Irish Times 14 Aug 2023: Rite and Reason: The poet’s work shows us how to be ‘exuberantly open’ to life
For those of us in later life, who grew up in traditional Catholic Ireland, especially in rural areas, our story of religious belief has been interesting, and often difficult. Many of our age group grew tired of all the commandments and threats of eternal damnation, and ceased believing. Others accepted the doctrines and practices, and lived their lives as best they could in allegiance to them.
Some of us, without losing faith – faith in God, as distinct from a faith that equated with adherence to rules – struggled to find a more meaningful image of God, based on the words of Jesus: that he is the way, the truth and the life. A new book, just published, by poet John F Deane, Song of the Goldfinch, is the best description I have read of a life journey from a narrow religious belief to one that, in his own words, seeks to be “exuberantly open to the world”.
Link to article in the Irish Times:
Growing up on Achill Island, he developed a deep love of nature in all its manifestations. After five years boarding in a Jesuit school he spent a few years in a seminary, but left well before making any final commitment. Gradually he began to question the church, and most especially the image of a distant and judgmental God it presented.
“Down through the centuries the beautiful house of Christ had been slowly but surely swallowed up by all the scaffolding the church, as institution, had been building up around it, and that we had spent too much time up on that scaffolding, scraping and painting, and looking down from on high on the passersby below. But the way, the truth and the life that Christ had shown us all had been hidden and lost behind walls and barriers of authoritarian and institutional demands.”
The God he came to know more deeply was in and around all of creation and that same spirit imbued his own life
Discovering the writings of Teilhard de Chardin at this point in his life began to open for him a new and greater vision of the Christian message. De Chardin was probably the first to apply the evolutionary understanding of the universe to the spiritual life. It dramatically changed the traditional understanding we in the Catholic Church had of God, as distant, unchanging and, while Jesus had talked constantly of the love of the Father, we still managed to project this distant God as severe and dispassionate.
John F Deane quotes de Chardin: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eco vivimus.”
This understanding of a divine presence in all of creation put a new perspective on life. Deane’s love of the natural world, far from being an obstacle to the spiritual life, became one of the greatest openings to the divine presence. The God he now came to know more deeply was in and around all of creation and that same spirit imbued his own life:
“To call oneself a Roman Catholic is perfectly fine, but I prefer now to touch on the wider sense of catholicity, to see my faith as all-embracing, to include all peoples, all honestly held belief and unbelief, all work that moves to forward humanity in peace, justice and harmony. To be a Christian, then, is to be aware that the whole cosmos is moving and evolving as one, that all through time something new is being continuously formed and reformed through the force of evolution. To be part of this Christian thinking is to be aware that creation has been moving forward from the first moment… and we are invited to be part of that incredibly wonderful process.”
The truth and the life that Christ had shown us all had been hidden and lost behind walls and barriers of authoritarian and institutional demands
I believe that John F Deane has done a great service to many of us, myself included, who have tried to rid ourselves of the baggage of guilt and fear which, unfortunately was part of the traditional Irish version of Catholicism. He shows us the pathway, to use his own words, on how “to evolve from fenced-in faith to one that is exuberantly open to the world”. If we read this book, we might stop worrying about the future of the churches because, to quote, Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The Holy Ghost, over the bent world broods.”
Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest. Song of the Goldfinch, by John F Deane, is published by Veritas.