Review by Philip Harvey first published in Tin Tean in 2012
Underground Cathedrals, by Mark Patrick Hederman OSB (Columba Press ISBN 978-1-85607-695-1, published 2010)
One of the major historical changes in Ireland over the past twenty years has been the withdrawal of popular involvement in the dominant Roman Catholic Church. This is not just disillusion with the Church but angry rejection of its place as a leading institution of Irish life, brought about distinctively but not solely by the clergy sex abuse scandals and episcopal failure to deal meaningfully with these outrages. There is an ongoing sea change, with a need to review its causes and reconsider the future. An impressive aspect of this book by the Abbot of Glenstal Abbey is its primary concern with the people of Ireland and the shape of their future, rather than with the woes of the Church.
Using the image of the cathedral to explain Christian history, Mark Patrick Hederman defines normative Catholicism as coming from two main sources: St Augustine’s teachings, symbolised by the Romanesque cathedral, and St Thomas Aquinas, symbolised in the complete worldview expressed in Gothic cathedrals. Although both theologians developed systems that were open-ended, the Church adopted their work as definitive for Catholic doctrine, with a resulting rigidity that gave little scope for new ideas and discoveries, a rigidity by the way not found in the spirit of enquiry displayed by the saints themselves. Hederman shows how something was bound to give way. In one sweeping chapter he explains what happened to poverty, chastity, and obedience when addressed respectively by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. The Church’s own self-restricting positions, as dictated by Augustine and Aquinas, had turned these affirmative virtues into rule-bound negations of life. Nor did the Church have the imaginative language or flexibility to engage with our changing knowledge of the universal, the social, or the personal.
Such Catholicism was bound to be restrictive in such an isolated nation. Hederman writes, “From the very beginning of our history as a newly formed independent twentieth century state in Ireland, our mental architecture was consciously designed and implemented. National identity was expressed in symbols representing our Celtic heritage, the Gaelic language, and the Roman Catholic religion. These received state and ecclesiastical support. The questionable authenticity of this cluster of symbols has much to do with our current problems.” Hederman is harsh in his description of the construction after 1949 of Galway Cathedral. Dedicated in 1965, it was “an object lesson in insularity,” and “a gloomy monument … to our refusal to emerge from the tomb of medieval Christianity.” The Second Vatican Council, which ended in the same year, produced documents on liturgy that “rendered the shape, style, arrangement and settings of such buildings obsolete and anachronistic,” while across Europe churches in new styles were being built with virtuosity and great theological awareness. This cathedral image is pivotal in his discussion, as it symbolises the unquestioned and unquestioning authority once enjoyed by the Church in Irish society, but also the inertia and even stagnation that can follow from such an overriding role. It also informs his thinking on the sensitive subject of the Ryan Report, where he argues that the power to act on abuse was impossible while for decades no one would have been allowed to say anything against a priest, let alone question his integrity. For Hederman, the Church fulfilled the role of “removing from the people their freedom and responsibility for working out their own salvation, reducing them to infantilism and treating them like children.”
The Abbot has been a champion of artistic expression. He is important, in my view, for being the first reader of James Joyce inside Ireland to treat that literary master as fulfilling a religious vision of existence, i.e. explaining that satire of Catholicism does not make you an anti-religious or non-religious writer. It is Joyce who celebrated the human body, in contrast to the hatred of the body expressed by the Church, such that the Abbot calls it Manichean. So it is not surprising that Hederman’s appeal to the Spirit, his solution to the impasse of the current Church crisis, and the problems of Irish identity, is through learning from artists, writers, and poets. That is the central argument of this book, that “myopically cloistered Ireland” must become open to the Spirit as revealed through these explorers of the imagination. Interestingly, in this respect he offers the same advice given by Enda McDonagh when that moral theologian spoke at the Irish Studies Conference at Newman College in Melbourne some years ago on the subject ‘Faith and the Cure of Poetry’. Both men are looking outside the church for those expressions whereby we may discern the activity of the Spirit.
As well as praising contemporary artists who dare to expose the difficult nature of Ireland today, or who attempt to present possibilities for the future, Hederman also identifies older artists who have become prophets recognised in their own country. Louis Le Brocquy, for example, an artist vilified by the Dublin establishment in the 1950s, he says is “revealing the divine face which is the fundamental reality of who we are at our most creative and at our most personal.” Brian Friel, that proclaimer and revealer in the underground cathedral known as the theatre, produces “life-support machines” that may engender religious experience. Hederman even quotes Friel, who discovered that “this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness.” Then Seamus Heaney, whom Hederman says is “developing an alphabet of metaphysical archaeology and a vocabulary to help us adapt to ‘being in depth’.” The Abbot is realistic in saying that prophets before now have not been received in their own country, pointing to Yeats, Joyce and all who spoke in their generation of a more human religion and a more open Ireland, only to have their main message ignored by the majority. But Hederman praises and enables, getting us to see hope in a time of despair, for certainly he knows he belongs inside a church that is in permanent crisis mode. This book comes out of that understanding, informed though by a love both of church of the Irish nation.
If questions must be asked of the Abbot’s arguments, they go back to first principles. There is, for example, no doubt that any church lacking an understanding and proclamation of the Gospel is not going to last long and cannot really be called a church. Missing through most of his discussion is any mention of Scripture, making one wonder just how removed Irish Catholics have become from the foundation of the written faith. Maybe, and not just maybe, it is time for the Abbot and others to start developing an Irish liberation theology. Beggars can’t be choosers, as those Latin Americans knew who went back to their Bibles and began applying the stories to their own conditions when adopting liberation theology practice. The Irish Church finds itself in a not dissimilar position, where those who remain do not trust hierarchies and crave the living sources that created a Celtic Church in the first place. Visiting Lough Derg is a good start and Hederman has an inspiring chapter on how modern writers (Carleton, McCarthy, Devlin, Kavanagh, Heaney) have used the famous pilgrimage site of Station Island as the place to reconnect with their Ireland, past and present. But without individual discovery of the Scripture it is impossible properly to understand the sacraments, let alone the deeper religious meanings of our artists. Basic ecclesial communities deserve to be the subject of his next writings.
Listening to the people should be a first requirement of a priest and Mark Patrick Hederman is leading by example in this respect. He also understands better than most that art and its making are signs of the spirit, a view strangely out of fashion in the relativistic postmodern art world itself but not with those who look at human expression to explain meaning and existence. Yet it has to be asked how art in all its forms can alone change people’s sensibilities for the better or make them more charitable towards others. There is too an implication here that expressions of the Spirit in Irish art are certain good not only for finding a national future, but a future inside the Church. Catholicism at its best has always gone to artists to explain faith and the whole book is written with this attitude, this sensibility in mind, but I ask if Hederman is not at times unconsciously equating the affirmative pursuits of Roman Catholicism in this regard with Irish national aspirations and hopes, in ways that replicate the same error he is accusing 20th century Ireland of having committed.
Still, the Abbot wants his reader to open her mind, to interpret her dreams. He wants the reader to get in touch with his feminine side, to become aware of his unspoken desires to destroy that which speaks to his reality and to his hopes. He is writing not just to those still in the church, but very especially to those who have left. He is in pursuit of what is called in the three-page poem that opens the book, ‘The Truth of Poetry’, a poem written on the 3rd of February 2009 and handed to the Abbot by one Michael D. Higgins.