Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas prayer

It has been Christmas Day in Ireland for more than an hour, and following my recent tradition (because-- although I rarely mention it-- I am rather keen on tradition), here are my Christmas prayers.

First for lovely and long-suffering Michelle, to whom all my writings are dedicated.

Next (but just as importantly) for our lost children, Ruadhán Padraig and Sadbh Treasa, precious souls who were lost before birth, and mourned every single day. So often I wonder what they would have looked like, whether they would have loved poetry, whether they would have loved or hated mathematics, all the million and one ways their own uniqueness would have unfolded. But they are with God; their lives, short as they were, had as much significance and dignity as any others.

I pray for, and want to give thanks to, all the readers and commenters-- let me just say, friends-- on my blog (NOT in order of importance); Dominic, Sinéad, Fr. Levi, Molly, TMR, Antaine, Mick, Paul, Tomas, Roger, Michele, GoldRush Apple, Winnie, Fr. Sean, Jackie, Rusty Shackleford, Angelo, Robert, and anyone I have left out! And I also wonder about Johnny Stephens, and pray for you, if you're still out there! Not to forget my friend Stephen, my friend Marcia, my friend Ryan, and my friend Anthony H. And for Hilary, who sent me such a nice email some months ago. I appreciate your comments and encouragement and prayers SO much. I pray especially for TMR's new married life, and for Roger Buck's book The Gentle Traditionalist (buy it!).

I pray a special prayer for my friend Sonya, whose loss during the year is still a shock I haven't really absorbed. She was far too young. May perpetual light shine upon her.

I pray for the Church in Ireland, for all the brave seminarians preparing to be labourers in a daunting vineyard, for all the directors of vocations seeking young men and young women who will give their lives to God in a special way, and for all the priests and religious who are themselves labouring in the vineyard at such a difficult time. Your exertions and your labours are VERY much appreciated. We are sheep with so few shepherds; send us shepherds, Lord! May our guardian angels remind us to pray for vocations every day!

I pray for our dear Pope, Francis, the 'sweet Christ on earth', in the unimaginable pressures he faces, seeking to combine mercy to lost sheep with fidelity to orthodoxy. May all Catholics and Christians show the Holy Father the love and respect he deserves, and may any criticism they direct towards him be filial and measured!

I pray for all cardinals, bishops and theologians-- may God protect them from the guile and traps of the Evil One. In their necessary efforts to meet the spiritual challenges of the modern world, may they never overlook St. Paul's warning: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:8). I give God thanks for Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Cardinal George Pell, and all the modern-day successors of Saint Athanasius, who so dauntlessly defend the truths of the Catholic faith.

As always, I pray for all artists, poets, filmmakers, and other creators, that their work will reflect the beautiful and holy and noble, rather than the ugly and unholy and base. And I pray that those creators seeking to celebrate noble things will meet with success.

I give thanks for my father's recovery this year, and for the prayers offered him. I give thanks for all my family and friends who are healthy and alive this Christmas, and prayers for all those who have gone to their rest-- special mention for my cousin Billy, who died all too soon not so long ago. I pray especially for my dear mother Patricia.

I pray for peace and understanding amongst all religions, especially Islam and Christianity. I pray for peace in the Middle East, in the Ukraine, and all over the world.

I pray for Ireland, for England, for America, and all nations. Scripture suggests that nations have guardian angels (Daniel 10:3). May these angels foster a healthy patriotism, and a tenderness for national traditions, in every nation. May the 1916 centenary in Ireland lead the Irish people to a sober and mature assessment of this difficult but important moment in Irish history.

I pray for the Church of England, for which I have great hope under the stewardship of Archbishop Justin Welby, much as I disagree with him on some issues. I pray for greater closeness between all Christians, and progress towards ultimate unification.

I pray for all the unborn and yet-to-conceived children in danger of abortion, and especially that the life of the unborn is protected in ireland, where forces who seek to undermine it are preparing for a great push this year.

I pray for everyone in danger of suicide, in all the forms it comes. Let them know they are loved and precious.

I offer prayers of thanksgiving for my overworked guardian angel, for my patron saint St. Seachnaill, for the great G.K. Chesterton-- may his cause for sainthood progress!-- for St. Josemaria Escriva, for St. Maximilian Kolbe, for my confirmation saint St. Finbarr, and for all the saints in heaven-- most especially, for our Blessed Mother ("Mother of God and our mother", as St. Josemaria so often called her).

I pray for my editor at The Catholic Voice, Anthony Murphy, who has now been publishing my 'View from the Pew' column for two years, as well as his family. I pray The Catholic Voice, which does very valuable work, thrives. I pray for the editors at The Open Door magazine, Annals Australasia magazine, and the producers at Radio Maria Ireland which have kindly let me talk about Chesterton on the airwaves.

Finally, I pray to God that nothing I write here or elsewhere ever goes against the truth of the Catholic faith, and-- if it were possible-- that it might attract souls to Christ, and edify my fellow believers.

Happy Christmas everybody! Nollaig Shona Daoibh!

Advent Calendar #27

Light of the gentiles, light of the world,
The Name all martyrs have confessed;
Tonight you are a baby curled
Upon your Holy Mother's breast.

Advent Calendar #26

To the Baby Jesus

The world is old, but you are new
And that is why I worship you.
Down generations, this is true;
The world is old, but you are new.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Gifts from the Irish Papist

As my effort to make some money from advertising has been a complete failure, I am now turning to other money-making schemes. I would like to announce my range of Christmas gifts:

1) A vinyl record of me reading out my complete 'Why I am a Traditionalist" series. Very enthusiastically reviewed by the International Sleep Disorder Association.
2) An action figure of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Comes with miniature chasuble with real incense, and swinging action. Also comes with full range of Papal robes and headdresses, for those finding it difficult to adjust to Pope Francis's more informal style.
3) A genuine Purple Notebook, with instructions on how to use. This gift will only be delivered to customers who send me a written promise to abide by the rules of purple notebooking, and who promise not to simply fill it up with 'happy thoughts', inspiring quotations, pleasant memories, etc.
4) Dinner Party Delight De Luxe. A game board and set of cards which will help you have the perfect dinner party or other social get-together. Topics for discussion include The Nature of National Culture, The Creative Element in Memory, The Dream as Metaphor for Reality, Story-Telling and Identity, etc. If  your guests don't come back after playing this game, they weren't worth inviting in the first place.
5) G.K. Chesterton Fitness Work-Out Video.
6) Irish Papist baseball cap. Guaranteed to make men look folksy and salt-of-the-earth, and women sassy and girl-next-door.

And more! Send for a leaflet for further details. How can you say no?

A Christmas Poem to Michelle

All the words I ever write
I dedicate to you.
And all the beauty that I see
I want to show to you.
And all the thoughts that come my way
Are thoughts that lead to you.
And all the praise of all the world
Is less than a smile from you.

And when I pray to holy God
I pray for me and you.
And when I hear a happy tale
It makes me think of you.
And when I hear a story sad
It makes me think of you.
And memories from long ago
Are somehow about you.

And thinking of the wide wide world
Just leads me back to you.
And looking deep into my soul
I see a home for you.
And every sweet sight in the world
Just makes me think of you.
And any triumph I could win
Is a flower to give to you.

Advent Calendar #25

Little baby Jesus, what can I offer?
My other cheek to the cynic and scoffer.
I offer you all of my sorrow and shame
For the idle way I have spoken your Name.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent Calendar #24

You cannot stay in Bethlehem.
The sights you see; remember them.
Little and precious, like a gem;
You cannot stay in Bethlehem.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent Calendar #23

We can't conceive the Trinity
And God's perfections tease us;
But we can bow our heads and see
The little baby Jesus.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent Calendar #22

Before you, Lord, the Baptist leapt
While he was yet unborn.
Before you, Lord, my soul has slept;
Oh save me, all forlorn.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent Calendar #21

Blessed are the poor in spirit;
Can we such a creed confess?
At Christmas we half sense the merit
Of little and of littleness.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent Calendar #20

Everybody understands this season--
The Christian, the atheist, the child.
It speaks to something deeper far than reason,
Some innocence our sins have not defiled.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent Calendar #19

He comes from aloft
Like a soft word spoken.
No wick shall be snuffed,
Nor reed broken.

Advent Calendar #18

The light you see
On the Christmas tree
Is the same light
On Mount Tabor's height.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Calender #17

His was the only Revolution that endures;
A never-ending Revolution, always new
And always needed, striking at the ancient curse
That kills the soul of me and you.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent Calendar #16

Even without you, Christ, the crib is pretty--
But it's only there so you can be put there.
And the world is wonderful, this mortal city--
But without you, it slides into despair.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Calendar #15

Gaudete....gauedete...I say it like a chant.
It seems to conjure up a world, another world than ours.
One tall pink candle summons them, the Godly ghosts who haunt
Our world of tame and tawdry joys, our days of wasted hours.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent Calendar #14

The purple hangings make me think
Of strong red wine, the finest red.
The wine God gave the world to drink
The day his only Son was wed.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent Calendar #13

Advent is a time for letting go.
Forget the manufactured magic and the postcard snow.
Shrug off the pressure to be happy. Be at peace.
In Bethlehem's true silence, all our frenzies cease.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Advent Calendar #12

Who will hear the good news from me?
Who will believe the gospel from my lips?
Can one like me, so utterly unworthy,
Speak Truth that puts the world into eclipse?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Advent Calendar #11

The world has always seemed to me
Like something waiting breathlessly;
And in this season, most of all,
It seems to wait its Master's call.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Give me a Boost

If you like my Advent Calendar poems, please consider sharing them on Facebook, Twitter, and all the other social networking platforms I can't keep up with. And if you're not on any of these....what the heck? It's, like, the twenty-first century! What are you, old or something?

I'm thinking of taking this blog more in the direction of poems and prayers to mark the liturgical calendar. That's the territory I'm drifting into myself. I find myself thinking: instead of talking to each other (or to the outside world) about God, let us raise our hearts and minds together to God. Peter Hitchens says somewhere that the case for faith is better made poetry than through prose. He was using the term 'poetry' in a broad sense, of course, but literal poetry is surely a part of that.

I hope nobody thinks, from me writing this, that I'm saying that believers have to resort to the power of suggestion because they have no rational arguments. Anyone who browses the extensive archives of this blog will see I have typed thousands upon thousands of words defending the Catholic faith from all angles of criticism, in the prosiest manner possible. I'm not quite saying that everything I have written seems like straw to me now. But I increasingly think that faith is a gift-- and that, unlike most gifts, the Giver of this one wants you to re-gift it. (I am of course speaking figuratively. It is always a gift from God.)

And gifts come with wrapping paper and a bow. They don't usually come with a label saying, "Gotcha!".

Advent Calendar #10: To Our Lady, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

We are unnatural, twisted, disfigured, contorted into unspeakable shapes;
You are the utterly human, oh Lady, exemplar of all that God's children should be.
Ask God that He purge us of all our perverseness, our passionate quest to be lower than apes;
Oh Mary, oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for your children who cry unto thee.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent Calendar #9

St. Joseph and Our Lady, on their knees,
A mountain of strength, a boundless sea of love,
Awaiting the child, the coming Prince of Peace,
That all the sleeping world is dreaming of.

Advent Calendar #8

From aisle to aisle, a voice cries out:
"Hark now hear the angels sing".
Oh baby Jesus, who can doubt
Your birth changed everything?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

More Seasonal Poetry


But not by me. I imagine that many of my readers will already know Robert Southwell's 'Burning Babe' poem, but for those who haven't (and even for those who have), here it is. Robert Southwell was an English Jesuit who died a martyr in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

This is probably my favourite Christmas poem. I don't have anything at all against all the cosy imagery that has gathered around Christmas in the last couple of centuries, but I do like the fact that this poem has a completely different atmosphere. I love the fiery imagery, too. I always love the evocation of fire in Christian symbolism and spirituality, because it's such a corrective to the insipidness which our culture tends to associate with the very word 'spiritual' or 'religious'.
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Advent Calendar #7

Like all my poetry, these Advent Calendar poems are dedicated to my wife Michelle.

The winter solstice? Pagan rites?
They know, for all such scorn,
The world has robed itself in lights
To see the Christ Child born.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent Calendar #6

To love the world that murdered you--
Oh Lord, is it a sin?
And am I truly looking to
The kingdom breaking in?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Advent Calendar

As I appear to be a day ahead of the rest of Christendom in my poetic Advent calendar, today is a 'day off'!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent Calendar #5

All good things whatsoever
You, Lord, have made to be.
And I could look forever
At the happy Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Advent Calendar #4

The low roof hanging over me
Is bigger than the heavens' dome.
I kneel before you silently;
I am home. I am home.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Advent Calendar #3

The world is old, is old, is old,
But this news keeps it fresh;
The story that they angels told
That God had taken flesh.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Towards the Conversion of England

'Towards the Conversion of England' was a report published by the Church of England in 1945, which recognized the precipitous decline in Christian worship and morals in the England of that time, and set forward a vision for how to reverse this. Wikipedia says: "The resulting report, forcefully evangelical in conclusion, was described by one leading Anglican as 'one of the most remarkable statements ever authorized for publication by the Church of England' ". The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby-- himself strongly evangelical-- recently praised it in a lecture.

I had trouble tracking it down, but here is a link. Some readers may be interested. I have only started reading it myself, but I am quite impressed.

Advent Calendar #2

Stay awake, stay awake, says our Blessed Lord,
While the cares of the world seek to drag us under.
Stay awake; for how can the soul afford
To fall asleep on its watch of wonder?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Advent Calendar #1

One candle lighting on the wreath
In honour of the Holy Name;
Oh holy God, to me bequeath
The purity of this small flame!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

For my thousandth blog post, I would like to simply wish a happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers (and the bulk of my readers, as I can see from my statistics, are Americans). One of the happiest days of my life was a Thanksgiving spent in America, making (and eating!) Thanksgiving dinner and watching Macy's Parade and the dog show on TV.

Perhaps a good time to re-read my series on traditionalism!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

El Shaddai

I mentioned earlier that I've been recording a weekly radio programme about Chesterton for Radio Maria Ireland, a new radio station (only internet-based so far). I've also been listening to it, especially the Angelus at six a.m. in the morning, as I'm getting ready for work. (I've only learned the words of the Angelus recently. I actually know very few traditional Catholic prayers and songs, and feel a real urge to learn more. If anyone has any short Catholic prayers they can suggest-- not longer than the Our Father or the Hail Mary-- I'd be most interested to hear.)

Anyway, one morning, just before the Angelus, I heard the above song-- 'El Shaddai', written by Michael Card, and most well-known as recorded by Amy Grant. The version I heard was sung by a man, and in a much more restrained manner than the Amy Grant version. It enchanted me and it has been in my head for three days now.

I've never really liked contemporary Christian music much-- or rather, what I've heard of it. I've listened to various Christian music channel and always found the music quite bland and insipid. I suppose the song I'm writing about here could easily be called bland and insipid, but I don't found it so. It sails very close to it, which is (strangely enough) part of what I like about it.

This is the funny thing. I've often complained about banal modern hymns on this blog, but the sort of hymns I do like are often quite similar in style to those banal modern hymns. I have nothing at all in principle against folksiness in Christian songs of worship. It just has to have that tinge of solemnity, of gravity, that makes all the difference. And, of course, it has to be good.

I know nothing about music, but as a piece of lyric-writing (which I do presume to speak on), I think the lyric of this piece is extremely well crafted. It has the kind of directness and simplicity that makes (in my opinion) for the very best religious songs (such as 'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison or the simple 'Jesus Remember Me' Taizé hymn). I admire its grace, too. And the use of the Hebrew term gives it a certain exoticism which emphasizes the particularity of Christianity.

Having the song buzzing around makes me feel a renewed desire to write hymns. If I have any vocation to serve God through my writing, perhaps that is how I could best do it. Having attended the (secular) memorial services of both a cousin and a close friend in recent times, I was very struck by the fact that both of them (for they both knew they were dying) chose to have favourite songs played at their services. Nothing surprising in that, you may say, but I was very struck by the fact that verse-- so disregarded in most of day-to-day life-- is what we turn to at the 'big moments', and to express our 'big' feelings.

I have pondering the parable of the talents. I have often wondered what would have happened if the servants had lost their talents in bad investments. Presumably, this wouldn't have been held against them, if only they had made an honest effort...and perhaps it's impossible to lose your talent, when you honestly try to use it in God's service. Perhaps, seen from eternity, the very idea would be self-contradictory. But, at the same time, I'm sure we are supposed to use prudence and judgement in how we use our talents.

Recently, as mentioned previously, I decided to put ads on this blog. Do you know how much I've earned from this decision, so far? One cent. Literally one cent. It's a bit of a blow. It's been in existence since 2011, but it's never really 'taken off'. (True, I don't post as frequently as in its heyday, and consequently get less traffic.) I don't have any intention of giving it up-- some people like it, which is good enough for me, and I certainly like writing it-- but I do find myself wondering how I can have more of an effect, and reach more people

Monday, November 23, 2015

That Church of England ad

Yesterday, on Facebook, I shared a post from the Iona Institute about the news that the three largest cinema chains in England have refused to screen an ad, from the Church of England, promoting the Lord's Prayer.

Then I took it down, partly because I get tired of all the indignation on Facebook, and partly because the explanation of the cinema chains-- that they don't take ads promoting any particular belief, political or religious or otherwise, after complaints during the Scottish independence campaign-- seemed reasonable. (I am literally the most fair-minded person I've ever met, it is almost an affliction.)

However, then I found myself rethinking it and I thought: "No, really, that's not good enough". I find it offensive to sit through ad after ad for make-up and cars and sports drinks, with all the various unsavoury subtexts that go with them. I could complain, but who would listen? Personally I would rather sit through ten ads about political and religious (and anti-religious) beliefs than ads about washing powder and toothpaste.

And I don't think Christians should let their religious freedoms be eroded purely out of a desire to be uncontroversial. Religious freedom is something complex and it's as much about what's allowed to be said in the public sphere as it is about truncheons and concentration camps. So yes-- it IS something to be aggrieved about, and those cinema chains should be criticized.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Now On The Radio

I don't think I've mentioned this on this blog yet. I have taken to the airwaves! I am currently contributing a radio show to Radio Maria Ireland, a new venture which is part of the global family of Radio Maria radio stations. Radio Maria Ireland is a pretty limited venture at the moment, and one which is broadcast only on the internet, but I understand that they are hoping to be assigned a frequency on the radio waves soon.

My show is called 'The Adventure of Orthodoxy', and (regular readers will not be surprised to learn) is about G.K. Chesterton. It goes out at seven p.m. on Mondays. The third episode will be broadcast next Monday.

For my first episode was adapted from a talk that I gave to St. Kevin's Literary Society in February. However, I quickly realized that it would be impossible to script a half-hour's talk every week, and that I would have to improvise. I also realized that my first broadcast was rather dry and academic. So, for my second episode, I aimed to be more chatty and direct. For my third episode (which has not yet been broadcast) I begin to talk about Orthodoxy, Chesterton's most famous work. (And, since this is a Catholic radio show, I am going to concentrate on his religious writings-- unlike my column in The Open Door magazine, where I have written about his thought as a whole).

My first few efforts have been pretty fumbling, but I think I'm getting more confident. It's fun.

If anybody wants to listen to it, here is the link:

Why Don't the Irish Celebrate Saint Oliver Plunkett?

Ireland is known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’, but the surprising fact is that only one Irish person has been canonised in the last seven hundred years . Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI canonised Saint Oliver Plunkett, the Primate of all Ireland who was hung, drawn and quartered in Tyburn in 1681. He was the last victim of the anti-Catholic hysteria known as the Popish Plot, and the last person to be martyred for the Catholic faith in the British Isles. Despite this, and despite the fact that he is the last Irish person to be canonised, he is bafflingly neglected in his native land—a country whose enthusiasm for martyrs, both secular and religious, has often been noted. Why should this be?

Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, Oliver Plunkett was a martyr whose extraordinary death overshadows an almost equally extraordinary life. When Pope Clement IX made him the head of the Irish Church in 1669, Plunkett had not been in Ireland for over twenty years. Educated and ordained in Rome, he had remained there as a professor of theology, avoiding the savage repression of the Catholic Church perpetrated by Oliver Cromwell. When he returned as Primate—illegally—he had to rebuild the Irish Church almost from scratch, spending his own money to educate a new generation of priests, personally confirming tens of thousands of Irish souls who had gone unconfirmed for want of bishops, and imposing discipline on priests and friars who, for want of authority, had grown so unruly that drunkenness and concubinage was rife in the priesthood. There were even brawls between Franciscans and Dominicans, quarrelling over buildings and zones of operation.

At first, the new Primate had to masquerade as one Captain Brown to move about his diocese, until a more tolerant regime in Dublin Castle gave him considerable unofficial freedom to operate. Archbishop Plunkett eventually won so much respect from Irish Protestants that, when a renewal of anti-Catholic feeling led him to being arrested on trumped-up charges of planning a French invasion—the final victim of a panic unleashed by the master perjurer, Titus Oates—he was confident that an Irish jury composed entirely of Protestants would not convict him. Nor did they. He had to be tried in London before a guilty verdict could be achieved. Denied sufficient time to summon witnesses to his defence, he was gorily despatched in front of an enormous crowd on the 1st of July 1681.

Given all this, then, it’s even more surprising that the Irish make so little of him. Although his preserved head draws thousands of visitors to St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, and although he has given his name to more than a few churches, schools, and sports teams—he even has a street named after him in Cork City—there is little in the way of a devotion to St. Oliver in Ireland. Perhaps this is simply part of a broader pattern—the most popular saints amongst Irish Catholics tend to be international stars such as St. Padre Pio and the Little Flower. But such local cults as do exist tend to be focused on holy men and women whose causes for sainthood are ongoing—such as Matt Talbot, who went from alcoholism to extreme holiness, or the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff. Saint Oliver has never attained the sort of cultural cachet enjoyed by St. Thomas More in England, though their stories are so very similar.
Growing up in the eighties, when Ireland was secularising rapidly but when cultural Catholicism was still the air that most people breathed (either willingly or reluctantly), I can hardly remember hearing him mentioned at all. I must have been taught about him in school, but I have no recollection of it. Until I started practicing my faith some years ago, I think it’s fair to say that the only thing I would have known about St. Oliver Plunkett was his name and possibly (just possibly) that he was a martyr. His biggest claim on my attention came when I read J.P. Donleavy’s tale of 1950’s bohemian Dublin, The Ginger Man, in which the boozy protagonist is given a model of Oliver’s head as an ironic gift.

I may have been unusually oblivious of the saint. But one of Plunkett’s more recent biographers, Desmond Forristal, also commented on his lack of popular appeal, in a 1987 article for The Furrow magazine. He reports the remarks of a lady acquaintance: “He never really became popular, did he? I mean he hasn’t got any statues in the churches, there aren’t novenas to him, people don’t go to him for their intentions, do they?” Admitting the truth of this, Forristal concluded: “Oliver Plunkett had and has none of the qualities that make for that kind of popularity. By birth and temperament, he was distant and austere and, worst of all, aristocratic. Even in Ireland, the only thing he has going for him is his Irishness and that counts for little enough.”

But perhaps it is time to rediscover him. The Ireland of 2015 is not the Ireland of 1975, the year of his canonization. The Catholic Church, though hardly oppressed as yet, seems more and more at odds with the policies of successive Irish governments. Only a few years ago, the Irish head of government delivered a stinging speech denouncing much of the Church’s record in modern Ireland; it was not entirely undeserved, in the context of the clerical sex abuse crisis against which it was made, but the acclaim with which it was received was ominous. Forty years ago, it would have been unimaginable.

Even more recently, a senior Irish politician supported a proposal, at his Labour party’s conference, to vet Irish civil servants who showed ‘undue deference’ to the Church—a rather disturbing echo of Archbishop Plunkett’s times, when Catholicism was so often equated with treason. That politician subsequently apologised, but the increasingly cold attitude of Irish governments towards the Catholic faith cannot be mistaken. Recent legislation introducing abortion and same-sex marriage have included no conscience clauses for Catholic maternity hospitals, or for Catholic schools seeking to teach the Catholic understanding of marriage. The current Minister for Education has complained about parents being ‘forced’ to baptise their children to gain admittance to Catholic schools; her predecessor wanted the proportion of schools in Ireland run by the Catholic Church to be reduced from ninety to fifty per cent.
It’s still a very distant cry from the days of Archbishops having to ride around their diocese in disguise, of course. But it also seems a different world from the Ireland in which I grew up, only twenty years ago. Irish Catholics are once again finding at least some demands of their faith to conflict with the laws of the land. It may be a good time to revive the memory of St. Oliver Plunkett, and to seek his intercession.

Going Commercial

Readers may have noticed that I have gone all commercial and put ads on Irish Papist. My lack of ads until now had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with the assumption that it was not worth the effort. However, a fellow blogger tells me that you don't have to get hundreds of thousands of hits per day to make a modest few quid on this. And right now I need all the money I can get.

And, hey, just read through my previous blog posts (especially this one on my ideal Ireland) to see that I've never been anti-commercialism per se.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Drop Me a Line

Thanks to everyone who comments on this blog and who has ever sent me an email. I always wonder who is reading. If you ever feel like getting in touch, please do so. My email is Tell me who you are and where you're from and what you think the most stupid thing I've ever written is.

Though I've had this blog online since 2011, comments are still a rarity. I appreciate those who do comment. And I understand other people don't like commenting. I always hoped the 'comment box' would take off over time, but I'm not too pushed about it.

I have quite a few outlets for my writing right now. I have my 'View from the Pew' column in The Catholic Voice, my 'Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton' column in The Open Door magazine, I am writing a series on the greatest poems of all time for Annals Australasia magazine, I've recently started contributing a weekly show on G.K. Chesterton to Radio Maria Ireland (a new Irish radio station, which is currently only available on the internet), and an Sunday the choir at my parish church will be singing a hymn whose words I wrote. I'm very grateful for all these outlets. But this blog always has a special place in my heart, and I cherish the feedback and interactivity very much. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

On Psalm Twenty-Three of the King James Bible

In this series, I am writing appreciations of some of the greatest poems ever written in the English language. Generally, I believe that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but my chosen poem on this occasion is an exception— in the sense that it is a translation into English of a poem from another language. It’s also the only religious poem in my list of greatest poems ever. Considering it is so short, I have room to quote it in full:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I believe that poetry is an extremely evanescent and elusive quality, one that lies as much ‘on the surface’ of the language as ‘underneath’. There have, of course, been innumerable other translations of this psalm. It is Psalm Twenty-Two in the Douay Rheims version of the Bible, which is (as it were) the Catholic equivalent of the King James Bible. The first line in the Douay Rheims version is: “The Lord ruleth me; and I shall want nothing”. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It’s stately and graceful, and for all I know it may be closer to the original Hebrew. But it doesn’t have the same magic as ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. I think this shows that poetry is just as much about ‘how it sounds’ as what it means.

Of course, a purely technical analysis of this poem (and I shall henceforth term it a poem) can explain some of its power. We can see that almost every line is divided into two roughly equal halves. Every line seems to rise to a gentle crescendo half-way through, and to descend with equal gentleness in its second half. The rhythm of this poem is like the breathing of a sleeping child.

There is another quality to the poem that is equally child-like and that I can only describe as ‘crudeness’. Children like bright colours, sweet flavours, good heroes and villainous villains. They are not big on subtlety, to use modern parlance. There is something child-like about the imagery of the Bible, as a whole. It translates spiritual rewards and spiritual dangers into the most frankly material and even sensual terms. The unabashed eroticism of the Song of Songs (though hardly child-like, of course) is the most famous and eyebrow-raising example. But it’s a constant throughout Scripture, including the discourses of Our Lord. “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap.”

Psalm Twenty-Three is certainly no exception to this rule. Its imagery is straightforwardly hedonistic; green pastures, an overflowing cup, a feast on a table. There is nothing ‘spiritualised’ or refined about it.

The image of reassurance and protection in the poem is equally appropriate to childhood. It is not the reassurance of a quiet conscience or an inner peace. It is the reassurance of a physical protector. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”.

The appeal of all this child-like imagery is not only its naivety and its artlessness, but its humility. Pride is the greatest sin, and its also the most popular sin. It’s certainly my favourite sin. I’m guessing it’s yours, too. It’s the most insidious sin in the world, because it’s the sin that can best masquerade as virtue. The more ‘virtuous’ we are, in fact, the more room pride has to breathe.

But the ultimate truth about pride is that it’s exhausting. Like any drug, it feels great at first, but the toll it takes is immense. It hollows us out. It presses us down. In the words of G.K. Chesterton: “Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.”

So I believe that, even in the proudest heart, there is something that gasps for humility, as a choking man gasps for air—something that craves the sheer blessed relief of humility. It is this craving that responds gratefully to Psalm Twenty-Three.

We might take the imaginary case of a ‘self-made man’ who has spent his entire life cherishing his independence, his resilience, and his resourcefulness. These are all good qualities in themselves, of course, but let us also imagine this ‘self-made man’, like so many of us, has let himself be eaten up with pride in his own accomplishments.

I think it’s no great leap to think of such a man listening to the words of Psalm Twenty-Three—“Thou preparest a table before me in the face of mine enemies, thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over”—and feeling (even if unconsciously) what a burden his own self-satisfaction and pride has become. I can imagine him placing himself in the role of the narrator of the poem, and feeling relief in the idea of a child-like dependency and gratitude. Because, of course, we are all charity cases in the end, whatever our accomplishments. Our very skills and talents are God-given. “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7.)

One a purely poetic level, much of the poem’s appeal comes from a mixture of straightforwardness of subject matter with a certain stiffness in style. In the Good News Bible translation, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters” becomes “He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water”. The Good News translation has a simple beauty of its own, but it lacks the self-conscious poetry of the King James version. Again, there is something child-like about this. If you ever listen to children reading poetry aloud—or even reading prose aloud—they usually do so in a choppy, solemn, sing-song manner. We tend to smile at this, but I think their instincts are quite healthy. There is a magic to the written word, and indeed to the spoken word. It’s a shame that we ever lose this sense of the magic and solemnity of words, and we should do everything we can to hold onto it.

Finally, I ascribe much of this poem’s universal appeal, unsurprisingly, to its very universality. There is nothing in Psalm Twenty-Three which could not apply to anybody, anywhere, at any time. It is very hard to think of any literary work which is more universal.

Literary critics (and others) have written much on the idea of universality, and how it relates to particularity. I have sometimes encountered the claim that a work of art, to achieve universality, should be unabashedly particular. In other words, a movie about a fisherman in Nantucket, which aims to be nothing other than a movie about a fisherman in Nantucket, will achieve a universal resonance without trying—whereas a movie that goes out of its way to be about an Average Joe, that aims for the broadest appeal, will fall flat because there is really no such thing as an Average Joe. Everybody is somebody. Everywhere is somewhere. Vagueness kills art, and kills poetry.

It’s a plausible-sounding theory, but I don’t agree with it. I think vagueness can be a virtue in poetry. Psalm Twenty-Three takes the most hackneyed (or rather, the most timeless) symbols and makes unforgettable use of them. The narrator is nobody in particular and the landscape is nowhere in particular. In other words, the narrator is all of us, and the landscape is life itself.

 For all that we cherish our individuality and our identities, the things that matter the most are as common as the sky, the sun and the moon. I think that Psalm Twenty-Three speaks to our human condition in its most fundamental terms. And that is why its appeal is so enduring—and why I myself have been unable to write about it, in this article, without being moved several times to tears.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Prayers for the Dead

(Apologies for the formatting problems that continue to dog me whenever I copy and paste a long quotation. I don't have time to sort it out right now. I will later. I wish I knew how to stop this happening.)

It is All Souls' Day, the day when we especially remember our dead. And I have many souls to remember today, especially souls that have passed over in very recent times.

Most importantly, my children, Ruadhan Pádraig and Sadbh Treasa. They both lived all their mortal days in the womb. Ruadhan Padraig would probably have been born on St. Patrick's Day and Sadbh Treasa would probably have been born on my birthday, which is also Saint John Paul's feast day, October 22nd. Ruadhán means 'rowan'. Sadbh means 'sweet' or 'gentle', and  'Treasa' is the Irish name for 'Theresa', as in Saint Therese.

They are both loved and missed every day, and they are the first names in my prayers every morning. I wonder what they would have looked like. I wonder what they would have played like and laughed like, what nursery rhymes they would have wanted to hear again and again, what would subjects have stirred their interest, if they had been born. When I see little children running in the supermarket my heart stops, thinking of them. They are an irreplaceable, ever-fresh loss. They are with God now, forever.

I pray for my mother. She died in 2001, when I was twenty-three. She had been sick for a long time. This is the poem I wrote for her Mass card:

We would dishonour her with ringing phrases
Because her ways were all of gentleness;
The night-black hair, unwhitened by distress,
The patient voice so quick to form our praises;
The pale blues eyes, the softest of all hazes;
The hands that seemed created to caress;
Such virtues as are God’s alone to bless
Nor need the swell that rhetoric upraises.

Death is a tender angel to the tender
And tenderness was all the art she knew.
She wants no polished clauses to commend her
No words to paint her deeds a brighter hue
Where all our brittle human words surrender
And deeper, soften tones pronounce her due.

I felt a bit inauthentic writing that at the time, because I wasn't sure if I really did believe in life after death. Now I'm glad I avoided those scruples.

My mother was very lady-like, very gentle (though very firm when she wanted to be). She was the kind of person that people 'fall for'. She seemed to both see the good and inspire the good in others.  I feel very guilty when I remember her because I wish I'd been nicer to her; I feel that we lost her just when I was going through my sullen years, and that I might have had a better relationship with her even a few years later. I often dream of her.

There is a rowan tree planted to her memory in Ballymun, just outside the school I attended. I stop there to pray every time I pass it.

The two other people whose names on the tree's dedicatory plaque are also, now, deceased. This was my mother's sister Kitty and my mother's brother Michael. 

Kitty was a farmer's wife through and through. She had a hearty laugh and a penchant for embarrassing me. Her straightforwardness could be both comic and touching. I remember once, in her front room we were watching Roots, the TV series about an African-American slave and his descendants. After the central character made a first failed attempt to escape, Kitty declared, quite feelingly, "I hope he does not try to escape again for he will be severely punished." (Yes, she said for.)

I have happy memories of the scones she would make for us in the evening, while we watched television-- at least once, it was while we were watching the Rose of the Tralee, an Irish beauty contest (where there is not a swimsuit to be seen). She had a painting of some pastoral, bucolic scene on the wall to the right of her television, and the memory of it fills me with peace.

It was during one of our visits to her farm, when I was fourteen, that I had a fleeting temporary conversion to Christianity, after attending Mass with her at her local church. It was many years later, at her funeral in (I presume) the same church, that I found myself yearning to actually practice the Christian faith that kept alive so many of the things I was increasingly coming to admire. The priest mentioned, in his funeral homily, that she had been singing in the choir for years, and I felt a kind of shamed wonder that people really did go to Mass every week.

Her brother Michael I knew less well. The only time I can really remember speaking to him was when he visited my mother in hospital. He quoted some lines from 'The Sunlight on the Garden' by Louis Macneice (either there, or in a letter that my father showed me), which impressed me. And how appropriate that poem is to this post! "The sunlight on the gardens hardens and grows cold; we cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold".

I pray for my grandfather Frank, the only grandparent I knew, who was the living embodiment of the word 'patriarch'. He had a mane of unruly white hair, he lived with my aunt, he had a hall full of woodworking tools (and the bits and pieces he made are as sturdy as ever, though he died during the First Gulf War), and I was vaguely aware that he was an intellectual of some kind. (He was a socialist-republican activist, and he was imprisoned at one point.)

He had a droll sense of humour. Once he gave me and my brother about a dozen Star Wars action figures, all of which came within plain white cardboard boxes. Unfortunately, they were the same two characters over and over. On one of the boxes he wrote the words: "Star Warrior". The obverse side of the box had a cartoony picture and the words: "The warrior". One Christmas, I was very excited to find a pen in a local shop with the name 'Francis' on it. I handed it to him, in wrapping, and he said: "I hope this isn't a pen". To be fair, as soon as he saw my face fall, he looked repentant and thanked me very courteously for it.

It's from him, through my father, I inherit my crusader blood. And who knows from who else, before that? I've heard that he was somewhat at odds with the Church, because of its firm rejection of violent republicanism, but I also understood that he never actually turned against the Faith itself. I'm very glad.

I pray for my other grandparents, who I never met. My paternal grandmother died at thirty-six. She said to my father (who was a boy): "Take care of the others. I'll see you in heaven", and closed her eyes. My maternal grandmother died in old age, but still before I was born.

I pray for my mother's stepfather, Conn, in whose house I stayed several times as a kid, and which had a profound effect on me. It was here that I saw the explosion of crows against a grey dawn sky, as mentioned in my notorious Purple Notebooks series of posts. There were holy pictures on the wall of the bedroom where I slept which filled me with a sense of awe before the sacred. (Even though, at first, I thought that the halos were supposed to describe solid globes, like astronaut's helmets.) My step-grandfather himself was, apparently, not at all pious himself. I was sitting alone with him in the kitchen one day (he had an old-fashioned range, which fascinated me) while John Paul II was speaking on television. (He had his TV in his kitchen.) "Lies, lies and more lies", he said, switching if off. Perhaps he was joking. Another time, he frightened me by predicting that, when he was dead, the Devil would cry: "I have you now, Conn!". I hope and trust he was wrong about that.

I pray for my uncle Danny. This is an uncle who disappeared from my family's knowledge for many, many years-- from before I was born-- and then dramatically reappeared, with an English wife in tow. He had been very ill as a boy, and indeed he had not been expected to live. But he did live, and he overcame many trials. He was enthusiastically litigious, as much for the excitement (I think) as for the hope of compensation. He was very blunt. I remember him once asking me point-blank, in a casual shopping centre chat, how much money I was paying on rent. I also remember the Christmas he handed me and my brother gift-wrapped presents and said: "There you go; aftershave and socks."

He was a good man. I remember him sitting by my mother's body at her wake, and saying: "Without religion, none of it means anything". I was an agnostic at the time and I thought: "That doesn't prove anything". Now I realize that, though it proves nothing on its own, it is certainly a major part of the riddle, and a hint towards the answer. When he went into hospital himself, for his final illness, he faced it very bravely; apparently, he said that he was only coming out in a wooden box.

I pray with especial sadness for my cousin Billy, who was not much older than me. He died only last year, of lung cancer. He was very handsome and intelligent. I found him a glamorous figure in my boyhood, and-- to be honest-- ever since. I can remember him, at one child's party (when he was probably in his teens), cracking open a monkey nut, throwing the kernel into the air, and catching it with his mouth. I thought it was the coolest thing I've ever seen. At this funeral service, which he planned himself, there were poems by Longfellow and Shakespeare, as well as the Kink song 'Days', all of which was very classy and impressive. May perpetual light shine upon him.

I pray for my friend Sonya, who died only a few months ago. I wrote this post about her. Outside of family, she is the closest friend I have ever lost. I wrote a poem remembering her, for the library bulletin. But I never submitted it, realizing she was too private a person for that. I am still shocked at her death. May perpetual light shine upon her, too.

I pray for a very old woman, Hassie, behind whom I sat at a dinner party a couple of years ago, and who told me about her life as an art collector (amongst other things). A few months later, when I asked the friend in whose house it had been held, "How is Hassie?", I learned she had passed on. God bless her.

I pray for my wife's grandmother Patricia, beside whose grave I was privileged to stand quite recently, though she had died before I met Michelle. She nurtured my wife's Catholic faith, for which I am very grateful.

I pray for the woman whose funeral we were attending at that time, and who was such a fan of frogs that there was quite a lot of frog imagery on display in the funeral home. I never met her, but I often remember her in my prayers.

I pray for everybody who died in the Great Irish Famine, the Black Death, the First World War, the Second World War, the Irish Troubles, the Jonestown Massacre, the Holocaust, and all the other crimes and catastrophes in human history.

I pray for everybody buried in Glasnevin and Deansgrange cemeteries, the two great Dublin cemeteries-- and especially for those buried in unmarked graves in Glasnevin's 'cholera pit'.

I pray for all the UCD students whose memorial Masses I have attended in my time attending UCD Our Lady Seat of Wisdom church-- far too many.

I pray for the two children my own mother lost in miscarriage-- two siblings of whose existence I only learned very recently.

I prefer for my nephew Cuan, who died as a newborn baby.

I pray for my aunt Carmel, who I barely knew at all, though she died relatively recently. I know she was a good woman, though, and I remember her very sweet and gentle smile.

I pray for all the deceased friends and loved ones of readers of this blog. I am thinking of some particularly, as well as all of them in general.

I pray for all the children around the world lost to miscarriage and abortion.

Finally, I pray for all the suffering souls in Purgatory, with St. Gertrude's prayer, which I often recite: "Eternal Father, I offer you the most precious blood of your divine son Jesus, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, for those within my own home and my own family, amen."

Writing this post has filled me with a sense of tenderness and melancholy. I'm put in mind of the almost unbearably poignant last lines of 'The Mower', by Philip Larkin, (an atheist): "We should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time."

Of course, we believe that we can still be kind after somebody has died, by praying for their souls. But that takes nothing away from the force of that line. We should be kind.