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Understanding the Downward Journey

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.

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World and Church Revisited

Sean O’Conaill  Doctrine and Life 2001

The recent long-distance exchange between the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Des Connell, and Irish President Mary McAleese, revived an old and tortured question – the proper relationship of the Church to ‘the world’. Dr Connell emphasised the sadness and waywardness of the modern world, and the need for holiness in opposition to it, quoting in disapproval the president’s call for ‘a revitalized Church comfortably adapted to the modern world’.

He can be justly criticised for not quoting the rest of the sentence from which this came: ‘yet a profound centre of spiritual gravity’ – but nevertheless there seems to remain a fundamental opposition between these two views of ‘the world’. In one it is spiritually dangerous, to be held at a distance and judged and redeemed – i.e. changed – by the Church; in the other it becomes judge of the Church’s ‘relevance’ or health, in the sense that a church ‘out of touch with’ the world is to be considered itself in need of change.

This question, is, I believe, central to the division between what we might loosely describe as the ‘reformist’ and ‘restorationist’ stances within the Church. As there is a critical need to find some common ground these times I would argue that we can find some here – by teasing apart the different senses in which ‘the world’ may be understood.

We may begin by noting that the Bible uses this term in quite different senses. Most Old Testament references are to those inhabited parts of the earth known to the scripture writers. For example:

(Gen 41:57) And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.

Here ‘the world’ is simply the totality of locations from which the peoples known to the author may come. In Psalms the ‘world’ is also the totality of the human race, to be judged by God:

(Psalms 96:13) They will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.

In Isaiah we find a note of condemnation: the world is not merely the created world, but the world of men that stands somehow in opposition to God.

(Isaiah 13:11) I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

Yet this association of ‘the world’ with human arrogance does not completely obliterate the world that is fruitful and good:

(Isaiah 27:6) In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.

All of these usages – positive, neutral and condemnatory – occur again in the New Testament.

(Matthew 5:14) You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

(Matthew 13:35) So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

(Matthew 18:7) “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

In John we can find for the first time the usage of ‘world’ in opposition to Jesus – all those who do not recognise him for what he is:

(John 1: 10) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Yet this world of non-recognisers will nevertheless also be redeemed:

(John 1:29) The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Jesus also directly accuses ‘the world’:

(John 7:7) “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Yet he intends its salvation.

(John 12:47) “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.”

After the crucifixion ‘the world’ becomes those who are not the disciples:

(John 15:19) If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

How are we to make sense of this essentially bipolar attitude towards the world? How can the world be both essentially good, at once a beautiful creation, and at the same time something that opposes the light, from which we must stand apart, whose hatred we must overcome?

An additional problem arises from the specifically modern perception of the world as in a dynamic rather than static condition – in progress – however tortuous – towards Utopia. This perception was at its peak in the 1960s, after nearly two decades of comparative international peace and economic development. The Vatican II document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (Joy and Hope) caught this perception beautifully, balancing this joy and hope with the ‘grief and anguish’ that is also so much a part of our ‘world’. Three decades later Utopia may well seem further away, certainly in global terms, as possible environmental catastrophe is added to the woes emanating from man’s growing scientific and technical power – with consequences for the entire human family we cannot yet predict. Since the 1960s also – when a repeat of the horrors of Auschwitz seemed unthinkable – we have seen the return of essentially the same scapegoating violence in the Middle East and the Balkans. All of this lends weight to a view of ‘the world’ as fixed in ‘Sin’ – from which the Church should indeed shrink.

Yet the world remains God’s creation, a dear inheritance that becomes even more dear now that it faces environmental degradation at our hands. What exactly is the sin that insidiously threatens our, and its, survival?

Our best way into this, I believe, is to reflect upon the power of ‘the world’ vis-a-vis the individual – a power that has never been stronger in Ireland than at this time. Its unprecedented array of career paths and glittering prizes is unarguably seductive and all-absorbing – as the exodus of so many of our young people from Catholic practice and ‘ethos’ clearly proves. What is the source of this power?

It is, I believe, the same as that which governs mimetic desire or covetousness, the root of the acquisitiveness, miscalled ‘materialism’, I dealt with last month – a search for self-esteem through the esteem of others, especially our coevals. We are, naturally, esteem-seekers, not self-sufficient or independent in our possession of self-esteem. And because we withhold esteem from some, and bestow it upon others, we must always be unequal possessors of self-esteem. A perennial feature of ‘the world’ is therefore the unequal bestowal of esteem – the fact that it is always a pyramid of esteem. It is this feature of our sociability that maintains desire: we are insatiable in this matter of esteem because its complete possession always (or almost always) eludes us.

It follows that ‘the world’ – although always holding the carrot of its esteem in front of us – this thing to be achieved if we buy this or do that – must always deny us its fulfilment. It is the adrenalin of unfulfilled desire that maintains ‘the world’ of desire.

There is, therefore, a dimension in which ‘the world’ is indeed always and forever the same, and dangerous – a desire ‘trap’ that keeps us fluttering in a state of dissatisfaction around the honey pot of fulfilled desire. The world’s tragedy is that it cannot in fact fulfil the desires it creates.

The reason is simple: if all of us are to be at the summit of the pyramid of esteem, who will provide the base? If we are all to be applauded, who is to do the applauding? Maximum esteem implies a world of esteemers, of applauders – so if we all seek it, most must be frustrated – and those few who are not must then be envied, and thus supremely vulnerable to the ambition of those who have been denied what they also seek. Here we find the explanation for the rise and fall of ‘Great Men’. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, archetypally, is driven by the desire for the unprecedented esteem that had been accorded to Alexander – but his very success evokes the murderous envy of those to whom he thus denies the very thing he has acquired. Great Men closer to our own time and place are these days going through a similar experience.

Here we find also the explanation for the vulnerability of celebrities today: no-one is more vulnerable than the Beatle, the one who has climbed the pyramid of (especially female) esteem to its summit. Out from the wings comes the stalker, at once fascinated by, and dangerous to, the object of his (seldom her) fascination.

And so those at the summit of popular esteem and fascination can sometimes go full circle, now desiring that which is possessed by the non-esteemed: privacy. In other words they desire a state of not being an object of fascination, of being unknown.

Yet most of those who are unknown feel for that reason unesteemed, and so simultaneously desire the very thing the celebrity would disown, if that were possible. Desire is never-ending.

Unless we can somehow come fully awake from this fixation and say, truly, that all of us are equally worthy of esteem by virtue of our creation – and live our lives, and relate to others, on that basis. I believe that the Incarnation is, historically, the means by which this is to be achieved.

To the extent that our world proclaims and serves the principle of genuine equality, our church lags behind, remaining itself, by deliberate choice, a medieval pyramid of esteem that must change. To the extent that our world remains actually, and at the same time, a pyramid of esteem that promotes unfulfillable desire, the church must stand apart and proclaim a different value system. These are not irreconcilable positions.

The Church must do, in other words, what Jesus did. Proclaim – in deed as well as in word – a different kingdom in which esteem is as much the birthright of everyone, as is the life they have been given by the giver of everything.

The most extraordinary and mysterious thing about the Gospels is their revelation of a life lived in rejection of the pursuit of worldly esteem, within both the religious and the political worlds – and in proclaiming a different kingdom. It is so outrageously transcendent of all human ‘greatness’ that it will forever critique it. Yet the Church that proclaims this life at the same time retains a culture and structure it borrowed from a world of Emperors and kings, which also awarded esteem with blatant inequality. Why else these days would some Cardinals be elbowing one another for media attention, and careerist bishops be a phenomenon prevalent enough to be deplored by a Cardinal in a position to know?

Which of us is the greatest? This is the game we play daily – as much on the motorway as in the boardroom and the Vatican. It is the original sin, the source of Cain’s intolerance of Abel. Which of us is the least? This is the question asked by Christ, who showed the way. Humility, the essential lived quality of the incarnate God, should also be the essential characteristic of Christian leadership. It is the only source of peace, freedom and mutual esteem in all communities, civil and religious. To the extent that the church superstructure withholds equality of esteem from the least of its members – women especially – it becomes a simulacrum, not a contradiction, of the God-opposing world

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The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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Craggy Island Revisited

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2000

The Father Ted TV show hit Catholic Ireland at a psychologically interesting moment. Bishop Eamonn Casey’s flight from Ireland in 1992 had begun a spate of clerical sex revelations deeply damaging to a clerical church whose foundations had been built largely upon lay sexual guilt, and had thus been thought secure for all eternity.

But if our faith depended upon the sexual irreproachability of a clerical elite, what was it exactly that we had believed in? A God who disempowers himself, or a clerical apparatus that had been doing the very opposite for over two centuries?

This question still hangs in the air here, as good people struggle to separate in their minds an ecclesiastical system that has let them down from a God who promises never to do so. At first furious at a comedy show that poked fun at the upholders of sacred truth, many staunch Catholics then began to grin ruefully in recognition at some of the most awful pathologies of ‘Catholic Ireland’ – especially the priest’s housekeeper whose hairnet is as permanent as her wheedling ‘ah go on’ insistence upon the cup of tea. (The latter becomes a kind of lukewarm and very extreme unction that will heal all ills, available at all hours – even to the crack of doom.)

It seems that only laughter can save us now – a laughter that will put us all on the same level again. Clerics, too, are people, in the end – worthy of the same respect as any child of God. Many have found the grace to join in the joke. Some may even be able to weep a bit also – in relief at the fact that they do not need to climb back onto the social and spiritual pedestal the poverty and illiteracy of Ireland had put them on in penal times, as the only educated leadership we had.

Sadly, however, our conference of bishops cannot see much to laugh at. Instead they are looking – to the secular world – for cement with which to repair the pedestal. Our largest newspaper conglomerate is being threatened with legal action by four bishops, each representing one of the four provinces of Ireland, for overstepping the limits of fair comment. The article at issue was one that complimented Gay Byrne, recently retired doyen of our top TV talk show, for revealing to the Irish people that bishops, being human, can err in fairly scandalous ways, sometimes in spheres of morality over which they have for generations inveighed with great self-righteousness.

This was common knowledge. And for a variety of other reasons the last thing the hierarchical Catholic Church in Ireland should be setting out to preserve in the present situation is its own dignity.

That hierarchy goes on interminably about ‘dignity’ – as though the latter was a vast resource that can enrich everyone. In fact dignity relates to the balance of human relationships, and is thus always a scarce resource. There is never more than enough to go round equally. Those who have a lot of it, such as media magnates and bishops, beggar those who have none – and Ireland still has a lot of the latter. Lay Catholics in Ireland are tumbling to this in droves – and wondering why the Irish church still has absolutely no apparatus for redressing internally the inequality of dignity and power that has forced the victims of clerical abuse also to seek redress from the secular state.

The reason this puzzles many people is that in many other areas our bishops denounce secularism per se – although clerical child abuse – and the manner in which it has been handled by the episcopacy – is now the most powerful secularising force on the island. It completely destroys the argument for a clerical monopoly of church administration – because this is clearly seen as the root cause of the victims’ frequent alienation from the church into which they have been baptised.

Arising out of this there is a growing perception of another void – the absence of permanent formal means of upward communication and representation through which lay people can be listened to. Although canon law allows for the establishment of synods at diocesan and national level, there is absolutely no movement from the church leadership towards setting these up. The last time the Irish national Conference of Priests debated the possibility of an Irish church assembly, in September 1998, they judged that the laity were not then ready, and might not be ready for another twenty years.

If this is true it raises fundamental questions about Catholic education in Ireland. The products of our Catholic schools can become brain surgeons, airline pilots, computer software and hardware designers, academics, EC commissioners, UN commissioners, and even heads of state – but remain – it is claimed – incompetent to participate in the development of their church – even though the hierarchy proclaims the ‘Catholic ethos’ of these schools. Is this incompetence the deliberate intention of up to fourteen years of Catholic education in Ireland, including thousands of hours of RE?

The truth is that Irish people learn very quickly when they need to. They will never have the slightest incentive to think deeply about the problem of living their faith as long as they are treated as intellectually disabled children whose highest aptitude is that of flag wavers in a cast of thousands for papal visits.

Another cause for deep concern is that despite a series of cataclysmic public relations disasters that have shaken Irish Catholicism to its roots over the past eight years, there has been absolutely no serious attempt to measure the effects of this upon the morale of Catholics generally by the church’s leaders. What information we have we owe – once more – to the secular media, or Andrew Greeley. Wondering at first when effective leadership might eventually emerge at the summit we now ask ‘What leadership?’ A way of being church, constructed over 150 years by upwardly mobile ecclesiastics contemptuous of democracy, is now plainly dead – but there hasn’t even been a wake.

That’s why we are laughing more freely at Fr Ted these days – because it provides the banana skin that every small boy wants to throw under the feet of the self-important. So long as our bishops can’t join in the joke, so long will they remain unable to understand what is happening on this island.

It is, I believe, precisely the process that Jesus Christ came to accomplish – the equalisation of human dignity. At some stage this process must destroy the religious pyramid of esteem that every religious elite in history has built. That pyramid preserves itself – as did the Temple pyramid in Jesus’ time – by declaring itself the only source of wisdom and salvation. But laughter is another kind of grace, and in Ireland today it is as free as Jordan water.

‘The faith’ is dying, the pessimists say – as though faith was a kind of abstract bundle of Greekified and Latinated truths that only bishop-theologians fully understand. In fact gospel faith was simply trust – in a man who did not believe that religious leadership could only be accomplished from a position of eminence and power. Far from setting out to build a pyramid through which he could dominate, Jesus made himself deliberately approachable and vulnerable, and it is that truth that draws those without dignity to him. An ecclesiastical leadership that sets out to do the opposite cannot image, and can only confuse, that truth. The hierarchical church has lost the trust of many good people in Ireland – and its inability to understand and deal with this is testing the patience of even the staunchest.

The very staunchest used to be the womenfolk of Ireland – those mothers who raised their sons to be priests and insisted upon family observance and nightly Rosary. We know enough history now to be sure that not one of those sexually active but prayerful women ever even became ‘Blessed’, let alone ‘Saint’ – and that the reason for this is that the scales for such promotion are tipped heavily in favour of people who are male, celibate, prudish and ordained. The Papal declaration that the ban on female ordination has the status of an infallible teaching – perpetuating forever the humiliation of those who once raised Ireland’s priests – must be reckoned the most astonishing example of foot-shooting in the history of Irish Catholicism.

This female disillusionment with a male chauvinist Catholic leadership is part of the demoralisation that challenges many women religious. It guarantees the disappearance of their communities forever, at a time when the country in which they grew up is disappearing before their eyes – in a tide of covetousness, crime and addiction. In these circumstances the bullying pursuit by the CDF of dissenting women religious seems gratuitously vindictive, and the final straw. Had the Curia deliberately set out to destroy the tradition of religious and priestly vocation in Ireland it could not have been more effective.

And that is why our Catholic schools are failing also as nurseries of faith. Dedicated teachers present an irreproachable image of a compassionate God who descends to eye-level, while simultaneously having to defend an ecclesiastical system that turns its shepherds into remote and elevated princes of the Church. Those shepherds (with a few outstanding exceptions), prove – without words – that the God of the text books must stay there, because his human life of openness, simplicity and personal approachability cannot be lived by themselves.

True, the hierarchy does try to engage with the rampant covetousness of Ireland’s entrepreneurial revolution, calling for a juster society and basic humanity in dealing with the flood of refugees from Eastern Europe. However, the bishops need to realise, and urgently, that you cannot challenge the hubris of secularism while clinging on to the vestiges of the power and status inherited from the cosy patronage of yesterday’s secular regimes. Today’s secular regime is dismissive of what the bishops say, because it knows that the days when the bishops had clout with the people are over. The bishops need to discover urgently why this is – by engaging for the very first time in direct, serious consultation with those on whose behalf they presume to speak Their continuing failure to do this, when those people are their only source of revenue and recruitment, and are now voting with their feet in massive numbers, is a greater mystery than Arthur C Clarke has yet stumbled over in the jungles of Central America.

Everyone I talk to gives me the same analysis: top-down manipulation of Irish society by Irish Catholic bishops, for whatever cause, has had its day. Every twelve-year-old in Ireland knows today what most of our bishops apparently do not – that leadership by verbal exhortation and condemnation can easily be replaced by a recorded message.

Eight decades after toppling its Big House political system, Catholic Ireland still has an entrenched Big House ecclesiastical system – and the sheer absurdity, mindlessness and immorality of this becomes starker with every scandal that hits the news. The old triumphalist claim ‘the church is not a democracy’ seems to more and more people the very root of the problem, a clericalist excuse for a clerical closed shop that hurts people and then turns to the secular world to repair the damage. Contempt for administrative democracy in the church (unchangeable dogma is not the issue) is contempt for the creator of the Irish Catholic people, to whom the Trinity have given wisdom and grace in abundance.

It was compassion and humility that led Jesus to the cross – not an outraged sense of his own challenged dignity. As the Irish hierarchical church decays into a national facsimile of Craggy Island, and our churches fall into disuse, this penny too must eventually drop at its summit. Until then Father Ted’s exposure of the lunacy of the recent past will have to do us for grace instead.

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