In the Poorer Quarters, a series of scripts from the RTE radio programme of the same name, is an attempt at a personal conversation over a twelve month time-span with the Gospel of Mark. In a period of rapid religious and cultural change, it tries to reflect on faith in a way that is hopeful and on hope in a way that is faithful in order to reveal the extraordinary nature of ordinary time, its grief and its grace.
Aidan Mathews was born in 1956 and educated by the Jesuits at Gonzaga College. He went on to UCD, TCD, and Stanford University where he was taught by Rene Girard. He has written fiction (Lipstick on the Host, 1993), poetry (According to the Small Hours, 1998) and drama (Communion, 2001). He is married to Patricia and they have two daughters, Laura and Lucy.
Having explored the Gospel of Mark over many years with successive generations of GCSE students, the
arrival of Aidan Matthews latest publication ln the Poorer Quarters, a personal conversation between the author and Mark held a particular interest for me. Already a well-received RTE radio production, the
original radio scripts now available in this format dont disappoint as early reviews have already suggested. An unusually moving introduction indicates the strength and depth of what is to follow and paves the way for thirty six short chapters each of which conveys that sort of warmth and intensity of expression as well as facility to engage the reader so often found in works written originally for the ear rather than the eye. The reflections begin and end at Christmas in between which can be found a plethora of profundities including fresh and illuminating perspectives on long and perhaps over familiar scriptural stories and images to which the author brings new life and light. His reminisces, descriptions and observations of the conformist churchgoers of the 1960s and the conformist non-churchgoers of the new millennium, are incisive yet affectionate and reveal someone who knows what is in man, while at the same time one who is unafraid to tackle the perennial moneychangers in the temple wherever they are to be found demeaning God or human in church or society. The rich prose and the use of sources personal, artistic, philosophical, theological or poetic is always stimulating, not pretentious, and reminisces though starkly revealing in places never cloy. A remarkably authentic, honest conversation couched in a use of language that in turn both intrigues and enthralls.
- Fr Paul Clayton-Lea, Intercom
The dying days of January mark the anniversary each winter of the liberation of the death camp at Auschwitz by the merciless avant garde of the Soviet Red Army in 1945, when my parents here in Ireland were rejoicing at last in a stable second pregnancy after the unspeakable loss of just one life, that of a first daughter almost at birth.
Little Therese, whose dubious baptism pointed her towards Limbo although my mother had protested pointlessly to the hospital chaplain that shed already christened her by desire in the warm lagoon of her uterus, was awarded a liturgy and a burial and even, latterly, an inscription on stone in a cemetery where the grass is cut and the gravel paths are raked.
Elsewhere in Europe on the morning of her birth the terraced generations of limitless, eliminated families settled softly as soot, like the photographic negative of snowflakes, on the quivering branches of the Christmas trees that surrounded the chimneys of the crematorium outside Krakow with an evergreen camouflage.
There would be another million lives lost before the Holocaust would be doused, in an unbearable irony, by the military machine of a Soviet psychopath who was as mathematical about murder as his Austrian enemy-brother.
My mother and my dad, peace be upon them, had left a list of wedding gifts in Brown Thomas of Grafton Street to be consulted by the guests they were inviting to their marriage feast in the gracious Gresham Hotel in Dublin. As the canteens of cutlery, the bedlinen and the continental lampshades were checked, confirmed and crossed off the typed inventory, higher civil servants with Arts and Science doctorates from ancient German universities congregated at an elegant conference centre at Wannsee to coordinate their forward plans for the terminal deletion of the Semitic element from historic Christendom.
It was going to be a logistical nightmare, even for a managerial elite used to succinct solutions, quota pressures and/or incentive-driven productivity. At least they could use the metal track and wooden sleepers of the same locomotive infrastructure that allows my childrens friends to inter-rail to Auschwitz with a students season ticket in this, the dazed third millennium, browsing in the execution ground in their Benetton ponchos and their Apple iPods among what one Modern Languages sophomore reported on a postcard as `barbed wire, barbed wire, barbed wire.
No audio exists of that Wannsee think tank and its competitive brainstorming. I suppose the delegates broke up into small groups at some stage before reporting back to the session facilitator, Adolf Eichmann.
But you can listen on the internet to a recording of Eichmanns Chief Executive Officer, sometime schoolteacher Heinrich Himmler, encouraging his subordinates in the good work of industrial genocide at a place called Posen in 1943; and its strange to listen on headphones at your own PC to the intimate oxide tape recording of his off-the-cuff comments about mass extermination.
My parents, Joe and Tottie, had just moved into Nutley Avenue, a cigarette away from where Im writing, though their house honeymoon had been somewhat overshadowed by an unfortunate embarrassment, The unmarried maid theyd employed gavebirth in her bedroom to a premature child whose arrival had been greatly accelerated by the metal corsetry she wore to conceal her pregnancy.
My dad, a good-looking doctor, delivered the baby before in turn delivering them both, mother and child, to a Dublin maternity hospital and, I suppose, to an eventual North of England munitions factory where she probably packed grenades or the ordnance that pilots painted boobs on, giving rise to the endearment bombshell as a certificate of beauty.
I dont mention these things to castigate the parents who moulded me in some shape or form into what I do and what I fail to do. My life does not bear close examination either. I have spent it doing the same sort of perfectly understandable things from the very best of motives, and I shall have to answer for each and every one of them in the fullness of time.
That is my privilege and my peril as a responsible human being. In any event, domesticity is only ever a stones throw from atrocity.
Domesticity can itself be atrocity, the sum of stones thrown. Much of my existence has taken place in the introverted sphere of a prudential family life, raising children without a second glance at the processional horrors, little and large, of the corrupt and criminal era in which Ive paid my pension instalments, my licence fee, and fretted discreetly about my cholesterol levels. El Salvador, Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda: all these abattoirs occurred off-stage, on the far periphery of my field of vision, while I was inhaling my daughters hair and the sweet scent of the nape of their necks in the paddle pool.
The New Testament rightly reprehends those like myself who distort their admittedly important family obligations into an alias or an alibi for their pleasured paralysis in a world of Srebenicas and Sowetos and street fights in Strabane, not to speak of the sadistic, sub-clinical bullying that can go on at the next desk behind the potted plants in the open-plan offices where we work away, noticing nothing. In fact Christianity, our unread, unreasonable religion has little interest in family values as such, finding the altar wine of community to be altogether thicker than the blood of genetic connection.
Auschwitz, a mnemonic of modernity, begins with A and ends with Z, and the A is no alpha, no grand capitalised Abomination but the little indefinite articles of everyday life.
When I was a child, my culture taught me always and everywhere to be wary of Protestant clergymen and of homosexuals. Their marginality made me mainstream. Their eccentricity centred me. Their abnormality proclaimed my normative nature. Today the culture teaches my children to beware in turn of Catholic clergymen and of heterosexual males: just at the moment, oestrogen is good, testosterone bad. Just as gay vicars popped up with a regularity that was almost risible in the permanent police line-up of the Sunday newspapers in the 1960s, so todays condemnatory journalism parades the cartoon monsters of dehumanised priests and perverts.
Their faces glitter with our saliva - in part the spit of our self-righteous outrage, in part the drool of our prurient obsessions. For there is a deep and unclean psycho-sexual gratification in the work of revulsion. Disgust is the last costume appearance of gusto. And the print and electronic media pander to and profit from our frothy, foaming incredulity. TV and tabloids are the bully pulpits of a new sacrificial priesthood, as coercive and censorious now as any demonized Maynooth in the olden times and these incurruptibles preside as prelates over our orgiastic liturgies of condemnation. For the high-hand-edness of the prince bishops has been replaced in our day by the hauteur of the puritan divines.
Which is to say that everything has changed yet everything is exactly the same as it was. The age-old binary system of our scapegoating society survives all the passing reversals and inversions of mere moral fashion.
Its raison detre is to let us see ourselves as utterly unlike those whom we dislike, to describe and define our authentic human nature over those who do not fully possess it. Just as the only difference between broadsheets and tabloids seems at times to be that the first features small print on large sheets and the second large print on small sheets, so too the perfectly symmetrical conflict between the opposed superpowers in Cold War, the demonology of my childhood, has been replaced in my middle years by the new reciprocal demonology of Islam versus the West.
We think in these terms, and we terminate in these thoughts. Its like subject-verb-object, a grammatical pro?¼pensity of our intellect, as deep down as the incisors in our mouths and our vigilant hunters retinas.
Nominative-indicative-accusative, which is to say accused, which is to say condemned.
But the black sheep are the lambs of God. This par excellence is the teaching of Judaism and of Christianity condensed into a sentence. The scapegoats are, as the anthropologist Rene Girard is tired of telling us, the casualties of our rush to judgment and not the culprits of our measured justice.
lndeed, the criminal justice system is itself no more than delegated vigilantism, the sacrificial gauntlet of public vengeance. We know perfectly well that prison causes the disintegration of the human person who is the greatest work of art in the universe. We know that all imprisonment in our culture is life imprisonment.
There is no redemption from it for ones reputation or for ones rehabilitation. There is only the ridiculed punitive aftermath of lasting disgrace in which the law-abiding rest of us, whose sins are luckily legal, commit time and again the enormous sin against the Holy Spirit - thats to say, the satanic sin of reducing a complex, costly, cherished person, an individual made in the image of God, to the minuscule dimensions of one thing that they have done or not done: one action, one event, one experience.
Not alone do we brutalise our scapegoats by representing them as bestial, as animals, as inhuman if not unhuman if not sub-human and therefore altogether nonhuman, but we insist, as in the case of the current bogey man, the paedophile with his cloven hoof, that he or she or it is incapable of change. This is to insist that he or she or it is not recognisably of our species since change, growth, development, the mystery of the marks of time, are core definitions of what it is to be homo sapiens in the first place.
If this is all Greek to us, theres good reason. The word categorise comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning to bring a criminal charge against; and the word Satan stems from the Syriac Satanas, meaning a legal prosecutor, a court-appointed persecutor.
Saint Johns expression for the Holy Spirit of the God of Jesus is chosen specifically to counterpoint this, for Paraclete is again an ancient Greek designation for a legal defender, an advocate who stands beside one in the star chambers and the gas chambers of human culture.
The opposite of the criminal justice system, the opposite of public opinion and, God help us, the public demand for something to be done immediately, are the Passion Narratives of the New Testament. They do not describe the juridical, judgemental world from the point of view of the indignant authorities, civil, religious or bureaucratic. They do not expound the social contract or the division of powers or any such stuff, as these things would be understood either by the bench or the bench of bishops, the court of Pilate or the synod of Caiaphas. They do not bang on and on about law and order or the western model of participative democracy. Instead, the Passion narratives demonstrate that, at the end of the high moral road, there is always a gibbet or a hypodermic.
They show us what we do as a species when circumstances oblige us to be serious. In short, they reveal the victim, whom we always regard as the victimiser. The three synoptic gospels are so much in sympathy with the object of everyones loathing that they make it possible for the fourth gospel, Saint Johns, to present a condemned criminal whos lost control of his bowels as the subject of the pogrom, and the transcendent subject at that.
This is why the birth of the novel coincides with the translation of the scriptures into the vernacular languages of Europe. Its why the novel is strictly a European and a Christian form, because it imagines the Other, not as spook or ogre, but with reverence and deference from the inside-out and not from the outside-in; and so it inaugurates the humanism of individuality.
For almost two thousand years we have been meeting on For almost two thousand years we have been meeting on Sundays to remind each other that the Passion of Christ is our summons to com-passionate the human presence that the mob is massacring. For we know, more or less, that not to do so would be a tragedy - another Greek word, from tragou odos, meaning the `road of the (scape)goat, no different in the dramas of Euripides than in the Book of Leviticus.
The demoniac in the cemetery in Saint Marks gospel squats among headstones because the community that keeps him captive as the useful plaything of their tantrums and their thirst for blood do not believe that he is really alive in the same way that they are.
In fact, they know they are fully human because he certainly is not. When Jesus, who will be demonised in due course and by due process, asks him what his name is, he tells him: My name is Legion, because we are many. He is indeed Legion. He is the fascist, the fanatic, the poof, the priest, the lesbo, the Provo, the paedophile, the ex-con, the dyke, the kike, the big-nose, the brown-nose, the Opus Dei member, the millionaire, the alco, the nutcase, the nigger, the wog, the wop, the chink in our terrible armour.
This script was first broadcast on the RTE radio programme In the Poorer Quarters by Aidan Mathews which is now published in book format by Veritas. In the Poorer Quarters.
- The Irish Catholic January 2008
- CHAPTER ONE
I was working as part of the radio team on the broadcast of the Midnight Mass (Luke 2:1-20) on Christmas Eve in the Jesuit church in Gardiner Street, Dublin. My dad used to bring me to confession there in the 1960s, when women wore headscarves to protect their hairstyles from the wind and men wore bicycle-clips to protect their trousers from the chain. That was before the present structure of the sacrament of penance died a death because it had ceased to be useful to the community it was intended to serve (the rite of reconciliation, after all, is made for man and not man for the rite of reconciliation). I imagine my father chose Gardiner Street instead of the transept in his own parish out of subliminal spiritual snobbishness, as if an SJ from the Milltown Institute would be more urbanely dialectical than a CC from the Styx. Like most of his generation, Dad combined religiosity with a slight sardonic anticlericalism. Me, I always found Saint Francis Xavier church a warm and welcoming venue in which to whisper my trespasses.
It was warm and welcoming again the night of Christmas Eve, as I climbed the spiral staircase to the choir in the gallery over the West door. In the headphones of my Walkman set, Adeste Fideles, the recessional hymn that has the ring of a boisterous drinking song, was fading for the bulletin at 1 a.m., and the tension that goes with a live transmission was easing in quick lockstep with it. But the first item in the news hadnt to do with papal greetings or stranded airplane passengers. Instead, it reported the tragic death of a person who had, it appeared, driven a car into the water at a harbour within walking distance of the citys brash festivity. Foul play was not suspected. And I suddenly remembered anecdotal word in the late summer of a disabled individual propelling himself in broad daylight off the pier in Dun Laoghaire, for the strongest arms in the world belong to the wheelchair user. Happy Christmas, I said to the soprano line, shaking hands but thinking of hands shaking, and the sopranos said it back: Happy Christmas to you too.
Its almost forty years, that strange, estranging biblical passage of time, since tow American Jews, Paul and Art, sang a definitive rendition of the Christmas carol Silent Night from corduroy grooves of an old vinyl LP in my bedroom, a lamenting, lullaby-like rendition against a background of radio break-through, a blend of wireless static and sad soundbites from Vietnam and the rioting ghettoes of the 1960s. The glorious Adeste and the sorrowful newscast, up there in the gallery of Gardiner Street church, seemed almost the same for a moment as the Simon and Garfunkel cover from the years of the counter-culture, a contrast amounting to counterpoint: rhe glas versus the grim, life versus death, just as the hymn sheets for the midnight Eucharist had been printed on the back of a parish funeral form.
But to think so may be to mistake, if not altogether to miss, the paschal nature of the birth of Jesus , paschal, that is, from the Greek verb pascho with its ancient Attic root-work in strickenness and suffering , just as we can miss the incarnational grandeur of the Passion narratives by confusing another Greek term agonia, an athletes work-out, with our later English agony. We call the solstice holy day the Feast of the Incarnation because for those with a high Christology the history of that happening fills and fulfils the heart. The Word has assumed flesh and, in the Greek idiom of Saint John, has pitched his tent among a travelling people. Then again, for those who fear belief lest it turn out in the end to be make-believe, the birth of a baby, even without the legendary apparatus of angels, still calls for a knees-up if not for a genuflection; while for those who risk the peril of mystification in the exploration of mystery, the story of the stable is a creature comfort. In short, the accent has always been on euphoria. Humanists and Hindus join in the song and dance. Its the season of goodwill because the season itself, the sterile butt of the dead year, is pure spite - which is why, I suppose, we colonised the ancient Roman Saturnalia of late December in the first place, making it, from the fourth century or so, a modern midwinter service-cum-shindig, in much the way that Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, itself a modest encampment in the religious calendar of the house of Jacob, has grown in cultural stature in modern America as a liturgical parallel to Esaus gentile fiesta.
Now Im no killjoy. I love Christmas, Christs Mass, the critical density of the day thats in it. I love the hibernatory stupor between Christmas and New Year. I love what the Irish poet Michael Longley once called in a marvellous expression the Great Indoors, the breast and bib of ones own fireside, turned away from the threatening world just as South Sea Islanders build their houses with their backs to the ocean. I love the happy maudlin of Christmas memories. Some of my most potent and poignant ones are bound up with small children shifting figures in the crib to make room for Smurfs, Sylvanian families and toy Confederate soldiers. But I know well- or at least I know as well - that the Christmas aesthetic softens steadily into an anaesthetic when its pain is prettified. I know that the cr?¿che in my living room is only a kindergarten, a tutorial in pictures, and that the adult business of incarnation is sitting at an ATM on the street with a Styrofoam cup in his lap, round the corner from where I live, and that the woman on his left-hand side silently withdrawing Ôé¼100 from her current account is every bit as interesting and gifted and necessitous.
In human terms, in paschal terms, the story of Jesus begins with a terrified teenager birthing onto a futon of straw in a rock cavity amid the incense of the breath of livestock. It begins in Taliban territory, a sectarian state that murders single mothers by stoning them. It begins badly and will end worse - in the public execution of her child as a condemned criminal in a rubbish dump outside the city walls and far away from the world of water sprinklers and microwaves where I move and have my lenient, semi-detached being. It begins with Caesar Augustus, a man who had himself declared a god by acclamation of the Roman senate, and it ends with a queer God who has given us his word that he will enter into the mucous membrane of history in the presence and the person of a speechless human being. From first to last and from start to finish it is a story about the margins and not the mainstream, a story about the wayside and not about the way, a story about the periphery and not about the centre. It is the compass of a flukish, drifting, untrustworthy star and not the co-ordinates of a sensibly stationary one by which rational and enlightened sorts might steer safely. It is, in fact, the yellow star of the scapegoat, the sign of the outsider, the outcast, the outlawed in an Aryan state.
Little wonder then that Marc Chagall, the visionary Jewish painter of the mundane and the matter-of-fact universe should choose to represent the affliction of his folk in studies of the crucifixion, the very disaster - the Latin word for a bad star that Christians have used to demonise Jews over millenia. Little wonder as well that the Nativity narrative of Luke summons an honour guard of sheer desperadoes - the despised shepherds of inter-testamental Palestine - to visit the puking mite who has been born at the wrong time and in the wrong environment. For this place, this unstable shed, is par excellence a scenario for midwives, yet there are no women present. It is an unescorted birth, labour without amenity. In the same manner and for the same reason, men who are stalwarts in a theatre of atrocity will be absent from the vigil at the cross. The God of the gospels, who is the God of Abraham and the Father of Jesus, affirms life in the real world of horrific reversal, in the upside down of actual calamity. Those who seek to bring Jesus into the world should know beforehand from the example of his mother Maryam that it is work done in darkness, bewilderment and breakdown. And it reaches beyond the recitation of hop-along lyrics on a high holiday to the silence and solitariness of death. We can sift the historicity of these texts all we like, the weave of their traditions and theologies, but we shred their essential witness if we forget that they depict a deity deeply complicit with our nakedness.
Just as the angel Gabriel announces the advent of the Word of God in the person of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, so the same emissary brings the word of God to the prophet Mohammed, syllable by syllable, in the verses of the Koran. Its account of the annunciation concatenates many of the elements in Lukes narrative while resolutely disavowing the divinity - that true God from true God - of the high Christian tradition which Islam would largely oust from its North African enclave. But it strengthens the sense of Marys unaccompanied travels to the East in a way that reminds me a little of the travail of Hagar, mother of Ishmael, in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, and it expresses well the fearfulness of birthing without matronly help in Marys desire for death as the first contractions come. But her compassionate and merciful God, the shared semitic lord of the three faiths of the family of Abraham, strews ripe dates from a palm tree when she shakes its trunk and a freshwater stream glistens beside her. Like the stone recess of Bethlehem that prefigures the Easter tomb, this later labour of the Virgin occurs, beyond the glance of the great and the good, within the gaze of God. When the handmaid returns after the birth of the prophet Jesus to her own people, they reproach her at the first sight of the infant, and it is the baby in the cradle who in turn rebukes them with articulate speech - I was blessed on the day of my birth and I shall be blessed on the day of my death - in a manner that calls to the Christian mind both the premature fluency of the bar-mitzvah boy at age twelve in the miracle story of the seminar in Solomons Temple and also summons up the wizened face of the geriatric suckling child, already wise beyond years and eras of mortal time, in so many Renaissance treatments of the theme.
Modernitys image of the infant combines the scrunched features of a foetus at full term with the age of our species 200,000 years and counting. Our birthrights beckon in the Christ mystery.