Archives for category: Religion

I have been thinking about this recently.

The reflection was initially precipitated by a report earlier this year, which suggested that ‘spiritual’ people are at a higher risk of mental health problems [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9774259/Spiritual-people-at-higher-risk-of-mental-health-problems.html]. I have not read the original paper – from researchers at UCL – but seemingly those who have ‘a spiritual understanding of life’ are more predisposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, eating disorders and drug problems’ than ‘those with an understanding that was neither religious nor spiritual.’

The study was based on a survey of more than 7,000 randomly selected men and women in England. What is unclear from the brief report is how spirituality was defined, and also how the researchers came to separate ‘spirituality’ from ‘conventional religion’ or ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’.

I know many people who claim to be spiritual, but are also religious or atheist. The overlap between what people view as spirituality and some belief system, whether religious or non-religious or anti-religious, seems huge, and the notions are often inextricably bound together.

There is of course a significant problem with how spirituality is defined. As a teenage, when I emphatically renounced Catholicism, and shortly afterwards all religious beliefs, I announced myself (in hindsight arrogantly) as ‘not religious, but spiritual’, as if the label ‘spiritual’ conferred depth, and that I occupied a more-meaningful-areligious-but-holier-than-thou-world.

I abandoned the label some years ago, having become increasingly unsure what it truly meant, both to myself and in a wider context. Today, I remain an atheist, who attempts to live every moment as richly and as appreciatively as I can. Perhaps that equates with ‘spiritual’ for someone else.

Today, out of curiosity I did a mini survey at the office on how my colleagues view spirituality. The religious tended to equate the experience with things God-related. Others, who were no longer religious, viewed it as something outside and beyond themselves, something that connects to a way of being that is intangible, inexplicable, but present within.

I remain unsure of the label, and reluctant to attach it to my own way of being.

I am sure of very little. But the present feels important to me, how I live it, how I appreciate it, and how I can positively interact with those in my immediate life and beyond.

And kindness. I am a huge fan. Perhaps that is my ‘spirituality’, but I will stick with the original word.

CQ

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This is the title of a documentary film that I saw today, the final day of the UK Jewish Film Festival, at the Tricycle cinema.

What a cinematic gem it is, a profoundly moving and authentic piece of art, which is so affirmative, and reassuring, of the goodness that humans are indeed capable of. And more importantly, a goodness and a genuine caring of the other, which transcends that most divisive of forces, religion.

The film tells the story of Albanian Muslims who protected Jews from the Nazis in WWII. Unlike almost all other countries, Albania welcomed Jews during the Holocaust, and we hear the stories of some of the very many Muslim families who sheltered the refugees, despite the inherent dangers to themselves, as well as the those of the Jewish people and their descendants who, as a result of the humanity they received, managed to survive the war.

Albania was the only country where the number of Jews increased from pre-war, approximately 200, to post-war, approximately 2000. It remains a relatively poor country.

Albanians see themselves as just that – not as Muslims or Orthodox or Christians – but as the people of Albania, and all of whom share and enact Besa, an honour code that offers assistance to all those who knock on their doors looking for help.

Besa: The Promise is a gripping and humbling story, which concerns a nation that lost so much during WWII and even more so in the subsequent communist years, but which nonetheless holds steadfastly to the notion of kindness and and generosity towards those in need, irrespective of religion and creed.

CQ

I saw the film Philomena at the weekend. I had initially been reluctant to see it, finding the stories that have unfolded following The Magdalene Sisters deeply disturbing and tragic. Yet, the stories need to be told, and their telling needs to be witnessed.

Philomena shares one such story, from an Ireland of the 1950s, where to be pregnant and single was profoundly sinful, with the sinner duly brutally punished in the eyes of Catholic Church by God’s most loyal and complicit servants, the nuns.

The story that unfolds in Philomena is gripping and revelatory, not for the obvious reasons, but because, at least for me, the film made me consider issues around forgiveness – how truly admirable a virtue it can be, and how difficult it can be to achieve.

I thought of Philomena again today, when a poem I came across reminded me of the hidden away graves in the convent where the mothers-to-be were incarcerated.

The poem, Stillborn by Derry O’Sullivan, appears in 3Quarks Daily (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/11/tuesday.html) and an excerpt follows:

‘You were born dead

and your blue limbs were folded

on the living bier of your mother…

…The priest said it was too late

for the blessed baptismal water

that arose from Lough Bofinne

and cleansed the elect of Bantry…

…You were buried there

without cross or prayer

your grave a shallow hole;

one of a thousand without names

with only the hungry dogs for visitors…

…Limbo is the place your mother never left…

where she strains to hear the names of nameless children

in the barking of dogs, each and every afternoon.’

CQ

As I mention ‘suffering’ in the title of this blog, and as tomorrow is All Souls’ Day, it feels appropriate to expand a little on this theme in the context of the season…

I have been thinking back to my Irish childhood, where All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day held much significance. Today, I have been an atheist much longer than I have ever been a Catholic, and the details of the significance of these ‘holy days’ are hazy. And so I looked to Irish literature to refresh my memory.

One of my favourite authors is John McGahern, and his memoir gave me plenty of background. As a very young child, McGahern quickly realised that:

‘Heaven was in the sky. Hell was in the bowels of the earth. There, eternal fire raged. The souls of the damned had to dwell in hell through all eternity, deprived for ever of the face of God…

…Between this hell and heaven, purgatory was placed. Descriptions of it were vague, probably because all of us expected to spend some time there. The saints alone went straight to heaven. In purgatory, we would have to be purified in flame to a whiteness like that of snow before we could join the saints in the blessedness of heaven.’

All Souls’ Day signifies the moment in the eyes of the Catholic Church when the souls of those in purgatory finally ‘ascend’ to heaven. This ascension is seemingly made possible by the prayers of the living that have atoned for the sins of the dead.

In an essay written just before his death (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/apr/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview30), McGahern speaks of the theocracy in which he was born:

‘Hell and heaven and purgatory were places real and certain we would go to after death, dependent on the Judgement’, and where, on All Souls’ Night ‘the dead rose and walked as shadows among the living.’

McGahern also reflects that over the years, ‘belief in these sacred stories and mysteries fell away without my noticing.’

Not having lived in Ireland for very many years, I have no idea of the significance of All Souls’ Day in my homeland now.

The history of where we and our traditions and rituals are rooted and originate from is fascinating, as well as just a little bit shocking…

To end, WB Yeats’ words on the season…

from All SoulsNight:

‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell

And may a lesser bell sound through the room;

And it is All Souls’ Night,

And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel

Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;

For it is a ghost’s right,

His element is so fine

Being sharpened by his death…’

CQ

Ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, I am finally getting round to a post I have been planning for some time.
I initially set out to read all the Booker Prize longlist, but had only managed six before the shortlist was announced. Of these six, only one made it to the shortlist, which was Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

I had not been tempted to read this particular book from Toibin before, despite the fact that I have read many of his earlier works, and loved them. Perhaps my strong atheistic leaning put me off. I mentioned the book and its underlying theme to my teenage daughter. Her immediate reaction was ‘what a clever idea’.

A slim book, the page length of The Testament of Mary is deceptive. This is not a quick read. There is much to consider in every paragraph, in every sentence of the single chapter story. Mary’s voice and thoughts guide us through the narrative, which is predominantly one of loss and suffering as she mourns the life and death of her son.

“…I have forgotten how to smile. I have no further need for smiling. Just as I have no further need for tears.”

Very much the story of a mother’s loss and unrelenting grief, which is the book is indeed a clever and surprising take on the ‘traditional’ story of Mary, of her son, and of his death on the cross. I have no idea whether Toibin intended the book to have religious undertones or not.

For this atheist, I found it deeply moving as a lingering and insightful narrative about the humanness of suffering.

“It was a strange period during which I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time – time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own mind and thoughts and secret feelings.”

CQ

I have just re-read this book, having initially enjoyed it many years ago.

I connected with it again, even more so this time round. And even more so now, the furore that surrounded the appearance of The Country Girls in 1960 both infuriates and embarrasses me…another fuel to my fire on the issue of repressed and fear driven Ireland.

I like O’Brien’s prose. It is readable and immediately accessible, but also nuanced and intelligent.

She captures well, and in a way that feels recognisable and reassuringly familiar, an Ireland and its people of a certain era:

‘Poor Mama, she was always a worrier. I suppose she lay there thinking of him, waiting for the sound of a motor-car to stop down the road, waiting for the sound of his feet coming through the wet grass, and for the noise of the gate hasp – waiting, and coughing.’

Women of Ireland indeed lived lives of worry and fear, suffering much in their years of waiting. The Country Girls is very much about escaping that Irish female destiny, which at least partly explains its condemnation by the fear-driven Catholic Ireland.

When her mother dies, Cait, the main ‘country girl’ of the title, fears that she will re-appear:

‘What is it about death that we cannot bear to have someone who is dead come back to us?’

Moving from rural Ireland, the ‘country’, to the city of Dublin was transformative for Cait (I, like Edna O’Brien, made a similar journey, but for us it was the longer, both literally and metaphorically, distance from provincial Ireland to London):

‘I knew now that this was the place I wanted to be. For evermore I would be restless for crowds and lights and noise. I had gone from the sad noises, the lonely rain pelting on the galvanized roof of the chicken-house, the moans of a cow in the night, when her calf was being born under a tree.’

I also connected with the need, that desperate one, to escape the boredom of growing up in the Ireland of a certain era, as verbalised by Cait’s friend Baba:

‘We’re eighteen and we’re bored to death… We want to live. Drink gin. Squeeze into the front of big cars and drive up outside big hotels. We want to go places.’

I no longer need to go places, at least not so much physically, but I am glad that I left Ireland behind, physically, when I could and did.

CQ

This film was highly rated at the 2012 London Film Festival. I saw it yesterday, in a relatively packed auditorium for a Saturday midday screening.
I was hugely impressed. This is great, and essential, cinema. Shocking? Yes. Distressing? Yes. But some truths need to be told, and told again, and again, until they get the attention they deserve. Tragically, atrocities within the Catholic Church just don’t go away.
Mainly focusing on sex scandals within the Catholic Church in America, much of the film deals with the sexual abuse of deaf boys by Fr. Murphy in a school for deaf children in Wisconsin. Years later, the adult victims began a campaign to have Fr. Murphy removed from the priesthood. While this did not happen, the campaign achieved much to bring the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church into the open. The campaign continues to gain strength.
The reason why priests who abuse children remain not only active as priests, but continue to have open access to children, is beyond comprehension, yet it appears to be how the Catholic Church deals with such heinous crimes (at worst the ‘offenders’ are deemed ‘sinners’, never criminals). The hierarchy within the establishment mostly responds to allegations of sex abuse against its priests with silence. A sad irony indeed, as we learn in Mea Maxima Culpa of the abuse of children who were already vocally silenced and isolated by their deafness.
The intricacies and complexities of the conspiracy within the Catholic Church at the highest level to publicly ignore the suffering of the abused is astounding. As is the money – billions –  the institution pays out annually via ‘fixers’ to ‘settle’ sex scandal cases.
There is an on ongoing movement, led by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robinson, to remove the Vatican’s right to exist as an independent state (granted by Mussolini…the Vatican’s position in the war is surely the stuff of another film…), a status that currently gives it diplomatic immunity and puts the Pope outside the jurisdiction of the law. It is truly absurd, and wrong, that such a situation exists. It is also absurd, and personally shocking, to see clips of various Heads of State paying homage to the Pope during their special audience…
Nonetheless, I do have a sense of the Vatican imploding. I hope that I am not being overly optimistic…

CQ

Just been, and it was magic. Mega Magic.

The current performance, which includes just a short few days at The Tricycle, centres around the death of Hughes’s father (Sean Hughes senior) from cancer.

The show is a tribute to Hughes’s dad, and as such has many moving moments, but it is also an honest and brave depiction of their at times troubled relationship.

Hughes does not dwell on pathos, and while this is a script with death and dying as its focus, it is by no means leaden or depressing. On the contrary, it is hilarious, at times uproariously so, a fact that in no way diminishes (in fact it enhances) the very real and poignant central theme.

Hughes cleverly skips around – his childhood, moving back to Dublin in 1970 aged 5 with a cockney accent at the height of ‘The Trouble’, the Irish, Catholicism, drinking, his own health and relationships – but always within sight of his father, so that returning repeatedly to his hospital bed feels natural. The show is very much about the death of ‘someone you love’ (a phrase Hughes repeats several times, and also questions what it means in relation to our parents), and about what grief means and how we make sense of it, but within the context of both the lived life of the person who has died, and the lives of those left in death’s wake.

I loved the finale. I had wondered on what note it would conclude, and I think Hughes got it just right. It served to beautifully and movingly emphasise what the entire show had attempted to portray  –  that we can indeed talk about death and dying and loss and grief, that we can also laugh about it, and we can combine it all, publicly, to create something tangible and meaningful, while at the same time entertaining and real.

I felt uplifted as I walked home.

Genius. I was mesmerised, moved and seduced by Hughes’s mind and brilliance.

CQ

I was pretty shocked to hear the results of this study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry recently, on religion, spirituality and mental health (http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/202/1/68.abstract?sid=8d0ecbb5-0c71-4852-93cb-8babb1525759).

The study analysed data obtained from interviews with 7403 people in England. Overall, 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. The results suggest that those with a spiritual understanding of life without a religious framework are ‘vulnerable to mental illness.’

I have not read the entire paper, so a critical analysis is impossible. I do not know, for example, how spirituality was defined, or what constituted a ‘religious framework’. But over 7000 participants is a pretty impressive number. As a devout atheist and someone who considers herself a spiritual being, the results are certainly interesting, and just a little shocking.

I listened to a Radio 3 Night Waves programme on the topic, and the participants included one of the paper’s authors, Michael King. The study raises the question inevitably whether the possible association between spirituality and mental illness is causal or consequential. King mentioned an ongoing longitudinal study of ‘well’ spiritual people who are not religious, and who appear to demonstrate an increase in mental illness over time.

Spirituality, the discussants suggested, is now big business, lying within the consumerism framework. It’s providers attempt to tackle the most serious of issues, include mental and physical ill health, reflecting perhaps an increasing dissatisfaction with what religion can provide.

There is nothing new about spirituality. Originally embedded within organised religion, it now seems to have evolved into an entity in its own right. A contemporary phenomenon of sorts, current notions of spirituality and leading a spiritual life can feel more reactive than constructive, and as a result, it is perhaps also weighed down by the needs of those who seek alternatives and a new way of being.

Life is challenging, increasingly so, and society’s expectations of entitlement are often hard, if not impossible, to meet. Organised religion has floundered in the midst of this. Spirituality, as one of the discussants suggested, is a potent force, and by definition therefore capable of conferring both harm and good.

I am intrigued by the fact that spirituality always seems to be discussed within an ‘either/or’ religious context. For me, atheism and spirituality feel quite separate, albeit connected, but only in so far as all my beliefs are in some way interwoven, and ultimately define me.

It is good to have such issues openly discussed. Whether a scientific approach can define the norms of religion and spirituality, and where they might lead, I have no idea.

But my (non-defensive) spiritual instinct currently says, probably not…

CQ