Monday, October 8, 2012

"Like a Tree Planted"

I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to me, first and foremost, through my imagination. It is true that my reason, my conscience and my relationships with other people have also been avenues for the divine to come into my life; but, when I look back on my life so far, it is the moments of awe and wonder in which the tug of the Spirit seems strongest. Perhaps it is the same for many people, even for most people.

There are many occasions that spring to mind. I remember a rural Mass I attended while visiting my aunt in Limerick, which contrasted very vividly with the rather dreary suburban Masses I had experienced before that. (I think I was about fourteen.) The fact that the whole community attended, and that their religion seemed such a natural part of their lives, made a huge impression on me. The fact that the church was bright, colourful and lively also impressed me, since I had formed the impression that churches were inevitably dim, dull and depressing. To this day I have a preference for bright colours and broad spaces in church interiors.

I also remember-- and I can only very vaguely remember-- seeing a picture in my Catholic secondary school, perhaps on a poster or a banner, in which a highly stylised tree was used as a symbol of Christian life, or perhaps the Christian community (I can't remember exactly). Sounds pretty trite, doesn't it? And yet for some reason this image spoke to my depths, where other spiritual images didn't. (For instance, I can remember on the day of my First Communion, looking at a display beside the altar in which all of my class-mates' names were being borne aloft to heaven by cartoonish angels, or something like that. I also remember the contempt I felt, even at that young age, for the image's banality.)

Another keen memory is the December evening, some time in my twenties, when I happened to hear the lines, "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the king of Israel", as sung by Frank Sinatra, drifting from a shop in Grafton Street. I remember being struck, as though by an elephant's foot, by the realisation that Ireland was now a post-Catholic country and that the loss was an immense one. (This is when I was still an agnostic slipping in and out of atheism.) I think I had this reaction because suddenly encountering the words "King of Israel" confronted me with the historical reality behind mere "Christmas cheer".

But I don't intend to launch into an exhaustive list of moments in the history of my spiritual imagination. Today I am thinking of a particular book title that spoke to my imagination, a book that I happened to find on a shelf at home and that I once started to read but never finished. It is a biography of the Irish priest James Christopher O'Flynn, who was celebrated for his approach to speech therapy and his acting classes, and its title was Like a Tree Planted.

I find that title coming to my mind again and again, ever since I first came across it several years ago. Like a Tree Planted. There is something about it; something that seems to speak volumes about the society and time from which it comes, the kind of society in which a celebrated priest might have a biography written of him and that biography might be entitled Like a Tree Planted. (The book was published in 1967. The reference is probably to the first Psalm: "He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruits in season and whose leaf does not wither.")

Compare its title, for instance, to several more recent titles of Irish memoirs, biographies and collections of articles. Take Fergus Finlay's Notes From The Margins, for instance, which strikes me as being smug and self-congratulatory. Ditto Against the Tide by Noel Browne. Bob Geldof's Is That It? is at least witty and memorable, and shows evidence of spiritual yearning, but seems rather ungrateful in tone. Mary Robinson's new autobiography is entitled Everybody Matters, and while the title's sentiment is worthy enough it seems something of a platitude. Confessions of a Sewer-Rat by Ciaran Carty, no matter how ironically meant, speaks for itself.

Against all these-- and I truly believe that is a representative cull of examples--the title Like a Tree Planted stands out like candlelight against darkness. Most people would guess that it is a Biblical quotation, which gives it an elevation and a dignity straight away.

It is a rather passive and humble title-- how many prominent figures today would like to be compared to a tree, a life-form singularly lacking in activity and drive and attitude? The title's associations of fidelity and constancy are very far from the more bullish or grandiose undertones of the titles quoted above.

The title is also very gentle in tone-- and I think this is what appeals to me the most. I don't see or sense much gentleness in modern Ireland. For all the many flaws of the Catholic Ireland which has recently passed away, it does seems to me to have been a society in which there was room for gentleness. Perhaps this was simply a gentleness of rhetoric and aspiration, rather than a gentleness in reality, but even that is lacking today.

I will try to illustrate this idea. I attended a Catholic school in which the standard of our religious instruction, and the conviction with which the school proclaimed its Catholic identity, left an awful lot to be desired. I have often wondered how many of the teachers were serious Catholics themselves.

But how far even a little Christianity went! What a difference a Catholic atmosphere made, no matter how diluted it might have been! I can remember, in one class about mental illness, a teacher telling us that the traditional Irish term for a mentally disabled person was duine le Dia (a person with God). She said it with a straight face. It didn't seem corny. It seemed only a little patronising. It made perfect sense, in the context of that school and its vaguely Catholic atmosphere.

Similarly, when teachers spoke about the sanctity of life or the glory of creation or the dignity of the individual, it made sense. It didn't jar. It seemed rather high-flown, of course, but it didn't seem like mere verbiage, or like a stage magician's "Abracadabra". We were being educated in a context where such ideas were taken seriously, where they had a theoretical foundation.

But I wonder what pupils in (say) a secular comprehensive school would make of a teacher talking about the dignity of the individual or the specialness of the mentally disabled. Surely such words would seem like utterly hollow rhetoric, since the pupil would see that everybody in practice treated education as a race for qualifications, careerism as an assumed value, and life as an exercise in self-fulfilment. The idea that people have a value in themselves, regardless of their accomplishments or attractiveness or market value, would seem like a nice idea that few people would actually contradict, but that nobody would really take seriously-- even in theory.

And as a matter of fact, as Ireland slides deeper into secularism, I find myself breathing exactly this atmosphere, and feeling nostalgic for the Catholic ethos that still pervaded Irish society until very recently.

And when I come across a title like As a Tree Planted, I feel an especial pang for the "Catholic Ireland" that we have lost. I do realise that a nostalgia for a particular moment in history is not the same thing as Christianity, that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, and that Irish Catholicism (like every other form of Christianity) has always fallen drastically short of its ideals. I know furthermore that such nostalgia, if indulged uncritically, can become a form of idolatry, a focus upon created things rather than the Creator.

But I do think that the seasoning I taste in that title-- Like a Tree Planted-- is the "saltiness" of which our Lord spoke, the salt which brings out the unique potential of every culture and individual, and which was responsible for all that was valuable in Catholic Ireland.

I miss Catholic Ireland, for all its faults. I miss it.

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