Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Defence of Modern Churches by Thomas Merton

I can't claim to be a fan of Thomas Merton. I started reading The Seven Storey Mountain once, but found it boring and put it down (admittedly after only a few pages).

But I did like this quotation that I came across today, in The Hodder Book of Christian Quotations:

One of the big problems for an architect in our time is that for a hundred and fifty years men have been building churches as if a church could not belong to our time. A church has to look as if it were left over from some other time. I think that such an assumption is based on an implicit confession of atheism-- as if God did not belong to all ages and as if religion were really only a pleasant, necessary social formality, preserved from past time in order to give our society an air of respectability. [Italics mine.]

I can't help inclining towards, if not perhaps entirely agreeing with, this viewpoint.

I anticipate the reply of those who hold anti-modernist tastes in church architecture; that great architecture is timeless and that, when we step into a church, we should find ourselves confronted with the abiding and the permanent, as a kind of foreshadowing of the eternal.

As somebody who is very much a literary and artistic anti-modernist, I would have great sympathy with this response. I don't think there's anything antiquated about (for instance) iambic pentameter, the sonnet, or classical narrative. I don't think we need a radically new idiom in painting, writing and sculpture to express the times we live in. My favoured Bible translation is the Douai-Rheims, the Catholic equivalent of the King James.

And yet, I do personally find that modern church architecture seems more alive to me than more traditional church architecture. I certainly would not like to see old churches bulldozed, or neglected, or paid anything less than the honour they deserve. But give me a humble, even ugly church that was built in the last forty or thirty or ten years. That seems to me more of an expression of a living faith than a great cathedral.

I took the above picture the last time I was in Dublin Airport; it shows Our Lady of Heaven church, of which I am especially fond.

Prayer Request

Friends, if you remember, I would appreciate it if you prayed for me. Things quite tough right now. Thank you.

Faith Communities Have A Right to Have Their Voices Heard on How the World Should Be

That is the headline of an opinion piece by Fr. Patrick Claffey, a theology professor in Trinity College Dublin, in today's Irish Times.

The piece itself is entirely unobjectionable, but the headline makes me grind my teeth. "Faith community?" When did this word slip into currency? I suppose it is an effort to avoid using the term "church", since this rather excludes non-Christian religions. But what on earth is wrong with the noun "religion?". "Faith community" is a wishy-washy word.

But then again, I object to the way the word "community" has been captured, knocked about, dragged through the dust on the back of a donkey cart, and generally abused. Why couldn't we have kept the word "community" to mean a group of people who live in the same place, and share a common life? It has been stretched to mean any group of people whatsoever, rendering it meaningless. Now we have the gay community, the science fiction community, the diabetes community, the Scrabble community.

To my mind, a community is something very specific and very special. It means people who share all the casual, banal experiences of life as well as (possibly) the more intense and purposeful ones; people who hear the same birdsong and building work; who have all seen the eccentric fellow who stands outside the pub shaking everybody's hand; who will all be plunged into darkness if there's a local blackout. A shared interest or a shared plight with somebody who lives on the other side of the world just isn't the same thing. It may be more meaningful, but it's not the same. It's not a community.

Nor do we need to abuse the word "community" in this way. When it comes to Christianity, we have an equally beautiful word to describe the commonality that a Roman Catholic in Palmerstown shares with a Roman Catholic in Peking. That word is communion.

As for the sentiment of the headline, I find myself exasperated by the plea that religious believers "have a right to be heard". Christians should not speak to the world on the ground that they have a right to be heard; they should do so on the grounds that they are right. The "right to be heard" rhetoric suggests that Christians "bring something to the table", possibly a kind of folk wisdom that comes sugared with mythology and allegorical tales, and which will complement the other "voices" in the "conversation". I don't think Christians should be strident or pugnacious, but I do think that the only hearing we deserve is based on the claim that we bear a revelation from God. The more gingerish we are about that, the less the world will want to hear us-- and rightly so.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Conversation with God (Part Three)

(N.B. This series is a work of fiction and not an expression of my own beliefs.)

Hello, hello!

You know, the more I do this, the more I come to dislike my tone of forced bravado. It's not disrespect, God. It's...awkwardness more than anything else. Have you ever noticed that some people use swear-words as euphemisms? Really, they do. If they want to name a body part that's taboo, or a bodily function that's taboo, they kind of get over the awkwardness by being much blunter than they need to be. They're being crude because just using the proper word seems even cruder. Well, that's what this is like.

But it's beginning to seem embarrassing now. Juvenile.

The more I speak to you, God, the less I question whether You are there. I mean, I'm not really sure if there is a God in the-- in the normal sense. I'm not so sure you're out there. Oh, I don't mean that you're within me in some kind of narcissistic way. I just mean...that when we use the word "God", I can't help feeling that we're talking about something that's real. The word doesn't refer to nothing at all. How could it? It wouldn't even exist as a word if it referred to nothing.

You're something, God. That's as far as I can get. As for what you are exactly, it beats me. Maybe a permanent feature of our mental landscape. Maybe the ghost that haunts humankind. I know that sounds pretentious. But what the heck. Maybe you're something so far beyond our understanding that the only thing we can do is attach a tag to it-- "God"-- which will do as well as any other word.

The thing is, I don't think we can ever get past you. I don't think we can ever get over you. Atheists? Give me a break. I've never met anyone more God-obsessed than anyone who goes around calling himself an atheist.

Put it like this, God. I walk into a gallery and I look at a landscape, or a still life, or maybe a...well, an animal picture, let's a picture of a horse, a chestnut horse. And maybe there isn't a single human figure inside the frame, and yet...and yet the artist is in every single brushstroke, every single square inch of that picture. The whole thing is full of his emotions, his view of the world, his ideas...his whole soul. That's what You're like. You're nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be encountered, and yet....you haunt everything.

God, I'm going to use one of my favourite clichés. You're the elephant in the room. But you're an invisible elephant. It's awkward for everybody. The atheists and secularists and bright cheerful scientific materialists try to ignore you completely. And as for the religious people, they want to ignore the fact that you're invisible. "What about the elephant?", say the religious people. "Well, what about the fact that we can't see him or touch him or smell him?" say the secularists. And everybody takes turns coughing and shuffling their feet.

And you know what the worst part of it is? You can't just leave it at that. At least, I can't just leave it like that. I don't know how to be an agnostic. That's like writing "case closed" on the ultimate riddle of existence, and putting it away in the filing cabinet. And then-- what? Move on to something else? Take up ornithology? Read all of Charles Dickens? Work on your bucket list? What wouldn't be an anti-climax, after this?

I know what they'd say, the agnostics, if they were here now. They'd say, "We're just being intellectually honest. The data is insufficient. The human mind isn't up to the job. It's like trying to break into Fort Knox using nothing but a hair clip and a charming smile. Let it go and concentrate on what's humanly possible. Oh, and drive safe, and stay away from drugs."

But you know, I don't think there is really such an agnostic. I think agnostics are just cosmic fence-sitters. I think they like dithering about You. I think they want to live in a universe that's kind of balanced between atheism and God. Don't get me wrong. I see the appeal. I very much see the appeal. You get the best of both universes that way. All the freedom and...and all the clean straight-forwardness of the atheist universe, and all the mystery and meaning of the God-made universe.

But it's so maddening, at the same time. It would be like having an itch on the front of your nose for your whole life and never to be able to scratch it.

And the thing is...how do these agnostics know what counts as data? How can they really say they've ever put the matter to bed, that they've ever exhausted all the evidence? Who the heck knows what might count as evidence, anyway? It's not a detective story. It's not a crossword puzzle. It's not a court of law. You don't have to play by our rules, do You, God? The nature of this case is that anything at all might be relevant. You might have left Your DNA anywhere. We'd have to send every blade of grass and every paperclip and every strand of hair to the lab to be tested. For a start.

My poor brain. Well, sleep doesn't have any respect for the mysteries of the cosmos. I have to submit to the agnosticism of the duvet... if You're really out there, God, I have to say, this whole sleep thing was a masterstroke of Yours. Limited liability, every single day. Can you imagine what we'd have made this world into if we didn't run out of battery every sixteen hours or so? And we get annother roll of the dice, every night. Well, I'm going to roll mine now. Keep an eye on me, OK? Bye for now.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The World's End, and the Flies of a Summer's Day

I'm just back from seeing The World's End, the third and final part of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's "Blood and Ice-Cream" trilogy. I enjoyed it, though I didn't think it was nearly as good as the previous film, Hot Fuzz, which is one of my all-time favourites.

The theme of The World's End was a fairly common cinematic theme-- men entering middle age seeking to reconnect with their youth. (Oh, and some stuff about a town's population being replaced by robots.) I find this theme-- recapturing lost youth, not robots posing as humans-- a little too poignant, since I am now half-way through my thirties (midway through life's journey, according to Dante). Sometimes I feel grateful that my childhood and adolescence was pretty uneventful and I don't have very much to get maudlin about-- although nostalgia will always find something.

But I also found myself (after the film) thinking about popular culture, social amnesia, and the sad condition of people who have been uprooted from their heritage, when they hit middle age. The film (like most films and works of entertainment these days, but even more so than most) is chock-full of pop culture references-- mostly marking the way the world has changed since the central characters were young.

It strikes me that ageing is particularly sad, particulaly lonely and desolate, when you have nothing but popular culture to draw on. It's like trying to cling onto a clump of grass. When you mark the passage of historic time by pop songs and TV shows and movies and technology, how can you help feeling ancient by the age of thirty?

Whereas somebody who is rooted in a tradition-- be that a national tradition, a cultural tradition, or (best of all, I think) a religious tradition-- doesn't feel so terribly antiquated, since traditions tend to extend across many generations. A man who is absorbed in some political cause-- trade unionism, for instance-- feels himself to be part of a story that began long before his birth and will continue (he hopes) well after his death. His own biography is only a moment in that story. He is part of something bigger and more enduring. Similarly, a man who feels himself to be part of a cultural tradition-- a man who reads old books, who feels a living connection with previous generations-- need not feel so unmoored when all the rock heroes of his youth start dying off.

I make no apologies for repeatedly quoting Edmund Burke's marvellous phase, "the flies of a summer's day", to describe people cut off from history and tradition. I think one of the worst things that a reliance on pop culture does to us is to make us flies of a summer's day-- but flies who are conscious of their own tragically short moment in the sun.

I Want to Live Again

Very amused to read this little snippet in The Irish Catholic this week:

It is hard for some to accept that Catholics are now a minority when 84 per cent of Irish people still self-identify as Catholics. Yet repeated opinion polls show that self-identifying Irish Catholics often do not really believe in the essentials of Catholicism at all: For example, polls show that 29pc of Irish Catholics believe in re-incarnation, over 20pc don’t believe in the resurrection and 7pc don’t believe in God. Clearly, many who call themselves Catholic do so only as a badge of cultural identity.

We are forever being told that it is the bracing gust of rational thought that is clearing out the cobwebs of ancient superstition, and that belief in the supernatural is being replaced by a scientific worldview. So it's rather surprising to hear that almost a third of Irish Catholics have abandoned Christian orthodoxy, not for a stubborn commitment to evidence-based thinking and the empirically demonstrable, but for a piece of Eastern mysticism.

I certainly have no wish to dishonour anybody's religious tradition, but it hardly seems reasonable to think that Catholics are struggling with the more miraculous elements of their Creed while simultaneously adopting such a startling idea as reincarnation. It confirms my suspicion that many of the Irish people who reject Catholicism, in whole or in part, simply haven't put very much thought into what they do or don't believe.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Our Friends Across the Atlantic

I just had a look at the readership statistics of this blog, and I was not too surprised to see that, over its whole life-span, I've had more readers from America than from anywhere else (including Ireland, which comes a not-very-close second).

So, to my American readers, I say: Whoooo! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! I like Americans so much, I went and married one!

(One explanation could be that Americans work long, long hours and browse the web a lot just to pass the time. But I'm sure that's not the reason!)

A Conversation with God, Part Two

(Not to be taken as autobiographical.)

Hi God, it's me again. You busy? Got time for a good old chinwag? Good.

I have to admit, I'm beginning to look forward to our little chats. It kind of gives me a kick that nobody knows I do this. I think my friends and family would be shocked. I know my mother would be pleased but somehow, I'd be more embarrassed to let her know than anybody else...she'd get the wrong idea. She's start with the St. Anthony's medals again.

I've never actually told her that I'm not a Christian. Come to think of it, I've never told anybody that I'm not a Christian. Nobody's ever asked. It's not something you talk about it polite society, or even in minimally polite society. It would be like talking about your underwear. Actually, it would be a lot easier to talk about your underwear. You could pass that off as a bit of outrageous humour, in the right company.

So, if I'm not a Christian, oh God whose existence I entertain, why do I kneel before a little crucifix to do this? Well, why not, after all? I mean, my grandmother gave it to me. It has a tang of holiness off it. I wonder how often she used to it to pray...I like to think about that. It would be a shame to put it on a shelf somewhere.

Come to think of it, I really liked my grandmother's brand of religion. She didn't do anything...tacky. She had one holy picture in her house, and it wasn't a very big one. She never spoke about God, as far as I can remember. She spoke about Mass and priests a good bit, but, you know...anecdotally. Like you'd speak about the people you saw on the bus. But she went every day.

I can remember going with her. She would talk about family or the news until the priest appeared, and then she'd start talking about them again as soon as we were out the door. Never any God talk. And the Mass itself, she'd go through like it was her morning limbering-up exercises, or doing the washing. No cheesiness. Zero cheesiness. It was only when she'd light a candle at the statue of Mary-- that awful statue of Mary-- that she'd show even the slightest flicker of emotion. That being, she'd close her eyes for two or three seconds, and whisper under her breath. I always assumed she was praying for her husband. And that was it. And then there was a little tub of ice-cream for me.

I was always so glad to get out of that church. And now...and now I find myself slowing down when I pass a church, looking in. I don't know what stops me from going in. Maybe I don't want to be a hypocrite. Maybe I'm afraid of what might happen. Maybe I'm afraid of what might not happen.

I mean, I like Christians. I don't have anything against Christianity. But, you know God...this is the thing. The idea of You seems like an open question to me. There's arguments for it. I mean, something had to get the whole cosmic ball rolling, didn't it? And the whole show seems uncannily...dramatic. And then there's us, the lord of the animals, matter aware of its own existence. There definitely seems to be something going on there. So, God...maybe.

But it's quite a jump from a Vague Power Behind the Universe to a man performing miracles and rising from the dead and turning into a piece of bread and wine. Please don't get me wrong, God. I'm not one of the mockers. Only overgrown teenagers sneer at organized religion...if you think Holy Mass is nothing but a ridiculous piece of play-acting, well-- you're basically a soulless cretin. I mean, I wouldn't go to a deserted graveyard and play loud rock music even though I know the corpses aren't going to be bothered by it one way or the other. It would be crass. It would be out of place. And I wouldn't take Communion even though I know it's just a piece of bread. Because it's not just a piece of bread, is it? Not just.

I even wonder if my grandmother was a Christian. Somehow I doubt it. I think she was a believer. God, I think the churches are full of people who believe in You and who aren't that pushed about all the other stuff. If they lived in Qatar, they'd go to mosque instead of church. If they were Jewish, they'd go to synagogue. But they're Irish Catholics and there are Catholic churches everywhere so they go to Mass, and they recite the Creeds without a moment's hesitation. Virgin birth? Sure. Resurrection from the Dead? Gimme some of that. Second coming? Fair enough. It's like signging the Terms and Conditions that you're supposed to read carefully but that nobody ever does.

Maybe that's the humble thing to do. Maybe I'm being narcissistic, worrying about my own integrity. Who cares? Do you care, God? Would you prefer that I just dutifully trudged along to Mass and left all the details to You? Would that be more child-like and trusting?

(Long silence.)

You know, God, sometimes I wish this conversation was more interactive, although....oh, I know how it goes. You're probably talking to me and I'm not listening. I remember yesterday, having my lunch in the little seating area of the Spar on College Green...I was looking at the news updates on the TV screen hanging over the door. And I was sitting there eating my chicken and coleslaw roll-- you know how I like my food, God-- and drinking my tea and looking out at the street outside, and....and....well, how am I supposed to put it? That I was suddenly overwhelmed by the presence of God? Well, that would be a flat-out lie. No, I was overwhelmed with the presence of life. It's as though I suddenly realized that all those news headlines on the TV screen were really happening, somewhere, in real actual places I could get on a plane and go to...and that the people walking outside were all real people, too, who were going to go to real offices and go home to real families, just like my family, maybe even weirder....and man, that roll tasted good, especially the coleslaw. I find a chicken and coleslaw roll a deeply spiritual experience. Well, people are always talking about sex being a deeply spiritual experience, why not lunch?

Anyway, I didn't exactly feel the famous Presence of God. But life seemed-- such a big deal to me at that moment. Such a delight, so much a delight that it was like a fire that I couldn't stand to close to or I'd get burned. I felt like if I had this feeling every moment, I wouldn't be able to bear it, it would be too intense. And-- well, and I felt that this was how things are supposed to be. It was like I was hearing a tune, and you don't have a tune without-- well, You know. I guess You've heard all this before.

Probably I should have had this feeling while looking at the stars at night, or listening to children playing skipping games, or standing beside a waterfall. I feel a bit ridiculous, having it while eating my lunch in Spar. But there you go. God has a sense of humour.

Although actually, scratch that last bit. I hate thinking of You having a sense of humour. It makes You too cute. I don't want You to be cute. The people who talk about God having a sense of humour are the same sort of people who put "If you tinkle when you sprinkle" signs in their bathrooms. They're the sort of people who hang up photographs of a cat trying to get his paw into a fishbowl. I mean, God bless them all, but.... I didn't mean a sense of humour, God. More...a sense of irony.

My knees are hurting. Maybe that's another signal from you. And I'd better put some order on the kitchen. Catch you later, Pops.

How Does Miriam Lord get Away with Being so Biased?

Surely reporting should be objective, and opinions should be reserved for editorials and commentary. Miriam Lord's "colour pieces" in The Irish Times (which are never in the least bit funny or colourful) are first-hand accounts of current events (classed as "News" on the website) and it should be her duty to remain impartial. This she doesn't do-- on the abortion issue, certainly, she makes no attempt to hide her bias.

As in this article today:

As Walsh outlined what can happen as a result of “post-abortion trauma”, one wondered how the fabric of Irish society hasn’t completely disintegrated given the amount of our womenfolk who have had abortions.

Jim is a committed campaigner and has taken his cause on to the floor of the Seanad on countless occasions. He is not a man to mince his words, known for his graphic and gruesome accounts of what is done to foetuses in the womb.

But even allowing for his track record of formaldehyde-infused stories of women destroyed and babies in buckets, yesterday’s contribution to the debate on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was disgusting.

She then lambasts the Senator for a graphic description of what actually happens to the aborted foetus. But why? Why are facts so dangerous? Why should the truth be taboo? Why are the same people who are usually so devoutly anti-censorship suddenly squeamish when it comes to the reality of abortion? (Peter Hitchens sagely described abortion as the only act of violence not regularly shown on television.)

Later on, she allows: The Senator stressed at the outset that he believes “human life is inviolate from conception to natural death”. That is a legitimate and not uncommon belief.

Legitimate? For now it's legitimate. How long before it becomes hate speech? The boundaries of political correctness are being rolled forward all the time.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Conversation with God, Part One. (Not to be Taken as Autobiographical.)

OK, God, OK. Here goes. Aaaaaah.

This is insane.

Here goes anyway.

Oh Almighty and Ever-Living and—and Resplendent God, I have to say that I don’t believe in You. Please don’t take it personally. I don’t have anything against You. But… well, you haven’t given me anything solid to go on, have you? I wish you would. Nothing would make me happier than to get some sign, something I could grab a hold of. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying You have to send the Archangel Gabriel. I’m sure he’s got bigger fish to fry. But—- something. A cup-cake on wings. A whisper in my ear while I’m getting off the bus. A daisy uprooting itself and hovering in the air for a half of a half of a second. Something.

So, I don’t believe in You, but—well, here I am anyway. Crazy, right? What the heck. Nobody else listens to me. The winos who babble incoherently at the back of the bus make polite excuses and leave when I sit down beside them. Jehovah’s Witnesses run screaming from my door. Telemarketers remember that they left the gas on…I’m sick of really existing people, anyway,. None of them want to know. At least You want to hear me God. Why get caught up in pedantic questions of existence or non-existence? Ha.

(Long silence.)

You know what? Christians are always saying that You’re not an old man with a white beard. That’s always what they say—“People have this picture of an old man with a white beard”, they say—and then they laugh in a very irritating way and say that of course nobody would believe in a God like that. But, You know, I want you to be an old man with a white beard. Who’s going to stop me from imagining You as an old man with a white beard? And I don’t want You to smile, either. I’m sick of everybody smiling at me. Every single face on a television screen or a billboard or a shop is grinning at me…what does it mean? What’s it worth?


No, You’re not smiling. You’re an old man with a white beard and You’re not smiling. You look a little bit like Sigmund Freud and a little bit like old Mr. Casey who used to teach us woodwork. You’re wearing a tweed jacket and you’re smoking a pipe, and sitting in an office full of leather-bound books. You listen to me and every now and again You take Your pipe out of your mouth and fill it again.The air is full of pipesmoke. There’s a window beside you and it opens out onto a deserted landscape, a hilly rocky country with nothing but a windmill on the far horizon. It’s cold and grey outside. It’s not picnic weather and it’s not picnic country. I don’t want a picnic weather God.

Well, God, how do I explain myself? I’m not on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m not at the end of my tether. I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a well-nourished, well-paid, healthy, psychologically balanced young man. Despite what I said about Jehovah’s Witnesses, I do have friends. We do things together. As for women….well, I’ve never been in love, but I thought I was, and I’m beginning to suspect it’s pretty much the same thing. I could be in a serious relationship within a month if I wanted to.

So I guess this is the point where You’re used to people saying, “I had everything I thought I’d need to make me happy but I just feel empty.” Poor God! How many clichés must be poured into Your celestials ears every night! OK, OK, I know You don’t think like that. I know nothing I say would surprise You anyway. I can see how ridiculous it is to try to spice things up for someone who knows everything that has ever happened and that ever will happen. Now I come to think of it, that must be boring beyond all words. Thank God I’m not God. Imagine having all eternity ahead of you and no surprises in store.

(Long pause.)

What—what happened there? I felt a shadow, a shadow of a shadow of a shadow, of an anxiety that I might be blaspheming. I guess I’m not the hardboiled unbeliever that I thought I was. Not quite. Or not yet.

(Another long pause.)

And you know what? I kind of like that. Even if God is the ultimate delusion, the Big Daddy of delusions—why shouldn’t I be a little bit deluded? How can anyone prove to me there is anything wrong with that? If I could see reality with cold eyes—what would I see, except a pointless parade of two-legged creatures frantically eating and working and mating, for no reason at all? And even when it comes to thinking--- what’s so noble about thinking, really? We think because we can’t bear not to think. It’s as mechanical and compulsive as a baby sucking its soother. What’s the difference between doing a crossword puzzle and doing philosophy? Ultimately, the only point is to keep the mental wheels turning. At all costs. Don’t let ‘em stop even for a moment. The assembly line has to keep moving. The silence has to be drowned out with music and chatter. The schedules have to be filled. The engine has to keep running or it will freeze over.

And me—- don’t you think I know how dangerous this kind of thing is, what I’m doing here right now? If you stare at the wallpaper long enough, you see pictures in it. How long can you play with the idea of God before…before you fall in? It’s all very funny till somebody loses their mind. Or what they lose maybe is—their sense of embarrassment. Their sense of the ridiculous. It’s like the time I was in the locker room where everybody was wandering around naked—you’re awkward as a pair of left-footed boots for a few minutes, and then—then suddenly you don’t care anymore. You just saunter around like everybody else and you wonder why you felt weird about it. God is like that, I bet. I can see how it happens now. You end up meeting an old friend and having a sane, cheerful, normal conversation before—-whem!—suddenly you say something about God or about Jesus with a straight face, and you’re not kidding. And your friend does a mental double-take and looks a little more carefully at you and—wham!—he realizes you’re not kidding, too. And he’s embarrassed. But only for a moment, or maybe a few moments at the most. Then he’s already assimilated it—already filed you away as a God botherer. He won’t be embarrassed anymore. He’ll even smile inwardly when you mention God, or Jesus. He’ll have a vague sense that there’s something very worthy about it, something deserving of respect, like…like an endangered koala bear, or something.

But who am I fooling, God? Am I not just looking, positively looking for the Exit door to Reality? Am I not just standing on the edge of the field, hoping to be asked to play?

Well, maybe. Maybe I’m flirting with You, God. I just don’t know how I feel yet, whether I’m really up for anything long-term, a commitment—-I’ve been hurt before, you know. I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s just take this one date at a time, OK? We’re both having a good time. Are you having a good time, God? I’ve had a wonderful time. You’re such a good listener. But now—well, my knees are hurting. And I’m tired. Think about what I said, OK? Just think about it.

In the name of the Father, and the…and the….oh, well, I’m not there yet. Over and out, for now.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why Can't We Condemn Vulgarity as Vulgarity?

The redoubtable David Norris makes a series of smutty witticisms in the Senate, and the victim of his scorn complains about his "sexist and deeply inappropriate language". Why not just condemn his witticisms for what they were-- crude and vulgar? (A man who entitles his biography A Kick Against the Pricks, taking snide refuge in a Biblical allusion, can hardly be expected to be anything else.)

Having said that, I am on his side in this instance. I am all in favour of keeping the Seanad-- although the matter seems trivial indeed compared to the much more weighty controversy that has been embroiling the country in recent months.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What a Horrifying Image

Imagine celebrating, as though it was a goal in a football match, a decision that opens the way for the taking of human life. Surely nobody can deny that this, in the strictest and most inarguable terms, is what is going to happen, and that even the supporters of the Bill should be sober and serious about that fact. Photo taken from today's Irish Times-- pro-choice demonstrators celebrate the result of yesterday's votes. (I hope my use of the picture is fair use. If it's not, I'll remove it.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

One Hundred and Thirty to Twenty Four

The number at the head of this post was the outcome in the Dáil today of the vote on whether to delete the amendment to the creepily-named Protection of Human Life During Pregnancy Bill that allows for abortion in cases where the mother is deemed to be at risk from suicide.

One hundred and thirty of our elected representatives-- deliberately and after months of debate-- voted that one person's mental state should be allowed to determine the life or death of another.

Only twenty four had both the courage and the conviction to vote for the amendment.

This is a shameful day for our country. The Irish people voted for these politicians-- and, in all likelihood, will keep voting for them. It's a nice fantasy that the pro-abortion TD's will all be wiped out at the next election, but it's almost certainly not going to happen.

I Remember the Future Well

Opinion piece in today's Irish Times suggesting that we may be educating kids for jobs that no longer exist and that children should be taught how to learn rather than specific subjects. "Tell them that they will have many jobs, multiple careers."

I remember being taught, in both school and college, that "there's no such thing as a job for life any more" and that I would most likely change my career three times in my working life. I'm now thirty-five and I've been working in the same job since I was twenty-three. Of course, there's no knowing what will happen in the future. And my situation may be atypical. But I can't think about those uneasy assurances I was made in school without wondering how much unreliable information is given to innocent schoolchildren.

(I also remember one of my primary school teachers-- a very good one-- telling us that, in the future, wars would most likely be fought on computers. Looking back, I think I misunderstood what he meant, but I had an image of wars fought entirely on computers, with no physical combat at any point.)

Another thing I dislike about the article is the equating of education and training. The more the labour market seems unpredictable and unstable, the more sense a good solid liberal education makes to me.

And how do you "teach children how to learn", anyway? This is one of those clichés that roll off the tongue so easily, but that don't make much sense on further reflection. I can't think of any way to teach without teaching something specific. And when I remember all the "meta-learning" in my own education-- for instance, learning about historical methods rather than history-- I don't think it really did me any good at all.

An Idea I Had

Yesterday I was praying in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, University College Dublin, as I do on most workdays. It's a very plain, airy church, the kind I find highly appealing. (I feel choked by too many columns, corners, shadows, side altars, and so forth.) As I knelt there going through my usual list of intentions, and trying to keep my mind from wandering as it is all too prone to do, it struck me (as it often does) what a very dramatic situation prayer really is-- especially a solitary individual praying in some deserted place. (People drift in and out of UCD's church, but very often I'm there all by myself.)

Prayer is perhaps the most simple and yet the most far-reaching of all human activities. I always love it when the parish priest in Ballymun says, at the beginning of Mass, "We put whatever is going on in our life, all our worries and problems and issues, on the table of the Lord". Prayer is completely wide-open. Nothing is irrelevant. All the screens of circumstance, of place and time, of convention and communication, fall away, and the solitary soul stands naked before God.

It struck me that a solitary man praying (out loud, for the most part) would be excellent material for a one-man play. What part of a man's life wouldn't float through the mental sea of prayer? What external drama could not be mirrored in that inner chamber? What adventure is more exciting, more consequential, than the adventure of faith?

(I often think that I could make much better arguments against religious belief than I ever hear even from even the most militant of atheists. So that would be an interesting thing to throw into the mix, too, as this solitary character at his prayers works through doubts and difficulties.)

I don't know if anyone has ever done this before. In any case, it should be fun. I think I might even post it here as I write it. I've written all my life but writing this blog is by far the most fun I've ever had writing. Those who read it are extraordinarily indulgent of my more adventurous (possibly read: pretentious) posts. And knowing that there is somebody reading is a huge boost. (I know from my blog statistics that people seek out this blog by name, most days. And I'm honoured.)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Spam is Spooky

I've just been clearing my comment filter of spam comments, which had built up into the hundreds. I have to admit, I find spam oddly spooky. (I find many things oddly spooky.) What I find spooky about spam is that it seems to occupy a kind of limbo, a netherworld, a basement existence of its own. Within its own crazy world, a comment like this makes perfect sense:

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It's the sheer randomness that I find unsettling, like when the person beside you on the bus launches into a senseless and disconnected lecture about nothing in particular. I find spam spooky in the same way I find the idea of empty haunted houses spooky. Seeing a ghost is scary. But a ghost that flits around all by itself is even scarier.

Spam folders are like the sewers of the internet. And sewers are pretty spooky, too. That's why we make urban legends about alligators in them.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On False Prophets

I try to read some Scripture every day. I don't always succeed, and sometimes I pass days without opening a Bible. But most days I do dip into the Word of the Lord, however briefly.

Most of the time I open it at a random page-- and as you have probably experienced yourself, it's very difficult to really open a book at a random page. We tend to hit upon the same pages over and over again, whether because we often had that page open in the past, or because a bookmark was left there at some time, or simply because of the way the volume is bound.

Anyway, I found myself once again coming upon a passage from the Book of Jeremiah-- chapter twenty-four, as it happens-- that I remember coming upon not so long ago. On that previous occasion, the verse appealed to me so much that I blogged about it, though briefly. I can't help writing about it again, as I find it so evocative and stirring.

The Bible is a weird book. I admit (to my shame) that I have not read it from cover to cover. I've made several efforts to do so, but keep getting bogged down in the lists of Kings and genealogies. On the other hand, it's a book I read with some enthusiasm even before I became a Christian.

I find it interesting that when we need an adjective for something awe-inspiring, something on a massive scale, something soul-shakingly epic, we automatically reach for the word Biblical. That is, we refer to a book written by "bronze age savages", primitive people who had never been in an airplane, never visited a cinema, knew nothing about atomic bombs or tanks or world wars, and had never seen a telescopic image of outer space or of galaxy clusters. We have all seen things far more spectacular than they did-- and yet the stories they left us still loom larger in our imagination than any of our technological wonders and horrors.

If the Bible was an easy book to read, it would be a disappointment. I have to admit (I hope I do not speak irreverently) that I struggle to get through a lot of it. It often seems repetitive, grotesque, uneven, irrelevant, even full of platitudes (the books of Proverbs and of Wisdom, for instance). But all of this adds to the sense of strangeness, of difficulty, of intensity, that seems (to me) to be Scripture's most compelling characteristic.

And then you come across lines and verses that send a thrill through your soul unlike anything to be found anywhere else, like these famous lines from Exodus:

When the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am. And he said: Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

I can't even begin to explain why that sends such a shudder through me, or why I find it impossible to believe it is simply part of an old folk tale.

The passage that enthalled me this evening has the same sense of "shock and awe". I like how utterly different it is from contemporary "self-actualisation" doctrines. It is a perpetual temptation, one to which we are all prone (and to which I certainy succumb all too often) to use Christianity as a vehicle for your own personal beliefs and priorities and sensibilities. How often have you read an article or an entire book of "Christian" reflections which seem to be no more than a bundle of the author's own sentiments, garnished with a few judicious quotations from the Bible?

How much more shocking (and yet more wonderful) to be told: "Are not my words as a fire, saith the Lord: and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?" Probably nobody will ever put those words on a poster or a calender or a t-shirt, but they seem so much more joyous and exhilarating to me than any of the inspirational mottoes you see in such places.

In any case, here is the passage. I think it could apply to a lot of people who set themselves up as Christian commentators today (especially the lines, "They say to them that blaspheme me: The Lord hath said: You shall have peace: and to every one that walketh in the perverseness of his own heart, they have said: No evil shall come upon you.") As for myself, I pray and hope that nothing I write or say ever departs from orthodoxy.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Hearken not to the words of the prophets that prophesy to you, and deceive you: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord. They say to them that blaspheme me: The Lord hath said: You shall have peace: and to every one that walketh in the perverseness of his own heart, they have said: No evil shall come upon you. For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath seen and heard his word? Who hath considered his word and heard it? Behold the whirlwind of the Lord' s indignation shall come forth, and a tempest shall break out and come upon the head of the wicked. The wrath of the Lord shall not return till he execute it, and till he accomplish the thought of his heart: in the latter days you shall understand his counsel.

I did not send prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. If they stood in my counsel, and had made my words known to my people, I should have turned them from their evil way and from their wicked doings. Am I, think ye, a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Shall a man be hid in secret places, and I not see him, saith the Lord? do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord? I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, and say: I have dreamed, I have dreamed.

How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, and that prophesy the delusions of their own heart? Who seek to make my people forget my name through their dreams, which they tell every man to his neighbour: as their fathers forgot my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream: and he that hath my word, let him speak my word with truth: what hath the chaff to do with the wheat, saith the Lord? Are not my words as a fire, saith the Lord: and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord: who steal my words every one from his neighbour.

Behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord: who use their tongues, and say: The Lord saith it. Behold I am against the prophets that have lying dreams, saith the Lord: and tell them, and cause my people to err by their lying, and by their wonders: when I sent them not, nor commanded them, who have not profited this people at all, saith the Lord.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Crowd

I tend to feel bad about how terrible I am at making estimates, but the Irish news websites today make me feel better. The Irish Times guesses that thirty-five thousand people marched in today's Rally for Life in Dublin, while The Irish Independent hikes that up to fifty thousand.

Somehow, I managed to not realize there was a rally on today. (I have just come back from a week on the continent, in my defence.) I was taking a bus into the city centre and didn't know why the traffic had been stopped. I had some business to do in O'Connell Street, and was there for about twenty minutes. In all that time, the flood of demonstrators heading to Kildare Street never slackened. After I had followed them there, someone announced from the stage that the march was still coming down O'Connell Street.

Bad at estimates as I am, I think it was a lot more than thirty-five thousand.