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Catholic dreamtime

30 November, 1999

Although he acknowledges the risk of commercialisation, Father Paul Andrews SJ is sure there is a real place for images, symbols and popular devotions in all true spirituality. Northerners like me find it hard to unlearn an ingrained habit: in any new encounter, we keep our eyes open for signs of religious background, Catholic or […]

Although he acknowledges the risk of commercialisation, Father Paul Andrews SJ is sure there is a real place for images, symbols and popular devotions in all true spirituality.

Northerners like me find it hard to unlearn an ingrained habit: in any new encounter, we keep our eyes open for signs of religious background, Catholic or Protestant. (It is easier with Muslims or Hindus.) We try to read the colour of a name (Eugene, Teresa, Fiona, as distinct from Clifford, Trevor, Hazel), indications of a school, accent, job, friends.

I remember my meetings with the secretaries of two fishing clubs, both near Dublin. In one interview, conducted on the doorstep, the question rapidly emerged as to whether I knew the local Church of Ireland rector; in the other, conducted in the kitchen, I saw a picture of the Sacred Heart with a red lamp burning. Though I was dressed in anonymous mufti, I failed in the first application, succeeded in the second.

Deep experience
It is when we are driven back to basic religious memories that these signs become important. As teenagers we go through a critical period (maybe we are now going through such a period in our national culture?) when we ask scornfully where does the Bible recommend red lamps before pictures, and we discard many childhood devotions – the scapulars, apparitions of our Lady, processions and liturgies – as superstitions. Yet many of these devotions have grown out of deep religious experiences.

The Christian community has its subconscious world of stories, memories and images that have a powerful effect on our prayer, but are not easily documented in a way that would satisfy historians.

The biblical book of Genesis is, like the Australian Aboriginals’ Dreamtime, full of parables about the creation of the world and its early history that carry a profound truth for our human condition, but do not relate to the careful researches of palaeontologists.

Pope Benedict does not believe that God made the world in seven days, but he quotes the Book of Genesis for the inklings it gives of our place in Creation.

Personal devotions
Those who have grown up in the faith find that they warm to certain non-theological images and practices. We light candles. We have our favourite saints.

One of the most remarkable Irishmen of the last century, and perhaps the greatest son of Kerry, was the explorer Tom Crean. I cannot think of anyone to match him for sheer strength, tenacity in confronting inhuman conditions, and good humour when face to face with the most terrifying dangers in the southern ocean.

He was not ostentatiously religious, but Shackleton, Scott and others whom he led around the Antarctic wastes, noticed that he always wore his brown scapular. It linked him to his Kerry upbringing and the unquestioned sense of God which sustained him in the face of death.

That is the way with devotions. They have a personal meaning for each of us. They are charged with emotions and memories which are God’s way of reaching us. It is easy to belittle a particular devotion, just as we could deride the Muslims for removing their shoes in the mosque. But we are anchored with our bodies in space and time. Faced with God’s infinity, we reach for some physical way of reaching out to him.

In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses to remove his shoes, for ‘the place you are standing on is holy ground’. All we are doing, our whole life long, is moving from one piece of holy ground to another.

We can be deeply moved by devotions such as the Novena of Grace, the Camino de Santiago, scapulars, medals, fiestas and processions. They nurture our sense of the transcendent, of another world that touches our existence.

Just because the scholars cannot quote chapter and verse to prove their authenticity, we are not going to write off the Virgin of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Lourdes, or the images of Padre Pio, or St. Jude’s help in hopeless cases, or St. Anthony’s help in finding what is lost, or the guardian angels protecting us from fire. These are the treasures of our dreamtime.

A generation ago, when motorists were learning to negotiate roads which were considerably safer than they are now, they often attached a plaque of St. Christopher or of our Lady to the dashboard. Nowadays its place may be taken by a horseshoe or a voguish trinket. When we stop believing in something, we start to believe in anything.

In Italy, fortune-tellers outnumber priests. In the tabloids, horoscopes shoulder out any hint of religion. On many suburban walls, the Madonnas and Sacred Hearts have yielded to anodyne landscapes and trophies from travels.
There is a risk involved in drawing things into our religious world: it is that people will start to make money out of them. In Jesus’ time, they offered sacrifices of pigeons in the Jerusalem Temple. A group of hucksters cornered a monopoly on the trade in pigeons and gave a cut to the priests. As with all monopolies, what followed was profiteering: pilgrims were paying many times more per pigeon than they would pay outside. In all the gospels there is nothing to match Jesus’ fury in reaction to this abuse. He took a whip to the merchants, overturned their tables, and created chaos. Money and religion make a bad mix.

The same can happen with our pilgrimages and pictures and pious objects. Pilgrims return from Lourdes deeply moved by the prayer and the care of the sick, but sometimes sickened by aspects of commercialisation. Other Christian Churches may be more successful in avoiding this, but at the cost of doing without statues, candles, lamps and other aspects of devotion that fill our Catholic dreamtime. It needs keen vigilance to keep moneymaking out of religion – see how commerce has invaded Christenings, First Communions, Confirmations and the like.

Those who make candles and pious objects serve us well – but they need to be watched. So do the theologians who keep an eye on doctrine but may not always appreciate the more picturesque side of our faith, such as the banner, God bless the Sacred Heart! that delighted G.K. Chesterton when he visited Dublin for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress.

God can lead us to himself in unorthodox ways, and images and stories of our Catholic dreamtime play their part.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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