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Vulnerable to the holy in faith, morality and art

30 November, 1999

Amid the chaos and the beauty of the contemporary world Enda McDonagh sees the Other, the Holy, still powerfully present and urges us to be open. We will find, he says, that the Other is both gift and call, costing and fulfilling not less than everything.

224pp, Columbia Press, 2004.  To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Part One: Vulnerable to the holy
1. Encountering the other

Part Two: In the community of faith
2. Shared despair
3. The crisis of governance
4. Politics or prophecy?
5. Invite and encourage
6. Unopened ground
7. A communal hope

Part Three: In morality
8. Friendship, sexuality and marriage
9. Friendship, marriage and the risk of God
10. Homosexuality: sorrowful mystery, joyful mystery
11. Stigmatisation: HIV-AIDS and christian morality
12. From Shoa to Shalom: the case for abolishing war in the 21st century

Part Four: In art
13. Hopkins I: Vulnerable to the holy
14. Hopkins II: Reconciliation and beauty
15. An office of readings
16. Birds of contemplation
17. Faith and the artist
18. Although it is the night: a St Patrick’s Day reflection 2000

Part Five: The vulnerable self
19. The risk of priesthood
20. Letter to Sarah
21. Grace before seventy



Enda McDonagh, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, makes a series of exploratory probes into areas  which have engaged him intellectually, emotionally and practically in the years since his retirement from teaching. The essays show how, if one accepts the grace of openness and vulnerability, the Other may be primarily holy-making .

He considers ‘the strange richness and the poverty of the Church today’ and offers some suggestions about how, in its people, leaders and structures, the Roman Catholic Church can be vulnerable to the holiness of the wider church and world, and render them in turn vulnerable to the holiness, which for all its deformities, it continues to bear witness to. He then focuses on the moral issues which have been of particular theological and pastoral concern in recent times noting the calls and opportunities they make. In the next section his meditations on poets, painters and sculptors open new ways of encountering the holy in a secular age.  This leads on to a concluding section on The vulnerable self.



To walk abroad in the sanctities of all our days is not to be unaware of their horrors. Nor is it to refuse the challenge of these horrors, from famine to HIV/AIDS to the cluster-bombing of women and children. The horrors themselves may indeed be a way of making us vulnerable to the holy. But they are not the only way or indeed the primary way. A baby’s first word may be more piercing than its first cry of pain, the first crocus than the fading rose, the Manhattan skyline than the Ground Zero gap. Every body, every where and every when bear the features of beauty and destruction, their double capacity to render us vulnerable to the holy. The holy, the Holy One, the Holy Spirit, the God of creation, redemption and resurrection is all present, all piercing, all healing. Openness to that presence is gift and call, at once costing and fulfilling not less than everything.

Letting be
‘And God said: Let there be … And God saw that it was good.’ In chapter one of the Book of Genesis the author provides a sense of the dramatic tension of the various stages of creation and of their divine resolution. Chapter three reveals the deeper drama of light and darkness, of good and evil involved in the confrontation between a divine authority and human freedom, requiring a new, prolonged, painful but finally redemptive ‘Let there be’ by the creator turned redeemer God. The creative and saving Word of God, the divine let there be, has always also enjoyed human forms. ‘In the image of God, (God) created (humanity).’ ‘And the (divine) Word was made (human) flesh’ in Jesus Christ with human consent. ‘Be it done unto me according to thy Word.’ Human letting be was doubly endorsed in the mystery of redemptive incarnation.

In daily human interchange the mysterious divine concentrate is both concealed and revealed. The passive and active letting be of all our tribe in accepting and enabling reflects the redemptive-creative work of God; it opens us to the holy in other human beings and in all creation. It allows us to see that they are good as of God and of the light, however much they may also be of the darkness, just like ourselves. Discovering and enacting the complex demands of passive and active letting be is a lifelong task for human beings just as it is a creation-long commitment of their Creator. Along that road of discovering and enacting lies human fulfilment (or holiness).

Passive letting be could well be misinterpreted as mere tolerance or even indifference. Based on the divine model, it should rather signal patient and loving recognition and acceptance of the different, of the other. It is in that loving recognition and acceptance of the other that one first becomes vulnerable to the holy. The neatly deflating comment, ‘It takes a saint to live with one’, might be expanded to embrace in a positive way the whole range of human relationships and encounters. All human togetherness has the potential to be sanctifying as each renders the other vulnerable to the holy. The holiness of the human other, however disguised or distorted, provides the basis for each person’s opening to the sanctifying presence of the human and so of the ultimate other. The seventy times seven forgiveness of Jesus’ counsel is rooted in this presence and power of the ultimate other as mediated by the human other. ‘It makes a saint to live with one other human being.’

In the moral letting be of human relationships the passive or accepting is primary. Acceptance of the other person as there, as she is in her otherness, is fundamental. Of course it is never and can never be sheer passivity. The acceptance and respect for other as other calls for multiple if only tiny active responses, a smile of recognition or a scowl of rejection, a seat on a bus for an older passenger, letting somebody through the door first. The elements of interpersonal politeness are the enactment of that recognition and acceptance of the other person as an other, as equally and fully person. The decline of many of these conventions may be no more than a passing phase, particularly in younger bustling people; it may also be a symptom of declining respect for people, particularly the elderly or the otherwise limited in physical or mental energy and social aggression. Family, friendship and professional caring provide at their best the models for these accepting and enabling, creative and enduring relationships which give any society its cohesion, warmth and vibrancy. Passive and active letting be combine in justice and freedom for the other, in fulfilment and peace for the community; at least they have the basis for doing so.

Letting be, active and passive, is not just a matter of human relationships, of enabling other human beings to come into existence, of accepting, respecting and actively helping them to develop. It applies to the much wider worlds in which humans have their being. The most obvious of these is the natural world with its othemesses offering human beings beauty and sustenance and at the same time demanding recognition and respect. Letting the world of nature be in the passive and active senses translates into a self-conscious environmental ethics for humanity today in a number of different ways. The more widespread of these ethics is predominantly utilitarian. The earth and its resources including its climate must be increasingly cared for, for humanity’s sake, as useful to the quality of life and eventually necessary to the survival of the human race. There may be scientific dispute about the empirical evidence for the extent of the damage which a greedy and uncaring populace inflicts daily on the planet and on how many species are destroyed and when, and still more about technology’s ability to repair or replace these lost resources. There is little dispute that real damage to human living also results from continuing human disrespect for and abuse of the planet. Such self-centred fears and utilitarian considerations may well be the beginning of environmental wisdom, of letting the planet be, passively and actively.

At another level of argument, respect for the natural environment dwells on the sheer givenness of it, its wonder and beauty. Let the world be in all its glory might seem to be the implicit cry. The argument is not narrowly aesthetic but would seem to see a close connection between aesthetic appreciation of what’s there and the ethical human response to it as first of all thanksgiving and praise. Such response would clearly exclude selfish, primarily commercial exploitation and simple abuse. It would seem at the same time to permit and encourage the kind of technological and other human development which respects the grain of the universe and is necessary to human fulfilment. Recent writings by George Monbiot and George Steiner (‘Humans as guests of creation’) seem to adopt this approach as more true to human responsibility and more persuasive than sheer utilitarianism.

For Christians and other believers in a divine Creator and creation, the’ aesthetic/ ethical’ approach has much to offer. Blamed, as they have sometimes been, for the disenchantment of nature and so leaving it open to technological exploitation, Christians have a duty to recover their sense of nature as God’s loving gift, their appreciation of its beauty and their own role as stewards of that nature as God’s gift and call to them. A good deal of theological-scientific dialogue has occurred in recent decades in the various Christian churches and in other faithcommunities. Such analysis with some follow-up practice has occurred at many levels in the churches from the Vatican out. In Ireland individual thinkers and activists like John O’Donohue and Sean McDonagh have provided aesthetic, ethical and religious leadership in this area. So have many groups from the Green Party to local community groups intent on saving particular beautiful landscapes, bogscapes, rivers, lakes and seashore. At the international level, organisations like Trocaire with its series on ‘Christian Perspectives on Development’ are tackling environmental problems in the poorer countries of the south.

In an effort to drive home the urgency of the environmental task, some writers propose equal recognition for all living species and regard any departure from this, particularly by giving a privileged position to the human species, as unethical. The lording over all other species and disregard for their existence and value, for their contribution to the wonder of the world and for their capacities, including the capacity to suffer pain, is certainly unethical on the part of human beings. The insistence that human beings belong within the natural world is important but the denial of a discontinuity as well as a continuity with that world seems contrary to maintaining human ethical responsibilities to the rest of the natural world. How far these responsibilities extend is often very difficult to determine. Animals and birds for example might seem to enjoy a certain priority. Their care for their young as well as their mating habits are often admirable in themselves but can they be described as ethical and the subject of rights in the senses applicable to humans? Perhaps these debates are ultimately irresolvable and unnecessary if human beings live up to their own ethical responsibilities as stewards rather than masters.

As far as this essay is concerned, human otherness and that of the rest of the natural world demands a recognition and respect which ultimately rests in its rootedness in God and God’s continuing creative activity, the divine letting be in which humans are invited and empowered to partake. This human letting be, in its accepting and enabling senses, renders each human vulnerable to the holy, to the immediate sacredness of every human being, including the self as other, and to the sacred character of the universe itself as created by, reflecting and even participating in the holiness of God.

Letting go
Letting be, in both its active and passive senses of enabling and accepting the other, demands for its completion a letting go. In the passive sense suggested by this metaphor in the first place, the other human being, to take an easy example, has to be let live her own distinctive life. This should not mean abandonment of or indifference to the other but a caring and supportive respect for the other’s freedom and privacy. Parents often learn this the hard way. Vulnerability to the other human being may take a very painful form as children grow up and grow away from their parents, pain already anticipated in the process of giving birth. Retaining the child in the womb, refusing to let go in that elementary sense is not a viable option or a serious temptation for a developing mother but there may be later temptations for either or both parents to become possessive of a child and refuse to let it go into the wider world in which it has to mature. A spouse or partner might also become possessive of the other in jealous and destructive ways. Such destructive possessiveness extends to the whole range of human relationships with other humans but also with non-human animate and inanimate objects. And in a paradoxical and ultimately tragic way, a person’s possessiveness translates into that person being possessed and so enslaved by her possessions in money or property or even in family or other human love. The ability to let go in a positive and respecting fashion is essential to personal freedom and security.

This may be more important but also more difficult where the other person has deeply insulted or offended the self, the self’s family or property. Harbouring grudges is a human weakness which may become a destructive obsession. The letting go which is necessary to the grudge-bearer’s liberation is finally a form of forgiveness. Loving one’s enemies is the great human letting go, all the more painful of course but no less necessary where the move is not reciprocated. It is the loving attention to the other as other, to the holy in the enemy, that releases the loving one from the fear of that other and renders the loving one vulnerable to the holy in opponent or enemy.

For a range of physical, emotional and even spiritual reasons one’s self may be the hated other. Low self-esteem and selfloathing are frequently mentioned as sources of personal unhappiness. ‘I can never forgive myself for such and such’ is not an uncommon attitude. Perceived or imagined personal threats, flaws or failures can restrict normal living and relationships to the point of neurosis, mental breakdown or even suicide, a far too frequent tragedy in Ireland today for whatever reasons. A recovery of the sense of self as valuable and lovable will not be achieved by sheer concentration on the self, which intensifies the vicious circle. In the circle of loving others, including the still troubled self as other, the value, the unique otherness of the self, its holiness can be restored. The self also must be continually renewed in its openness to its own holy otherness, in Christian terms to its mediation of the ultimate otherness of its creator and healer God.

Letting go has much broader application and much deeper roots than the purely person-to-person or person-to-object relations discussed above, although such relationships provide obvious illustrations of the need to let go, of the temptations to resist, and of the pain and the consequence of accepting or resisting. In the political sphere letting be and letting go assume their own form, encounter their own needs and their own temptations.

Letting be as enabling people to realise their full potential as human beings and citizens is the first and most important task in politics. What that full potential might be and how it might be realised will vary from polity to polity and from era to era. In the present era, with its opposing dynamics of globalisation and fragmentation, political leaders in the national, regional and global arenas face daunting tasks. At the most basic levels people must be helped simply to live in contexts of war and terror, of famine, drought and kindred natural disasters, of HIV-AIDS and similar plagues. This is the global political situation which the dominantly economic globalisation at work at present is exacerbating rather than relieving. Despite the rhetoric and the promises from the Millennium Development Goals at the UN summit in 2000 to the Dublin Declaration on HIV-AIDS in 2004, action is so slow, inadequate and uncoordinated that the ‘letting go’, which might have been liberation from much of their enslavement for many of these peoples, has become abandonment of them to their continuing suffering and premature dying.

Such abandonment of the powerless by the powerful has complex roots. The temptations of profit, power and pleasure obscure the human needs of others, their innate dignity and its accompanying rights, their sacredness and holiness as persons. Ethnic and racial differences, religion, culture and gender compound the power-games and prevent the kind of vulnerability to the stigmatised others which could be liberating for both sides. One of the ‘holy’ figures of twentieth-century politics, holy in his sensitivity to the enemy-other, the Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the emancipation needed by the British as well as by the Indian people. Exploitative power in whatever arena, political, economic, military, religious, gender or race, is eventually enslaving of master as well as subject. Letting go of such power in the process of enabling or letting be, of liberating and letting go the people subject to it, is the way to liberation and fulfilment of the people with power. All that is very difficult to perceive and very painful to effect. To refuse that voluntary letting be and letting go of the oppressed is to face recurring insecurity and eventually loss of the power itself and frequently to a new and powerful antagonist. Empires are in the end self-destructive although their history of ‘other-destruction’ until that end occurs, usually makes very sad reading.

Letting be and letting go are aptly illustrated in the work of artists. The painful labour whereby a writer or other artist brings a work into existence, enables it to be, can lead to the pain of deciding when the work is finished, and when it may be offered to publisher or public, when its creator will let it go. For some artists and some work these decisions may prove impossible so the artist is trapped by the unfinished or unfinishable work and the public deprived of the pleasure of it. Acceptance of the work with its flaws and in its otherness means letting it go so that it is no longer simply under the artist’s control, but in a strange world where its reception may offer reassuring encouragement or dispiriting discouragement. In the releasing as in the making, the joy and the pain will be mixed but both may contribute to the growth of the artist and the enrichment of her society.

Letting God
For the religious believer and community the letting be and letting go in religious terms follow similar patterns to those outlined earlier. The stakes, however, are higher. The holy to whom the religious believer is vulnerable is named as God, the ultimate Other, and the context is that of recognising one’s ultimate origin and achieving one’s ultimate destiny. Such stakes and such a context do not annul the reality and value of letting be and letting go in person-to-person contexts, in the political and environmental contexts or in the artistic and cultural contexts. The higher stakes and final context confirm, transfigure and in the end transcend all these. Letting be and letting go in every sphere of life reach their culmination in letting God.

In the creation story of Genesis, God is not only letting be, as we saw, but also letting go. This is the risk of creation for God, introducing into being other reality distinct from Godself. As the Genesis account goes, God rejoiced in this otherness as gift but as the story proceeds the gift turned threat, alien to and alienated from God in its climactic creatures, man and woman. This was an offence to God’s own holiness, the divine otherness as mirrored particularly in the human, and indeed to the holiness of the whole universe as it was alienated from its human stewards (Gen 3). In halting human terms one might speak of a divine temptation to undo the divine handiwork and wipe out creation in order to restore the previous pristine holiness. At various times in the history of humanity, and of Israel according to biblical sources, this threat was proclaimed unless the people repented and turned again to their one Creator and Lord, Yahweh. And by these accounts it became a near reality with Noah and the Flood. All this, while primarily directed at human return to its original blessedness, its true otherness to God, signals perhaps a need on the part of God to have the divine creative otherness or holiness fully efficacious in the world. God’s holiness is restricted by human selfishness and sinfulness. Hence the divine promises made known to Moses and the prophets, of a promised land of milk and honey, of a new covenant of the heart, with the dry bones of a dead creation to be brought alive again and, most mysteriously of all, this to be accomplished by a suffering and servant Messiah rather than by a thunderous intervention of the Lord of Hosts.

In pursuit of the true otherness of humanity and the universe, God entered that cosmic and human otherness, became human in Jesus Christ. This letting go by God of God in incarnation transcends all human imagining and yet seems itself transcended in the surrender unto death on a cross by the Son of God made man. It is in that dying into resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, which completes the divine letting be of creation and the divine letting go of incarnation by letting God, by letting God be God in God’s trinitarian self and in God’s universe. Jesus’ insight about the seed falling into the ground and that whoever would save his life must surrender it, seems to apply to the Creator no less than to the creature.

As it applies to the human creature in the thousand cuts and losses of her mortal life, it prepares her for the final letting be, letting go and letting God of her own death. At that last vulnerable time the holiness of the others she has encountered, human and cosmic, poetic and prosaic, and the holiness of the self which has been blessed by them and by her God, may face in hope and in peace, if not yet free of all anxiety, the ultimate creative, forgiving and sanctifying Other.



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