I wonder if most Christians remember when they first heard the name of Jesus. I certainly don't. Nor can I remember, as a child, believing in Him, or disbelieving in Him. He was just something to know about, like the fact that dinosaurs once walked the earth, or that the earth revolved around the sun. Children are often romanticized, rather inconsistently, as being both remorselessly skeptical and infinitely credulous. They see fairies at the bottom of the garden, and they see through the Emperor's New Clothes. I did neither.
I do, however, recall moments in childhood when I glimpsed the sublime through the forms of Christianity. I don't think I was even aware of this at the time; they were like seeds that dropped into the soil of my consciousness, only to shoot forth many years later.
There was a banner with the Chi-Ro symbol hanging in my classroom in my second year of schooling, when I was seven or eight. (Most Irish schools were Catholic schools back then—in fact, the situation is only beginning to change today.) I recognized, in some deep part of my young mind, that this symbol spoke in a register altogether different from any of the posters on the classroom walls or any of the pictures in our schoolbooks, with their smiling cartoon faces. It undercut them; it belonged to a different order, by virtue of its grown-up mysteriousness, its sober colors, its refusal to be blatant or sugarcoated. It was like a lowered tone in a grown-up conversation; instantly, the child realizes that there's something going on here.
Holy pictures, too, fertilized my imagination, seemingly without my even noticing it. I remember two holy pictures in a bedroom in my step-grandfather's house. One of them showed a Madonna and child, I think; at first I thought the haloes were astronaut's helmets. I don't even remember what the other showed. But I can remember the feelings they inspired in me. Once again, they seemed to belong to some deeper reality—both more solemn and more romantic—than the technicolored, glowing, kinetic carnival around me, on TV and in shop windows and comics. I preferred the day-glow carnival, for sure. I loved kids' cartoons and brightly-painted collectible action figures and the glass and neon of Dublin city centre. Anything somber or earnest gave me the creeps. But somehow, those flashes of religious awe still pierced through the haze of a commercialized, banalized, infinitely distracted late twentieth-century childhood—by the grace of God.
There is also the memory of an afternoon singing Christmas carols with my class in the local shopping centre, on a crisp December day. I remember thinking our voices sounded like the voices of angels, and feeling the magnetic pull of the transcendent in the words we were singing. Of course, I didn't understand my own feelings at the time.
I had a brief conversion at the age of fourteen or fifteen. I was visiting my aunt, a farmer's wife, for the summer holidays. In her little village, everybody went to Mass, and a full church is itself a stimulant to a dormant religious imagination. But it was the gospel text that electrified me. "I am the vine, you are the branches"—for the first time, as far as I can remember, a religious idea had appealed to my sense of wonder. This was at an age when I was discovering poetry and the beauty of ideas. That Christianity could be something pulse-quickeningly romantic had never even occurred to me.
I remember, during this holiday, somehow acquiring rosary beads and (I think) a miraculous medal, along with a poster displaying the Ten Commandments. I remember taking a keen interest in another country church I visited, and writing a poem about the Resurrection on a glossy-leaved notepad when I got back to Dublin. I also remember, when I went back to school, looking at a statue of St. Francis and feeling grateful that I was attending a secondary school run by nuns, and that I was surrounded by an atmosphere of picturesque piety. But my mini-conversion soon fizzled out, one way or the other, and I slid back into my religious indifferentism.
I was a keen writer of poetry at this time, and I remember writing satirical poems that used Scriptural allusions. One attacked the women who gossip together after Mass, the other attacked the nuns who ran my school—both very unfair attacks. But in neither did I attack Christianity itself. I can't remember ever being hostile to the Catholic Church, despite having gone through the inevitable communist phase rather early. (I remember reading John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World in the school study hall.)
I don't remember ever going to Mass aside from the times when I was taken by my mother. I didn't even realize that Sunday and holy day attendance was a requirement for a Catholic.
The religious instruction we received was poor, apart from our first year, where an old and intensely loveable nun taught us about the mysteries of the rosary, the Fatima apparitions, the story of Maximillian Kolbe, and other solid fare. After that, religion class became, more or less, a succession of inspirational videos (mostly feature films like Shadowlands and Not Without My Daughter) and pop psychology. I don't really blame our religion teachers for this. My generation had become so hardened to religion, through the propaganda of television and pop culture, that catechesis had become almost impossible. Whatever doctrine the teachers did try to impart was met with taunting questions and smirking incredulity, for the most part.
One thing did stick in my mind, to an extent I never could have anticipated. In our fourth year, our religious teacher asked us to define a mystery in the religious sense. One boy replied, "Something you can never understand". The teacher told him that was a negative way to view it, and that a better way was to think of it as "something about which you never stop learning more." Already, as a teenager, I was haunted by the idea that the waters of life were too shallow for my yearnings—that it was possible in principle to come to the end of all thought, of all discovery, of all fulfillment. This existential anxiety was to grow in the years to come, and I never forgot that single sentence that held out such hope.
Meanwhile, something odd had happened to me, something that wasn't supposed to happen to any young person in an Ireland that was going full steam ahead towards becoming a modern, progressive country. Slowly, bit by bit, I became a cultural and social conservative. I knew by my early teens that I loved the poetry of Yeats and Wordsworth and Keats, and despised the free verse of Seamus Heaney and his school. (I refused to write about Seamus Heaney in my Junior Certificate exam, and suffered in my grade as a result.) I read the poems and speeches of romantic nationalists from Ireland's recent past—a past that has fallen into disfavor with our national elites, and much, if not most, of the general population—and fell in love with their agrarian, anti-modern vision. Black and white photographs of Irish social life in the early twentieth century seemed to show me a nobler, simpler, more aesthetically-pleasing spectacle than the vista of supermarkets and designer fashions I saw around me every day.
I was the only kid in my school who was in favor of school uniforms. When I went to college, I ended up arguing with my whole class, including the lecturer, against the legalization of cannabis, and for the censorship of sick movies. The world I had been born into seemed utterly drained of innocence, reverence, tradition, community—everything, I thought, that gave life splendor and depth. I became a conscious contrarian and rejoiced in swimming against the tide of fashion, in being considered a young fogey.
Patriotism, poetry that rhymed and scanned, traditional gender roles, the superiority of the countryside over the city, monarchism—I embraced them all. But still I didn't set foot inside a church, or get on my knees to pray, or make any effort to practice the faith I had been born into. In fact, by this time, I had become a definite atheist, though a reluctant one. I only admitted my atheism on a handful of occasions, and I would have rushed to defend the Catholic Church against any of its critics. In his memoir Gentle Regrets, the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton describes his own, ultimately frustrated, approach towards Catholicism. He writes that he could happily assent to every article of Catholic faith, except the existence of God. I was in the same boat.
Why couldn't I believe in God? In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes a mental disposition that had grown up in him from the misfortune of lacking one joint in his thumb. He believed that the clumsiness to which this doomed him had made the whole cosmos seem hostile. Things would never come right; stubborn reality would always frustrate him. Ergo, there could be no Supreme Being. At least part of my unbelief could be traced to a similarly illogical idea. I was a shy, impractical, scatter-brained, lonely young man. Nothing I tried seemed to come to fruition. Yearning was always disappointed, I observed; and since the deepest of our yearnings is for the divine, there could be no such reality.
Besides, the rather Spenglerian thrust of my conservatism was that all things were in a state of decline. Suburbs replaced villages. Popular culture drowned out national culture. Chivalry gave way to hustle and salesmanship. The death of God fitted in pretty well with this trajectory.
Then, in my early twenties (I had studied journalism in college, but by this time was working in a university library, as I still do) I started to write intensively. I had always written poetry, but now I started writing fiction, dramatizing (amongst other things) the sacrifice of tradition and custom and ceremony to the all-devouring god of progress. I wrote two fantasy novels, a horror novel, and a collection of horror short stories (all still unpublished).
Anyone who writes knows that writing is a journey; a journey in search of meaning. You simply cannot write without seeking for something below the surface of life, something that links moment to moment and incident to incident, something that gives profundity and purpose to a story's climax. My fingers tapping on the keyboard were drawing me through the labyrinth of human life; and, as G.K. Chesterton says, nothing is more horrifying to man than the thought of a maze without a centre.
But how could there be a centre, a direction, a purpose worth caring about, without God, the Alpha and Omega, the magnetic North of all existence? What was the point of any story if, as Macbeth said, life itself was a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing? Because it couldn't mean anything, if the atheists were right; that much was horrifyingly clear. I fell into the deepest depression of my life, for several months. It became a kind of mental torture, at times. Nothing in my life, nothing I could even hope to achieve, meant a thing without God. I craved ultimate meaning as a man in the desert craves water.
And, for the first time in my life, I began earnestly searching for God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the search for Him demands "every effort of intellect." I had never thought more deeply or more furiously than I thought in these summer months, when the entire cosmos seemed as insubstantial and pointless as a bubble floating in air, a bubble that could disappear at any moment. I read G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and several other Christian authors. I browsed the internet, a silent follower of the shrill and never-ending God debate in cyberspace. I watched debates between apologists and skeptics on Youtube. Nothing, nothing, seemed important except this ultimate question—and how could anyone think otherwise? How could I ever have thought otherwise?
I wanted to believe so badly and yet I was so frightened of being hoodwinked by delusion—after all, look how Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the arch-skeptic Sherlock Holmes, had fooled himself with table-rapping and fairy photographs, in an effort to prove to himself that his deceased wife and his son were not lost forever. I needed something cast-iron. Prose poetry and Pascal's wager wouldn't be enough.
It would be easy for anyone to say that my powerful desire to believe in God had decided the issue before hand, and it would be impossible for me to prove that was untrue. But, in reality, quite the opposite was the case. I stress-tested every argument for God to a ridiculous extent, far beyond any standard of proof I would apply to any other claim or theory, even if my life depended on it. CS Lewis has written (I forget where) that wanting something to be true can just as well prejudice us against it as for it. This is certainly true in my case. I have a defense mechanism against wishful thinking that has gone rogue and makes everything desirable seem a priori implausible. Even as I sought God, all my prejudices were against Him, all my defenses were up.
The choice was between Catholicism and atheism. I was sure of that. No other force on earth showed the same dedication to its message, the same refusal to submit to the spirit of the age, as the Catholic Church. No other institution defended the good things of life—family, community, purity, patriotism, festival, masculinity and femininity, ritual and ceremony—so assiduously. Every other religion fudged, temporized, showed itself plainly to be "human, all-too-human". It was Rome or bust.
Two books, in the end, were decisive in bringing me peace and conviction; two books published a century apart. One was GK Chesterton's masterpiece and spiritual memoir, Orthodoxy. This book convinced me that the Christian faith was the key that fit the lock of life; not Christianity seen as a set of propositions, but as the lived faith of the saints and of the Church through the centuries. Christianity was staggeringly different from everything else in the human story; and Christianity had simply kept finding the answers to man's problems and yearnings, century after century, in a way that guaranteed its supernatural origin. But how can I summarize Orthodoxy? Those who have read it will understand, and those who haven't shouldn't waste another day before doing so.
The other book was The Last Superstition, a spirited reply to the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins and his cronies) by the American Thomist philosopher Edward Feser. It was tough going, and I had to read it twice (and slowly). But I lapped up every word. Here was someone delivering the goods-- at last! No appeal to mystery. No maiden-auntish scolding of atheist arrogance or irresponsibility. No special pleading. Simply a lucid, watertight demonstration that philosophical materialism could not possibly be true, that the existence of an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful God was logically inevitable, and that the traditional proofs of God's existence—the proofs that every tub-thumping infidel found so simple to refute—were much more subtle than their critics realized, and were in fact unanswerable when properly understood.
Not that I understood them all; but I was convinced by the argument from contingency alone. This argues that everything in the physical world is dependent upon other things, and the chain cannot go on forever but must terminate in something outside the physical world, something necessary and eternal and perfect. This seemed, and seems, rock-solid to me. It takes further development to arrive from this eternal, necessary something to God as we understand him, but the arguments are there, and convincing.
After months of submersion, I had broken the surface of the water. I could breathe again, and the world around me was newborn.
So now I make my way to Mass every Sunday, pray the Rosary almost every day, try to give myself a long-delayed religious education, and generally do my best to swim against the tide of Ireland's ever-burgeoning secularism. Do I do this to be a contrarian? No. Do I do this because the Catholic Church is the great bastion of social and cultural conservatism? No. These things might have led me to the church porch, but once I entered, I knew they could never be enough.
Christ will have us on His own terms, or not at all. After all, what were the Pharisees and the Sadducees but conservatives who tried to fit the living Christ into a mortal worldview? Conservatism and liberalism, tradition and revolution, service and freedom, self-fulfillment and self-renunciation—all of our categories break down in that ultimate Presence.
I know that my journey has only begun, and that even my own motives for making it remain impure and inadequate. But I also know there is only one way in which they can be purified, and that is through the sacraments and God's healing grace, as dispensed through the true Church that was founded in the holy fire of Pentecost.
To learn more about Maolsheachlann's work with the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland please visit their website.