We can't make sense of art, literature or history without an understanding of faith
Published 01/08/2016 | 02:30
Many of my generation feel that they were over-stuffed with religion in Irish schools - a 'Hail Mary' before every class, Maytime processions singing the 'Litany to Our Lady' - and this, perhaps, explains the reaction against such a surfeit of faith in current educational thinking. A draft proposal by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment now suggests reducing religious instruction to two-and-a-half hours a week in faith primary schools.
All modernisers think kids should be stuffed with maths and science, rather than religion, which some commentators have dismissed as "fairy tales".
Yet I now feel that I didn't learn enough about religion in my convent schooldays. I'm gratified that I can still recite the Seven Deadly Sins ("Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth"), though reciting them doesn't seem to have stopped me from indulging in them. And I'm glad that we had those beautiful Maytime processions.
But here's the thing. It took a reading of James Joyce to reveal to me just what beauty lay in those chanted words: "Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star….Ora Pro Nobis." Joyce sucked up everything from his Jesuit education and turned it into great literature.
But then, the American novelist and theologian, the Calvinist Marilynne Robinson, has suggested that religion and literature are deeply intertwined in the evolution of civilisation. So is culture: music, architecture, sculpture, painting, even the theatre.
I suppose that the cheap Italian editions of 'holy pictures' that we were given were an early introduction to Renaissance religious art. And that Fra Angelico of the Annunciation we used to exchange with schoolgirl messages written on the back was more than a representation of a key moment in the New Testament. This was the beginning of all modern artistic development, establishing the discovery of visual perspective: without Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, there would be no Vermeer or Cezanne, according to the BBC arts expert Will Gompertz.
Faith, they say, is "caught, not taught": so perhaps faith and religion are different aspects of belief systems. Faith is often more a matter of example than of precept, anyway. Where faith is imparted with a true spirit of uplift and tolerance, it is more likely to be 'caught' than when beaten into you.
But the religious narrative in human development, especially in culture and the arts, is every bit as important as understanding maths and science and I wish that I had been given more of that context earlier. History too.
You can't understand anything about the development of human society - and the emotional needs of people - without understanding the history of religion. You certainly can't understand anything about the history of Ireland without understanding the faith of the people and how it sustained them through troubled centuries.
Seán O'Casey, like Joyce, drew deeply on this well of faith and motherland and even though he became a Communist - actually, a Stalinist - his creative understanding never faltered. He grew up among people of faith, which included, most importantly, his mother, who was a Bible teacher from Wicklow, and instructed him in Bible readings from an early age.
O'Casey, though a Protestant, composed the most beautiful example of a Catholic prayer, when he wrote, in 'Juno and the Paycock': "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!"
It's a supplication that could well be expressed to the Almighty even today, against the "murdherin' hate" of Isil and its ilk.
But he probably unconsciously drew on his knowledge of the Old Testament, remembering a passage in the Book of Ezekiel: "I shall give you a new heart... I shall remove the heart of stone for your bodies and give you a heart of flesh."
As I was married to an Anglican for over 40 years, I came to know more about the exquisite prose of the King James Bible, translated in 1611, and that was an education in itself. What a fabulous journalist St Paul would have made! God, how he could turn a phrase!
He was a touch misogynistic, but you have to make allowance for a man who can compose such phrases as: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly: but then, face to face…"
I also got to know the sombre Book of Common Prayer, whose matrimonial rite is one of the fiercest passages ever written about marriage: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honourable estate… and therefore not to be enterprised…unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts of the fields."
The language is archaic and yet it is so serious and majestic: and it is a history lesson in itself to think that this was the tone of voice which presided over the marriage ceremony for so many centuries.
Religion is not going away any time soon, however much Atheist Ireland might wish to make it vanish. Godless Sunday assemblies are not about to replace the great cathedrals of Europe - which have seen a remarkable revival in recent years. We need to be instructed in the culture, meaning and even beauty of faith if we are to make sense of language, literature, history and art. Even jokes - as comedians from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Dave Allen understood - often depend on a familiarity with a religious context.
But maybe it's a lifetime lesson, rather than one just confined to the classroom.