Irish Papist

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

At least Michael Voris isn't Anti-Chesterton

Long-time readers will know that I view Michael Voris, the founder of Church Militant TV (an internet TV station) with considerable misgivings. I don't doubt his motives, and I believe he's right about many things, but I don't think his inflammatory rhetoric is particularly helpful. His fidelity to orthodoxy is admirable, but sometimes it seems excessively anxiety-ridden. To make a comparison, few outside the ranks of sedevecantists would consider Pope Benedict XVI 'soft' on orthodoxy. And yet the Pope emeritus very often draws on Protestant theologians in his writings. Voris only ever mentions Protestants to castigate them for their heresy, and to dismiss their religion as man-made.

Voris has found occasion to criticize so many Catholic commentators I admire, including Archbishop Robert Barron, that I'm pleased he is not anti-GK Chesterton-- or doesn't seem to be, as this interview with American Chesterton Society President Dale Ahlquist (from 2013) would seem to indicate. (Then again, he seems barely familiar with him. I don't think I've ever heard anyone else refer to Chesterton as 'G.K.'.)

Having said all this, I do watch quite a lot of Michael Voris's videos, mostly because they are well-produced and entertaining. It just goes to show that, although it's true that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, it's also worth doing as well as you possibly can.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Behold, I Make All Things New!"

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.  And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.  And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.

 The Apocalypse, Chapter 21

Over the years I have tried to memorize various Bible verses. I haven't been very good at holding onto them, because once I have them memorized I tend to neglect them and thus forget them. The only way to keep something memorized is to keep revisiting it on a regular basis. (I once memorized the entirety of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe, to recite at a dinner party. No way I could recite it now.)

I've been committing this verse to memory recently because I find it one of the most evocative of all Bible verses. I'm especially stirred by the words: "Behold, I make all things new". 

It has occurred to me that this might seem to contradict my traditionalism and love of all things old, on which subject I have often written here.

And yet-- it doesn't seem to at all. In fact, the sight of a Halloween bonfire or a Christmas tree, or the rhythms of the liturgy, somehow awaken in me the same atmosphere as this passage and those very words: "Behold, I make all things new". It's very strange. I think it has to do with the timeless as an image of the eternal.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Lads at the Back

"Dearfá uaireanta nuair a d'fhéachfá timpeall ort sa séipéal agus go bhfeicfeá an mathshlua mórthimpeall an doras ag bun an tséipéil, gur poiblicéanaigh is mó atá inar measc. Is ar éigean, áfach, go bfhuil aon bhaint ag an traidisiún ársa sin, atá chomh seanbhunaithe faoin tuaith go háirithe, le humhaíocht an phoibliceánaigh. Tuigimid dó; cúthaileacht níos mó ná umhlaíocht, agus beagán neirbhíse croite anuas ar an gcúthaileacht chéanna is mó a bhíonn i gceist."

That's a passage from the biography of Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, by Risteard Ó Glaisne, that I'm reading now. As I mentioned recently, Pádraig Ó Fiannachta was an Irish priest, scholar, editor and publisher who died very recently. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

I have written of my increasing concern for the Irish language. There seems something a bit hypocritical about lamenting it, or encouraging it, but never using it. On the other hand, I know I'm not proficient enough to write in it without tons of mistakes. So the only compromise I can think of, at the moment, is to quote a piece now and again. I've been reading a lot of Irish language books so I have plenty to draw from.

This is the translation, as far as I can manage. "One would sometimes think, from the sight of a whole crowd of people standing at the back door of the church during Mass, that we are mostly dealing with Publicans in Ireland [as in the tale of the Publican, or Tax-Collector, and the Pharisee]. But it's seldom that this hoary tradition, which is so established in rural areas especially, has anything to do with the humility of the Publican. It has much more to do with timidity than with humility, and faintness of heart."

If I got any of that wrong, I'm sure any Irish language speakers reading will rush to correct me. (That's a joke.)

It is indeed a well-established tradition in Ireland, especially amongst young men. Even a lover of tradition like myself can see that it's one tradition that shouldn't be celebrated.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon

This is an article I wrote for Annals Australasia magazine (the oldest Catholic magazine in Australia!), where I've had several articles published. My most recent ones have been part of a series about great poems, a subject close to my heart. Kudos to the editor of this magazine for giving space to such a series-- poetry rarely gets column inches of any sort.

Thanks to my brother Turlough for adding the pictures, after I spent more than an hour trying to do so. For some reason, on this particular post, Blogger seemed insistent that it was not going to allow pictures inserted without also including massive spaces after each one.

In previous articles in this series, I have written commentaries on acknowledged great poems. This time around, I am going to be a little bit more adventurous and write about a poem which—though often included in anthologies, and fairly well known—can hardly claim the same cultural stature as ‘Ulysses’ by Tennyson or Psalm 23 of the King James Bible.
The poem is ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ by Laurence Binyon, an English poet who died in 1943. Binyon fought in the First World War and his most famous poem is ‘For the Fallen’, with its oft-recited line: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”

As ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is relatively unknown, I am going to quote it in full. Read it slowly, and savour it:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock's fallen tower is dust;
All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

I first encountered this poem in a modern edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury when I was fourteen. Since then it has haunted me, and—while other poems that struck me as an adolescent seem less impressive now—my regard for this one has grown steadily with the years. I consider it one of the very finest poems in the language.

What is so remarkable about it? Well, the first thing to be said is that it is very accomplished. It’s a four stanza poem whose lines are fairly long, but the metre never falters, and each line develops the theme in a very natural way—there are no ‘filler’ lines. This in itself is quite rare.

Over the years, as the poem has seeped deeper into my mind, I have come to notice that the form harmonizes remarkably well with the subject matter. Its crisp, steady, gentle syllables remind me of the crackling of a bonfire. The emotion in each verse swells until the verse’s final line, when there is a dying fall reminiscent of a spark or a cinder falling to the ground. The entire poem has a trance-like, dreamy quality. Accomplished poets often like to introduce irregularities into the metre, to avoid this very ‘sing-song’ quality, but it is very appropriate here.

I have said in previous articles in this series that a great poem needs a great theme. The theme of ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ is one of the oldest and most constant themes in poetry—the theme of transience, mortality, things passing. This theme is so standard that it has a name; Ubi sunt, which means literally ‘Where are?” in Latin. Where are they now? There must be few human beings, even amongst the most cloddish, who have not been spurred into a poetic mood by the sight of their old school, or a yellowed photograph, or the ruins of a castle.
I must admit a particular fascination with this theme, as I am the world’s number one nostalgist. Even when I was a little boy, standing on the circle of burnt-away grass where the previous year’s Halloween bonfire had blazed filled me with a sweet melancholy. I get wistful about the most trivial changes and endings—such as the discontinuation of a bus route, or the parting of brief acquaintances. So it’s obvious why I would find the subject matter of the ‘The Burning of the Leaves’ compelling. 

But this poem has something that most others ‘Ubi sunt’ poems don’t. It’s not simply a lamentation for the passage of time, and the disappearance of the past—it dares to also be an affirmation, almost a celebration. Lines such as these are both shocking and bracing, to a confirmed nostalgist such as myself:

Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

Perhaps there is a unique relief in letting go of the things that we have held onto with the most resilience. Even the idea that we could possibly let go of them is strangely exhilarating—exhilarating and scary at once. We are so used (especially the nostalgists amongst us) to seeing ourselves as the playthings of time and change that the idea we can view these forces with equanimity—perhaps even with approval— is thrilling. We can warm ourselves by the very flames which consume all we love.

This sense of mingled shock and exhilaration is heightened by the violence of the language used:

All the spices of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns!

There is a glee to language like this. It would be merely glib if the poem did not contain a corresponding measure of melancholy and lyricism.

The single passage in the poem which has affected me the most strongly is this one:

The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

The last line, indeed, is the line that has haunted me the most.

I think we are all puritans-- of one kind or another. Whether in the confessional, or in the gymnasium, or at the protest march, we are all striving towards some kind of purity. The 'corruption' which we are trying to 'make clean' may be sin, or flab, or social prejudice. It might be one of a thousand other things. But each of us-- or most of us, at least-- are trying to chisel away the parts of us (and the parts of the world) that do not correspond to our ideal, to our vision of perfection. Sometimes the prospect that this will be painful or bitter is a strangely satisfying one. The poetry of this idea is expressed in the final line of Oscar Wilde's autobiographical essay De Profundis, where he says of nature: "She will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole."

In Scripture, the image of purifying fire is a common one: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), “Your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire)” (1 Peter 1:7), “If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Secular sources draw on this image too. Take Harold Wilson’s famous reference to “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution”.

So this is a venerable image, one that seems to naturally occur to the human mind. But I don’t think it has ever been expressed better than “the fingers of fire are making corruption clean”. And the line intensifies, of course, the general air of mingled exhilaration and loss.

Finally, the poem closes with a triad of single-sentence lines, the epigrammatic power of each one reinforcing the next:

The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, not for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

That last line is so memorable and elegantly expressed that I wonder why it has not become a standard quotation. But then, I wonder why the poem as a whole has not been added to the ranks of all-time classics. I feel entirely justified in adding it to my series of truly great poems.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Irish and Purity

The Irish have a mixed image when it comes to what we might call the carnal side of life. On the one hand, we have a traditional reputation for purity, even prudishness-- based on our once-devout Catholicism, our stringent censorship laws in the middle of the last century, and (perhaps) the long skirts and sleeves worn in traditional Irish dancing. On the other hand, there is a rather uproariously raunchy image, based (perhaps) on the idea of big Irish (emigrant) families, on the naughty lyrics to some traditional Irish ballads, and on risqué works of old Gaelic literature such as The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman.

Canon Sheehan

Which is true? Personally, I think the prudishness-- or purity-- is more true.

I'm not prudish myself, nor can I lay claim (more's the pity) to the kind of natural purity that G.K. Chesterton (for instance) seemed to exemplify from his boyhood. I have very often laughed at blue jokes, for instance. I have even made them.

I am, however, very drawn to the ideal of a certain wholesomeness that, in my view, seemed typical of Irish culture until very recently. I'm not saying this was ever representative of what went on behind closed doors, or of conversations in schoolyards and pubs, or in the privacy of the imagination. But the fact that there was an ideal of chastity in public discussion, and in the arts, seems to me admirable in itself. I think this lingered in Ireland for some considerable time after it had been discarded elsewhere.

These reflections are propted by a novel I'm reading now. It's called The Triumph of Failure and it was written in 1901 by a priest-novelist, Patrick Augustine Sheehan (better known as Canon Sheehan).

In a passage that I read earlier today, the protagonist of the story-- an impoverished scholar whose Catholic faith is fragile, and who is fascinated by the classics-- finds himself ruminating about the purity of the Irish:

With faith enervated almost to paralysis, but not unto death, and with all my intellectual powers steeped in some opiate that made them feeble and unperceptive, I am happy to say that I still retained that which seems to me to be the common and glorious birthright of our race-- a reverence, timid and awesome, for whatever is pure and undefiled. It is recorded in the lives of the saints that one obscene word threw them into insensibility. I can believe it. It is no legendary hypothesis. I have known those who would actually sicken at a suggestion of indelicacy. And if not quite so sensitive, I think I may lay claim to a shrinking from all suggestiveness that made it a positive torture to hear or say anything gross or impure. I knew that there was some hidden, unspeakable malice about this vice which no human mind of saint, philosopher, or theologian had ever fathomed; just as there is some secret, inexplicable charm in the opposite virtue, which no soul shall see explained until it sees the face of God. Naturalists may try to explain it away by reference to secret laws of Nature; physiologists may talk of a Nemesis dogging the steps of the irreverent; no law of Nature, no subtle inquiries into the subterranean working of her laws, can ever give a logical insight into the traditions of our race, the instinct of a loathing or the exaltation of inspiration, which is but a lost and broken fragment of some revelation made to our unfallen father.

Canon Sheehan died more than sixty years before I was born, but I think I am old enough to have witnessed the afterglow of what he describes here. I even think the Irish still have a tendency in this direction, and that our efforts to be raunchy and risqué always seem more than a little forced.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Happy Feast of the Transfiguration!

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray. As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning. Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’  He did not know what he was saying. As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples were afraid. And a voice came from the cloud saying, ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

The Transfiguration has always been one of my very favourite Bible stories. It's probably my favourite mystery of the Rosary (although the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation and the Presentation are also up there).

I like anything to do with light. My two favourite states of illumination are definitely light and darkness. I like them both at full pelt. I like dark cinemas and dark nights and caves and being the blind man in blind man's bluff (though it's long since I played that estimable game).

When it comes to light, I like it to be ostentatious in some way, to draw attention to itself. That can be the flicker of a single candle, or it can be glow of a hundred neon signs.

The Transfiguration is a wonderful story in so many ways. It may be the most notable example of the 'inner circle' of disciples, John and Peter and James, being chosen from the Twelve. Jesus was nothing if not hierarchical, although his idea of hierarchy is obviously very different from our unredeemed human idea of hierarchy-- as his bathing of his disciples' feet shows.

The question of hierachy, 'elitism', and egalitarianism is a tricky one. Personally speaking, I dislike anti-egalitarianism even more than I dislike egalitarianism. The progressive's urge to abolish all distinctions and privileges and meaningful differences is odious, but the bullish reaction to that-- "There are differences in nature, deal with it, let's be completely outspoken about them"-- seems even worse, especially when it goes along with a contempt for democracy, or for mass culture (which is folk culture as well as pop culture), or for expressions of social solidarity.

In my view, a healthy egalitarianism is one which sees every human being as being made in the image of God, or-- to secularise it-- that sees every human being as infinitely precious. I also think we should see every human being as a marvellous creation, not only in his or her humanity but in his or her uniqueness.

But why should we abolish all the differences and prerogatives and distinctions which give social life so much of its spice, from a layman kissing the hand of a bishop to a husband kissing the hand of a wife? Why can't we accept the two impulses-- the one which revels in drinking toasts to the monarch, in applauding some wonderful feat, or in using an honorific title-- with those countervailing impulses, which seem no less ingrained; the love for the underdog, and for the 'man on the street', and a chivalric tenderness towards anyone who is 'out of it' in any way-- even if it's their own fault?

But the presence of the 'inner circle' is only part of what I find fascinating about the Transfiguration. The thing I find most fascinating about it is that it is one of those moments of 'shock and awe' which fill the Bible.

Da man! C.S. Lewis
Such moments have always fascinated me, whether they are sacred or secular. Some moments in life seems charged with a kind of overflow of inspiration, or of intensity, or even of ecstasy. Wordsworth called them 'spots of time'. C.S. Lewis called them moments of 'Joy'. I put them in my purple notebook (which has now been replaced with a golden notebook).

Well, we have to come down off the mountain. St. Peter's mysterious remark regarding the three tents has been interpreted as an illegitimate desire to prolong that state of ecstasy, here on Earth. The aesthete Walter Pater famously wrote:

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

This doesn't work, however. You have to come down from the mountain, back to the fallen world. But I value the story of the Transfiguration because it suggests such moments have a value, and that such 'spots of time' or moments of 'Joy' are foretastes of our ultimate goal.

(Although it should be obvious, I should state here that I am simply an unschooled layman giving his personal responses to the story of the Transfiguration. I am not an exegete by any means, though I try my best to conform my thoughts with my own knowledge of solid Catholic teaching. All the same, I entreat you to read everything I write-- here and elsewhere-- in the light of Catholic Tradition, i.e., commentary written by people who actually know what they're talking about.)

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Irish and Penance

I am writing this on a Friday. In the Irish language, Friday (Dé hAoine) means 'the Day of the Fast'. I've known that for a long time, but it was only today that I learned that Wednesday was also a fast day in medieval Ireland, and that its Irish name (Dé Céadaoin) means 'The Day of the First Fast', while Thursday (Déardaoin) means 'the Day Between the Fasts'.

For these nuggets of knowledge, I'm indebted to an excellent book entitled Irish Catholic Spirituality: Celtic and Roman by John J. Ó Ríordáin (a Redemptorist priest), which was published in 1998.

I was a bit worried by the title of this book when I started reading it. In the ecclesiastical politics of contemporary Ireland, 'Celtic Christianity' is very often a code-word for dissent from Church authority. Dissident Catholics look back to Ireland before the Norman invasion, when the Church was structured according to monasteries rather than diocese, and when the Irish practice differed from that on the continent in some respects, such as the calculation of Easter. 'Celtic Christianity' has had all kinds of New Agey utopianism projected onto it.

My fears were unfounded, however, Irish Catholic Spirituality is a really excellent book, and one I heartily recommend to everyone. Fr. Ó Ríordáin really gets under the skin of Irish Catholicism, as it has developed from the era of St. Patrick onwards. It's also a balanced book, although I feel he is a little harsh on the 'post-Tridentine' Irish Catholicism that prevailed from the mid-nineteenth century to Vatican II.

I hope it is not infringing on copyright to summarise his list of characteristics that have defined Irish Catholicism:

1) "Little or no distinction" between the material world and the spiritual world, and a sense of being at home in both.

2) A spirituality in harmony with nature, even in its violent expressions.

3) A natural religious spirit in the people.

4) Giving a low priority to organisational matters.

5) A traditional faith rooted in the Scriptures. [To be honest, I'm rather dubious about this one, as applied to modern times. I've never noticed a deep knowledge of Scripture amongst the Irish, either today or in the recent past.]

6) A devotion to Christ, especially his Passion.

7) A love for Mary, the angels and the saints.

8) A sense of "community, communion, friendship....alliance with the Lord and his household in this present life and in the other world". [Not too sure what this means, actually.]

9) A combination of localness with a deep sense of communion with the Universal Church.

10) Hospitality as a living expression of the Gospel.

11) Penance and self-denial as a means for entering into the death of Christ.

12) Pilgrimage.

13) "A close bond of unity with the dead, giving a sense of fidelity to and continuity with the past."

14) A sense of humour.

But where is Luke Skywalker?
The book (and I haven't finished it yet) describes the various strata of Catholic history. It begins with the rugged but rather anarchic early monastic era; moves to the Golden Era when Irish monks evangelised and educated much of barbarian Europe; then there is the Norman era, during which a diocesan structure was built up, and a certain laxity crept into Irish religion, though there was no discernible diminiution of piety. Then arrives the long Penal era, when the English brutally suppressed Irish Catholicism, and when the peoples' devotion to the Mass and the priesthood (both outlawed) became ever more pronounced. The next era begins with the Synod of Thurles (1850), when Ireland's first Cardinal, Cardinal Paul Cullen, imposed a greater discipline on Irish Catholicism, along with contintental devotions such as novenas, Eucharistic adoration, the Sacred Heart, and so forth. (This is as far as I've reached in the book.)

As I said previously, Fr. Ó Riordáin is rather 'down' on this 'post-Tridentine' strain of Irish Catholicism, complaining that it replaced an indigenous spirituality-- one with a greater emphasis on pligrimages and other traditional forms of popular piety, which he sees as more suited to the Irish temperament.

I can't agree with him here. It seems rather idle to complain that post-Tridentine Catholicism was an exotic bloom, when it so obviously flourished in this soil. Nothing seems more expressive of Irish Catholicism to me than the Sacred Heart pictures that hung in so many houses (including in my uncle's farmhouse kitchen), and indeed the whole panoply of continental devotions.

Dermot Morgan, Church bashing Irish comedian, satirised the Irish 'hippie priest' with his 'Father Trendy'.
To be frank, I feel an affinity with all the phases of Irish Catholicism. I even have a soft spot for the post-Vatican II era in Irish Catholicism, for all its many faults. I grew up in the era of the 'hippie priests', and they were not without their virtues (as long as they remained within the bounds of orthodoxy). There is an upcoming article about this in my Catholicism Without Apologies book, which I am serializing on this blog.

But let me turn to the subject of penance. Fr. Ó Riordáin shows, as many other writers and commentators have shown, that Irish Catholicism has been devoted to penance from its earliest days. St. Patrick's Confession (which I read every St. Patrick's Day) reports a kind of mania for consecrated virgnity that took hold of young nobles during the time of his own mission.

And, even in our own era, the Irish seem to be drawn towards penance-- though now it seems to be the 'big ticket' penances which attract, rather than more routine ones.

Croagh Patrick is a small mountain in Mayo, one of the many sites where St. Patrick (tradition has it) performed spectacular penances. Tens of thousands of pilgrims climb it every year. Some of them even climb it barefoot, or on their knees. (I climbed it myself, a few years ago. I was certainly not barefoot. Even with shoes, it was quite a challenge.) On the last Sunday in July ("Reek Sunday") up to twenty thousand pilgrims go up it.

Even more daunting is Lough Derg, a pilgrimage which involves a three day fast and one night without sleep. This has been going on for a thousand years. I can't even imagine doing this.

Penance is a fascinating subject, as are the related subjects of austerity and hardship. I have been fascinated by them all my life, and I have written about them on this blog before-- in this rather silly (but short!) poem about a comic strip character of my childhood, and in this post about song lyrics that romanticize hardship and discomfort. 

Aside from its value as a sacrifice, many people have commented on the restorative nature of penance-- that it re-awakens our dulled senses, stops us from taking pleasure and comfort and the physical world for granted, and affords us a kind of rewakening. Patrick Kavanagh's poem Advent may be the most eloquent expression of this idea.
Patrick Kavanagh
But penance has come down in the world in recent decades. Very few Christians seems to practice it anymore. 

It might be argued that many of us now perform our penance in the gym, or that the more strenuously 'eco-friendly' lifestyles are a form of penance. It might also be argued that the routine self-abasements demanded by political-correctness-- especially if you have the misfortune to be a scum-of-the-earth white heterosexual male-- might also be termed penance. Then there is the phenomenon of 'self-harming', which seems a relatively new thing.

All of this is an interesting topic for speculation, but the fact remains that any penitential impulse in these cases is sublimated (or perverted). Penance performed self-consciously as penance is what I'm talking about.

Scum-of-the-earth white heterosexual male.
And (with the exception of Lent, which retains a hold over the secular as well as the Christian imagination) few of us seem to bother with it. When the Catholic Church lifted the requirement to abstain from meat on a Friday, the idea was that some alternative penance would be performed. It seems that few people (in Ireland, anyway) even realise that they are meant to perform some penance today. And I admit that I am very patchy about following it myself, especially since non-observance is (as far as I know) not a sin.

I was talking about this yesterday, with a friend of mine who is an Opus Dei priest. I was marvelling at St. Josemaria Escriva's devotion to mortification. My friend reminded me that penance and mortification can come in many forms. True, but somehow the more tangible ones seem more meaningful-- at least, more challenging.

I told him about my disastrous attempts some months ago, inspired by reading St. Josemaria Escriva, to drink only water. I kept it up for a few increasingly wretched weeks. Then I quit. It was miserable. During my weeks of water-drinking, I noticed how a cup of tea (or a cup of coffee) is especially the comfort of tough times and tough situations. A cup of tea is what hospital patients, and people doing hard manual labour, and people who've had a nasty shock or some bad news, all latch onto, and look forward to, and find warmth and sustenance in. I pretty much picked the worst thing in the whole world for my mortification.

Never mind the rubble, here's a nice cuppa!
It is true, though, that since then I've relished my cups of tea more than ever. And trying to conquer my gluttony is a bit easier, when I can think: "At least I can have a cup of tea."

As you might have guessed, I am no prodigy at penance myself. Missing a meal or a full night's sleep puts me completely out of sorts.

And yet my imagination is stirred by the subject. Perhaps because my imagination is an Irish imagination. (George Bernard Shaw wrote that an Irishman's heart is just his imagination. Probably true.)

But let us return to Irish Catholic Spirituality. The author (contradicting me a little, perhaps) notes that an urge towards penance lingers in the Irish Catholic psyche:

Certainly this penitential element is dear to Irish piety today, not only in conjunction with pilgrimages, but in many other aspects of devotion. In a school retreat which I conducted, one of the exercises I requested was communal penance; in this case each young student kneeling on the hands for the duration of five Paters, Aves and Glorias with the intention of making reparation to Christ for the sins of the world. The students joyfully and generously undertook this exercise amid a tumult of 'ohs' and 'ahs'. Six years later the teacher in charge informed me that the puplis, now adults, still remembered with satisfaction what had been for them a telling religious experience.

"Forgive me, Father, I propagated the racist heternormative patriarchy. And I cheated at Scrabble."
(This reminds of something that the chaplain in UCD mentioned during a homily-- that the children who make their Confessions to him actually take the idea of sin and confession very seriously. It's not religious brainwashing that conditions us into the notion of sin, he said-- it's secular brainwashing that conditions us out of it.)

The author also points out-- and he is not the first to do so-- that the use of the hunger strike in Irish history has roots in this penitential streak.

I suppose all this means that, if Ireland is going to be re-evangelized, we should take into account this latent urge for penance in the national psyche. How exactly that is done is a matter for wiser and more strategic heads than mine. But at least I've shown the way down one blind alley. The Irish thirst for penance, profound as it is, is unlikely to be more powerful than the Irish thirst for tea.