Wednesday, November 24, 2010

ireland, part I: the underground cathedral

(I'm gonna try in the next few days to finish up these blogs and post them... Happy Thanksgiving all. I'm actually home now, [well, in Big Sur anyway] safe and sound.)

Our most precious heritage can only be expressed by poetry.
The Word of God can never be relayed through prose.
If this means that the message is sometimes obscure,
that is not because the poet is being deliberately obscurantist,
it is because we are moving in a borderland area
for which ordinary language is not designed.
(Mark Patrick Hederman)

On board Aer Lingus flight back to London and then home. My gosh, there is so much to write about these past four whirlwind days in Ireland. It may take a few blogs to spare your eyes.

Having been chased by rain and cold since Paris (for which I was blamed), I was expecting even worse weather in Ireland; but the reality was that I arrived in Dublin last Friday to glorious sunshine (for which I took credit). A gentleman named Michael, who I was to encounter several times over the next four days, met me at the airport with a sign bearing my name and whisked me away to All Hallows College where I was to be staying. All Hallows used to be a venerable old seminary run by the Vincentians that sent many a priest over to the mission countries of America and Africa back in the day. I was told that if I looked at the class pictures I would no doubt find an Irish pastor or two with whom I would be familiar. It was founded in the 19th century by a famous Catholic rights advocate, Daniel McConnell. This is during the English colonization period, about which I was to hear much during my stay, when Catholics were severely persecuted and oppressed financially, socially, economically. Again, may I insist that this was not about theology, but about power and control and some not-very evolved imperialists (in this case the British) using religion as a weapon. With all due respect to my English friends, I realize that this is the Irish side of the story, but it would take a lot to convince me that this was not a wrong-headed policy and polity. And I have heard as much from many British as well.

Now All Hallows is a humble little liberal arts college associated with Dublin City College, with about 300 students, mostly lay with a few seminarians, and certainly, decidedly, co-ed. It was a beautiful little campus with a sumptuous chapel that reminded me of St John's in Camarillo (hmmmm... Vincentians, Irish...?) as did the refectory. The guest accommodations were wonderful, clean, simple, the guesthouse serving as much as a hostel and retreat space, and the staff was wonderfully hospitable. As a matter of fact, I must say, and I said several times, for anywhere I have been in the world, to a person the Irish struck me as the most sincerely friendly warm people I have yet met.

The food was also delicious. Again, I had my expectations low (prejudice, I know, but low expectations lead to numerous surprises, and I did grow up with boiled potatoes and cabbage as exemplar of Irish cooking), but from the first bowl of creamed cauliflower soup through the brown bread and porridge and moist brown sugar and white cheddar cheese, I was overfed embarrassingly well. I also must say, with all due respect, I do prefer Irish breakfast tea, it's stronger and fuller. I asked someone at one point why the Irish tea is so much stronger than English tea and the answer given, with more humor than rancor, was, “Well, I suppose it's because the English starved us to death for so many years the only thing we had was our tea and we had to make it strong to fill us up.”

My host was one Bernadette Flanagan, a little powerhouse of a woman who belongs to the Presentation sisters. She now works in the research and development department of All Hallows, though she had previously been on staff at Milltown Institute, the honored Jesuit institution across town where we were to hold both of our events. Her expertise is in spirituality, and the events I was to do were actually not sponsored by All Hallows but by an organization--really a movement--that she heads up called “The New Monasticisms.” Friday evening Bernadette and one of her colleagues, a sharp Jesuit named Michael O'Sullivan, took me for dinner and a good long visit. They were happy to share and I was happy to pick their brains about the state of things in Ireland. If I may summarize: right now they are sandwiched between two things. First, historically this is a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic country. There was a church with a tall steeple and cross in the middle of the airport, for God’s sake! It is very much a part of the Irish identity, very much a part of the whole struggle for civil rights and independence from the 19th century on (remembering my reading of Maalouf’s book “On Identity” while in Lebanon, it was amazing the resonances); and of course a major element of what is gently called “the Troubles” from the 1960s through 2000 with the IRA and Northern Ireland. Again, this is religion being used as an identifier and not theological issues being debated. On this end there is also Catholicism as the final arbiter in every argument, with priests deciding who got hired and fired, who would marry whom, including putting women who were considered of questionable repute away in the Magdalene laundries (of recent cinematic fame), power more often than not yielded not very gracefully or healthily, but power submitted to nonetheless because it was part and parcel of ethnic and cultural identity. (It’s also interesting to note that that is a lot of the Catholicism that was exported to America.)

On the other hand--it is that very institution that has received an even harsher verdict on sexual and other abuse in the past months than what the US went through, widespread, ancient abuse in seminaries, orphanages and other institutions, and not just perpetrated by priests. And so, that which the people of Ireland struggled so hard to hold on to and uphold and defend has suddenly shown itself to be corrupt, or as Abbot Patrick Mark Hederman put it, in a book called the Underground Cathedral" which I will refer to again below I am sure, “the official idiom of the church in terms of chastity, purity and celibacy, especially with regard to the priesthood as a national shrine met up with an underworld of sexual depravity to monstrous to be entertained.” Ah, but here’s the rub: at least from the vantage point that I was offered, on the ground level, though the moral authority of and faith in the hierarchy and the “institution” is practically gone, the faith is strong. Case in point, this “New Monasticisms Ireland” program. 120 people gathered, some of them traveling from as far away as Galway, for this day that I led. The Spirit is alive and working.

Hederman suggests that while the “pretentious over-elaborate architecture” of twentieth century Catholicism is collapsing, “secret agents of the Holy Spirit” have been constructing an underground cathedral “where the true God might be worshiped in spirit and truth.” This program on Saturday was a roomful of those secret agents. And it occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time in these underground cathedrals with these secret agents over the past few weeks, from the Forum 104 in Paris, to the Abbey in Oxfordshire and Patrick Eastman's Zen Christian group in Tetbury, not to mention the three weeks in almost completely foreign territory in Lebanon and Syria. And I like it there, very comfortable underground.

I structured the day like one of our regular SSB sessions, framed in the prayer service. They are a more unused to the Universal Wisdom approach—drawing examples and practices from other traditions—though it’s not absent completely, but I didn’t shirk away from it. Instead I tried to show how both meanings of the universal call to contemplation—that is for everyone and that it is found in all traditions--is or at least can be part of the birth of the new mysticism or new spirituality (which term I prefer to “monasticism”). And then a short excursus also on the spirit, soul and body anthropology as practical aid in building a personal spiritual practice, something portable and personal (not to mention holistic) that we can carry with us anywhere and that is not dependent on someone else to supply to us. We are all pilgrims now. What did Merton say to the monks just before he died in Thailand? “From now on it's every man for himself.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but I was stressing Bruno's point, that all our institutions, rites, dogmas exist only—“only” I repeated three times for emphasis--to lead us to that inner awakening. They are our servants, as Jesus made abundantly clear about leadership, too. That’s why everything that can be revised—language, way of life, ritual—must be revised for a new generation, for new modes of consciousness that are still evolving. And this is a country that is near devoid of priests in many areas. The Roman authorities have stepped in with investigations and admonitions to return to popular devotions and piety, but the people that I talked to aren’t having any of it. It’s time to build the underground cathedral. I found it all very exciting.

I began and ended the day feeling very humbled, by their energy and resilience. (Many of them had already read my book, which is still kind of a mind-blowing thing to me.) At the beginning I said, “I suppose it’s fitting that I should be speaking to a gathering called the New Monasticism, because, for better or worse, I am one of the new monks. I don’t say that to brag; I'm not saying I am a good example. I just am one of them.” And I ended fielding questions, and some very deep questions about profound issues concerning ecclesiology and Christology, and said to them then as well, “I am not even sure I am qualified to answer these questions but I will tell you as best I can...” I was thinking, “Why would anyone want my opinion?” What a privileged and possibly dangerous position to be in! I was staying very close to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s “Questions on Meditation” (“These other ways may be taken up as long the Christian conception of prayer, it's logic and requirements, are kept in mind.") and John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio,” (“Just because Christianity was first articulated using Greek philosophy does not mean that it is the only way... My mind turns first to India.”), asserting that I always try to find the most conservative support I can for a progressive position. Then I ended by quoting our former prior general Emanuele Bargellini from my meeting with him as I was beginning my exclaustration in 2002: “Cipriano, monachesimo non è un contenitore; è un energia—Monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy”; and then his successor Don Bernadino’s admonition to me in 2005 when I was allowed, encouraged, even mandated to continue as I am, when he told me not to change anything, to watch my balance between work and prayer, solitude and travel, “and this,” he said, “will be your stability now.” To use Rolheiser’s image, we all need to find that balance between the energy and the container (the “stability,” if you will), and then carefully monitor and discern and ride on that balance. Our particular way may not look exactly like anything that went before us, or anything around us—though chances are we are not alone and it will—but our commitment to it, with discernment in relationship with our community, our sangha, our tradition, is what will lead us to realize our true self, hidden (with Christ) in God.