Contact Us

Anchoring the altar: Christianity and … art

30 July, 2010

In this fascinating book, Mark Patrick Hederman OSB argues that, far from being irrelevant in the twenty-first century, Christianity like art needs to and can find new forms that can give vibrancy and vision to the many different cultures in today’s world.

pp 156. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online see www.veritas.ie


  1. Anchoring the altar
  2. Christianity and art
  3. Art as education
  4. Art and the eucharist
  5. Hopkins between two wrecks
  6. Christianity and the Irish


Mark Patrick Hederman OSB sees art as a way of teaching us how to see things as they really are. In relation to culture it functions as a critique of what seems to be, offering a different perspective, a way of looking at things that we might not have thought about.

The Judaeo-Christian revelation performed a similar function in relation to natural or traditional religions. It offered a freedom from the slaveries natural religions were prey to – magic, idolatry, superstition. In this similarity of function he sees art and Christianity as allies.

The purpose of his book is, he says, as far as possible, to persuade the Irish people of the twenty-first century not to abandon a very deep and ingrained devotion to Christianity and to the Eucharist. All the success in the world will be sawdust and tinsel, he says, unless our connection with the depths of our own reality and the reality of the marvellous is maintained. Artists provide the sinews and the flesh of true vision, prophets and monks like himself are the sentinels who sound the horn to alert the people when anything strange or dangerous is near. Liturgy, he says is sui generis and like the heart, has its reasons that our reason knows not of. The task for today is for art and religion to find new forms and elements which give will give life, shape and expression to the reality of the marvellous in our own day.



Christianity is not a political party, a social system, a club, a union or a league. It is not founded on a concordat, a manifesto, a policy statement or a creed. There is no such thing as a national church. Any allegiance to some ethnic, political, social or cultural subgroup must be eliminated or attenuated to the point of being acknowledged as something secondary. Christianity is a way of life; life at its fullest. Like most lives lived to the full, this is achieved through love. Christianity makes available the love-life of the living God. Access to that life, its source in our world, is established and guaranteed through a certain kind of liturgy.

This book is, therefore, about worship. It is about making sure that when we do wprship we are surrounding the right altar in the right way and using the correct forms of worship. Otherwise we are deluding ourselves. Otherwise we are omitting from our lives the most important primary relationship we are capable of accomplishing. Without genuine and immediate contact with the living God we are living only half a life. Christianity proposes, to anyone who wishes to avail of it, a form of worship which guarantees such contact on a daily basis.

Many people today suggest that Christianity, as a religion, has done more harm than good to the planet and to humanity. They hold that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is responsible for the inhuman manner in which we have treated each other in the past and, more especially, for the irresponsible and greedy way we have treated planet earth. Some who exclude Judaism from this blanket condemnation, who even hold Christianity responsible for the crime against humanity of the holocaust in the last century, claim also that Christianity turned Judaism into a rape of the ‘natural’ world.

Much of what has happened during the two thousand year history of Christianity is open to such accusation. Crimes and horrors have been perpetrated by its members and in its name. However, the point of view being presented in this book is that in spite of the aberrant behaviour of many of Christianity’s adherents the truth which it embodies and which is its direct source and origin is still the truth that can save us and save our world. And by ‘save’ I mean accomplish for us, in us, through us, the highest form of life possible to imagine, both now and in eternity.

Before Judaism, most religions were ‘natural’: they were both a worship of nature and a natural worship. Their basis was fear. Fear that fragile human beings, the least likely species to survive on the planet, would be thwarted, starved, suppressed, by the Power or ‘powers’ of Nature. Religion was a strategy devised to appease, seduce, captivate, harness, delude, distract, disarm the overriding thraldom of these gods of the natural world, on which human beings depended for the air they breathed, the food they ate, the water they drank, the crops they cultivated, the herds they kept, the prey they hunted, and the health that allowed them to undertake and enjoy all of the above.

Judaism was the first atheism. It cut the roots of that sacral connection with the earth which tied humankind into a slavery of service to greater and lesser gods. Judaism’s fulmination against every form of idolatry was an attempt to free humanity from slavery to divinity at whatever level. Every time primitive human beings heard a clap of thunder or a flash of lightning they fell to the ground in terror. They imagined powerful gods behind each manifestation of elemental fury. They had gods of fire, of water, of earth and of air. It was the genius of Judaism which released them from such fealty. The Jewish religion was built from an experience of liberation. The ‘Exodus’ was the essential movement and foundational origin of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Textually it can be shown that the book of Genesis and the account of creation in the Hebrew Bible are based upon more ancient accounts of the Exodus that are more primitive and original.

The essential movement of this religion is to detach deity from the earth and place it in a realm beyond, which is untouchable, unreachable. The account of creation is intended to show that God created everything in heaven and on earth. In other words that everything in the world we inhabit is the same as ourselves, a created object, a thing. God is essentially ‘other’ than such created stuff. Primitive humanity thought there were descending orders of divinities that inhabited the heavens, the stars, for instance; that there were gods of the ocean and gods lurking in every bush and tree in the countryside. Judaism swept away all those deities and squarely determined the essential difference between the created world and the ‘other’ world where the glory of the Lord dwelt in inaccessible splendour.

God put human beings in charge of this universe as his representatives as his ‘image and likeness’. This was not to give them licence to destroy or diminish the rest of creation but to ensure that they realised their own full potential and nobility as sons and daughters of God. They should be free from all inferiority complexes, calling no one or no thing ‘master’.

Judaism also changed the relationship with the divinity into a relationship of love between equals. This monotheistic God was not a whimsical tyrant who slaughtered and punished at will. He had entered a covenant with his partners on earth and this was embodied in the Law: The great intuition of the Jews was that the Law in this sense was greater than God. That God was in fact subject to the law, which was what established the equality of all of us, including God. The law; the Torah, was that great invention of an omnipotent God which allowed Him to abdicate his sovereignty and allowed us to establish our independence. It was the mortising conduit, like a lock in a river or canal, which allowed two levels to align with each other. Later, the law became hardened into a barrier and had to be replaced by the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ who carried in his person the everabiding link between us.

The Jewish religion not only established a new relationship of responsible stewardship with nature and the created world, it also changed the relationship of each of us as human beings to each other. Each one of us became a unique infinity, in short, a God. We were all placed on that pedestal and became Gods by adoption, which means equality with God and with each other, because there is no greater or lesser in unique. It is like zero, it is unmatched and equal to itself.

Love your enemy, welcome the stranger, treat everyone as your equal; treat them as you would treat yourself. All this ran contrary to the ‘natural’ order where most tribes thought of themselves as the chosen people, the place where the world began, and every other tribe as lesser and less favoured by the Gods. All human evaluation was hierarchical. Such is the basis of most sacral religions, which for the most part, condoned human sacrifice and found aliens and strangers the least troublesome of these necessary propitiatory offerings. Better no religion at all, Judaism would proclaim, than a ‘natural’ religion that demands the sacrifice of the alien on the altar of the incumbent.

There is a tendency today, both in ecologically sensitive observers and anthropologists, to demonise the Judaeo-Christian religious insight as having led to the domination and destruction of the planet, and to idolise the aboriginal and indigenous religions of the world as having had more respect for nature. This is, like every heresy (which word comes from the Greek word meaning to select or to choose), an exaggeration of one half of the truth to the exclusion of the other half. Because truth is always complex and comprehensive, it contains the correct elements in both sides. Most primitive religions were indeed ‘respectful’ of nature but at what price? It was mostly a dehumanising fear that caused it. So, the step forward towards freedom, the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt, led by Moses and accomplished by the Jews, was essential and definitive. Humanity was different from that time forward. Now; I agree that they took it too far, that humanity abused this privilege, or rather certain dominant tribes of humanity overreached their mandate, and that with the gargantuan growth of technological power, this became, in the last few centuries, the technological rape of the planet. But that eventuality must not blind us to the truth which made this option possible. We could have used such freedom more beneficently, and could still do so, but the ultimate value is that freedom itself.

Let me take an example that is parallel and which shows something of the nuance which I am trying to establish. The infamous (Spanish) Inquisition, which has become the caricature of the Catholic Church at its very worst, and which no one could possibly defend and everyone should repudiate in the name of humanity, was actually begun for humanitarian reasons that are understandable. Its original intention was to prevent the horrific injustice of mob hysteria and lynch law which spread like a plague all over Europe. The fear of witchcraft and of ‘sacral’ religious powers of one kind or other produced a reign of terror whereby anyone even mentioned as a witch was mobbed and lynched without trial. People could further their careers, appropriate lands, wreak revenge and settle scores, by falsely accusing neighbours or enemies of being witches or wizards, and the unfortunate victims were cruelly tortured and murdered. It was to counteract such unsupervised lynch law that the Church introduced a tribunal which would give some objective recourse to those accused of heresy of whatever kind. The later aberrations and abominations of the ‘inquisition’ should not distort the fact that it was begun to offset an evil even greater than it later became in itself.

Now such arguments might seem somewhat academic if it were not for the fact that these realities still exist today. There are still tribes, peoples, nations who have not been liberated by the Judaeo-Christian cutting of the umbilical cord with the earth. They are still living in sub-human fear of some deity, some principality or power, which reduces them to trembling non-entities when they should be walking tall and taking their place as equals. One Nigerian leader of the recent past has said of his own country: ‘Nigeria is the one true giant of Africa. Her peoples constitute nearly one half of the black people of the continent and two in five of all black people in the world. The resources concentrated within her borders would be the envy of most countries in Europe and the Americas, her landmass is huge, her climate largely benign. All this should have made her not only the most powerful country in the black world, but among the dozen most powerful nations on the globe.’ This is the view of the former leader of the Biafran war of secession. He communicated his views to the then BBC correspondent covering that terrible war which Biafra lost. The then BBC correspondent, who was Frederick Forsythe, said he had rarely met a more gifted human being. He wrote a book about him called Emeka, which was his first name. Obviously Emeka’s analysis of Nigerian failure to measure up to its potential includes both its crippling history and geography which were both fashioned by its colonial past; it also results from more recent bad government and corruption: ‘Without organization a society is destined to seize up, choke and eventually die. A state where the services do not function, where the citizenry is not disciplined, where crime at every level runs unchecked, where leaders are not accountable to the led, and where justice is available to the highest bidder – such a state cannot inspire in others outside that confidence needed for leadership abroad.’ But there is more than that, he thinks, and this is where his argument touches the need for the Judaeo-Christian revolution at the heart of every person’s liberated humanity. Emeka sees himself as inheriting a religion of another kind: ‘Being Black means having a certain concept of life, of which the major strain is of being close to nature. But this also has a concomitant weakness in lack of technology and fear of the supernatural. . . . The Black man’s God is a God of retribution; awesome, unapproachable and merciless. The White man’s God is a God of love, mercy and forgiveness…. Faced with a strange mountain…. the Black man turns his back on this terrifying monster, seeks out a calf from his miserable herd and begins the regular sacrifice to the god of the mountain. Very soon the mountain has become sacred and therefore impenetrable. For me, Black means in a word “disadvantaged”. The moral and emotional fabric of Western Civilization is based on the concept that Black and inferior are synonymous.”(1)

So, what I am saying is not that Judaeo-Christianity has had a benign influence on planet earth. I am admitting that its influence has led to unspeakable crimes and inexcusable exploitation. However, I am maintaining that such aberrations were not necessary; were not ‘Judaeo-Christian’ in essence; they simply resulted from the dangerous freedom which these specific religions instituted. And I am defending that freedom and the Judaeo-Christian tradition for alone effecting such freedom in an otherwise irretrievably cowed and terror-stricken humanity.

It took several centuries for humankind to work out the mind-blowing extent of that freedom. In Christianity itself, it was the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) which defined it most accurately. The key verb here was the Greek Sozein, meaning to save. The incredible awareness dawned on these Fathers of the Church that God came on earth not just to ‘save’ us from ourselves but, more importantly; to save us from God. The scope and extent of that freedom accomplished by Judaeo-Christianity has only become apparent in the last century where we developed it sufficiently to allow ourselves to destroy; if we wished to, the whole planet. This life, this freedom, willed for us by the living God, has put our life definitively, and ever so vulnerably; into our own hands.
The fact that we have used this freedom to become genocidal monsters, technological murderers, planetarian devastators, is certainly attributable to Judaism and Christianity; but only because these were the instruments of our liberation, the teachers of our autonomy, the mid-wives of our freedom. Nothing must prevent us from recognising the irreplaceable and incalculable value of that freedom. Judaism and Christianity snapped our chains; what we began to use our hands for after that liberation is a different story; is our responsibility.

We have to understand that Judaeo-Christian tradition properly if we are to judge it and if we are to live by it. Anything less, as St Paul warns is:

According to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8)

When dealing with Christianity as well as everything else we must follow the precept: ‘test everything; hold fast what is good’ (1 Thess 5:21). And when we are separating the chaff from the wheat we must be careful not to throw out customs and rituals which were natural and yet can be adapted to the worship aligned to our new found freedom. On the other hand we must be careful not to erect false idols and worship these on a Christian altar. Anyone who would seek to place the living God on the same altar as their deposed idol without a change not only in the subject and the object but also in the movement of religious fervour, says Martin Buber, another great twentieth century Jewish philosopher, is guilty of idolatry. Religions of sacral power are sedentary, nationalistic, partisan, racist and earthbound. They can never be substituted for the religion of Christianity. Nor can this Christian way of life be used to bolster them.

The origin of Christianity is outside our world, beyond our understanding, above and beyond our nature. It comes to us through revelation. It is the living God who makes this presence known and felt in our world as something that comes from elsewhere, as a meteor might come to earth from outer space. Except that both the meteor and outer space belong to our natural world. Christianity is, therefore, a mystery religion. It is founded on a mystery, transmitted through a mystery, understood, in whatever way that is possible, as a mystery.

The milieu in which Christianity took form was one quite familiar with mystery religions. The cults of Eleusis, Dionysus, Attis, Isis, Mithras for example offered their devotees, their initiates (mystes), salvation (soteria) by dispensing cosmic life through various sacramental actions which allowed for essential change through participation with the deity. These mystery religions comprised both cultic actions such as meals, fertility rites, baptisms, investitures and symbolic journeys, and they involved hidden teachings, an arcane secret tradition with regard to which the initiates took vows of silence. Such secret knowledge differentiated them from outsiders.
St Paul uses much of the terminology of a mystery religion when introducing his converts to the essence of Christianity. Mysterion, the mystery, is the eternal counsel (wisdom, sophia) hidden in God (Eph 3:9) before ever the world came to be (1 Cor 2:7) whose eventual manifestation will mean the end of this world (Eph 1:10). The apostolic mission is part of the unfolding of this mystery (Eph 3:2,9) and Paul himself as steward of the mystery must be acquainted with these secrets, the gift of a prophet being to penetrate the mysteries of God (1 Cor 2:10; 4:1) and become acquainted with all the mysteries. Mysterion (the hidden mystery) is connected with Kerygma (the proclaimed message) as the Father is manifested by the Son, who is an epistle (trom the Greek epi + stellein, meaning ‘to send’) trom God. The words used by Paul in at least one of his own epistles (2 Cor 4:6) are still causing difficulties of interpretation, coming as they do after his description of the Christians of Corinth as in themselves a letter of Christ ‘prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on human hearts’ (2 Cor 3:3). The verse in question uses the Greek words photismos tes gnoseos tes doxes tou theou, ‘the true “gnosis” owed to an action of the divine light’, and is translated in the new revised standard version: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ So, all knowledge of God is a mystery both in the way it is communicated and the way it is received. No human agency has proprietory claims, production control, or distribution rights in this regard. The way a mystery is handed on is itself a mystery.
Tradition in the early church was a fund of unwritten customs and mysteries making up the sacramental and religious life of the community (ta agrapha tes ekklesesias mysteria), necessary for understanding the truth of revelation and pointing to the mysterial character of Christian knowledge as a gnosis of God (gnosis theou) which is a gift conferred through such traditions.

Later, very much later, this oral tradition was written down and eventually hammered into dogmas and a credal formulas which became the breviatum verbum (the abridged version) as John Cassian (2) calls the Symbol of Antioch, making allusion to St Paul in Rom 9:27-28, who in turn is alluding to Isaiah 10:22. It was in the fourth century that the preferred rendering of the Greek term for mystery became ‘Sacrament’ which referred most especially to Baptism and the Eucharist.

Gnosticism became the first heresy with which Christianity had to contend, and from which it had to differentiate itself. It is understandable that every attempt was made at that time to rid the newly established mystery religion of all connection with, and all ambiguous terminology redolent of, the circumambient local cults which threatened to invade, dilute or dissipate the originality which Christianity incorporated into its liturgy and sacraments. However, the bitterness and intensity of the struggle between Gnosticism and early Christianity was owing to their proximity rather than their difference; was caused by the similarity which threatened to absorb, rather than any heterogeneity which might define them as contradictory opposites.

Whatever the dangers of misinterpretation or of identification with alien religions, Christianity remains essentially a mystery religion. And this means that its substance, its secret core, can never become comprehensively enshrined in any work of human hands of whatever variety or intricacy.

Christ came on earth to reveal the mystery of that life which is lived eternally by the three persons of the Trinity. He replaced one mystery with another mystery. The only reality as mysterious as the three persons in one God is the reality of the human person. And this is the basis of our religion, the mystery on which it is founded. When Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’ the answer was silence. The truth, in person, was standing in front of him. No more accurate or comprehensive embodiment of truth could have been present to him. The person is the only reliable expression of truth. Jesus Christ never wrote anything down himself. The only recorded account of his writing was with his finger in the sand in front of the woman taken in adultery. So, any account of his life or his teaching is second-hand. And all such accounts display glaring inconsistencies and irreconcilable disagreements.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the essential mystery upon which any faith in Christianity is based, was an unwitnessed event. No human person was present. Witnesses have testified to having seen his empty tomb; others claim to have met Jesus Christ in his resurrected humanity; but no one knows how or when his dead body was brought back to life.

Tradition for Christianity is the process whereby the mystery of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God’s love in person, is transmitted by his followers. These followers are now organised into an official body called the Church. However, the truth which they transmit is ultimately derived from an oral preaching by the original bearers of this truth (which is no more and no less than privileged contact with Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord in person) passed on in many different ways through the ever-present agency of the Holy Spirit.

The word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin for handing on, or handing over. In Greek the word is ‘paradosis‘ which is used in the New Testament both for the way in which Judas ‘handed over’ Jesus as betrayal in the garden (Mark 14:10; 1 Cor, 11:23) and the way Christians ‘handed down’ their beliefs (1 Cor, 15:3; 2 Thess, 2:14).
Every form and variety of tradition must travel the narrow path between these two translations. At every moment we can be betraying the truth and preventing people from seeing it. Tradition itself is free of every determination and cannot be contained in any formula, locality, or cultural manifestation; any historical embodiment limits it. Tradition in itself is silence and every word of revelation has a margin of silence. Certain nuggets hewn from this great silence have come down to us in both the Scriptures and Liturgical tradition but, as Ignatius of Antioch says (Ephesians 15:2), ‘The person who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear also its silence’. If all the great silence of tradition had become scripture, St John tells us, ‘then the world itself would not be able to contain the books that would have to be written’ (John 21:25). The silence is our turning towards the great abyss of divine love, towards which every scrap of revelation, every detail of tradition, points.

Tradition as silence and as incomprehensible mystery translates itself into various traditions which help us to gain access to it. These can be found in certain human organisations, structures, documents, dogmas, formulae, creeds, etc. They can materialise through Councils of the Church, writings of theologians and doctors of the church, canonical prescriptions, liturgical practices, devotional practices, iconography, and so on. But they are all secondary tributaries of the original silence of Tradition, which remains unwritten and mysterious. Tradition as such can never be found in itself in the horizontal tapestry of local and cultural traditions. In fact, Tradition is the way in which the Holy Spirit allows each one of the faithful to detect the mystery of Christianity within the length and the breadth of the ‘horizontal’ pattern of traditions. St Paul prays for the Ephesians (Eph 3:18) that they may be able to ‘comprehend with all the saints’ not only what has become the ‘length and the breadth’ of Revelation but also its ‘height and depth’ which are never captured in the earthly forms.

Tradition from our point of view is more the unique way in which each of us is prompted to receive the ‘words’ of either scripture or liturgy, the symbols or the images of our cultural traditions, than it is any of those particulars in themselves. Ignatius of Antioch tells the Magnesians (8:2): ‘It is not the content of the Revelation but the light that reveals it; it is not the word but the living breath which makes the words heard at the same time as the silence from which it came’. In this sense, tradition becomes more the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment to each of us, so that ‘those who have ears to hear with, may hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. Tradition is no more or no less than the life of the Holy Spirit in the church communicating to each one of us as persons, bestowing on us the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the light which is divine. This is the knowledge of the truth that will make us free.

In his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky shows us in’The Grand Inquisitor’ some of the great temptations which beset every human being as a religious person. The story imagines that Jesus Christ returns to earth in Seville, Spain, in the sixteenth century and is personally confronted by the leader of the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor explains why Christ is so unwelcome back here on earth and why on the next day he is going to have him burnt at the stake as a heretic. His harangue is long-winded and intelligent. But as in former circumstances the Christ figure remains silent.

“People, so long as they remain free, have no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship. But they seek to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable, indeed, that all human beings at once agree to worship it all together . . . the absolutely essential thing is that they should do so all together. It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every person individually and of humankind as a whole from the beginning of time” (3).
“You knew; you couldn’t help knowing this fundamental mystery of human nature, but you rejected the only absolute banner, which was offered to you, to make all people worship you alone incontestably – the banner of earthly bread, which you rejected in the name of freedom and the bread from heaven. And look what you have done further – and all again in the name of freedom! I tell you human beings have no more agonising anxiety than to find someone to whom they can hand over with all speed the gift of freedom with which the unhappy creature is born. . . For the mystery of human life is not only in living, but in knowing why one lives. . . And instead of firm foundations for appeasing our conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond our strength, acting consequently as though you did not love us at all.

….. Instead of taking possession of our freedom you multiplied it and burdened the spiritual kingdom of human beings with its sufferings for ever. You wanted our free love so that we should follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you. Instead of the strict ancient law, we were in future to decide for ourselves with a free heart what is good and what is evil, having only your image before us for guidance. . . . It was you yourself, therefore, who laid the foundation for the destruction of your kingdom and you ought not to blame anyone else for it. So . . . we have corrected your great work and have based it on miracle, mystery and authority. And people rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep and that the terrible gift which had brought them so much suffering had at last been lifted from their hearts. Were we right in doing and teaching this? Tell me. Did we not love humanity when we admitted so humbly its impotence and lovingly lightened its burden and allowed that weak nature even to sin, so long as it was with our permission?”

‘When the Inquisitor finished speaking, he waited for some time for the Prisoner’s reply. His silence distressed him. He saw that the Prisoner had been listening intently to him all the time, looking gently into his face and evidently not wishing to say anything in reply. The old man would have liked him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But he suddenly approached the old man and kissed him gently on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man gave a start. There was an imperceptible movement at the corners of his mouth; he went to the door, opened it and said to him: “Go, and come no more – don’t come at all – never, never!” The Prisoner went away.’
‘And the old man?’
‘The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man sticks to his idea ‘(4).

What Dostoevsky is so graphically describing is not just the church’s inclination towards totalitarian authority, but, more importantly, our conniving penchant for such authoritarian rigidity also. Whether we are aware of it or not, everyone loves to have a strict governing authority somewhere in the background. And, indeed, as far as the church is concerned, there has to be one. Someone has to be responsible for saying yes or no on various questions and in difficult situations and this has to be one person, in the idiom of Christianity, the person with that particular charism and gift of discernment. The buck has to stop somewhere, as we all seem to agree everywhere, even today! The bishop is meant to be that person in each constituent diocese of Christianity. But even, and perhaps especially, among bishops there has to be one head. It is quite clear, from even a cursory glance at the New Testament, that Peter is primus inter pares (first among equals), even if it is also clear that he was by no means the most intelligent, the most sensitive, the most diplomatic, the most talented of the apostles. However, the way in which such priority and such leadership should be exercised is open to interpretation. Above all it must be a primacy of service.

We are perhaps fortunate over the last quarter of a century to have had a Pope who is so willing to be one. Someone who gets up every day for twenty-five years and is ready, willing, and able to be everyone’s shadow daddy. And anyone with any spirit of fairness will have to admit that he has done it with panache.

Margaret Thatcher only lasted half that time. Ian Paisley is probably the only politician in Ireland who has been with us and shouting at us for as long.

Irish people too, in the meantime, have grown up and are not quite as biddable as they used to be, not quite as overshadowed by the father archetype. Despite all the papal ranting about contraception the school-going population is decreasing by eight thousand every year, nationally. These are facts not entirely owing to the rhythm method, which Pope Paul VI thought compatible with Catholic practice. Contraception for most Catholics these days is not one of the articles of the Creed. Even our older nursery rhymes have adapted their endings:

There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe
She didn’t have any children
She knew what to do!

Christianity is a living tradition. Its fundamental source is the Spirit who breathes where the Spirit will and who is independent of any ecclesiastical forms or formulae. These remain close to the Spirit as long as they are not removed from such contact. Liturgy and the original oral accounts of what happened were always seen as Prima Theologia, whereas dogma and the credal formulae which synopsised these and turned them into propositions were understood as Secunda Theologia. However, in recent years this comes as a surprise to most people. Alfred North Whitehead has put it starkly: ‘Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogma’. And Vladimir Lossky, the great Orthodox theologian, says that ‘a doctrine is traitor to tradition when it seeks to take its place’. Dogmas are a safeguard not a source. The word comes from the Greek for ‘what seems right’. In essence Dogma proclaims that Prima Theologia, the primary text, can mean this and this, but not that. They put a fence around the meaning to safeguard it from corruption, dilution, oblivion.

Gadamer in his book Truth and Method makes a very interesting point: ‘The general nature of tradition is such that only the part of the past that is not past offers the possibility of historical knowledge’ (5). The only way we can remember anything is through something which still exists in our contemporary world. There has to be some relic, memorabilia, remnant or historic remains that are still with us today and that allow us to determine the source of our historical knowledge, practice or belief. Nothing remains of the founding fact of Christianity except the effect it had on the contaminated survivors. How then does the tradition of Christianity survive? What is it that we remember?

‘Do this in memory of me.’ Christ is remembered after two thousand years in a series of cultic actions which are known to the faithful as the Liturgy of the Eucharist or more popularly as the Mass. How is this possible? If anyone of us wanted to be remembered for even a hundred years what would we have to do? Football fans in the middle of the last century swore they would never forget the eight members of Matt Busby’s Manchester United team who died in an air crash in Munich in February 1958. They would remember especially the star of the team, Duncan Edwards, who was twenty-one when he died. A former England team manager called Duncan Edwards ‘the very spirit of British football’; at Old Trafford ‘the supporters used to watch him in a state of perpetual adoration’. In Dudley cemetery his grave has a headstone with an ingrained picture of him throwing in the ball. One of the flower stands is a mock football. His father was a gardener at the cemetery. Visitors would say the same thing: there will never be another Duncan and we will never forget him. There is a stained glass window memorial to Edwards in his football togs in the parish church at Dudley. Mr and Mrs Edwards had two carrier bags full of letters of sympathy which came to them after Duncan died. Friday was a popular day for visitors to the graveyard, a lot of lorry drivers from Manchester among them, on their way home for the weekend and the match at Old Trafford. It is not yet fifty years since his death. How many still remember?

Cinema goers in the 1930s said that no one would ever forget the ‘Queen of Comedy’, Carole Lombard. She was married to the ‘King’, Clark Gable. She danced with George Raft in Bolero, played opposite William Powell in My Man Godfrey, and Charles Laughton in They Knew What They Wanted, directed Alfred Hitchcock himself in one scene of Mr and Mrs Smith and starred in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, before she died in a plane crash at Table Rock mountain close to Las Vegas on January 16, 1942 at the age of thirty-three.

Even Shakespeare, who is remembered through his plays and his poetry after four hundred years, has to be converted into cinema to reach a larger audience. Otherwise you have to be able to understand English to remember him; you have to be able to read. There are more illiterate people in the world today than there ever have been since the world began. None of these can participate in such acts of remembrance.
It is true that Aristotle, Plato, Euripides, Alexander the Great, among others, are remembered as household names in Western European civilisation. However, the exact content and the everyday effect of that reminiscence is minimal except in the case of a handful of professors and students.

Napoleon writing from exile on the island of St Helena tells his correspondent quite frankly that he is the greatest person who has ever existed on this planet. The reason for this, he explains, is that by the sheer force of his personality, by his real physical presence, he could get any person standing in front of him to do whatever he wanted them to do. His point is well illustrated by the hundred days after his return from that exile when the whole of France seemed to capitulate to his sheer presence and allowed him once again to take charge. However, even he makes one exception. There is one other person who is greater than he and this person is Jesus Christ. And the reason why he is greater, Napoleon tells us, is that he can exercise such magnetism over people thousands of years after he was physically on earth. His personal presence is not reducible to, nor dependent upon, his physical historical reality as a human being.

Shelley has a wonderful sonnet, ‘Ozymandias’, which, according to Diodorus Siculus, Greek historian of the first century BC, was the Greek name for Ramases II, who reigned in Egypt thirteen centuries before Christ was born. Ramases wanted to be remembered forever and so had erected the largest statue ever seen in Egypt with the inscription: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works ye Mighty and despair!’ He meant to imply that anyone looking at this statue would despair of ever being in any way important in comparison with him. However, the words now read with mocking irony because the statue has long since been destroyed.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And yet, two thousand years after he did it, Christ’s act of remembrance is still performed all over the world. And, again, we must be clear that this is performance art. It is not enough to think about it, or to commune with it in the Spirit. It is an act, a deed, and it has to be done.

All of which helps to show that the way in which Jesus Christ is remembered after two thousand years is so ingenious that anyone can avail of it, anyone can participate. You don’t have to be able to read; you don’t have to belong to any tribe or tongue. You can be there at the mystery whoever you are.

That is why it is a rite, a cult. Doing ‘this’ means an action, something done. It is not something written, something promulgated, something explained. It is the mystery unfolded in our presence.

Which means that Christ was also the greatest artist the world has ever known. He left behind him a work of art which endures after two thousand years. It was a very simple and direct act. But as a work of art it was a five sense breakthrough to the world of humanity. In fact we can even make a parallel between the five wounds of Christ and that five sense breakthrough in the liturgy. The wounds were the breakthrough in the other direction towards God. The Latin word for such wounds (vulnera) is the same as our word for vulnerability. God made himself vulnerable to us. We had a way through to him. This is what we mean by transcendence: a way out of our human situation to a beyond. In theology there were always four ways to make this breakthrough. These were called the transcendentals: they were, and are, The Truth, The Good, The One, and The Beautiful. In the past the first three were emphasised – we had the truth presented to us in creeds and formulae of faith, or we stressed the good in terms of ethics and precepts of morality, or we aimed towards unity either in marriage or in ecumenical effort. Today it is the fourth of these ways towards transcendence which seems to be the more accessible and appropriate.

In the Catholic Church one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, built his life’s work on the beautiful as the icon of our lives. However, any of these paths towards transcendence, towards relationship with God, are equivalently valid. It does not matter which station you take to enter the subway, as long as you reach the same track that serves each one as a means of transport. As the great artist of the Fourth Gospel puts it (John 14: 2-4):

There are many rooms in my father’s house;
if there were not, I should not have told you.
I am going now to prepare a place for you,
and after I have gone and prepared you a place,
I shall return to take you with me;
so that where I am
you may be too.
You know the way to the place where I am going.

Anchoring the altar requires four kinds of presence, at all times of change, development or inculturation: the priest on one side of the altar with the people on the other. Whether the priest faces in any particular direction, whether the priest is a man or a woman, whether the priest is married, celibate or in a relationship with someone, all of these are secondary and optional. The important fact is that whoever is celebrating the Eucharist should be an ordained minister. The ordination ceremony is one of the most significant examples of Tradition
as silence. The moment of transmission of the ministry of priesthood takes place during a rite in which the bishop and other ordained ministers who are present place their hands in silence on the head of the one to be ordained. Tradition as the power of the Holy Spirit conferred upon the newly ordained happens as this silence.

Apart from the priest on one side of this altar, the people are, of course, the essential ingredient at the other side. So much has been written and spoken in a condescending attempt to make people take themselves seriously! There is no church, no incarnation, no resurrection, no creation, no love, no sacraments, no mystery, without people. In the liturgical space every single person is infinite, eternal, total, and complete. Uniqueness allows for no comparisons, no hierarchies. Around the altar each one of us, and this includes the persons of the Trinity, are unmatched, peerless, and nonpareil, and each one of us is equal to the other. Any perceived disparity of either distinction or importance is of the order of service, a job that has to be done, for which someone is chosen or appointed. There are different charisms and different gifts, but the essential core of personhood is both what matters and what constitutes each of us as distinctive and each of us as loved.

So, again in this realm of charism, just as in the icon (whether written or painted) of the Transfiguration, while the chosen disciples were worshipping on the mountain, to the left and right of Christ transfigured, there were two other representative figures: Moses and Elijah. So too the Church transfigured today requires two other charisms and ‘gifted’ persons to give balance and beauty to tradition renewed. These two are the anchorite and the artist.
The word anchorite means hermit or recluse. It comes from the same root word for place, chora, which the Greeks reserved for that second kind of space which is opening to a sacred dimension. This person has to be in living contact with the risen Lord, a contemplative who has direct access to the Holy Spirit, a medium of tradition because rooted in its source. Such a person is in this world but not of this world because energised by the time-space dimensions of resurrected life. In this dimension there is neither male nor female and it is unimportant which gender happens to grace any particular moment or occasion, but spiritual history attests, right from the first historical manifestations of resurrected life, that women are more likely to be in place.

Artists are the last on the list of required attendants at this liturgy although there is no hierarchical or ranking order involved. The reason I place them last in this account is because I have already tried to describe their essential role in depth and in detail in a previous book (6).

Other ways of enumerating the four square posters which should anchor the twenty-first century altar would be: the priest, the prophet, the poet and the practitioners. When each is pulling their weight the altar is secure in the middle.

The Christian Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. The apostles were those chosen by Christ to report him and his cause aright to the unsatisfied. They had privileged contact with the risen Lord and with the person of Jesus as an historical human being. However, their particular charism did not emerge until after his death and resurrection and until the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost, specifically named – Pentecost referring to the fiftieth day (during which time the so-called’ apostles’ were cowering in an inner room terrified of their lives to come out!) to emphasise the gap between the physical departure of Jesus from this earth and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. So, something happened to them which was the foundation of the Church and it did not happen to them while Christ was with them, it happened fifty days after he had left them and it changed them into apostles, people with a mission. The last of these apostles was St Paul. He wasn’t present at all during the lifetime of Jesus and yet he had his resurrection experience on the road to Damascus long after the other apostles. So, the essential point is this: the foundation of the Church is not attached to any historical moment in time and is not directly linked to the life of Jesus Christ as an historical personage of Jewish origin living in Palestine two thousand years ago. The foundation of the church is a mysterious connection between the risen Lord and individual persons who experience his resurrected person as an event which also causes them to participate in his resurrected being and transforms each one into an apostle.

The Catholic Church has in the past tried to locate this foundation in a particular place at a particular time. It has sought to limit the energetic connection between the risen Lord and his apostles to the group of twelve who were his disciples. However, even the anomaly of St Paul, who must be given much of the credit for the effective spread of the Gospel in early times, defeats that proposition. Apostles did not have to be alive at the same time as Jesus. Transmission of this charism can occur any time anywhere.

The next attempt to limit the ubiquity of foundational power in the risen Christ was the notion of horizontal and unbroken transmission of the charism from the first apostles to the present day. Thus, the hands on transmission of the episcopal office from pope to pope and from bishop to bishop, which of course meant that any break in the chain or any deviant assumption of the episcopal office destroyed the link, cut off the power and rendered impotent all those dependent upon such sources for their ordination to the apostolic role. Any objective study of popes and bishops since the original ordinations supposedly carried out by Christ himself must give the lie to any such theory of unbroken, uncontaminated, continuous apostolic succession. Certainly at one point in Church history there were three popes alive and claiming such unbroken succession. The Holy Spirit at that time did not decide that they were two too many but rather three too many and as usual the Spirit blew where the Spirit willed to establish or re-establish apostolicity.

The original monks in the church were almost obsessed by the notion of establishing the apostolic roots of monastic life. Founders of monasteries, like John Cassian, went to endless trouble to establish that at least one of the apostles had been there to start their movement. Similar mythologies brought Andrew to Russia and to Scotland, for instance, Thomas to India and Mary Magdalene to Marseilles. Whether any or all of these ever did undertake such journeys is doubtful. The point was that unless the monks or the church in a particular area could claim that one such personage had been present when they set up shop it was not possible to ratify what they were doing and establish the credentials of their way of life as a legitimate continuation of the life which God had sent Jesus Christ to establish on earth.

The Church in Ireland was hard put to establish its pedigree and counter accusations of illegitimacy. St Patrick was swiftly elevated to the rank of apostle – the apostle of Ireland – and portions of his Confessions agonise over the possibility of his not having been officially and legitimately mandated by Rome.

Now, the truth of the matter is that unless the church anywhere is founded on the living connection between at least one’ anchorite’ and the living God, it is in danger of apostasy. Apostolic foundation and succession is dependent upon living connection in the here and now between at least one person in the church and the living God. ‘When I return will I find faith upon earth’ is a moment by moment concern of the three persons of the Trinity. And they are not going to fmd this in churches, curiae, tabernacles or ciboria, they will fmd it only in living persons. The church is founded on the apostles and the prophets and not on any stone or document or legal formula or dogmatic treatise or official catechism or established ritual. And this means that unless it is anchored in the relationship between the risen Christ as a person and the person of some either apostle or prophet who has been graced by the Holy Spirit with a real live personal connection with that risen Christ, which is the reality of resurrection, and which allows them to say with utter conviction that Jesus is Lord and that God is Father, then  there is no guaranteed church in that place. All the secondary tributaries of the river of life, whether they be institutional, pedagogical, liturgical, structural, socio-economic or political are directly and unequivocally dependent upon personal connection with the source. And that source is nothing more or less than at least one person’s real relationship with the living God.

After that hypostatic union, to use a technical term, the rest can follow. But that is why it is essential to anchor the altar in the only source of its meaning and power, its efficacy and its orthodoxy, which is the unbroken and distinctly personal life of prayer – meaning by prayer person to person contact with the living God. The mystery of what happens on and around the altar, which is so vitally important to the authentic life of any community, is the mystery of connection between the person of Jesus Christ, his real presence, and the person or persons of those who surround that altar. Remove that connection and any or all liturgy is dead. It is an empty tomb without the risen body and blood of the man Jesus. And that resurrection is a dynamic communion between the risen lord and those around the altar who have also risen from the dead through direct communion with his risen presence. Ultimately the anchor is personal faith.

When we say that Christianity uprooted all ‘natural’ religion from its earthbound, sacral, umbilical connection, we are not saying that it thereby dismissed or discarded every cultural attempt to worship the living God. Once the basic fuse has been changed and once the worshipping community is effectively plugged into the genuine source of life, then every manifestation of local, indigenous, historical, cultic and cultural gestures, postures, rituals and rites of worship can be and should be harnessed and appropriated.

Catholic imagination, especially in its Celtic version, is sacramental. For it, all natural reality is ‘sacramental’ which means, as Andrew Greeley has taken great pains to establish from a sociological point of view (7), that it is a revelation of the presence of God. Greeley’s book is important because what he is trying to do is bring together in dialogue at least three areas of life which have been ignoring each other for one whole century: the areas of art, science and religion. And he is able to do this because he happens to be a priest, a social scientist and a novelist himself. He writes like a storyteller and the advantage of his book is his capacity, which is a rare one, to make perfectly clear and transparent what is in his own mind and what he is trying to get across to the reader. So, it is possible for anyone, who is interested, to read the book. You don’t have to be a theologian, an artist, or a scientist to follow his argument. He has a refreshingly brash disrespect for academic boundaries, esoteric enclaves and scholarly or philosophical subtlespeak. Nothing is off-limits in his argument and no holds are barred. He can tell you, in one page for each, what Marx, Freud, Durkheim, Malinowski, Simmel, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons (and by extension Clifford Geertz), Rudolf Otto, William James, and Mircea Eliade have to say about religion, in case you feel shy about joining the discussion. And then he makes his own argument crystal clear: Religion is alive and well in our world. Those who say that it is dying or dead, that ‘secularisation’ has taken over, are imposing their own ‘dogmas’ on an unsuspecting and, maybe, willing public. The ‘facts’ are clear: most of us are religious and can’t help being religious. It’s like our sweat, it comes with the body: they go as a set. Being human means being ‘religious’, otherwise we die of depression or despair. Life is the first disease. Death is the second, which forces us to hope. Religion is the way we deal with these three. And ‘religion’ is not propositional, not a creed, to start out with. It is a story. The story is the virus which harbours and spreads the dis-ease which everyone is bound to catch because most of us are born into a family or bear a family of our own; and family is
where we become inevitably infected with a particular brand of religion. And of course we can deny this or repudiate it later on. But the overwhelming evidence suggests that ‘people’ today are as ‘religious’ as ever and are likely to remain so. And to be planning a new world for such people without taking this factor into account, is foolhardy.

His panoramic sketch of religiosity in the Middle Ages undergirds his theory that the world was never really’ Christian’ and that Christianity never exercised the cultural hegemony that many take for granted.
Whether his argument is founded or not, I am taking it as a basis for discussion. It is possible that ‘religion’ is a natural phenomenon that locks us into a particular culture, especially when it is ‘the storytelling community’ which ‘develops its own methods for determining which versions of a story are acceptable and which are not’ (8). However, my contention is that Christianity and Judaism were and should be freeing us from the bonds of slavery to any religion which would be tribalistic and demand as its prerequisite either the scourging or the cruciftxion of its members as is the reported case in New Mexico or the Phillipine Islands. Even though Christianity can
adopt many of the endearing, colourful and creative aspects of any such sects, it must always remain an agent provocateur rather than a preserver of the necrophiliac instinct of any such religion. The story of Christianity and of Judaism is the story of the Exodus, the passover from crippling culture into resurrected freedom. Any version of either that confirmed and established a religion of fear or of punishment would be betrayal.

Sociologically I agree wholeheartedly with this author, we must take seriously the religious factor, but theologically we must ensure that nothing (neither story, nor poem, nor ritual, nor religion) can separate us from the love of Christ.

In his later book The Catholic Imagination, Greeley shows another even more important aspect of living religious tradition. He shows that this reality exists even in what academics call post-Christian society. The way such imagination is passed on is not by the channels of official church teaching or catechetical instruction, it is imbibed from the breast of storytelling incubators where each of us were children and adolescents watching and listening to what was being conveyed to us through our living environments.

Alongside a puritanical and dogmatic diet of condemnation and censure of all eroticism in our religion and personal behaviour, there was and is always another tradition, an artistic tradition which dared to display, and so much more transparently and effectively; the essentially erotic nature of our lives and our religion and, indeed, the erotic nature of divine love. Anyone who has viewed Bernini’s statue of St Teresa in divine ecstasy will know that the artist presents her in an orgasmic state. The statue is beautifully reproduced on the cover of Greeley’s book for those who have not had or may never have the opportunity of viewing the original. Anyone who has attended the Easter vigil and watched the candle being plunged into the water and heard the Latin prayer that accompanies the rite will know that we are representing the passionate union between Christ and the Church as the sexual union of a man and a woman, which from the book of Genesis is the chosen image for the way we are made in the image of God. Anyone who reads the Song of Songs in the Bible or the poetry of John of the Cross is left in no doubt about the erotic passion of real relationship with God. All marital liturgies are full of comparisons between the love of the bridegroom and the bride and the love of God for the church, parallels which are not just tolerated hut inspired by the scriptures and tradition of the church.

The art critic Leo Steinberg has convincingly shown a whole artistic tradition during the Renaissance which seemed to be obsessed by the genitalia of Jesus (9). Every picture displays the penis and testicles of the child and often has either the mother or some onlooker pointing to or even fingering these. During the crucifixion and at burial there is an emphasis on the genital area of the crucified, which shows that he was really human, not just a God in disguise. More striking and perhaps more disturbing to the iconoclasts and the puritans, says Greely commenting on this research, are those Renaissance artists who ‘depict the risen Jesus as sexually aroused, that indeed he comes out of the tomb in these paintings with an erect penis, covered by bulging loincloth’ (10) This leads us to the topic of the next chapter which is the artistic channel in the Christian tradition.


  1. Frederick Forsythe, Emeka (Ibadan, Spectrum Books, 1982). cf. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Because I am involved (Ibadan, 1989).
  2. John Cassian, De Incarnatione VI, 3; cf St Augustine, De Symbolo 1; St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis V,12.
  3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, vol. I (5) (Penguin Books, 1969) 298.
  4. ibid., 298-308.
  5. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (1989) 289.
  6. Mark Patrick Hederman, The Haunted Inkwell (Dublin, Columba Press, 2001).
  7. Andrew Greeley, Religion as Poetry (Transaction Publishers, 1995).
  8. ibid., 43.
  9. Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (New York, Pantheon/October, 1983).
  10. Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (University of California Press, 2000) 71.

Tags: ,