Friday, December 23, 2022

Happy Christmas!

I don't expect to be blogging over the rest of Christmas and the New Year, so I wish you all a very happy, peaceful Feast of the Nativity.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his Christmas homilies, developed the same vision setting out from the Christmas message in the Gospel of John: “He pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1:14). Gregory applies this passage about the tent to the tent of our body, which has become worn out and weak, exposed everywhere to pain and suffering. And he applies it to the whole universe, torn and disfigured by sin. What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation? Anselm of Canterbury, in an almost prophetic way, once described a vision of what we witness today in a polluted world whose future is at risk: “Everything was as if dead, and had lost its dignity, having been made for the service of those who praise God. The elements of the world were oppressed, they had lost their splendour because of the abuse of those who enslaved them for their idols, for whom they had not been created” (PL 158, 955f.). Thus, according to Gregory’s vision, the stable in the Christmas message represents the ill-treated world. What Christ rebuilds is no ordinary palace. He came to restore beauty and dignity to creation, to the universe: this is what began at Christmas and makes the angels rejoice. The Earth is restored to good order by virtue of the fact that it is opened up to God, it obtains its true light anew, and in the harmony between human will and divine will, in the unification of height and depth, it regains its beauty and dignity. Thus Christmas is a feast of restored creation. It is in this context that the Fathers interpret the song of the angels on that holy night: it is an expression of joy over the fact that the height and the depth, Heaven and Earth, are once more united; that man is again united to God. According to the Fathers, part of the angels’ Christmas song is the fact that now angels and men can sing together and in this way the beauty of the universe is expressed in the beauty of the song of praise.

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas homily 2007

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Foundation of the State Conference in UCD

This is a report on the Foundation of the State Conference in UCD which I attended earlier in this month. It was published in the library Staff Update. I may as well get a blog post out of it.

Foundation of the Irish State Conference, 2-3 December

My great-grandmother stopped speaking to her own son because he married a Free Stater. My father, when he was a boy, sabotaged the public address system at an event where De Valera was speaking (and got a hiding from Kevin Boland for doing so—or so he said).

I don’t mention these snippets of family history because they are unusual, but rather the opposite. Many of us have similar stories in our background; grandparents and great-grandparents who were heavily invested in the struggle for independence or one or other side of the Civil War.

It seems such a shame, then, that the centenary of these events has aroused so little public or media interest. It’s true that Covid occupied a large swathe of that period—although, since that meant we all had a lot more time on our hands, that hardly seems a good enough explanation.

Happily, UCD has been an exception to this lack of attention, and this month the Foundation of State conference provided one of the highlights of the Decade of Commemorations.

I attended both days of this two-day conference, and I’m happy to report that it was a triumph—a truly satisfying, many-sided, almost exhaustive examination of the Irish Free State’s foundation. The presence all the way through of sign-language interpreters was particularly admirable, as was the inclusion of a whole session completely in the Irish language.

The first day was held in the O’Reilly Hall, which looked very impressive with an enormous Christmas tree in the corner. (The Finnish ambassador to Ireland Raili Lahnalampi, who spoke at one point on the parallels with Finnish independence, joked that we must have put it there to make her feel welcome, since spruce is so widespread in her country. She also put the bloodiness and divisiveness of our own Civil War into perspective—thirty-nine thousand people died in the four-month Finnish Civil War in 1918). The second day was held in the Fitzgerald Chamber in the Student Centre.

The conference was opened by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The Taoiseach is a history graduate, and his personal interest in the subject was obvious. He gave an excellent speech in which he asked wgy the 6th of December—the date the Constitution of the Irish Free State was ratified and came into effect in 1922, and indeed the date the Anglo-Irish Treaty came into effect the year before—has never been a focus of celebration, either for the country in general or for any single political tradition within in. The answer, he said, was that nobody was particularly happy with the circumstances of independence, even the strongest supporters of the Treaty. He suggested, however, that there was much to celebrate in the foundation of the Irish State—for instance, the foundation of the Garda Síochana and the public legitimacy they enjoyed, the preservation of democracy, and the fact that extreme left- or right-wing movements never gained traction here as they did in much of Europe.

Speaker after speaker over both days emphasized the difficulties involved in setting up the new state. Bláthna Ruane, of the School of Law, in answering a question as to why Ireland preserved the Common Law tradition in framing its new legal system, said it was a “no-brainer”; there was simply no time to do anything else. John Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of advice from the British Treasury in the Free State’s economic survival.

Many speakers emphasized the achievements of the new State. Joseph Brady of the School of Geography praised Marino, which was the first local authority housing estate in the country, as still the best example of public housing in Ireland. (In my view, Dr. Brady’s was the most interesting of all the talks.) Of course, not all was rosy in new Ireland. Mary Daly’s contribution was a sobering reminder of how very far 1920’s Ireland was from a welfare state.

On the other hand, all three speakers in the Irish language sessions emphasized the huge achievement that had been made in saving the native tongue from extinction. Regina UÍ Chollatáin, chair, said she had no doubt that compulsory Irish in school had played a crucial role in this.

The conference ended in a fascinating and lively discussion between Diarmuid Ferriter, Marie Coleman, and Brigid Laffan. The importance of archives for commemorations was emphasized.

The conference wasn’t without its weaknesses. There was, for my money, rather too much emphasis on fashionable identity politics. On the whole, however, it was a fitting retrospective of a crucial moment in our history, and I left with a deeper appreciation of the huge efforts and sacrifices involved in creating the new State.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Bachelor's Walk

Yesterday, I attended Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Bachelor's Walk. I've been going there more frequently recently. There is a church right across the road from where I live, but I've been increasingly reluctant to go there for various reasons. One is the aggressive nature of their hawking for donations. In fairness, this church is open considerably longer than office hours seven days a week, which is very rare, and I realize that electricity and heating cost money. But even still, it sticks in my craw. (There are stickers plastered all over the pews given QR codes for instant cash transfers, as well as a "tap and go" machine.) Anyway, that's not the only reason.

So several times recently we've gone to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Incredibly, I'd never been in this until this year, when I attended an exhibition it held on Blessed Carlo Acutis and Eucharistic miracles (based on the website that he created). It's run by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and there's a small statue of St. Peter Eymard behind the altar.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is not at all beautiful, by any standards. It's a long, low room painted a rather unappealing yellow colour. It's a bit dingy. Decoration is minimal and quite modernistic. (The crucifix behind the altar has a highly attenuated, stylized Jesus.) It's very bright. The music is mildly hippy-ish. ("Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising...")

I must admit I like all this. I prefer places of worship that are simple and humble. (Even the word "chapel" appeals to me.) I realize that many people will answer that we should give our best to God, that we should glorify Him through beauty, etc. I'm not arguing with that. But my own taste runs quite to the opposite. Beauty can point to God, that's true. Is it sometimes a distraction?

The atmosphere also appeals to me. The congregation is very diverse. As it's a city centre chapel, they don't seem to be from any particular place or demographic. There's a very random mixture of ages and ethnicities, although I do hear a lot of accents I would call "working class", if that has any meaning today. (I consider myself working class.)

Although I probably shouldn't judge people from looking at them, I always get the impression of very straightforward piety from the congregation. There isn't much chatter and there's always an intriguing air of expectation and intentness about the place. Am I imagining that? I don't know.

The preaching whenever I have been there is always very simple and pious, which also appeals to me.

I also enjoy walking out from Mass into the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass. That's what I've always believed. Whatever language or form it's celebrated in, it's still the making present of our Lord's sacrifice. That's the important thing.

But I think it's legitimate to have tastes and preferences. My own is for simplicity, plainness and humility-- and also, not to be bombarded with demands for donations.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

There's a Baby on Fire!

Well, I'm all about tradition, and once again it's time for this blog's Christmas tradition: "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell SJ, the Elizabethan martyr.

Here it is:

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised 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 vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

I've said a lot about this poem in previous years. Check out here and here for some commentary on it.

Reading it just now, the line "So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood" appeals to me particularly. It's so vivid, so visual, almost lurid. The juxtaposition of fire and blood is particularly powerful. It's a suitably potent image of what Christmas is all about, the drama of the Incarnation and indeed the Crucixion.

I'm increasingly preoccupied with poetry, and my view of its importance grows and grows. Conservatives find fault with so many aspects of modern society, but they rarely comment on its indifference to poetry. Indeed, conservatives are complicit in this. Shamefully so, since they should know better. I'm somewhat worn out making this argument to my fellow conservatives (mostly on social media). They agree with me, but don't show any inclination to take poetry as seriously as they take music, cinema, fiction, liturgy, architecture, and all the other activities they actually value. They'll applaud my general points about poetry, but whenever I try to get a discussion going about a particular poem or poet....the big silence falls.

If I sound bitter, it's because I am. And this isn't just the bitterness of a frustrated poet. Yes, I do write poetry myself, and yes, I am frustrated at my inability to get it published and read. But my frustration goes far beyond the personal.

I now have this quotation from Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of the Irish state, as my "pinned post" on Facebook: " In every properly governed and sensible community the people would spend half their time in making, reading and comprehending poetry". How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Irish nation...

But enough of that. I'm writing this beside a Christmas tree, enjoying its lights, and also enjoying the Christmas chocolates that are floating around. Whenever I deplore or lament this or that aspect of modern society, I feel I should contrast it with the ever-increasing Chestertonian wonder I feel in life itself. Just to sit in a room, to breathe the air, to see light and colour, to explore memory and imagination, is a blessed state. Even more so if you are sitting beside a Christmas tree and eating chocolate.