Sunday, March 31, 2013

Some Wonderful Words from Fr. Dwight Longenecker

Simplicity and authenticity will bring a renewal to the liturgy from within– from the beauty of the faith and sacrifice of the priests and the people. I speak from experience. I have worshipped God with a Monteverdi Mass in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. I have worshipped with the world’s finest choir at Kings College in Cambridge. I have worshipped in monastic austerity at Mont St Michel, Quarr Abbey and many other beautiful monasteries. But I have also worshipped with simplicity and authenticity in a village church in El Salvador in the heat and sweat and smell of poverty. I have worshipped at Catholic Charismatic Conferences and at big circus tent AmChurch churches and on a little folding table at summer camp with kids in shorts and T-shirts.

In each case it was the simplicity and authenticity of love in the hearts of the faithful which made the difference. That’s what I care about, and if it can be done with mozzettas and red shoes and big miters and splendiferousness, I like that too, but I don’t mind if they’re absent as long as the simplicity, honesty and authentic love of Christ and his people is there.

Read the whole article here.

I can't agree more with the good Father. To me the most important consideration when it comes to the liturgy is not the presence or absence of guitars, or of clapping, or of this or that vestment. It's not the language used, or the choir, or any of those other things. I'm not saying these things aren't important, because they are important.

But the real question is; where is the emphasis? If the emphasis is not upon communion, consecration, prayer and the Eucharist, then who cares whether the sacrament is celebrated with impeccable taste or not?

I think the most moving Mass in which I ever participated was celebrated in a hotel conference room, as part of a Catholic pre-marriage course. And in general, I prefer plain and simple and music-less Masses. Of course, that is a matter of personal taste, and not necessarily of good taste.

But I do find that, in such Masses, the emphasis is more likely to be in the right place than it is in Masses where people come for an aesthetic experience.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy Easter

I'm just back from the Easter Vigil Mass in the Holy Spirit church, Ballymun.

I remember, when I was in school, being surprised when I was told that Easter was the most important part of the Christian calendar. Surely that was Christmas? A lot more fuss was made about Christmas, wasn't it?

And ever since then, I've felt a recurring regret that Easter seems like such an anti-climax in comparison with Christmas.

But I am beginning to feel differently. This is the third Easter Vigil I've attended, and the solemn grandeur of the occasion has grown on me. The paschal fire outside the church, defiantly asserting the ancient faith against the passing cars and the suburban facelessness all around; the procession back to the church, and the tender light of the individual candles dotting the gloom; the whole of salvation history laid out like a vast map, in the Old Testament readings; the breathless suspense of that first Easter morning brought to life in the Gospel reading ("He is not here, he is risen"); the renewal of the baptismal vows, with the stirring repudiation of the Devil and "all his empty show"; the strangely palpable sense of communion with all the Christians who handed the light of faith onto us down the centuries; the unique sense of catharsis and of renewal at the end of the Mass, as the congregation say their good-humoured farewells and head out into the night.

(Although I am rather sad that none of the Easter Vigils I have attended, as far as I can remember, have included the litany of the saints that I noticed in the misalette this evening. I was especially sad about this when I saw that it includes my own favourite saint, St. Athanasius, the badass champion of Nicean orthodoxy.)

I remember, when I was about seventeen, reading a translation of The Iliad by E.V. Rieu. Rieu's introduction tackled a problem that had already occurred to me; why did the ancient Greeks prize The Iliad, which seemed like a rather monotonous saga of clanking swords, over The Odyssey, which was full of romance and contrast and picturesque detail, and which had become a template for virtually ever account of physical and emotional journeying ever since, from Joyce's Ulysses to the Cohen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

I don't remember much from Rieu's translation, but I do remember the verdict he passed in his introduction; yes, he had come to decide that the ancient Greeks were right, and the less obviously appealing Iliad was actually the better work.

In the same way, though I have loved Christmas from my earliest days, and though I love it as much now as I ever did...I think I am beginning to take a deeper and more solemn joy in tonight's even holier feast. The secular world cannot enter into the joy of Easter as it enters into the joy of Christmas, because Easter is too pure and otherworldly for it; there is little for it to grab hold of. But that is all the more reason for Christians to love it.

Happy Easter to you all, and may this sacred time of year inspire us all to strengthen our commitment to our blessed Lord! And may all those who do not profess his name come to follow him! Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Father Has an Intriguing Theory

He thinks that the reason the Labour party were hammered in the recent Meath East by-election is because voters are sick of Labour's attack on the Catholic Church and on Christian ethics. Although it's impossible to say who makes what decision in a coalition overnment, it seems pretty clear that the Labour party have been behind the closing of the Irish embassy to the Vatican, the attack on denominational education, and the push for abortion to be legalised. Well, it is a lot easier to bash Christians and the unborn than to achieve social democracy.

When he first put forward this theory, I scoffed (politely). I find it hard to believe that the Irish voter cares about anything except money.

But he pointed out later that Eamon Gilmore and his henchmen, reacting to the result, chose to make their statement to the media outside a place of worship. My father says that they entered the Unitarian church after speaking to the cameras, though I don't see that on the report. Perhaps it was a non-religious event they were attending. But even if it was, that doesn't mean that "spin" was not involved.

I don't think there is anything uncharitable or un-Christian in hoping that Labour get crushed at the next election. But I hope even more that Sinn Féin-- the most virulently liberal and secular party in the country-- don't benefit from any losses that Labour sustain.

P.S.: If this theory is correct, then it's amusing that they posed outside a Unitarian church-- as though that was as much as they could stomach!

If Jesus Came to Earth Today...

...what would be his profession, politics and religin? That is the rather pointless subject of a special Good Friday edition of the God Slot, the RTE radio religious programme.

The discussion is between a Church of Ireland priest, a rabbi, a theology professor from Trinity College, and Mary Kenny. Ms Kenny-- who is very interesting when she is not rhapsodising over royalty and other VIPs-- was the only one making any sense. One of the men (I think it was the rabbi, but I'm not sure) suggested that Jesus would make straight for a Reformed synagogue. Another suggested that Jesus would be an African woman. The most ludicrous suggestion was that Jesus would become the head of an NGO.

If Jesus came to Earth tomorrow and became the head of an NGO, I would instantly become a Sikh or a Hindu.

What's the point of discussions like this? Surely Christ knew exactly what he was about when he chose to enter history in the time and place that he did? Surely he became a carpenter for a reason? Surely he became a country bumpkin for a reason? Surely he became a male for a reason?

We don't have to guess how Jesus would choose to come to Earth. It's all in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And when he comes again, such theoretical discussions will be the last thing on anybody's mind.

Unless you don't believe that Christ was divine, of course. But if you don't, then who cares what he would do or say?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Blessed Triduum To You All

One of the many, many reasons I am a Catholic-- one of the many reasons that I believe Catholicism is true-- is because I think it gives satisfaction and legitimacy to all the deepest human urges.

My father is watching TV downstairs as I type. A few minutes ago, while I was in the living room, he was watching a programme about the re-instituted veneration, in the Church of England, of the relics of St. Alban. An Anglican priest was defending the resumption of this practice, which was obviously one of the bones of contention (pun intended) of the English Reformation.

Sooner or later the veneration of relics was bound to re-emerge, because it is one of those quintessentially human things-- one of those things the heart and soul cries out for-- that the Church blesses. Like the oral confession of sins, and the acceptance that men and women are different in important ways, and splendour, and austerity, and stories, and heroes.

And one of the human yearnings that the Church blesses is the yearning for special places and times. Prigs, and the prig within all of us, likes to complain that God is everywhere, and always present, and not more so at one time rather than another.

But the good news is that the Church not only indulges our need for special times and special places, it positively encourages and exalts it. It enjoins us to go on pigrimages, to enter places of worship, to pay a special reverence to the altar and the tabernacle.

And, of course, it gives us special times, too.

This evening, as the priest and deacon in my parish church washed the feet of parishioners, and the purple drapes covered the familiar statues, and the blessed Sacrament was moved to the Altar of Repose, some unfathomable appetite in my soul was fully and magnificently satisfied.

Sometimes it becomes so frustrating, not being able to fully convey to other people that one's membership of the Church is not a matter simply of belief, or of assent, or of consolation or aspiration or yearning, but of gloriously fulfilled love.

May this holy and solemn season bring us all to a deeper communion with our crucified and risen Lord!

Another Repeat

I hear that Facebook is seething with controversy, and with acrimonious comment wars, over the US Supreme Court's deliberations regarding DOMA (the Defence of Marriage Act), and with all the attendant controversies over same-sex "marriage", and all the familiar debates over those loaded, question-begging, and loosely-bandied-about terms, rights and equality. Much "unfriending" is going on, and some people have decided to avoid the site over Easter as a direct consequence.

This is exactly why I left Facebook. So glad I did now!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Please Pray...

...for the soul of Mary, mother of my fellow Irish Christian blogger, Father Levi.

My Stab at Free Verse

The Hidden Book

by a library assistant

While shelving books in the philosophy section
I came across the Physics of Aristotle
Laid on its spine
Hidden behind the books on Eastern thought.

I wondered who had hidden it there
And how long ago
And why they had never come back to take it out.

I wondered if it was a he or a she who had hidden it
And decided it was a she
And that she was cute.

I wondered how she had done on the exam
And what she was doing now
And whether she ever thought about Aristotle.

And, pushing my trolley ahead,

I thought of the hoards that archaeologists find--
The hoards of coins, or of jewellery, bronze and gold,
Or of other treasures committed unto the earth
Hidden but never reclaimed, until centuries later.

I thought of Egyptian mummies lying in state
Waiting for Anubis to bring them to judgement.

I thought of all of the scarf-wearing maverick scholars
Who sat untold hours in the British Museum Reading Room
Toiling over some tract that would remake the whole social system
And whose names now linger only in library catalogues.

I thought of the promises parents make to children
To put them to sleep. I thought of the promises children
Make to themselves, and break when they grow up;

Never to fall asleep straight after dinner
Never to see snow fall without excitement
Never to say to a child, "You'll understand when you're older".

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Repeat, While We're Off Air

(Since I am putting this blog on ice while I'm busy about wedding stuff, I decided I might as well have a post I really like at the top, for those floating through cyberspace to come upon while I'm away. This is one I wrote in October. It's not that I think my own musings are so wonderful they deserve a second outing. It's more that this subject is one especially close to my heart.

And it's one I have been thinking about today. Today I attended the sixth meeting of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, which was founded by me and my friend Angelo. There were only a handful of people present, but we had a very pleasant discussion indeed, and it got me thinking-- again!-- about the nature of conversation, discussion and debate. The English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott had a theory that all discourse has to be understood as conversation: "As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages...Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails."

Perhaps there is no line of Scripture I love so much as "Mary pondered all these things in her heart", which has so often been taken as an image of the Church deepening its understanding of the Faith, through centuries of debate, meditation, prayer, sacrament and experience. To be a Catholic is to join in a very ancient conversation, one that goes back to the two disciples talking on the road to Emmaus, and beyond. And isn't it interesting how much of the "action" in the Gospels takes the form of debate between Christ and his interluctors? And how positively Socratic Christ himself often seems, seeking not to coerce the intellects of his listeners but to draw them onto the truth through parable, example and challenge?

So taken was I with this subject today that, over dinner, I tried to convey my enthusiasm to my father, who is the most willing controversialist and polemicist that I have ever met. He didn't know what I was babbling on about. I think that, to him, debate in itself has no special value, and all that matters is the substance of the debate. And probably a lot of people would agree with him. But for those who might share my fascination, here is my post from October, for what it is worth.)

One funny thing I've noticed about life is how much of it is glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye. I don't know how else to put this notion. I will try to explain.

Everything that happens, everything that we see, can be interpreted in an endless amount of different ways, and seen from a myriad different angles. The same act takes on a hundred different meanings and associations.

Take universities, for instance. I am by no means an expert on the growth of universities, but I have read that European universities had their origin in cathedral schools, grew into loose associations of scholars and teachers (which sometimes had a rather disreputable air, since the townfolk often had running feuds with the scholars), were rooted in religious teaching and the humanities of the period, became more regimented and specialised and secularised as time went on, and eventually became the more or less vocational institutes of today. My picture might be wrong; that's incidental to the point I'm trying to make.

The point is the many ways you can look at college and university life. It can be seen as training. It can be seen as an intellectual adventure. It can be seen as an opportunity for high jinks and licensed bohemianism. It can be seen as a romantic vision of dreaming spires and common rooms and cobbled quads. It can be seen as a school for radicalism. Conversely it can be seen as a haven for intellectual snobbery and aesthetic posturing. It can be seen as the guardian of heritage or the laboratory of a future world. We superimpose all those ideas on the concept of "university". And we do the same with every other concept.

Human beings are, as CS Lewis put it, inveterate poets. We cannot be long satisfied with a functional view of anything; we soon begin to endow it with associations, idylls, stigmas, statements, undertones. Think of anoraks, cappucinnos, postage stamps, red hair, trouser suspenders, spectacles.

Well, the same process has been going on in my own mind, regarding the concept of debate. My interest in debates has become more and more focused on the phenomenon itself, rather than on the subject debated.

I think this began when I was moving from agnosticism to religious belief several years ago. I found myself watching many debates on Youtube between atheists and Christians. At that time I was utterly absorbed by the subject matter. I wanted to know the arguments for and against religious belief, and that was all I was looking for.

But, in spite of myself-- seeing out of the corner of my eye, as it were-- I began to take pleasure in the debates themselves. I took pleasure in the formality of the occasion. I took pleasure in the gladiatorial contest between opponents. At the same time, I took pleasure in the urbane and polite manner in which (in most cases) the contest was conducted.

I took pleasure, too, in the masculine atmosphere of the encounters. Chesterton has written a lot about the male nature of debate and argument. Of course, this is a generalisation. I am sure many women enjoy debating and are very good at it, but on the whole, I think it can be said that men evince a much stronger appetite for argument and debate than do women. More than this; affection and companionship between men often takes the form of friendly debate and argument.

This masculine love of debate is seen at its best in a vigorous but good-humoured clash of ideas. Unfortunately, the ego-fuelled fellow who wants to mercilessly crush all dissent is also a very male type (and one I have met).

In this as in almost everything, I agree with Chesterton's attitude: "It may, perhaps, be wondered whether one could possibly say a worse thing of anybody than that he had said 'the last word' on a subject. A man who says the last word on a subject ought to be killed. He is a murderer; he has slain a topic. The best kind of critic draws attention not to the finality of a thing, but to its infinity. Instead of closing a question, he opens a hundred."

(It should be noted that the same Chesterton who held this view was also a staunch champion of the principle of dogma. There is no contradiction. Even when you have accepted a dogma there is any amount of things to be said about it and around it; a thousand new implications and lines of argument lead from the dogma; and, besides, not everybody accepts the dogma and it requires constant defending.)

The more I studied the controversy between atheism and theism, the more the landscape of the debate came into view. I realised that there were definite battlefields, strategies, counter-strategies, defences, and manouvres. I realized the battlefield was littered with the bones of centuries. I began to take an interest in the debate itself, considered apart from which side was right and which was wrong.

And I realised that one of the reasons my heart pulled towards the side of the theists was that, insofar as they successfuly rebuffed the unbelievers' atacks, the debate remained open. The New Atheists, and every bullish atheist who simply wanted to see the last of religion, wanted to end the debate. They wanted to live in a world where miracles and Divine Providence, and indeed all things supernatural, had been ruled out of court. It seemed to me that such a world, whether you were an atheist or not, was a smaller world. The oddball carrying the placard announcing that The End Was Nigh, the fresh-faced Mormon knocking at your door, the irascible but loveable Catholic priest, the ouija board, the mysterious stranger who saves a man's life on a stormy night and then turns out to have Died Twenty Years Ago Last Night....all those stock characters of folklore and fiction seemed as indispensable to me as the sun and the moon.

The theists, on the other hand, did not want to abolish atheism, seeming instead to see unbelief as a permanent part of the human condition. Faith itself implies the possibility of a lack of faith. It seemed to me that a religious view of the world contained a space for unbelief, while atheism couldn't allow even the smallest chink onto the supernatural to remain open.

I also saw that some of the debates were, as it were, part of the dialectic of faith itself. The prime example is the problem of evil.

We all know the problem of evil. How could an all-good Creator allow evil in the world? How could we watch a baby die of natural causes and believe in the Christian Deity?

For my own part, the problem of evil never caused me a moment's trouble intellectually. It seems almost like a non-issue to me, taken philosophically. If there is a life after this one, and if the Almighty is good, then we can be perfectly confident that the pains of this life are nothing at all compared to our ultimate bliss; that they are even part of that bliss.

But the interesting thing was to learn, as I accepted Catholicism and began to explore its doctrine, that I simply couldn't dismiss the problem of evil so cavalierly. It was bad Catholicism to do so. The Catechism, I learned, took the question very seriously indeed:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice...There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

And yet, the point I am trying to make in this post is not principally a theological one. I am simply trying to celebrate the life-giving, world-making, personality-forming, faction-creating, existential value of debate itself.

Whenever I hear anybody use a term like "the oldest debate in the world", "the eternal debate", "the hoary old debate", or "the much-vexed question", a thrill passes through me. (My heart also leaps whenever I read about "seas of ink" being spilled on this or that disputed matter.)

I love the thought that, as well as ancient philosophical and religious and historical debates, there are well-rehearsed discussions in every country, town, interest group, political party, family and workplace. Everywhere we are look there are controversies raging-- whether it's two old men arguing about the Irish Civil War or two teenage heavy metal fans arguing when exactly Metallica lost the plot.

I love to think and hear and read about the various debates that have come to be seen as permanent features of the human landscape, like huge rocks around which the waves crash and whirl.

There are the great philosophical debates: Does free will exist? What is the self? Can we have reliable knowledge of the outside world? Are there universals or is everything particular? Are morals absolute?

There are the great historical debates: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War? Why did the First World War happen? Why did the Roman Empire fall? Were the Dark Ages really so Dark? Was the Renaissance really a Renaissance?

(Of course, we have our own burning debates in Irish history. Was the 1916 Rising morally justifiable? Was Michael Collins right to sign the Treaty? Why didn't De Valera go to negotiate it? Was Ireland right to remain neutral in World War Two? Should Ireland have joined the EEC?)

There are the pop cultural debates: Who was the best James Bond? Which is the best Beatles album? What is science fiction and what is mere space opera? What is heavy metal? When did The Simpsons go downhill?

Eager for more examples, I just now entered the words "eternal debate about" into a search engine and these were the first subjects that were returned:

The eternal debate about an afterlife.
The eternal debate about Valentine's Day.
The eternal debate about who counts as a "radical faerie" (which seems to be some kind of gay subculture)
The eternal debate about Capricorn or Sagittarius Ascendant (astrology)
The eternal debate about developing tweener prospects for NHL duty (something to do with hockey)
The eternal debate about the branding of children's books as for boys or for girls.

Isn't it marvellous? I love thinking about our world bubbling with all these famous debates; some of them years old, some of them millennia old; some of them universal, some of them confined to one geeky group of fans or to enthusiasts of some ultra-niche hobby.

Perhaps my delight comes from the fact that these "great debates" manage to assuage two deep-seated fears at the same time. (Or is it more positive to say they satisfy two deep-seated yearnings?) We fear a world that is nothing but flux and in which there is nothing familiar, stable or reliable. But we also fear a world in which there are no shadows, no mysteries, no "wriggle-room"; the reaction that C.S. Lewis articulates in The Discarded Image, his exposition of the cosmic theory of the Middle Ages:

The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces, it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we really never get out of doors?

The concept of an Eternal Debate gives us something permanent, reliable and public-- but also something that leaves us room to be individuals, to explore, to form alliances and theories and attitudes, to be either loyal or irreverent, orthodox or daring, to contribute or own "value added"-- and (to draw on Lewis's words) to be in the dark and to be out of doors.

I would be very grateful for any other suggestions of "great debates", no matter how old or recent, how well-known or obscure. What is the first thing that comes to mind? I'm insatiable.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Organist Wanted

Help! As you know, my wedding is a few months away. We just found out that the Church’s organist is no longer available for 22nd June. We don’t know any other organists, but the music is a really important part of the wedding to us.

Considering my ecclesial readership, we’re hoping there might be a reader out there who could put me in touch with an organist who is available. My email is, please get in touch if you can help!


Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Hundred Days of Bachelorhood

A hundred days from now is my wedding day. So I suppose this is a good time to put my blog on the back burner, since there is so much to be done about that other matter.

I might still post now and again, but intermittently, and almost certainly not long articles.

So I want to give a very heartfelt thanks to everybody who reads. The main reason I write this blog is because I enjoy it so much. In fact, I doubt I have ever found anything quite so satisfying as I found writing this blog! And to learn that at least some people like to read the kind of writing I enjoy the most has been a wonderful boost and discovery.

I give special thanks to all those who were kind enough to comment. Thank you Angelo, Vicky, Michelle, Jonny Stephens, Mick, Flannery O'Connor, Goldenrush Apple, Molly, Rusty, Fr. Levi, Katy Lamb, Young Ireland, Corrigan1 and all the Groundhog Day fans who agree with me that it is the greatest movie of all time! I'm sorry if I left anybody out.

God has been especially good to me in the last few years, in so many different ways. Praise to Him!

I am certainly not retiring the blog, and I look forward to coming back to it after June.

I keep everyone who reads it in my prayers. Thank you all again!

Do They Ever Stop?

The headline on the web version of the Irish Times today is "First Pope from the Americas, Francis Raises Hopes of Change Among Faithful".

Really? Did the reporter, Paddy Agnew, go around all the cheering people gathered in St. Peter's Square and asked them what they hoped for the Pope Francis's reign, and did each one of them reply "Change!" in eager tones?

Or should the full version of the headline read "First Pope from the Americas, Francis Raises Hopes of Change Among Faithful (Vatican Correspondents who are Sick of the Church's Tiresome Fidelity to Its Message)"?

The Western lifestyle-liberal shopping list is soon whipped out:

In St Peter’s Square, there were literally people jumping for joy. Those who would like to think that he is going to change the Church’s position on a whole range of issues including Catholic teaching on homosexuality, on contraception and clerical celibacy may however be disappointed.

I wonder how many of the people jumping for joy in St. Peter's Square hoped for that?

Later, Mr. Agnew adds:

The fact that on Saturday he intends to hold an unprecedented meeting with the media in the Paul VIth Hall sends a very different message, one of openness from an organization which, frankly, has often treated the secular media with total distrust.

Goodness. I wonder why.

It should be said, however, that the print version of the Irish Times (which I saw on the way into work) has a much more positive headline, something like: "Joyful Welcome for Humble Pope". In fact, I have to admit that I was pleased by RTE's radio coverage of the announcement yesterday evening. The Western liberal goggles were taken off for a precious hour or so, and I don't remember child abuse even being mentioned.

Let us hope and pray that the media pundits get more change than they bargained for!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Deo Gratias

From St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton

We have now reached the great break in the life of Francis of Assisi; the point at which something happened to him that must remain greatly dark to most of us, who are ordinary and selfish men whom God has not broken to make anew.

In dealing with this difficult passage, especially for my own purpose of making things moderately easy for the more secular sympathiser, I have hesitated as to the more proper course; and have eventually decided to state first of all what happened, with little more of a hint of what I imagine to have been the meaning of what happened. The fuller meaning may be debated more easily afterwards, when it was unfolded in the full Franciscan life. Anyway, what happened was this. The story very largely revolves around the ruins of the Church of Saint Damien, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling to pieces. Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix during those dark and aimless days of transition which followed the tragical collapse of all his military ambitions, probably made bitter by some loss of social prestige terrible to his sensitive spirit. As he did so he heard a voice saying to him, "Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me."

Francis sprang up and went. To go and do something was one of the driving demands of his nature...


There had dawned on him one of those great paradoxes that are also platitudes. He realised that the way to build a church is not to become entangled in bargains and, to him, rather bewildering questions of legal claim. The way to build a church is not to pay for it, certainly not with somebody else's money. The way to build a church is not to pay for it even with your own money. The way to build a church is to build it.

Ha Ha Ha

From the BBC website report on the Papal Conclave:

Jamming devices in the Sistine Chapel should block all electronic communication and anyone tweeting would in any case risk being excommunicated.

How twenty-first century!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Books I'm Surprised Don't Exist #4

And That's Just the Women: Deconstructing Patriarchal Narratives in the Discourse of Joke Telling, by Linda Lemon (PhD).

Review of G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker

G.K. Chesterton: A Biography
Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 2011

G.K. Chesterton was (amongst many other things) a biographer. His biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens are considered classics. He also wrote highly-regarded biographies of Robert Browning, William Blake and the English conservative-radical William Cobbett.

Chesterton's biographies, however, are very different to the sort of volumes you might find in the Biography section in a modern bookshop. He paid scant attention to biographical facts, and often enough (famously in the case of his Charles Dickens biography) he got those facts wrong.

It didn't matter. Chesterton's biographies are not so much chronicles as extended essays. Rather than immersing himself in archives and hunting down private letters, he simply took what was already public knowledge and wrote a study upon it. This is why Chesterton's biographies are so eminently readable. He didn't (to use the modern phrase) sweat the small stuff. He did not turn out his subjects' pockets, or rifle their desk drawers. He just looked at them and wrote about what he saw. He was especially good at seeing the things that were so glaring, so obvious, that nobody else had noticed them before.

Strangely, I know of no biography of Chesterton himself that has followed this lead. They have all pretty much gone the Dry-as-Dust route. They give us far more information about Chesterton's ancestry, early life, schooling, living arrangements, dinner parties and holidays than any sensible reader could ever have possibly wanted, and far too little about Chesterton's beliefs, ideas and themes-- all the things Chesterton cared about the most, and all the things his readers should care about the most.

Maisie Ward, a personal friend of Chesterton, came closest with her never-surpassed biography (first published in 1942), and its follow-up volume, Return to Chesterton, which was made up of recollections and anecdotes by those who had known him. But even Ward dwelt too much on living arrangement and travel details. She also reprinted many private letters and private nonsense poems which are very often (to be frank) tiresome. (Not all the letters are tiresome, mind you. Chesterton's correspondence with Shaw was always entertaining and insightful, while some of the letters he wrote to Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc and others, at the time of his conversion to Catholicism, are amongst the most interesting things he ever wrote. But most of the letters are mere chatter.)

I have read at least five or six biographies of Chesterton, and it is very difficult to single Dr. Ker's out for any special commendation.

What I liked most about it was the author's critical assessment of Chesterton's work-- especially his defence of the non-fiction prose works and journalism as the most important, and his praise for the too-often-overlooked Autobiography. (More controversial, perhaps, but equally correct in my view, is his claim that The Ballad of the White Horse has been rather overpraised. It has sublime stanzas, but protracted longeurs.)

Chesterton's friends, and certainly his wife, often regretted that he did not spend more time producing "masterpieces". W.H. Auden was also of this school of thought. But aren't there enough "masterpieces" in the world? Isn't it a lazy assumption that the heights of literature are only scaled in fiction and poetry? I would swap any of Chesterton's novels-- come to think of it, I would swap all of them-- for another Orthodoxy or What's Wrong with the World. And his innumerable newspaper columns are endlessly fascinating. Ker has a similar view, and it especially pleased me that he repeatedly quotes Chesterton's own explanation for preferring polemical writing to fiction for its own sake: "I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women. But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist."

There is a wonderful humility in Chesterton's concentration upon the causes he championed, rather than his own literary reputation. Perhaps it is best expressed in this little known ballade, quoted in a memoir by his friend Father O'Connor:

I am not as that Poet that arrives,
Nor shall I pluck the Laurel that persists
Through all perverted Ages and revives;
Enough for me, that if with feet and fists
I fought these pharisaic atheists,
I need not crawl and seek when all is done
My motley pennon trampled in the lists.
It will not matter when the fight is won.

(For this very reason, it is very difficult for a neutral critic to be fair to Chesterton. He was first and foremost a controversialist, so an appreciation of his work is almost inevitably dependent on whether you think he was right or wrong about the most important matters. His biggest fans tend to be Catholics, Christians and Distributists-- though there are a few exceptions, like the late Martin Gardner, a skeptical deist. When it comes to Chesterton, it's difficult to avoid either idolising him uncritically, on the one hand, or simply missing the point, on the other-- and the point is often missed by those who judge him primarily as a creative writer rather than a controversialist, or by those who condemn him for his fondness for paradox. Paradox was not a stylistic device for Chesterton, but simply the way his mind worked-- or, rather, a feature of reality as he saw it. There is another rather eminent figure I can think of who was much given to paradox, but strangely, he has rarely been taken to task for it.)

Although I agree with most of Dr. Ker's critical assessments of Chesterton's work, I was rather irritated at the self-assured tone in which he expresses them. Over and over again, we are told about Chesterton's Half-Dozen Major Works, to the point where I wondered if Dr. Ker should trademark the phrase. I can't argue too much with the titles which he includes in this heading-- Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, Charles Dickens, St. Francis of Assisi, The Dumb Ox and Autobiography-- but is there any need to be so definitive? There is certainly a case to be made for Heretics, What's Wrong with the World, Chaucer, and pretty much any of his collections of essays. But really, what does it mean to say that something is a "major" work, anyway? That it deserves the interest of some priggish General Reader who treks the landscape of Literature looking for works of Importance, the Best That Has Been Thought and Written in All Ages, while studiously avoiding those works which are not considered Major and are found guilty of being Ephemeral, Derivative or of purely Historical Interest?

The truth is that anyone who enjoys any of Chesterton's "major" works will almost certainly enjoy all or most of his works-- and that this division is between major and minor is pretty pointless, anyway. Even Chesterton's lesser works have many stretches of brilliance, or (at least) moments of brilliance. Dr. Ker takes a much more solemn and serious view of Literature, considered for its own sake, than Chesterton ever did.

Again, Dr. Ker's summaries of the various collections of Chesterton's articles published in his lifetime makes them sound a lot more repetitive than they are. He is right to identify the standard Chestertonian themes that occur again and again-- Chesterton's love of limits, his insistence that levity and seriousness could go together, his dislike of the racial theory, his insistence on the need for clear thought and first principles, above all the emphasis he placed upon the sense of wonder-- but he is wrong to list them in such a supercilious tone. The whole point is that these are indeed themes, and themes capable of infinite variety and application. I think Chesterton is the least boring writer I've ever read. He repeats himself, indeed-- what writer doesn't? But the most important thing is that he never seems to strain for a subject-- he always seems to have something to say, and not just for the sake of saying it. Given the sheer volume of his output, this is extraordinary.

This is a book which suffers from an air of pedantry, which is hardly a Chestertonian characteristic. Letters and notes that were obviously written in haste (by Chesterton and others), and which occasionally drop an apostrope or make some such trivial error, suffer the indignitiy of having [sic] inserted into them. Surely they should simply be corrected, or let stand without comment. (Perhaps my complaint itself is pedantic, but I found it an irritant). Dr. Ker even corrects George Bernard Shaw's use of punctuation, which-- considering GBS's views on spelling reform, and his deliberate avoidance of standard spelling and punctuation-- seems rather silly.

But the worst thing about this book, without any doubt at all, is Dr. Ker's almost unbelievable fixation upon minute details. This really has to be read to be believed. The author only stops short of recording what colour socks Chesterton wore on a given day, or the name of the shop that he bought his ink from. Perhaps those details simply weren't available, or they would have been included.

This tendency reaches it barmiest when it comes to the accounts of Chesterton's trips overseas. For instance, Chesterton went on a lecture tour of Notre Dame University, Indiana, in 1930. Here is a short extract from the book, describing the negotiations that preceded this lecture tour:

On 16 January 1930 Father O'Donnell wrote again to Chesterton asking him to confirm that he would be coming in April; on receiving confirmation, he would send an advance payment to cover the travelling expenses. On 23 January Dorothy Collins wrote to confirm that Chesterton would begin lecturing on Monday 14 April and conclude on Saturday 24 May. She now informed the President that she herself would be accompanying the Chestertons. They understood that there should be no difficulty about accommodation as they had heard that there was a 'quiet and comfortable' hotel at Notre Dame. She would write again but in the meantime she informed him that they would be probably in America for a week or two before coming to Notre Dame as Chesterton had been asked to give some public lectures.

Reader, there are six pages of the book devoted to this correspondence, all of it pretty much of the same sort as the paragraph quoted above. This is the worst example of Dr. Ker's obsession with pettifogging detail, but it is by no means the only one. There are pages and pages devoted to logistics and itineraries.

Why? That is the question that the reader, brain-fatigued after yet another in-depth account of some train journey or public reception, finds himself asking. These long litanies of barely-relevant information certainly have no entertainment value, nor do they have any literary value. They tell us nothing about Chesterton, and nothing of any consequence about his era. It's hard to see that they even have any historical or scholarly value. Dr. Ker's decision to include so many of these obscure details is a bizarre one, and one that significantly reduces the readability of the book.

One thing I really liked about the biography was the author's realistic and sympathetic view of the Chestertons' marriage. So much has been written and said about their domestic life-- much of it gushing, much of it wildly speculative, some of it (as is the case with the theories of Ada Chesterton, the great man's sister in law) prurient. The marriage of the Chestertons has been held up as an idyll of domestic bliss by some. Others have considered Chesterton's wife to have been a kind of martyr for enduring his untidiness, chaotic lack of organization, carelessness about money and helplessness in practical matters. (She would actually shave him and tie his shoelaces!) Still others have cast Frances in the role of fussing, controlling wife, condemning Chesterton to suburban respectability rather than letting him indulge his rollicking life as a jolly journalist in the taverns of Fleet Street. (This despite the fact that, according to one of Chesterton's doctors, he would have died twenty years earlier than he did if Frances had not taken him away from this lifestyle.)

The most plausible view, I think, is that one put forward by Dr. Ker-- that the Chestertons had a loving and happy marriage, but one that suffered from strains and trials like any other, and that gave both spouses plenty of opportunity to show forbearance and consideration. (I don't think I would like to had lived with Chesterton, for all my admiration of his work. His chronic unpunctuality would have driven me up the wall. And speaking of walls, his habit of drawing on them would also have exasperated me.)

Another thing I liked about the book is Dr. Ker's balanced and sane verdict on Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism. Both during his life and since his death, Chesterton has been accused of anti-Semitic tendencies. The most damning evidence against him is a passage in his book, The New Jerusalem (which I've never read), in which Chesterton argues that English Jews who hold positions of importance in national life should wear distinctive dress to identify themselves as Jewish. This (allowing for context, since I haven't read the book) seems indefensible and, indeed, anti-Semitic. But one anti-Semitic passage does not make an anti-Semite. Chesterton had Jewish friends from his youth onwards, he defended the right of the Jews to a national homeland, and, though he died before the horrors of the concentration camps, he was unambiguous in his condemnation of Hitler's treatment of the Jews.

Dr. Ker puts it very well:

If Chesterton was anti-Jewish, he was anti-Jewish in exactly the same kind of way that many Europeans are anti-American today, or that Irish American are or used to be anti-British, or that British people were anti-German or anti-Japanese after the Second World War. Of course, to hold unfavourable views of a nation is not to condemn all the individuals in it or to preclude the possibility of having friends amongt them. But whereeas, Chesterton himself complained, people were "allowed to express...general impressions" about the Irish or the Scots or Yorkshiremen-- this latitude was not permitted in the case of the Jews: "There (for some reason I have never understood), the whole natural tendency has been to stop; and anybody who says anything whatever about Jews as Jews is supposed to wish to burn them at the stake"....That there was to be a "final solution" proposed in Nazi Germany to the Jewish 'problem' was still some years ahead, and Chesterton cannot be judged in the light of the Holocaust.

Surely that should be the last word on Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism.

The author is a Catholic priest, and it is therefore no surprise that there is a strong emphasis on Chesterton's spiritual life in the book. This, of course, is just as it should be. Chesterton's Christianity was the most important thing about him, and everything else in his life and thought flowed from it.

The book introduced me to a delightful anecdote, taken from a letter Chesterton wrote to a friend, which is one of the most perfect expressions of what I might call the spirit of Catholicism, and which shows Chesterton's inimitable flair for illustrating why the Faith seems so solid and certain to its adherents, and why we view it as a Thing rather than a theory.

The scene is Prohibition-era America, during one of Chesterton's tours there. A Catholic priest is visiting Chesterton's wife, who was ill (and who by this time had also become a Catholic convert).

Priest (after a boisterous greeting) I was told ye were ill: but I didn't know how ill. I've brought the Holy Oils.
Frances (somewhat tartly) Then you can take 'em away again. I don't want them just yet. But I wish you'd give me your blessing, Father.
Priest I'll give you some whiskey first. (Produces an enormous bottle of Bootleg Whiskey and flourishes it like a club.)....You drink that down and ye'll be all the better.
Frances (rather faintly):...and the Blessing?
Priest (straightens himself out and gabbles in a strong guttural voice): Benedicat te Omnipotens Deus, etc. etc.

Chesterton's commentary upon the little scene (he says he would "like to have that actual dialogue printed as a little Catholic leaflet") is a minor masterpiece:

It would tell people more about the Soul of the Church than ten thousand chippy chats between A (Anglican Enquirer) and C (Catholic Instructor)-- about its fearlessness of the facts of life and the Fact of Death, its ease and healthy conscience, its contempt for fads and false laws, its buoyancy that comes from balance; its naturalness with the natural body as with the supernatural soul; its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment; its presence of the Priest; its utter absence of the Parson. Clare dear, never let go of the Faith.

Amen, I say. For that anecdote alone I am glad that I read Dr. Ker's biography. I just wish there had been a lot more of that kind of thing, and a lot less about travel schedules and lecture tour arrangements.

For all the accolades heaped upon this work, it doesn't, in my opinion, even threaten to dislodge Maisie Ward from her pedestal as the best Chesterton biographer yet. As for the definitive Chesterton biography, that remains to be written.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Remembering the Allen Library, Dublin

One good thing about writing a blog-- one justification for it, perhaps-- is that you can write about stuff that hasn't been written about much, if at all. People sometimes assume that everything, but everything, is to be found somewhere in the vast tracts of cyberspace. But when you actually go online looking for information or for discussion about some specific subject, you often find this is not the case. (For instance, this blog gets a lot of hits from people looking for material on the Irish writer John D. Sheridan, who was a fairly prominent Irish writer in his day but about whom there is next to nothing on the internet.)

In 2001, after months of unemployment, I spent eleven months attending the Allen Library FÁS course in North Richmond Street, Dublin, beside Croke Park stadium. To those who don't know, I should explain that FÁS is an Irish government body that provides training for unemployed people. The Allen Library is an archive and "library" (although it is not open to the public) belonging to the Christian Brothers, a religious congregation. The building that housed it had once been a school, and is now home to a community of Christian Brothers.

Unemployed people who attended the Allen Library were given training in library work, many of them (me included) going on to work in libraries.

These eleven months in my life are like a page torn from a book. For a few years after leaving the Allen Library, I did occasionally cross paths with people I had met there. But it's been many years since that happened. I don't know anyone I met in the Allen Library now. I don't have their contact details or know what they are doing today. I never come across any reference to the Allen Library. Apart from my memories, and the goodbye card I was given on my last day, it might never have happened.

That kind of situation always makes me sad
, in the way that abandoned houses make us feel sad.

During my time in the Allen Library, dozens of trainees passed through its doors. The scheme operated for some years before and also (I imagine) for some years after I attended, although it's finished now. I imagine that some of those people may have browsed the internet for references to their old stomping ground, and found next to nothing. (But why should that matter, anyway, you might ask? It just does, at least to me. I like things to be chronicled and commemorated.) Perhaps some Allen Library "alumni" will be cheered to come across this account.

I started my stint in the Allen Library in the least cheerful circumstances possible. Between attending the interview for the course and receiving the letter telling me I was accepted-- a mere matter of days-- my mother died. This was in January. It was something of a miracle that she actually experienced a final Christmas with us. That makes my memories of starting in the Allen library so much more vivid. It seems like a new epoch in my life.

Despite my mother's death, and despite the fact that I was surrounded by Christian books and materials all day long, I was most definitely non-religious at this time. I felt pretty bleak about my own life and I was angry at God, my anger taking the usual form of doubting His existence. At the same time, I was taking a keen (but purely intellectual) interest in Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Mormonism.

I do, however, remember some moments where a religious idea or mood penetrated my indifference. I remember at one time coming across a quotation in a book of quotations (there was plenty of opportunity to browse the books) which I have never been able to find again but which struck me as true and interesting. It ran something like this: "The Catholic Church has survived through so many centuries because of its deep distrust of all enthusiasm". (By "enthusiasm", of course, the writer meant the kind of shallow and unbalanced zeal which quickly burns itself out, whether in an individual life or over several generations. Even back then, the sobriety and calmness of Catholicism impressed me, without my thinking of it much.)

I also remember coming across a pamphlet which celebrated the dedication of the Irish people to the Mass through centuries of persecution. This made me feel ashamed (illogically) that I did not attend Mass myself, despite being entirely free to do so. It also planted the germ of an idea in my mind; the idea that attending Mass could be a privilege and a joy, rather than a tiresome duty.

Finally, on an occasion when one of the brothers was giving us a tour of the building, and showing us the upstairs bedroom where the Order's founder Blessed Edmund Rice had slept, he unexpectedly asked us to join him in a prayer. I remember feeling embarrassed and flustered, and annoyed at myself for feeling embarrassed and flustered. Though I was an agnostic, tending towards atheism, I experienced an unpleasant sense of having been conditioned by modern society, when I realized that simply joining in a prayer mortified me.

The Allen Library was hard work. The course did give us skills, and it did lead to employment in my case and in many others, but it definitely got something back from the trainees. We did a lot of cataloguing of books and archival material (writing in pencil on index cards), as well as data entry of the records into a computer database. I found it quite gruelling a lot of time. Worst of all was the "checking", a regular stint of going through index cards that other people had written up, and checking their accuracy. This was tedious beyond words. I remember making long visits to the bathroom just for a respite.

Mind you, I was making a big effort to be dilligent, since I had been on the dole for months before this, and in school and college I didn't have the reputation of being hard-working. Nor had I ever had a part-time or weekend job. I wanted to give myself a reputation for being industrious. If I say so myself, I did achieve this.

It wasn't all hard work though. One practice that the tutors in the Allen Library instituted was to have "reading time" every Wednesday afternoon, for the last hour and a half or so of the day. The reasoning was that there was no point in being surrounded by books if you never got to read them. I thought (and think) that this was wonderfully civilized. I think every employer on Earth should have "reading time"!

One of the books that I read during one session of "reading time" was the autobiography of G.K. Chesterton. I was not a fan of Chesterton at the time, and it would be many years before I developed an enthusiasm for him, but I do remember laughing out loud at one story in the book. I also remember, in one of the archive boxes that we were given to catalogue, coming across a card with Chesterton's autograph written on it (though "drawn" might be a better term, since it was so carefully and stylishly inscribed).

I came across some other good stuff in the archive boxes. There were hundreds and hundreds of these boxes and it was a genuine lucky dip as to what you found. Probably the most remarkable thing that I discovered was a withered stalk in an envelope, which was all that was left of a flower that the Irish nationalist Erskine Childers had given to a female friend before he was executed. I put it in a little plastic wallet, and felt proud to have played a part in its history. There were also letters written by Irish nationalists before execution, letters from other Irish nationalists written from prison, and a psaltery that belonged to Daniel O'Connell, one of the most prominent figures in Irish history, and the man after whom Dublin's main street is named.

Smell is the royal road of memory. When I remember those archive boxes, I remember the smell that is probably most redolent of my whole time in the Allen Library-- the smell of the latex gloves that we had to wear while handling them, and of the powder with which the gloves were lined. I remember, too, the way the scent would cling to your hands afterwards, even after you had washed them. It was a pungent but not unpleasant smell.

As well as reading time, we also had regular parties, lunches and field trips. Every time somebody celebrated an important birthday, or got a job, or was leaving for some other reason, we seemed to have a celebration. We would run tables together in the main workroom, which had a mural of Da Vinci's Last Supper on one wall. (Everybody agreed that it was an awful mural, though I didn't see much wrong with it.) These feasts would often go on for a couple of hours. Usually, some of the Christian Brothers would join us; one of them was quite an accomplished raconteur.

One memory that always lingers in my mind is when the woman who ran the project said, "We eat together more than most families, at this stage." This is a poignant memory for two reasons; one, because it is sadly true, since so many families do not eat together (my own rarely did); and two, because the "we" of that sentence no longer exists, even in the most residual way.

The team that was in charge of the project (and who were employed by the government training scheme, rather than the Christian Brothers) were all-female, until one man was hired towards the end of my stay. The lady who ran the project might have been in her thirties or forties, but the four ladies who assisted her were all, I guessed, in their twenties. I was rather fascinated by this. I imagined, perhaps idyllically, that they were like sisters. From a man's point of view, there seems to be a rapport between women, and especially women of a certain age group, that is different from anything a man will ever experience. Perhaps I was simply projecting. Perhaps they were just colleagues, not particularly close, and never kept in touch afterwards. But I prefer my daydreams of an all-girls-together everlating bond.

I got in trouble in the Allen Library once. For tea-breaks, the trainees and the "tutors" (as they were called) would sit down together in separate rooms and share tea and biscuits. I never joined them, for two reasons. The first was that I was too shy. The second was that there was a rota for washing up, and I was terrified I wouldn't do the washing up properly, or I might drop a cup, or some such disaster. I really was this socially akward at the time.

Sometimes I would go and walk around the streets outside during tea-breaks and lunches. But at other times, I would write on the training computers. (There was only one internet computer, and we were given a half-hour "internet time" each week-- it already seems quaint.) Unfortunately, at one point, I began to write satirical "parliamentary reports" of the conversation that was taking place behind me, making the Allen Library a kind of mock parliament with a lower house (trainees) and an upper house (tutors). In the mock reports, I referred to the tutors as Lady N----, Lady A----, and so forth. I also made the mistake of saving this on my floppy disk (remember those?), which was kept in a box with other peoples' floppy disks.

One day I came back from a lunch-time walk to find that some middle managers from FÁS, the government training scheme, were waiting to speak to me. I was given a print-out of my parliamentary report and asked if I had written it. I protested that it was my own personal floppy disk that had been obviously accessed by somebody else, but this didn't go down too well. They didn't exactly take my head off, but they did give me a rather solemn lecture.

Afterwards (ironically, during a break) I went into the room where the tutors were having tea and said, "I'm sorry for my parliamentary report". I was told not to worry about it, and noticed to my confusion that they could barely keep from laughing. I concluded that it was one of my fellow trainees who had found the offending report and complained. (I didn't apologize to them since I didn't think they had any business accessing my disk in the first place, whatever might be said for the trainers doing so.)

There was an epilogue to the little controversy. When my time came to leave the Allen Library, and everybody signed a farewell card for me, I was amused that two of the tutors had signed themselves "Lady N" and "Lady A", while one of the trainees put "lower house" after her name, in brackets. Ha ha ha.

On a darker note, I was in the Allen Library when I first heard of the 9/11 attacks. I was entering the data on the pencilled index cards onto our computer system. Someone came in to announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York, and soon a television set had been set up and everybody was gathered around it. Everybody except me, that is. Partly through shyness, partly through contrarianism and a kind of disdain of hysteria, I kept working through the whole thing.

I remember the moment that one of the Christian Brothers came in to announce that the second tower had been hit. I remember the exact phrase he used, half-wonderingly and half-ironically: "The end of the world!". I was frightened, and frightened of showing that I was frightened, though I'm not sure what I was frightened of exactly. Who knew what else might happen? People were making phone calls to loved ones in America to make sure they were unharmed. Someone said something about the European Parliament being targeted.

I think we all remember the emotions of the days following 9/11, and I won't try to evoke them again here. But something that one of my fellow trainees said, either the next day or a few days later, did stick in my mind. He said that he had gone to Mass, even though he was not a believer, because he felt he had to do something. It is extraordinarily interesting that God and religion seem to be indispensable in times of stark tragedy. Of course, it doesn't prove anything. But it suggests quite a lot.

And now all the tea-things of the Allen Library heritage project have been washed for the last time, and there are no more celebratory lunches, and all the routines and sights and sounds and smells of its daily life survive only in the archive boxes of memory. I don't know if the ladies of the upper house ever kept in touch with each other. I don't know if any of the trainees I knew kept in touch with each other. Nothing in my life now harks back to that eleven months I spent there.

There is a strange and unique poignancy to closed shops, and defunct businesses, and offices that have been shut down. Families pass away, but that is a tragedy and acknowledged as such. They are remembered by their descendants, and usually live in family folklore. Political parties and sporting clubs and entire nations break up-- but people write books and articles about that. But what happens to the life spirit of newsagents and tenant's associations and training courses, when their day is done? Who laments them?

But who knows? Perhaps someone else who passed through the doors of the Allen Library, in this period of its life, will come on this post and feel some glow of nostalgia, or of fellowship. I hope so. In any case, I keep them all in my prayers.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Look Back on Anger

Fine article by Fr. Dwight Longenecker anatomising anger, and the motives behind it-- which is (he says) a deep desire for unconditional love and acceptance. He recommends contemplative and meditative prayer as a solution to anger. So simple, but I never thought of it.

I think anger might be my besetting sin. Especially as a response to potential embarrassment. I live in absolute terror of embarrassment and when I think somebody is going to put me in an embarrassing situation, or when they do put me in an embarrassing situation, they become (in my eyes) Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Joseph Stalin and Ronald McDonald all rolled into one. Hieronymous Bosch would gasp in horror at some of the retributions that pass through my head.

Meditiative and contemplative prayer it is, then.

Friday, March 8, 2013

I Love Debates

I wrote a whole post about it.

Does anyone know of any good debates I can watch online?

I've seen William Lane Craig's various debates against Christopher Hitchens and other atheists. I've seen John Lennox and Richard Dawkins. I've seen Dinesh D'Souza and the various New Atheists. I've seen Peter Hitchens and Matthew Parris and a few others on the question of whether Britain has become an anti-Christian country. I've seen Anne Widdecombe and some African Archbishop versus Stehen Fry and Peter Hitchens on whether Catholicism is a force for good or not.

It doesn't even have to be about religion. Some other broad topic, like liberalism vs. conservatism, would do.

I've tried trawling Youtube, but with no luck.

Debates! Debates! Debates! Hungry for debates!

The Goat, Goatstown-- Dublin's Best Pub?

On Wednesday evening (for reasons I won't go into) I found myself in the South Dublin suburb of Goatstown, a place with which I was unfamiliar. I had to call on a particular house. It was a drizzly evening and darkness was falling.

My sense of direction is abysmal, terrible, unspeakably dreadful. I tell people how bad it is and they nod and tell me that they have a tendency to get lost, too. Then when they see how bad it actually is, and realize how little I know my way around my native city, they are shocked and almost offended. But I told them. My sense of direction is so egregious that I can't even direct students around the college library where I've worked for twelve years. I have to accompany them.

So I set out waaay ahead of time, as usual, to make sure I found the house. I found it, after losing my way only once, and I had an hour to kill ahead of my appointment. In the middle of suburbia. In the drizzle.

I had passed a Chinese takeaway on my peregrinations, which was the only business open in a small row of other shops and offices. Apart from that, I couldn't remember seeing anywhere open to the weary wayfarer. And I needed to use the bathroom, too.

Suburbia is not a very inviting place, to somebody who has nowhere particular to go. It is all inside. Televisions glowed from behind living room curtains, and I imagined weary bread-earners contentedly sitting in their socks and watching cop shows. One woman was painting an upstairs bedrooom blue.

Outside, there was nothing much to look at except the rainwater dripping from the trees.

I set out in search of a pub or a café that opened late, without feeling much hope. It looked like the sort of place where, if you wanted to go anywhere for anything, you went in a car.

And then-- miracle of miracles!-- I turned a corner, and saw strings of little white lights ranged defiantly and jubilantly against the evening gloom. It was...a pub! Right beside me!

And it was not only a pub, but one that I had noticed with interest some years before (when I briefly lodged in the same part of Dublin, and I was lost). It was The Goat-- and you could tell that it was extremely proud of that fact. Signs and placards seemed to loom all around me, proclaiming that I had now arrived at the famous GOAT PUB, that delicious food waited for me inside, and that the GOAT was legendary for its entertainments and its sports-themed nights. The actual front of the pub, as befitted such an important place, was hidden from initial view, protected by screens of bush and brick.

I pressed ahead, hugging myself inwardly, and remembering the wise words of Samuel Johnson: "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn".

Given the hoop-la that the pub makes of itself to the passer-by, I approached it with a little bit of trepidation. I was scared there might be one of those awful "Please wait to be seated" signs (considering this was a "gastro-pub"), or that the staff might be otherwise over-attentive or intimidating.

But not a bit of it. Nobody so much as looked at me as I walked in. That is the sort of welcome I like in a pub.

What can I say about The Goat? From the moment I walked inside, I fell in love with it.

It's bright (but not too bright). It's very spacious, too spacious to take in at a single glance. It has a comfortably low roof, giving it a coach-house atmosphere. It has wood panelling and leather-upholstered benches. The tables are not so close together that you feel cramped, nor yet so far apart (or screened from each other) that you lose the sense of conviviality that a pub should give you, even when you are on your own.

The tables all glow with that particular deep brown lustre that is unique to well-maintained pub tables.

There are open fires. Not just one, but several. I think open fires might be the most magical things in existence (after Christmas trees and snow).

There are decorated pub mirrors-- loads of them. And I would put decorated pub mirrors on the list with open fires, Christmas trees and snow. One day, in my own home, I would like to have a decorated pub mirror hanging over an open fire. Everything about them radiates cosiness, geniality, leisure, gentlemanliness, tradition and comfort. A pub mirror reflects a world I want to live in; though (like the worlds to be glimpsed in the reflections on Christmas tree baubles, or in snowglobes) it is a world we can only inhabit for fleeting moments.

Very importantly, The Goat has a comfortable, clean, pleasant bathroom. Maybe I am a wimp, or effeminate, but this is perhaps right at the top of my list of requirements when it comes to pubs. I have been in so many much-lauded pubs that have filthy toilets, with no soap available, and used paper towels stamped into the floor, and goodness knows what other squalour, that I have begun to think there is some kind of snobbery attached to pub bathrooms; that serious pub-goers are meant to forego such namby-pamby comforts as sanitation and hygiene. Over Christmas, I spent a miserable hour in a jam-packed city centre pub one night, standing just outside the toilets (there was nowhere else to stand). The stench was awful and I didn't even dream of venturing inside. I don't know how anyone can enjoy themselves in a place like that. But the Goat's bathrooms were a delight.

(Incidentally, suburban pubs are always nicer than city centre pubs, and not just in this regard.)

Food is served all day long. In fact, breakfast is served all day long. Is there anything better than breakfast? Yes, all day breakfast. I didn't taste the food, but it looked appetizing.

There are several bars, they are nice and wide, and I was served promptly both times.

I liked the décor more than I can say. The Goat is a sporting pub, and though I am neither a sportsman nor a sports fan, I do appreciate sport, and the memorabilia of sport. It seems to give off a glow of enthusiasm, nostalgia, and even poetry. Sports fans can talk for hours and hours about sports-- and I love anything that people can and do talk about for hours and hours, anything that is a bottomless well of fascination for at least some people. (I think there is no sight or sound more beautiful than two people losing themselves in a subject that utterly absorbs them.) There are framed cartoons of sports players. There are signed jerseys. There are smoky old photographs of sporting occasions from yesteryear. I liked the fact that the sporting pictures and memorabilia were not confined to one sport, or to recent sporting events. That gives the place a sense of depth, as though it has a repository of social history.

But the Goat's décor is not restricted to sporting subjects. There are many rather picturesque figures (of a Toby jug kind) and pieces of bric-a-brac lined about the place, and various representations of goats are dotted around, as well.

I know some people would scorn the "painted-on atmosphere" of pub like this, which is part of the Charlie Chawke pub group, and which has obviously been designed with an aesthetic in mind rather than developing naturally (whatever that means) over decades. It has been made to look rather time-mellowed rather than just getting that way. But I don't have any problem with this. Atmosphere is atmosphere. And the difference between the natural and the artifical is one that has exercised great minds since the dawn of time.

This pub seems like a combination of every good pub at once. For instance, I always say I hate television and music in pubs. But as I sat by the fire, reading my Chesterton biography and sipping at my Coke, I enjoyed it all the more because some of my favourite eighties hits were playing away unobtrusively in the background. That's the thing; the television screens and the music were unobtrusive, not drowning out conversation. There if you wanted them.

And finally, I liked the fact that the napkins (or serviettes) have the name of the pub printed on them. The whole place gives an impression of being an institution rather than a mere business. I like that kind of self-awareness, in the same way that I like books with introductions and people who have some definite philosophy of life. All these things seem more there than their opposites.

A thousand and five hundred words about a pub, in a blog that purports to be religious. How on Earth do I justify it?

Well, there's always some Thought-for-the-Day trick to give anything and everything a "spiritual" twist. But I do genuinely believe that all images of happiness and plenitude-- like a good pub-- can serve to remind us that God made us, not for grim duty (though we must indeed pass through Calvary), but for unimaginable bliss-- a bliss that Scripture does not forbear to picture in profane symbols such as Christ's symbol of a wedding feasts.

As G.K. Chesterton put it, "the inn does not lead to the road; the road leads to the inn".

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Really Like the Sound of This Guy

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is writing profiles of various papabile cardinals, and though I had never even heard of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, I very much like what Fr. Longenecker writes about him.

He is a scholar, he is a communicator, and he is responsible for the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative-- an international series of events in which secular thinkers and religious thinkers can talk to each other about religion and related topics.

I like the sound of him because I think having an intellectual Pope wins immense respect in the secular world, and also because nothing should be more urgent to Catholics than the New Evangelization, and the reconversion of Europe and other historic Christian heartlands.

Of course, the Holy Spirit will decide, and will make the right choice. But it's fun to speculate, and to choose a horsie.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Books I'm Surprised Don't Exist #3

Under the Kilt: A Study of Masculinity in Scotland.

The Myth of the Fast-Paced Society

Sometimes, living in modern society gives me the sensation that one might get if, visiting some communist country, everybody around you was loudly praising it as a utopia and a worker's paradise while all you could actually see was destitution, dirt and disarray.

Or-- to make the comparison more specific-- sometimes I feel modern society is like a freezing, frost-bitten landscape where everybody is always wiping invisible perspiration from their brows and groaning about the unendurable heat.

We are told that we live in an instant society, a frantically speeded-up society, that computers and mobile phones have thrust us into a way of life where everything happens in the blink of an eye and the human mind can barely keep up.

We are told this even as our daily reality is sitting patiently while our computers go through their interminable, inscrutable, infuriating ponderings on whether they should go ahead and open that file, or access that web page, or even condescend to wake up at all.

We are told this even as we wait in the supermarket queue for the debit card transaction to clear, as the befuddled customer enters her PIN again and again, and the cashier stares with glazed eyes into another world, perhaps dreaming of a cash-only economy.

We are assured we are living in a kind of whirl of immediacy as we attempt to tap out a text message on our mobile phones, which is probably only a little less laborious than chiselling an epitaph into a headstone or transcribing a line of poetry in a medieval scriptorium.

The motor car is equated with untrammeled freedom even as we witness (and as I am not a motorist I only witness it as a passenger) the constant, never-ending, soul-destroying search for a parking space. What amazes me is the state of perpetual denial that motorists seem to live in. They never seem to anticipate any difficulty with parking, or with traffic. When they do encounter such difficulties, they react as though it has rained tadpoles or a meteor has struck the Earth. They speak confidently of "fifteen minutes drive" from A to B, as though they had never heard of such things as roadworks, red lights or traffic jams.

Even washing your hands becomes a trial of patience in this instant society of ours. I've never used an electric handryer that was a quarter as efficient as a handtowel. The machines bear these pompous names like "Power Dry 5000", but they all seem equally wheezy and inefficient to me. How many readers of this post have come away from an electric handryer with their hands still damp because they couldn't bear to hold up the person standing, patiently and wet-handed, waiting beside them?

My guess is that, if some peasant was whisked from a rural village of two hundred years go to our modern society, he or she would be utterly amazed by the saint-like patience of modern suburbans and city-dwellers. Waiting for the cows to come home might have become a proverb for delay and dilatoriness. But at least you can see the cows coming home. And watched pots do boil. The processes by which the modern man and women are detained are invisible, unguessable and apparently arbitrary. Does anyone know what is actually happening when that awful hourglass on your computer screen taunts you for minutes on end? We are told that computers perform an incalculable amount of processes per second. What exactly is the computer thinking about when it takes five minutes to open a file? The meaning of its existence? Whether William Shakespeare really wrote the plays published under his name? What it is going to do to its owner when computers take over the world?

I don't much like the idea of a fast-paced society. I do rather like the idea of a leisurely, dreamy, slow-moving society. But what we actually have-- a society that pretends to be in a perpetual blur of activity but is actually on almost permanent hold-- seems like the worst of both worlds to me.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Fine Debate on Same-Sex Marriage...

...between Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative blogger, and Douglas Wilson, an Evangelical theologian. Chaired by Peter Hitchens with a sore throat.

I really love a well-conducted, good-humoured debate. This one becomes rather tetchy at times but remains more or less friendly. Both participants accept the good faith of the other.

It's hard to tell who gets the better of it. As some people have already pointed out in the comment section to the video, and on Peter Hitchens's blog, Sullivan tends to appeal to emotion rather than argument, at least at the beginning of the debate. Later on he lands some strong blows against Wilson, who does not argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds of natural law but appeals unapologetically to Scripture. When he is repeatedly urged to exlain what harm same-sex marriage causes, he can only argue that it opens the door to polygamy.

Sullivan challenges Wilson to describe the ill effects of same-sex marriage since it was introduced in various states. It doesn't seem to occur to Wilson to point out that a few years is hardly sufficient for the ramifications of same-sex marriage to be observed.

As for me, it is not simply my profession of the Catholic faith that makes me oppose same-sex marriage. I am utterly and totally incapable of believing that romantic love between two people of the same sex is the same as romantic love between a man and a woman. And this is not just because marriage should be open to procreation, or because making same-sex love equivalent to opposite-sex love then opens the door for an acceptance of polygamy and incest and other variations.

It's because I believe in a transcendental order. I believe that the difference between male and female is absolutely central to human culture and society. I believe it is a difference that makes a difference, and that should make a difference. And I believe that when we strike at that central knot-- when we declare that masculinity and feminity are irrelevant to the matter where they have always mattered the most-- then we devalue not only sex but the entire idea of a transcendental order underlying human life. The consequences may not be observable in any empirical way (though they might well be), but the subtler consequence is that all deep-seated and ancient intuitions about the way life and society should be are under suspicion. The very idea of a natural order is under attack.

I find this debate so interesting because, not only is it intrinsically important, but it illustrates a typical quandary that social and moral conservatives find themselves facing. It is hard to argue against same-sex marriage. Not only does it make you seem like a meanie, but the arguments against it seem weak, on the face of it. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue from a sense of wrongness which is difficult to translate into rational arguments. This sense of wrongness could simply be called prejudice (and of course, it often is). But the same sense of wrongness is what we often fall back on when trying to justify moral positions which don't seem open to rational argument, but which most people would want to defend. Why do we consider variety better than uniformity? Why do we consider moral character to be more important and praiseworthy than intellect or physique? Why do we hold childhood innocence to be important?

In this, as in so many ways, my Catholicism merely ratifies my instinctual belief.

I make these arguments even though I know (and regret) that they might cause pain and offence to gay people, and despite knowing that many people are born homosexual, and despite knowing (as Andrew Sullivan points out in this debate) that homosexuality is not only narrowly about sex but pervades the entire personality. I feel no personal animus towards gay people whatsoever. It seems very probable that, in modern society, most people deliberately offend against both Christian morals and natural law in their sexual behaviour, whether that is through the use of pornography, though masturbation, through pre-marital sex, or in some other way. (Interestingly, Sullivan defends both pre-marital sex and masturbation in this debate.) So I see no reason to single gays out for special disapproval. But what I will never accept-- what I can never accept-- is that homosexual desire and heterosexual desire are simply two variations of the same thing, and are morally on a par with each other.

Incidentally, I would be grateful if anyone else could point me to any worthwhile debates (I mean formal debates, not TV studio debates) that are available for viewing on the internet. Any subject of reasonably general interest wil do. I've seen the various debates about God and religion between William Lane Craig, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Dinesh D'Souza, et al. Thanks!

Masses I Have Known, Part One

I am currently reading Fr. Ian Ker's biography of G.K. Chesterton. Reading again about Chesterton's reception into the Catholic Church, which took place in a tin shed behind the Railway Hotel in Beaconsfield, and about the newly-built Catholic Church in Beaconsfield to which Chesterton and his wife contributed a statue of St. Francis, got me thinking about churches new and old, ancient and improvised.

I find the idea of being received into the Church in a tin shed very moving. In fact, I can hardly think of any setting more romantic or appealing.

I've always felt like this. As Irish readers will know but non-Irish readers may not, there was a long period of time in which Catholicism was suppressed in Ireland and Mass had to be celebrated in secret, often outdoors, with an altar used as a rock. Even as a child, I found the idea of these open-air Masses very appealing. I can remember, when I was very young, writing a poem-- I think it was the first poem I ever wrote on my own initiative-- in which I rhapsodized about this practice. I remember the last phrase was "a song from your mind", but nothing else.

Additionally, although I am a traditionalist in most way-- I like old things because they are old-- I prefer new churches to old churches, small churches to big churches, plain churches to elaborate churches. I think this is because the Catholic Church is already ancient. The Lord's Supper is ancient. The building in which it is celebrated doesn't have to be ancient, or even old. In fact, if it is a modern church, that only seems to emphasise the fact that this ancient thing is still alive and kicking.

On the bus home today, I found myself thinking about all the different churches and other places where I have attended Mass, down through the years. I am a chronic list-maker.

So this post is going to be more self-indulgent and rambling than usual. But the great thing about bloggery is that nobody has to read any of it! Hurray!

I hope that this list, however, is not irreverent. I know the Mass is a sacrament and not entertainment, an aesthetic experience, or "me time". I know our attitude to the Mass should be humble, awe-struck gratitude rather than the snootiness of a restaurant critic. But I am writing here about the accidents of the Mass, not its essence. And I have no deeper point to make than to muse upon my own reactions-- which activity, it might be rightly pointed out, is rather pointless and wasteful in itself. But what the heck. It keeps me off the streets.

I can't remember the first Mass I attended. Since I have lived in Ballymun all my life, I imagine it was in either my current parish church of the Holy Spirit, Sillogue or the nearby Virgin Mary church in Shangan. Both of these churches-- and they are almost identical-- are almost universally disliked, from an architectural and aesthetic point of view.

Except by me. I love them. I love their plain, brown-brick, barely-ornamented, low-roofed simplicity. I have written a whole post about Saturday morning Mass in the Virgin Mary, which has been my favourite part of the week for a long time now. If you want extra Lenten penances, you could try reading that.

I remember my mother used to take me to Mass on Sunday evenings, in the Holy Spirit church, when I was a boy. I hated it. Religion, to my childhood self, seemed to be a matter of gloom and guilt and grimness. Of course, there is an element of truth to that-- and one we are in danger of losing- but I had no conception of the joy that could be found in the liturgy. I once remember looking at one of the stations of the cross and feeling an intense aversion to the whole atmosphere of the Christian story-- I thought of the Holy Land as a place of dust and dryness and dessication, and this seemed to me to be the whole flavour of Christianity itself. I don't think I believed any of it, although I'm not sure about this. I was at least sceptical.

Of course, part of my aversion to Sunday evening Mass was that it signalled the death of the weekend, and the no-longer-to-be-ignored imminence of Monday morning and school.

I can't remember how large the congregation was during those long-ago Masses, or whether I received Communion-- I think not. In fact, only a few specific memories recur to me. I can remember the priest once, in order to emphasise that the Scriptures could not always be taken literally, telling a story about a man who went to the doctor with scalded feet. He had been cooking beans and the instructor said, "Stand in hot water for five minutes". I can remember, after a local man had been stabbed to death through a case of mistake identity, a poem he had written about Mass was read from the pulpit. It contained the line, "It only lasts for half an hour".

I made my confirmation in Our Lady of Victories church nearby. This is a large, modernistic church with stained glass windows taking up most of the wall-space. I remember, during the preparations for the confirmation, looking at a purple and pink stained glass window and wondering if it showed the Unholy Trinity, which I imagined would be a couterpart to the Holy Trinity. I think I thought this because the creature in the stained glass window looked like a goat to me, and I was familiar with goats as symbols of Satan from horror films. During the confirmation Mass itself, I remember my uncle and sponsor saying to me: "It's all a bit of an anti-climax, isn't it?" I can't remember believing or disbelieving in what was happening. It seemed to go on forever.

I went to an Irish language primary school, and I remember we attended Irish language Mass in the school hall on a few Sunday mornings. Once again, I felt a certain frisson that the sacrament was taking place in an ordinary, non-purpose-built venue. But I remember more that the thing seemed to go on forever, and how relieved I was at the end, and how emphatically and ironically I responded "Thanks be to God!" (Buíochas le Dia) when the priest said the Mass was ended.

In secondary school, another Irish language school run by nuns, I remember that we were at least once taken to attend Mass in Our Lady of Dolours church in Glasnevin-- a structure whose enormous spire, dwarfing the actual church, gives it a pyramidical appearance. I remember being fascinated by the pigeons that flew around inside, and the fact that the painted cross hanging above the altar was coloured a deep, vibrant red. My strongest memory attached to that church visit was walking home behind a girl I had a crush on, and yearning for her with all my soul.

I can remember on one occasion, in school, we had a Mass in the classroom. I remember being surprised by this, since (as far as I can remember) it was a unique occurence. I remember being impressed by how reverently our French teacher-- a small woman who was usually rather dry and prosaic-- took the proceedings. And once again, the fact that a classroom had been transformed into a makeshift church stirred my imagination.

But by far my most memorable experience of church-going, in my teens, was when I was visiting my aunt and uncle who lived on a farm outside Limerick city. They brought us to church; and it was a revelation to me that everybody in the neigbhourhood went to church, and took it seriously. The Church (I have just checked) is called St. Joseph's, Clarina. I liked its airiness, its brightly-coloured walls, its stained glass windows-- most of all I liked that it was bright and cheerful, which seemed the most surprising novelty in a church. For the first time ever, my spiritual depths were stirred, and I had a brief but intense conversion to Christianity. (It must have been brief, because I don't remember attending Mass under its influence; though I do remember writing a poem about the resurrection on a glossy-notepad, the tops of whose pages advertised Knorr soup.)

With no adults to take me to Mass, I don't think I attended Mass again for a long, long time. The only time I went to Mass for many years was to attend funerals or memorial services. I remember attending a funeral Mass for my aunt in the Holy Spirit (or was it the Virgin Mary?), and being appalled at the banality of one of the hymns played-- "He's my forever friend, my leave-me-never friend". I remember feeling an icy disbelief that a whole lifetime could be dismissed with such a puerile hymn.

My mother's funeral was in the same church, and I remember next to nothing about that, except that the famous "unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes was read out-- why should such an uncompromising passage be so consoling, so comforting?-- and that my father recited a poem from the ambo, and that it was greeted by applause.

By the time I attended my aunt's funeral, in the very Limerick chuch where I had had my mini-conversion, I was already drifting slowly back to faith, by way of conservatism. I was thirty years old. I had decided that tradition was surpassingly precious, and that the rural life and folkways of Ireland were infinitely superior to how things happened in cities and suburbia. I can remember quite consciously, at that funeral Mass, understanding that Catholicism was the beating heart of the Irish rural tradition I prized so much, and feeling a sense of tragedy that I remained removed from it. I had the same feeling when, about the same time, I attended a funeral Mass in a church in Portlaoise-- Peter and Paul's Church, I assume-- when a friend's mother died. All I remember about the church was that it was enormous and almost empty.

My conservatism deepend as time went by. I craved ritual and ceremony and tradition. I remember, under the influence of a book by the agrarian writer H.J. Massingham, going to a sparsely-attended evening Mass in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, University College Dublin. It might have been my first visit to the plain, small, wood-panelled church I have come to love so well. But it was just a one-off. I remember, for one horror-struck moment, I thought the priest was going to point me out as a new attendee (he began one sentence with "I see that we have a new..." Eeek!). But I knew I didn't believe, so I couldn't really justify attending Mass.

When I did finally take the plunge, I was too self-conscious to go to my local parish church. I only had the vaguest idea of when I should kneel, when I should stand, and what responses I should make. (Those who feel protective towards the dignity of the liturgy, and who feel tempted to look daggers at somebody who joins in the priests's doxology or commits some similar faux pas, should reflect that the transgressor might be a newcomer who is more jittery than a bag of snakes.)

And as this rambling and self-indulgent post is already long enough, I will terminate it with a "to be continued". I hope the suspense is not too cruel.