(The following is an excerpt from a new novel, CRY TO ME by Brian Leyden.)
The conference on suicide prevention breaks for an early lunch, and feeling the need for air Dean leaves the hotel by the front door. As he steps outside he hears a church bell ringing. The unhurried chimes reverberate from the radio of the car parked in the ‘set down only area’ in front of the hotel. This twice daily broadcast of the Pro-Cathedral Angelus bell has been around for all of Dean’s life, having been first transmitted at the instigation of Archbishop John McQuaid on Radio Éireann at six o’ clock on the 15th of August 1950 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Inured by now to this broadcasting oddity, this noontime and eventide ringing of the Angelus Bell on national radio, he would oppose anyone who wanted this ritual silenced.
In the ordinary run of things we have few enough summonses to prayer or contemplation each day. And as he walks up the street in the direction of the church and graveyard he is pleased to have matured enough, he hopes, to be able to acknowledge the traditions of the faith he was brought up in even while living outside it. It is enough that the culture of his Catholic upbringing, with its unthinking devotion and timorous obedience to an authoritarian Church, has slowly but mercifully been replaced by the power of individual conscience.
The days were past of grandiose displays of native piety, the sodalities, the confraternities, and the high and mighty moral coercion of the Church Fathers so eloquently delineated by the late John McGahern. Dean belonged to a younger generation of what were by now mostly lapsed Catholics who no longer trusted or respected church institutions in the way their more respectful forbearers would have done. It is not only the sex abuse scandals, which have been appalling in their own right, but even more culpable has been the response of the church: the duplicity, arrogance and venality of its efforts to conceal and limit guilt instead of confessing to its crimes.
Nevertheless, it seems an appropriate moment to wonder as the Angelus bell recedes if there is a religious or a spiritual dimension to the problem of suicide being tackled today back at the hotel. All morning suicide had been looked at purely in social, psychological and medical terms. Nobody so far has asked if the relentless undermining of ‘the one true faith’, as it likes to call itself, has brought about a climate of moral uncertainty where suicide is easier. Would lives be saved if we had a stronger faith in an admittedly flawed church as an instrument of God’s grace and guidance, more faith in the belief that suffering counts and having the strength to bear our crosses can bring us to salvation? Would greater emphasis on duty, self-sacrifice, mortification and bowing of the will to the Almighty be healthier for everyone than the current materially driven consumer society ideals of constant acquisition and gratification?
Straight away he is inclined to think that the climate of hypocrisy, double standards and repression of the past was every bit as threatening to the vulnerable as our more open, liberal and improvised lifestyles today. The vast inequalities in society demonstrate that despite decades of sanctimonious posturing, the majority of the population have always been basically materialistic, self-serving and prone to what the poet Patrick Kavanagh called ‘an excess of piety and an insufficiency of charity’
A parish priest in Dean’s birthplace of Arigna recently complained from the altar that nowadays people only appeared in his church for baptisms, marriages and funerals, or as he put it, ‘to be hatched, matched or dispatched’. This criticism was countered by a local wag who suggested that the priests themselves only appeared in church between being ‘detected, detained and defrocked’. Yet for all the failings and acts of bad faith on the part of the institutional church, there are times when Dean genuinely hankers after the rituals of Sunday worship. Let’s face it, religious practice is a central plank in the building of strong community relations, and the traditions of the community are what unite us with other people. Not just the celebration of the mass itself – though he’d welcome any form of ritual that spiritually uplifted and nourished him. What he has in mind has more to do with fitting in, with the sense of being a part of a community of people all coming together with the same belief. There is comfort and strength in that. Holy days and days of fast and obligation, Lent, Easter and Christmas duties, religious set-pieces spread across the calendar year that in the past not only performed a sacred function they also reinforced the values and identity of the community and the individual.
At the very least, going to mass on Sunday got you walking in step with other people. To pray, to offer up your transgressions and shortcomings, to seek help and guidance and to be spiritually fortified by the sacraments, how could these things not boost your sense of worth? And then to shake hands with a neighbour and delay for a chat outside the church porch – the men lined up shoulder to shoulder along the gable wall for a smoke and the women talking face to face in the yard. There was too the common chore of joining the ranks of people going to the shop at the same time to buy the Sunday papers. And then to relax and enjoy Sunday dinner, and for the loyal fans, the Sunday football match, or simply taking time out on this once lazy day of rest.
Nowadays of course you don’t necessarily have to be a Christian receiving the sacraments to find spiritual fulfilment. There is an exotic smorgasbord of spiritual alternatives available, from Angel therapy to Zorasterism. But getting your spiritual support from books, from nature worship, from paid sessions with gurus and therapists lacks a sense of communal belonging. Like using the TV or the Internet to do your shopping, you remain cut off from human contact and personal interaction. The possibility of surprise, the unexpected, the rubbing shoulders with strangers and what springs from the free intermingling of people and their energies and enthusiasms is missing. And as a consequence a lot of lives feel terribly empty.
But of course our society nowadays is too multicultural, too multifaceted, too complex, too fast, too free flowing and sophisticated to fall in step with the march of one religious creed or restricted shopping hours. So the old model of a formal day of rest and putting the priest at the centre of the parish no longer serves. And this perhaps is the single greatest loss, in the sense that from time immemorial every tribe has had its priests, its visionaries and its sacred seers.
In days gone by the priest’s house in most villages in Ireland stood next to the church and was usually the biggest house around. Why any man living on his own needed such a grand residence was never questioned: it designated status and power. And the parochial house over the years sheltered a wide variety of clergy, including the devoted and capable community orientated priests, the morbidly depressed, bitter cranks, showmen and the arrogantly highhanded – bishop material. There are today still great priests and bad priests but very few priests who are not even more lonely and isolated than their most far-flung parishioners.
Much of this isolation springs no doubt from the official church’s retrograde response to a changing world, so that priests nowadays find themselves consigned to the role of functionaries, not spiritual messengers. They teach, they console and they administer the sacraments, but to a smaller and smaller flock. There is in essence no true sense anymore of a priesthood elected from the ranks of the people as representatives of the tribe, as custodians of its deepest values, as vessels of a sacred and guiding knowledge intended to direct and enlighten. The tribe no longer has one vision or credible seers anymore. And ritual is empty without belief.