Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In America

I'm on holiday in America and won't be posting anymore for the rest of the month. Service a usual will return in July. Thank you as always for reading, and I look forward to telling you about what I saw in America. ;)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Transubstantiation Vexation

There has been a whole lot of pother recently, stirred up by those bad boys in The Irish Times, about what Irish Catholics actually believe happens to the communion bread and wine when they are consecrated. Two-thirds of Catholic polled believe that they merely "represent" the body and blood of our Lord, which would seem to make the consecration rather redundant.

Richard Dawkins, as could have been expected, took the poll as an opportunity to call on Catholics to admit that they do not believe what their Church teaches. Colum Kenny of the Sunday Independent, gallantly if ill-advisedly, rode to the aid of Irish Catholics, suggesting that they could still find the Eucharist meaningful if it was not the literal body and blood of Christ, adding: "Transubstantiation never made much sense to many believers. It makes even less sense today unless it can be reinterpreted and integrated into our scientific knowledge of physics and psychology."

What has physics and psychology got to do with it?

I can't comprehend Transubstantiation or the Trinity. That's partly the reason, Tertullian-like, that I believe in them. I don't understand the concept of curved space-time. I don't understand quantum mechanics. Why should metaphysics be any less mysterious than physics? It would seem anti-climactic if it was. I would rather Reality was built upon mystery than mundanity.

I do not believe the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and saints of the Church would have fought so heroically and doggedly-- guided by the Holy Spirit, of course-- to preserve truths of the Faith unless they were of surpassing importance. The fact that it took the Church centuries to even begin to comprehend them only underlines their supernatural significance. If the early Church had fought like a cornered dog over doctrines that quite patently had social or political or cultural implications-- the divine right of Emperors, say-- it would be a strong suggestion that the Church was merely human in nature. But when we see an institution resisting every trial and temptation, even unto persecution and death, to stand over doctrines that seem utterly unconnected to any human power struggle, we can suspect there is something supernatural at work.

For my own part, I don't have the slightest difficulty in accepting the doctrine of Transubstantiation, or of the Trinity. If, per impossible, the Pope announced tomorrow that the consecrated communion Host was merely a symbol, I would cease to be Catholic.

I was delighted to find, when reading the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, that Newman had expressed my own view perfectly:

"People say that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is difficult to believe; I did not believe the doctrine till I was a Catholic. I had no difficulty in believing it, as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation. It is difficult, impossible, to imagine, I grant;—but how is it difficult to believe? Yet Macaulay thought it so difficult to believe, that he had need of a believer in it of talents as eminent as Sir Thomas More, before he could bring himself to conceive that the Catholics of an enlightened age could resist "the overwhelming force of the argument against it." "Sir Thomas More," he says, "is one of the choice specimens of wisdom and virtue; and the doctrine of transubstantiation is a kind of proof charge. A faith which stands that test, will stand any test." But for myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say, "Why should it not be? What's to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all;"—so much is this the case, that there is a rising school of philosophy now, which considers phenomena to constitute the whole of our knowledge in physics. The Catholic doctrine leaves phenomena alone. It does not say that the phenomena go; on the contrary, it says that they remain; nor does it say that the same phenomena are in several places at once. It deals with what no one on earth knows any thing about, the material substances themselves."

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Eliot

Today, for the second time in recent years, I borowed Four Quartets by TS Eliot and have been trying to penetrate it. I am generally anti-modern in all things, especially poetry, and so all my life I have felt a hostility to the more obscure works of Eliot-- that is to say, most of them. (Though even a determined reactionary like me can't ignore the sublime lyricism of his works.)

And yet, the more famous and oft-quoted passages from Four Quartets have been haunting me more and more. It was in one of Father Brendan Purcell's philosophy classes in UCD that I first heard the line "distracted from distraction by distraction" and it stuck in my mind. I can't even remember where I first read these lines, perhaps the most profound in all poetry:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Roger Scruton, the doyen of English conservatism (whatever is left of it, that is), in his book England: an Elegy accords the poetry of TS Eliot-- and Four Quartets especially-- a very high place, almost the quintessenial expression of Englishness and English spirituality. Peter Hitchens-- the other English conservative-- also turns to Eliot's religious poems to describe his own spiritual journey.

It has become fashionable to claim that the English are essentially secular, that the Church of England was never anything but a hat-tip to the idea of the sacred, that religious fervour is essentially un-English. I have heard this idea advanced by the journalist Matthew Parris, amongst others. But I don't believe it for a second. I think true Englishness-- for all its understatement, common sense, moderation, and so forth-- is deeply rooted in the idea of the sacred. In fact, all the more down-to-earth virtues of Englishness only make sense when they remain rooted in the sacred, just as a wise-cracking and bubbly individual is only bearable if he retains a seriousness underneath.

So Four Quartets expresses the essence of English spirituality. But what's it all abaht, guv?

I don't know. I can only catch flashes of meaning here and there. To discern anything more, I think I am going to have to consult some works of poetry criticism (gulp). But there are many passages in the sequence that electrify me, even without my fully understanding them, especially this one:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. Could it be put any better than that? Could there be any better reply to the scoffers like Richard Dawkins who wonder why the efficacy of prayer can't be proven experimentally-- without realising that praying for the purpose of an experiment is not prayer at all?

And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind...who hasn't prayed and felt this? Who hasn't felt that, even if the mind wanders at prayer, or one doesn't really feel like praying, prayer happens at a deeper level than the conscious mind-- one almost outside time, especially if it takes place in a church, where we feel surrounded by the saints and the ghosts of past congregations?

Snobbery Against Sport

As European Championship fever grips the country, people respond in all kinds of ways. There are the soccer and sports fanatics, mostly men and boys, who have been counting down the days and who will feel cheated if they miss a single throw-in of the tournament. There are the fairweather fans who generally take no interest in soccer, or maybe even sport, but who get drawn in to the hype and excitement. There are the soccer widows and the generally uninterested, who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders and maybe force themselves to watch a little, if only to bond with their loved ones. Perhaps they even find themselves enjoying it.

Then there are the other crowd, the anti-sport snobs, who will mutter about bread and circuses and the cult of soccer and generally congratulate themselves on taking no interest.

As for me, I belong firmly in the "generally uninterested" camp. I don't follow soccer or any other sport, although there was a time when I took a keen interest in soccer. I'm still able to watch a match on TV and enjoy it (usually cheering for the underdog). I find most field and court sports pretty enjoyable to look at-- I had a great time at a baseball game in America last year, although that was as much for the atmosphere and the audience participation as the action on the field.

Whenever I have participated in sports (I was never any good) I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and even now, when I see kids kicking a ball around, I itch to join in.

So I am not a sportsfan or sportsman, but I am not proud of this. I am rather a little ashamed of it, just as I am ashamed of my lack of appreciation of classical music or my economic ignorance or my inability to play a musical instrument. Surely sport is an aspect of being human, and not to appreciate sport is a kind of philistinism.

I remember I had a lecturer once who made several withering comments about sports as a hobby. He swam for the sake of his health, he said, but aside from that he regarded preoccupation with sport as a waste of time. He described it as "form without substance".

I've chewed over his description for years, long after I forgot most of what he was actually trying to teach. Form without substance? Couldn't you say the same about instrumental music of every kind, about abstract art, about dance, about fireworks and chess and a million other things?

I will never understand people who want to diminish life. I don't understand anti-government anarchists who want to do away with politics and the State. Isn't society enriched by having a public life and a public square? Wouldn't they miss that?

Nor do I understand atheists who wish that all the churches and synagogues would fall into disuse. Surely they see society would be the poorer for it, even if they aren't believers themselves?

One of my favourite poems is "Snow" by Louis MacNeice, with its justly famous lines:

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

So, while I understand people complaining about the commercialization of sports, or the role soccer might play in globalization, or the possibility that too much sport distracts from more important matters, I have no sympathy at all for those who sneer at this whole field of human activity, and who think that doing so proves them to be cultured and serious-minded.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Because the Irish Media isn't Anti-Catholic and It's Only Paranoia Amongst Catholics That Makes Them Say So...

...the very second headline on The Irish Times's coverage of the Eucharistic Congress-- after "12,000 Attend Eucharistic Congress"-- is "Protests greet start of Congress".

The misleading nature of the headline is revealed immediately below it:

"A number of small protests were staged at entrances to the Eucharistic Congress at Dublin's RDS today. Separate protests were staged by abuse survivors, a Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group, Atheist Ireland and a parent and former Dublin school board member who wants his school named after someone other than former arcbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan."

In other words, with the possible exception of the abuse victims (and what more can the Church do at this stage, really?), the usual Church-bashers and cranks. Twelve thousand worshippers given almost-equal billing with an undisclosed number-- how likely is it that you could fit them into a couple of phone booths?-- of embittered busybodies.

Undoubtedly there are protests outside the various political party conferences (I don't know the plural of Ard Fheis), as well as the conferences of trade unions and other interest groups. Do those protests merit such a prominent mention?

But, you know, everybody thinks the media is against them and Catholics are just shooting the messenger. Keep repeating the mantra, boys, and hope that makes everyone believe it.

If Pope Benedict slipped in the bath and suffered a minor injury, the Irish media would manage to get child abuse into a four-line report of the accident.

(P.S.: I should mention that this refers to the online edition of The Irish Times.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Well Said, Sir

"If everything is negotiable in principle, nothing is stable; no basis exists on which Catholicism could with any intellectual honesty assert its self-definition as being a religion rather than merely a volunteer community group with a rich artistic and architectural heritage."

A very fine piece from Richard Waghorne, which is dated April 13th but which I only discovered now, in which he contemplates the weirdness of the Association of Catholic Priests appealing to opinion polls rather than Church doctrine (and also coins the wonderful phrase "the hermeneutics of majoritarianism".)

I don't want to be rude about liberal Catholicism, but trying to engage with it can be fist-bitingly frustrating. It feels a little like trying to follow the staircases and pillars in one of MC Escher's paradoxical drawings. One would think that the indispensability of dogma in revealed religion would be a self-luminous principle, or at least one that could be arrived at by a few minutes' thought. In any case, there are the fossils of innumerable Christian heresies to point the moral. How can people who have spent their lives thinking about religion not get it?

I understand atheism. Atheism is plain and honest as daylight. I've noticed that many religious writers, such as Lewis and Chesterton and Pope Benedict, write about atheism with a perceptible respect, almost with affection. In fact, I would say that atheism represents a spiritual territory that is a vital part of the human condition, one that often receives voice in the Bible-- from the Book of Job to the Psalms to Christ's terrible cry upon the Cross.

But progressive Christianity-- what is it? How does this house divided against itself manage to stand, even temporarily? It has no substance at all, and it is difficult to vanquish it because your bayonet simply passes through the mirage of its body.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Long World Youth Day

I was much amused by the following matter-of-fact statement in this week's Irish Catholic:

"World Youth Day runs from July 23-28, 2013."

Truly one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day.

In another story, we come across an example of the law of unintended consequences (although I've always thought that's a rather stupid term):

"A book on sexual morality by an American nun has jumped to 19th on's Top 100 bestsellers listing after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a warning against its content for faithful Catholics."


Thursday, June 7, 2012

On Books

Somebody recently gave me an anthology of Catholic poetry that she had lying around the house and didn't want to keep. I've just been glancing through the introduction, and I felt an oh-so-familiar surge of delight; delight in book introductions, delight in the printed page, and simple delight in books themselves.

I've worked in a library for just over ten years, so by a depressingly familiar logic, I should have lost any romantic view of books by now. This is the same logic that operates when people knowingly assure me I would get tired of snow if I lived in a snowy climate. Well, I wouldn't ever get tired of snow, and I haven't lost any of my starry-eyed view of books.

Encomiums to books are always in danger of being a little irritating, or even more than a little irritating. They can seem rather self-congratulatory-- hey, look how well-read and cultured I am!

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I can't engage in any such posturing. I am not well read. I have never read Ulysses, Don Quixote, or The Anatomy of Melancholy. I am a slow reader. I don't like Shakespeare all that much (apart from The Tempest) and one of my favourite books is Hollywood vs. America by Michael Medved, a polemic against violent and cynical and anti-religious movies. What I love are books, not Books.

I sometimes think that the sense of glamour that hung over writing, back in the days when few people were able to read and write, must still survive in some residual form. All written words seem magical to me. In the era of emails and podcasts, writing still seems like a novelty. How can a scene, a story, a personality be captured in marks on paper? That fundamental miracle is much more impressive, much more of a leap, than sending a message from New York to Melbourne in an instant.

I remember how once, sitting on a bus and reading a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu, I was struck with overwhelming force by the idea that this person who was telling me a story had lived over a century ago. The reality of that gulf of time, and the fact that the gulf simply disappears when a reader loses himself in the text, suddenly seemed real to me. Le Fanu died in 1873. Nobody who was alive when he was writing is alive today. And yet I can re-enter his world through his words, not only looking in from outside, from a distance, but I can become a part of it-- a world that was just as real as ours, in which time passed at a second per second, and in which people gossiped and yawned and moaned about the weather.

There is a wonderful line in the film Shadowlands, the CS Lewis biopic: "We read to know that we are not alone." I don't think it could be put better than that. How absurd-- but how true-- that we can be lonely in a city buzzing with millions of souls, and with voices endlessly coming at us from radio and television, but that this loneliness can be assuaged by words printed on a page! There is an intimacy between reader and writer that I do not think is matched by any other intimacy. The writer puts so much of himself into his words, the reader opens himself to them so fully. There is nothing half-hearted or perfunctory about the encounter. Reader and writer have each others' full attention, and nothing comes between them.

I like a book to take itself seriously, even if it's no more than a volume of fishing anecdotes. I expect a book to make an effort. I want the title to have a bit of swagger (like a wine-themed book I once came across with the Biblical title Stay With Me With Flagons). I feel cheated if there is no dedication, and disappointed if the dedication is no more than a terse To my Uncle Ned.

More than anything else, maybe, I look for an Introduction or a Preface or a Foreword-- and not simply a "Note on the Text" or a few purely explanatory lines. I want an Introduction that begins The book you are holding in your hands or So much has been written about or maybe I first had the idea for this book forty-five years ago. Sometimes I think the Introduction is my very favourite part of the book, just as the trailers are my favourite part of the movies. I want to be welcomed into a book.

Sometimes there are several introductions. It doesn't get much better than that.

 Footnotes, however, are another story. They are good if they are rare and gratuitous. They are bad if they are copious and essential. Nothing is more irksome than to be jerked out of one stream of text continually. It is like having somebody repeatedly tug on your sleeve.

I feel a bit bashful admitting my next requirement, but here goes. I want the author to be my friend. I do not want an author like the ideal author Stephen Daedalus describes in Portrait of the Artist: "within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." I want the author to be chatty, effusive, enthusiastic, chummy, conspiratorial. I want him to be on fire for his subject, whether his prose style is folksy or urbane. I want personality, even in a book of history or philosophy-- even in a reference work on old postcards or a guide to my consumer rights.

I was blessed to grow up in a house with hundreds of books on the bookshelf. I was even more blessed that these books were utterly diverse in character. There was an account of jungle warfare, a tract by an obscure religious cult, a drawing manual, a book on dream interpretation, a guide to publishing your own magazine or newspaper-- and of course any number of novels, poetry anthologies, history books and so forth. I think this kind of dizzy diversity of books gives a growing child just as much of a sense of the world's wideness, of life's teeming possibilities, as growing up in a circus or as an army brat.

Those books on the shelf! How can I write their tribute, or what they meant to me? I used to love to take a random book from the shelves, open it at a random page, and bask in the sense of mystery and enigma and excitement that gave me. I loved the idea that these silent voices were forever talking, even when they were not being read-- that the bookshelf was full of things happening all the time, between the covers.

And nothing will ever exceed the sense of gravitas that the "grown-up" books on the shelf held for me. I mean books with earnest, magisterial titles, like Portugese Africa and the West or The Hidden Persuaders or A Nation Writ Large? Somehow-- goodness knows from where-- I got the idea that such books were written by middle-aged to elderly men who knew everything about economics, poetry, history, psychology and everything else, and who saw all the connections between those different fields. Their titles gave me the feeling-- the strangely pleasant feeling-- that I was missing about 98 per cent of what life contained, that life was deeper than I could even hope to understand, but that it all lay before me.

When I grew up, I would learn that many "serious" books were works of scientific or economic or other reductionism, dedicated to the idea that life is much more trivial and simplistic and dull than anything which could live in a child's imagination. But the sense of wonder, of the sublime, that those titles evoked in me all those years ago has never faded.

Books. They are one of life's chief delights, and anyone who thinks of them as simply containers of information, like a computer programme manqué, is to be pitied rather than despised.

A Wonderful Review by Peter Hitchens of Philip Larkin's Collected Poems... be found here.

Peter Hitchens is a British national treasure. In an age where both left-wing and right-wing have degenerated into two slightly different flavours of libertarianism, Peter Hitchens is pretty much the only proper conservative-- that is, social and cultural conservative-- still keeping the fires burning. (There is also Roger Scruton, but his conservatism is so refined and intellectualised and irony-laced that it's difficult for most of us to identify with it. At least, it's difficult for me.)

Hitchens suggests that Larkin might, rather paradoxically, be viewed as a great religious poet. (Larkin, of course, was not only an atheist but an atheist who was utterly obsessed with his mortality, articulating the horror of eternal oblivion in unsurpassably stark terms in his  masterpiece "Aubade".) One thing I find interesting is that Hitchens is an Englishman very much in the manner of Philip Larkin, with a very similar temperament and set of opinions. And yet one of these Englishmen professes Christian faith while the other stoically refused to do so. Faith is the difference that makes everything different.

Just in case anyone is interested, I wrote a Larkin-related article myself some years ago, which can be found on the website of the Philip Larkin Society here. It's an appreciation of a piece of Larkin juvenalia, "The School in August". The text of the poem is not reproduced with the article, but it's not difficult to find.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review of The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan

The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan
Arlington House

Where are the writers, the artists, the intellectuals who will proclaim Christ's gospel today? Christianity remains a force in Irish and English society-- sometimes, it even seems to be a kind of official opposition to the liberal consensus, and even to be widely recognised as such. In many ways, being pushed out of the mainstream of society, having its respectability questioned, seems to have been a shot in the arm for Christianity in the British Isles. A Christian today is almost more likely to be questioned by police than to be invited to speak to schoolchildren or to give an inspiring talk on the radio, and this has had something of a galvanising effect.

But where are the modern equivalents of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge, JRR Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers? It is true that JK Rowling is a declared Christian, and the Harry Potter books have a pretty strong Christian flavour. But it is difficult to imagine her writing a straightforwardly religious work, or actively using her prominence to evangelize. On the other hand, irreligious writers like Philip Pullman are more than happy to thump the tub for atheism.

In Ireland, the situation seems even worse. John Waters is perhaps our only Christian writer who can claim a standing independent of his religious beliefs, who is immune to the accusation of being a hired pen, and whose talent was recognized before he shocked the nation by going all churchy.

So I felt more than a little nostalgic when I read The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan, a book from a time that is really not all that long ago-- less than forty years-- but which seems a world away in this regard at least, that Sheridan was a nationally-known columnist and author who, in this book, took up the cause of Catholicism in a work of unabashed apologetics. And, unlike the religious writings of John Waters, which are determinedly idiosyncratic and personal, John D. Sheridan is content to roll up his sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty of explaining, and arguing for, definite doctrines of the faith.

The title is from Milton's Lycidas (ironically, from a Papacy-bashing passage of the poem): The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed. Sheridan's time had this at least in common with ours; that Catholic catechesis was already inadequate by then, and that the faithful were being sent out poorly armed against the assaults of the infidel. This is how he describes the atmosphere after Vatican II:

"The man in the street, who in the days when the Church spoke with one voice might have got official rulings by knocking at any presbytery, is utterly confused on such issues as papal infallibility, freedom of conscience (every man his own theologian), and "co-responsibility". Young priests in polo-neck sweaters (and old ones who should know better) tell him that things are managed more democratically in Holland, advise him to read Teilhard de Chardin (though the Monitum of the Sacred Congregation on the dangers of Teilhard's 'theology-fiction', as Maritain calls it, is still in force), and bewilder him by saying that he need not worry unduly about his own inner spiritual life so long as he loves his neighbour and is concerned about starvation in the Third World."

I like the spirited tone of this book. It is not a "plea", or an "invitation", or "the beginning of a conversation", as so many religious works of today tend to style themselves. It is a call to arms, plain and simple. I really do believe that secular culture will respect religious writers more if they drop the Uriah Heep impression. The "Jesus freak" sketches of the Fast Show ("that's a bit like Jesus, isn't it?") mocked the sort of Christian who is always trying to sneak faith under the radar. Being unabashed might not make you friends, but at least it wins you respect-- even if it's grudging respect.

Sheridan begins at the beginning, which is so often-- and so surprisingly-- left out of discussions about religion. That beginning being, of course, the very existence of the Man Above (as Sheridan terms him), and the reasons we shouldn't assume that the physical world is all there is. Surely this should be the starting point of all apologetics, and all debates with unbelievers? And yet, religious believers seem rather coy on the subject, tending to concentrate instead on the psychological benefits of religion, or our culture's debt to Christianity, or some other topic.

The immateriality of the mind is the entry-point Sheridan chooses:

"Impressions come to me through my senses, but there is something which uses these impressions as raw material for absorption, as the data for that mysterious activity which we call thought. Is this something a part or a function of my material body? Obviously it is free from the limitations of my material body. It can project itself to the stars or to the days of the Roman legions in the twinkling of an eye; and this instancy, this independence of time and space is not a property of material things, which are either here or there, and which take time to move from one to the other."

Philosophers of mind might wince, but surely Sheridan has captured the essence of the problem here. Thought is "about" something in a way that physical matter can never be "about" anything. This simple fact makes a nonsense of all philosophical materialism. If religious believers would drive this point home more often, surely the sceptic would be on the backfoot from the start?

The evolutionary theory of human origins is given short shrift in this book, though Sheridan adds that he would be happy to change his mind if he was given compelling evidence, and points out the freedom of thought that the Church allows on this matter. (The Church never condemned the theory of evolution. The current Pope and his predecessor seem to have accepted it, but a Catholic is not bound to follow their example. For my own part, I claim no knowledge of science, but I am officially agnostic on the subject of Darwinism. What I understand of it seems very questionable to me, and the attitude of witch-hunting hysteria displayed towards proponents of "intelligent design" speaks volumes.) The literal truth of the Adam and Eve story is staunchly defended by Sheridan, which made me reflect on how seldom this is even discussed in today's Catholicism.

Sheridan makes a grand tour of all the battlefields on which Catholic teaching and the modern world contend; attitudes towards death, the existence of conscience (and its implications for a material view of the world), the Scholastic proofs of God's existence, the life of Christ and the evidences of the Resurrection, Papal supremacy, free will, original sin, the Virgin Mary, humour and its implications for materialism (a very interesting and original chapter), the sexual revolution, liberal clerics, the spectre of overpopulation, euthanasia, social decline, the Reformation, and Hell. All this in a book of 175 pages, printed in rather large type, and written in an easy, conversational style. I doubt if even Chesterton (though a much more brilliant writer) has produced such a handy one-stop apologia for the Faith.

In fact, seeing all the bases covered at such a strolling pace makes me feel rather frustrated-- at myself as well as other people. It's not so difficult, after all. Every Catholic should have the basic answers to questions and challenges from non-believers and seekers. We should be willing to engage the sceptics head-on rather than perpetually looking to strike glancing blows, or to win skirmishes. We should all, as far as we are able, be like the Catholic Evidence Guild members who stand at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and are ready to give an answer to every objection. I am lamentably short of that ideal myself. I hope to move closer to it.

Sheridan's book is a pudding well worth tasting for yourself-- it can be bought cheaply on Amazon, second-hand-- but I will scoop out a few of the plums.

I particularly liked one passage where Sheridan shows up the folly of the classic existentialist response to human life, as articulated here by Bertrand Russell (hardly an existentialist, save in this regard): "Condemned to lose today his dearest, tomorrow to pass himself through the gates of darkness, it remains for Man only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate for a moment his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power."

Sheridan exposes this, and all similar poses of noble defiance (like that struck by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus) as sheer muddle-headedness:

"But if man is no more than a chance collocation of atoms, what meaning is there in his defiance, and what reason is there for thinking that the wanton tyranny that shapes his outward life leaves him an inner sanctuary in which he is free to think lofty thoughts-- since from Russell's premise it must shape his inner life also? For that matter, how can his thoughts be "lofty"-- or even his own-- if his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are shaped and determined by irresistible forces which have no prevision of the ends they are achieving?"

(I am constantly struck by the impression that atheists and humanists and liberals simply haven't thought their ideas out "to the absolute ruddy end", as CS Lewis once phrased it. Their daring challenges are simply never daring enough. Or as Sir Francis Bacon once put it: "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth about men's mind about to religion." I am not here referring solely to Russell's rhetorical flourish above, but to a whole range of different problems.)

When it comes to philosophical arguments for God's existence, Sheridan writes: "The existence of God can be proved from reason, but the famous proofs of Aquinas, which are developments of the proofs advanced by greek philosophers sixteen centuries earlier, are not for everyone; and even for those who can follow them they are not coercive....An argument [like the argument from contingency, one of Aquinas's proofs] is not laced with fire. It inspires no passion of belief. Nor does it involve any commitment, other than an intellectual will buttress faith, but it will not inspire it unless God speaks when the thinking is done."

All of that is true-- and yet, how important buttressing can be! I know that accepting the argument from contingency (basically, the argument that this contingent universe must be rooted in something eternal and perfect) was a crucial moment in the formation of my own faith. After all, there is plenty of "fire" around us all, plenty of stimulants to religious feeling-- a baby's gurgle, the night sky, the poetry of the book of Job, the words of a Christmas carol drifting on winter air. But what the modern world requires-- and what the opponents of the Faith demand-- is steel rather than fire. Difficult as the proofs of Aquinas are, I wonder if it might not be a good idea to teach them in Catholic secondary schools.

Most of the subjects to which Sheridan devotes chapters are predictable, but one that is not is the subject of laughter. Sheridan was a professional humourist, so perhaps this inclusion shouldn't be that surprising. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising at all, because I have often felt-- and I imagine the intuition is a common one-- that laughter and religious faith are strangely linked. As Sheridan puts it:

"It will be objected that laughter is not the monopoly of the Christian, nor does it mark him off from the materialist; but the Christian can offer a rational explanation of laughter, whereas the rationalist (who so often, unknown to himself, is drawing on the spiritual investment of his ancestors) is in difficulties at once; for if directed chance or molecular structure governs all our actions, there is nothing against which we can measure the unexpected or incongruous."

I think the point could be pushed further. I think the rationalist, if he was a consistent rationalist, would be in difficulties over pretty much every human activity and passion. The rationalist can never say "Best of luck!" (what does he mean?) or "Happy birthday" or "Get better soon!". He can never even say "That's odd", since "odd" and "ordinary" can't really have any meaning for him-- everything is what it is, and that's all there is to it. There are no true surprises in a rationalist universe, no occasion for amazement or awe. Statistical anomalies are only to be expected, after all. Nor can the rationalist invoke "the spirit of the sixties" or "the spirit of science" or "the Blitz spirit", since there is no such thing as a spirit in his universe, not even as a metaphor. Because what would it be a metaphor for, anyway? Does he really believe radicalism was unique to the sixties, or fortitude was unique to the Blitz? Or that either of those emotions are anything but a combination of glands, hormones and circumstances?

On the subject of the permissive society, Sheridan writes: "Today's children...will take their places easily and naturally in the brave new world; the world which regards contraception as "a sort of polio vaccine designed to deal with the disease of procreation" and sex as a game without rules; a world in which promiscuity is the accepted ethic...a world in which blue films get bluer and bluer and even the prestigious Sunday papers publish material which would have led to prosecution thirty years ago; a world which accords pornography the status of a legitimate industry supplying a clamant human need; a world in which copulation-- real or stimulated-- may be watched on stage and screen, and in which the sex motif sells everything from central heating to bubble gum. Whether the permissive society will become still more permissive in time (and as things stand it does not even stop short at murder) is an open question, but now that its recruiting sergeants are at work in the schools the future is anyone's guess."

I wonder what Sheridan would think of today's society? Have we become even more permissive? I think it's an open question. We are probably all increasingly educated about a whole range of perversions, but somehow I feel that the straight-faced seediness of the sixties and seventies has receded. I recently watched a film from the seventies-- The Fog by John Carpenter-- in which a female hitchhiker is picked up by a male driver, late at night. That we soon see them lying in bed together can be guessed; the fact that they only exchange names afterwards is rather more surprising. At least, it's surprising today. I'm guessing it might have been less so to an audience at the time.

I believe that the longing for love, romance and commitment continues to reassert itself, if only as an ideal. The romantic comedy heroine might sleep around, but the audience still demands that she swear faithfulness before the credits roll. And the oh-so-serious sexual radicalism of the Age of Aquarius has, in our day, been replaced by the smirking irony of Graham Norton and his ilk. I am grateful for small mercies.

We can guess what the defenders of Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian D'Arcy, both priests recently censured by the Vatican, would think of this passage (which concerns apostate rather than dissident priests):

"Since Vatican II the Church's attitude to deserters, and especially to priest deserters, has been one of the utmost compassion. One wonders, however, if this leaning backwards towards mercy and understanding has been altogether prudent, especially as many of those concerned have made full use of the printing press and the television screen to pose as heroic souls who have seen the light. Compassion for apostates must not blind us to the fact that apostasy is the most horrendous of treasons."

A chapter entitled "The Population Explosion", full of statistics, proved tough reading for me. I've always felt that statistics are the worst of all arguments, since they can so easily be disputed. And yet we cannot avoid them at times. The subject of "overpopulation" and the Catholic Church's supposed contribution to it is very tricky terrain, since it cannot be answered simply by analysing concepts, but must involve delving into demographics.

The next chapter, which takes in family planning, contraception, and euthanasia, contains a rather prescient passage: "If we may snuff out new life early without qualms of conscience, we are equally entitled to take steps to ensure that those who are so old that they have become a burden to themselves and to society should be snuffed out when they have outstayed their welcome and become a strain on our resources- preferably, but not necessarily, with their own consent, and in these twilight hours the question of consent will be misty on one side at least. Indeed, if the quality of life is what counts, the case for euthanasia is open and shut, for people are living longer nowadays, the number of pensioners are increasing, and there are limits to what wage-and-salary earners can provide for their support withotu disrupting the national economy."

And the last words of the chapter make the overall point with ringing clarity: "Either [life] is sacred, God-given, and inviolable, or it is not; and both abortion and euthanasia are logical corollaries of that death-wish we call contraception". There is an infinite gulf between the sacredness of life and its mere preciousness. A teddy-bear can be "precious".

The book is sprinkled with references to Communism and the Soviet Union, which obviously date it now, but also give us pause for thought. There was something strangely comforting in the existence of the Evil Empire-- though not, of course, for its citizens. It was a visible and tangible antagonist, the embodiment of all the forces that were assailing Christendom. Now the Evil Empire is gone, but the forces of anti-Christianity have lost none of their vitality. The conservative author Peter Hitchens believes that the West's radical left-- or cultural revolutionaries, as he terms them-- were actually liberated by the fall of the USSR. No longer need they be embarrassed by gulags and secret police and the spectacle of a real Revolution at work. No longer would they have to defend the indefensible.

Another regrettable legacy of the Cold War is that conservatism came to be equated with individualism, private enterprise and economic freedom above all else. Strangely enough, this tendency seems to have only increased since the fall of communism, as though the partisans of the free market and of unlimited personal license are still tilting against the ghosts of Stalin and Kruschev-- rather than the more real and impersonal forces of dissolution all around us, forces which often hitch a ride on the tailcoats of the free market.

 The Hungry Sheep ends on an admirably Christological note:

"In seeing God, and in knowing and loving Him, we shall see what makes us different one from another, and how we are all-- in the mass and as individuals-- linked with Him and loved by Him. We shall also see ourselves for the first time, for we shall see ourselves in Him, and it is only in Him that we are really meaningful. He must increase and we must decrease, but our decrease will not be a shrinking nor a diminution. In Christ, our pilgrimage ended, we shall reach our full stature. Our selfhood will be complete and intelligible; and in the end, as Augustine says, there will only be one Christ, loving Himself."


I fervently wish that we had more books like The Hungry Sheep. I think it is time for Veritas Publications, and other religious publishers, to stop putting out books with titles like What Being Catholic Means to Me and start putting out more books like the one recently written by Michael Coren, the Canadian broadcaster, under the title Why Catholics are Right.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dan Brown on Cultural History

I've just been watching the film Angels and Demons, based on the Dan Brown novel. I actually think it's a fun film, and a lot better than The Da Vinci Code, which is one of the worst films I've ever seen.

I was very amused by a scene where Tom Hanks, playing a semiologist professor let loose on the Vatican Archives (the Church has co-opted him to help foil some Illuminati who have planted an anti-matter capsule, or something like that), comes upon some English words watermarked into a centuries-old book and says: "English wasn't used in the Vatican. It was too polluted. It's free thinking. It was the language of radicals, like Shakespeare and Chaucer..."

Come again? Radicals like Shakespeare, who was quite willing to turn his hand to Tudor propaganda, whose plays fret almost obsessively over the obedience due to the established powers, and the anarchy unleashed when authority is discarded:

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Would lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength would be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son would strike his father dead;
Force would be right...

Calling Chaucer a radical seems rather odd, too, although he did satirise the abuses of the medieval Church with his Pardoner and Summoner. But you'd think Dan Brown, with his much-vaunted extensive research, might have stretched to mentioning Wycliffe and Tyndale instead of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Still, the film is an enjoyable romp. And it makes me think that there should be a museum of Zany Catholic Conspiracy Theories, to really put together a comprehensive archive of all the nutty accusations zinging around dinner parties, Jack Chick tracts, phone-in shows and the mad, mad world of the internet. From the biggest collection of pornography in the world (which is, or rather isn't, located in the Vatican Archives), to Pope Pius XII's chummy relationship with Hitler (so chummy Hitler thought about kidnapping him just to shut him up), to the 68 million people killed by the Vatican between 1200 to 1800 AD (don't even ask), to the pagan worship instituted by Constantine at the Council of Nicea, to....well, to whatever the next loudmouth sitting beside you in the pub is ranting about.

I would pay in to a museum like that. That's all I can say.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I Love Modern Churches

I do! Despite being in general more reactionary than a game of Buckaroo and more backwards-looking than Lot's wife, I tend to much prefer churches that were built in the twentieth century, and preferably in the later decades of that century.

Today, feeling like getting out and about on a sunny Saturday, I hopped on a 16 bus and disembarked at Ballinteer. After wandering around a little, I came upon the Church of St. John the Evangelist, a rather squat structure, and was delighted to find that it was open.

(A big difference between the South side of Dublin and the North side, this. Most of the churches in working classes areas are unfortunately closed outside Mass times. I think this says something pretty damning about our society and our loss of any sense of the sacred.)

I was even more delighted when I made my way inside. St. John the Evangelist is exactly my idea of a church. First of all, it has a low, broad, gently-sloping roof. I've never really understood why a spire is taken to be the ideal shape for a church roof. A spire gets narrower as it ascends. Is this a fitting image of Heaven? Is the abode of the angels a pin-point? Sure, a spire looks very evocative when seen a long way off, especially through mist. But standing beneath it and looking up is a different story. Then a spire seems to me to be giving, not only the wrong message, but the opposite message to that which a church's structure should convey.

I loved the airiness, spaciousness, and-- most of all-- the bright colours of this church. I don't see why the overwhelming impression of a church should be greyness. The Bible is a text rich with sensuous imagery such as wine, green pastures, wedding feasts, rivers of crystal, golden bowls, and so on. It seems to me that a church should be a blaze of strong colour, stopping short just of gaudiness.

And I even liked the modernist art. The image of the crucified Christ behind the altar is a stylized sculpture of what a hostile critic might term a matchstick man, almost a skeletal figure, with a circle of rather cartoonish stained glass around him. Is this disrespectful of such a sacred subject? Perhaps a church should be no place for artistic experimentation?

I can understand those objections. But really, when I look at modernist church art, I feel more of a sense of solemnity and mystery than I do when I look at more traditional church art. The stylized figure on the cross, in this instance, suggests the phrase Ecce homo to me. Behold the man! This is the mystery of anthropos in its purest, starkest form. Its very crudity makes it more raw, more striking than the bland, plaster Jesus that hangs above so many altars.

Before postmodern art descended into the banality of Andy Warhol and his successors, much twentieth century visual art had attained a plateau of genuine mysticism. It does not seem ridiculous to me that Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall ascribed religious significance to their bold, apocalyptic, transcendental canvases. Of course, there is such a thing as going too far-- dipping into ugliness and incongruity and grotesquerie. But, as long as that is avoided, I think the sense of displacement and even the sense of awe that modern sacred art conveys can truly be an aid to prayer and devotion.

Funnily enough, the sculptures in this church-- and the new Calvary scene just outside-- are almost Soviet in their naturalism and directness. This, too, I found very bold, and fruitfully unsettling.

All in all, in my short visit to the St. John the Evangelist Church of Balinteer, I truly felt touched by a sense of the sacred. I look forward to visiting it again, and perhaps attending Mass there some time.

If nothing else, modern churches decorated in a contemporary aesthetic proclaim that our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. And, for all my fogeyish love of tradition and heritage and continuity, that is a message that I believe it is essential to convey.

I would be grateful to any of my readers who could point me to other modern churches in Dublin, which are open outside Mass times.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scribbles in Drumcondra-- Everything a Newsagent Should Be

I have sometimes been accused of being anti-capitalist. This might be because, although I am a conservative, I do not worship at the shrine of the Free Market. (I even doubt if such a thing as a free market exists. Businesspeople who consider labour and safety laws to be suffocating red tape seem less hostile to other regulations like copyright and contract laws.)

But as a matter of fact I am not anti-capitalist. Nor do I have any problem with the profit motive, with entrepreneurship, or with inequalities of wealth. I think consumerism is a bad thing if it means people are compulsively shopping or becoming obsessed with the acquisition of luxury goods. I think it's healthy to get as much use as possible out of what you have, and to appreciate the old and time-worn more than the new and shiny.

For all that, I don't see anything dirty or shameful about shopping itself, or even taking pleasure in shopping. I love shops. I'm not talking about the swanky shops full of big-name brands, the sort of shops that probably charge your credit card just for looking in their windows. No, I like corner shops and pound shops and second-hand shops. I think there is a unique pleasure in scanning shelves of cookie jars and soapdishes and novelty pencil-cases. Shelves full of battered old books and old numbers of The Northumbrian History Society Journal are even better.

(I even had a Dublin Shops blog at one stage. It must have been the least-visited corner of the internet.)

I walk from Dublin city centre to Ballymun most workdays, and I usually make it my habit to drop into Scribbles on Drumcondra Road, the best li'l newsagent in the city, if not in the whole of Ireland. It's a pokey little shop-- I often find myself bumping into other customers-- but it's better-stocked than most other newsagent's I know, and it has a unique character.

First of all, and best of all, it stocks all the Catholic newspapers and magazines. The Catholic Herald, the Catholic Voice, the Irish Catholic, the Catholic Times (which I didn't even know existed), the Sacred Heart Messenger, the Universe, and more. This is fairly remarkable in itself, since most newsagents don't stock any of the above. It also stocks Catholic calenders and cards.

It sells the provincial newspapers, along with lots of international newspapers. Also available are Ireland's Own and Ireland's Eye, old-fashioned Irish magazines which hold their own in so many newsagents against the tide of celebrity and sports and computer titles.

In keeping with its name, the shop has a whole wall of stationery and pens, which I take great pleasure in dawdling over. Pretty much every writing implement and aid you could imagine is there, along with envelopes of every kind, copies and notebooks, twine, folders, and so on. Just looking at them arouses that deep-seated desire that lurks in so many of us, the desire to deprive blank paper of its virginity, to keep records and compile journals and doodle on a lined page with a deliciously fluid felt-tip pen.

It has books, too, and a surprising selection. There are the standard thrillers, and the usual chick-lit, but there are also books by local authors (and I don't mean just Cecilia Ahern), books of regional jokes, and other oddities.

And there are toys, the kind of toys that were plentiful in shops when I was a kid, but that I never notice these days-- toys that are not merchandising attached to some TV show, but rather timeless favourites like water pistols and skittles and magnifying glasses. Cheap toys that come in a bag rather than a box. Even seeing them makes me nostalgic.

Even the sweets are different from those of other shops. Sure, they have all the standard chocolate and fizzy drinks, but they also have unexpected products. I bought an American cream soda there recently, and today I acquired a can of root beer. Root beer! I've only tasted it once before, and that was in the USA.

My favourite thing about Scribbles, though, is the whole atmosphere and layout of the shop. Nothing is more soul-numbing than the orderly, logical, rationalistic floorplan of a Tesco or a Hughes and Hughes. There is something in the human spirit that cries out for disorder and spontaneity, and little shops like Scribbles satisfy that appetite supremely. Everything is on top of everything else, and everything is higgledy-piggledy, making the place as individual as a fingerprint.

Added to all this, the staff are really friendly, and are usually chatting to regulars when you walk in. Some people seem to resent shop assistants talking on duty-- at least if it delays them being served by as much as a precious half-second. Personally, I've never wanted to be served by zombies with vacant grins. I like to feel that every shop has a life of its own, that it's more than just a place of business. Even if that means I have to wait five or ten or even fifteen whole seconds for attention.

Is this a lot of words to waste on a mere newsagent's? I don't think so. I think we are too dismissive of shops. We spend a lot of time in them. They are public places, community centres, even little societies of their own. And the good ones, the ones that preserve a character and individuality of their own in the face of the Tesco's and Spar's and Centra's, deserve to be celebrated and cherished.

As Ireland Votes Away Even More of its Sovereignty...

...the Late Late Show celebrates fifty years broadcasting.

My non-Irish readers might not know about the Late Late Show. It is (I have just read) the longest-running TV chat show in the world. For almost forty years, with a brief hiatus, it was presented by one man, Gay Byrne, whose silky voice is deeply soothing and comforting, even if you think (as I do) that his influence on the nation has been a bad one. The Late Late Show served as something of a banner for the liberalisation of Ireland over the years, tackling "taboo" subjects and opening "debate".

At least, that's what they always say. I don't remember much of that myself. I don't even remember the famous show featuring Annie Murphy, the woman who had a child by Bishop Eamon Casey, triggering the first of the 1990's scandals featuring the Irish Catholic Church.

No, all I remember of the Late Late Show is lying on the couch or the sitting room floor on Friday nights, happy to have a weekend stretching before me, often drifting to sleep while the studio conversation formed pictures in my head. So even though the Late, Late Show was a harbinger of Modern Ireland, I very much associate it with the Ireland of my youth-- which was the very last dregs of Catholic, nationalist Ireland.

But it was more than that. Since the topics covered ranged from serious to light-- Ireland was still, at this time, a fairly cultured nation-- it gave me an impression of the wholeness of life, and made me think of Ireland as one big extended family. (Especially as my parents usually watched it-- that is, my mother never missed it and my father usually sat in to complain about the guests.)

I've barely watched it since I was a child, but I understood it has become as jazzy, slick and superficial as the Ireland it helped to create.

Will I watch the fiftieth anniversary edition tonight? You know, I feel half-tempted (an odd expression but sometimes the right one). At least it will keep me from thinking about the referendum.