A generation in search of spirituality
Western People 23.11.2021
A poem, Bravado, by Gerard Hanberry stays with me. It’s a re-action to a conversation with a friend, about life, death, the hereafter. His friend dismisses Hanberry’s nonchalance in the face of distant death. When the time comes, his friend suggests, he will ‘invite the good Padre with his mumbo-jumbo to be off with himself’.
Hanberry doesn’t accept this. He tells his friend that ‘they got you young’ and that, as a result, he has been ‘humping a rucksack of guilt’ since childhood. When death comes and his friend is facing the darkness, Hanberry believes, he will be ‘trying to work out some policy for the hereafter’.
You could imagine Hanberry and his friend having a drink in a pub and the conversation drifting towards the big questions, including death. As they do with drink, as with life.
I don’t know what age the two friends are but I’d suspect in the thirty-something category. They’ve gone to college, have done the prescribed gig to Australia, married, bought a house, changed a car or two, had a few children and now they’re trying to work out what it’s all about. Hanberry’s generation, in Hanberry’s phrase, find themselves ‘scanning the ultrasound print of your own mortality’.
Thirtysomethings are searching for something. They don’t know where the itch started or even what it is but they sense that it isn’t what their mothers are telling them they need: believe in God, go to Mass, teach your children to pray, live with mystery. They’re being offered a religion but what they suspect they need is a spirituality.
They find that they are uncomfortable with their parents’ attitudes and values. They react against the accepting, almost credulous approach of their parents – ‘the priest said it so it must be true’ – as their instinctive reaction is to question. They find they can’t assent to truths that their parents accept without question.
When they go to Mass they find the ritual formal and unsatisfying. It doesn’t engage them. It’s as if it’s in a language that they don’t understand. They find too that priests tend to lack the reflective capacity ‘to say something’ that connects with where they are.
For a while they persevere out of loyalty to the food of their youth or the promptings of a parent or unease that they may be letting their children down. But gradually they leave the Church behind, airbrushing it out of their lives, apart from the inconvenience and awkwardness of First Communions or Confirmations.
The Church is for them now – in a world where so much seems so relative – still too sharp, too arrogant, too packaged. And against a background of the child abuse scandals, it’s easy to excuse a defection from its ranks.
Yet, in the small hours, they wonder about life and death and whether they should be giving their children something more substantial than karate or ballet lessons.
There can be a great sadness in the thirtysomethings that despite their education, money, lifestyles and resources, they sense the need for a spirituality that would put a better shape on the lives they lead.
They’re searching for, indeed hungry for, a meaning that would, as one of them put it, help them ‘find a place to go when I realise there’s nobody who can fix things’. A place where the questions at the very heart of life might be given space to breathe.
What, it would seem, many of them are looking for is a scaffolding to sustain a meaning that they sense is at the heart of life. They feel the weight and texture of life. They have a keen sense of what it means to be authentic. They know what they’re looking for but no one seems to be able to provide it.
On the few occasions they find themselves at Mass, they’re critical of the sermons and the predictable and unsatisfying formulaic worship serves almost to convince them that the Church is not the place where they will find what they are looking for. They want a liturgy that speaks to them about the compelling needs of their lives and, if they could get what they’re looking for, they would drive a hundred miles every weekday to get it. Or so they say.
When, like Gerard Hanberry’s friend, they have a few drinks on them, the thirtysomethings can find themselves dismissing religion and church as, in Hanberry’s phrase, ‘all that medieval twaddle’. But in their more reflective moments they realise that you can’t just glibly dismiss centuries of ritual, tradition and thought – anymore than you can justify going off meat because the local butcher can’t get his act together.
Especially when, as the years go by, the thirtysomethings begin to experience the empty space the loss of spirituality opens up in their lives as they begin to suspect that they’re mutating into younger versions of their fathers and mothers – but without any real sense of what makes any sense if their own lives.
They begin to suspect – and they may be right – that the thirtysomethings are a lost generation suspended in an in-between world, happy enough to shed their religious affiliation but often perplexed by their enduring hunger for a spirituality that creates a space at the heart of their lives from which they can draw meaning.
And sometimes wondering what the loss will mean for them and their children.
And wondering too, with all they have going for them, why they have a growing perception that their parents (who had so little) seemed to be much more content than they are.