The power of words and rituals, Ruth Butterworth

The Source of the Song. New Zealand Writers on Catholicism
Mark Williams (ed)
Auckland University Press, $24.95
ISBN 086473 2872

Catholicism as a “cultural force”? Andrew Johnston very properly has trouble with the whole notion of a separable entity. Anne Kennedy, taking the “ism” to denote a species of believing, wraps it away neatly: “There is belief and there is culture and where they meet is where it is cultural to believe and so one does.” Or did some time, sometimes. Johnston was reared in a post‑Vatican II world. Kennedy, only four years older, grew up on the cusp, as it were, schooled in an interesting time of transit. What you catch, get imprinted with, how experience is transliterated in the last decades of the millennium seems increasingly a matter of contingencies, post‑modern style.

Social formation depends on when you were born, where you were reared, in which socio-economic stratum and, most peculiarly among the Irish diaspora, what sex. From the anti‑sex philosophy (an Augustinian heresy most apt to flourish among a poor, post‑famine people) boys with their dangly bits suffered most often and deeper damage than girls with their more secret pleasures. Puberty blues intensified by purity preachments; imaginings studded with little girls in mock‑up versions of the virgin mother’s blue and white; the good child of Victorian improvement stories, but also, be it known, of Victorian porn and Victorian child brothels; one reason why prods perve over Catholic fiction.

Most of the writers Mark Williams has collected were like Bernadette Hall, “born in the Middle Ages, 1945 to be precise”, she says, and so with a childhood experience of Catholicism “definitely pre‑Vatican II”. It may be as important to have grown up without saturation television. These writers emerged from the confines of that old authoritarian structure equipped with words and knowing their cadences in chant and plainsong. And apprehending the power like Christine Johnson: “If words can transubstantiate unleavened bread into the body of Christ, then the power of the word cannot be underestimated.”

Not that that is why the politicians, along with the Polish Pope, urge return to the old structure, the reinstatement of social control. In any case, in a plural society with joined‑up writing the one true church ‑ in Rome, forsooth ‑ provokes a sceptical frame of mind. For writers contingently Catholic it seems to be more of a way station on a spiritual journey than a cultural force. In discovering Jung and Buber, zen buddhism, the Gita, a certain Hildegarde of Bingen, sufism and Celtic myth, these writers and their peers travelled the ferment which beyond the mid‑1960s overturned settled patterns of authority in a wholly disturbing syncretism. Does it really make them any different from not‑Catholics equally into mysticism and marijuana?

Writing, being a solitary activity, an act of memory or communion on dimensions beyond plane geometry, nevertheless belongs somehow with the tribe. In the case of Catholics ‑ as opposed to Catholic writing ‑ they reclaim for the tribe the spirits the modern institutional church wrenched from it to turn into adjuncts of dogma; turning the figurative into the literal and symbols into “facts” as Andrew Johnston puts it. Whether Jonah resembles Maui and Aotearoa is a whale are truly absurdist questions, the food for a child’s imagination and not to be appropriated. But imperial christianity went about rolling up other people’s gods into a giant bale of astro‑turf. The gods, of course, turned up as “saints” ‑ same places, same altars ‑ or witches ‑ same social protests and better medicine. Whatever St Patrick banished from Ireland (supposedly superstition and serpents) it wasn’t the little people or the giants. What’s bred in the bone is what the writer finds to subvert authority.

Class and ethnic affiliation matter more in personal formation than Roman universalist claims because belief and modes of believing are filtered through their meshes. Add a school to a church, though, and rituals repeated often enough leave their twitches. First Fridays, how many for “a good intention”? Pray for the souls of Bernadette Bloggs and a certain bishop departed in Benin, how many prayers in mitigation? Holy days of obligation, good for the poor to keep them in place long enough to enter the Kingdom. Habits recede, but obligation is the hook of social conscience. It breeds political activists faster than failed abstinence fills the cradles so willy‑nilly the church teaches a secular struggle. Which is why the politics of the left is dominated by former lapsed occasionally conforming Catholics. Being meek is no way for the poor to inherit the earth; fat chance that without some action stronger than stringing your beads (made in Ireland along with the votive candles and those truly awful statues of pale white virgins and bleeding sacred hearts).

Joy Cowley landed up by chance in Avila among the pilgrims to St Teresa’s shrine. She suspended a disbelief in levitation and evidently never read Evelyn Waugh calculating the size of the one true cross from the number of its authentic fragments. These things and their spin‑off souvenirs sustain whole industries; town and shrine take their tithes, the roadside hawkers are at the end of a line of profit takers. Cowley on the way to her decision to enter the church is caught up in the silence born of centuries of chattering prayers. Me, I attended a Breton pardon when I was 13. Too late in my case. Once you know about burning candles, oxygen depletion and what kneeling does to the circulation it gets difficult to accept stories about visions and moving statues at face value.

That insight must have pleased my mother. I loved the local nuns and prayed ‑ to my piano actually ‑ to go to school with them. But they weren’t Montessori trained and they couldn’t teach science. So I went to a school where the (Irish) principal had been the first woman to lecture in history at Trinity College Dublin. A double first, that, in snook cocking, comprehensible only among Catholics who invented McCarthyism before McCarthy and anathematised TCD wherein there was “free thought” and (much more important) Catholic “children” mingled with protestants.

The good child Bernadette Hall produces what she was given of a “revised translation” of the meditations of Thomas a Kempis: “The Excellence of a Free Mind Which Is Gained by Humble Prayer Rather than by Reading”. Straight out from New York it was, provided by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. Another strand, there, of the mind control wars unleashed in mid‑century, a reborn inquisition virulently anti‑communist. Not much later it fuelled the hysterical flight from north to south Vietnam precipitated by the bishops.

What these writers seem to lack is much sense of political or economic history or social context beyond the personal. Hall says she thought a great deal about suffering and saints ‑ assisted by the American pamphlets that decreed “wars, famines, epidemics, storms, earthquakes, floods and other disasters [to be] inflicted for public and national sins”. Well, some of them, at a long bow, but earthquakes? And the holocaust? Whose greed made the sufferings of the poor? Would the annual Peter’s pence, disappearing into the Vatican’s maw, do much to redress the balance? Well, no, and that is still the argument that reverberates around Mother Teresa’s doings; living saint of the new right for whom, as for the old church, the poor are poor because we need them to be.

A tinker by descent, I had a gran who gave short shrift to English martyrs pressed to death in the course of the Reformation; silly besoms, hiding the priests from Rome. It was more or less the same attitude Manchester had towards London; like Rome it swallowed the workers’ surplus value, spending it on high living. Witches, equally “martyred”, were different in her book, part of a long line of social and political protest through which we traced ourselves, the blacksmiths in illegal combinations, the great‑great‑aunt cut down at Peterloo. She voted Tory, though, but that was an inheritance, too: Tories used to be against Free Trade.

These writers mostly seem to have grown into their voices in what very loosely can be identified as post‑modern times. Remembering a recent rearing is something like entering a time‑warp. The small Catholic communities of New Zealand mixed their marriages early. Black-clad nuns and priests and brothers in skirts occupied the imaginations of protestants more than they commandeered the minds of Catholics. A distinctively New Zealand ethos, mildly equalitarian, largely tolerant, crossed the religious divide more successfully than the attempted export from Australia of big “C” Catholic renewal in pursuit of political power crossed the Tasman. Except…

Consider Scottish and presbyterian Dunedin where a cross‑hatch of working class Irish streets housed the disregarded outsider‑others. Described by Christine Johnston, superior in the one true faith, being thereby excused from the calvinist exercises in materialism favoured by the dominant class, they were kept as warm and close with churchy busy‑ness as any of the latter‑day “churched” among Samoan or Tongan people. There was a Catholic voice quite different, often in opposition to, the voice from Auckland or Canterbury. Different tribes? Hardly. The Irish Catholics or protestants arrived as themselves all over.

Different religious establishments, however, travelled differently, had different shelf‑lives, you might say. In Dunedin the presbytery remained important. The Canterbury establishment belonged to the English and Anglican, “but the poor who serviced them and who once physically ejected the council from its chambers were more small ‘p’ protestant than separated Catholic”.

The Wellington of many of these writers’ schooling and residence, on the other hand, was the source of Catholic opportunity. Those schooled as Catholics took like ducks to water to the law-and‑public‑service mix which dominates the capital. What better preparation than trained memory and the exactitudes of theological disputation? Moreover, the public service was (was, not is) service. It was a step up as well, which may have been as important in the scheme of things as an education without television and more so than Vat 2. It is, after all, the patterns of labour, the modes of production and the roles of reproduction which determine our middling days. These shape the communities we belong to.

Williams’ writers’ parents, even those of converts like Cowley and Smither, belonged in some specified social formation. Writers, on the other hand, have some difficulty with this kind of belonging. Joanna Margaret Paul, who lives in Wanganui: “As a Catholic I observe the conventions, am part of a community [because of the children?]; as a writer I can’t take anything on anyone else’s say so; between Catholic and passionate non‑conformist an interior dialogue persists.” Wanganui, where Catholic and quaker informed the character of the occupation at Moutoa gardens; Whanganui spirits more than conventual / conventional Catholic, perhaps?

Mostly, as they all say with differing notes of grumpishness, it’s the power of words and the rituals which licensed mystery and the contemplation thereof beyond the usually allowable childhood imaginations. A gift relationship, then, between church and people; not any more insubstantial than the clean dress and shirt for Sunday Mass.

Ruth Butterworth is a senior lecturer in politics at Auckland University.

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