One of my colleagues lost his wife this week. I've worked with him for sixteen years and we've always got on very well. They were married for twenty-eight years. The funeral was today. The church was packed out. I was standing at the back.
Lots of library staff travelled to the funeral together, in two vans. On the journey out, I happened to mention that I'm the least observant person in the world and (later) that I'm a complete philistine when it comes to music. When I made the second statement, the woman sitting beside me linked it to the first, and said: "I think you have to work on your self-esteem". And she's right. I know conservatives like to scoff at the idea of self-esteem, but I do think there's a healthy sort of self-esteem, and it's one that I often lack. Constantly feeling bad about oneself, not in the sense of one's sins but one's capabilities and self-worth, can't be good. In recent months, I've been having particular difficulty with this and I've been despondent quite a lot. I've tried not to dwell on this on my blog. It can be debilitating.
Recently, a friend and fellow Catholic, who'd previously expressed concern about how far I was veering towards the populist right, urged me (again) to rethink my attitude. Actually, I'd already been rethinking my attitude. Regular readers will be familiar with my horror at political correctness and my conviction that it needs to be opposed with the utmost force. Well, I fear that my zeal for this cause became almost all-absorbing for a while. I became too focused upon the things of this world, on controversy and politics and "the battle of ideas". I lost sight, to some extent, of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And I found myself spending far too much time listening to voices who were right about some things, but horribly wrong about others
Well, I've turned away from all that in the last few while-- not because I'm no longer a populist or anti-PC (I am), but because I've felt my thirst of the sacred revive, and my preoccupation with the secular diminish.
All my life, even before I was a Christian, I've swung between a fascination with the diversity of the world, and a hunger for the Absolute, for the unconditional, for the permanent. I've had recurring dreams about swimming pools all my life, because swimming pools represent immersion and depth. One part of me, the part that thrills to the Louis Macneice poem "Snow", is in love with daily life and the giddy abundance of the world. Another part of me craves only what is timeless and abiding.
I guess the second part is in the ascendant right now. I've found myself losing interest in secular matters and wanting to immerse myself in the sacred. I've been reading Introduction to Christianity by Pope Benedict, a book of essays on the Protestant theologian Wolfgang Pannenberg, and other Christological works. And feeling that the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Cross are enough to absorb anyone for a lifetime, that they make all secular matters pale.
I've often felt that the Holy Spirit speaks to me through my imagination. The Christian mystery grips me most powerfully through the mediation of some image or story. I've written a great deal about these in my diary, but I feel a strange shyness in confessing to them here. One example that I encountered only recently, is the story of Soon-to-Be-Blessed Solanus Casey, the American Capuchin friar, arriving at his monastery for the first time, on a snowy Christmas Eve, after a long and arduous journey, just in time for Midnight Mass.
Or they can be actual visual images, such as these painted figures behind the altar of St. Benedict's Church in Richmond, Virginia, whose very stiffness and solemnity have entranced me from the first time I saw them:
Having said so much about my latest turn from the secular to the sacred, I've learned enough from previous "turns", back and forth, to realise some things are a constant with me. For instance: I will always be a nationalist, an Irish nationalist. No amount of reminding myself that "we have here no abiding city" can change the fact that I do care about Ireland, the preservation of its traditions and identity and distinctiveness. Globalization and cultural homogenization depresses me. I care very much about this, and I realize that I always will.
Even here, however, my attitude has shifted recently, at least in one particular. In the last couple of years, I've made the biggest effort of my life to improve my knowledge of the Irish language, and use it more often. I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that I can do relatively little for Irish. The one measure of the Irish language's health which is constantly discussed, and which (when you think about it) is indeed the most relevant one, is the extent to which it is spoken in everyday life. And there's really little I can do to help it here. There's nobody with whom I could speak Irish in everyday life. I could join Irish language clubs and go to Irish language events, but these would take me out of my routine, and I already have very little time left after all the commuting I do. Reading Irish language books and listening to Irish language radio is really doing very little; the spoken word is what matters. (It's no wonder that Israel is the only country that has successfully revived a dying language. The Israelis needed a lingua franca, so Hebrew filled a need. It got to be spoken in the hurly-burly of ordinary life, not in contrived situations. Without such a context, I wonder if any language can prosper.) I'm not going to give up on Irish entirely, but at this stage I've given up my ambitions to make it a big part of my daily life.
Well, that's "where I'm at" right now. I told you it was going to be reflective.