Friday, November 13, 2009

Maynooth & a black cat

A poignant visit on Samhain to what was Ireland's Catholic citadel. There for a conference on alternative spirituality in the island, quite a contrast. As I entered the two-hundred-year-old courtyard towards my dorm room, twin Gothic spires and gathering clouds matched a Halloween mood.

Tonight, as I post this, it's two weeks later, Friday the 13th. Superstitions long shadow our souls. I crossed over and over that weekend the bridge between old seminary and new campus, traditional beliefs and innovative syncretism. For Ireland, as NUIM presenters argued, Catholicism itself becomes another choice. The Alternative Spiritualities conference, attended by nearly 70 academics from 15 specialties and as the blurb boasted, from three continents (there was another American identified on the program and I heard a couple of presenters with mid-Atlantic Yank accents starting or trying to go native), was what I'd hoped for. Not the crusties and crystal-chanters I'd expected, although a couple of anti-cult protesters stirred up some Q & A.

Jenny Butler of University College, Cork, gave a discussion of neo-paganism in Ireland. I asked her what distinguished its Irish version from British or pan-Celtic practice. She explained three manifestations: the use of Gaeilge, the attention to the Sí (fairy women is a poor, deracinated translation-- we've fallen far from graces post-Iron Age, and the goddess banished underground's the last sign often of the domination of the weaponed man and the sky-god horde invading over nine waves), and the use by some Irish druids of black as an earth color rather than customary Briton white. I will have to track down her essay in the anthology "Modern Paganism in World Contexts" on the Hibernian milieu. My own research that brought me here intersects, tangentially, tracking those who blend Tibetan Buddhism with Celtic Reconstructionism-- if in a manner more syncretic and less scholarly than CR per se. (As within old or "new religious movements," differences endure. For CR vs. "neo-pagan" Celts: Paganachtd CR FAQs.)

Laurence Cox preceded my presentation on the "invention of the concept of Celtic Buddhism" with an expansive talk on the history of Buddhism and Buddhists in Ireland. He explained to me later that what he'd been commissioned to write as a short chapter in a book about Irish religious variety turned into a six-hundred-page manuscript. He's currently readying it for publication. Although due to an Journal of Global Buddhism article by him and Maria Griffin forthcoming [here it is: link back from TOC on left-hand margin to Volume 10 and then to Articles under pp. 93-125 for "Border country dharma: Buddhism, Ireland and peripherality"] I was not able to draw on his research much in my own, which had already been completed before then, I look forward to learning much from it in an area that I'd have expected barely could've produced a pamphlet. That was before my own foray resulted in a 15,000-word article I narrowed down to 9,000 for the conference proceedings and 2,600 for my Power Point talk that drew on its most visually accessible elements to ease comprehension and entertain listeners. Prof. Cox related my paper as "hilarious," and I admit it's an accolade I welcomed although few contenders that weekend may have striven for such an encomium.

Audrey Whitty of the National Museum of Ireland's preparing an exhibit on Albert Bender, an Irish Jewish patron of the arts who lived in San Francisco among the wealthy bohemian crowd in the smart set days of earlier last century. His donation of Asian art, especially Tibetan thangka wall tapestries, will be on permanent display at the Museum. Audrey's getting her dissertation, based on Bender's collection, and she and I made another fine pairing after Laurence Cox's presentation. Three papers on Irish reactions to Buddhism: a great panel ensued.

That done, I relaxed. The "vegetarian by default" soups and curries proved excellent; the crumble and currant buns the last night were just as welcome. I'm never skilled at small talk amidst six dozen strangers, but I found an interesting dinner companion with Brigitte Veiz, from Munich. She presented on the Rainbow Tribe's circle making, and has published a book on the ritual meanings of her hometown's Oktoberfest. She regaled me and another lecturer with what the abundant beer steins propped on enormous platters in front of heaving bosoms symbolized.

Other papers on such topics as shamanism, astrology, Celtic spirituality, Lough Derg & a Hare Krishna "lake isle" both repackaged for ecumenical seekers, monastic retreats, and AA appropriation of religious terminology were also well received. The sociologists dominated; as an outlier, like usual, I found their perspective instructive-- citations, theories, and methodologies set up every argument. I wish I could have heard more of them, as two or three sessions competed for my attention.

I chaired a spirited session on goddess worship and feminist spirituality. I had to use my own diplomatic skills honed by moderating students when it came to acknowledging a listener's assertion that modern-day witches had not reclaimed successfully the term as a positive one vis-a-vis popular culture and common usage, and validating as equally true the speaker's countercharge that the term deserved to be acclaimed in a reversal of the negative.

Neither side gave in, both claiming fairly their advantage, so I let the audience listen and chime in and clarify before we all moved on. Witches, at least outwardly practicing ones, even in Dublin had not dared to come forth until about the early 80s, around a decade or more after their British appearance on an accepted scale. As with many phenomena we studied that weekend, Ireland's entry into the esoteric lagged behind that of the Continent and the rest of the English-speaking world. It made me wonder about the resurgence of Western neo-paganism. I'd mused as a schoolchild, hearing from the parish clergy the demise of post-Vatican II Catholicism in a France and Italy then under assault by hippies and Commies, if the Church would shrink back as the forces of nature fought back after a millennium or two of oppression. I had sort of cheered, even as a kid, for this heathen comeback, as I'd resented humorless naysaying Patrick's easy besting of the Celtic druids.

Constructing such comebacks, rather than as some speciously claimed to my judgment of continuing an underground tradition by a great-grandmum who was a "Wicca healer," appeared the cause for a few of the presenters who mixed their scholarship with their practice. This also made me vow to reread Ronald Hutton's magisterial "Triumph of the Moon," a book which my cyber-pal "Bo" at Cambridge, himself a scholar and participant-observer at least in the past, has noted (only last week) decisively proved in 1999 to neopagans what the general public knew ca. 1964: nobody can be believed who claims to be the heir of a dozen generations of adepts, descended from survivors from the "Burning Times." Gerald Gardner, basically, was right.

Much as Buddhist academics commonly do, or Maynooth's theologians, this blend of detachment with commitment from what the social scientists who made up the majority of presenters call participant-observers intrigued me. You don't get the same match up at literary conovocations. Profs may love what they read, wish to be a character, but they don't truly act it out as a ritual or a belief. Being a lit-crit type, I don't get to witness this from my field unless I'd happen to see what I never have: say, a lecturer dressing up as a Jane Austen character or a critic parading as a fellow from "Wandering Rocks" across Dublin on Bloomsday. (I know the latter surely happens, however.) And that's for show; some of my colleagues here affirmed what they analyzed. That makes for an intriguing blend of partisanship and analysis.

Well, I liked hearing from those who took the study of the oft-derided or distorted New Age seriously. My own talk earned more laughter than the hidebound, cited, and methodological norm, so I kept a low profile and let others have their earnest if occasionally ethereal say. We had time to explore this fascinating topic, thanks to two rather than three speakers (as my topically themed panel had been logically restrained by time) so we had two leisurely presentations followed by a generous Q & A time that satisfied all, especially as dinner succeeded it promptly.

I also had time on my stroll back the first night to learn about research done by a fellow (and unlike me alas still practicing-- although Carole Cusack's dissertation on the Catholic eradication of the Saxons in Germany soured her so on the Church that she resolved to pursue paganism as her field thenceforth) medievalist from Australia into current fringe groups-- or as the conference phrases them, "new religious movements." She and I chatted about the Worldwide Church of God, a spin-off of one of my pet-likes of psuedo-scholarship, the British Israelites. Herbert and Ted Armstrong, father and son, had their headquarters just up the freeway from me, and I recalled their ubiquitous newsletter "The Plain Truth" and their handsome campus, now a military-industrial contractor's urban sprawl. I wondered what happened to them, why they vanished so suddenly. She told me the whole organization imploded quickly after the revelations that old codger Herbert in his '80s married a sweet young thing and used some church funds for a penile implant.

Leaving her and my comrades that day who sauntered down to the Roost, the nearest pub outside the old seminary gates, I wondered-- after jet-laggedly walking back over the footbridge from the featureless, drab suburban NUI campus to the old seminary to my dorm-- why the chapel was closed. I tried the doors, but a sign said the floors were being cleaned that weekend. I noticed a small box outside the entrance: marked "Poison Bait." I laughed to myself that my host in Drogheda, with whom I'd already exchanged a couple of chats about Dawkins vs. Hitchens, Dennett vs. Harris, the neo-atheists like himself, would've loved that sight.

That Halloween night, a black cat scampered ahead of me. I hoped he didn't eat the bait. The moon shrouded in clouds turned a harbinger of storms the next day when I'd go to Tara and Loughcrew, pagan sites again. I sat in the only holy place open at 10:30 the second night I was there, St. Mary's Oratory. I lingered there a while with my thoughts, but the noise outside by the Royal Canal distracted me. No sanctuary candle lit; was this as in Drogheda, no holy water in the font? (I later read that the latter may have been a swine flu precaution in churches, and I mused if the lack of the Sacrament in the oratory was for protection against maurading pagan snatchers of the Eucharist.) Probably the priests had a tabernacle behind their locked doors. The oratory was used however, as books were under the stalls, one with an portable Oxford Student's English dictionary.

That Halloween night, seen dimly through the Victorian iron tracery and the lead-framed translucent windows, firecrackers boomed. A few had the night before, keeping me awake in a high-ceilinged room, where the bulb way up failed to light the space. I tried to sleep, jet-lagged and weary. The next morning, we went over to the conference to find that electricity on Halloween day had gone out over much of the campus. We moved to another building, and on opening it, as I was one of the first inside, a black cat, well fed, walked away ahead of me. I figured he was the same one who greeted me as I closed that long All Hallow's Eve.

I walked about the courtyards, and hardly any way back into the dorms was open. You had to enter into a single door cut within the closed massive wooden doors, stepping over a threshhold, to get through to St. Patrick's dim interior. Imperious prelates looked down, reminding me of Francis Bacon's portrait. Latinized first names, dates of rule, endlessly in file. The far reaches were often shut to the laity. I wondered about the few seminarians and priests left, always retreating as the vacant dorms became a "conference center."

A Nigerian, in a black coat, slacks, shoes and white shirt, and I exchanged greetings in the elevator; he asked me if I was there for "The Gathering," the other meeting held there that weekend. I explained my "Alternative" allegiance, although I guess neither of us knew exactly what the other was talking about. So mirrors the Irish psyche today in its former redoubt. Poverty once pushed many second sons into Maynooth; now many enter Indian or African seminaries. I hope they find their calling for sincere reasons, not out of escape, lucre, romanticism, or rejection.

Maybe the black cat's path led to a better Catholicism, more humble, less assertive, more sensitive, less domineering. I wished silently the Nigerian well on his path. Both of us open to new influences, from far off realms, still drawn to this center of spiritual exploration, however reformulated for a very different century and evolving nation.

Malachy O'Doherty's "Empty Pulpits" (reviewed by me last month on the blog and on British Amazon) suggests that whatever form the Church will take, it will be more akin to cultural Catholicism akin to that in Western Europe a half-century previous. Tom Inglis, a noted sociologist who's long studied Irish Catholicism, defined for us four types now: orthodox, cultural ("belonging without believing"), creative ("mix & match" with other practices), and individualistic "pick & choose on an ad hoc need). Maybe Poles will follow their emigrants here to minister to the natives. Or, Nigerians for their countrymen.

Still, as Maynooth's eerie architecture, so short of human habitation over long stretches of hallway and garden, shows, there's a dramatic loss of energy within these venerable stones. Still, as my hosts in Downpatrick would remind me, it tended to fall upon the second son, the one who didn't get the farm, to be sent off to the seminary. Like it or not. I assume the few now here enjoy their stay much more.

The pleasant gardens thrive, but can its floral caretakers-- I guessed I heard Polish or Lithuanian-- renew the indigenous fauna? Perhaps the fate of the Anglicans in their own homeland, reduced to curators more than curates often, will happen as Ireland's celibate ranks dwindle. The imposition of male priesthood either results in a few ordinands who cannot handle so many duties, or the simple relegation of parishes to lay ministers doing all but saying Mass, which may become as infrequent in Patrick's realm as it was on the American frontier, or maybe for a congregation in the penal days in Ireland itself.

I walked impressively echoing corridors, framed with enormous pictures (see pictorial samples here; compare above 75 in class of 1947 with perhaps a dozen from 2008) of those ordained each year. My dorm wing of St Patrick's Seminary had those from 1917-18 to the early '40s. One giant frame was half-obscured by a falling-apart cabinet. Many photos had faded, damaged by light, moths, or water stains. They were all labelled in the old Gaelic font and all surnames and dioceses were in Irish. My dad had been born the first month of 1917. I counted the number of ordinands: 68. Further years had about as many, steadily. I don't know where 1940s and '50s were located, but downstairs the parade continued apace. If I had memorized specific years of a few priests I'd once known, I'd've looked more carefully. However, I suppose All Hallows, now all but closed in Dublin, educated the clerics for the foreign dioceses; Maynooth seemed to pluck the cream of the crop for home service as I recall.

Surprisingly, compared to Los Angeles in number of Catholics about the same amount during my lifetime, the number of Irish vocations continued far greater into 1980s and early '90s than my hometown. Only about ten years after the sex abuse scandals hit both places did Maynooth's classes precipitously plummet as blank spaces filled the frames. Populated more then by deceased professors than new priests, old faces jostled with the young. By 2007, five dead, four ordained for all of Ireland. This year, up to six. Even then, some were for abroad: San Diego, Johannesburg, Spain.

The place resounded with my boots. I felt sad by it, for it reminded me again of the Church of my childhood, of my family and friends then and now, of a few classmates who had persevered to be ordained. But, did the Church, to use my panel's slang, get karmic justice? I suspected among the ranks on the walls those deserters, shirkers, and failures who'd emerge after their appointments to parishes and schools.

I could not forget those who had fallen from their vocation, by whom I'd been taught. One, a bishop, had been disgraced by a supposedly coerced affair with a young man he ordained under suspicious circumstances. A con seems to have embroiled both men, unqualified priest from Costa Rica and seasoned bishop. Blackmail and embezzlement ran the diocese he'd been brought in to salvage (after the previous bishop's sex scandal) into the ground. He was sent off to a monastery in Arizona. There he died from cancer last month. When I found out he was ill, I right away sent him a card with a handwritten note expressing my thanks for his example way back when, but I also could not forget my tacit message, of how far he had lapsed from his own high standards. My dad, a stern judge of all in authority, once pronounced him the "best priest he'd ever known," and even he, after scandal broke, expressed what by his standards again was a generous judgment in his grumbling old age, that the priesthood must have warped my former mentor and prevented him from being the kind of man he was meant to be.

Sexuality, celibacy, (homo)sexuality, power, money, control: all these tempt so many of us, in and out of the priesthood, to temptation. Classmates of mine suffered abuse. I forgave my one-time religion teacher in my heart, but I knew many of my fellow congregants could not. Freed from the Church, I hold no grudge. I am grateful for its education and generosity to me. Yet its internal oppression and psychological imprint have long marked my weakness. I understood those with whom I'd been raised, and shared if not their lost investments nor their own resentment still my own steady, but ineradicable, ebb of faith. I don't blame the clergy for my own mature decision to move away from the Church-- that's a twisted form of the Donatist heresy-- but I do charge them with perverting their trusted calling to the faithful.

I knew in Ireland the pain had in many cases been far worse, for young boys and girls rather than grown lovers had been entangled and destroyed. The orphanages, industrial schools, and reformatories, coupled with a sexually ashamed culture far crueller than even in Irish America, enabled horrors to endure. I have sometimes wondered, if my birth mother had borne me but a bit earlier an ocean away, how I might have fared in her homeland, left to mercies and cruelties as a child of sin.

A decade after the scandals hit, marked on the walls of the corridors, the fresh priests dwindled to a handful, literally, at last. That image above of twelve priests for 2008 is the best showing for a while compared to the years on each side of it with half or less that apostolic number. The annual photos on the walls of the echoing corridors accused their handlers as well as moved me, for in their often implacable gazes above "dog collars" I imagined that conspiracy of silence which my old teacher had perpetrated in the diocese he led, the sin against those that Jesus had condemned as that never to be forgiven, leading astray the little children.

I passed by the footbridge a hideous statue opposite the John Paul II library (itself no charming site). Two children knelt before a looming bulky papal figure, stylized into a Stalinist steel memorial rather than a loving homage. Also, the poses of a burly man clasping the necks of two youths towards his center as he bent over them disturbed more than inspired me. It seemed a poor tribute to what the Church could have erected at its Pontifical University, in honor of the 11,000 priests-- I wondered how many, or few, more would follow-- ordained here since 1795.

The chapel was closed off, but the postcard made it look splendid in the mode of the architect Pugin who designed the dining hall named after him. I sat one morning, having paid about $11 I figured for a big bowl of porridge, tea, an orange, and toast, under a portrait of one of the many rectors. I chose him, far off down the tables that sat 250, since he looked like me, if I was twelve and dressed up in a cassock. His name was not recorded, and his tenure brief: 1853-54. He appeared sensitive, young, and nervous. He must have been overwhelmed, post-Famine, by his appointment.

Under the portrait, immediately to the right, Sunday before I left with a few of the New Age scholars and neo-pagan fifth column to visit Tara and Loughcrew before heading up to Downpatrick in the All Saint's Day rain, I heard but could not see the priests who ate in their own separate refectory. Their accents sounded like the men I'd known as a boy, of twelve. They sounded hearty. I saw an umbrella over a chair. An unseen hand closed the door behind them, perhaps sensing a pair of foreign ears far down the hall from the usual paying guests.

I kept the big orange for my lunch. I wound up carrying it in my suitcase two days until I ate it, dripping over a Sunday copy of the Irish Independent I'd snatched as I left the Dublin plane and saw it discarded, at my layover in O'Hare. The fruit, which must have travelled a long way to Maynooth already, kept delicious.

2 comments:

Bo said...

Thanks for this wonderful post!
I wish I had attended: i was going to offer a paper about AE and the Gods of Irish Mythology, which i'm actually just writing now. The second book is going to be a cultural history of the Tuatha De danaan, from the early medieval period through to the present day, so I might contact your woman at TCD! (If you think she wouldn't mind.)

Early morning here: dawn breaking over the scholars' garden, strong tea, and 5,000 words of research to write by 1pm. Aoibhinn beatha an scoláire, as someone commented on Cantos!

Fionnchú said...

Lovely life of a scholar-- with always another deadline. Hope yours was met; if you hit 15k recently in your book ms, surely you did again. At the start of the decade, I heard a paper by Nicholas Allen (maybe also at TCD?) on AE; he later published a well-received book on George Russell. I'm sure you know of it, but a reminder (as yours on Hutton for me) helps revive weary academic reveries, along with strong tea.