Monday, January 30, 2012

What Do You Believe?

Yesterday morning at church the homily was delivered by our retired parish priest, Fr. John O’Connell. Fr. John is one of the most Christian, most compassionate and most intelligent people I've come to know. In the 30-odd years I've known him, he has delivered through word and deed a very pragmatic view of Christianity. I may revisit that in a future post. Now, however, I want to tell you something of yesterday’s homily which Fr. John based entirely on the interview, broadcast on Jan 22nd 2012, between Fr. Shay Cullen and Gay Byrne as part of ‘The Meaning of Life’ series. Fr. Shay is one of the founders of PREDA (People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance). This small charitable organisation has a number of purposes which include the promotion and protection of the dignity and the Human Rights of the Filipino people, especially of women and children. I missed the original broadcast but I made it my business yesterday to watch it on playback.

I know Fr. John well enough to believe he has great respect for the way Fr. Shay spoke in that interview and for the pragmatic views he espoused. Let me briefly relate some of the points from the interview that Fr. John covered in his sermon. During the course of his questioning, Gay asked Fr. Shay about various aspects of his faith. He asked him what his image of God is. He replied that it was not the image as portrayed by the likes of Michelangelo, for example. Rather, he expressed his image of God as the existence of eternal goodness – the power and the force of love, caring for and respecting each other. When asked about the Mass, he answered that he found it a bit too ‘religioso’ in its current ritual and quite removed from what Jesus would have experienced. He likened it more to a meal of friendship. Asked about his thoughts on the ‘real presence’ (transubstantiation is the technical term, or the ‘magic bits’ as a friend of mine refers to it), he replied that he sees it more as the presence of Jesus being recreated by the people in the congregation who believe in the spirit of his message and want to carry on his mission. Regarding the resurrection, and Gay was quite specific on his meaning here – the ‘bodily’ resurrection – Fr. Shay says ‘we go with that’ but further explains that what Jesus lived and believed in – his message – is alive because his followers decided to keep the spirit of his message alive by living according to what he had taught them. 

Now if I was being asked to offer a critique of the programme I would say the questions were all very high level but nonetheless relevant. Anyway, how much depth can you go to in a 25-minute interview? Regarding the answers, I would say on matters of doctrine as professed by the Catholic Church, Fr. Shay probably did enough to avoid being branded a heretic. Not that it would bother him, I’m sure. Where he excelled, for this viewer at least, was in offering a different view or interpretation on several of the central tenets of the Catholic faith.

Why did yesterday’s sermon strike such a chord with me? Well you see, in the last few years I’ve gone through a bit of a crisis of faith, for want of a better way of putting it. The reasons are many and varied but suffice to say for now that I have become extremely disillusioned (perhaps irretrievably so) with the ways of the institutional Catholic Church. But more than that – I had started to question some of the fundamental teachings of the church. The revelation for me yesterday was hearing a cleric address the same questions I am struggling with but answering them in a way that made a lot of sense to me. You might well ask why I continue to attend Mass if I have so many questions and misgivings. I am very active in music ministry and I find that very challenging and fulfilling. Anyway, I don’t hold sway with the “if you don’t like the rules join another club” brigade and as Fr. John famously encourages people “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

So, what do I believe? What is my image of God? Well, I don’t have one because I’m no longer sure that there is the existence of an almighty being responsible for creating everything we see. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in such an existence or not. God as a being or entity either exists or does not exist, irrespective of what I believe. Like Fr. Shay, I believe in the existence of goodness (and evil – this was covered in the interview also) but that these things are not outside us but within us as part of our human nature, our human spirit. I believe that a man whom we know as Jesus Christ walked on earth 2,000-odd years ago. He was a prophet and a rebel in a time and a place where oppression was rife. I believe his message was that people were not going to find a solution to their problems by worshipping false gods. Rather, he taught them that god is love – not the sun, the moon, the sea, money, greed, power or anything else. He called people to use the love and the spirit within themselves to work for freedom and justice. His notion of the kingdom of god (kingdom of love) is achieved right here through making justice, love, concern and compassion for others the number one priority.

I believe the Mass as we know it today is in stark contrast to the image we have of the last supper – Jesus gathered with his friends, his community, most likely around a wooden table and sharing whatever bread and drink was procured from the local market. I doubt there was a bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is far more likely that the Romans disposed of the body to avoid creating a shrine to the rebel they had just defeated. I have a lot of empathy with Fr. Shay’s view that the spirit of Jesus’ message lives on by the decision of those who believed in his message to continue the work that he had started. I believe that, unfortunately, a lot of Jesus’ message has gotten lost in a fog of dogma, doctrine and canon law that has been developed through the ages by the Church.    

I believe that we need more people with the clarity of vision and the courage of Fr. Shay and Fr. John, able and willing to peel away the irrelevant paraphernalia that the Church has built up over many centuries and which now has so much power and control vested in its structures and belief systems that it cannot back away from them. Alas I fear such people of courage are few and far between in the Catholic Church. Vatican-II offered us a vision and a blueprint for the Catholic Church in the modern world and a true recognition of the role of everyone in the Church, women and men alike, to bring about the kingdom of love. Progress towards that vision appears to have stalled – some might even say we are in reverse gear. Unfortunately, there are too many Vatican men now emerging from the seminaries and not enough Vatican-II men. And no women. 

You can read more about PREDA here.

You can view Fr. Shay's interview with Gay Byrne here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In The Moment

The lead-in to summer 2011 was not a good time for me. Several years of stress and strain were about to take their toll and my mind was saying “enough”. Things improved over the summer, thanks largely to support of family and friends.

Fast forward to Christmas and year end - a time of year when it is natural to look backward on what has been and to look forward to what one hopes the future may hold. This is where the wheels came off a bit. Looking backward just raised questions to which I may never get the answers. Probably best not to dwell on it then. What of the future? Well, I was struck by an interview on Jan 2nd with Prof. Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). It turns out he has decided to up sticks from Ireland and head to the UK. He believes that austerity in Ireland will not last 4 years – more like 10-15 years. Probably best not to think too much about the future either, although my heart goes out to all, especially our young people, who are forced by economic circumstances to move overseas and also to their families who watch them go.    

So I’ve decided for the New Year to try to live just in the moment. It won’t be easy. There will be reminders of the stresses I’ve had over the past few years. At least now I know these are potential ‘trigger points’ for me so hopefully I will be able to deal with that. It will be impossible to avoid hearing about the future, especially from the ‘doom and gloom’ merchants. Ok – maybe they are right and we are in for a period of prolonged austerity. Our ancestors survived worse, and so will we. As individuals, our span of control in these matters is quite limited. What we can control is how we deal with it. I’m going to deal with it by not worrying about it – which is going to be a challenge for a natural worrier!

So, what’s going to keep me grounded ‘in the moment’? I believe my new-found interest in the form of photography is going to help me a lot with that. When I’m out with the camera I spend so much time thinking about my surroundings and the potential shots I can take that I don’t have time to worry or analyse anything else! And what else is photography other than capturing the moment – not the past, not the future but the absolute here and now. Fail to get the shot and it’s gone forever. That exact moment will never happen again.

To ensure I spend adequate time engaged in my pursuit, I’ve signed up for a ‘52’ project. That means submitting one photo a week on a specific theme for the duration of 2012. I can’t wait to submit my first photo at the end of this week. I’ll post a link to my ‘52’ here on my blog once I have posted the first picture. I’m hoping that some of the shots will inspire future blog posts – note - hoping, but not worrying!

Unfortunately, New Year’s Day doesn’t count in the particular ‘52’ project I signed up for, as Week 1 began at 00:00 on Jan 2nd. However, the particular photo I wanted to accompany this blog post is one I took on January 1st. It was at the Bray Charities Sea Swim. This annual event, organised by Bray Lions Club, has been going for 28 years and has the dual purpose of having some festive fun while raising funds for local charities. Over the years, the event has realised more than €250,000 for a long list of worthy local causes. Around 200 swimmers took part this year and proceeds are going to Bray St. Vincent de Paul.

Why did I choose this particular photo? Firstly, I like the expression on Frank’s face (and the colour of his towel, which originally attracted me to the shot). What I didn’t realise at the time is the great back-drop of the crowd. It shows what a community event the sea swim is – people straining to see or to catch a shot of a family member, neighbour or friend brave enough to take to the water. I’ll bet all those swimmers were ‘in the moment’ as they plunged in to the cold waters of the Irish Sea!

A very Happy New Year to you all  :)