odd thing to do.

Look at it this way. Most people spend a lot of time and energy making themselves presentable. They shower, wash, launder, spray, comb, pluck, brush and trim. Sometimes they even wax and exfoliate. The list of creams, ointments, gels and other products to assist us look as clean and neat as possible seem to grow all the time-- as do the anxieties (assisted by advertisers) that we might have overlooked something, that we might have White Marks on our clothes, that our skin might be shining (in a bad way) or that our hair might looked "tired".

And yet, after going to all this trouble to present an impression of impeccable cleanliness, people are willing to use language that conjures up the foulest associations possible. Why not make the tiny amount of effort needed to keep one's language clean, too? Do they want others to be put in mind of excreta when they listen to their conversation?

Call me prissy, but I don't get it. Just like I don't get that nauseating movie poster, or why someone thought it was a good idea, and somebody else gave it the green light.

Monday, January 28, 2013

No Religious Believer Was Ever Really an Atheist, Right?

It's just a rhetorical strategy, like the conspiracy theorist who insists he began researching UFO's or the JFK assasination as a "complete sceptic". Nobody could travel from atheism to religious belief in good faith, right?

Well, I think that's nonsense. I myself spent a long time hovering between atheism and agnosticism before finally becoming convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith. I am perfectly willing to admit that I was always predisposed towards religious belief. But if that was decisive, why shouldn't I have been a believer all along?

Anyway, today I came across an email I sent to an agnostic called Mark Vernon, who sometimes writes for The Guardian, and who was formerly a Church of England priest. It was in response to a post entitled "Common Mistake Atheists Make", which I cannot find now, and it is dated October 7th 2007:

Dear Mark

I have just read your post, "Common Mistakes Atheists Make". I am currently pondering the question of God's existence (I will probably end up an agnostic like you), and I thought your post was very good, but I did find this paragraph a bit shaky:

Another reason why I think God will always be an open question is that any perception of God someone claimed to have would always be indistinguishable from some natural experience. We are finite, so our sense of the infinite will always be limited to suggestions within the finite world: it is simply impossible for us to experience the infinite directly. So with God - if God should exist. God is wholly other, as the theologians put it.


While it's true that any experience of God would have to be mediated through our senses, and would thus be in their fundamental nature indistinguishable from natural experiences, surely the question of explicability and probability rears its head here. The Christian God is supposed to intervene (or to have intervened at certain times) in our physical reality. But atheists can rightly point out that nothing resembling a miracle or a supernatural event has been reliably recorded. Your argument would only be sound if a divine experience would, by necessity, have to conform to our accepted natural laws as well as be apprehended through our faculties. Surely this isn't the case?

Or, to put it more simply, an angel appearing in Trafalgar Square would be pretty compelling evidence for God's existence.

I may be misunderstanding your argument, however. Many thanks for your interesting post

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh


Mr. Vernon was kind enough to reply, which I won't share as I always feel iffy about publishing emails sent to me without permission.

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that I do believe that a person can become a religious believer from a non-religious position in good faith, since I did so myself. Of course, I could have simply fabricated the email, but you'll just have to take my word on that.

(As for my argument in the email-- I suppose it rested on the belief that God, if He existed and sought mankind to believe He existed, should provide some inarguable evidence, like an angel appearing in Trafalgar Square on camera. I no longer find this argument at all convincing, and indeed, I find it rather shoddy. How would there be any room for faith if God made His existence indisputable to even the most stubborn sceptic?)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Figure on the Shore

What is it about the image of a silhouetted figure on a lonely shore that is so powerful?

It could be called a cliché, except I think a cliché is just a rude term for an image or an idea that is so universally appealing, we can't really avoid it. Time and time again, directors and scriptwriters and painters and novelists turn to that solitary figure walking along the coast, as though it expresses something that no words or concepts can express.

It seems that there are some emotions, some yearnings that can't be put into words, that require an image or an embodiment to evoke them.

There are other images that seem to express this same atmosphere, this same territory of the soul. Men leaning over bridges and staring into the waters beneath. Or somebody sitting in front of a fire and contemplating the flickering of its flames. Or somebody walking through a deserted classroom or cinema or stadium and savouring its silence, its ghostly sense of presence.

When somebody says, "I need to think", and then promptly goes for a long walk, we don't make the mistake of thinking that person is referring to problem-solving or decision-making or mental gymnastics of any kind. "Thinking" in this context, we know, is a matter of the emotions as much as the intellect-- perhaps more a matter of the emotions than the intellect. And we know that what is happening inside that person, at that time, could not be described in conceptual terms, or using a flow-chart.

What are these strange needs that exist in the human psyche? The need to eat and breathe and sleep require no explanation, but then there are all the other human needs-- or, if the term "need" is too strong, the human yearnings.

Why do we yearn for such intangible things as a connection to our past? A sense of community? A desire for ritual and ceremony? A need for a sense of identity? A need for a sense of direction? A yearning for belonging and security? Contrariwise, a craving for independence and adventure? What need is it (and if it is not a need, it is something very close to a need) that is satisfied by telling and hearing stories? How is it that women and men have a deep urge to express their femininity and masculinity?

I love to think of these urges and drives within the human soul, because they seem like such clear evidence against all sorts of reductionism-- biological reductionism, economic reductionism, libidinal reductionism, political reductionism. They give the lie to every cynic who claims that money or power or sex is the beating heart of society. From the plurality of human yearnings, it is obvious that none of these things are the be-all and end-all of human fulfilment. It is obvious, too, that attempts to plot a hierarcy of human needs-- like Abraham Maslow's famous pyramid-- are interesting but futile. The glory of man is to mystify social scientists.

What is interesting to me is that it is not only individuals but whole societies that have these deeper needs. Why was there a Romantic movement in the eighteenth century? What was it in the collective soul that rebelled against the pellucid perfections of the Enlightenment, after having been apparently satisfied with it for so long? Why did nationalism grip Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and fade away (in most of it) in more recent decades? Why does horror cinema seem to enjoy a brief resurgence every decade or so? Why do we seem content with an almost entirely commercialized society now?

What is the individual and the collective seeking, in all these twistings and turnings? Balance? Wholeness? But the problem is that even to name such an ideal is to limit us. The Hellenistic ideal of "moderation in all things" and "mens sana in corpore sano", which might seem to be the goal we are striving for, is itself a particular ideal. It leaves no place for self-abandonment and baroque excess, for instance.

The kind of balance and wholeness we seek doesn't seem to be one that can ever be achieved in a single lifetime, or in a single historical period, or by a particular life philosophy. Whenever we seek to balance the equation, something seems to be left out; in fact, almost everything seems to be left out. Or, as one ancient text put it: The tao that can be named is not the true tao.

I am left with the solitary figure walking along the sea-shore. I am so very attached to that figure. He is a reproach to all ideologues, all cynics, all who would seek to simplify the human condition.

Living and Loving with Cancer by Fanahan McSweeney

Living and Loving with Cancer
Fanahan McSweeney
Quill Print, 1994


Many years ago now, my father-- who is a gushing torrrent of wonderful and sometimes wacky schemes-- had the idea of starting up a bookshop. I still nurture something of a pang that it never came to pass. We never really got much further than acquiring some stock, in the form of donations of books. (I can't remember who they were from; hopefully organizations that were just trying to get rid of them.) Our shelves at home already had a pretty eclectic mix of books (I've always puzzled over who acquired Portugese Africa and the West, and how, and why), but this influx of volumes took it onto a whole new level. After these donations arrived, there was no title so odd or so niche but that might be nestling on the shelves somewhere. (The gem of the collection, in terms of sheer weirdness and obscurity, is definitely Canoe-Building in Glass Reinforced Plastic.)

There is nothing weird about Living and Loving with Cancer, of course, but it is the kind of book that I doubt I would have come across in the normal run of things. It caught my eye all those years ago (more than fifteen, easily) but it only ever occurred to me to read it this month. It is a memoir of a struggle with cancer written by Fanahan McSweeney, an Olympic-level Irish sprinter. Sadly, the author died the year after it was published (a fact I only learned when I checked on the internet while reading it). Happily, I also know from reading The Irish Times archive that the book had been a success in his lifetime, and that he even had feelers from poliical parties to stand as a candidate, as a result of its publication.

I think it was the word "loving" that caught my attention in the title; that, and the picture of the author with his wife and two sons gathered around him. I found that both of these evoked a very humanistic atmosphere. (Humanism is a strange term. Today it is often used as a synonym for "atheism", but of course, there is no necessary connection. It seems to contain a whole range of other meanings; humanitarianism, optimism, a belief in human dignity, a belief in human specialness, respect for other cultures, respect for the liberal arts, a suspicion of technocracy, and more.)

McSweeney began to write this book simply as a personal exercise, and was only persudaded by friends to make it public. It is written in a very direct, compelling, dramatic style. He does not hide the terror that his predicament caused him. Very often memoirs like this are lauded as being "unsentimental" and without "self-pity". But this is an honestly written book and such dubious compliments would not apply. Who on earth would be entirely without self-pity or sentimentality faced with an untimely separation from everything they loved? What also shines very clearly from the text, however, is the determination, cheerfulness and courage with which McSeeney faced his tribulations. We also witness the camaraderie of hospital patients and the patience, kindness and humour of nurses.

One irony of the book is that McSweeney's cancer is diagnosed in Cork Regional Hospital, a hospital he worked on as resident engineer, and whose every nook and cranny was well-known to him though he had never been a patient there.

When he does learn that a pain in his back is caused by a tumour in the spine, and that it is malignant, his reaction is (I suppose) the reaction most of us would have:

"I lay still for some time in the most stupefied trance imaginable. Hundreds and thousands of thoughts rushed through my mind. "I'm dead! Jesus, I have malignant cancer! I'm going to die! It has to be true-- there is no way my vetrebrae would have collapsed if my cancer wasn't malignant. It must surely have spread to all my bones...there's no way out! I can see it all now-- I'm the stiff in the timber overcoat. There is Fr. Andy, dressed in black, doing the honours. What am I going to do?"

Fr. Andy was the name of McSweeney's best friend, Fr. Andy Sheehan, a colourful young priest who was one of the stars of The Holy Show, a charity-raising singing troupe. Fr. Andy, tragically, himself dies of cancer of the colon in the course of the book's narrative.

This was Fr. Andy's initial reaction to McSweeney's diagnosis:

"Listen to me; as soon as you get up there, get on to Elvis, Jim Reeves, John Lennon, and all the friends we know, and in a very short time we all will be up there with you, and we'll have the hell of a party-- I mean the heaven of a party". He exploded with laughter, then cleverly steered the conversation to the carefree days we had spent on holidays in many and diverse parts of the word."

(This seems to me to be a very typical picture of Irish life and Irish Catholicism in the eighties, both the good-- the still unshaken, easy faith in the spiritual world and in Christianity-- and the bad-- the rather glib and cartoony attitude to the next world. Still, here was a priest talking to a dear friend facing death. Let me not be too hard. I should also mention that Fr. Sheehan proves the staunchest of friends to the author, visiting him every day in hospital and keeping his spirits up with his buoyant conversation. Despite the priest's usual jovial, hearty manner, McSweeney at one point notices that a complete transformation came over Fr. Sheehan when he celebrated Mass, at which time he became utterly solemn and serious.)

But this is a love story as well as a thriller. By complete chance, McSweeney is visited by a woman called Julie, a woman with whom he had once arranged a date, but a date which Fate-- in the form of a spells of Bell's Palsy's, a temporary palsy of the facial muscles-- had cancelled. Since he had cancelled the date over the phone, Julie had assumed that her admirer had simply thought better of meeting her and was making excuses. And the author-- never having so much as learned the name of the woman he had been so taken with-- had never seen her again, until she wandered by chance into his hospital ward.

The story of their love is a remarkable one. Although Fanahan McSweeney was warned by his doctors, even after his recovery from the worst ravages of the cancer, that his chances of survival were no better than fifty-fifty at most, he eventually proposed to Julie and they had two sons together. I found myself, reading this account, wondering why men and women seem so different in this regard. You rarely hear about men falling in love with and marrying women who are terminally ill or otherwise undergoing some deep affliction. I'm sure it happens, but it doesn't seem to happen nearly as much as with women. How are women so open to falling in love with men at the very nadir of their fortunes?

McSweeney's intitial dire prognosis turns out to be wide of the mark, but he is not off the hook. His life becomes a round of hospital visits, tests, chemotherapy, wheelchairs, rotating beds, nurses, waiting rooms, physiotherapy, neigbhours making dinner for him, and all the ills and consolations well-known to the seriously and chronically sick.

What I found especially touching about the memoir was the solidarity shown amongst the patients, and the sense of humanity and fun that patients and nurses and visitors cling onto despite the grimness of the situation. Passages like this one moved me:

"My first day back at St. Luke's was also my birthday. As the lights were dimmed that night I got a wonderful surprise: I was awaiting my painkillers and sleeping pills when the huge room began to brighten from the light of more than 30 candles. The nurses, who had bought a large, iced cake, began to sing Happy Birthday. I was amazed and delighted. After the singing and the blowing out of candles, the cake was sliced and ditributed to my forty or so room-mates. All joined in the singing and the congratulations."


McSweeney's illness makes him more conscious of the beauty of God's creation:

"Every morning when I opened my eyes, I personally thanked the Good Lord Himself for placing the sun back up in the sky. The blossoming flowers, the leafy trees, the singing birds, everything that was pure and wholesome, was part of the living God. God became so real and present that I sometimes doubted my own sanity. But the evidence was so overwhelming that I decided to enjoy every second of life that remained in me. It was truly great to be alive."


His dying friend, Father Sheahan, enjoy the same snse of revelation when leaving his hospital bed to enjoy the air for a brief few moments:

"Very quickly, he perked up and became positively entranced with his surroundings. 'Look at those flowers! Did you ever see anything so beautiful? And the trees-- aren't they magnificent? Do you hear that bird sing? Oh, my God, I've never experienced anything like this before! It's like being in the Garden of Paradise.

His astonishing rejuvenation moved me as nothing had ever done before. I felt as much in a trance as he. 'Everywhere around us, all the time, is the Garden of Paradise', I pontificated. 'But we rarely if ever appreciate it. In fact, that very blackbird there could easily be the Good Lord Jesus Himself in disguise, trying to tell us something.' "

Unfortunately, this sense of the wonder of life wasn't enough to keep the author attending Mass, proof that emotions are never enough when it comes to the spiritual life:

"Strangely, though, religious observance began to play a lesser role in my life. Attendance at Sunday Mass appeared less obligatory and urgent than it did when I was first stricken. Living each day to the full, seeing beauty in every created thing every God-given moment, was now much more important. God's presence was tangible everywhere. Reducing it to an hour on Sunday morning's seemed to be sadly limiting. This new and ever-present God was my kind of God."


I don't agree with that-- just because God is ever-present, it doesn't mean we shouldn't have special times and seasons in which to intensify our worship of Him. It is for our benefit, not His.

Still, this is an inspiring and spiritually uplifting memoir, and a testament to the nobility and bravery of its author. Ever since reading it, I have found myself making more of an effort to appreciate the beauty and wonder all around me, in every tree and every blade of grass and even in every mouthful of air that fills my lungs.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I Don't Care About This

So Catholics are still debarred from holding the throne of England. Big deal.

If this restriction were removed, it could only be because the Church of England ceased to be the established church, or the monarch ceased to be the head of the Church of England. I don't think either of those would be good things. I think it is good that England retains an established church, one of its very few vestiges of a great historical Christian civilization. And I am a monarchist to the marrow.

Yes, the English Reformation was a disaster. But it is better that England retains an established Christian church than otherwise. Perhaps it makes little practical difference, but it is at least a link with the nation's past.

Nobody would really care if a nominal Christian of whatever denomination ascended the throne. However, plenty of people would be upset if a convinced Christian of any denomination became King or Queen. (Of course, Queen Elizabeth II is just such a convinced Christian. I am talking about the future.)

I think Catholics would be wrong to make an issue of this. Why ally with the forces of "anti-discrimination", in the crude way that idea is currently construed? The eligibility of Catholics to the English throne would not come about through religious tolerance, but religious indifference. And that's not the right way for it to happen.

When Joined-Up Thinking Just Isn't Enough...

...what you really need is joined-up thinking outside the box.

Friday, January 25, 2013

In America, a conservative...

...is somebody who is ferociously loyal to the Revolution-- the American Revolution, that is.

(I'm not picking on American conservatism, by the way. I think all conservatism is riddled with contradictions and paradoxes-- and that the same applies to all liberalism.)

A Fine Summary of Social Conservatism by Peter Hitchens

...given in an interview to a Maltese newspaper, which can be found here. (He was born in Malta.)

He says:

My conservatism is not political, but social, moral and cultural. I think many old things are old because they are good – cathedrals, the music of J.S. Bach, the Old Masters, Shakespeare, all these are incomparably better than the trash, or second-rate stuff which now infests music, architecture, literature and painting.

I hate to see trees cut down, and find it hard to imagine what sort of person could imagine he has the right to destroy such a wonderful thing, which has taken so long to grow and can never be replaced. The same is often true of customs and virtues.

I am against anybody who would want to turn the world into a bare, treeless, concrete wasteland in which we all slaved in call-centres and sweatshops, travelling at the end of a weary day to cramped homes in which we gazed blankly at screens and consumed denatured foodstuffs, while our children were brought up (and indoctrinated in ideas that we do not share) by paid strangers. A ‘liberalism’ which destroys private life and cares nothing for beauty or tradition is just barbaric.

But I am for and alongside anyone who defends the freedoms of speech, thought and assembly, and the idea that, be ye never so high, the law is above you. These are the gifts that England gave to the whole world, and which it is now busy throwing away. I’m liberal as anything about them.


He pretty much speaks for me in this, though I don't have much of a taste for cathedrals or Bach. (I enjoy rock and pop music but I try not to listen to it because I know it is barbaric and my taste is a degenerate and corrupted one.)

What I like especially is the concreteness of Hitchens's mini-manifesto. He can point to specific things that he likes and that he loathes, and tell us he wants to preserve the one and avoid the other. I can never warm to ideologues who stand by some crude principle like the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or the removal of all compulsion, or the elimination of prejudice and discrimination.

Hitchens gets it horribly wrong sometimes (in one of his American Conservative articles, he claims that dogma inevitably creates "doublethink", when dogma is the only thing that really prevents doublethink). But he is a national treasure.

(By the way, some people might see a contradiction between my penultimate paragraph and my final one. But there is no such contradiction. A dogma is not the same thing as an all-embracing principle which is ruthlessly applied to human life in all its richness and complexity. The Catholic dogma that you may never do evil to bring about good is an example of the former. The libertarian principle that all compulsion is evil is an example of the latter. The dogmas of the Church preserve freedom, while the ideologies of the world do the opposite, even when they are in fact aimed at maximizing freedom.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Father Tony Flannery...

...and his disciplining by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not a subject I am going to discuss any further on this blog. At this point, I see nothing in the subject but a temptation against charity for me.

A lot of traffic to this blog right now is through internet searches for "Tony Flannery" and related keywords. So I do feel called upon to say something; as little as possible.

I am literally unable to understand how the Assocation of Catholic Priests can reconcile their priestly vows and vocation with the agit-prop activities of their organization. I genuinely don't understand how they and their lay supporters can't see the contradiction and the futility inherent to their dissident views.

I am not calling them idiots, but I certainly think they are fulfilling the role of "useful idiots" that Lenin supposedly (and probably apocryphally) awarded to those naive Western liberals who defended the Soviet Union. The journalists and editors who write admiringly of the Association of Catholic Priests do not want to see reform in the Church. They want to see the Church (and Christianity) weakened and destroyed, and they very rightly see the ACP as a useful Trojan Horse to this end.

But then, anyone who reads even a handful of posts on this blog could guess my stance.

It is very easy to rebut the arguments of the ACP. Here two salient points:

1) They consistently appeal to the Second Vatican Council. I recommend anyone who finds the arguments of the ACP convincing to actually read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They offer little or no support to the dreams of these dissident clerics. Take, for instance, these words from Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution adopted at Vatican Two: "In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church". Do the ACP stand by that?

Those who appeal to the Second Vatican Council as a supposed justification for radical reform in the Church often try to get around the actual words in the actual documents by appealing to "the spirit of Vatican II". But a "spirit" can be whatever you want it to be.

2) They claim to seek radical reform in the Catholic Church as a means to halt the decline in Mass attendance, vocations, and so forth. The argument is that a Church which is more open and more accommodating to the spirit of the age will be more likely to flourish. However, the Church of England (for instance) has embraced pretty much all the reforms that the ACP urge on the Catholic Church-- female ordination, acceptance of contraception, liturgical modernization, and so forth-- but this has led to no revival in its fortunes. In fact, attendance at Church of England services has now fallen below attendance at Catholic Mass in England.

It is not liberal Christianity but evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity which is flourishing in Europe and America. And young, passionate Catholics are much more likely to be orthodox than liberal.

I will continue to pray that the members of the ACP have a change of heart. Apart from that, I am going to say no more about the current controversy.

The Reply I Got From Bank of Ireland....

...to my complaint that their branch service had become too mechanized and impersonal.

This was my email:

Today I went to the Montrose/Stillorgan branch of Bank of Ireland and I was not pleased with the change that had come over it. Instead of being dealt with by a person, I was ushered to a phone booth and asked to phone a customer service staff member. The staff member was very polite and helpful, but isn't our society dehumanized enough? I would much rather deal with a human being face-to-face, as I suspect would most people. Many thanks.

This was the reply:

Good Afternoon Mr O Ceallaigh

Thank you for contacting Bank of Ireland.

In response to your mail below, we are currently introducing new services in our branches which we hope will make banking more efficient for our customers.

We would like to thank you for your feedback. As always it is appreciated and we have forwarded it on to our Branch Network Team.

Regards

Laura

Contact Us Unit


Ironic seems hardly the word.

Out Clubbing Last Night

Last night I attended my first meeting of The Gothic Club, a group of horror fans who meet periodically to talk about horror books and films. (I won't tell you where we met, or who the other members are, in order to protect the anonymity of this most exclusive and exalted of Clubs.)

The story we had to discuss this week was an enigmatic tale called The Cicerones, by the English author Robert Aickman. As the story is set in a cathedral, and involves religious imagery and concepts, I found it of especial interest. In my remarks, I mentioned that I am "very much a Roman Catholic". I felt it was relevant. The story involves a tourist in a Belgian cathedral confronted by several strange and unearthly characters. Everyone else thought they were demons, while I felt more inclined to view them as angels offering grace to an imperilled soul.

I am very happy to become a member of a book club. I am always grouching about the modern world, but one very welcome development (in my opinion) is the recent proliferation of book clubs. I can hardly think of a better way people can spend their leisure time. What I like especially about the book club phenomenon is that it so democratic. All sorts of people (or so it appears to me) attend book clubs, and not just culture vultures.

The older I get, and the further I move from my school-days, the more fondly I remember English class. Attentively analysing a poem or a story of a passage of prose is, I think, a very civilized activity. I like the idea of writing being taken seriously in that way. (Of course, writing can be taken too seriously. The Joyce industry and the Yeats industry and the Dickens industry, and all the other literary-critical industries, seem hellbent on squeezing all the playfulness, spontaneity and joy out of the study of their chosen authors, and making a pseudo-science out of a liberal art. I am reminded of what Oscar Wilde said about Henry James: "He writes fiction as if it were a painful duty". Too many academics-- not all of them, of course-- seem to study fiction and poetry and drama as if it were a painful duty-- and it certainly becomes a painful duty for their readers and students.)

I also like book clubs because they are a counterweight to the depersonalizing currents in our society. Mobile phones, computers, television, call centres, internet shopping....more and more our interactions are with voices coming out of a piece of plastic or a name on a glowing screen, with people who might be on the other side of the world. The people we do encounter face-to-face tend to fall into two categories; work acquaintances, and family and friends. Work is purposeful and structured, while private life is the opposite (very often chaotically the opposite!). But I think something in us cries out for some form of human contact that combines the best of both realms; that has some purpose and procedure and format, but that is also voluntary and done for its own sake (unlike work).

My desire to belong to a book club was fed by seeing The Jane Austen Book Club last year, which I enjoyed more than I expected to. I'm afraid I've never been a fan of Miss Austen's works (my loss, I know), but I loved that the film took them so seriously. Of course I expected that the members of the club would have romances and dramas of their own, which would mirror the stories they were reading. But what surprised my was that the books themselves, and the act and joy of reading itself, was so prominent a theme. The book club was not simply a plot device. The only other film I've seen that takes reading so seriously is Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis biopic.

So I thank God for the rise of the book club phenomenon, and for leading me to the Gothic Club, and I hope both continue for a long time!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Continuing Dehumanization of Day-to-Day Life

I've always detested self-service machines in supermarkets, libraries and other places. (I admire Peter Hitchens for speaking out against them.) I've been an opponent of their increasing use in the library where I work-- they are pushed more and more, not as an alternative to a loans desk service, but as a replacement to one.

People always assume I am simply worried about my own job when I complain about them. Of course, I would rather be dealing with pleasant routine queries for the most part, rather than to be troubleshooting all the time and having to deal with upset and unhappy people (which is what tends to happen when machines take over all the more straightforward transactions).

But I have an entirely disinterested and principled detestation of self-service machines, too. I just think they make the world a worse place.

All this came into my head today because I went to the Bank of Ireland branch in Montrose. Up until recently they had a reception desk where there were usually two helpful and pleasant staff members.

Today I was ushered almost immediately into a chair with a telephone beside it and was served by a disembodied voice. The disembodied voice was very pleasant and helpful, but that's not the point.

I sent an email of complaint to Bank of Ireland, but what difference will it make? I imagine that only an organized, concerted campaign against this practice would have any effect at all. And I'm way oo lazy too spearhead that.

Stop it You're Hurting Me

Another breath-takingly illogical letter in The Irish Times today, from one Andrew Doyle:

Sir, – It seems we are splitting hairs over the abortion question. Debating whether an entity is a “bunch of cells” or a human being with full rights, or what constitutes a threat to life or health is still missing the point.

The anti-abortion promoters are about imposing their will on others who do not share their views and that is the bottom line.

Ouch.

How can it possibly be "missing the point" to argue over whether the unborn child is a "human being with full rights" if those rights include the right not to have your life taken away from you-- a pretty basic right, one would think? Surely the personhood of the unborn child is the crucial point? Surely the inevitable corollary of having rights is that society may intervene to uphold those rights?

It's a bit like saying, "Let's not get bogged down over who owns the purse. The point is that you want to stop me from snatching it out of this lady's handbag. What the heck business is it of yours?"

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I Really Like This Blog

Written by a Church of Ireland priest!

I've only scanned through it so far, but I really like the tone, the layout, the pictures, the typography, and especially the "Protect the Seal" ribbon ("An Issue for All Denominations", a caption rightly proclaims.)

I look forward to looking through it at my leisure.

Thanks to Hibernicus of the Irish Catholics' Forum for drawing my attention to it.

(Now I feel I've done my bit for ecumenism in the Week for Christian Unity.)

Maybe This is Unreasonable...

...but nothing gives me more of a sense that our society is decadent than Come Dine With Me.

Food is for eating, not for analyzing.

Monday, January 21, 2013

They're All Coming Out of the Woodwork Now

Letter from Pat Buckley in The Irish Times today:

Sir, – Twenty-six years ago they came for me and no one did anything. Today they have come for Fr Tony Flannery. Tomorrow they will come for you. – Yours, etc,

Bishop PAT BUCKLEY,

Larne, Co Antrim.

How do you fit so much self-pity, delusion of grandeur, paranoia and self-dramatization into two lines?

Yeah, I know. Charity. I know. On another day, I would probably not be so glib. But really-- "Tomorrow they will come for you?" What is that even supposed to mean? Does "Bishop" Buckley have images of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Muller (the new prefect of CDF) sneaking through a bedroom window in the middle of the night and pulling the unsuspecting reader out of bed feet first-- presumably to a torture chamber hidden under the bowels of the Vatican?

Wait, what's that noise....

Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!! Aaaaaahhhhh!!! Help! Help! Call Dan Brown! Call Patsy McGarry! Call Fr. Brian D'Arcy! Call somebody! You're next, reader! You're neeeeext.....(voice trails off into silence).

Books I'm Surprised Don't Exist #2

Crystal Balderdash: Three Hundred Years of Failed Futorology and Awful Augury.

Books I'm Surprised Don't Exist #1

The Bad Book: A Journey Through the Dark Side of the Bible.

Saying my Prayers

For me, prayer is a rather dry and mechanical exercise. Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes I get a spiritual wind in my sails, but mostly it is something I force myself to do because I know I should. I find it hard to concentrate while I'm praying, and I can't help looking forward to the next pleasurable or interesting part of the day. When I have finished, I feel relieved.

I would feel worse about this if C.S. Lewis hadn't confessed to exactly the same feelings in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

I never really prayed in my childhood or teens, so when I started practicing my faith a few years ago I was starting from scratch. I had no idea how to pray (maybe I still don't). But I came across some advice that the Catholic apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft gave to people in exactly this situation. His advice: "Just do it". So I did it.

John Waters (and again, for American readers I specify this is an Irish writer and not the American purveyor of high camp cinema) describes in his book Lapsed Agnostic how he began to pray while attending Alcoholics Anonymous. He found it so difficult to get to his knees that, on advice from somebody who had the same problem, he got into the position by imagining he was looking for a shoe underneath his bed.

Well, I had no such problem, nor did I understand that frame of mind. I leapt (so to speak) at the opportunity to kneel; there was a line that I loved from a W.B. Yeats poem that ran: "My medieval knees lack health until they bend." I had always thought that the sight of somebody praying was one of the most beautiful sights imaginable. As a child, I had a picture on my wall of a little boy in blue pyjamas kneeling in prayer, his teddy bear alongside him. I loved that picture.

However, admiring the picturesque prospect of other people praying was a different thing from praying myself.

I acquired a set of rosary beads and began to use them. It took me a while to learn the mysteries; I had to keep referring to a little crib-sheet, for a while. I had my favourite mysteries and my least favourite mysteries. I liked the Annunciation, since the words "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word" appealed to me as perhaps the most gracious and beautiful words ever spoken. What could be further from all our modern philosophies of self-assertion, pride and anger?

Of course I liked the Third Joyful Mystery, the Nativity. When I prayed it, I always found myself picturing the clear stars shining in the cold night sky. That seemed to give the picture a sense of reality and freshness and vividness. It only occurs to me now that my little Nativity scene should probably have been set indoors, but in my mind there was always an open sky visible above the crib-like roof of the manger, as though I was standing outside looking in.

But my favourite mystery of the rosary was the Third Glorious Mystery, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. I liked the sense of togetherness. I liked imagining all the disciples together with Mary, the entire Church present in embryo form. I liked imagining the mighty wind that blew, shaking the timbers of the upper room (I have always loved strong winds). I liked the idea of the tongues of fire shooting out to everybody present. I liked the image of the dove beating its wings above the newborn Church, even though this is not mentioned in Scripture.

I have never seen a picture of the Descent of the Holy Spirit that satisfied me. Sometimes I have thought about taking up painting myself, just so I could try my own hand at rendering it with all the awe and otherworldliness I feel it deserves.

I struggled with other mysteries of the rosary. The Sorrowful Mysteries were, of course, never pleasant to meditate upon; especially because I thought they should upset me more than they did. When it came to the Glorious Mysteries, I found the Ascension of Christ very difficult to picture without feeling a sense of ridiculousness. And both the Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady baffled me. I simply can't picture Heaven, or even an allegory of Heaven.

But I got into the habit of praying the rosary daily (snapping several sets of rosary beads in the process). I prayed for my intentions at the end of the rosary-- I forget what they usually were now.

I was determined to say the rosary every day. Sometimes I found myself saying it in the café of Cineworld in Parnell Square, before a movie. I tried to be neither ostentatious nor abashed about it. Funnily enough, for someone so ridiculously self-conscious in social situations, praying in public doesn't embarrass me. (Of course I am conscious of our Lord's words about praying in public; but it seems to me that, today, public prayer is more a witness to society than an attempt to win its approval.)

My list of intentions grew longer and longer and eventually I came to dread my daily rosary. I didn't like this. I could see that a sacrifice of time and inclination might be pleasing to God, but surely I shouldn't be dragged down by my daily prayers to such an extent as I was. After much internal debate, I dropped my daily rosary and prayed my intentions on their own instead. Today, I rarely pray the rosary; when I do, it is usually with my fianceé.

I have a pretty standard routine of prayers and intentions. I begin with a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, though I'm sure a Latinist would titter at my pronunciation (learned from Youtube). The daily Ave Maria is to my mother's memory. I pray for Michelle and for our future together. I pray for my beloved father, giving thanks for every day spent with him and asking God to give him many years to come, and for him to retain his mental and physical faculties to the (hopefully distant) end.

I pray for my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, trying to think of a specific intention for each person rather than simply going through a list of names. I pray for the dead; there are maybe ten or twelve names on the list that never change, along with other names that do change from day to day.

I pray for vocations to the priesthood in Ireland, every day. I pray for the Catholic Church all over the world, every day; each day I pick particular national churches to pray for, almost like spinning a globe and stopping on random spots. I pray for Christian unity and the souls in Purgatory and give thanks to my guardian angel.

Then there are the intentions that I happen to think of on the day; prayers for the victims of the latest disaster or war zone, prayers for someone who has been having troubles lately, a prayer for someone in my past who might pop into my head out of the blue. I pray for the people who will be born that day, and the people who will die that day. (I sometimes even pray for you and gives thanks for you, oh Gentle Reader.)

There is one practice I've taken up quite recently, which does actually give me pleasure. I pray (not by name but generically) for everyone who I knew in my primary school, for everyone I knew in my secondary school, for everyone I knew in college, and for everyone I knew in the FÁS training course I did after college. I enjoy this daily recapitulation of my life. I think it is all-too-easy to lose touch with the strata of our experience; now, for a few seconds each day, I find myself taking a mini-oddyssey through all the sights and sounds and atmospheres that were my daily reality for years or months of my life.

All in all, my daily prayers rarely take more that fifteen minutes to say.

I do think it is important to choose a particular time and place to pray, if at all possible, and not simply to pray as you are walking around the supermarket or lying in bed. (Although I sometimes pray in bed when I'm tired, sick or cold.) I try to pray before the Blessed Sacrament if I possibly can. On weekdays, this usually means praying in the UCD Church. I can't pretend that I ever really go to prayers eagerly, but kneeling in the pleasant and peaceful surrounding of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and listening to the sounds of the campus around me, does give me a certain amount of pleasure.

Other times, I pray in the oratory in the Ilac Shopping Centre in Dublin City Centre, or sometimes (when in Ballymun) I even walk to Our Lady of Dolours Church in Glasnevin, which is open all day. If I pray at home, I pray before a little mounted statuette of Christ crucified and a statuette of Our Lady. I light a candle if I can find the lighter.

When I was making my way to accepting Christianity, I spent a lot of time fretting about petitionary prayer, and whether it had anything going for it. Surely Christians were simply ignoring their own failed petitions, and also ignoring Christ's words when he told them they would receive whatever they prayed for if they believed? (Of course, I simply assumed that prayers weren't really answered. If they were, surely some experiment or study would have proved that they were by now?)

I never worry about this anymore. I don't make a running count of my answered prayers and my unanswered prayers-- partly because I don't think it's really possible to categorize them so easily.

Rationalists would say that, having opted to believe in Christianity, I have let my God off the hook.

Of course, I don't think that's the case. In fact, the more I pray, the more I feel I have actually been praying-- or sort of praying-- all my life. Doesn't everybody, every day, find themselves addressing some vague Providence with their wishes and fears? I am sure that there is no sceptic so sceptical but that he finds himself muttering "Please turn green" at the traffic lights when he is a desperate hurry. This is simply a quirk of illogic, the sceptic might insist. But I prefer to think of it as an ineradicable element of the human condition-- because it is based on an underlying cosmic reality.

Even a rationalist like Carl Sagan was enthusiastic for sending radio signals and time capsules into space, in the hope that there might be an intelligence out there sufficiently advanced to intercept and decipher them. Doesn't it make sense that there might be an Intelligence out there so vast that it doesn't need to bother with encryptions and signals?

I don't actually remember any time when I didn't feel that a benevolent force was watching over me, and over all of us. Of course, I have felt misused, and uniquely unhappy, and left out, and that I was the most miserable person in the world, and that nothing would come right for me-- like every other human being in existence. But all the time, underneath all the angst, it seemed to me that good things happened far more often than bad things, that life was always springing up happy surprises, and that the things we fretted about rarely came to pass. Even the worst human life seemed to contain a lot of happiness, and even when terrible things did happen to people, I couldn't help but feel that these awful occurrences were a drama full of tragedy and mysterious meaning, rather than a pointless and empty incident.

So I don't need some kind of empirical proof that petitionary prayer works; I think my prayers are mostly answered before I even make them. And I don't expect prayer to be a kind of bubblegum machine where I put in a "Hail Mary", pull the handle, and out comes a favour from Heaven. Even watching Bruce Almighty should make anybody realize how well that would work-- and a God that is no more than a performing monkey isn't a very inspiring God, anyway.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I'm Not Even Going to Say Anything...

...about this.

What's the point? What is there to say? What don't they get? If twenty centuries of Christian history-- including hundreds of extinct Christian sects, five centuries of Reformed Christianity fragmenting into ever more denominations and drifting further and further from anything Luther or Calvin would ever recognize, and a couple of centuries of utterly sterile liberal Christianity-- well, if all that isn't enough to demonstrate how this kind of game ends, how long could the lesson possibly take to sink in?

How can anyone possibly not understand that heresy is a dead end after so many demonstrations of the fact?

Ahhhhh!!! It makes my head hurt!

(Metaphorically. I've never had a headache in my life. And I guess I did say something after all.)

Little Towns in Connacht

Ballyporeen. Kanturk. Nobber. Borris. Trim. Monageer. Drumcondra. Cloone. Cullenstown. Skreen.

No, not all little towns in Connacht. My post title comes from that haunting poem by Patrick Pearse, "The Wayfarer":

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun...
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.

It occurred to me today that my own sense of patriotism, and of Irishness, is often sparked especially by hearing or reading the names of little towns or villages (or simply places) in Ireland-- most of all the names of places that are not especially storied, picturesque or notable in any way. They catch me off-guard. The very lack of associations or renown attached to their name, somehow, gives them a certain poetry, a certain lightness. Nothing ever seems more exciting to me than the ordinary. And the true essence of Ireland, I imagine, must lie in the ordinary Irish places that have no ancient monasteries, no famous festivals, no world-renowned flora and fauna.

Patriotism is something I think about a lot. Some people make a religion out of it. Sometimes a whole population will make it the focus of their entire existence. People are willing to die, kill and devote their entire lives to it.

At other times, and for other people, patriotism seems to be completely irrelevant, or even something to be opposed. "Insularism" and "provincialism" become evils to be avoided.

Most people's attitude towards patriotism and love of country seems to be an intriguing mixture of all the above. Well, intriguing and (for a literal-minded person like me) sometimes exasperating.

This seems to me to be a fair description of a particular Irish person's attitude to patriotism.

When Ireland are doing well in rugby, soccer or some other sport he becomes enthralled by it. He is willing to turn out and cheer in the freezing cold to greet sporting heroes returning from the scenes of their triumphs. He can become furiously angry if a referee cheats Ireland of a win. However, he loses interest in the team when they cease to be successful.

He reveres the memory of Irish patriots like Patrick Pearse, Robert Emmet and Michael Collins, and can become quite heated about the history of Britain's occupation of Ireland. He vaguely identifies with the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. He is disgusted at all the bombings and shootings that took place during The Troubles (and since then), whether they were carried out by republicans or loyalists. But he seems to view the 1981 hunger strikers like Bobby Sands as noble figures (even though they were members of the IRA).

He becomes upset when famous Irish actors, musicians and TV presenters are called British rather than Irish.

He is in favour of the Irish language but never speaks it or makes any effort to learn it. He is, however, rather apologetic about this.

If he works abroad for a period of time, he becomes quite sentimental about Ireland and hankers for products like Club Orange and Tayto crisps, which are only available in Ireland.

If he is from Dublin or another town or city, he can be fiercely proud of his Irishness while being dismissive of "culchies" (people from rural areas). Brendan Behan is an example of this. It doesn't seem to occur to him that the traditions and folkways of Ireland might be stronger in rural areas than in cities, which always tend to be more cosmopolitian and rootless, and that this might be a reason to cherish rural life.

He is proud of Irish traditions, from ceillidhs to Aran sweaters to hurling to Wren Boys, but he also tends to complain about whatever he considers to be "outdated" or "behind the times". He seems to see no contradiction in this.

He tends to see the Catholic Church as being a part of his national heritage, and to consider himself Catholic, even if he rarely goes to Mass and pays no attention to its teaching on transubstantiation or lying or contraception. In fact, he might be a "cultural Catholic" even if he is an atheist.

As for me, my attitude towards patriotism and nationalism (because yes, I am a cultural nationalist) are not all that clear or definite either. Most of all I wonder what investment of time and effort my cultural nationalism deserves. Should I work on improving my Irish, speaking it, learning more about Irish history and Irish mythology and so on?

Or would that be taking time from more important things, like the study of the Bible and the Church Fathers and the lives of the saints-- or from reading poetry and novels and history and improving my mind in general?

I don't know. But I do know that when I'm listening to the news or reading a magazine article, and I come across a name like Ballintubber or Toomevara, my heart gives a little leap.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pro-Life Rally in Merrion Square

I am not a natural marcher or protestor or rally attender. I feel more than faintly ridiculous chanting, cheering, and waving a sign. In fact, I have only attended three protests in my entire life-- one was a protest against the building of a motorway past the Hill of Tara (the "spiritual capital" of ancient Ireland), which was way back in 2007, and the other two were today's pro-life march and another a few weeks ago.

The whole thing was very smoothly and slickly organized. Stewards were well-positioned and helpful, huge amounts of printed signs and of candles were handed out, and buses were organized to bring protestors to the event. The good side of this was that the rally is well-organized and civil, and that the posters were not inflammatory or nutty. (There were a few nutty posters at the back, though.) The bad side is that the pro-abortion advocates can say (and are saying, very loudly) that the whole thing was made possible by funds from America.

No matter how much funding you may get from abroad, you still need people to turn up on the day. And they did. The gardai estimated there were about 25, 000 people there. (I am awful at estimating numbers so I don't know how accurate that might be.)

I didn't take a sign or a candle, and then I felt bad because the master of ceremonies emphasized that everyone should have one-- and I could see the logic of that. So I spent a good deal of the protest edging towards the back of the crowd, where they were still available, while trying to avoiding looking like I was abandoning the event early on. In the end, I never did get a poster or a candle or a badge, but I did applaud visibly as often as possible, my hands high in the air, in case any camera came my way.

There was a "roving" camera crew going amongst the protestors, and conducting short interviews, which were broadcast on the two huge monitors that had been set up. One of the interviewees-- or rather, the husband of one of the interviewees-- was a fellow who'd been in my class in school. He was the most cynical of the cynical back then. Now he was a paterfamilias with one child sitting on his shoulders and the others huddled around him. It was nice to see.

I was impressed with the amount of young people that were there-- there were certainly a lot of elderly people, but by no means a preponderance. And there were certainly as many women as men, despite the propoganda that the pro-life cause is anti-women.

Everybody seemed very normal, too. People laughed and chatted and made phone calls and wore ordinary clothes and apologized when they bumped into each other. The women present did not look like long-suffering, cowed housewives who had been dragged away from the sink long enough to register their presence. It was not a throng of glaring, ruthlessly focused, otherworldly fanatics.

The speakers gave the troops what they came for. It struck me that a rally is a show of strength and it doesn't much matter what is said. Besides, what more is there to say on this subject that has not been said? But one of the speakers did say something that I thought was a rather original and powerful point. Caroline Simons of the Pro Life Campaign took a fact that might be demoralising-- that Ireland is something of a "hold-out" in terms of the right to life, and that the current tide of Western history seems to be in the opposite direction-- and turned it into an encouragement. She argued that, if Ireland was in fact to end up as the last bastion of the protection of life from conception to natural death, it would play an invaluable role in tomorrow's world.

There was undoubtedly a strong sense of anger towards the Irish media. One placard read "RTE is Anti-Catholic". And when it was announced that The Irish Times website had announced the turnout as ten thousand, people around me started shouting, "Liars! Liars! The Irish Times are liars!".

Will it be enough?

It's difficult to be optimistic. The forces pushing for abortion in this country are so determined, so confident, and have such momentum behind them now that it's hard to see anything stopping them.

But it's not an all or nothing situation (although, of course, each life lost to an abortion is irreplaceable and an utter tragedy). Even in states where abortion is legal, how many women are inhibited from taking this step because so many pro-life supporters are willing to speak out and say that it is always wrong?

But of course, we should still go on protecting the legal right to life with all the strength and passion we can muster.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Question

Does anybody know any churches in Dublin that are open outside Mass times?

Now and again, on a Saturday, I hop on a bus in search of churches to visit (and cafés to sit and read in). But very often the churches aren't open, so I'd like to know which ones actually are.

They don't have to be old or pretty or architecturally interesting. I find a little chapel or oratory just as interesting as an historical chuch.

All help gratefully appreciated!

The "Takes All Sorts" Awards Goes to...

The internet is evil and terrible, but I can't help loving all the oddball stuff you come across on it.

Like this website-- Signed by the Beatles-- which (as it very simply and plainly puts it) "is a website dedicated to the discussion and analysis of Beatles signatures." It also has photos. Lots of photos.

You might be wondering how much discussion and analysis you could possibly get out of Beatles signatures.

Well, read this:

"Of course the signatures are amazingly clear and bold. Each Beatle inscribed each letter. How unique is that? Well put it this way, get four people together, have them sign there [sic] names, and check out the result. Likely there will be a few letter omissions amongst the group. Not on this piece though. I particularly like the elongated space between the “o” and “h” in “John.” Additionally, they all signed it in perfect spaces next to their image. "

Yes, that much discussion.

I love that kind of thing. It makes the world seem an infinitely fascinating place where you might find every possible type of character and enthusiasm.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Why I Believe in God #454

Nobody ever asks me why I believe in God. I wish they would. I don't really want my religious beliefs to be accepted as a "lifestyle choice"-- "if that's your thing, dude, that's great"-- but I'm afraid it is. People often challenge me about various Church teachings, which I am happy to defend, but they rarely ask me why I actually believe that there in a Divine Being to worship in the first place.

And I have so many reasons! Some of them seem entirely logical and unassailable to me (for instance, the argument from contingency, one of Aquinas's Five Ways). Some are more emotional in nature-- the "reasons of which reason knows nothing", as Pascal said-- like the fact that human life and history is so dramatically satisfying, so uncannily like a story. Some are based upon the history of Christianity and some are based upon nothing but the basic data of experience.

And some are so far from watertight, so half-formed and fugitive, that I would rarely put them forward as an argument. But it is the convergence of so many different reasons-- some extremely powerful, some less powerful, some rather weak-- that makes the case seem so convincing to me.

One of these lesser reasons that I believe in God struck me this evening, as I was putting the gas card into the meter underneath the kitchen sink. A water-pipe was making one of those pleasant, tapping, pipey noises that I like so much, and I found myself thinking how strange it is that pipes (water-pipes especially) have such an appeal to me.

Then it occurred to me as strange that such different things appeal to different people. I have a little nephew who is totally and utterly fascinated by all cars, trucks, airplanes and vehicles of every sort. Neither of his parents are especially into that kind of thing.

Why do some children fall in love with mathematics, some with words, some with making things, some with technology, some with clothes, and some with the most bizarre niche interests (like spiders, say)-- often with no encouragement or family precedent?

Why are human aptitudes so radically different? Think about it. Our physical powers (as Thomas Hobbes observed) are really not that disparate. Most people could lift about the same amount of weight, walk about the same distances, hear roughly the same range of sounds, and so forth.

But the differences in our mental aptitudes are staggering. A mathematically-inclined person could perform mental calculations incomparably far in advance of my own very poor mental arithmetic. A linguistically-inclined person could pick up a new language in weeks while I have struggled to master Irish all my life. I can type faster than anybody I know, and I never found it difficult from the day my mother showed me the home keys on a qwerty keyboard.

Isn't it amazing that human beings have the range of skills and interests needed to make a complex society viable? Did evolution know that we needed computer programmers and interior designers and medical researchers and human resource managers and promoters and quantity surveyers? Was the combination of mental challenge and leisure that we find satisfying developed in the primeval wilderness where our ancestors hunted to survive? (Please note that I am not doubting evolution. I'm just remarking that it seems awfully convenient that those primeval conditions instilled in us the skills, and the mental appetites, needed to draw up business plans and perform time and motion studies and write dissertations on the philosophy of language.)

And it's not just a matter of aptitude or skills. You might get around that by saying that, even though aeons of evolution may not have directly equipped us for chemistry or military history, it did require powers of abstraction and precision that we then transferred to other fields than trapping wild boars and swinging from branches. But how is it that human beings have intellectual needs? Why does man desire not only mental stimulation but a career, a life's work-- and a life's work that will not only provide a certain unity but also a certain variety? Why do we find ourselves craving a new challenge, or a different pace of work, or a hands-on project, or an artistic element to our work? Why does the practitioner desire to teach when he hits fifty? Why does the business-men want to go into politics instead? Why does the university lecturer decide to become a florist instead? How could the desire for such intellectual growth, variety, balance come about through the evolutionary process alone?

Now, maybe this is a poor argument. I myself would never advance it in a debate with an atheist or an agnostic. But I present it now, simply as an example of the many, many subsidiary arguments that buttress my main motives for believing in God, and specifically in the Christian God.

I Am Embroiled in Controversy

This week's edition of the Irish Catholic contains a coruscating attack upon me.

Well, not so much, but there is a letter in response to this letter of mine that was printed in the same newspaper before Christmas:

Dear Editor, Elaine Ryan, in her Life’s Little Things column (6/12/12) very sensibly laments the excess associated with children’s birthday parties today.

However, when she recommends Oxfam’s Pass the Parcel scheme in which “birthday presents are foregone and charitable donations made in lieu”, I feel misgivings - the same misgivings I feel when I hear radio ads urging listeners to give donations to charity as Christmas gifts. In the case of a child being told to give a donation rather than getting a gift, I think this could lead to the child associating charitable giving with austerity, disappointment and even resentment.

And as for “donation-gifts” in general, there seems something rather ostentatious and self-congratulatory about this, overlooking our Lord’s injunction that our left hand should not know what our right is doing when we give alms.

But my misgivings go even deeper. Like most people, I suppose, my childhood memories of receiving Christmas and birthday gifts are amongst my most magical and enchanted. If this had been simply a case of childish greed gratified, I don’t think these memories would glow in the way that they do.

No, we cherish the memory of childhood gifts because they came with love, they were personal to us, and they were an unearned surprise.

To be a Christian is to accept life as such a gift, and I think childhood Christmas and birthday gifts (which need not be extravagant) are a school in this philosophy.

Of course we should give to charity, and of course we should encourage children to be generous.

But I wonder if making a charitable donation as a gift to someone else is not rather contrary to the spirit of both charity and gift-giving?

Yours etc.,

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh,

Ballymun,

Dublin 11.


Today this reply appeared from a lady in Kilkenny:

Dear Editor, Re Maolsheachlann O’Ceallaigh's letter of December 20 last about having misgivings when he hears advertisements (radio and TV) urging listeners to give donations to charity as Christmas presents, I have a contrary view. He goes back to childhood memories of receiving Christmas and birthday gifts. That was then. This is now - a very changed world from an economic, cultural, political, educational, environmental (earthquakes, hurricanes), ethnic and social point of view. The 900m hungry people and countless hungry, mistreated animals in the world, need charity donations. Think of the improved livelihood of thousands of people in Africa because of charity donations made through Bothar and Trócaire, to take two examples. Other examples of beneficiaries are the ISPCA and the Donkey Sanctuary which have more animals - God's non-human creatures - than they can adequately care for.

Children need to be reminded of whose birthday it is - the birth of Jesus, so that they don't become the preoccupation. A gift given to somebody else on their behalf is more meaningful, strikes a balance and helps to prevent them from becoming greedy.

Ultimately, refreshing the joy, which waned during the year, is the true gift of Christmas.

Yours etc.,

Cathleen Shortall,

Urlingford,

Co.Kilkenny.


WHAT?!? Who dares to question my infinite wisdom? It makes me SO MAD!!!!!!!

On Paying into Cathedrals

I am currently reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope-- a novel published in 1855 (and set at that time, as well). In the chapter I'm on now, the protagonist (a clergyman) finds himself having to spend a day alone in London, since he wants to avoid meeting anybody before an important appointment that night, and decides to pass some time in Westminster Abbey.

Trollope writes:

"He determined to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, so he again went thither in an omnibus, and finding that the doors were not open for morning service, he paid his two-pence and went in as a sightseer...

[When it comes to the time for service, he is shown to the choir by a verger.]

"By degrees two or three people entered; the very same damp old woman who had nearly obliterated him in the omnibus, or some other just like her; a couple of young ladies with their veils down, and gilt crosses conspicuous on their prayer-books; and old man on crutches; a party who were seeing the Abbey, and thought they might as well hear the service for their twopence, as opportunity served...

[The visiting clergyman forms a poor judgement of the service, as compared to those in his own cathedral. The author defends it:] "It appears to us a question whether any clergyman can go through our church service with decorum, morning after morning, in an immense building, surrounded by not more than a dozen listeners."

So it seems from this that, even at the height of the Victorian era, there were often only a scanty few worshippers in England's great Protestant cathedrals (though apparently Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral per se). It also shows that, even then, charging a fee to enter a place of worship was (at least) not unknown. The price of entry to Westminster Abbey has gone up sharply since 1855, though-- today it's a hair-raising eighteen pounds (almost thirty American dollars). If you are attending a religious service, however, it is free.

The whole subject of paying in to cathedrals is a rather vexed one. It has been condemned in articles like this one and this one. (The second was written by a radical left-wing Christian who, at one point demanded that liturgy be replaced by "'post-ecclesial' Christianity, in which anarchic public festivity replaces institutional worship". Perversely, the author-- who demanded, and eventually got, free entry to the Abbey as a Christian who wanted to pray-- has now rejected the Church of England for all the usual sex-related reasons, yet in the article he praises the Catholic Church for keeping Westminster Cathedral free of charge, and even suggests that it gave him "a little tug Romewards". Oh the irony!)

Defenders of paying in to cathedrals, and to historic churches, point out that they have to be maintained somehow, and that people who are just gawking should be asked to pay. I take their point but it still seems unsatisfatory.

This is part of the reason that I prefer plain and humble churches, and also part of the reason that (to be frank) I don't like cathedrals. I always feel, when I enter a cathedral or a very splendid church, that I am under suspicion of being a gawker. I understand why Philip Larkin's famous poem "Church Going", which describes the atheist author's habit of visiting churches, begins with the line "Once I am sure there's nothing going on..."

The first church I ever entered with my fianceé Michelle was actually Westminster (Catholic) Cathedral. We didn't even realize it was the mother church of all England and Wales; it was simply the nearest church. Nobody asked us for money. We went back there to attend Mass twice, the second time (as far as I can remember) being the Mass of the Epiphany. There were people of all different races and cultures there, some of them in national dress, and one of the readings was in German. I've never felt such a strong, tangible sense of the universal Church. It was well-attended and seemed full of life and energy and presence.

We never stepped foot in Westminster Abbey, by contrast. We were reluctant to cough up the entrance fee (more through lack of funds than on principle) and we kept missing the service times. In the end, we only ever went into the gift-shop.

But even from the outside, Westminster Abbey, for all its grandeur, seemed sad and gloomy and derelict to me, a relic of the past.

But then again, it wasn't just Westminster Abbey that seemed like that. At the risk of offending any London readers, I have to admit that the entire city seemed to me like a new England built upon the ruins of an older (and more serious-minded) one. All the historical and religious buildings, all of the war monuments, even the street-names seemed utterly irrelevant to the actual life of the metropolis; the shoppers, commuters, tourists, neon signs, tacky advertisements, and the general sense of banality in the shadow of former grandeur. This impression was so strung that it clung to me for days after I flew home.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Follow the Logic

Sometimes you read something that leaves you feeling as though the ceiling has swapped places with the floor and the room is spinning in five different directions at once.

Like this letter published in The Irish Times today:

Sir, – Much of the confusion around the subject of abortion seems to have its origins in the inability to distinguish between a foetus and a child. The latter is self-explanatory. Having entered the world and had its birth recorded, it has a name and an identity.

A foetus is rather different. It depends completely on its host for its blood supply and nourishment, and the possibility of a future independent existence.

Much of our contemporary thinking emphasises individual rights and the ability to choose the course of our lives. Given the effect that pregnancy has on the lives of one gender in particular, it would seem that those (including the Catholic church) who oppose abortion are seeking to turn the clock back. There are enough unwanted babies in the world, and it would serve no purpose to increase the supply. – Yours, etc,

PAUL GRIFFIN,

Kelsey Close,

St Helens,

Merseyside,

England


Not a single line in this missive seems to flow naturally or logically from the line before it.

My favourite line is "Given the effect that pregnancy has on the lives of one gender in particular, it would seem that those (including the Catholic church) who oppose abortion are seeking to turn the clock back." What does it mean? Why should the fact that pregnancy has more of an effect on women mean the Catholic Church wants to turn the clock back? It's a bit like saying, "Given that Lima is the capital of Peru, there is little chance of an English tennis player winning Wimbledon this year."

How is a baby any less dependent than a foetus? What does having your birth recorded have to do with anything? What "purpose" do babies serve, anyway?

A real chestnut.

Two Tugs on the Heart

All my life, from the time I was a little child, I have been aware of two responses in my heart and soul towards the modern world-- that consumerist, technological, suburban, rationalistic society than we live in.

First, and foremost-- in the sense that it has always been the one to which I pledged allegiance-- there has been a ferocious contempt towards it; almost a howl of anguish issuing quite sincerely from the depths of my soul, right from the time I was a little boy.

I hated cars, the suburbs, factories, advertisement, and television-- most of all television! That glowing screen, with all the trumpery delights that it sold, and with all of its empty promises, seemed like the death-knell to all community, all folklore, all authentic human life. I thought life and history had ended before I was born, because of television.

Even though I sat through innumerable hours of TV-- TJ Hooker, Knight Rider, Transformers, Three's Company, Chips, Miami Vice, Battle of the Planets, Skippy, and on and on and on, a tidal wave of mostly junk-- I can remember feeling intensely ashamed of this, even at the time, even before I had reached my teens, and even before that.

How did it come to pass that I was a juvenile William Morris, a tiny John Ruskin? I have no idea.

Only a few months ago, I came across this quotation from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones: "The more materialistic science becomes, the more will I paint angels." If I had heard that quotation as a boy, I would have totally understood the spirit in which it was said.

It seemed to me as inevitable as Sunday evening giving way to Monday morning, or the Back to School signs going up in September, that the world was becoming more and more ruled by technology, bureaucracy, commerce and homogenization-- but that anyone with any spirit or feeling would fight the best rearguard action they possibly could, defying the brave new world nobly but hopelessly, and lamenting the decline.

And yet, and yet, underneath all that--

Underneath all that, like grass underneath flagstones, so deeply buried I only rarely became aware of it, I have always felt completely the opposite reaction-- a love of everything that was shiny, sleek, clean, straight, smooth, gleaming. I have no earlier memories of the sublime than walking through the aisles of a supermarket with my mother, probably no older than a toddler. The piped music that filled the air was as primal and as reassuring as sunlight-- even more primal and reassuring, since it seemed so unchanging and eternal. The women on the boxes of washing powder and the packaging of tights were my first ideal of female beauty.

I liked shop windows and electric kettles and escalators and advertisements. It all seemed so bright and alive and grown-up and cheerful and solid.

And television! Most of all, I loved television. Life seemed such a big deal on television. It didn't just hype programmes and products and lifestyles. It hyped everything. It filled my head with images of wonder and awe and enchantment. And I don't only mean crass dreams of private swimming pools and big cars and all that-- I mean images of dusty attics, and of bare-foot children walking to school, and tin soldiers, and rocking horses, and single-room schoolhouses, and anything you please. It was all there.

I sometimes think that I am literally unable to "think outside the box", in the sense that all my responses and reactions and idylls are ultimately to be traced back to television. My ABC of how to interact with reality was gleaned from the glowing screen in the corner.

This indebtedtness to television strikes me all the time. Today, as on most days, I was praying in UCD's Church, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. Nobody else was there (which is usual enough). And, as usual, the setting triggered an obscure memory from TV-- a memory of the English drama series Bread, in which a character played by the Irish actor Bryan Murray sits in an almost-empty cathedral and finds himself wondering if there is more to life after all. That is the sort of situation I was in, too; there was a correct facial expression and bodily stance for that particular scenario, and also correct lighting and music (though this could only be imagined in a real-life situation).

A few days ago I sat reading a book in a café on the ground floor of St. Stephen's Green shopping centre. At one moment I looked up from my book and felt a flood of affection for everything around me-- for the shoppers, for the workers, the electricity, the electronic music, the factory-made clothes, the mobile phones, the whole sense of a safe, comfortable, reliable, timetabled, hedonistic world. If something went wrong, there would be gardai and paramedics and managers and electricians; grown-ups, people who knew what should be done. Everything was provided for. Everything was as it was meant to be. There was no mystery or uncertainty or shadows-- thank goodness!

My guess is that I am not at all unique in having these two responses. I think they are probably present in the hearts of everybody who shares this technological, bureaucratic, consumerist, hedonistic society of ours.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some More Thoughts About Conservatism

I spent about four or five years trying to be a conservative, before eventually deciding that there was no such thing as conservatism. Even that didn't really stop me, though. I still tend to think of myself as a conservative and I muse over the term and what meaning it can be said to have. (Here are some of my conclusions.)

One of the many philosophers and writers I've dipped into as a part of this quest is Michael Oakeshott, the English political philosopher who died in 1990. I have only read a few of his essays, along with a bit of background reading about him, so I may be egregiously wrong in my interpretation of his views. But if I am wrong about Oakeshott, I think what I say here could apply to a certain strand of conservatism anyway.

Oakeshott seems to have been one of those conservatives who are rather hostile to the very idea of politics, to the idea of social improvement as a project, preferring to accept and enjoy the world as it is. An article on Oakeshott in First Things magazine, by Elizabeth Corey, is titled "A Disposition of Delight" and quotes Walter Bagehot's words: "The way to keep up old customs, is to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things, is to enjoy that state of things". He delighted in (and recommended for human flourishing) activities that were ends in themselves, like friendship and poetry and fishing, rather than in purposeful, goal-driven activities like politics and money-making and status-seeking.

It is easy to see how this Epicurean conservatism conflicts with another sort of conservatism, one that emphasises work, acquisition, deferred gratification, and the pursuit of excellence. (It seems to be an irony that the kind of politicans and ideologues who are always telling us that schemes to improve man and society usually backfire-- "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be built"-- are very often the favoured politicians of business tycoons who are constantly seeking to "change the landscape" of their industries. Why should a profound conservatism in politics go with a kind of furious radicalism in business?)

I think there may be a paradoxical phenomenon whereby a society supposedly devoted to leisure becomes, in fact, more and more occupied by work, and by leisure as work-- struggling to pull off a dinner party like the ones on Come Dine with Me, or putting in long hours at the gym so you can saunter along the beach in style, or constantly striving to achieve the best answer to the question How Clean is Your House?

But that's just my impression, and maybe those people enjoy the treadmill and the dinner party preparations and the dusting as much as Oakeshott enjoyed his poetry.

Today I have been thinking of Oakeshott's philosophy of enjoying what is there to be enjoyed, and seeking to extricate ourselves from perpetual preoccupation with plans and projects. (I hope I am not getting him wrong.) It is a constant theme in my own thoughts, and one of the reasons Groundhog Day is my favourite film of all time. The culmination of the film comes when Billy Murray's character decides to accept the situation he is caught in and to make the most of it. ("But standing here amongst the people of Punxatawney, and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't think of any better fate than a long and lustrous winter." Best movie line ever.)

But what approach should Christians take? Christ's parable of the lilies of the valley and his warning that that "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" both seem to point us in the direction of a life lived in the present, without anxiety for the future or preoccupation with either future or past ("let the dead bury their own dead"). However, we also have his uncompromising injunction, "Be thou perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect"-- so there seems no room for conservative anti-perfectionism, at least on the individual level. It seems we are encouraged to strive, but to strive within the moment we are given.

So I think this conservative acceptance of the given-- "whatever is, is right", as Alexander Pope put it-- cannot be the Christian attitude towards at least one element in our world, i.e., our own selves.

I anticipate the objection that I am hopelessly muddled, anyway, because I am confusing the good of the State, or of the community, with the individual or with voluntary associations. A conservative might well believe that the State, or the nation-- the institutions that we can't dispense with, that are all-embracing and compulsory-- should not be committed to projects or grandiose aims, while individual human beings and the voluntary associations they form (companies, clubs, societies) may well be so committed. The State is the roof over our heads, the walls around us; its only goal should be to keep us sheltered and warm and safe, so the business of life can go on inside it.

This may be all very well, but I don't think it is as simple as that. I think a political philosophy focused so much on the rejection of social goals can't help spilling over into an attitude of bullish self-assertion. The protest that "The government has no right to tell me what to do with my life!" becomes "Nobody has any right to tell me what to do with my life!". Eventually, in the same way that every obscene rap song becomes a heroic stand for freedom of speech, any "lifestyle" choice becomes widely celebrated because it defies some norm-- whether that "lifestyle choice" is getting your body tattooed all over, or declaring that you are a woman despite having a man's body, or risking life and limb on extreme sports or feats of endurance. "Didactic" becomes a term of condemnation in the criticism of books and films. (I leave it to the reader to decide whether I am exaggerating or whether this is a fair description.) And the interesting thing is that this is a worldview helped along by both liberals and conservatives.

Edward Feser puts this all down to Immanuel Kant,

...we must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this...In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that."


I cannot claim to be able to analyze a philosophical system, let alone several philosophical systems. I am making a more modest claim; that the whole atmosphere, value-system and rhetoric of libertarianism (and of classical liberalism, and of lifestyle liberalism, and of radicalism, and perhaps-- unless I do not misunderstand it-- of Oakeshottian conservatism) has seeped into our mental and cultural lives to the extent that "doing your own thing" has become a good in itself.

I agree that my train of thought in this post has been rather confused, but maybe that's what happens when you write about conservatism (or maybe I'm just confused). A belief in living in the present moment, a distrust of projects of social improvement, and an orientation towards activities that are done for their own sake-- these are different subjects. But for me, they are all of them symptomatic of a particuar kind of quietistic conservatism-- the conservatism of the right-wing hippie, maybe-- which I find partly attractive (in its rejection of a consumerist and careerist and ideologically manipulated life) but one which I don't think is ultimately compatible with the sense of mission, and of duty to his fellow man, that should animate a Christian.