There’s no way around it, writing about the last couple weeks has been a struggle. The depth of history necessary to understand, much less discuss, these intersections is beyond me. What does it mean to be Irish, or Irish Catholic, or religious, or spiritual? And how has that changed? It’s like jumping on a moving train, you have to be moving pretty fast before you can say something interesting. From a personal lens, exploring this realm challenges me to examine my own relationship with spirituality and religion. I just finished a wonderful book, My Bright Abyss by the poet Christian Wiman, on the nature of the author’s faith and its relationship with his incurable cancer. Beyond the heavy subject matter, he digs deep into mysticism and theology, technical subjects whose difficulty is exacerbated by his poet’s prose, leading to a cramped but beautiful style. It’s left me in a lurch trying to understand a world I had never glimpsed, but my thoughts are going to be constrained to my journal for until I give it a second read.
But it’s a good struggle, the excitement of being overwhelmed, realizing that there’s so much to understand. A lot of these are early thoughts, put out here so I can put them behind me and start writing about the next thing.
I’m trying to go to Mass every Sunday while I’m here. I’m sure I stick out like a sore thumb. The handout with instructions for call and response seems to be more of a rough guide, with a few extra bits thrown in to suss out the newcomers. I’m abstractly aware of a Hail Mary, but mostly as a throwaway line in a Scorsese film. At the same time, there’s something satisfying in seeing a ritual that is both familiar and foreign, an interesting variation on what had always seemed a static standard.
The churches I attended in my childhood fell into two camps. My mother is an ordained Presbyterian minister, so often my Sundays were spent there or a similar mainline Protestant church. They were homes of intellectual reflection. Biblical exegesis held the central role: the minister attempted to decipher some wisdom, but the congregation was free to contest any claim, put forward their own understandings. Alternatively, there was the evangelical, non-denominational tradition, where the critical elements were the profession of faith and songs of praise. The emphasis was on the experience of salvation, of being “born again” from your life of sin through God’s grace.
By contrast, the Catholic Mass is far more ritualized. The centerpiece is neither the analysis of scripture, nor the profession of faith, but the Eucharist. In the first Mass I attended, the priest seemed almost indifferent to the text, intent on driving through to the Body and Blood. Considering the Catholic belief in transubstantion, where the bread and wine literally become Christ, this emphasis makes sense. It is a practice that brings the reality of Christ into the liturgy, who is then consumed by the people, bringing the living God into one’s body. At least what I understand as an outsider. It’s powerful, even when conducted in nearly a factory system, with the Mass goers rushing up in a line to grab a wafer and return to their seats.
What exegesis is offered during the Mass is within the homily. It seems more moralizing than the Protestant sermon. In the first mass, the focus was on the need for attentiveness in our modern era (i.e. these kids with their smart phones). In the second, the priest focused on the Virgin Mary as an exemplar of woman, turning her into the archetype for feminine behavior. The positions taken on divine guidance were narrow and inarguable, the specificity of the mainline with the inflexibility of the evangelical.
It’s obvious to say, but the Catholic Church holds a unique place in Irish life though, of course, that intertwining is far more complicated than any simple narrative may contain. Last week, I had a great talk with Dr. Kevin Meyers, a sociologist who studies the intersection of religion, death, and meaning. He’s helped me to begin unpacking the Church’s complicated nationalist history. While the Church has always been an important element of Irish life, but its role as a representation of Irishness emerged in the 19th century. As an article by Timothy White that Dr. Meyers sent argued:
“The Catholic Church became a powerful political actor because of its success, especially in the period from 1860 to 1870 in dealing with the British government for nationalist causes (Larkin 1987). In addition, Catholicism was successfully conjoined with Irish nationalism by its identity as a persecuted Church, by the faithfulness of its followers, by the ability of the Church to organize and meet social circumstances, and by the need for nationalism to have some widely accepted source of identity in society.”
In other words, Irish nationalists recognized that the church had powerful organizational tools and revolutionary capacities, and the Church saw a way to ensure the rights of Catholics through Irish independence.
This mobilization fused the cause of nationalism and Catholicism in deep ways, which in turn gave the Catholic Church official recognition in the Fifth amendment of the Irish Constitution, which explicitly described the Catholic Church as having a “special position” in Irish life. The strict moral teachings of the Church carried through into policy. Until 1978, birth control was completely illegal, and for a while after that, it was only prescribed in cases of “legitimate family planning for medical reasons.” Likewise, the growth of high quality hospice institutions in Ireland was partly a result of the links between Western hospice practices and Catholicism (more on that another time). Catholicism was more than a religion or an identity, it was the water through which much Irish society swam
Or at least it used to be. While the vast majority of Irish still identify as Catholic, the number identified with other faiths or non-religious has been growing. Some of this move is due to the scandals that have damaged the moral position of the church in recent decades. Some of it is a result of the EU membership and free movement increasing day-to-day interactions with non-Catholic spirituality and dogma. As a result of this second force, when Dr. Meyers delved into the spiritual beliefs of people identifying as Catholic, many believed in concepts outside of Catholic dogma, whether the more personal spirituality of Protestantism or more distant concepts like reincarnation. In other words, they tend to be “culturally Catholic.”
Not that being culturally Catholic is a diminutive. Last week, I also met with Dr. Una MacConville, a sociologist and archaeologist who also studies religion’s role in creating meaning, with a particular emphasis on how it plays out in medical care. She discusses in an article “Mapping Religion and Spirituality in an Irish Palliative Care Setting” how the rituals of Catholicism aid families and patients in finding meaning in death. She offers stories like a chaplain instructing a distraught family to recite a decade of the Rosary and watching its soothing effect, or a woman, deeply anxious about death, making a confession and finding her health. Dr. MacConville emphasizes that these spiritual and religious experiences should not be viewed as some separate aspect of care, but integrated into medical approaches, that caring for the whole person requires meeting their existential needs.
All of the above intersects in important ways with the practice of hospice and palliative care in Ireland, but, again, I’m just starting to scratch the surface. The political and economic pieces are also opening up, suggesting that I should move on from Dublin to more rural areas. I was introduced to some texts that form the philosophical basis of palliative care, and I’m beginning to realize the revolutionary potential in how it conceptualizes medicine. But I haven’t done the readings yet, and college taught me that to mouth off without doing the homework doesn’t help anyone.
Point being, this is labeled Part 1, on the assumption that there will be more parts to come.
So other than scrambling to understand the last the nature of the transcendent and the last thousand years of Irish history, what have I been up to? Well.
I spent some time walking around Phoenix Park, one of the largest urban parks in Europe. It’s twice the size of NYC’s Central Park, and on a sunny afternoon is filled with joggers, families lazing about,and ice cream trucks selling their wares. Easily a place I could spend days.
I finally got a chance to see the Book of Kells and the Long Room Library at Trinity College. Unsurprisingly, I was absolutely enthralled. Perhaps in a worthwhile summary to that experience, and a decent chunk of this post, a quote at length from Mark Doty’s “The Ancient World“:
“I want that staff. I used to love
to go to the library — the smalltown brick refuge
of those with nothing to do, really,
‘Carnegie’ chiseled on the pediment
above columns that dwarfed an inconsequential street.
Embarrassed to carry the same book past
the water fountain’s plaster centaurs
up to the desk again, I’d take
The Wonders of the World to the Reading Room
where Art and Industry met in the mural
on the dome. The room smelled like two decades
before I was born, when the name
carved over the door meant something.
I never read the second section,
“Wonders of the Modern World”;
I loved the promise of my father’s blueprints,
the unfulfilled turquoise schemes,
but in the real structures
you could hardly imagine a future.
I wanted the density of history,
which I confused with the smell of the book”