Sunday, 29 November 2009

Abusus non tollit usum

Child abuse is one of those traumas so extraordinarily singular that it leaves one grasping not only for words but to find any entitlement to talk about it. Thank God, I never suffered it, though I know those who have. Sometimes they suffer the consequences all their lives, and in a handful of cases, they bring their lives to an end because of it. Compassion itself seems inadequate here, not by lack of empathy but because it is impossible to know the suffering - to passus cum - caused by such transgression of a human being, whose very world is wrecked often by those who have defined it for them. This is as near as anyone can get, if it were possible, to casting another freewill into mortal sin. No wonder Christ said it would be better that a millstone be tied around the necks of those who scandalize the little ones of God. Of course it is also true that abusers sometimes begin as the abused, in a colossal chain of unstinting misery known to God alone. How our own sufferings seem small in the lights of these scandals.

What leaves me, however, in a similar state of incomprehension are the strategies of those who have been, with the best of intentions, covering up child abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese for several decades. Complaints only started coming to light of course in the 1980s and 1990s, but whether we look at more recent incidents or those that were happening as long ago as the 1930s (cf the Ryan Report on child abuse published in May) - and Lord knows how long before that - it is not modernism which has brought this about but clericalism. By clericalism, I mean not only what the Irish State is now acccused of, in having deferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland in this matter. By clericalism, I mean also the type of churchmanship that serves lower moral considerations at the cost of higher ones. I mean especially the kind of churchmanship that can conceal the sins of the clergy but not, at the same time, punish them with severity. Of course, there is the issue of the private forum. We do not know what penances have been imposed under the seal of confession.

But how can that be enough? Did these people never realise that eventually cesspits have to be cleaned out? That you cannot keep shoving transgressions against immortal souls into the limited space of a nation's mortal psyche? Some spiritual plumber was needed, some moral sanitary engineer, who could have predicted the lamentable outcome. For eventually some blockage always forces the shit back up the pipe, and here we are today, knee deep in decades of foul-smelling, mind-numbing fecal matter, studded with the souls of children loved by God and wrecked by men.

Neither do I buy the line that we didn't really know what pederasty was truly like four or five decades ago. Scandal of the young is specifically and graphically described by Christ as a sin deserving of the worst punishment. What edition of the Bibile were they reading not to have understood that?

Perhaps one of these complacent clerics muttered the kinds of bourgeois reassurances which made Léon Bloy fulminate against the bourgeoisie so much: least said, soonest mended; let's draw a veil over that; it will all be forgotten in a little while. Or perhaps they said something like, 'Well, they were only Christ's words' ...

Like the priest who was preaching on the day John Berryman, the alcoholic American poet and life-long depressive, turned up at church, trembling with the DTs, anxious to put his life right after decades of chaos; he'd been going for a little while apparently. That day though, the priest was preaching about the constraints of celibacy. Citing the words of Christ that there are some who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God he railed against the faithful who put the clergy on such a pedestal. 'They were only Christ's words,' he said. Berryman, rising to his feet, clutching a rosary, sweating, and shaking in anger, shouted out, 'Only Christ words?' And stomped out the door ... later to throw himself off Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

Berryman's life was marked early on by the suicide of his father. I wonder if parental suicide doesn't have a similar effect to child abuse. For what is parental suicide, or indeed child abuse, if not the wrecking of a child's certainties about the goodness of the world? What is parental suicide or child abuse if not the destroying of what is, for the child, the most powerful symbol of God's providence, if not an initiation into an absurd world? Confession makes priests and bishops more insightful about human motives and tendencies than anyone can imagine. The Catholic Church invented psychology long before Freud or anyone else. But how did these Irish churchmen (not to mention those elsewhere) get child abuse so badly wrong? How did they fail so categorically when the stakes were so much higher than the reputation of the clergy? When the stakes were immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God? God save us all from the unintended consequences of our own complacency.

You cannot serve God until you've lost your reputation, said Saint Teresa of Avila. That is a lesson the Irish Church - and the rest of us by association - have to learn.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

End-of-the-year thoughts

Today's sermon was about redeeming the time before we die. It's a line of scripture which always makes me think of the T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday:

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

Well, of course, redeem the time we must. They are dying thus around us every day, as Mr John Jarndyce says in
Bleak House. But my thoughts today are also lingering on the unread vision in the higher dream.

The unread vision. I suppose there are periods in everyone's life when they feel that the vision is unread, or indeed unreadable. There is lead in the shoes. The mental and affective spine has frozen as if to protect itself from further injury. But must it be this way? Is it excusable on our part?

I don't think this is just about keeping our eyes on a fixed end or goal beyond this life. That of course we must do. But I'm curious about what makes us stop reading the vision in the higher dream. By the dream I mean that which assures us of the larger vistas that lie beyond our stifled confines; I mean awareness of, or sensitivity to, something more enriching that the TV-dinner of commercial society; something therapeutic after the unredeemed quotidian has finished abusing our souls; something restorative after the wicked have pillaged our hearts' reserves and left us for dead. By the dream, I mean the realities that bring both mind and appetite into tune with truth, goodness and beauty.

Does it become obscure because of our circumstances? Do we obscure it by our own distractions? How do we end up moving through solid air? To me it's like losing the taste for food. Something happens to the palette, something in the central gustatory system goes wrong, and the faculty of taste, or in this case the faculty of
reading the vision in the higher dream, becomes confused, unable to tell salt from sweet. But why do we flee the conditions of creativity? Why do we live in miserly fashion rather than generously? Why do we retreat from the challenge of the ludic, to a false repose in static inertia? What has poisoned the system so badly that paralysis has become the only safe option? Why are we counting out life in cans? Cause or consequence of ceasing to read the dream?

But, at that point, have we not simply arrived at the point where T.S. Eliot sat down ninety years ago and wrote:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

And have we caught up with him?


So here I am at the end of the year, resolved to collect fragments. What else can one do? Stravinsky said rules were the condition of creativity in music. I wonder if it isn't the same with all action which is meant to make the mind blossom when it only feels like wilting. Collect fragments, examine them by candlelight, find the cool melodies to sooth the torrid tension, and hope for a better place in the months ahead. Hope for the dream.

I go into the new year - the new liturgical year - with spiritual goals reaffirmed. But I will fail unless I find somehow, somewhere the renewed desire to
read the dream.

Redeeming the time and reading the dream might well be inseparable. For fragments are not so very far from fragile bodies and lost souls.

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change,
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Good intentions

Yeah, well, what do you expect? I'm busy. I've also been distracted today, keeping my eye on a slow-cooking hand of ham. 3 kilos at 120C for 8 hours and, bingo, fantastic ham. You have to shove up the temperature as high as it will go just for the last bit to crisp up the skin.

If that was a side issue, the main business of the day was ploughing through Paul Claudel's La Nuit de Noël, 1914. What an extraordinary piece of theatre! Jean and Jacques, a seminarian and a secular school teacher, are killed by the same bullet as Jacques tries to rescue Jean from no-man's land. They appear in an antechamber of the afterlife, which resembles a propsect of Rheims cathedral, and discuss life, death and salvation with the dead children of the War and with a murdered priest. With the approach of midnight, the curé leads them all in prayer, as the German canons boom out twelve times, ostensibly to destroy the cathedral, but ironically marking the advent of Christ. That has to be symbolist theatre at its best.

Well, to bed now. I have much to do this week. This has hardly been soapbox piece, except for the boredom quota. That you can always rest assured of ;-)

Sunday, 8 November 2009

When rights do not apply

On Thursday the Catholic Education Service responded to the government's proposals for Sex and Relationship Education. Notably they were responding to the proposal that Sex and Relationship Education be obligatory after the age of 15. In this respect they were disappointed 'that legal encumbrances mean that a blanket right of withdrawal can no longer apply', yet they welcomed the fact that the government was going to respect the rights of parents to withdraw their children from these classes up to the age of fifteen.

Did I miss something there? Is it the case that if the government honours your rights, that is all well and good, but if it dishonours them, it can be blamed on 'legal encumbrances'? What is a legal encumbrance anyway? A piece of fruit? A lawyer slumbering in the corridors of the Old Bailey perhaps?

And here is another thing. If parents are the primary educators, then unless they are proven abusers, their rights over their children cannot reach a point of inapplicability. When a right like that no longer applies in some political dispensation, then we should call such inapplicability what it is: a violation of rights.

Still, if that wasn't bad enough, consider this. Who - just who - exercises the right to withdraw their children from Sex and Relationship Education? It isn't the kind of parents whose children run amuck, share generously their STDs and keep the abortion services in work in these difficult times. It isn't, in other words, the kinds of parents whose failures as educators might spur any government into trying to make up for their lacunae. It is the kind of parents who object in principle to the morally relativistic or indifferentist dynamics of government-provided Sex and Relationship Education. It is those who object to the medicalization of abortion, as if it were not a moral issue. It is those who do not go doey-eyed over government proposals or proclaim the creed of 'attending to nurse' ('for fear of finding something worse').

So if the Catholic Education Service is not there to protect the position of such people, what is it there to do? The only Catholic thing about this response to the SRE proposals is the wafts of incense it seems to be sending in the direction of government pieties.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Bonfire of the vanities

While the rest of us are quietly ignoring Bonfire Night, the puppy-kicking author of Orwell's Picnic has devised another method to commemorate the Reformation.

Step forward and be heard Miss White.

Remember, remember ...

Do look at the Matt cartoon today.

My sentiments exactly!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Causa honorabilis

You know what drove me to the soap box? It was Stephen Fry.

He's never off our screens these days, and he has been in the news again this week when he said was going to give up Twitter because one of his many thousands of followers said he was a 'bit boring'. I've tried Twitter, and a 'bit boring' is something of an understatement. Still Fry's reaction - teddy slung from cot, threats of stopping Twittering, hurt feelings - just defy belief. He's a manic depressive of course and has our complete sympathy. But threatening to stop Twittering because someone thinks he's a 'bit boring' is getting beyond the realms of preciousness.

Any sympathy I feel for Fry evaporated though when I read last week about his remarks to a Nigerian archbishop during the Intelligence Squared debate.

'What are you for?' he growled at the poor cleric.

And on reading that, I thought it was about time I joined the melee.

Ahem, ladies and gentlemen ...

The odd thing about starting a blog is knowing that, for a while at least, nobody will read the thing. Not even the author! Still, since we cannot but start at the beginning, all I can say is that I am here to blog. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, I have to use a soap box to do it ;-)

I'm not going to define what this blog is about. Any reader with half an ounce of sense will know. And any reader without half an ounce of sense is invited to shut up and take notes.

And if that little bit of cheek makes you feel like criticizing, let me offer you this piece of advice from Victor Borge:

Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. Then, when you criticize him, you'll be one mile away, and you'll have his shoes.

Back in a mo.