Readers of this blog will be familiar with my various ideas on the subject of Irish national identity. But I'm particularly pleased with this article. It's my "definitive statement" on the matter, if such pomposity is allowable.
This morning, I happened to attend a Mass alongside a large crowd of schoolboys and schoolgirls, all of whom were there in preparation for their First Communions or Confirmations. As they streamed into the pews, I was put in mind of William Blake's lines:
'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean, The children walking two and two in red and blue and green. Grey-headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow, Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow
O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town, Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own; The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs, Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
I don't want to get too sentimental. I know that children can be little brats, even downright bad sometimes. (I remember from being a child myself.)
And yet, I couldn't help feeling sentimental and tender. The funny thing is, looking at children doesn't just make me feel sentimental about children. It makes me feel sentimental about everybody. It makes me remember that everybody was a child once, and that-- in a sense-- everybody is still a child. We may guffaw at talk about "the inner child", but there's surely a lot of truth to the idea. Indeed, it's even sadder when "the inner child" is gone, or suppressed. When you look at the eagerness, wonder, and artlessness of children, it seems almost heartbreaking that so many grown-ups are (apparently) cynical, apathetic, sardonic, and defensive. What happened to them? Where did the wonder go? How much hurt and disappointment is it buried beneath? Why did those things have to be lost?
Look at the photograph below. I've posted it here before. I got it from the website TV Tropes. It was used there as an illustration of something that is accidentally scary-- the idea being that the girl would get the creeps once she saw this picture. But that's not why it captured my imagination. The little girl is just so adorable-- so enthusiastic, so happy, so unabashed in her enthusiasm and happiness. This picture makes my heart melt-- not just for the little girl, but for the human race.
I'm an irritable person, easily annoyed by my fellow human beings-- even by things which cause me no harm and which are not even morally objectionable, such as a banal remark or a vacant grin. I'm trying to overcome this, and I think I'm making some progress. Strangely enough, I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I see them as pathetic-- and I mean "pathetic" in its most literal sense. I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I'm most conscious of the pathos of the human condition. Then my irritation tends to evaporate, and I feel towards everybody as one might feel towards a terminally ill patient, or somebody who has been recently bereaved. Or a child. Personal slights cease to sting, and one's ego seems not overcome but irrelevant. I've asked myself-- is this Christian charity? Or is it just sentimentality? Then again, is sentimentality always a bad thing? There is a passage in G.K. Chesterton's Manalive which describes a very similar mood, or perhaps the very same one. In this extract, two of the characters have broken into a house and one of them is burgling it: After another glance round,
my housebreaker plucked the walnut doors open and rummaged inside.
He found nothing there, apparently, except an extremely
handsome cut-glass decanter, containing what looked like port.
Somehow the sight of the thief returning with this ridiculous little
luxury in his hand woke within me once more all the revelation
and revulsion I had felt above.
"`Don't do it!' I cried quite incoherently, `Santa Claus—'
"`Ah,' said the burglar, as he put the decanter on the table and stood looking at me, `you've thought about that, too.'
"`I can't express a millionth part of what I've thought of,' I cried, `but it's something like this… oh, can't you see it? Why are children not afraid of Santa Claus, though he comes like a thief in the night? He is permitted secrecy, trespass, almost treachery—because there are more toys where he has been. What should we feel if there were less? Down what chimney from hell would come the goblin that should take away the children's balls and dolls while they slept? Could a Greek tragedy be more gray and cruel than that daybreak and awakening? Dog-stealer, horse-stealer, man-stealer—can you think of anything so base as a toy-stealer?'
"The burglar, as if absently, took a large revolver from his pocket and laid it on the table beside the decanter, but still kept his blue reflective eyes fixed on my face.
"`Man!' I said, `all stealing is toy-stealing. That's why it's really wrong. The goods of the unhappy children of men should be really respected because of their worthlessness. I know Naboth's vineyard is as painted as Noah's Ark. I know Nathan's ewe-lamb is really a woolly baa-lamb on a wooden stand. That is why I could not take them away. I did not mind so much, as long as I thought of men's things as their valuables; but I dare not put a hand upon their vanities.'
"After a moment I added abruptly, `Only saints and sages ought to be robbed. They may be stripped and pillaged; but not the poor little worldly people of the things that are their poor little pride.'
"He set out two wineglasses from the cupboard, filled them both, and lifted one of them with a salutation towards his lips.
"`Don't do it!' I cried. `It might be the last bottle of some rotten vintage or other. The master of this house may be quite proud of it. Don't you see there's something sacred in the silliness of such things?'
The Catholic poet Coventry Patmore, who Chesterton often quoted approvingly, is even more eloquent on this theme in his poem "The Toys". I am utterly unable to read this poem without being reduced to tears:
My little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise, Having my law the seventh time disobey'd, I struck him, and dismiss'd With hard words and unkiss'd, His Mother, who was patient, being dead. Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep, I visited his bed, But found him slumbering deep, With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet From his late sobbing wet. And I, with moan, Kissing away his tears, left others of my own; For, on a table drawn beside his head, He had put, within his reach, A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone, A piece of glass abraded by the beach And six or seven shells, A bottle with bluebells And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art, To comfort his sad heart. So when that night I pray'd To God, I wept, and said: Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath, Not vexing Thee in death, And Thou rememberest of what toys We made our joys, How weakly understood Thy great commanded good, Then, fatherly not less Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay, Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say, "I will be sorry for their childishness."
I'm also reminded of a touching passage in Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he describes a mistake he made in raising his daughter:
One day I returned home to
my little girl's third-year birthday party to find her in the corner of the front room, defiantly clutching
all of her presents, unwilling to let the other children play with them. The first thing I noticed was
several parents in the room witnessing this selfish display. I was embarrassed, and doubly so because
at the time I was teaching university classes in human relations. And I knew, or at least felt, the
expectation of these parents....
After unsuccessfully cajoling the girl, he forces her to share, which in retrospect he comes to regret:
I've learned that once children gain a sense of real possession, they share very
naturally, freely, and spontaneously. Perhaps a sense of possessing needs to come before a sense of genuine sharing. Many people who
give mechanically or refuse to give and share in their marriages and families may never have
experienced what it means to possess themselves, their own sense of identity and self-worth.
Whatever you think of gurus such as Steven Covey (and my own opinion of them is not very high), the image of the little girl clutching her toys to herself is quite affecting.
I agree with Covey's reasoning in this instance. I took part in a correspondence some years ago, in the letters page of the Irish Catholic newspaper, on the subject of charity gifts. One writer had suggested that, instead of receiving gifts for Christmas, donations to charity should be made in the children's name, to teach them to give rather than to receive.
I think this is a terrible idea, and I said so. I recalled my pleasure in Christmas gifts as a child, a pleasure that has never gone away but still lingers with me. I honestly don't think it was greed or materialism. When I remember Christmas toys as a child, I'm flooded with feelings of gratitude-- they seemed like a symbol of grace, something given out of pure love, something given especially to me. The thought of getting some certificate telling me a charitable bequest had been given in my name would, I'm sure, have rankled with me to this day. Kids can be encouraged to be charitable at any time of the year. Why deprive them of their toys at Christmas? Recently, I've been remembering one Christmas where I made a park bench out of lollipop sticks, using a kit I'd received just for this purpose. When I remember this, I feel bathed in tenderness, and gratitude, and a desire to be generous myself. Looking back, I realize that it was the love represented by such gifts that really mattered to me. Do we ever really want anything except love, even at our most cynical? One of the priests in UCD, in one homily, said that it was very important to truly believe that God loves us, because then we would be ready to love others, secure in that knowledge. All this sounds like I am suggesting that "to understand all is to forgive all", or that "everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about", or some such sentiment of universal tolerance. Well, I'm definitely not saying that. I think this is exactly the sort of decadent thinking which leads to liberal Christianity-- the inability to condemn, the inability to say "no", the withering away of righteous anger and indignation. When I think of the people I know who have made a misery of their own lives and the lives of others, the image of the child clinging to its toys is no less applicable. The same applies in a wider social and cultural context. Ireland is on the threshold of legalizing abortion, in great part because several generations of Ireland's great and good have been beguiled by the flashy toys of Progress and Liberation and Rebellion. The fact that there is something pathetic about this, once again in that literal sense of pathos, doesn't make it any less lamentable. Sometimes we have to sternly warn the child to drop its toys, to get rid of them. In some circumstances, even prising them its fingers might be warranted. But here's the thing....I think we should always strive to do so with a certain regret, a certain pity. Our anger should be righteous anger, not vindictive anger, or the anger of a bruised ego. It's interesting that, in the gospels, Jesus seems to alternate between pity and anger, even towards his own disciples. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill
the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to
gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her
wings, and you were not willing!"
In this blog post, I've used the image of toys, but what does it represent? Well, I suppose it represents a few different things.
The toys might be the trifles that we comfort and console ourselves with, which are charged with a tremendous, child-like pathos when seen in perspective-- like the toys in the Manalive excerpt, or the Coventry Patmore poem.
Or the toys might be the equivalent of a toy on Christmas Day, an image of the pure gratuitousness of God's love, or the gestures and symbols which mean so much in the economy of love.
Or the toys might be sins, idols, things fetishized as good far beyond their deserving, things which come to be preferred to God. In any case, musing upon this theme fills me with a resolution to be more patient, kind, and generous when it comes to the faults of others. Whether I live up to this resolution is another matter entirely.
Well, I feel like a complete and utter idiot. Today I interviewed one of the UCD chaplains, Fr. Leon Ó Giolláin, in his office. He spoke to me for about twenty-five minutes and his answers were absolutely fascinating.
Somehow, I didn't save the recording correctly, and it was all for nothing. I was recording it on my phone and when I went to save it, I managed to lose it.
Apologies to all my readers for the disappointment. I don't know what to say.
On the bus this evening, I was reading Aquinas: An Introduction by Brian Davies. I came across a passage which delighted me so much, I knew I had to write a blog post about it. The passage in itself is not remarkable, it's simply an example of something that often delights me. This is it: So a word used on different occasions can mean or signify something exactly the same or something completely different. Yet, what shall we say of, for instance, the word "love" in the "I love my wife", "I love my job", and "I love chicken soup"? Is a husband's love for his wife the same as his love for his job or his love of chicken soup? Is one's love of one's job normally equivalent to one's love of one's spouse or one's love of certain foods? The first thing to say is that passages such as this only occur in non-fiction books, and I only find such pleasure in non-fiction books. Non-fiction book appeal to me immeasurably more than works of fiction, mostly for this reason. What do I love so much about this passage? It's the sense of spaciousness, the sense of leisureliness, the sense of unhurriedly surveying a subject with all the range of human experience at your finger-tips. This sensation, of course, is created by the inclusion of the term "chicken soup". Comparing a man's love for his wife with his love of chicken soup gives the reader a delicious sense of contrast and range, a sense that everything is within reach, everything is in play. I prefer non-fiction to fiction because, in novels and short stories, the flow of time continues much as it does in daily life. In non-fiction, time is suspended. The author is addressing you in a timeless, spaceless realm. Even in a short book, the feeling of elbow room, of room to spread yourself, is glorious. Daily life is one long succession of interruptions, deadlines and demands. Pages of text between the covers of a non-fiction book are a blessed sanctuary, a space in which an idea can be unfolded organically, patiently, lovingly. But, (you may say), you can escape into the refuge of a novel, just as well. Indeed you can-- but what refuge is there really to be found if your protagonist is fleeing a horde of zombies, or locked outside the inn on a stormy night, or surrounded by wolves? Even the most contemplative work of fiction is locked in the present moment, be that "present moment" set in the Neolithic era or the distant future. Even the most gripping non-fiction narrative, on the other hand, remains detached from the events it describes. The author is writing from above, from outside, from beyond-- from a safe distance. He is there and not there, as are we. It is like taking a stroll in outer space or the depths of the ocean. It's sublime.
I don't have much sticking power, as a rule, but some three years ago I vowed to pray the rosary every day, and I've succeeded so far (with the exception of a day or two). Sometimes I am more asleep than awake as I pray it, but I get through it one way or the other.
It occurred to me today that I've spent vast amounts of time praying the rosary, but very rarely written about it. I don't think I'm good at praying the rosary. I think I'm terrible at it. My mind bounces around like a basketball, and I find it difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time. Very often I have to start a decade again, when I realize my mind has strayed entirely from the mystery.. Nevertheless, this is how I visualise the various mysteries, and the ideas that I meditate upon as I do. (It should be borne in mind that my visual imagination is terrible. Mental imagery is always vague rather than vivid for me.) The Joyful Mysteries The Annunciation: I have a very conventional image of this mystery. I imagine our Lady kneeling in prayer beside St. Gabriel, as pictured in so many paintings. The atmosphere that I concentrate upon is the atmosphere of a new horizon opening up, which may be one of my favourite ideas in the world: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken." When I think of the Annunciation, I think of how everything (everything!) was changed forever in an instant, and how (to paraphrase a famous piece of doggerel) the world became better than ever we thought it could possibly be. The Visitation: I have a very stately and ceremonial picture of Our Lady and St. Elizabeth meeting. I don't like the modern paintings which show them hugging and grinning. The exchange of words which is recorded in the Scripture would suggest it was a much more elevated affair. For some reason, in my imagination, they are standing at some distance from each other. The Nativity: One would think this would be an easy mystery to picture, given the popularity of Nativity scenes. Perhaps it's a case of an embarrassment of riches, but I struggle with it. Increasingly, I simply think of the Holy Family, with our Lady and St. Joseph kneeling beside the manger. Sometimes it is simply our Lady holding the infant Jesus. There was a painting in my school which showed a Madonna and Child against a very dark background. The darkness that enclosed the pair always seemed gloriously peaceful, warm, secure, and eternal to me. Recently, I had an exchange of emails with the principal of my old school. I asked if this picture was still hanging, but she didn't reply. The Presentation: This is now my favourite mystery. (That honour previously belonged to other mysteries, as I will mention asI go on, but it's this one now.)
I always focus on Simeon holding the infant Jesus. Now and again, I think about Anna, or about Our Lady and St. Joseph, but it takes an effort to wrench my mind from the picture of Simeon cradling our Lord. The simplicity and piety of the old man saying: "Now you can let your servant depart in peace" captivates me. Perhaps I like the idea of one thing which makes life worthwhile-- the "one thing needful". It's a picture of the utmost otherworldliness-- all the supposed wonders of the world are as nothing compared to the sight of this baby. And Simeon did even not need to see him grow and pursue his ministry, but simply to hold him once. That was enough. I always imagine Simeon as a beautiful, white-haired old man, a lifetime of holiness etched on his face. The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple: I struggle with this mystery more than any other. I'm not sure why. I can't get a fix on it. I find it difficult to comprehend how our Lady and St. Joseph could have been worried, given St. Gabriel's promise. As I count the last few beads, I usually imagine Jesus talking to the Doctors of the Law, and I reflect on how all Scripture is about Jesus. They were discussing Scripture, and did not realize that the key to Scripture was there in front of them. Well, how could they? But praying this rosary, I think how important it is not to let our faith degenerate into an abstract system, rather than an encounter with the living Christ. The Sorrowful Mysteries I find it these difficult to pray. Suffering is less real to my imagination than joy. I feel ashamed when I think of all the saints who would be transported, contemplating the passion of our Lord. The Agony in the Garden: For some reason, I always imagine the Agony in the Garden as a sculpture, usually a small sculpture carved from dark wood. I also think of how all the suffering and pain in the world, everything bad that would ever happen, descended on Our Lord during that hour. The Scourging of our Lord: I simply picture the scourge descending on our Lord's body again and again. The Crown of Thorns: This is the sorrowful mystery which is most vivid to me. Shame and humiliation are much more impressive to me than physical suffering. The crown of thorns and the scarlet robe seem not only humiliating, but also glorious. Perhaps this is because I have always admired (and identified with) those who are willing to undergo scorn and ridicule for their beliefs. I often find myself contemplating the fact that that the crown of thorns was ultimately more precious than any of the crowns of gold and jewels that various earthly monarchs have worn. There is a scene in the excellent Alec Guinness movie Cromwell in which King Charles's chaplain reads the Passion to him as he prepares to leave his palace to be executed-- in particular, the passage regarding the crown of thorns and the scarlet robe. This often comes into my mind as well.
The Carrying of the Cross: I picture Christ setting out, meeting his mother, Simon of Cyrene taking the Cross, Veronica wiping his face-- that is, the Stations of the Cross, as I've often prayed them in the UCD church. Again, I find it hard to really become invested in this mystery. The Crucifixion: I always make a special effort to concentrate on the Crucifixion, since it seems like the central mystery of our faith. I think of what a timeless and transcendental image it is, one inscribed into the consciousness of the world. I think how our Lord gave absolutely everything for us. I always feel this mystery should spark my imagination more than it actually does-- perhaps it is "performance anxiety." The Glorious Mysteries. The Resurrection: I really struggle with this mystery, too. Perhaps it is too stupendous. I find it hard to picture Christ's resurrection body. These days, I usually imagine Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples gathered in the upper room, or to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In the past, I would also think about Peter and John entering the empty tomb, and the empty tomb itself, but I don't do that so often now. The Ascension: I generally picture the carving of the Ascension over the altar in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. (Surprisingly, I can't find a decent photograph of it on the internet. Clicking on the one below enlarges it a little, but if anyone can find a better picture of it, I'd be obliged.) And I meditate on one of my favourite verses from Scripture, "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2).
The Descent of the Holy Spirit: This used to be my favourite mystery; it was my first "favourite mystery". I like the "shock and awe" of it. Well, considering my favourite line of poetry is "the fingers of fire are making corruption clean" (from Bunyon's "Burning of the Leaves"), and my general love of fire imagery, this is hardly surprising. I also like the sense of togetherness; the disciples are all together, before they would scattered all over the earth. The entire history of the Church is there in embryo.
The Assumption of our Lady: My visualisation of this mystery generally draws on the various paintings I've seen on the subject, especially one in the National Gallery in Dublin. Increasingly, I picture Our Lady as a woman of dazzling physical beauty, untouched by age. Reading a book about Irish Catholicism of the Middle Ages, I was struck by the fact that Our Lady is always represented in the Gaelic tradition as a woman of stunning beauty. The child-like naivety of this pleased me. As I've written elsewhere, Marian devotion doesn't come easy to me, for whatever reason. The Coronation of our Lady: I imagine Our Lady surrounded by innumerable ranks of angels as she is crowned. I also imagine all the saints in Heaven paying her honour. I suppose I imagine this mystery as one that transcends time, rather than one that happened at a particular moment. Thinking of Mary as the Queen of the Saints is helpful to me. My image of Heaven is very conventional; sunlit clouds and so forth. The Mysteries of Light: The Baptism of our Lord: I imagine our Lord being fully immersed, and how he chose to assume our condition, and the dignity this gives human nature and the human body. The Marriage at Cana; This is one of my favourite mysteries and I like to dwell on it. It seems to me symbolic of the unity of nature and grace. Wine is a very pleasant and vivid image of grace! This has a very personal meaning for me, especially as it pertains to my own marriage. I like this mystery for many reasons, but one is that it is so "bourgeois" and respectable. Jesus and Our Lady were concerned for the social embarrassment of the couple. Yes, I know that there is much more than that going on in this scene, but it seems plain that our Lady (and our Lord) did sympathize in a very human and straightforward way with the awkward situation of the husband and wife. This episode in the Gospel seems like our Lord's blessing on so much that is human and conventional; marriage, wine, celebration, and even "putting up a good show". The Proclamation of the Kingdom: I always used to imagine the Sermon on the Mount, and a whole new way of life being unveiled to the listeners. Now I am more likely to think of the disciples being sent out to preach the gospel to the Jews. I picture the various pairs making their way through the countryside, in a kind of movie montage. I like this mystery. I like the sense of excitement, of something new happening. The Transfiguration: Before the Presentation and after the Descent of the Holy Spirit, this was my favourite mystery. Interestingly, they are all mysteries of light (or fire), but my preference has been for increasing understatement; first it was the tongues of fire at Pentecost, then it was the glow of our Lord's Transfigured body, and finally it is the purely metaphorical "light to the gentiles" in Simeon's speech. I still love this mystery, though. I've often mentioned my purple notebook on this blog. This is a notebook filled with moments of inspiration or insight, which have struck me at various times in my life. Such moments (I would argue) are the stock-in-trade of poetry, which I've always loved. James Joyce called them "epiphanies", though the term has become rather shopworn. Famously, the disciples had to come down from the mountain. Faith can't be one long ecstasy. But this mystery tells us that the moments of ecstasy are legitimate and to be prized.
The Institution of the Eucharist: I always imagine a typical Last Supper scene, with Jesus breaking the bread. But my focus is not so much upon the Eucharist itself, as the invisible floods of grace emanating from it, which I conceive of as refreshing and even luxurious. I like to think of how all the Masses in history partake of this primordial event, in a manner that transcends time. Well, there you go. Perhaps something in this will be of help to somebody reading this. Here's hoping. As I say, I fear that I'm bad at praying the rosary. Every single day, I have to push myself to say it, and it's a constant battle to keep my mind focused. I've often looked for meditations on the rosary, but I've nearly always been disappointed-- they usually don't enter into the mysteries, they are more often pious rhapsodies (or "gushing"), which sadly leave me cold. There is no predicting what will capture any given person's imagination. In any case, I am grateful to our Lady for having kept me to my vow these last few years, and I pray that she continues to do so. Pray for me!