Monday, February 27, 2012

Shopping for God

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a Catholic visitor from America over Christmas. I was very intrigued as to what she would think of Ireland's religious landscape.

(For my part, I was staggered by the conspicuousness of religion in America-- or in Richmond, Virginia, to be specific. Churches were everywhere. Baptist churches predominated, but every other Christian denomination and other religion seemed to be present-- Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Judaism, Episcopalian, and many I didn't recognize at all.)

One of the things that struck my visitor was a shopping centre oratory I took her into-- the little chapel in the Ilac Centre. "You'd never get this in America", she said-- and really, there is something odd about these little sacred nooks in palaces of consumerism.

The oratory in the Ilac Centre is actually a favourite spot of mine. The riot of flowers before the tabernacle, the solemn and ever-burning sacred heart lamp, the rather ornately carved figure of Christ on the cross, the commemorative plates upon the pews requesting prayers for the dead, the noticeboard whose notices change slowly enough to preserve the atmosphere of stillness but not too slowly to create an atmosphere of death-- I love it all. (I am rather intrigued by the opening to the left of the tabernacle, from which I occasionally hear noises-- who is there? I'm always too timid to look in.)

The noises floating in from the shopping centre itself-- the pop music playing on the public address system, the hum of voices, and the jingle of the arcade games located right outside-- only seems to deepen the silence within. It does indeed seem to be in the world, but not of the world. The positioning seems ideal to me; the sacred and profane, cheek by jowl, the figure on the Cross not a historical character but utterly relevant to the chocolate-eaters and lottery-players only feet away. If only they would step inside.

In fact, there is a steady stream of visitors, perhaps split half and half between Irish (usually elderly) and non-nationals. Most stay for a few moments. Some, especially the old, stare at the face of their Saviour for more protracted periods. Worshippers rarely look at each other; the space is too small to do so without embarrassment. Strangely enough, this leads to a funny sort of impersonal intimacy.

I have recently discovered another shopping centre oratory; one that, strangely enough, I had never entered before, despite having been a habitué of the shopping centre for many years. That is the oratory in the Omni Centre, Santry.

This feels very different to the dark, cramped oratory in the Ilac Centre. Its walls are white, and light floods in through the stained glass windows. It hasn't got pews, like the Ilac Centre oratory, but wooden chairs in a few short rows. There is a tabernacle, a hanging cross with an ebony-black Christ sculpted upon it, a few small statuettes, a magazine rack of rather Millenarian-looking pamplets, and (most interestingly) a series of Eastern Orthodox icons along the left wall. A framed information sheet on the back wall describes the icons, which are collectively known (it tells the reader) as the Deesis. The icons and the pamphlets give the space a rather exotic atmosphere, at least to me, recalling the farther horizons and more fevered pockets of Christendom.

Despite the brightness, or because of it, the oratory has something of a funeral home feeling-- not an entirely inappropriate or unwelcome assocation, since prayer should always turn our mind to the Last Things.

This is less busy than the Ilac Centre oratory, although people (nearly always old people) still come in every five or ten minutes. Sometimes people walk in and walk straight back out again (on opening the door, you have to turn a little corner to see the oratory itself). Perhaps they were merely curious. Perhaps they are embarrassed to find someone actually praying. Perhaps they were looking for somewhere quiet to make a mobile phone call.

I remember, too, visiting the oratory in the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. I only visited once; I remember a narrow, dark room. It seemed better-frequented than the others. I got the impression it had gathered a little community around itself.

These oratories are interesting as monuments to a particular moment in Irish history. A moment when Ireland was moving towards a consumer society, but still contained enough popular piety to make such installations desirable. I can't remember seeing an oratory or even a prayer room (or "contemplation" room) in Dundrum's more recently-built temple to Mammon. I wonder when Ireland's last shopping centre oratory was built.

I like them. Cathedrals and historical churches have never appealed to me very much; they have enough people to love them already, many of them tourists. I like chapels and oratories and humble little suburban churches. I like places of worship that were founded in living memory. I like modern stained glass and concrete blocks and low ceilings. I like stylized stations of the cross. In most things, I am as anti-modernist as the Amish, but I don't want religion to be a museum piece. In a plain suburban church, I feel somehow closer to the god of the Patriarchs than I do in a centuries-old cathedral full of carvings and tombs and inscriptions.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Should Catholics be Patriots?

Hawk-eyed readers will have noticed that this blog is called the Irish Papist, and that the photo shows a statuette of Our Blessed Lady against a background of the Irish tricolour. I am also aware that I have had many posts with a papist theme, but few with a specifically Irish theme.

Patriotism, it seems to me, is very unfashionable. It is out of favour with almost everybody. Liberals dislike it because, well, they are liberals, and they tend to frown on anything that might be considered tribalistic or exclusive. Socialists dislike it because it distracts from the economic conflict, which they consider the real axis of history.

Conservatives? They emphasise it much less than they used to, since the term "conservative" increasingly seems to mean "a champion of the free market". And what does the free market, with its multinational companies and its intercontinental trade flows, have to do with patriotism?

In America, patriotism still means a great deal, of course; but even there, it increasingly seems to signal support for "the American way"; which, on closer examination, turns out not to be the essentially American way at all, but an eminently exportable system of free markets, personal freedoms, democracy and so on.

Islam, resurgent across so much of the world, is said to lack the Christian distinction between God and Caesar, between the city of man and the city of God, and thus seems essentially internationalist. (I may be wrong, as my knowledge of Islam is limited.)

Even Irish republicans, now that they have accepted British rule in Northern Ireland is not going to be brought to an end by force, seem to have turned their attention to various other left-wing causes, while waiting for demographics to achieve what the men in the balaclavas never could. (Considering the hostility of ultra-liberal Sinn Féin and of so many Irish republicans to the Catholic Church, their former confidence that nationalists have procreation on their side might have been misplaced.)

In any case, patriotism-- and by patriotism I mean the romantic, sentimental, aesthetic love and celebration of your country, because it is your country, and the desire to preserve and strengthen its traditions and distinctive culture-- seems to be in abeyance today.

When I visited America, I was surprised and pleased at the amount of American flags I saw everywhere, principally flying from house porches and over the aisles of supermarkets. I understand that this was, to some extent, an expression of support for the troops abroad, but I think it also showed a casual, everyday, unembarrassed love of country that Europeans would do well to emulate.

So, when I got home, I bought two little Irish tricolours in a Carroll's tourist shop. I hung one in my bedroom and I stood one at my desk in work. After it had been there some time, one of my colleagues said, "I keep meaning to ask you. What is the flag for? The rugby, is it?"

This, to me, is the whole problem; the idea that patriotism has to be for something; that the flag should only be flown in times of war, or at times of high political drama at home, or to support the national team at some sporting event-- or perhaps when Ireland win something like the Eurovision Song Contest.

The flag is for life, not just for Euro 2012.

I do think this whole mentality-- that patriotism only applies at times of crisis or challenge-- is symptomatic of a deeper human fault. It is the malady that Chesterton never tired of addressing; I think he described it somewhere as "losing every good as soon as it is gained".

Why do we only love what is new, or what someone is trying to take from us, or what is in danger? Why do we only pine for what we don't have? Why are we so blasé about the nation and traditions that so many Irish people worked, fought and died to preserve? Why did Adam and Eve lose Eden for the sake of the one fruit they were forbidden to taste?

Irish Catholics often seem as uninterested in patriotism as everybody else. This is understandable, to some extent. In the decades following Irish independence, there was something of a holy (or perhaps unholy) alliance between Church and State, Irish patriotism and Roman Catholicism. The motto of the Irish Christian brothers was Do chum glóire Dé agus onóir na hÉireann, "For the glory of God and the honour of Ireland". A fine motto in itself, but one that has suffered from its association with the Christian Brothers, who are now identified in the fickle public mind with sexual and physical abuse.

Yeats depicted, in The Municipal gallery Revisited:

An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. "This is not,’ I say,
"The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’

De Valera, in his (unfairly) infamous "comely maidens" radio speech of St. Patrick's Day 1943-- the speech that never used the phrase "comely maidens", but has become the expression of everything modern Ireland rejects about its recent past-- left no doubt that the Ireland of his dreams was a Christian Ireland. ("The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.")

So the marriage of the Church and the flag seems, in retrospect, unfortunate. The Church was blamed for all the faults, real and imagined, of twentieth century Ireland. Irish Catholics, for their part, might well feel that the Church was used as a kind of focus for national sentiment, a stick with which to meet the Protestant or Godless English, and then discarded when independence was safely attained.

But, as mainstream Ireland drifts further and further away from Christianity-- or even comes to ardently reject it-- I think it would be a shame for Irish Catholics to react by losing their patriotism.

For one thing, the Church enjoins us to be patriots, as we can see from the Catechism (where it is brought under the heading of the Fourth Commandment):

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.
(CCC 2239)

It often seems to me, too, that Christ's fullness of human nature included, not just friendship and filial emotion, but patriotism. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not?"

Be that as it may be, it seems to me that patriotism is something that humans are always getting wrong-- in times of war and occupation, we elevate it to an idol, a substitute God. In times of peace, we seem to all but forget about it.

How, then, would I have us remember patriotism?

By giving our children Irish names. By giving our houses and boats and pets and private companies names that celebrate Irish history, mythology and culture. By preserving Irish traditions such as Wren's Day and the Irish aspects of Halloween ("Help the Halloween party!", not "trick or treat!"). By choosing uncial script when we have occasion to use fancy lettering-- for instance, in a shop sign. By choosing, at least sometimes, to holiday at home rather than abroad. By reading about Irish history and traditions and culture. By memorizing Irish ballads. By flying the tricolour for no reason.

I'm not much interested in debates over what constitutes "genuine" or "authentic" Irish culture, and what is merely Celtic Twilight fakery manufactured in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Personally, I am for anything that emphasises and strengthens our distinctiveness- or any other country's distinctiveness. I believe that thinking, talking and writing about Irishness, in itself, makes us more Irish. The very reaching out to our national past, no matter how clumsily or unlearnedly, enriches our nation. To seek to be a patriot is itself patriotism.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Silent Homilies

I have read recently that the split between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church has less to do with the particular doctrinal points at issue (for instance, the famous dispute over the filioque, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son”), but to a different approach between the two traditions. The Orthodox churches believe that the Catholic Church is too rationalistic, too ensnared in abstract philosophy, too intent upon the building of philosophical systems such as Thomism.

(I recently read an intriguing book—Thought Prison by Bruce Charlton—which actually laid the blame of all the West’s decadence upon this supposed Catholic rationalism. This is especially notable since Bruce Charlton is English, and presumably not brought up in the Orthodox tradition.)

The Orthodox tend instead to believe that the Holy Spirit communicates itself to us in a mystical state called theoria, and that we are to be guided by this rather than the abstractions of theology. (I may have got that slightly wrong, but I think it’s not too far wrong.)

Of course, being a Catholic, I don’t believe this, for all my enormous respect for Eastern Orthodoxy. I agree with John Paul II who described faith and reason as the two wings on which the human spirit ascends, in Fides et Ratio. I don’t think human beings can ever escape conceptual thought, and I believe abstractions are useful. They must guide us for as far as our human minds can possibly reach. Without concepts and ideas, we can have no knowledge, intuitive or mystical or otherwise.

Likewise, we need dogmas to articulate the Creed, teachers to expound it, and apologists to defend it from intellectual attack.

All those things, we need; and yet increasingly, I think they are the less potent part of faith. I increasingly believe that the strongest argument for Christianity—with most people—is the sight of a Corpus Christ procession, the words of a Christmas carol drifting on crisp winter air, the vision of candles glowing before a holy statue, and a murmured prayer overheard by accident.

Am I sentimentalizing faith? I suppose there is that risk. That is why I insist on the need for an intellectual foundation.

And yet, how many people are actually persuaded by arguments? How often have you heard anybody winning anybody over in a debate? It is often said, as a sneer, that somebody can’t be reasoned out of a position into which they were never reasoned in the first place. But is anybody really reasoned into any position?

I believe most philosophies of life are born in the imagination—the rationalistic and utilitarian just as much as the romantic and mystical.

Nationalism is, perhaps, kindled by the words of a patriotic ballad or childhood experience of a country’s landscape. Socialism may have its genesis in the sight of a mother crying over bills she can’t pay. Liberalism might start with tight apron-strings.

Is it not a familiar experience that, when we debate politics or philosophy or religion with an opponent, we find ourself coming up against rocky soil that no argument can penetrate? Or how often do we find ourselves resisting an opponent’s argument, not out of sheer perversity, but from an overwhelming intuition that they are wrong, that their point—no matter how persuasively put—just doesn’t seem to fit?

I remember watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and the Oxford mathematician (and Christian) John Lennox, on Youtube. At one point Dawkins, exasperated by the Christian’s inability to see his own patent wrongness, sighed: “But it’s all so provincial, isn’t it?” It’s a tack I have heard from atheists more than once; how petty-minded to believe God could actually have been born on this obscure planet in one of billions of galaxies!

In other words, it’s an aesthetic consideration, and quite resistant to rational argument. All Christians can do is point out that the God of Christianity (and Judaism) generally does show a preference for the obscure and lowly, and that there is an aesthetic appeal to this, too.

Or again, the objection of rationalists to miracles so often seems aesthetic rather than rational. They find something messy and fumbling in the idea of a God who countermands his own orders (as they see it), who tinkers with his own creation.

So, given that the philosophies of human beings are so often shaped by non-rational forces, what should our reponse be? Should we give up on reason and rational argument and rely on the power of suggestion?

Well, of course not. But we should never underestimate the power of symbolism, poetry, atmosphere, ceremony, beauty.

I might even say; we should never underestimate the truth of these things, their power to communicate God’s message.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, is at least something. It is there. It is solid and positive and tangible, not simply a theory or an idea. This is the flip side of the Inquisition, the wars of religion, the sale of indulgences, and all the mud that has been flung at the Cross.

Christianity, as practiced, is not pristine; but nothing real and lived is pristine (saving Our Saviour and his Blessed Mother). Christianity has all the faults and virtues of the actual, and the virtues far outshine the faults.

It is there—and ready to draw those who are hostile, sceptical, or indifferent, and often to draw them in some unguessed or unforeseeable way. Ready to call them through some doggerel in a poorly-printed parish newsletter, or the peacefulness in a nun’s face, or an old carving in a deconsecrated church converted to a hardware shop.

For myself, too, I have sometimes felt the Holy Spirit works on me more in my inattention and my absence of mind than when I am concentrating. Kneeling, making the sign of the cross, mumbling oft-repeated prayers, catching the sight of the morning sun shining through a church window; this is when I seem penetrated by an assurance and peace I couldn’t put into mere words.

We preach Christianity by practicing it, and the sight of a young family saying grace in a restaurant has more power than all the opinion pieces in all the newspapers in the world.

Or so it seems to me, more and more; perhaps I am wrong; and yet I think the sight of lived Christianity must count for a great deal in the battle for souls.