Sunday, May 27, 2012

Lovely Article by Breda O'Brien in the Irish Catholic this week...

...although I think the headline, "The Church I go on Loving Despite it All", is rather inappropriate and doesn't reflect the text. Maybe it reflects the editorial outlook of The Irish Catholic.

I liked it for its frankness and even its vulnerability. I think Catholic writers certainly have to be able to mix it with anti-Catholic and anti-religious bruisers and there is a crying need for the bullish apologist. But I think that it is the still, small voice that often reaches where the bombardment of heavy-duty philosophical and historical arguments can't.

She begins: "Recently, I was asked to give a talk on being a Catholic in Ireland today. The request got me thinking about what Catholicism means to me, and why it would be extremely difficult to imagine my life without my Catholic faith."

She then goes on to make what I think is a refreshing and disarming admission: "If I had been raised as a Muslim, there is a high probability that I would have been a devout Muslim. I think some people are more inclined to a spiritual or religious outlook on life."

Sceptics so often present this argument as if it was devastating. "If you were born in Pakistan, you'd be just as confident that Islam was true as you are that Christianity is true! If you'd been raised a Mormon, you'd find excuses for all the anachronisms in the Book of Mormon and all the hypocrisies of Joseph Smith, just like you explain away all the dark parts of Catholic history now!"

Of course, counter-factual claims can never be tested, so the sceptic is taking rather a cheap shot. But I do in fact acknowledge the basic truth of the claim. I'd like to think that, whatever religion I had been born to, or even if I had been born into a secular family, I would have found my way to the Catholic faith. But I am not entirely confident of this. It seems to me it would take an enormous independence of thought to reach Catholicism from a devoutly Hindu or Sikh or Muslim background. It's impossible to know.

Is this simply admitting, tacitly if not explicitly, that all religions are basically the same and they are all-- at best-- clumsy but poignant attempts to express the mystery at the heart of life?

No, absolutely not. I believe unreservedly that Catholicism is the true faith, for all that other faiths contain glimmers of the truth. It is perfectly logical to believe that what you believe is true, while accepting that you might have believed differently if your circumstances had been difficult. A twenty-first century liberal could whole-heartedly believe that slavery is wrong while accepting that he would have thought differently if he had been a fifth-century BC Athenian.

But it goes further than this, for me. I never had sympathy with the sceptic's argument that a just Deity would have revealed himself to all mankind at once, and have given each human an equal chance to come to the Truth. How boringly rationalistic that would be! How great a loss it would be to miss out on all those thrilling tales of missionaries and revivals and Road to Damascus moments! I prefer the drama of the Acts of the Apostles to some kind of divine Public Service Broadcast screened all over the world at the same time.

Breda O'Brien goes on to write: "People who incline to intellectual atheism are often unable to identify with the mystical aspects of religion...attemps to talk about a relationship with God evoke a baffled response, akin to embarrassment, as if an adult still sucked her thumb. It's as if I were talking a different language. Perhaps I am."

How familiar a situation this is to most religious believers today! Outside the ranks of New Atheist boors, most non-believers are polite and respectful and recognize that a person's religious faith is of supreme importance to them. They tend to humour us rather than challenge us. There often even seems to be a kind of admiration or benign envy at play.

In a way, this reaction is more of a challenge to the religious believer than the zealotry of the New Atheist. The pathological Church-basher and antagonist of religion seems so obviously to be repressing a spiritual hunger that he is almost making our case for us. Encountering anti-Catholicism tends to buoy up my own faith. Encountering good-humoured unbelief is rather more disarming.

And yet, it usually seems to me that those who seem indifferent to religion feel the religious impulse in another form. Very often they are enraptured by music or art or perhaps devotion to some cause. I sincerely believe that, if they really thought about these insights into the sublime, they would realise that they are actually calls to worship. Nothing human, nothing historical or conditional, can take the weight of human yearning, or the human tendency to complete devotion. I think even a collector of vintage cars is ultimately seeking the sacred.

Futher in the article, Ms O'Brien makes another excellent point: "More importantly, I love churches for their sense of presence. It is not only the combined energy of all the human beings who have come to pray there, but a sense of a greater presence. Presence is a vital concept in our world, where so many people are scattered and distracted. People who are really present are rare, and precious. Naturally, a place with a sense of the presence of God is even more treasured."

Ironically, the writer who probably best expressed my own feelings about churches was the atheist, Philip Larkin, in his poem Church-Going. He hit the bull's-eye with the line: "A serious house on serious earth it is." Churches are serious places-- and how our souls cry out for seriousness! How much of the fun and hilarity and irony and pleasure-seeking in our society is, in reality, an expression of despair! There is certainly a place for mirth in this world, but joy-- true, deep and overwhelming joy-- is a serious, even a solemn thing. 

Somehow, I feel that my joy in everything is centred in the tabernacle of a Catholic church. I quite often get bored during Mass and my mind regularly wanders during the liturgy. But, at the same time, I feel that this holy place is the hearth of all human life, that it spreads warmth and light and comfort through every other element of existence. (I eat my post-Mass breakfast with more relish than any other breakfast.) Somehow, the magic of the darkened cinema and the exciting gloom of early mornings in winter and the carnival atmosphere of a crowded, sun-spangled street in summer all seem to depend upon the existence of churches. My joy in a deserted beach or a cluttered second-hand bookshop or a cosy pub rests on the knowledge that, at that very moment, all over the world, the Lord's Supper is being celebrated. Knowing that raises all the fun and frivolity and feverishness to a higher level. It's a very difficult feeling to express.

Another excellent point that Breda O'Brien makes is that "human nature is such that unless it has something powerfully attractive drawing it beyond itself, it declines into hedonism, boredom and cruelty." Absolutely. There is no equilibrium. Those who attack Christianity think they are dealing it a crushing blow when they point out how pitifully short Christians fall of their own ideals. But should we really lower our moral standards to make it easier for ourselves? It is our nature to strive. If we are not striving to love God and our neighbour (and doubtless failing miserably) we are soon striving to outdo our neighbour and become God.

 This paragraph is quite brilliant: "When I am gazing at my own navel, nothing makes sense, and the world is dull and painful. When I am gazing at the beauty of stars, nothing makes sense, either, but things do not make sense in a mysterious, reassuring, and fascinating way."

Religious people are often criticized for needing a cut-and-dried philosophy of life, for taking refuge from uncertainty in dogma. It seems to me that religion opens up the world more than any non-religious philosophy. It exposes us even more nakedly to mystery. Scientific materialism, liberalism, Marxism, anarchism, nationalism-- all those merely human outlooks seem so settled and tidy. But the voice of religion is like the voice of God in  the Book of Job, or the apparently evasive answers that our Lord so often makes in the Gospels. It seems to explain the enigma of life by deepening it. And something deep within us responds; yes, this makes sense. This corresponds to the strangeness of life.

Breda O'Brien concludes: "It [the Church] is my still point in a turning world, and it is incredibly precious to me."

All too often, "spiritual" articles in Catholic publications are composed of little more than platitudes and "the warm fuzzies". That has its place, but it is too prevalent. It is so much more effective and powerful when a writer really examines his or her faith with an effort at objectivity. I also think articles like this might be better placed in the secular press,  where I really think they might catch the attention of those who do not consider themselves religious, or who have drifted out of practicing their faith. In any case, hats off to Breda O'Brien!

And may the Holy Spirit shower graces on all of us this Pentecost! 

P.S.: Holy cow! I just did an internet search on Breda O'Brien and was knocked over by all the vitriolic posts from left-feminist, secularist and otherwise embittered bloggers. Even the hatred heaped on David Quinn pales in comparison. I hope this post balances the ledger even a little bit-- in fact, that is one of the reasons I set up this blog. Far too many Irish bloggers seem to be consumed by hatred towards the Church. I'm hoping to provide some counterbalance.


  1. Thank you for this very interesting reflection on Breda O'Brien's article in the Irish Catholic.
    Thank you for being a positive voice!