In her novel Time of the Angels(1), Iris Murdoch tells the story of a presbytery enveloped in dense fog. The housekeeper, a black woman with no family of her own, obeys the wishes of the parish priest by keeping all callers at bay. Her obedience towards her employer also goes beyond the normal domestic routines of parish housekeeping. The priest has surrendered his faith along with any belief in goodness and embraced a diabolical, nihilistic vision of permissiveness and self-validating sophistry.
Murdoch's biographer, Peter Conradi, offers a suggestion that for the author the novel represents the 'collapse of Christian belief....the central drama of our age.' 'Faith's "long withdrawing roar" is the novel's topic. Those who cease to believe in God do not believe in nothing. As has been observed, they start to believe in anything'.(2)
It is in many ways a tale of our own age as priests and people appear lost; believers and non-believers alike seem to stumble about aimlessly, struggling to breathe in the fog of consumerism. Small wonder that the Archbishop of Canterbury recently listed the novel as worthy of inclusion in today's RE curriculum.
Jesus said, 'Causes of falling are sure to come, but alas for the one through whom they occur!' (Luke 17:1). As I see it there are many causes of falling. Because of the way our culture operates, daily life is replete with them.
It is my contention in this short article that the collapse of Christian belief has first of all occurred at the heart of Church life, and that the very body called forth by Christ to preach unto nations is now a key stumbling block to belief in the modern age. It is also my contention that both clergy and laity have conspired to produce a reality which is alienating and - in terms of the Church's essential mission - one which is self-defeating.
Consequently there is a danger of today's Church leaders failing to see the elephant in the living room. They themselves, along with the laity and that which brings both parties together - the liturgy - have become obstacles to faith in their own right.
The “hired men”
At the outset I should point out that I do not know any priests who have become Satanists like Carel Fisher, the post-modern cleric of Murdoch’s novel, though I can think of many who have to all intents and purposes adopted his attitude of general contempt for those they are ordained to serve.
However, most priests I know, meet or come across directly, do seem exhausted and demoralised. A recent survey among the Irish clergy revealed that a disproportionate number experience at least moderate symptoms of depression. Moreover on the topic of mental health one wonders what level of delusion currently plagues the National Conference of Priests, which has adopted the theme “Life in Abundance” for the next three years.
Anecdotally I hear of a few who, if they were given the chance to have their life over again, would not choose the route of ordained priesthood. When I hear of such honesty I think of the others I have seen on many occasions standing in front of packed halls on jubilee days, at ordinations and at gatherings of seminarians declaring what a wonderful life they have had and of all the blessings that lie ahead for the priests of tomorrow. With hindsight I know who was speaking the truth. The latter make no mention of the sham of ‘fraternity’, and of the insidious pressure at the heart of diocesan life to avoid attempts to cultivate a genuine spiritual life. They gloss over the bitter loneliness of celibacy.
But perhaps the greatest deception of all is not to mention the straits in which the Church currently stands. None of them ever allude to the Church’s marginal situation with respect to local and national life, of how she is abandoned in great numbers and cynically used by hoards of its nominal members. None of them tell of a Church dying amid a rotten and chaotic culture.
“Such a one will go in and out and will find pasture”
We must keep hoping. So despite my pessimism I continue to search for a parish where I will find a place of calm, a haven, a genuine retreat from the poisoned atmosphere of the world. My hope is a simple one: to find Catholic Christians coming together in humility - not in flight from the real and horrible world but seeking to draw on God's help and strength for their return to it. In most cases I remain disappointed, angry and disheartened.
To illustrate the point let me share one experience from among many. I recently visited a parish in North Wales. First impressions were good, it was pleasing to see such a crowd, more diverse than most other parishes; a good mixture of students, young families and children, single people and couples. More heartening still was the obvious presence of many East Asian families - newly-recruited staff of the local general hospital. A good sign I thought, perhaps they found a welcome here, a connection with home.
Sadly my initial sense of delight soon gave way to disappointment. As in so many cases, if it’s not the priest breathlessly scampering around, half vested, before mass begins, it’s the obligatory public announcements which ensure the complete prevention of prayerfulness, “This is what we shall sing today and this is how we shall sing it.” Control freakery abounds, “don’t sit at the back come up to the front”.
Here as elsewhere there were at least a couple of characters competing with the priest for attention: a very vocal parish sister doubling up as a jack in the box ‘cantor’ and a selection of other social types: middle class loons, wannabe priests and earth mothers. The rest of the congregation as far as I observed sat sullenly unmoved and in most cases appeared cowed into submission by this weekly fiasco. If by accident an atmosphere of prayerfulness developed at all, someone - sometimes even the priest - would appear to do his utmost to destroy it.
I felt more dislocated than ever. I confess to leaving before the majority of the congregation along with a few others, discreetly using the juncture provided by the congregations’ movement to receive communion. I left in a rage, unsettled, upset and angry at another lost opportunity another local example of an eviscerated liturgy. So much for the life of many blessings, I thought. How divorced the present reality is from its calling. Another local example of the bruised “hard ribs of a body that our prayers have failed to animate.” (3)
All this has left me wondering if our liturgy or our parishes have irreparably lost a capacity to re-enact the holy. And all this in despite the proliferation of liturgy groups and commissions. In most instances I end up saying to myself, there is nothing here to sustain and nourish the tired mind and heart. Generally the experience of Sunday mass is exhausting, infuriating and alienating.
In 1963 Vatican II proclaimed “…it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church……. At the same time it marvellously increases their power to preach Christ and thus show forth the Church, a sign lifted up among the nations, to those who are outside, a sign under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together until there is one fold and one shepherd.” (4)
More than forty years on it seems the liturgy in almost every instance is eviscerated. The liturgy as a means of evangelisation has been undermined practically everywhere and I am not alone in sensing that there is increasingly nothing attractive or appealing about it. Young people and all those with a sharp instinct for authenticity know this. The same features are found wherever I go: unnecessary noise, intrusive busyness, folksy bumbling, and a complete ignorance of the natural rhythm of the rites. In many places it has become just an irreverent celebration of personality, an ego-fest, and not infrequently that of the priest.
“And there are other sheep I have that are not of this fold”
On a more hopeful note, in Time of the Angels it wasn’t the priest Carel Fisher or the lay people or even the parish ritual that embodied the essence of Christianity, but the poor figure of a Russian émigré living in the cellar, Eugene Peshkov. He was largely ignored, treated with contempt by the priest and with rank hostility by the parish worthies. Eugene was humble and steadfast and nourished by his own hard-won faith. He appears like one of the archetypal anawim of the Old Testament. Fortunately there are still a few like him in most parishes, but they are conspicuous by their absence at parish councils and you will never find them at local diocesan and national strategy meetings. They are detached from the world and they eschew the politics of parish life. Correspondingly those at the hub are at best indifferent to them.
Murdoch’s characterisation makes it impossible to think of Peshkov without simultaneously picturing Rublev’s Trinity. I think she sensed that if the ebbing tide of faith does turn again it will be the poor who will pass on the baton and be the salvation of us all. As in previous critical moments of salvation history it will be the anawim who will hold up the image of the living Christ to the next generation.
Notes and References
(1) Iris Murdoch, Time of the Angels. (London: Penguin 1968)
(2) Peter J Conradi, Iris Murdoch: a Life. (London: Harper Collins, 2001)
(3) In Church: R.S. Thomas Collected Poems 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993)
(4) The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium: (Introduction, para.2, 1963).