Category Archives: Evangelisation

Towards a New Evangelism III: United Christian Aid

Views: 21

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In July 1996, at the height of the Drumcree tension, a couple in their fifties were enjoying a holiday in a caravan in Warrenpoint. Michael and Bridie McGoldrick turned on the morning news, to hear that another Catholic taxi driver had been shot dead, this time in Craigavon. Their world stood still, for their only son, also Michael, was driving a taxi at that very time, in that very locality. Within an hour they knew the worst: Michael had been shot by the LVF.

Michael, the parent, says that the two went almost mad with grief. He beat the ground outside their caravan, saying to God “Hanging on the cross was nothing to this!’ They thought of suicide – and even lined up a variety of medicinal drugs for the purpose. But then they remembered that Michael had a wife and daughter, and that there was another child on the way. They turned to prayer instead.

On the day of the funeral, as Michael touched his son for the last time – saying he would see him again in heaven – some power changed him. He was then not only able to help carry his son’s coffin in and out of the chapel, but to bear the full weight of the blow that had fallen. He went to the cameras and microphones of the assembled media and forgave the murderers of his son. Facing the danger of retaliation, at a time of extreme tension in that very locality, he appealed for restraint: “Bury your pride with my boy!”

Michael is the least histrionic of men. I know this now, for I have known him closely for about three years. His description of the extraordinary emotional transitions of those days sounds like something out of Willam James’s ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’. Yet it is the settled nature of his life now that impresses me most.

Richard Rohr observes that western Christianity is currently at a fundamental crisis: it will either move from theory to practice, or perish. We need to understand that inertia – but also we need to know that it is altogether possible to move beyond it, and what can happen when we do. Michael and his close friend Tom Lennon are the most astonishing example I know.

Tom is a Mayoman who almost died of peritonitis in his youth, and never fully recovered. He developed a deep commitment to prayer, believing that God wanted something from him, something beyond the raising of a family and the making of a living.

The plight of Eastern Europe in the 90s moved him to start a charity – United Christian Aid. It would gather from both communities in Ireland whatever anyone would give him. He had a dual purpose – to heal divisions in Northern Ireland by focusing our minds on the far worse material plight of the people suffering in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Empire, and to take aid from Ireland out there. He opened a map of eastern Europe for the first time, and headed for the Ukraine.

He quickly learned of all the pitfalls of such an enterprise – of the corruption of frontier officials who always had to have a piece of the action, of the difficulty of finding reliable helpers and administrators in a society where an ethic of ‘me first’ had taken hold on so many. Of the physical dangers of bad roads and bad food and dangerous nights in unlit streets, among people whose language he couldn’t even speak. Yet he persevered, learning from all of this.

And then one night, when he had explained his purpose to a small audience in Lurgan, a middle-aged man came forward and told him ‘I couldn’t do what you do!’ ‘Of course you could!’ said Tom, and began explaining how. He was talking to Michael McGoldrick. The two struck up a strong friendship, and now jointly run UCA.

Tom was by now focusing his efforts on Romania. He and Michael went out there in 1997 and decided upon an even narrower focus: just one town in eastern Romania – they eventually settled for Cernavoda. His first visit turned Michael into a dynamo. There is nowhere in Northern Ireland he is not now willing to drive the royal blue UCA transit van, no-one he will not talk to.

He came to Coleraine for the first time in 1998 – where I heard him tell his story. I was by now myself committed, and Cursillo had taught me a little humility. I was also fascinated by Eastern Europe. Our house became a depot for the bags of clothing and other goods people now wanted to give him, and we struck up a firm friendship.

He and Bridie would sit at our table and Michael would say “We’re just ….. normal!”. The pause was for emphasis. There is no trace of ‘look at us’ in these two. They are simply in love with the people of Cernavoda, whom it is normal, as well as necessary, to help.

They speak often of a Roma woman called Mrs Nikolai, who, when they met her, was trying to raise a family of six in one half of a stable. No-one occupied the other half – because it didn’t exist – two walls were missing. She had once delivered one of her children in a hospital where the staff, including a doctor, conspired to steal it from her, telling her it had died. She suspected the lie, and refused to leave without it. She had her way.

To understand this you need to know that Romania is a deeply layered society, in which the Roma (daftly named ‘gypsies’ by us westerners) are at the bottom of the heap. ‘Thieves’ and ‘murderers’ to many in the settled community, they occupy the social position of our travellers – always available as scapegoats for whatever anyone might need to blame someone else for. A quick search on the Web will tell you anything more you need to know.

Mrs Nikolai, who is an Orthodox Christian, now has her own house, gifted by UCA. They simply gave her the money to buy it – to the astonishment of educated Romanian Catholics. They were certain she would simply drink herself to death in a society where alcohol occupies the place it did in Ireland in the early years of this century – a social anaesthetic for people who have no other way of fulfilling their dreams.

She didn’t, for her dream was simply any kind of house with four walls – and now she has enough capital to run a small clothing retailing business – buying the clothes not from UCA but from Romanian sources. “You changed my world forever,” she tells Michael.

Cernavoda is on the lower Danube navigation system. Meaning ‘Dark Water’, it was fairly prosperous when a navigation canal, complete with massive locks, was being built through it in the Ceausescu era. Now its only dubious claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, built by Canadians. It has a population of about 30,000, mostly Orthodox, most of whom would have to drive right by the reactor if some emergency forced them to flee. What would happen if the Nuclear plant was the cause of the emergency? Tough. A bridge is to be built to provide an alternative escape route – but there is no sign of it being finished at a time when the Romanian economy is contracting.

Which means, of course, that prayer seems to be an entirely reasonable option in Cernavoda, where there is little employment, virtually no social welfare or health service, and where the winter temperature can fall to 15 below. On the (often wooden or mud) walls Christians put simple hanging tapestries of gospel scenes – the Good Shepherd is a favourite.

For many of them, Tom and Michael are good shepherds, renewing a faith that came westward to us almost sixteen centuries ago. Michael once told the mother of a family of eight to pray hard. “Why should I?” She asked. “God has never done anything for me!”

“Why do you think we are here?” asked Michael, watching as she pondered and understood this. Virtually her only reliable income was the Romanian equivalent of £20 sterling monthly – family sponsorship from UCA.

This is the point of this story. The words and truths of the gospel are beautiful – but wealthy westerners – and most of us are millionaires by Romanian standards – need to show those words have meaning when they think of evangelising the rest of the world. What would we sacrifice in order to convince anyone of their truth? Is there anything we would not give to do so? If so, how convinced are we?

So this spiritual commerce is overwhelmingly to the benefit of us westerners also when we make this journey eastwards. Our money buys almost three times as much in Romania as in Ireland – which means that very little of it can make an astonishing difference to the wellbeing, material and spiritual, of a Romanian family. The families in Northern Ireland who now sponsor Cernavodan families are kept abreast of all developments by UCA’s Romanian helpers, and by Michael and Tom’s bi-monthly visits. East and west are linked to the great benefit of both.

UCA will never rival the major charities – but that is not the point. It shows that Christianity moves people as nothing else can – in their hearts and souls first – and then in their bodies. As Michael says, the real mystery is why so many in Ireland remain unmoved by their faith.

The probability is that our own social layering, combined with the rising economic tide of the second half of the century, has made us add, time after time, new luxuries to our store of necessities. We must have what our status entitles us to. It takes an almighty shock to make us realise that Christianity is fundamentally a challenge to the whole hidden ideology of status that drives our economic advance.

To put it at its simplest, every single human life and person is infinitely precious and to be loved. If we deny this by denying that people come before wealth, we deny the faith we verbally profess, and make it bankrupt.

Intellectuals often make much show of compassion for the pain of the poor when they reject Christian belief – but intellectuals too are victims of the pride that dominates us. They ignore the fact that it is usually those who have suffered most whose faith is strongest. This is true especially of these two men, whose faith and love do so much to restore the dignity of an Irish Catholicism that is completely worthy of Columba and Columbanus. They too speak eloquently, far away from Ireland, of the power of the Trinity to change the heart, and then the world – and there are many like them in Ireland today.

Theological sophistication in the articulation of faith comes nowhere near what a ‘new evangelisation’ requires today – because the essential task is to close the chasm between the word and the deed – to demonstrate an unconditional compassion which will in the end restore good cheer, and an equal dignity, to all the peoples of the world, as UCA is doing. When this is done in the Lord’s name, the essence of Christian theology is being conveyed – more effectively than by the greatest academic theologian.

There is something else to be said. Christianity’s long dalliance with the state has had a devastating effect upon the manner in which we interpret the fatherhood of God. In the middle ages, to explain the crucifixion, theologians came to associate it with a need to restore dignity to the Father, whom sin dishonours – just as medieval kings were thought to be dishonoured by the disloyalty of their subjects. Inevitably this came in time to separate son from father in the mind of many Christians, for it seemed to imply that although the son could be infinitely forgiving, the father could not. This complicated Christian theology, and out of this complication arose many Christian divisions, and Christian fundamentalism.

What if the father is as forgiving, and as gentle as the son? What if the crucifixion is instead to be explained as the father’s ultimate gift – of his son, despite the humiliation involved in his death, a humiliation experienced by the father also, and accepted out of love for all of us – a love as great as the son’s?

Then those six words “Bury your pride with my boy!” would be his words also – words given as a gift to all on this island, in recompense for all our pain, and all our lost sons – the most perfect summary of the gospels in the English language.

Michael still hopes to meet someday the father of the murdered founder of the LVF, Billy Wright – to shake his hand in recognition of a common sorrow, and a common faith in resurrection.

Towards a New Evangelism II: The Cursillo in Derry

Views: 41

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In March 1997 I made my way for the first time to Termonbacca Monastery in Derry. In the process of retirement due to ill health from the teaching career that had dominated my life for thirty years, I was in shock over the loss of the school and career that had grounded me. Although also now a committed Catholic, I was also seriously concerned, as parent and teacher, with the failure of my church to address the exodus of its teenagers from faith, as well and home and school, at eighteen.

That failure was due, I was convinced, to an ill-conceived and desperate clinging to a patriarchal and clerical ‘Christendom’ model of leadership, when Christendom itself was patently dead, and deservedly so – the root source of the secularism that now dominated the west. Misled by centuries of inherited power, that leadership had become essentially verbal rather than exemplary, a matter of preaching a gospel narrowed to little more than sexual prudishness and perpetuation of the clerical system. Not even the shock of the sexual scandals that had begun with the Casey affair in 1992 had awoken the Irish episcopate to a realisation of the fact that Ireland was now part of the western mainstream, in which autonomous individualism had replaced deferential acceptance of inherited clerical authority.

Which meant in turn that the church was unable to critique the emerging crisis of individualism as a race for ‘success’ which most must lose in the long run, bereft of a community which will love them anyway. An Ireland in which Sunday Massgoing was the natural communal gathering of small local communities had been replaced since the sixties by a media-dominated and urbanised rootlessness that found the Mass incomprehensible and boring – but leadership had failed to react adequately. As a result most of the children I taught – including my own – now found patriarchal Catholicism a self-regarding straitjacket they were obliged to respect for the moment, but were instantly throwing off as soon as they became independent adults. What kind of church would still be around when they needed it, I wondered?

I didn’t expect to find any part of the answer in Termonbacca in March 1997. All I knew was that I was in for a three-day experience of Catholicism to be conducted by a team of laymen. Would they be up-to-speed with a Vatican II model of church? It seemed unlikely.

I was, and I remain, astonished by what I found.

The culture shock began about nine o’clock on Thursday when about seventy laymen were gathered in the coffee bar. Most wore casual clothes and small pewter pectoral crosses – these were the team. The rest of us were the ‘candidates’ – the course members. An atmosphere thickly laden with cigarette smoke and Derry banter was eventually pierced by a call to order from the team leader, or ‘Rector’. The ‘Cursillo’, he explained, was a three-day course in Catholicism, originating in Majorca. He then called the team members to introduce themselves. Most did so nervously and quickly, saying when they had done their first weekend, and how much they had enjoyed it – but finishing with ‘I’m here to serve’. Others launched into a more extended appeal to us to stick it out for the three days – and these were heckled good humouredly by the rest. Three things struck me straight away. These men were mostly unsophisticated, but happy in one another’s company – and totally unembarrassed about their faith. I was having difficulty coping with the noise, the heavy Derry accents and the smoke – but I was also touched and moved in a way I hadn’t expected. I started paying attention, wondering who was orchestrating this bonhomie.

That evening finished with a talk on the Prodigal Son by the first priest to appear. It had an unusually frank and personal character – and this prepared us for what was to follow the next morning. We also had our first experience of Cursillo music – it was in the folk idiom with expert guitar accompaniment, but the singing had a fervour I was quite unaccustomed to – especially from men.

We found ourselves on Friday seated at tables in a conference room overlooking the Foyle, listening to jokes told by team members who were clearly expert and intent on having a good time. This set the pattern for the three days. Life is often critical, but seldom serious, in Derry.

Then the talks began – half given by religious – but it was those given by the laymen that riveted me. These began with a sincere exposition of some aspect of the Cursillo ‘method’ (based upon piety, study and action) but then became an account of those experiences that had led the speaker to faith. Confidentiality prevents me recounting any one in particular – but all remain extraordinarily vivid.

Imagine the worst things that might have happened to any individual in Derry these past three decades – Bloody Sunday, or the aftermath of explosions; attempted sectarian assassination, or the blanket protest in the Maze, or the suicide of a family member, or an experience of child abuse: all against a background often darkened by unemployment, addiction, family violence and the breakdown of relationships. A multitude of the darkest valleys the human soul can experience. Into some of these we were given eloquent insight over three days, and into others I have been led on subsequent weekends on team. They were all very different from the valley through which I was then passing – but were all recognisable nevertheless as ultimate trials of the human spirit. And in all of them there had been a bonding with the Jesus of Gethsemane and Golgotha, an experience of the Church as sacrament of reconciliation, healing and ongoing community through what they call the Cursillo family – and now a joyful pursuit of others undergoing the same trials. The Cursillo framework is the means by which this is accomplished – and this explains why it is still thriving after twenty-two years.

The traditional devotionalist Catholicism that goes along with this has misled some of the more theologically ‘with it’ local clergy to dismiss Cursillo as a remnant of a dying Church. As conducted in Derry it is in fact for me the most astonishing vindication of key elements of Vatican II theology, and a promise of a vibrant church of the future – one fully capable of meeting the challenges we now face.

In particular, although there is a strong Marian element, the practical theology of the Derry Cursillistas is fundamentally Trinitarian. Their overwhelming conviction is the unconditional love of Jesus for all, especially those hurt by life. He is a God who allowed himself to be broken in order to find the broken. The Father is perceived not as inexplicable demander of due punishment for all, but as generous giver of the Son, and celebrator of our return to his house. The Spirit is invoked as the one who enables the speakers to tell their stories, who allows us to be honest and loving – and then joyful in our reunion. Salvation is therefore easily explained: it is the dawning of another life in communion with these Three, one that truly now has nothing worse to fear than the possibility of alienation from them.

How that joy is mediated on the Cursillo weekend I cannot precisely describe, as it could diminish the experience somewhat for those who take on the weekend.

One experience I can recount however. Towards the end of the weekend all get the chance to sit together in a family-sized room, as a member of their table team, in the presence of the blessed sacrament, and to pray spontaneously to the really present Lord. The sincerity with which this opportunity is seized, with complete openness, faith and intimacy, is quite unique in my experience. There is a sense of something shared, of deep communion and warmth, that celebrates the sacrament far more powerfully than is ever possible in the parish church.

The spirit of generosity that grounds the weekend, and the humility with which these men speak of their own lives, has often an extraordinary effect upon the demeanour of the candidates. Often closed and suspicious to begin with, most find that at least one of the team has shared their darkest experiences, and come through with the support of God’s grace. This creates trust and openness, and a willingness to experience the sacraments in a context of welcome rather than criticism. The most sophisticated theologian could not convey more powerfully the love of God for the individuality of every person.

The result is described by a Cursillista friend as ‘the losing of the mask’ – the abandonment of pretence to a disdainful invulnerability and independence, of remaining unwounded by life and needless of community. Realising that their deepest wounds and insecurities are understood and accepted, candidates lose that fear of openness that prevents them from being truly themselves. I have never seen men more freely and joyously respond.

One other experience I remember vividly, as it relates directly to my own professional arrogance. At the end of one weekend, at the feedback session, a young candidate of about twenty went freely to the microphone and explained that as a boy he had been dismissed as uneducable. This had profoundly depressed him, making him socially withdrawn and fearful, and unable to feel positively towards himself. On the weekend he had been accepted so fully for himself that he had lost this fear, and learned to respect himself. All of this he said with perfect lucidity, revealing again the power of Christian community to free the individual from self-dislike – and to unlock people from the prisons that supposedly intelligent people can put them in.

From this, and from many other similar experiences, I have learned that the secular pyramid of esteem, founded so rigidly nowadays on educational and career attainment, is spiritually fatuous and unjust – that when we relate to one another in a context where social status has no meaning we can be most truly ourselves, able to converse and relate as the equals we truly are, separated from secular pretensions. I serve on team knowing that I am valued simply for myself – not for the social accidents that have made me a teacher and writer. With many Derry Cursillistas I have formed enduring friendships which have given me too another life.

Which brings me to the conclusion that we intellectuals are often our own worst problem. Too often educational success has separated us from the experience of the darkest valley that the less educated have been through. We have also been taught the enlightenment’s fear of deep emotion, and its bias towards the mind as the sole repository of wisdom and happiness. So we may suppose that somewhere in our refinements and abstractions the ultimate truth resides, and that the unsophisticated faith of the less educated is somehow inferior and passé. We may also suppose that they should see us as their salvation – when in fact we may have far more to learn from them – especially the gifts of spontaneity and humility, laughter and tears.

Thoughtful Derry Cursillistas generally feel a tolerant sympathy for theologians, who in their view complexify what is really very simple – that Christ’s gift of himself renews simple words like love, peace and joy – cleansing them from the cloying sentimentality and cynicism that have made them almost meaningless. He does this by being, at Termonbacca, the presence that redeems the past, allowing people to share these words, in perfect sincerity, on the weekend, with those still in need of this experience. What they have to learn from an updated Church is therefore far, far less than they have to contribute to it – in wisdom as well as joy.

That the Cursillo framework elsewhere can also be a framework for a more chauvinist and fundamentalist form of Catholicism is clear from certain Internet sites. In Derry it is fiercely egalitarian, keeping structure to a minimum and determined to prove that personal freedom is entirely possible in the context of a genuine love of God and neighbour. Uniting evangelism with a deep sense of community, it has replaced for many the extended family that Ireland has only recently lost. It can also be a foundation for the recovery of a spirituality that truly expresses the Irish character. That Christian evangelism must be far more than a matter of mere words, that it must now be expressed in the rebuilding of community, is proven there conclusively.

Towards a New Evangelism I: What’s so good about the ‘Good News’?

Views: 20

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

“No – I don’t want to hear about Jesus!” This is the signature message of one member of the Internet mailing list alt.recovery.catholic – an international (but mostly north American) e-mail support community. Its members are mostly people whose experience of Catholicism has led them to see it as abusive or addictive.

The message succinctly sums up the problem of the ‘New Evangelism’ so persistently called for by Pope John Paul II. Just as people stopped listening to the boy who cried ‘wolf’ when none appeared, so countless millions in the west today suppose, on the basis of their own experience, that there is nothing especially good about the Christian Good News.

This is particularly true of Ireland, where people often suppose that an experience of nine or more years of Catholic education, and regular family Mass-going, have exhausted the possibilities of the Gospel they experienced there. The perceived de-sacralisation of the priesthood that has followed from a spate of scandals also takes a toll. So does Christian fundamentalism, of all varieties. When you ask perfectly sensible people today if they would like to be ‘saved’, many are liable to ask ‘you mean from the saved?’

Furthermore, the medium by which the Gospel has primarily been communicated for two millennia – the language of the bible and of theology – has less and less traction on human attention. All language has been debased by the children of Madison Avenue. Cynical political spin doctoring has had a similar effect. As the Ulsterman says, “If you believe all you hear, you’ll eat all you see!” In a welter of claims to veracity that are mostly spurious, we no longer associate word with truth. Our perceptual in-tray is labelled “Claims Mostly Unreliable” – and in it we place everything from Reader’s Digest promises of millions to papal encyclicals.

And biblical language has a special problem. ‘Sin’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Atonement’ seem echoes of an age long dead – when every misfortune from floods to disease and earthquakes was attributed to divine anger. This problem is compounded by what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies bind: the clergyman’s profession of faith is closely connected to his livelihood – so when he insists that God will call all to account at the end of time, people are inclined to think – and more and more likely to say – ‘but he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

A further problem relates to the ‘where’ of evangelisation. Spacial communities once centred on a single market place or village have been shattered by physical and informational communications revolutions – so people may sleep in one location, work many miles away, shop somewhere else, and socialise elsewhere again – and may do their thinking and discussing on the phone or the internet as members of an international work or hobby ‘virtual’ community.

As a possible solution to this problem of lost one-space community, the growth of broadcast media such as radio and television was initially met with as much enthusiasm by churchmen as by politicians such as Roosevelt and Goebbels – but multi-channel satellite and cable TV, as well as the VCR – have fragmented even these communities. Papal spectaculars are one answer – but quickly pall. They are too similar to mass political rallies in which charismatic personalities fly in, get waved at from a distance, and then fly out again, leaving little behind. For lay people wondering about their own lifestyle, there just isn’t any way of following an act like that. Radical change in the way we perceive and respond to life demands far more than a one-day sensation, and schools quickly found that replaying 1979 videos of Ireland’s papal visit was a sure recipe for an ‘Aw, Miss!’ response. Indeed, over-exposure on the media may well have done for the papacy what it has done for royalty – disperse the semi-magical aura with which people surround their mental image of an august person they have never seen.

We can summarise these problems as relating to the What, How, Who and Where of evangelisation. I’ll deal with just the first of these in this article. What exactly is the good news anyhow – in terms that will make sense to people today?

Readers of earlier articles in this series will know that I relate the appeal of Jesus, prior to crucifixion, to the fact that he upended the pyramid of worthiness or esteem that characterised the ancient world. The last would be first, the returned prodigal would be celebrated, the poor were blessed, the rich and powerful were not to be considered more favoured by God. Most importantly this verbal message – which astonished even the apostles – was authenticated by a table fellowship that scandalised the disciples of ritual purity by including the most reviled.

The Good News therefore was that those who had considered themselves at the tail end of the triumphal procession of the ancient world were in fact beloved of the God who was at the summit of it. He was to be glorified precisely because he acknowledged and raised up the lowly. ‘The World’ had got it wrong – and this claim was validated by the willingness of the messenger to associate with, and above all to eat with, the ritually unclean. Word and deed were not separate, but united – reinforcing the credibility of the message. As Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’s comment on the rich young man indicates, in the ancient world one’s sinfulness was a deduction from one’s exclusion, one’s social and spiritual unworthiness – so inclusion in the table of the messenger proved the latter’s integrity and one’s own salvation. The table of Jesus, like the Jordan baptism of John, was a challenge to the Temple system of ritual cleanliness and conformity with legal minutiae and expensive sacrifice – a system of salvation that favoured the relatively wealthy and educated.

A real, enduring fellowship offered to the shunned was therefore inseparable from the idea of salvation – and this association was maintained by the relative social humility of the early leaders of the church, and its rejection by the Jewish and Roman establishments in the first Christian centuries. Salvation is inseparable from a sense of ‘God with us’ – also expressed in the excitement of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ that drew people to Jesus – but simply the fact of his willingness to bring personally the message ‘you are forgiven and loved’ – and to abide with those now evangelised, sharing their deprivation.

It is clear therefore that evangelisation is also non-hierarchical. Jesus’ humility collapsed the pyramid of esteem which had communicated to the rejected the fact of their rejection. As did his washing of the feet. As did the crucifixion most of all.

It follows from this that the Good News would not necessarily be good news for all – and that it was not simply a promise of life after physical death. It was an assurance of the love of God now and forever for those who had been taught by the world that they were of no account – with the sole proviso of genuine repentance. And it was therefore also a questioning of the presumption of those whose worldly success had been thought a sure sign of divine favour.

Sad to relate, this is not quite what the Church relayed to me during my orthodox Catholic education in the 1950s. Then the good news had become ‘the Church is always right’. The reason was simple enough: the Church’s own growth, and especially the Constantinian shift in the church’s social and political status in the fourth century had led to Christian adaptation to, and approval of, social hierarchy per se. Thus, although salvation could still be merited by the poor, their happiness must be deferred in this life. Theology soon explained human hierarchies – even the institution of slavery – in terms of divine preference for hierarchies in heaven also. It was at this point that the gospels became detached from the real world – and almost incapable of fundamentally changing it. Jesus belonged in a landscape of poor people raised by him onto a different plane – but it did not follow that Christian kings would share their tables with the verminous. Their superiority was required in order to maintain Christian order. And it was this Christian order that became Christendom.

A story told by Bede about St Aidan in the seventh century well illustrates this analysis. This spiritual child of Iona, in evangelising Northumbria, impressed its King, Oswald, to the extent that he gave the saint the gift of a valuable horse. When Aidan soon gave this gift to a beggar, the king was angered – to the extent that Aidan lamented his greater valuation of the horse than the beggar. Yet if Kings and beggars were equal in dignity, kingship itself conferred none, so kings inevitably won this argument in the long run. Territorial churchmen in time learned to avoid such sorrow by keeping such gifts, regretfully delegating the virtue of humility to their subordinates. Thus the church became itself a pyramid of esteem, duplicating and ratifying the secular one alongside.

This is where we all come in – close to the terminus of this sad experiment in accommodating the gospels to the injustice of the world. Once the elites originally educated by the Church lost intellectual respect for Christianity, their patronage of the Church could be easily abandoned. The trauma of secularist democratic revolution beginning in 1789 led to a renewed tactical alliance between political aristocracy and Christian hierarchy in the nineteenth century, but this too was fundamentally cynical and tenuous. Although it informed the Roman Curia’s attempted suppression of liberation theology as late as the 1980s, it did so at the cost of that body’s scant remaining moral authority. And this is precisely why the call for a new evangelisation now seems so forlorn. If the gospel doesn’t challenge the world, it must merely support it.

It must be pointed out also here that the fundamental premise of most Catholic education has by now been proved bankrupt: that the education of the sons of the wealthy would ‘Christianise’ society from the top down. Education itself is an empowerment, and when it is bestowed selectively upon those already privileged it can only reinforce their privilege. This is why our intelligentsias endlessly analyse the problems of the world and argue over their solution at the top of towers of steel and glass – without ever getting to the root of the problem: their own preference for height, for remoteness from the mean back streets below. For it is social contempt that the poor feel most keenly, not the material difference that is its sacrament. As anyone who has spent any time with the poor will know, people can be happy with very little until they are reminded by the media of the material differential that excludes them from the award-winning tables of the famous and the well-to-do.

And this is why our society is now so thoroughly secular – in spite of the fact that the elites that govern it are mostly the products of elite Catholic schools. The acceptance by the church of the principle of social hierarchy is an endorsement of the very essence of secularism – worldliness, the assumption that it is the proud, rather than the poor, who are blessed by God , and therefore worthy of their self-conscious superiority.

Yet the paradox is that it is the survival of social hierarchy and privilege that guarantees the permanent relevance of the gospels. Suffering and injustice, exclusion, low self-esteem, addiction, depression – all these are the richest soil on which the good news can take root. Many are reinforced by the media cult of celebrity in our own time – the raising to ikonic status of mere humans as flawed as the rest of us. For the essence of the Gospel is that we are all indeed already and unconditionally loved, and will never be forsaken. All that is lacking is evangelisers so convinced of this that they will not just say it, but live it. Indeed, given the bankruptcy of mere language, and the chasm between the word and the deed in the hierarchical Church, it is the doing of it that can alone now renew the Church.

Who ‘does’ Christian love best today? Obsessed with the danger of getting the theology wrong, our leaders seem to pay little attention to this question. If one truly loves, in the name of the Trinity, their presence is revealed by that love, which speaks of nothing else, so where is the possibility of error? We should be looking for, and encouraging, such people, if only to vindicate the truth we argue over.

Luckily I know some of these new evangelisers, and will write of this next month.

Understanding the Downward Journey

Views: 26

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

The essence of the downward journey is freedom from the illusion that it is the world that gives us both our identity and our worth.

We have almost as much difficulty understanding that biblical term ‘the world’ as we do the nature of God. This shouldn’t be – because our world also is the enemy of the soul. It demands that we compete for its approval. It rewards a tiny minority with its fickle adulation – which often destroys them – and consigns the rest of us to the role of ‘loser’ or ‘wannabe’. It is, in other words, a vast pyramid of esteem, a composite of all the smaller pyramids we pass through in life – family, school, neighbourhood, firm, city, state – and (often if not always) church.

So long as we play the game all these pyramids demand – postponing self-acceptance until we have been accepted or recognised by them – so long will we be Sisyphus, rolling the stone of self-dislike interminably uphill, until our strength gives out. That is a moment of terrible danger – but also a fleeting window of opportunity. It is dangerous because it tempts us to respond with despair, anger and sometimes murderous aggression or suicide. It is also an opportunity because we may then tumble to the essential stupidity of ordering human community, and valuing ourselves, in this way. We may then recognise this tendency as the root of all evil – and understand the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with our humiliation. Unfortunately, the churches’ historical participation in the pyramid system, and the stupid theology that results (e.g. God as medieval king angrily demanding Jesus’s pain in reparation for his lost ‘honour’) may deprive us of this insight.

Even the spirituality market implies a pyramid, at the summit of which must be those who have read deeply the writings of all the accredited spiritual masters from Buddha to Theresa of Lisieux. And so one may buy all of these books and begin the rolling of the stone – perhaps missing the fact that the unique characteristic of the journey of both was not towards the acquisition of knowledge – a matter of addition, and of the head – but towards acceptance of their own vulnerability – a matter of subtraction, and of the heart.

But what is the point of becoming spiritual if you cannot make it work for you? I hear this question – and its ambiguity. ‘Working for you’ could mean doing for you what it did for Buddha or Therese (i.e. make sense) – or it could mean making you well known as a wise and spiritual person. The trouble is that the spirituality market will exploit particularly the second meaning – because your purchases will burgeon with your desire to move always upward, in deep dissatisfaction with where you are, in order to become a spirituality expert. Notice again the world’s magnetic force – you are setting out to be spiritual in order to be ‘up there’ – the antithesis of the spiritual. The last thing you may consider is the possibility of moving in the opposite direction – of seeking to know less by knowing only the most important thing.

That most important thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that pearl of great price – is that you are already as loved and as worthy of esteem as you will ever be – already infinitely loved and respected. The condition of not knowing this, and fleeing from it towards the approval of the world, is sin. The tears that follow its discovery are called repentance – in which you weep also for the sin of ever having thought of yourself as unloved – for not having loved yourself as you are.

It follows from this that all of us are equally, and infinitely, loved – and that the pyramids we build are the product of an illusion. That illusion is the notion that the overall sum of our worth is what others think of us – when they are equally insecure. Gripped by this illusion we are slaves to it – and escape is virtually impossible

For Jesus the single most important truth was that he was loved by the creator of all things, the Father. From this great truth – and the relationship it gave him with the Father – came the revelatory journey which unlocked ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’. Essentially what was hidden, and what remains hidden from most, is that the world preserves its power over us not just by insisting that we compete for its approval, but by victimising those at its base. From their plight we must flee – upwards, driven by fear. Ambition – desire to be at the top, adored and invulnerable, draws us in the same direction. Fear and hubris rule the world, imprisoning the spirit of generosity which desperately seeks escape.

These days throughout the west we are amazed by the sudden fall of ‘great men’ who not so long ago ‘bestrode the world’. Their gifts were also their temptation. Their ability to climb the political pyramid made them susceptible to flattery and sycophantic attention of all kinds – and they succumbed to sexual or monetary temptation on a scale that shamed them when revealed. Great wisdom can be gained by pondering the meaning of these events – for they merely reiterate the lives of ancient heroes, archetypally David.

If Jesus was not divine he was then even more mysterious – for neither fear nor hubris determined his actions from first to last (although he experienced – i.e. was ‘tempted’ by both). To the degree that we study him as a mere human he becomes unlike any other man. To the degree that we insist that he was God, he reveals God to be unlike our expectation. For us, both Gods and heroes must triumph and remain invulnerable. Yet Jesus accepted humiliation and defeat, and revealed God as both humble and vulnerable. Psychologically he is impossible to explain – unless we accept the reality of what he insisted upon. That reality was the Father, a spiritual being with whom he could communicate at will, who gave him the specific task of revealing and upending the spirits of fear and hubris which build the pyramids of esteem that govern the world.

Yet Jesus also tells us that those who follow him become his brothers and sisters, to whom he has revealed all that the Father had told him, and with whom he and the Father will live in the same intimacy. How do we find our way to this point of meeting?

Ancient heroes had to do something violently heroic to win the recognition of the world. Think of Theseus who must destroy the monsters who fall in his way as he journeys to Athens to be recognised by his father, King Aegeus. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus was recognised by Abba at the very beginning of his own journey – for doing nothing more than stepping down into the waters of the Jordan, in fellowship with repentant sinners who also sought the baptism of John. This episode is immediately followed by Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, and his rejection of the temptations to ascend the worldly pyramids of state and temple. His mission becomes the granting of forgiveness and esteem freely to those at the base of these pyramids, (usually far from Jerusalem), to whom he gives most of the rest of his life. For this effrontery he is hated ‘by the world’, and murdered by it, in the time-honoured manner.

The downward journey today could well begin with nothing more dramatic than the granting of respect and esteem – that is, of love – to someone we know who has less of these things than we ourselves, and who may have suffered a recent humiliation. If this is difficult, the difficulty lies in our greater respect for the world, the only source of our embarrassment, than for God – so prayer is strongly indicated. And this prayer should be part of our private life – for ostentatious prayer is a prayer addressed to the world rather than to God.

It must be clearly understood that this practice of according respect to those whom the world considers our inferiors must not be condescension – for they are in fact our equals. Its purpose is to discover the kind of relationship that Jesus formed very quickly with people he has just met – a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual trust. He did not presume that his relationship with Abba entitled him to greater esteem – but sought to draw others into the same relationship.

Another aspect of this journey is the discovery that the person next to us at any given moment is often the person to whom we should be speaking at that moment, for the sake of both. This is still a feature of the lives of people who live in remote places – every meeting is seen as an unmissable opportunity for conversation. Yet in our great cities people will often spend hours daily physically close to others with whom they exchange not a word. The convention in the tube in London is to avoid eye contact – so people examine one another surreptitiously, or read, or compute. Fear and hubris rule equally here also – for cities are above all else pyramids of esteem – and the person next to you might be an addict or drug rapist – or snub you as an inferior. Yet what might you be missing as your eyes slide about, looking vainly for an advertisement worth reading?

In particular you might exchange views on the reasons for the exhaustion that inevitably follows the endless busyness of modern city life. The man with the computer was told a decade a go that it would make his life less hectic – but the opposite seems to be the truth. He doesn’t have time simply to ‘shoot the breeze’ – he must switch on in transit and finish that report. The reason probably is that he believes that all his colleagues – his rivals for promotion – have this equipment too, and will steal a march. So it always will be – for it is in the nature of the world to disconnect us from where and when we are, to live in a tomorrow that never comes.

Yet what happens to the exhausted mind is eventually despair – and how will that help the firm? Tireless worship of yet another convoy of ocean-crossing buzzwords must eventually end in burnout – so who benefits? What if we all got together and said no to freneticism, technobabble and jargonising simultaneously? I reckon that nine out of ten eye-sliding city straphangers would find that question meaningful.

In Ireland it is usually in the craik in the pub that we get closest to this kind of common insight – and maybe this is the source of some alcohol addiction also – for the association of alcohol with genuine companionship and relaxation may create the false conclusion that one is impossible without the other. In those hours when today’s humiliations have been related, and their authors properly reviled, we ease down. Our friends are those who do not threaten us, and who can share in our meagre triumphs. Yet tomorrow beckons, inexorable as closing time – and battle is soon joined once more.

The tireless busyness of great cities, audible even through double or treble glazing, sets a rhythm to which we unconsciously dance. That seems to be true of any large community. And the car now allows that rhythm to radiate out into the countryside, far louder now than the hum of bees that used to be a byword for business. The discovery of the process of evolution should impress us with the slowness of God’s time – but instead it seems to have ratcheted even tighter our determination to live in tomorrow rather than today. It becomes daily more difficult to find stillness, to discover the rhythm of God’s tune, and dance to that instead.

That is why there has always been a connection between deep spiritual work, and isolation. We tend to associate the desert into which Jesus went merely with asceticism – but we should note that he went there from the Jordan, directly after the Father’s revelation of himself and recognition of his son. So we can assume that Jesus was simply seeking a stillness and peace within which he could discover the meaning of this extraordinary relationship. The hermitical and monastic traditions – which preserved the church through centuries of corruption of its superstructure – follow the same search for the one who speaks in stillness.

It is also always a search for the self – of who one is – the integrated ‘me’ shorn of pretence, falseness, that personality I put on like a shirt in order to please the world. The knowledge that it is the ‘me’ that I hide from the world that God alone fully knows – this is important knowledge that we have forgotten how to teach in our schools.

It can be rediscovered still in Ireland today – especially in the west. I did not discover that my own desert had been the wilds of Lough Corrib until I found that it was there as a teenager I had found a happiness so mysterious that when I found myself much later in the darkest valley of my own crisis, gratitude came pouring out to whoever had created it – just, it seemed, for me. In Galway again recently, determined to escape the hum of the city, I came upon a dirt road that seemed to follow inland a beautiful small river tumbling towards the sea. My wife and I followed it on foot, and within ten minutes the movement of the breeze and the rush of falling water had enveloped us completely, shutting out the rush of traffic, easing the almost imperceptible tension it builds within us. That was the Sabbath experience we must all seek – the rest from labour that only God’s music can provide.

These then are the elements of the downward journey: a realisation of the Father’s primordial and unchangeable esteem for us as brother or sister of the Lord; a determination to live in this knowledge, giving the same respect to everyone we meet; a seeking of the slower rhythm of God’s time in whatever form of wilderness we can find. Also a willingness to listen for a call that may ask of us a particular service in challenging the world, or serving its casualties. Then we will inevitably find that whatever tortuous route we have followed in life to this point will have a particular meaning for others on a similar path. No life is ever ruined once we again find fellowship with the God who so wisely – like the Father of the prodigal son – gave us our primordial freedom, and will now give meaning and redemption to our utmost waywardness.