Friday, July 30, 2021

The Seven Ages of Man (Part One)

I've had something of a troubled relationship with William Shakespeare all my life. He casts such a vast shadow over Western culture (and perhaps that of the whole world) that we come to his works already primed for an encounter with transcendent genius. In a way, we are initiated into the Shakespeare cult (I use the term "cult" neutrally) before we ever read a word that he wrote. In my case, when I have read the words that he wrote, the experience has generally fallen short of all the hype. I'm not suggesting this is the Swan of Avon's fault, of course.

Somehow or other, the idea of Shakespeare sunk deep into my consciousness from as long ago as I can remember. When I try to put that idea into words, the words I come up with are "perennial freshness". I absorbed the idea that Shakespeare showed us human life, and human nature, as vividly as though we had never seen it before-- that encountering a Shakespeare drama was rather like waking up from a slumber, and being reminded of the human condition itself. I also absorbed the idea of Shakespeare's universality, in the double sense of the scope of his drama and of its appeal to all sorts of people through the ages.

Much of this was down to my father, no doubt. My father was a wonderful advertiser for literature; he had a knack of making simple observations about this or that writer which not only captured my imagination, but which captured the essence of that writer. For instance, when I was first reading David Copperfield, he praised the way Dickens "kept all the balls in the air", a phrase which has never left me. Similarly, he told me that Shakespeare's mind was "like a sponge that absorbed everything it came into contact with".

I have an abiding memory of Shakespeare plays on television some time during my childhood, which I see now must have been the 1985 series of Shakespeare plays on the BBC. What lingers in my mind is the image of a single figure against a dark background. It seemed symbolic of Shakespeare throwing the human condition itself into stark relief, and manifesting its grandeur and pathos.

I believe my first substantial encounter with Shakespeare was studying The Merchant of Venice in school. Looking back, it seems to me that all my class-mates approached Shakespeare with a similar awe to my own. When our teacher was going through our book list at the start of the year, an unfortunate girl asked who wrote The Merchant of Venice. Even my MTV-addled generation hooted in derision at this. Similarly, I seem to remember that the first words of the play-- "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad"-- branded themselves into our collective memory.

When the time came to talk about anti-semitism in the play, one girl suggested that Shakespeare foresaw how anti-semitism would come to be seen in the future. The idea of a Shakespeare who shared the prejudices of his time was hard for her to imagine, I suppose. It was hard for me to imagine, too. Shakespeare had always been presented to us as an almost god-like figure.

Although I enjoyed The Merchant of Venice (and, when we studied it in my final year, Hamlet), I was disappointed when it came to my own private reading of Shakespeare plays. They were not what I had anticipated. The plots seemed haphazard and contrived, the humour painful and tiresome, the obsession with certain themes (such as sexual jealousy) disproportionate given the supposed universal applicability of his works. More than anything else, I felt a sense of my own inadequacy, in that I was obviously oblivious to the Bard's genius. Put simply, the plays bored me. And, in all honesty, they have never ceased to bore me-- much to my shame.

It was very different with the great soliloquies (I have never been able to spell that word).These enthralled me. I'll never forget hearing my father recite the great speech from Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These words pierced me like a knife, but they exhilarated me even more. I can even remember how the final two words, "signifying nothing", seemed like the knife being twisted, the kick in the stomach at the end of a beating. The speech portrayed life as meaningless and hollow, but somehow sublime in its very meaningless. And the words "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" gave me a very specific thrill-- the thrill of suddenly seeing life in panorama view, as though one could actually look down a corridor of centuries.

The "quality of mercy" speech in Merchant of Venice (which we had to learn by heart) also delighted me. But undoubtedly the Shakespeare soliloquy that moved me the most, and that exerts an ever-strengthening grip on my imagination, is Prospero's soliloquy from The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(I recently learned that this speech originated the term "thin air".)

All this preamble and I haven't come to the Seven Ages speech yet. But this draft has been unpublished for a long time now, so I'll publish it and come back with a second instalment soon.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The More Falls, the Better

I am convinced from a pretty big experience that perfection, that is sanctity, is only to be won by repeated failures. If you rise again after a fall, sorry for the pain given to our Lord, humbled by it, since you see better your real weakness, and determined to make another start, far more is gained than if you had gone on without a stumble. Besides, to expect to keep any resolution, till repeated acts have made it solid in the soul, is like expecting to learn skating, for example, without ever falling. The more falls; the better (that is if you do not mind bumps), for every fall means that we have begun again, have made another effort and so have made progress. I mention this because I know that you like myself are given to discouragement and tempted to give up all when failure comes.

Spiritual advice from Fr. Willie Doyle SJ, a Catholic chaplain who fell in the battle of Ypres. Read about him at this website.

The Motu Proprio

Well, the entire Catholic world seems to be ablaze with discussion of the motu proprio that Pope Francis issued this week regarding the celebration of the Latin Mass.

I'm reluctant to discuss it here for a couple of reasons. First off, everybody has weighed in already and I don't think I have anything original to add. (I do like Fr. Dwight Longenecker's take, although I've been told his suggested approach is not very feasible in Ireland.) Secondly, I am not a Traditionalist and I want to be respectful of the pain Traditionalists are feeling now.

I've always felt at home in the Ordinary Form and the few forays into the Latin Mass that I've made haven't been transformative for me, as they have been for so many others. To me, the Mass (any form of the Mass) already seems soaked in tradition and Scripture and solemnity-- far more so than anything else in our modern society.

Nevertheless, I have some understanding of the disturbance that this decree causes Traditionalists, by way of analogy. Some of Pope Francis's other agendas have distressed me. One example is his apparent enthusiasm for something approaching an open borders policy-- not because I'm hostile to immigrants (my wife is an immigrant), but because it's hard for me to see how national cultures can survive beyond a certain threshold of demographic change.

Similarly, his apparent support for Communion for the divorced and remarried troubled me greatly. It seemed to undermine the cohesion of Catholic doctrine.

In both these cases I simply had to swallow my reservations and have faith that the Holy Father is guided by the Holy Spirit. I haven't stopped being a nationalist and I haven't stopped being a conservative, but my Catholicism always comes first.

This is a very difficult time for my Traditionalist friends and I am praying for them, and praying for unity in the Church. One thing that reassures me is that the rhetoric on all sides has been quite measured and respectful.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Chuck Norris Code of Ethics

When people mention Chuck Norris, the tone is usually ironic. However, in this (quick) post I'm going to take Chuck seriously.

As you probably know, he was a martial arts champion before he was a TV and movie star, and he developed his own style of martial arts. It has its own code of ethics, which I first came across a few years ago (maybe six), and which impressed me greatly. Yes, it might seem a bit corny, but perhaps that's because we are all so conditioned into cynicism these days.

The first point of this code appeals to me so much because I've always had a strong urge towards self-improvement. The key word there is "urge". I've only ever acted upon this urge very intermittently. When I was a kid, I used to draw up timetables that allocated every moment of the day to self-improvement in one way or another. These programmes only ever lasted a day or two, though.

In my mid-teens, I resolved to read my way through the bookcase in my house, left to right, reading any book no matter what it was. I think I got half way through one shelf. I remember the letters of Pliny the Elder was one of the books.

On the flip side, I could be extremely lethargic and fatalistic. I still suffer from this. I anticipate problems and failure like nobody's business. It's very hard to wean myself away from the assumption that nothing is ever going to work, ever.

(One thing about the first article of the code has always given me pause, though. "I will develop myself to the maximum of my potential in all ways". Is this really possible? Don't you have to choose which potentials you'll develop?)

I first encountered the concept of a "positive frame of mind" from a poster in school. It was a poster listing good health habits, like brushing teeth regularly. It had never occurred to me that one should have a positive outlook-- I was so fatalistic I assumed life was mostly a downer, and that's just the way it was. Encountering the opposite point of view was a heartening novelty. (But then again, I emerged from a depression in my early twenties through seeing an advertisement for a fizzy drink with the slogan: "Welcome to the World".)

The resolution "I will work for the good in all people and make them seem worthwhile" is quite compelling to me, since I tend to have such a critical view of myself and other people.

"I will always be as enthusiastic about the success of others as I am about my own." Coming from Ireland, the land of begrudgery, this is a revolutionary idea to me.

I find this code quite inspiring, and a good standard to aim for. I share it in case others might find value in it.

(I quite enjoy watching Walker, Texas Ranger too.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Imminent Anniversaries

Time has been much on my mind recently. I'm almost forty-four. It's very strange to be the same age as many political leaders, business leaders, and so forth. It's very strange (and disorientating) to realize that the generation of political leaders, athletes, entertainers etc. that I grew up with have mostly retired or passed away-- less so in the case of entertainers, since they can go on forever, but certainly the other groups.

The headmaster of my primary school died this year. Although it was an untimely death, it's quite sobering to realize that most of my teachers would now be retired.

This year there happens to be a lot of anniversaries in my life. First off, my mother died in 2001, so the twentieth anniversary for that has already passed. My eleven months in the Allen Library was twenty years ago. Of course, there is the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, which will be a big deal for all of us, and the memory of which is bound up with my other anniversaries. (It's also disorientating to realize that the undergraduates I serve in the library don't even remember 9/11.)

Remarkably, two big anniversaries will fall on exactly the same day: I started working in UCD Library on the 15th October 2001, and ten years later to the day (by sheer coincidence) I began this blog.

I've been wondering how I can celebrate both these anniversaries-- suggestions welcome. I celebrated ten years in UCD by casually (over a period of weeks) asking my colleagues their favourite chocolate bars, and by bringing in two of each for them, along with other treats. I left them by a list of the things that were happening in the world (and sport, entertainment etc.) at the time I began in UCD. (Someone else copied this latter idea for a similar event, which I took as a compliment.)

This year I was thinking of something more goofy-- like giving a "lecture" on the vice-Presidents of Canada, or something equally obscure. I don't know if I have the audacity for that, though.

I like the idea of celebrating these milestones in some way. I think there should be a lot more ritual and ceremony in our lives.

The Gnome: A Horror Story

I submitted this horror story to a horror magazine six years ago. It wasn't published. I think it's not so bad.

“Excuse me, but—“

“Sit down”, said the man with the garden gnome, “and I’ll tell you all about it.” His voice was as weary as his face.

“Well, I just wondered—“

“Of course you wondered. Everybody wonders. Grab me a rum and Coke, and I’ll tell you all about it.”


It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Cassidy’s was almost empty. I’d just written the last words of my thesis, and I was in the mood for a celebratory drink. The sight of a twenty-something man sitting in the shadiest corner of the pub, a garden gnome propped on the couch beside him, couldn’t help drawing my interest.

“Thanks. Have a seat. So, you want to know why I’m sitting in a pub with a garden gnome?”

“It’s not something you see every day.”

The young man laughed bitterly. He was a sandy-haired fellow with an athletic figure, fashionable clothes, and a general air of being One of the Guys—except for the weariness in his eyes. He took a thirsty gulp from his beer, but somehow he didn’t seem like a drunk.

“That’s because I move about. I don’t want to become one of the sights. What do you think of this gnome?”, he asked—rather nervously, I thought.

I looked at it. There was nothing special about it. It was about two foot tall, it had a green cap and a blue waistcoat, and no great artistry had gone into making it. The smile on its face was rather imbecilic, but not strikingly so.

“Just a garden gnome”, I said, “like dozens I’ve seen before.”

“That’s what I thought”, he said, glaring at it. “When it first came into my life, eight years ago.”

“Eight years ago?”

“Sure.  The day I finished school. We went out drinking. It got pretty wild. We were starting the great adventure, right? And me and some of the other guys were going to go backpacking. Life seemed pretty good.”

“So where does the gnome come into it?”

“Well, we were walking past old Mrs. Coventry’s house and it—well, it caught my eye. I mean, I’d mown her lawn twenty times, and I’d never noticed it before, but somehow it caught my eye, you know? And I’d heard about this thing…” His voice trailed off, and he stared into his beer, as if overcome.

“What thing?”

“Oh, you’ve heard of it”, he said, looking up again. “It’s a gag. Just a gag. You steal somebody’s garden gnome, you take it all over the place, and you send its owner pictures of the gnome on its travels. Like, a picture of the gnome with the pyramids in the background, or the gnome propped up against a palm tree on a sandy beach, or beside the Lincoln Memorial—you know?”

I nodded, and smiled. I’d heard about this all right. Maybe it was the jerk in me, but I thought it was quite funny.

“So, I guess that’s what you did?”

“That’s what I did. I took it to Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria. We took pictures of it beside the Acropolis and in the Hagia Sophia and, oh, all over the place.” He waved his arm descriptively. “Once we put a little turban on him. We convinced local girls to kiss him for the camera. Stuff like that.”

“And you sent the pictures to…”

“Mrs. Coventry, yes. “

“Was she a real bitch or something?”

The guy looked down into his beer again, ashamed. “Not really. A bit cranky. But nothing…. You know, it was just there. It hadn’t nothing to do with Mrs. Coventry.  She just had a gnome, that’s all.”

There was a long silence, filled only by Eye of the Tiger playing on the pub’s sound system.

“So why didn’t you give it back?”, I asked, taking another look at the gnome. It didn’t look any less ordinary this time.

“The thing is, I did!” said the young man. “Three days after I got home, I took it to her house in the middle of the night. When I got there, there was a For Sale sign on the house.”

“She’d moved?”

“She’d died. Just a couple of days after we left. She was already cremated and scattered on her favourite beach by the time we’d got to Turkey.” He took another long gulp from his beer. It was almost finished. He had not looked into my eyes for a while.

“And—you felt weird about putting it back…” I was beginning to see it all.

“Sure I felt weird about it”, he said. “But I still put it back. What else was I going to do?”

The last notes of “Eye of the Tiger” faded away, and were replaced by the opening drum-beat of “Billy Jean”.

“So…why do you still have it?”

The guy looked up, straight into my eyes, and I was surprised by the intensity of that stare. He had bright, blue eyes. He was just a kid—a frightened kid.

“Do you know how often I’ve tried to get rid of this gnome?” he asked. “I left it in Mrs. Coventry’s garden five nights in a row. Every single morning I woke up with it in the bed beside me.”

“Oh, come on…”

He carried on, impatiently. “I’ve thrown it over a bridge. I’ve burnt it. I’ve hacked it to pieces. I’ve left it in churches. I’ve locked it in a safe. And all the time, it follows me.”

The guy was serious. He spoke slowly, and looked into my eyes, with every semblance of sanity. What could I say?

“How does it….follow you?”

“It’s just there”, he said, pointing at the thing, staring at it with molten hatred in his eyes. “I come home and it’s in my apartment. I go to work and it’s on my desk. I pack luggage and, when I open it, half of what I put in is missing and this thing is there instead. I’ve broken up with five girls and lost three jobs because of it. And that’s just the start. That’s just the start.”

I looked at the gnome, half-expecting to see something more sinister about it now. But it was just a gnome, as silly and banal-looking as ever.

I burst out laughing. This guy had me going for a second, I thought.  “Come off it”, I said, smiling at him. “What’s this about? Research project? Prank? Hidden camera show?”

The young man seemed neither surprised nor offended. He just reached into his jacket, took out his wallet and a notebook of some kind, and plucked a fifty dollar note from the wallet.

“Sure, it’s all a prank”, he said, laying the note on the table, and smiling at me—a bitter, hopeless smile. “Tell you what. Fifty dollars. Take the gnome and do whatever the hell you like with it. But you sign me a receipt. I’ll give you fifty dollars.”

I looked at the gnome, looked at the young man, and said: “No thanks.”

“Come on”, he said, with another hopeless smile.  “It’s all a delusion, right? You’ll be helping me.  Helping to free me from my delusion. And you know what? Take a hundred.” He drew another fifty dollar note from the wallet and laid it on top of the first.

I could have done with a hundred dollars. What student couldn’t? But somehow, the very thought of taking the gnome—ordinary-looking as it was—made my skin crawl.

“Two hundred”, he said, putting a hundred dollar note on top of the other two notes. “Why not? What are you afraid of?”

I rose to my feet. This time there had been a note of desperation in his voice that made me nervous. You never knew what desperate people might do.

“No thanks” I said. “But I hope…”

“Yeah,” said the young guy, hunching over the table, as though he was buckling under an enormous weight. “Yeah, I know. Thanks for the beer.”

I headed straight for the street, only looking back as I was about to head out the door. The kid wasn’t looking at me. He wasn’t looking at the gnome. He was still hunched over the table, his head bowed.

But the gnome was looking at me. And for the first time, his smile looked far from imbecilic.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Difficulties: Something I Wrote for a Catholic Website Ages Ago

Many years ago, I wrote an account of my conversion (or reversion) for the website Why I'm Catholic, which now seems to be dormant.

Here is the piece I wrote. According to the read counter it's been read over a million times. I don't know if that's right or not.

Looking through a USB key, I found this follow-up piece which I wrote at the request of the webmaster. He wanted the authors of conversion stories to write about the struggles they had with the faith.

I see this file was created in 2012, so it's quite old. Anyway, here it is:

I’ve read many Catholic conversion stories that contain some passage along these lines: Never in a thousand years would I have imagined entering the pews of a Catholic church. Everything about Catholicism was nails down a blackboard to me. Some religions seemed fairly inoffensive, even laudable— as delusions go. But Catholicism stood for all that was reactionary, outmoded, anti-progressive. All that kneeling and bell-ringing seemed kitsch and just plain embarrassing to me.

Me? I never felt like that. In fact, even as an atheist/agnostic, I liked everything about the Catholic Church, both its doctrine and its discipline. And I especially liked the parts that the modern world world found difficult, or that non-Catholics had struggled with through history—the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the authority of the Pope, the uncompromising sexual teaching, prayer to saints, and so forth.

No, my own problem was with something more fundamental—belief in God Himself, especially in a theistic God that revealed Himself to mankind, answered prayers, and performed miracles.

One thing that held me back from believing in the Christian God was the sheer size of our universe.

This is an interesting topic, since the vastness of the universe seems to provoke quite opposite reactions when it comes to religious belief. Some people look at the starry sky, or at an image from the Hubble telescope, and are moved to religious awe by the sight. In fact, many renowned astronomers have been Jesuits—so many that some 35 of the moon crater’s are named after them. Evidently, their faith was not challenged by the mind-boggling proportions of the heavens, and our planet’s puny size in comparison.

But the size of the universe is often put forward as an argument against theism, and I am sure I am not the only Christian believer to be challenged by it. And there is no shirking that challenge. Our faith tells us that God became incarnate here on Earth. On that account, this unimaginably tiny planet is indeed special. Christ died for us once for all, as St. Peter tells us. When I was younger I imagined the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection happening on planet after planet throughout the universe; now I understand that the events of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday were unique.

Of course, this reaction to the size of the universe is an emotional reaction. There is no logically compelling reason why one tiny planet in an obscure star system should not play host to a drama of such cosmic proportions. But, since emotion and intuition (along with reason) play such a large part in faith, I felt it was something of a double-standard not to admit their relevance here.

Many of the arguments Christians have used to counter this reaction seem poor to me.”It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos”, wrote GK Chesterton; “for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” But the ratio of man to tree cannot even be compared to the ratio of our Earth to the cosmos. Nothing can; it is unique. Even granting that God likes to do things on a grand scale, this largesse of galaxy clusters seemed excessive. “I should be suffocated in a universe I could see to the end of”, wrote CS Lewis. So would I. But hundreds of billions of galaxies? The night sky could have been majestic with a hundred galaxies. Or twenty.

Eventually, it was a scientific argument that pacified me. I read a lot of books about science and faith prior to my conversion, so I can’t remember in exactly which one I encountered this argument. (In any case, it can be found on the website Quodlibeta, in a three-part post entitled Size Doesn’t Matter.) As far as I could comprehend it, the thesis is that the cosmos had to be as big as it is, and as ancient as it is (the two things are related since it has been expanding since the Big Bang) to give rise to life. Astounding as it seems, all those billions of galaxies were needed for us to be here at all.

Does this make the “vast cosmos” argument against God an argument for God? Writing this, it occurs to me that it does. And yet the size of the universe still intimidates me, although less than it used to.

Another point that has since occurred to me is that it is only our bodies that are dwarfed by the cosmos. Our thoughts, being without size or physical dimension, are no less grand than the Crab Nebula or the Milky Way. My concept of the physical universe does indeed “take in” all those billions of galaxies, even though I cannot imagine their size (which is something quite different). Man is made in the image of his Maker, and it is not just poetry to say that there is something in humanity that transcends mere physical size. It is the sober, literal truth.

Another difficulty I had in embracing Christianity, and especially Catholicism, was its stubborn insistence on God’s intervention in his creation. This consideration actually worked both ways. I wouldn’t have given Catholicism the time of day if it was not such a thoroughly supernatural religion. I found miracles, petitionary prayer and the Virgin Birth difficult to swallow. But a watered-down liberal Christianity, in which Jesus was a Great Moral Teacher and God was an absentee landlord, seemed beneath contempt to me. I was impressed by the Catholic Church’s confidence in declaring certain modern-day Marian apparitions and miracles worthy of belief, but at the same time, I wondered why I should accept them.

What I really wanted to know was this—why was God so bashful? Why did miracles never seem to happen when the TV cameras were rolling, or under laboratory conditions? Why couldn’t I see somebody rising from the dead, or levitating, on Youtube? How could theists answer skeptics such as James Randi, who has for a long time offered a prize of a million dollars to anyone who can give hard proof of the paranormal? How come every apparent proof of the supernatural, from spiritualism to ESP, ultimately turned out to be a fraud?

“If they hear not Moses and the prophets”, says Abraham, in our Saviour’s story of Lazarus and Dives, “neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead”. That seemed all too convenient to me. Was it really true that, if the stars in heaven were to form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour, all the Skeptics’ Societies would still stick to their guns? Didn’t spiritualists and fraudulent mediums con their victims by insisting the spirits needed a friendly atmosphere— which usually meant gullible people and darkened rooms?

But think about it. What if the stars did form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour? Maybe all the skeptics and atheists would flock to confession before their next meal. But would that be faith? Would it not be a kind of coercion on God’s part, and mere enlightened self-interest on the skeptic’s part? Christ isn’t going to force anyone to believe in him. We have to be free to reject him, because we have to be free to accept him. God leaves the door open to both.

I am aware that many people— sincere seekers as well as belligerent atheists— will find this answer unsatisfactory. “Blind faith again”, they will say, either with a satisfied chuckle or a disappointed groan. But it is not a question of blind faith. God will not coerce our intellects. Neither will He perform under laboratory conditions. He won’t answer prayers like a slot machine dispensing chocolate. But He has indeed given us good reason to believe in His miracles, even if He hasn’t put them beyond dispute.

It is very difficult—I find it impossible—to make sense of Christian history without accepting its central miracle, the Resurrection. What on earth impelled Christ’s apostles, their early converts, and most of the early Popes to face persecution and grisly martyrdom, without an unshakeable conviction that Christ had indeed risen from the dead? What were they getting out of it? Why would they persist with the imposture, knowing it was an imposture? “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life”, said St. Paul, “we are of all men most pitiable.” No kidding.

One could safely claim that all Christian miracles derive their validation from that one miracle. But many of the miracles and visions that the Church declares worthy of belief stand on their own merits. The miracle of the sun at Fatima, the image on the Turin Shroud (though we should note that the Vatican has not made any authoritative declaration on this one), the stigmata of Padre Pio, the various Eucharistic miracles accepted by the Church—none of these can simply be explained away. We are left, as always, with the freedom to reject or accept them.

But there is even more to the case for miracles than that.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, when he first heard that photographs had been taken of fairies (eventually, of course, these were shown to be a fraud), he felt a pang of anxiety; he did not want fairies to become just another documented fact. I like the idea of miracles, and I’m happy to live in a world where the word “miracle” means something. And what would it mean if miracles were simply another natural occurence? Where would we derive the same thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery, if walking on water and speaking in tongues were about as common as, say, people who lived past a hundred and ten years? Why do we naturally reach for the word “magical” to describe something wondrous, even if it’s a perfectly ordinary thing like a sunrise or a poem?

When you think about it, the very concept of “something outside the order of nature” is an odd one. There are events we can imagine, events that are reputed to occur, events that have been convincingly attested to, but that are not considered possible—or at least, they are considered never to be possible by the atheist, and possible only by divine intervention by the religious believer. I can easily imagine a world where nothing that was logically impossible was physically impossible, where burning bushes and water turned to wine elicited no more than a shrug or a raised eyebrow—a world with no concept of the uncanny, or the supernatural. But I would not like to live in such a world. I am glad that God made room for the marvellous.

Lastly on the subject of miracles, I find something miraculous in the fact that I can conceive of a miracle. My mind can hypothesize something that has never appeared in my experience. Where did this idea come from? How did my mind learn to improvize like this? In a deterministic universe, a universe of unalterable physical law, wouldn’t our thoughts be as “preset” as the commands of a computer program?

A third difficulty I encountered in my spiritual search was the indifference or hostility of so many scientists to religion. Here I cannot speak with any kind of authority. I know nothing about science and I care less—the subject utterly bores me. But, being born in the late twentieth century, naturally I looked towards scientists as the sooth-sayers of our society. I absorbed the idea that everything boils down to science, that scientific enquiry is the privileged and definitive route to knowledge, and that every passing year brings science closer to a Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, which would be written in equations and incomprehensible notations.

And scientists, I noticed, didn’t care much for God. More than ninety per cent of fellows of the Royal Society are atheists, I read (I don’t vouch for the truth of this). And many scientists and scientifically-minded writers, like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, were ardent unbelievers. The world was moving more and more towards science, and science was moving further and further away from God.

It was true that there were some famous scientists who were Christians, such as Francis Collins the geneticist, or John Polkinghorne, the physicist-turned-vicar. But the same few names were always trotted out to show that great scientists could be religious believers—it was plain that they were very much the exception, the minority. And what if it was a shrinking minority? What if all of tomorrow’s scientists rejected God? What then?

I have to admit that this still bothers me. I wish there were more scientists who were Christians, or simply religious believers. I would like the proportion to grow. Whenever I read (as I sometimes do) that the younger generation of scientists are more open to religious belief, it cheers me. When I read a Catholic scientist like Stephen M. Barr presenting scientific support for God’s existence, it cheers me.

But the subject doesn’t seem nearly as important to me as it used to. The more that I thought and read on the subject, the less it seemed to me that scientists had any kind of privileged position when it came to Ultimate Truth.

After all, there were so many things that I knew existed, but that had no scientifically demonstrable reality. The past, for instance—it certainly existed, but where was it? Then there was my self, my personal identity. I know that the person I am now is the same person as the baby that my mother gave birth to, even if most of my body’s cells have been completely replaced in the meantime. But where is the scientific basis for this statement?

By the same token, I knew that I possessed consciousness, that I experienced my own thoughts, and that they were not some purely physical process. The memory of a childhood Christmas was different from the firing of neurons in my brain, even if one was caused by the other.

I knew that W.B. Yeats was a better poet than Dr. Seuss (no disrespect to Dr. Seuss), and that this wasn’t just a matter of taste, but how could that be proven scientifically? I knew that it was wrong to throw babies over cliffs, and that (again) this wasn’t just a personal preference, but how could that be demonstrated in a laboratory?

And even if science could reach its Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, how could it explain why things were like that in the first place? How could it explain itself? There seemed something rather odd and arbitrary about this universe of measurable laws and chemical elements. I could easily imagine it as being different than it was. What was the point of scientific explanation at all if you eventually hit the wall of “it’s like that, and that’s the way it is?”

Besides, it slowly dawned on me that science wasn’t really all that close to the Complete Explanation, after all. Why, They couldn’t even explain chemistry and biology in terms of pure physics yet. There seemed considerable doubt over whether They ever could.

In other words, philosophy had liberated me from scientific reductionism. As Francis Bacon put it, while he was inventing the scientific method, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

My Audio Article

I've just noticed that one of my Ireland's Own articles (on streets names named after Irish people around the world) is available on audio at the Ireland's Own website. If you want to hear it, clicked on the link below and scroll down to the thirteenth title. (The picture shows actor David Murray, from the ad I mention at the start of the article.)

I really like the voice of the guy reading it.

And (while I'm at it) here's an eleven-year-old video of one of my poems read by a woman, presumably from Hull. It's a poem I submitted to the website a little after my legendary trip to Hull. It's managed to accumulate 140 views in more than a decade, which is not great. The poem is possibly a little bit more cryptic than most of my poems. I was really trying to convey how childhood, despite being a stage in our lives, seems never-ending and timeless while it's happening.

Monday, July 5, 2021

My Latest Article in the Burkean

In my latest article in The Burkean, I make the suggestion (only partly tongue-in-cheek) that, as well as trying to revive the Irish language, the Irish should also start cultivating an Irish-English creole for use in everyday life.

I was pleased that the article got a lot of comments. Some of those commenting assumed I was proposing an Irish-English creole to replace the Irish language. It's my own fault that I gave this impression, I suppose, but that's not what I meant.

The survival of the Irish language seems assured for the foreseeable future, which is wonderful. But it remains spoken by a tiny minority who are almost invisible (or, more to the point, inaudible) in daily life. You are far, far more likely to hear Portugese or Polish spoken in an Irish street than you are to hear Gaelic. (I'm not complaining about the people speaking their own natives tongues, please note.)

All my life I've been preoccupied with daily life, with the ordinary. I'm not interested in cliques or minorities. Just as I have no enthusiasm for poetry as the preserve of a clique, I have no interest in Irishness which is restricted to certain social circles or coastal villages or anything like that. The only thing I find meaningful is whatever penetrates the suburbs and supermarkets where most of us live out our lives. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong about that, but it's just the way I am. Nor am I dismissing that small minority of Irish people who do speak their native tongue on a daily basis-- I think they are national treasures.

I've also become frustrated with all-or-nothing thinking. I believe schemes of social or cultural reform should concentrate more on piecemeal, attainable goals. Whatever you think of feminism (and I'm no fan of it, in most of its manifestations), it certainly achieved wonders through this gradualist approach.

It's become obvious right now that there is not going to be a widespread revival of spoken Irish any time soon. Learning and speaking Irish is very daunting. Seasoning our English with more Irish words might, I thought, be a less daunting prospect, one that was more accessible to the multitude. Just a suggestion.