Thursday, January 3, 2013

Christmas Reflections

This morning I squired Michelle, my American fianceƩ, to Dublin Airport for her flight back to America. Neither of us said goodbye, since we hate goodbyes, but that didn't make the parting any less sad. She was here for two weeks of wedding preparations (including getting a marriage license), of discovering more of Dublin and Ireland, and of meeting friends and family. Don't ask when she is moving to Ireland. We don't know yet. But most of the wedding preparations are well in hand, the biggest exception being a photographer. (If anyone knows a good one, I'm listening.)

She was feeling pretty poorly as she went through security, so any prayers for her good health are also very welcome.

After we had said goodbye-- or had pointedly not said goodbye-- I finally made my way to the church in Dublin Airport, which I had never visited before, despite always meaning to do so.

I liked it, though I am sure that many people would find it ugly. The ceiling is low, concrete features heavily in its construction, and the stained glass and stations of the cross are designed in a modernistic, almost cartoonish style.

Though I am a traditionalist in most matters-- including my attitude to architecture-- I can't help liking modernist churches. I find they are an aid to devotion. They startle and spur my imagination. I approve of their otherworldliness, their aura of the alien, of the disturbing. The appearance of angels and heavenly messengers in the Bible are nearly always met with consternation and alarm. In the same way, I welcome places of worship that make me feel, perhaps not alarmed, but a little on edge and disorientated.

Is a church a temple to Beauty or a temple to God? Yes, beauty can be an avenue to God, but (like everything else) it can also be a distraction, even an idol-- and I do think that it often is such a distraction. In any case, I have to admit that beautiful churches-- or the type of churches most commonly so described-- leave me rather cold. But plain churches and strange-looking churches thrill me. There it is.

Last week (sticking with the theme of art and religion) I went to see Handel's Messiah for the first time. I enjoyed it, though I imagine that a lot of it was above my head. I appreciated the fact that the entire libretto was taken directly from Scripture, and I know that Handel's own faith was deeply held. But I did wonder how many of the audience (or the performers, for that matter) took the subject matter of the oratorio any more seriously than they would have taken the mythological references in Wagner's Ring cycle.

This matter of Christian culture, and of cultural Christianity, is one that seems quite knotty to me. This year, for the first time since I started going to church about three years ago, I attended Midnight Mass in my home church of the Holy Spirit, Ballymun. I was flabbergasted to find that it was completey packed out, and that I had to stand at the back. Of course I knew that congregations swelled for Midnight Mass, and I had not been too surprised, last Christmas Eve, to encounter a full house in the Pro-Cathedral.

But in Ballymun? In the Holy Spirit Church, which usually boasts a scanty Sunday congregation of sixty or so, with many aisles completely empty? It stunned me.

What accounts for this? Why do people who wouldn't darken the door of a church any other day of the year go to Midnight Mass-- on an evening when there are so many other things to do, so many holiday preparations to get through? Do they go out of nostalgia for childhood? Is it for the sake of the carols? Do they go from a feeling that Christmas would be incomplete without midnight Mass? Do they believe in God? Do they believe that Christ rose from the dead?

I don't know the answers to those questions. I wish I did.

The priest celebrating the Mass-- an African from Burkina Faso, who has been helping in the parish for the last few years-- couldn't resist making an appeal to the once-yearly worshippers. He made it before the closing prayer, when the congregation was mentally preparing to leave. I could see from the expression on his face that he knew it might not go down well, but that he simply couldn't resist it. He told us that Jesus was our friend and that, if you only visited a friend once a year, there must be something wrong with the friendship.

Of course, he is right. And of course Midnight Mass, like every Mass, should be an opportunity for evangelization. But rebuking those who turn up on one evening of the year seems like a bad idea to me; it's more likely to alienate them than to draw them in. There is certainly occasions for priests to admonish their congregations, but that doesn't seem like one of them.

Still, the problem is an interesting one. How should the Church make the most of this Christmas surge in Mass-going? Is it an opportunity to be grasped, or would people simply stay away if they felt they were going to be pounced on for more of a commitment, or told off for their fickleness?

But it's not just once-a-year Mass-goers who find themselves doing something unusual at this time of year. Christmas, for almost all of us, is a time of routines disrupted. We go on visits, and have visitors, and socialize more than usual. It is often a time of sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, and of finding ourselves talking to unfamiliar people, or perhaps to familiar people in unfamiliar settings. I imagine that lots of people find themselves jolted out of their ordinary thought patterns at this time of year. Certainly this was the case for me this year.

I was so busy over the Christmas period that I had almost no time for reading or writing. Instead, I found myself in social situations and long conversations where I often had little to contribute, and where I was often confronted with my own ignorance on many ordinary subjects.

Rather comically, perhaps, I often ended up wistfully scanning bookshelves, both in shops and in private homes, and even browsing the bottom-of-the-barrel books on a stall in Limerick train station.

And I found myself asking: what is it that is so very comforting about books, about the printed word?

I think it has something to do with their definite nature. I am the kind of person who feels ill at ease in situations where I'm not sure what is happening, what is expected of me. (I don't for a moment think I am special because of this. Nearly everybody, it seems, claims to be shy or to suffer from anxieties of one sort or another.)

Conversation with a person you don't know very well can be a daunting experience. What do you talk about? What is worth talking about? What can you expect the other person to know? What do they expect you to know? Should you try to be clever, or funny, or deep?

If the uncertainties of conversation can be intimidating, the uncertainty of the world in general can be terrifying-- or (even worse than terrifying) paralysing. What should I be doing, right now? What is going on-- in the world, in society, in my immediate environment? Who knows what is going on? Does anybody really know what is going on? What should my reactions be? What is normal? What is dependable? What is reality and what is illusion?

If you took any scene-- a photograph, a shopping centre, a deserted street-- could you find any non-arbitrary answer to the question, "What's happening in this picture?". Is the couple holding hands in the foreground more significant than the twinkling lights in the distance, or the grass growing beneath their feet, or the writing on the shop signs? Never mind the grand narratives of history and politics, or the competing theories of Marxists and Christians and feminists and nihilists-- who is to describe, in the most literal and straightforward sense, what is happening right now, right here, in front of me?

This rawness and radical indeterminacy, intrinsic to life as it is lived, is entirely absent when we turn to books, to the printed page. Pretty much every book, article and essay is about something. While we read, the world is fed to us at the rate of one word at a time. We know that we will not be bombarded by too much experience at once, and-- far more to the point, as far as I'm concerned-- that we will not starve for something to think about, something to get our teeth into, something to accept as significant and worthy of our attention. Because, in the mental world we share with Professor Zachary X. Baumgarten as we read his Some Aspects of Bavarian Belltowers, Bavarian belltowers simply are intrinsically important.

Today I took myself to Chapters in Parnell Street, to its wonderful second-hand section upstairs. And I went straight to the poetry section, because I was in the rarest of moods possible-- I was actually in the mood for poetry.

I am a poetry lover, and I always have been, but it's been my experience that the enjoyment of poetry always requires effort. A poem by Yeats, a verse from Housman, or a few lines from Kipling may give us intense and lifelong pleasure; but actually reading poetry, especially poetry we haven't read before, is always something of a drudge. The morning air may be glorious, but getting out of bed is always a wrench.

So to be seized with a sudden hunger for poetry is (I think) a rather rare and wonderful thing. But what is even more rare and wonderful is the particular sort of poetry I was hungering for. I was hungry for half-page poems, written in free verse or at least in relaxed and irregular metre, full of wistful and wayward thoughts. In other words, I was hungry for exactly the sort of poetry that I usually despise; the sort of poetry that I do not even think requires very much talent to compose. (Whatever talent is required is negative rather than positive; knowing how to avoid too much naivety, too much bathos, too much obscurity, too much incongruity. It takes a genius to write "Man is in love and love what disappears", or "Words at once true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind"; but a literate fourteen-year-old could write a passable free verse poem.)

Rather bizarrely, this sudden hunger came to me in a dream. I dreamt I was in a shop browsing poetry of just this sort, and woke up with a hankering for it.

After a long and pleasant time scanning the shelves (in the real, waking world), I left with a volume by John Updike, another by Patrick MacDonogh, and an anthology of 1930 poets (with a political poster on the cover).

Poetry seems to me to be the great test of a society's culture; more than anything else, the thing that separates a society from a civilization, a civilized life from an uncivilized life, a first class magazine from a second class magazine, and a liberal education from an illiberal education. Poetry is never a priority. There is always something more pressing, more amusing, more compelling, more productive. Poetry is something we can always dispense with. But even a little bit of poetry makes all the difference in the world. And even amateurish, navel-gazing, rambling poetry is better than no poetry at all.

Speaking of rambling, I have done more than my share of it here. Having reflected on the unanswerability of the question, "What's happening in this picture?", I realize I have earned the question, "What the heck is this post supposed to be about?". More disciplined posting will resume in future; I just felt like getting all these Christmas reflections out of my system, and getting my fingertips back on the keyboard.

Happy New Year!


  1. Brilliant, as ever. Great to see you back posting.

    Congratulations on your engagement.

    Ever read the C S Lewis poem A Confession?

  2. Thank you, Mick, for your kind words and also for your congratulations.

    I had read "A Confession", though I didn't recognize it by title until I looked it up. Of course I very much agree with it, though I think anti-modern critics (like me) are a bit too harsh on T.S. Eliot for the notorious patient etherized upon a table.

    I think that's a good, startling simile in itself. The problem is when every image becomes the patient etherized upon a table!

    Chesterton wrote a similar poem, which can be read here:

  3. Maolsheachlann

    Like you, I find myself synpathizing with Lewis, while also liking Eliot.

    Thanks for the GKC link. Will look it up.