I'd like to recommend two books by the Catholic author Roger Buck, who is of Anglo-American extraction but who now lives in Ireland. Indeed, one of the books is set in Ireland and the second book discusses Irish Catholicism in depth.
They are The Gentle Traditionalist: A Catholic Fairytale from Ireland and Cor Jesu Sacratissimum: From Secularism and the New Age to Christendom Renewed.
I can't afford to buy books right now, but someone was kind enough to make me a gift of both. Since the New Year, I've only been reading Irish language material, but I'm glad to have made an exception for these.
The first book is a short, charming story of a "seeker's" encounter with a mysterious figure, who helps him to understand what Mr. Buck terms the Catholic Mystery, from a starting position of indifference bordering on hostility. I can give a flavour of it, and perhaps some explanation of why it appealed to me so much, by way a short extract. The central character has been directed by a mysterious sign, which suddenly appeared in a deserted town centre on a snowy morning, up a flight of stairs:
I'm not sure what I expected, some sort of offfice perhaps, like a consultant would have. But it was nothing of the sort. Instead, an open fire blazed away. Above it hung a picture of Jesus pointing to his heart. Beside it on the mantlepiece, a red lamp burnt. Two comfortable chairs were pulled up next to the hearth. In one of them sat a rotund man sporting a slightly faded tweed jacket and trousers. His hair and beard were as white as the snow outside and he looked ancient-- ninety years or more...through a window behind [him], I could see the snowflakes falling. A sweet fragrance permeated the room. I looked around and saw a censer burning with frankincence. The whole place had a rustic, antique feel. A large crucifix hung on one wall, while bookshelves lined another wall with faded volumes....
Oooh! How could anyone resist that?
I read The Gentle Traditionalist in as close to one sitting as I could, given all my other daily duties. It's a Socratic dialogue, and rich with ideas. Like all good Socratic dialogues, it fairly and even generously represents the objections to the author's thesis.
The second book, Cor Jesu Sacratissimum, is even better. It's over four hundred pages long, and it describes the author's journey from New Age spirituality to conservative Catholicism. I'm on the last chapter now, and I've enjoyed every page.
Buck critiques the New Age movement sympathetically, allowing for the noble impulses that draw many seekers to it, but showing the ultimate vacuum at its core. Even if you have no interest in the New Age, this section is worth reading, because many of the ideas and assumptions on which New Age spirituality is based also pervade our wider culture, as the author shows.
There are many pleasures in this book. An account of the generations-long war waged on French Christianity by the heirs of the French Revolution may be one of the most eye-opening for many people who have only a layman's knowledge of French history.
But Buck's thoughts on Ireland will be of special interest to Irish readers, and to those interested in Ireland. In fact, I think Buck, as an outsider, has a better "take" on Catholic Ireland and its legacy than do many Irish people, even Irish Catholics-- yes, even conservative Irish Catholics!
The author has lived in many countries, and his book's main theses is that traditionally Catholic countries have been pervaded by the sacraments in a way that transforms and elevates their entire character. However, nowhere did he find this legacy to be more powerful than in Ireland. Irish readers might almost blush to read his rhapsodies about Ireland, especially the rural areas in which he has lived. However, he is well aware that he is open to the charge of naivety, or of wearing rose (or green?) tinted glasses. Indeed, he spends some time addressing this charge.
Perhaps my favourite part of the entire book was the author's defence of traditional Catholicism in Ireland. A theory has taken hold, even amongst conservative Catholics in Ireland, that Irish Catholicism in its modern heyday was fatally flawed in some way. It was superficial. It was based on social conformity, not genuine religious conviction. It was complacent. It was anti-intellectual. It was insular. It was a dead man walking for decades. It was destined to hit an iceberg and sink, sooner or later.
Reader, I don't believe any of this, and neither does Roger Buck. He quotes Mary Kenny's magnum opus, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland, in which she argues that Irish Catholicism of the early-to-mid twentieth century, far from being insular or anti-intellectual, was extremely outward-looking and intellectually curious.
Working in a university library, I have spent a lot of time reading back issues of Irish Catholic magazines such as The Irish Ecclesiastical Record. It's plain to me, from reading these, that Irish Catholicism was much more intellectually vibrant, self-reflective, and outward-looking than it's given credit for. Such journals are full of articles on the world situation, on science, on current trends in philosophy, on other religions, and on a startling range of other subjects-- and at a high intellectual level, at that.
(If the readership of this blog were not the elite they are, this is the point where someone would sardonically hurl those words, "Golden age!". Thankfully, such vapid objections don't have to be addressed here. There is an enormous difference between praising something and attributing perfection to it.)
In fact, I think Roger Buck is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of "what killed Catholic Ireland"-- pop culture, television, consumerism, and many of the perversely self-destructive reforms that were let loose on the Church after Vatican II.
It's no surprise, perhaps, that I liked this book so much, because the author shares my own enthusiasm for Irish cultural nationalism, quoting with approval De Valera's famous "happy maidens" speech, which I've quoted so often on this blog. He doesn't focus on the cultural aspect all that much, but he explicitly laments the ebbing of an anti-materialistic, communitarian lifestyle, decries in passing the loss of the Irish language, and is very critical of the Anglo-American pop culture which flooded Ireland (and other countries) from the sixties onwards.
Buck believes that Anglo-American culture in particular is imbued with a baneful Protestant-secular ethos, having long been deprived of the sacramental grace of Catholic cultures. He may have a point, but for my part, I don't much care what cultural force happens to be swamping national and regional distinctiveness. It's Anglo-American today; it may be Chinese or Hispanic tomorrow. Even if it was Irish-Gaelic I would be in favour of keeping it at home, and stopping it from overwhelming other territories! (On a case-by-case basis, of course; for example, I have no objection to St. Patrick's Day parades around the world, but the franchised "Irish pub" surely needs to be stomped on.)
It makes me rather sad that even the defenders of Irish Catholicism, and also Irish cultural conservatives, seem to have little interest in the kind of Catholic-Gaelic ideal envisaged by De Valera, and by so many others. As a vision, it was hugely successful for a century or more. It has been tried and tested. It achieved wonders in the cultural sphere as much as in the spiritual sphere, such as the revival of Gaelic games and the preservation of the Irish language. Why did we ever jettison that vision? Like the changes to Catholicism after Vatican II, it seemed to be nothing but a loss of nerve-- or pure fickleness.
Roger Buck, with his outsider's perspective, is grieved by the globalization of our Irish culture, as well as the diminution of our Catholic faith.
The author of Cor Jesu (which, I admit, is how I have been referring to it in my diary!) obviously believes that Ireland is an exceptional country, an exceptional culture. It's not that I disagree with him, but I've always been shy of claims of Irish exceptionalism, of Irish specialness or of Irish eminence. Ultimately, I care about the soul of Ireland because it's my country. I think every culture is precious and needs to be preserved and cherished. Nevertheless, Buck's lyrical evocations of Catholic Ireland will warm (and also sadden) many an Irish heart, at home and abroad.
I didn't intend to write so much in this post! All I can say in closing is; reader, I very strongly recommend you to buy one of both of these books, if you can.