In his December column ‘Apologies, Apologies, More Apologies,’ my fellow blog contributor Myroslaw Tataryn challenges clerical certainty. “The human mind can never fully fathom the divine,” he writes. “Yet, somehow, over the centuries, the Church has forgotten that humility and succumbed to the temptation of assuming we can know the mind of God. We have invested our hierarchy with a claim of knowledge and authority in matters divine that allows for no declaration of: ‘I do not know,’ or ‘I am not sure.’
I do not know. I am not sure. I have been musing on this uncertainty about the divine as we make the quarter turn in the Celtic calendar from winter to spring, from darkness to light, on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1. Brigid is both goddess and saint, the day both pagan and Christian. Brigid of Kildare governed a monastery in the sixth century, one where lived communities of both men and women. Another Brigid was Celtic goddess, or even three or more goddesses. The stories of the saint are infused with magic and myth. She is liminal, one ‘in between,’ born on a threshold at dawn, neither in nor out of a house, neither in day nor night. There is no either/or here, but rather both/and. The Irish seem fine with that. The date “is a mixture of many of these layers,” writes the Irish folklorist Michael Fortune, “where we pick and choose aspects which make sense for us on our own personal level.”
This space of uncertainty is challenging yet potentially transformative, as the recent precipitous decline of the institutional Church in Ireland, formerly one of the most resolutely Catholic nations in the world, suggests. In a 2018 America article titled “The Uncertain Future of Catholic Ireland,” James T. Keane describes the drop in Irish vocations (82 ordained at Maynooth seminary in 1899, six in 2017) and Mass attendance (over 90 percent of the population in the early 1970s, around 30 percent in recent years) but also notes that this turn away from the institutional Church is not an indication of ebb in religious practice and spiritual life. What seems to be happening is the awakening of a new kind of “church.” Keane quotes Rev. Michael Collins, formator at Maynooth: “From one perspective, something is dying. But from another perspective, you can see that we are in a liminal space: Something new is emerging. There’s something very vibrant happening. That sounds almost like a contradiction, but I think it is the reality.” As Keane notes (and I concur based on my own experiences of faith practices in Ireland), there is an “endurance and even growth of other sources of Christian nourishment in Ireland, including pilgrimages, public novenas and frequent visits to nontraditional worship sites, such as the Marian shrine at Knock or the many healing wells and legendary ‘thin places,’” both Christian and pagan. At such sacred places the materiality of things (“thisness,” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins construed it) seems quite important. On the eve of St. Brigid’s feast day, for instance, people weave Brigid’s crosses out of rushes and leave pieces of cloth outside overnight for the saint’s blessing. Those things are believed to have healing properties, offering protection and balm throughout the year. At holy wells, cairns, forest shrines, and other pilgrimage destinations, one finds items from daily life left by believers: holy cards and medals, candles, rosaries, photographs, toys, cups, cloth, statues—prayers incarnate that can be seen, touched, held.
One of the most consoling stories of faith for me now is paradoxically one told by the Italian philosopher and self-described “atheist” Gianni Vattimo. Riding in a car driven by his nephew, the philosopher took out his rosary and began to pray, like his old auntie used to do when he would drive her places. He said he felt the desire to pray, did it automatically, but no longer had the certainty of his youth that there was a God to pray to. I do not know. I am not sure. Recently I met a woman whose brother was dying. She told me she had walked 15 miles to the shrine of Chimayo, a pilgrimage destination north of Santa Fe, to bring him back holy dirt, believed to have healing properties. I carry my grandmother’s rosary wherever I go. The woman also treasured the rosary of her grandmother, who had raised her and her brother. We discovered we shared a disinterest in the prayer but loved the object, feeling the beads worn smooth by our grandmothers’ hands. We prayed the Hail Mary haltingly together, without the beads, not in the way of our grandmothers. Something new is emerging. A dear friend suggests I am a better chaplain because of my uncertainty, my knowing that saying I do not know is all I can say now truthfully. And yet there are those moments like the encounter with the woman that have little to do with dogma, creeds, or what any institution insists is truth. Are these not glimpses of ‘church?’
Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.