Thursday, August 23, 2018

What My Faith Means To Me

Today, I came across the manuscript of Catholic Without Apologies, an intended book composed of articles from my "View from the Pew" column in The Catholic Voice, which appeared fortnightly in 2014 and 2015. (I like to think of this as my Hamburg period.) When I sent it to a publisher, I was told that collections of articles don't sell, so I gave up the idea of publishing it as a book. I was publishing the articles on my blog some time back, but I stopped. I'm going to resume them now, working backwards in time. These were the last two articles I published.

The paragraph in which I write about the dangers of chronic anger and negativity among Catholics seems even truer to me now than it did then. 

December 2015 

Like a Love Affair

Being a G.K. Chesterton nut, I would have a long list of ‘favourite quotations’ from his pen. Somewhere amongst them would be this piece of advice: “Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair.”

Recently, I was speaking to a fellow Catholic, as we sat in the downstairs café of Marks and Spencers on Dublin’s Grafton Street. (I like this café because you can look out at the passers-by as you talk, and somehow this seems to give the conversation a certain air of profundity, set against the vista of general human life.) We were talking about a Catholic newspaper (not this one). I said that my favourite part of the newspaper was a relatively short column where various young Catholics explain what their faith means to them. My friend smiled and said: “Everybody says that’s their favourite part of the newspaper.”

I have been mulling over this comment ever since. For whatever reason, the personal seems to be what moves and fascinates people the most. Think about that famous picture of a lone figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Or the heart-rending monument to dead American soldiers in Washington, with every victim’s name carved out individually. Walking around this monument was one of the most moving experiences in my whole life.

In this column I have been writing a great deal about evangelisation, and trying to put forth some ideas on how we can best re-evangelise our country. There is nothing more important, after all. Today I would like to suggest that we should all be more willing to talk about our personal faith and what it means to us. After all, faith is not a theory; it is something real, something lived, and ultimately a relationship to our living Lord.

I believe a personal witness will very often pass through the barricades that have been erected against generalised arguments.

It might be argued that this is emotionalism. I’m not so sure about that. When it comes to our actual interior lives, I’m not so sure how I can differentiate between an idea, an emotion, an aesthetic response, and an intellectual proposition. If this Catholic faith is true, one would expect it to satisfy the deepest longings of the human spirit. Indeed, it is often attacked for being anti-human and unnatural. Testimony that counters this claim, surely, is an argument in itself.

There is another reason why I think we should talk about love—about what our faith means to us—rather than being sucked into endless arguments (though argument is important). It’s a reason I mentioned in a previous article. I think Catholics in Ireland are in serious danger of being seen as the Angry Brigade. We have a lot to be angry about, for sure, and anger is not bad in itself: “Be angry but do not sin”, says St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians; but also, “let not the sun go down on your wrath”. 

The latter advice suggests to me that anger is not to be our usual state, the climate of our souls. Think of how disdainfully we tend to view philosophies of life—such as radical feminism, or the politics of the far left and far right—which seem to make their proponents angry all the time. We assume that the anger of such people isn’t really about patriarchal oppression or the capitalist system, but is actually rooted in some personal grief or injury. And this is what unbelievers will think of the Catholic faith if we seem to be simmering in rage all the time—that it’s a philosophy of life that attracts the disaffected and embittered.

If, on the other hand, we speak convincingly of the joy and the meaning that our faith brings into our lives, we will intrigue and attract unbelievers.
Called By Name

In a lecture on apologetics that I gave to the John Paul II Society in Maynooth, I finished with these words: “God called each of us by name. I suspect that every one of us, as evangelists and apologists, have our own unique story to tell, our own unique insights to offer, our own unique glimpse into the deep things of God, and that with prayer and discernment and fidelity to the teaching of the Church we can bring it forth.” I really do believe this. As the Catechism puts it: “When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come "from flesh and blood", but from "my Father who is in heaven". Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.” Intellect, as the Catechism goes on to say, also plays a role. But the decisive role is played by the grace of God.

Considering this, I think we should not be ashamed to talk about our personal faith—the particular way God has called us, as it may be. This is not to arrogantly assume that we can understand the operation of divine grace in our own hearts and souls—“The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8)—but if we humbly say what we have to say on this subject, without any extravagant claims of divine inspiration, I think we cannot go far wrong. Indeed, that is another special merit of this approach; we can’t be wrong, since we are speaking for ourselves and nobody else.

There is a certain seemly bashfulness when it comes to the subject. It is very personal, and nobody likes to sound high-flown or pretentious. Perhaps the Irish are especially bashful about such matters. Still, even the most reticent amongst us have occasion to wax lyrical about something, so why not our faith? And we don’t have to wax lyrical, anyway. We just have to speak from the heart.

What would I say, if somebody were to ask me what my faith meant to me?

I would say, first of all, that my Catholic faith is the fulfilment of everything I’ve ever believed or felt or held dear. Although I was not a practicing Catholic for most of my life, and although I am the kind of person who has always had strong opinions and beliefs, I don’t feel as though my Catholic faith is in contradiction to any of the other things I believed in, all through my years of intellectual and spiritual searching.

For instance, I have always had something of a conservative or a traditionalist temperament, because the ephemeral nature of life on earth has always saddened me. Patrick Pearse’s poem ‘The Wayfarer’, with its poignant first line—“The beauty of this world hath made me sad, this beauty that will pass”—always spoke to my depths. Even the sight of a shuttered front of a shop that is closed for good, and the knowledge that all its routines and its camaraderie are vanished forever, makes my heart ache. How much more the consideration that whole peoples and ways of life disappear from living memory! All through my twenties, I felt an ever-deepening craving for tradition and custom and continuity, and an evangelical zeal to persuade other people of the importance of these things. I found myself, for instance, taking a keen interest in the history and culture of the Jewish people, because of their incredible dedication to their own traditions.

The thing, no matter how zealous a traditionalist or a nostalgist you might be, the vast majority of human life is going to be completely forgotten and uncommemorated, lost in the streams of time.

This sadness has been consoled, and this craving satisfied, by my Catholic faith. Principally, this is because I now realize that nothing is ever really lost—“the hairs of your head have all been counted”, as our Lord said. I no longer have to mourn every life and every tradition that passes into oblivion, because my perspective is not now that of time but that of Eternity.

A Doorway Into History
Well, somebody might say, that’s all very well, but we could take such a consolation from any sort of theistic worldview, not just Catholicism. True, but there’s an additional consolation for a Catholic in that the Catholic faith is itself a well of living memory.

One day after Mass, the parish priest in Ballymun (a suburb of Dublin) showed me the parish registers for the parish, going back centuries. The point he was making was that the place-names used in the development of Ballymun in the late sixties—which he had assumed, and which I had also assumed, had been invented from thin air, since Ballymun was farmland before the flats went up—were actually very old names. But looking at the parish registers—seeing the chronicle of marriages, births and deaths that had occurred, through the generations, in the place where we were standing—also awakened in me a sense of the sublime. I was moved to think of all the lives, romances and ordinary dramas that had been played out in that territory—all of them sanctified and interwoven by Mass, baptism, confession, matrimony, and all ‘the rites and ceremonies of the Catholic Church’—a pleasing phrase I remember from my own marriage certificate. Indeed, whenever I attend Mass in the churches in Ballymun—which are only a few decades old—I am keenly aware of all the people who have worshipped there before.

The same sense of continuity applies to history, and I have seen this point made by other people. To a secularist, or an unbeliever, there must be a feeling of alienation when it comes to Irish and European history. What can the Reformation or the Golden Age of Irish Christianity mean to such a person? No matter how broad he might be in his human sympathies, it’s hard to see how he could feel any real sense of connection with such events. But, to a believing Catholic, history has an immediacy and a relevance which it must surely lack to somebody who sees Christianity as simply one swirl in the stream of time. True enough, the socialist or feminist or internationalist might identify with this or that historical character (such as Joan of Arc), or with this or that historical movement (such as the Suffragettes), as a ‘progressive’ element. But that is imposing their own view upon history; creating post-facto saints of a new religion. Joan of Arc was not a feminist, and many of the Suffragettes were deeply conservative in many ways. A Catholic who identifies with St. Oliver Plunkett or St. Thomas More or St. Francis Xavier is not imposing any view—he is seeing those saints as they would have seen themselves.

Another yearning that the Catholic faith fulfils, in my case, is a yearning for symbolism, ritual and ceremony. I’m a little wary of admitting this, because it could be understood wrongly. It would be a shallow reason to embrace any faith, simply on the grounds of enjoying ritual. Perhaps it would be better to say that I feel an intuition, in the depths of my soul, that there are things that can only be expressed in symbolism, ritual and ceremony. The words of W.B. Yeats apply here: “Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it.” We know that our human minds are limited by the concepts they must use—even when it comes to science, this is quite evident. How much more it must be true in the supernatural realm! Therefore, the physical act of blessing oneself, or of kneeling in prayer, or of receiving absolution, seems far more fitting to such mysteries than mere words or ideas.

And, in the Catholic faith, ritual and ceremony is not merely expressive but actually effective. It doesn’t just mean something. It does something. That makes all the difference.

It might be said that all these ‘benefits’ are incidental to the heart of Christianity itself—the kerygma, as theologians call it. They could all apply, to a greater or lesser extent, to many other religions. In my next article, I will explain why it is the Catholic faith in particular, and not faith in general, that satisfies my deepest yearnings.

What my Faith Means to Me, Part Two

In the last issue, I started writing a rather personal account of what my Catholic faith means to me. I did this (as I explained in the article) because I think that Catholics should be more willing to ‘get personal’ on this subject. The truth of the Catholic faith is objective, but the experience of faith is subjective. Like Jesus calling his disciples together, God calls us individually.

I also think that faith tends to be interpersonal. The imagery of the Easter Vigil, in which some candles are lit from the Paschal candle and then further candles are lit by those previous candles, is (to my mind) quite appropriate here. Faith (or perhaps I should say, the openness to faith) tends to be passed from one soul (or several souls) to another, whether that is in a face-to-face communication or via the written word. For instance, my own faith was kindled to a great extent by the writings of G.K. Chesterton, and there was certainly a poetic and personal element to his apologetic writings (as well as a purely logical and argumentative strain). In the classic formulation, faith is ‘caught rather than taught’—though it certainly needs to be taught as well, in the sense of solid catechesis.

My last article concentrated on those elements of Catholicism which were purely theistic, and which were (to a great extent) shared in common with other religions. In this article, I want to concentrate on what theologians called the kerygma, which is the core of the Christian message, the thing that makes it very different from every other religion and view of life.

In a sense, it’s the very particularity of Christianity—and of Catholicism—that makes it so convincing and inspiring to me.

I can’t claim any deep understanding of the Eastern religion of Taoism, but I have always been struck by the first line of its core text, The Tao Te Ching. This reads: “The Tao that can be spoken in not the eternal Tao.” (Tao, of course, basically means ‘way’). It goes on to say: “The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth.”

In one way, I find that very deep and very true, since (like all of us) I have often found myself trying to probe the depths of human life, and I’ve invariably found—whenever I feel I have arrived at any sort of conclusion—that the world can’t be fit into the formulation at which I had arrived. I suggest that this isn’t only my experience, but the experience of the world in general. Every generation seems to my find the answers of the previous generation to be inadequate—whether that is in politics, art, human relations, or history. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “The World is such a curiously shaped old gentleman that the most perfect coats and waistcoats have an extraordinary way of leaving parts of him out, sometimes whole legs and arms, the existence of which the tailor had not suspected.”

In fact, the natural thing is to resort to the conclusion of Lord Alfred Tennyson:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

Indeed, when human beings try to conceive the ultimate, the transcendental, we tend to think of a sort of emptiness. Philip Larkin captured this idea perfectly in his poem ‘High Windows’, in which the poet is envying the beneficiaries (as he supposes, and not without some irony) of the sexual revolution:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

I think this is the assumption of those of our contemporaries who don’t reject religious outright, but who reject ‘creed and dogma’. They look rather benevolently upon the liturgy, the sacraments, and Christian sacred art, seeing them as sacred, but no more sacred than the chants of the Hare Krishnas or the ceremonies of hippies on Salisbury Plain. In other words, they accept the Christian religion as one way to express the inexpressible.

Ultimate truth, in this view of things, is like the white light that is formed from the union of all the colours of the spectrum.

The Scandal of Particularity

This assumption seems very natural. So there is something shocking in the Christian claim that God, when He came to earth, was not faceless and nameless, but that he was named Jesus of Nazareth and that he had a particular face, one which we see imprinted on the Shroud of Turin. (Catholics are not required to accept the authenticity of the Shroud, but I do.)

It’s shocking; but it’s also deeply satisfying. After all, there is something very dull and pedestrian about the idea of a vague God who stands outside all possible experience, all possible human understanding. The idea of a God who enters into history—who speaks to humanity through prophets—who chose a particular nation—who favours particular sacraments and forms of worship—this is infinitely more interesting, stimulating, poetic, and meaningful than the vague divinity of natural theology (which is so often symbolized by shimmering lights, clouds, and so forth). Some people profess to find the God of organized religion (and of Christianity in particular) to be banal. But, with me, it’s the exact opposite. I find the abstract Supreme Being of so many barstool theologians to be the banal thing. The ‘God of the philosophers’ is a bore, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a consuming fire for the imagination.

To turn once again to G.K. Chesterton (and how can I avoid it, when is right about so much?), this is how that great man put this idea:

“In the mind of man, if not in the nature of things, there seems to be some connection between concentration and reality. When we want to ask, in natural language, whether a thing really exists or not, we ask if it is really "there" or not. We say "there", even if we do not clearly understand where. A man cannot enter a house by five doors at once; he might do it if he were an atmosphere. But he does not want to be an atmosphere. He has a stubborn subconscious belief that an animal is greater than an atmosphere. As a thing rises in the scale of things, it tends to localize and even narrow its natural functions. A man cannot absorb his sustenance through all his pores like a sponge or some low sea-organisms; he cannot take in an atmosphere of beef, or an abstract essence of buns. Any buns thrown at him, as at the bear at the zoo, must be projected with such skill as to hit a particular hole in his head. In nature, in a sense, there is choice even before there is will . The plant or bulb narrows itself and pierces at one place rather than at another and all growth is a pattern of such green wedges. But however it be with these lower things, there has always been this spear-like selection and concentration in man's conception of higher things. Compared with that, there is something not only vague but vulgar in most of the talk about infinity. The pantheist is right up to a certain point, but so is the sponge.”

Well, somebody might say, here you are merely talking about your own preference (which you happen to share with G.K. Chesterton). What does this tell us about the reality?

In answer to this, I might first of all point out that here I am talking about what my faith means to me. But, as a matter of fact, this intuition of supernatural things fits my observation of natural things.

The one thing that you cannot say about the world, about reality, is that it is boring. There seems to be a perpetual surprise woven into the very fabric of things. Sex is one example of this. The fact that every human only represents one half of humanity, and that the very survival of the species is based on the difference between man and woman—a difference that the world has never ceased to find fascinating, amusing, exasperating, that none of us are ever in any danger of getting to grips with, and that every generation views in a subtly different way—is, in my view, symbolic of the ‘perpetual surprise’ which seems innate to our world.

But sex is just one example. Add to that the tremendous diversity of life—of climate, geography, flora, animal life, national cultures, and so forth—and the world looks like a place that was designed not to be boring. Other people take this for granted. I have never been able to take it for granted. I can so easily imagine a world where the weather never changed, where everybody all over the world looked and spoke like each other, and where we all lived on a perpetual diet of some kind of tasteless beans.  (Or, even worse, didn’t have to eat at all.)

Take another example. Take the example of work, understood in its broadest sense. Every single day, no matter who we are, we face challenges and demands which require effort and ingenuity to solve. We complain about it. But we would go insane without it. Life is an adventure, no matter who you are, no matter what you do. Or again, think of the infinite number of musical tunes that can be composed. When I was small, I used to worry that the world would run out of songs, and I’m still surprised that this is out of the question.

Given all this, it seems to me only to be expected that the God who created this beguiling universe, where boredom comes rather from the human mind than from anything in our environment, would reveal Himself in an interesting way rather than in a dull way. More than that; it seems to me as though, in so revealing Himself, God would be meeting a human yearning—a yearning that He implanted in us.
The Strangeness of Humility 

There are many, many other aspects of Christianity which I could mention here, as examples of why Christianity speaks to the depths of my soul. Of all these, let me choose an example from Christian ethics and morality.

Humility might be the best example. Let me say very clearly that the ideal of Christian humility appeals to me because I am not a humble person. Humility seems like something strange and exotic to me, something almost unaccountable. Indeed, as a virtue, humility would seem to sail very close to insincerity. Isn’t the most honest and sincere thing to simply own up to our strengths and virtues, as well as our failings? Isn’t there something artificial in ‘false modesty’? “In humility, let each esteem others better than themselves”, says St. Paul (Philippians 2:3). Doesn’t this seem rather ridiculous?

However, in the great theatre of life, we can see the actual effects of humility, if only in our own reactions to other people. A great man who is a humble great man always seems so much the greater. When we meet someone who is genuinely humble—even when it is someone who is eager to downplay achievements and accomplishments which are very real—we are not stuck by any sense of insincerity. Their humility seems entirely fitting. I can’t really explain this. But I do know that the tendency towards arrogance, egotism and self-glorification is so typical of human life—and is even so much the basis of our culture, from advertising to job interviews—that it would seem to take all the force of a religious command to counteract it. The Christian faith is built on the story of God become man, living in obscurity for thirty years, washing the feet of his disciples and dying a humiliating death for the world. I think it takes an example of such force and vividness to conquer our own tendencies to egotism, and towards the worship of power and success. Humility may be prized in other philosophies of life, even in most, but where has it been exalted as it has been in Christianity?

I could write many more articles on this subject, but I will forbear. I do, however, suggest that Catholics should be more willing to speak about their faith in this personal way, since I do believe it is a form of evangelisation that speaks to our very subjective era.


  1. That's nice. It is the sort of thing I'd much prefer to read in book form though.

    1. Me too! But we seem to be in a minority. Even finding collections of newspaper columns to read is difficult.