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Soul Searching: personal stories of the search for meaning in modern Ireland

30 November, 1999

This book edited by Kieran McKeown and Hugh Arthurs, is about the spiritual journeys of diverse people and their personal experiences of God and religion. It chronicles the different ways in which they have been shaped and marked by their encounters with God and religion, in the broadest sense, and the transitions which they have undergone in this area of their lives. The common themes are modern Ireland, the movement of increasing numbers away from organised religion and the human search for spirituality and answers to the ‘big questions’ of life.


95 pp. Columba Press 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Kieran McKeown and Hugh Arthurs Introduction

Paul Andrews Thoughts and afterthoughts
Roy Arbuckle Tuning into the sacred
Hugh Arthurs God the Father
Ivor Browne Spirituality begins where religion ends
Sean Cassin The cave and the kiss
Anne Drechsler Making sense of the ordinary
Jennifer Flegg Building wisdom slowly
Edmond Grace Eternity on Sandymount Strand
Jack Hanna Returning to deep roots
Edna Kelly The gift I was given
Kieran Kennedy The Mystical Body of Christ
John Kenny Finding new light
Pauline Lee I thought God was just a fairy story
Susan Lindsay In the spirit of truth
Kieran McKeown Vocation redefined
Celine Mangan The faith of a sister
Ger Murphy Rediscovering ancient rituals
Una O’Connor The care of God 
Miceal O’Regan A marriage of vocation and desire
Micheal a Siadhail Stumble
Brian Patterson An abiding sense of mystery
Noel Power Finding the elusive God
Bernard Stein Discovering the truth
Brendan Staunton God for me?
Daisy Swanton Getting up and going on
Gill Trapnell At ease being Quaker, Protestant and Irish
Ruth Whelan Personal Reformation


This book, edited by Kieran McKeown and Hugh Arthurs, chronicles the ways in which 27 very different people have been shaped and marked by their encounters with God and religion, in modern Ireland. Their personal stories reflect the experiences of men and women from the different religious traditions in Ireland – including those who no longer regard themselves as part of any religious tradition and how they have been shaped and influenced by what they have found within those traditions and beyond. This book would be useful to anyone searching for meaning in today’s modern Ireland.



Jack Hanna
(Jack Hanna was born in Cork in 1947. He studied for the priesthood for two years and then philosophy for the best part of his adult life. He has worked as a telephone operator and journalist. He is the author of a memoir of his late son, Davoren Hanna, The Friendship Tree: The Life and Poems of Davoren Hanna (New Island Books, 1996).)

Bodily mutilation is a bitter seed of self-destructiveness that can take root in us for all sorts of reasons and our hope is that vigorous healthy shoots will develop and gradually supplant that compulsion to turn our vital energies back against ourselves.

As with the body, so with the spirit. Nearing fifty, I find that trying to make sense of my life without taking account of the living presence in me of the word of God is like making an incision into my very heart and soul. Don’t misunderstand me. This is not an evangelical witnessing – the Spirit crying out within me; it is much more like a reluctant act of filial piety.

My life of the Spirit contains many stories of battles, misadventures, aridities and occlusions. What started out as prayerful reverence on my knees, in concert with my parents and brothers, often crossed the threshold in the darkness of the nights of later years to bitterness, disillusionment and anti-prayer. But just as I cannot deny my own life, so I cannot still the impulses to celebrate, praise, give thanks and plead for help and forgiveness which are ineradicably linked in me to the names of God that I imbibed growing up in Ireland in the fifties. These stirrings of the Spirit are compressed into the very marrow of my being.

I accept fully that these powerful religious traces in me mark me as a child of my times, that with other parents and in another culture, I might have grown up in a more secular spirit, finding my wonderment, challenge, contentment and consolation in the unfolding of science, the rich diversity of art or, indeed, the bewildering but exhilarating ebb and flow of ordinary family and social life. For good or ill, in the intimacy of my heart and soul, I am conscripted into the ranks of those with a sense of the pervasiveness of religion.

I have travelled a considerable distance along these alternative paths, exploring philosophy and riddling out the music and art of the ages and of our own time for nourishment and vitality. I have ridden the wild horse of parenthood and felt its searing surge, but at the end of all my journeying I am left with a reservoir of restlessness (our hearts are not content until they rest in thee, O God) and peace (a peace that passeth all understanding) which finds no other name but that of religion.

I frequently bemoan the absence of a strong civic culture in the lreland in which I grew up, which has left us somewhat disorientated in this period of religious decline. I often castigate myself for my own failure to grow up and stand on my own feet, for my childish (childlike?) and old-fashioned sense of creaturely dependence and awe. But deep down, I know that I was suckled by a tradition of immense resources and am grateful for it.

Over the years I was aware of certain cruelties and barbarisms associated with the Catholic church of my youth. Now as an adult, I am ever more conscious of the blindness and limitations which can afflict even ‘good’ men and women living within a blinkered religious worldview. If I am tempted to forget these blemishes and lapse into nostalgia, media excoriation of the church and my own sense of the refreshing winds of change, which have blown through Ireland since the waning of its power, pull me back to reality.

But in the end I get tired of the endless recriminations about abuses in the church. I am scandalised too at hypocrisy and double-dealing. I could quote, as readily as the next person, the tirades of Jesus against those who would burden the people with their legalism while all the while living lives of
hidden complacent indulgence. But there is an immaturity and lack of perspective in so much of the pillorying of churchmen, as if Jesus had come to abolish sinners rather than live among them, as if they do not know that the church has always been a haven for a fair share of scoundrels and wasters. The accusers often give the impression of coming from another planet, one without our flesh and blood admixture of good and bad, of worthy and base motives, of love and murderous impulses jostling uncomfortably with one another.

As a simple matter of honest and just testimony, I would like to put it on the record that the few priests whom I have known well live lives of compassion, service and basic human solidarity in an exemplary way. Church-speak and clericalism can be odious diseases but the real thing, which is being with people during their times of greatest vulnerability and wretchedness, is impressive when seen at first hand.

My own simmering rage is with the impoverishment of the spirit, whether religious or anti-religious. The purveyors of respectable, packaged religion cramp the spirit by making God’s pathway in life a safe well-trodden road, well marked with warning signs and filling stations; they give little sense of the adventuresome spirit of the highways and by-ways. Those who have gone walkabout in life, wandering in the torrid zones or freezing in the chill of discontent, find little nourishment at this routinised catering establishment.

On the other hand, the anti-religious dogmatists have a provincial late twentieth-century view of humanity’s journey and destiny that is truly staggering. Theirs involves a progressive scaling down of the language, resources, sensibility and wisdom which have brought us to where we stand now, and which are leading us to God knows where. An inoculation with this philosophical bacterium can purge some excesses of the spirit, but it can easily develop into a full-blown pathology stifling the expressiveness of our hearts and the range of our political vision.

Of course, the sharp edges of this conflict between religion and its detractors are blurred in our supermarket culture. Some call this the post-modern condition, but I prefer the less grandiose image. I too have explored and savoured the plethora of ‘off-the-shelf’ spiritualities on offer, but more often than not end up in the same condition that I experience in real-life supermarkets – jaded and bewildered. A Buddhist writer offered the best diagnosis of this state of the soul: it’s a kind of spiritual materialism.

Occasional contact with Eastern practices of meditation has been a kind of therapy in this frenetic, distracting culture of disposable enlightenments. Buddhism, for instance, summons me to mindfulness and awareness of breathing – an image for the hovering spirit of creation and re-creation.

But eventually I turn towards my homeland – a prodigal son returning to the hidden, living God of the JudaeoChristian tradition. For me the key attribute is hidden; most of the time, I hardly dare speak the name of God. The face of God has been hidden for so long that I have forgotten how to address him or her.

I know that to speak of a living personal God is an impertinent attempt to put words on an unnameable, uncircumscribable mystery, but I still sense that it is a mystery close to the core of our being. I laugh at those who say that they have shelved the notion of God the Father with his white hair and beard sitting on the clouds, as if the whole history of Christian reflection on the notion of a personal God can be summed up and jettisoned on the basis of such a trite image.

There are no new revelations in the homeland, just a reengagement with the deeds and words of those who have lived their lives with a sense of the divine presence – the word made flesh and clothed in language in the midst of all Our fragile and fragmentary meanings.

The kernel of the matter is a refusal to give up on the reality of prayer. I am not content with a merely abstract sense of prayer, such as that offered by that great spiritual writer, Simone Weil. She wrote that ‘to pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself’. (Jewish originally, latterly moving towards Christianity, her reflection on prayer has Greek rather than Semitic overtones.) Attention is part of prayer, but much more strongly it is a cry of anguish, a bleat of hope, a tremor of lightsomeness, a shout of joy. Much as I am drawn to parts of the ‘Our Father’, my modem republican consciousness stumbles over ‘thy kingdom come’ (I have almost insuperable difficulties with this key New Testament image) and find it too serene and composed. I am more drawn to the prayers of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) and to the range of expression found in the Psalms and the Song of Songs.

Into my meagre practice of prayer, I pour all that I sense of the mystery of God: healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, a source of true joy in an often heartless world, a resting in God, a cleansing of bitterness, a hunger and thirst for justice, the sharing and breaking of bread, a celebration of the bounty of creation, the blessedness of each moment, and finally a complete and utter bafflement at suffering and desperation.

Sometimes the brutal directness of prayer spoken aloud offends me, but 1 can respect prayerfulness in ordinary speech. I am not entirely comfortable with ‘God bless’ but feel the depth.of sedimented prayer in our Irish language, ‘Dia dhuit’ or ‘Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam’, most of which has been lost in English.

Iconclude with a coda on that great battleground between the Catholic church and our modem sensibility, namely sexuality. The passionate debates about contraception which took up so much energy in the sixties seem jaded now. 1 have come to the conclusion that the church’s views on sexuality reflect a mixture of wisdom, confusion and plain nonsense. In its self-presentation (or sometimes its reporting in the media), it usually manages to vitiate whatever good sense it has by clothing it in fatuous rhetoric. However, the pillorying of the church for root-and-branch distortion of our sexuality is another example of the myopia of much of what passes for contemporary commentary. We humans are engaged in a slow, sometimes exciting, often painful, project of trying to understand our natures, including our sexuality. Into that dialogue, the church has contributed many wonders and marvels (including several by that most vilified of founding fathers, Paul of Tarsus), but also grievous mistakes and systematic distortion. The church does not belong to some peculiar dark age on which we can look back with more or less severe judgement from the vantage-point of enlightenment. We have our own dark shadows, some of which will only emerge long after our own time.

Sociological surveys, of which I am in general very sceptical, provide a wry commentary on this endless contemporary contestation between sex and religion. The surveys find that religious people report themselves as happier and more fulfilled sexually than those without religion. This taps into my deepest ‘intuition about the fruits of the word of God in our hearts – a joy that includes laughter and tears, work and play, stillness and energy, pain and pleasure, love and prayer.


Celine Mangan
(Celine Mangan is a Kerrywoman, a Dominican sister and at present lectures in Scripture in the Milltown Institute of Philosophy and Theology. She has written many books and articles on the Bible and is at present engaged in preparing study programmes for the Women’s Group of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.)

Each Thursday morning, for about an hour and a half, I share aspects of the faith with some young mothers who want to know more about their faith in order to communicate it better to their children. Sharing with these has made me realise that we all have the same faith. My way of living out our common faith is somewhat different from theirs, that’s all. What’s the difference between their expression of faith and mine? The big difference, it seems to me, is that if they lost their faith they could still go on living out their married lives, loving their husbands, caring for their children. Whereas if I were to lose the faith, there would be absolutely no meaning to my kind of lifestyle. The only validity for the religious life is that it points beyond itself to the existence of God. It does this, not just for the person who lives it, but for the people as a whole. This way of life has no sense if the faith dimension is not there.

Coming down from the clouds
Looking back, I realise that the call of the Beyond in life was part and parcel of my growing up. I can remember, as a young girl, feeling the call of God as I gazed up at Carrantuohill, the mountain which dominates our town at home, or lying in the long grass of a meadow watching the clouds drift over the sky. But just as I had to leave the Kerry mountains behind to enter the Dominican novitiate in the flat plains of Kildare, so my faith in God had to come down from the clouds to be lived out in the stark reality of a novitiate which offered little in the way of home comforts. In the years since then, many of the externals have changed in religious life. But for most of us, even though they have demanded deep adjustments, the changes have made very little real difference to our identity. I
have felt just as much a sister in a pair of jeans in the middle of the Sinai Desert as in a full habit in choir.

For me, the real revolution has been in a deepening of understanding of what religious life is all about. I still see it as a pointer to the existence of God. But I now realise better that I can only live out the Beyond in life if I am faithful in the here and now to the person I am caring for, to the job to be done or the pain to be suffered. My faith, too, has had to come down from the clouds and be lived out in the practical day-to-day details of living with others and doing a day’s work. I am coming more and more to realise that faith is not so much a thing of the head as of the heart, not so much doctrines to be believed (though these are there) as a life to be lived in fidelity. And my fidelity to God will be shown only in faithfulness to other people.

What is celibate love?
There seems to be no difference between this kind of fidelity and. that demanded of my young married friends. Again I would see the difference in the expression of that fidelity. They live out their fidelity primarily in the context of a husband and children whereas my vow of celibacy should free me to love all. A deepening understanding of the true meaning of celibacy came to many of us when, after Vatican II, we began to go home again. Seeing our married sisters and brothers living out their lives looking to the welfare of their children faced many of us with the realisation that we could become self-centered in our celibacy. It gradually dawned on us that the same love which they lavished on their families was being demanded of us in another context – potentially to the whole world, but actually to whomever we happened to be with at any given moment, whether that be the other sister in the community, the child in the classroom, the suburban family needing time and attention, or the person in a South African township.

There is a passage in Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, where the whiskey priest is thinking just before his execution, of the child he had fathered: ‘As the liquid touched his tongue he remembered his child, coming in out of the glare: the sullen, unhappy, knowledgeable face. He
said, “O God, help her. Damn me, I deserve it, but let her live forever.'” This was the love he should have felt for every soul in the world: all the fear and the wish to save concentrated unjustly on the one child. The vow of celibacy is a call to have that kind of limitless love for all of God’s children.

But we can so easily fall into the occupational hazard of non-stop activity for others that we soon become, to quote the title of another great novel by Graham Greene, A Burntout Case. There is a text in St Luke’s gospel which often gives me pause: ‘Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life’ (Lk 21:34). The cares of life can be just as debilitating as debauchery and drunkenness.

Are sisters poor?
The point of religious poverty is not merely the lack of material goods, yet many of us will admit that we need to re-examine our present abundance in the light of the gospel. I find in my community today that we are approaching a simpler lifestyle, more from the standpoint of ecology than of gospel call. Knowing that we are devastating the earth is calling us to live more simply. The aspiration is there; I do not say I have reached it. Time is also a resource; there is a poverty of time which demands availability, a sharing what one is and has with others. As sisters, statistically we have been the group in the church which has taken the Vatican II call to renewal of theology to heart. This we can now share, especially with women. This has been one of the great joys of my own life 
– being able to open up the riches of the Bible to the young married women I mentioned at the beginning, to young students, male and female, who are now doing theology. I have in my turn learned so much from those who have lived out their faith in different circumstances from my own.

God’s ‘Good Pleasure’
It is in the understanding of obedience that my faith as a sister has been most renewed. Early in my religious life, I was sent to South Africa and afterwards to Jerusalem; back in Dublin I have lived north, south and west of the city at different times. I gradually began to understand more the ‘sentness’ of my life and saw that as an entering into the sentness of Jesus’ life as he learnt to do the will of God, the ‘good pleasure’ of God for the welfare of the world. Obedience, however, is not a once-in-the-blue-moon event for me. Every moment I am presented with choices. I have to learn to listen to see which of those choices lead towards God and which away; which are for the true good of other people and the world as a whole and which are purely for my own satisfaction.

Prayer is the acknowledgement that human beings are not the be-all and end-all of the universe. I see personal prayer in my life as the space to listen to the word of God, to allow its light to penetrate my distracted mind and its power to make firm my scattered will and emotions. Of course, God’s word will also come to me through the people I meet and the circumstances in which I live out my life. But if I never take time to be alone with God, I will lose the ability to recognise the new step demanded of me. Prayer is an ability to be alone; to enter into the solitude of the heart; to search for God and the meaning of life, even when the way is dark and dreary. I find it now an entering, however briefly and dimly, into the presence that I see at the heart of the universe, enfolding all that is into one.

Aloneness together
Prayer in common has always been part of the prayer of sisters. But one of the areas of most tension in the recent  renewal of religious life has been community living. Even though my faith is personal, and no one else can live it for me, I still feel that it is primarily through my community that I express it as a sister and that I discover God’s will for me. I suspect that the community aspect of life is more exacting for a sister than for a married couple, since it has very little on the natural level going for it. It is something of a miracle that thirty or even three women can live together without murdering one another. But there is much more to it than merely living together in common politeness. The community can be the place where we are accepted as we are, where we love, fail, try again, forgive and trust each other, where we attempt to share what we are and have with one another. This is not a full reality, as anyone who has come close to a group of sisters will know full well. But where there is a sense of accountability for one another, we can build one another up to live more fully for others.

Far from separating me off from other Christians, therefore, my life as a sister can make me more available to them. It can help me to have all the care and sorrow of the times deep within my heart. I myself only came to learn ‘slowly, and painfully for an introvert, that as a sister I have no right to a private life really; that my heart must be open to carry the sorrows and joys of others as my own. I am still far from that in practice. Another aspect of being there for others in this time and place, is the necessity of taking a critical stance within the church, especially as regards the position of women, and many sisters are doing this right now. My own contribution is to add my voice to the many women exegetes who are researching the scriptures and other early church writings to see how women can more fully take their place in today’s church.

Finally, I would say my greatest happiness in recent times has been to discover again the joy of being a woman. My early training as a sister and as an exegete put me into a clerical world where much of the humanness had been diminished. Now in gardening, in baking, in poetry, and in so many other ways, I have been enriched beyond measure in the living out of my life as a sister, and I thank God for that.

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