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Lent 2017: Conclusion

I’ve been asked for a short conclusion, which is rich, since I don’t believe in periods or in punctuation as anything other than necessary human helps in the live-stream sacredness of the mystery of our everlasting finitude. I do believe in disclosure, when it’s an epiphany and not an indictment, but closure usually signals revenge or retaliation. The desire to have the last word is itself a form of violence.

So.

Mottoes change, and no one mantra has the stamina to steer us through the whole of life. When I was little, I loved the Hail, Holy Queen, both in English and Latin, because, in my particular case, the holiness of the world opened up to me from my toddler years, under the sign of its femininity; and, while I cherish the men who sired and schooled me, parent and priest alike, fatherhood never mirrored or magnified the overwhelming fragility of God, whose face, like that of a child with Down Syndrome or the orang-utan in the zoological gardens, bespoke the saddest and the sweetest gentility wherever I saw it, and I saw it throughout childhood and puberty.

The testimony of adolescence, which was seminal, saw me swerve decisively towards wine, women, and song, in the belief, which is a crucial stage in our spiritual groundswell, that Jesus is not enough; and, until I was post-graduate and briefly penniless in the early 80s, I failed to realize that joy, the body, and the plenary chant of languages, are manifestations of the holy spirit of the God of the Galilean. In that sense (and the senses are excellent theology, especially if they’re joined by the sixth sense, which is a sense of humour), the Most High is poorly named. Most Low is maybe more telling.

Most Deep, on the other hand, can be the pits. “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beside me”, that long prepositional litany from an authentic Celtic church which New Agers shouldn’t sanitize, is no nightingale serenade for a sweetheart Holy Ghost, but a petrified attempt, more Tourette’s than poetry, at personal exorcism in a possessed state; and, in the years of hair-pin perils and switch-back psychoses, when my brain was misbehaving and my mind in meltdown, stuttering that charm was more than a placebo and less than a pharmaceutical. It was the prayer of the exit-wound of the navel after the cord is cut; it was the bloody mouth of the belly-button in disbelief.

Hospitals, of course, secrete the strangest of pious ejaculations, and my favourite, for a while, although I would always and everywhere reverse its order, has been: “Doors opening, doors closing”, from the soprano Sat-Nav voice at the abyss of the institutional lift-shafts, the recitation of which must, if you’ll indulge me, remit some of our long-stay purgatorial in-service hereafter. Indeed, it’s the very same voice that tells me the alarm system is arming on the speaker at the keypad in my hall-way where I used to hang a holy-water font with a little Lourdes water until my oil-fired central heating dried the last drops of it.

Now, in the lovely long evenings of what I take to be Compline, I’ve regressed to the breast-and-bib profundity of the girl from the orphanage, who raised me from the dead a dozen times and put flesh on my skeleton key. There is good in the worst of us, and there is bad in the best of us. God is good, and so is his mother.

It has taken me seven decades of Sunday scholarship and weekend study to reach her luminous mysteries. As her last text to me still says: “It is Heaven here at the bus-stop in Rialto”; and she was not, be it said, in the lagoon of Venice, but in the Coombe of central Dublin.

Long story short: there is no such thing as a free Eucharist. The Latin compromise – break bread, but don’t drink from the chalice – is, alas, an enduring amputation of the sign. There is, in local fact and in the more loyal literary fictions, no such thing as an oasis of peace. An oasis of peace is a contradiction in terms. It is an oxymoron. Ask any Bedouin.

Or ask Francis Xavier, whom Dubliners delight to call upon as Saint Francis Ex-Saviour by pronouncing the X as a separate syllable. Ninshitsu, the Zen abbot of the monastery at Fukusho-ji, was a dear friend of his during his time in Japan, yet he scandalized our aboriginal Ignatian (we know this from letters sent home/Rome) when that formidable Jesuit asked him one day what precisely his monks were meditating upon in the serenity of their stone garden. While I can’t quote Ninshitsu verbatim (Francis’s letters don’t appear to be online yet), the gist of his response came straight from a Nipponese Nazarene. “They’re thinking about money and material things”, the abbot told him, “and how much they’re going to make when they’re out begging.” And he laughed like the Dalai Lama.

Aidan Mathews

Passover/Holy Week 2017