Feb 13, 2011

Irish Writers, Celts, Lapsed Catholics and Medugorje's Visionaries

I've just finished directing a truly wonderful, very young cast in Irish playwright Brian Friel's award winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa, set in the Irish countryside in 1936. The play is autobiographical, based upon Friel's own childhood growing up with his mother and four Aunts in the Irish countryside, and he clearly has much sympathy for these heroic women, struggling against dire poverty, loneliness, spinsterhood and a traditional Catholic culture that leaves little room for joy and celebration. This poignant story of these five unmarried sisters in County Donegal and their wayward priest brother, Jack,  is the most 'Catholic' of Friel's plays, containing as it does numerous references to the old faith. Elder sister Kate is a staunch traditionalist, praying her rosary and urging unquestioning obedience to 'Our Holy Father,' while being shocked by tales of the old pagan Celtic practices still taking place up in the back hills - with dancing and carousing and who knows what else. "They're savages up there, savages, with their pagan practices, and we'll have none of that in this Christian home. " Brother Jack has been sent home from  Africa by his religious superiors, supposedly because of ill health, but really because he has undergone a conversion experience 'in reverse,' abandoning his Catholic Christian faith in favor of the native Ugandan folk religion of nature worship and devotion to the great Goddess Obi. It is quite an ironic twist of events - missionary is himself converted - and Friel makes the most of it. Father Jack talks eloquently and movingly of the Ugandan religious culture, its deep sense of reverence for the ways of nature, it''s ability to incorporate joy and celebration into it's ritual practices and it's ability to blend the religious with the secular. It's a very tolerant, pluralist, post-modernist point of view and makes of the character of Father Jack something of an anachronism. Would an Irish Catholic missionary priest in the 1930's be likely to go 'completely native,' to the point of abandoning all Catholic practices whatsoever? I doubt it and this makes me feel that Brian Friel has 'stacked the deck,' so to speak because of his own lack of any Catholic sense (which I don't take to be a moral fault, simply a fact.). While there is a glow to the writing when Celtic dances in the hills are described and joyous Ugandan ceremonies celebrating the new harvest, the language used by the only devout Catholic character in the play, Kate, is disconcertingly moralistic, dry and unfeeling, though this can be offset on stage by showing the character rapt in prayer with rosary beads in hand. I found this a curious omission and attribute it to Friel's own lack of sympathy for the stern folk Catholicism of his youth. He clearly means to offer a critique of the strict moralism of Irish Catholicism and to suggest it was at variance with the essentially fun loving Irish character with it's profound Celtic antecedents.

These ruminations remind me of another fine Irish writer who describes himself as a 'lapsed Catholic,' novelist Colm Toibin. Some weeks ago, I finished his Costa Book Award winning Brooklyn, about a shy Irish woman who travels to Brooklyn in the USA to escape the poverty and loneliness of her Irish village. It's a richly textured character study of a young woman who has been  hindered in her search for identity by a strict, traditional upbringing, and once again, an Irish author places a full measure of the blame on Irish Catholic culture for keeping women firmly in their place. However, Eilis Lacey does eventually come to an awareness of her own inner being and discovers within her the confidence and surety to reach out for love. Yet once again, we have an Irish writer who communicates little to no 'sense' of the mystical dimension of the Catholic faith, it seems to be beyond his range of experience. However, as an outsider looking in, he does incorporate into the narrative two  priests who help Eilis to find her place in life. The first is the Irish priest who helps her to land the job in Brooklyn and who sees her through a number of trials and setbacks. He is evidently a kindly, well-intentioned man, but somewhat nondescript, and we're not given much sense of his own faith, except to say that it clearly expresses itself through his practical concern. However, the most glowing moment of the whole novel, in my opinion, takes place in the confessional with an unknown priest who we never hear from again. Eilis has gone across town to a distant Church so that she may be sure to confess her sins to a stranger. She has just had sex for the first time - with the man who will eventually become her husband - and with fear and trepidation, she confesses this 'fault' to the unknown priest.

When she told the priest she had had sexual intercourse twice with her boyfriend three nights earlier, he left silence for a long time.
      "Was this the first time?" he asked when he spoke eventually.
     "Yes, Father."
      "Do you love one another?"
      "Yes, Father."
      "What will you do if you are pregnant?"
      "He will want to marry me, Father."
       "Do you want to marry him?"

She could not answer. After a while, he asked her again, his tone sympathetic.

      "I would like to marry him," she said hesitantly, "but I am not ready to marry him now."
      "But you say you love him."
      "He is a good man. 
      "Is that enough?"
      "I love him."
      "But you are not sure?"

She sighed and said nothing.

      "Are you sorry for what you did with him?"
      "Yes, Father."
       "For your penance I want you to say just one Hail Mary, but say it slowly and think about the words, and you must promise to come back in one month. If you are pregnant, we will have to talk again, and we will help you in every way we can."

This simple, tender, very human  vignette illuminates the ordinary goodness of Catholicism and the priesthood at it's very best. It is the most transcendent moment in the entire novel and shines a light over the whole book. And yet it was written by a man who describes himself as a 'lapsed Catholic.'

I was so intrigued by this fact that when in a travel bookstore in London I came across Colm Toibin's travelogue, The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe, I immediately picked it up and started reading. The book is  impressive  less for what it reveals to us about Catholic Europe and more for what it shows us about the spiritual search of the author, Colm Toibin, himself. Raised a Catholic during his Irish childhood and attending Catholic schools, he left the faith  behind him in his late teens because it seemed to serve no purpose in his life. He simply never felt that 'inner sense' of connection that marks the conversion experience of young adulthood, when one's childhood faith becomes one's own. The reader senses a certain sadness and nostalgia within the author for this fact,  coupled with a questioning spirit and a longing for some sense of transcendence somewhere sometime. Though he never utters it distinctly, the entire book contains the question "Why?" Why did he not feel any sense of connection to the Catholic faith of his childhood, a living sense of faith that would have helped to dispel the memory of so many tedious hours spent listening to endless sermons in Church and participating in rituals that seemed archaic and meaningless."  Why can he not find any sense of transcendent feeling in life? Why and Why Not - are the questions of this moving travelogue on the part of this evidently sincere, openhearted spiritual searcher. Why and Why Not? He journeys to Catholic Poland and the great Marian shrine of Czestochowa at the height of the John Paul II frenzy , with the Pope's own visit to the shrine, and is more disturbed than moved. He attends Mass in St. Peter's square and is disappointed at encountering once again the tediousness and lack of creativity that were characteristic of the services in his hometown Cathedral. He had hoped that here of all places, in the heart of Catholicism, surely the ritual would convey some power of the sacred.  In a Cathedral in Slovenia, however, he experiences a moment of rapturous transcendence while listening to Bach's B Minor Mass - sung by a Protestant choir. But he doesn't really consider that a religious experience, but an aesthetic one, though one could argue that the latter might lead into the former.  And then he journeys to Medjugorje. I was fully expecting him to have pretty much the same tepid experiences as he had been encountering throughout the rest of Europe. And in fact, this is just what occurs in the first part of his description. He gives a very even handed, sober, objective assessment of the place, not much liking what he sees, feeling no spiritual peace or transcendence, and disconcerted by the numerous souvenir shops on display. He walks up to Apparition Hill and is more bemused than moved by the flocks of pilgrims scrambling over the stones and praying fervently before the statues. But he himself remains singularly unmoved. He even attends a prayer session with the visionary, Ivan, in the main church and again gives a sober, objective account, describing Ivan's poise and Hollywood persona, his evident graciousness and kindness, but his equally evident awareness of his own power and celebrity. And then the following day he decides to join a group of pilgrims and visit the visionary, Marija, who is generally recognized as the most saintly of all the visionaries. She impresses him as a simple, shy, unassuming peasant woman, with none of the allure and professional polish of Ivan, and yet she gives off an aura of "something." She then goes around to each pilgrim and places her hand on each one's head for a simple blessing. Colm Toibin describes the shock that went through his entire being with the impact of Marija's hand on his head, a shock wave that left him trembling, and "wanting to turn away and be on his own as quickly as he could." It is the closest he comes to a transcendent religious moment in the entire book, and it leaves him shaken and pondering. But, no, he does not return to the faith of his childhood, he does not become a Medjugorje groupie. In fact he is left with a feeling of relief when the bus pulls away from the town and heads over the mountains towards Mostar. Whatever had happened to him at that moment, whatever small window had been briefly opened, he is returned to his previous state of unknowing and endless wandering,  and left with the question, "Why?" It is a question worth pondering.

(To be continued with a posting on the great art of Venice and what it reveals about "The Catholic Sense."



Blue Eyed Ennis said...

Lovely post.This reminds me of a TV programme some year ago by the art critic Brian Sewell who went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.He too is lapsed and he can be scathing at the commercialism and tawdry asppects of shrines but there are some moving moments in some episodes when he fills up with tears talking to ordinary pilgrims and it left me with a sense that he really wishes he could re capture his faith.

Anonymous said...

Irish rural poverty seemed to be a terrible thing, especially for the women. But my mother was brought up in Irish rural prosperity (amid numerous tragedies), independence in thought on morality and religion, revolutionary activity and government retaliation, cultural richness, teenage adventure and misadventure, and strong local Catholicism. Yet she left in disgust at the meanness of the culture, and for personal reasons.

Most of my relatives in the US and Ireland and other countries are no longer Catholic. And like me, few or none miss it at all on a personal level but are saddened to see the disappearance of kind and pastoral priests in favor of rigid "churchmen."

Richard Demma said...

Thanks, Philomena. It is a mystery how some well intentioned searches can't seem to 'reconnect,' in such places of pilgrimage, while others, not even Christian, feel overwhelmed by a sense of peace and sacredness. My own visit to Medjugorje was so powerful I'm still trying to absorb the impact. And I think of the lovely lesbian couple I met in a cafe on the last day, glowing with a sense that "the Blessed Mother" had affirmed and blessed their love in an almost visceral way. These women were not even 'Catholic,' yet felt compelled by some inner necessity to make the pilgrimage. Yet the staunch Catholic mom and daughter I met at the bus stop were singularly unmoved and had no intention of ever returning. A mystery.

Richard Demma said...

This is such a powerful statement about your Irish relatives and so pertinent to today as scores of like minded Catholics desert the church in droves all over Europe (and beyond) while the official hierarchy becomes every more intransigent. I do feel for those pastoral churchmen who still remain (dwindling in numbers) and who must experience moments of despair at seeing their own efforts superseded by the triumph of rigidity. Still...the charism lives on and continues to inspire in breakaway, marginal communities, harbors of light in a dark storm.