FAITH AND NOSTALGIA
I grew up on a farm in simpler times than these, but I have lived in cities most of my life. That earlier experience seems now like life on a different planet. It is hard to convey an impression of its simplicity to anyone who has not lived it. Sometimes it is hard even to remember it accurately, so different is the world now.
A farmer (before farming became agribusiness) had to trust. He sowed his fields and trusted that the crop would come. He waited and trusted and knew that even if she occasionally let him down, nature was a friend to be trusted. He lived with plants, trees, hills, rivers. There was no need to doubt: trees don’t play tricks, there was no need to be wary of them. Fields are not cunning; they are not like politicians. Everything familiar could be trusted. Nature taught him to have faith in mysteries beyond his control.
I remember gazing around me in the town, up at the tall buildings, at the cars and the people; and being told by my brother to stop it, I would be recognised as a country cábóg! (a bumpkin). Maybe it was that single moment that made me set those two worlds wide apart. You could gaze at hills and trees and they would just gaze innocently back. But in town you had to hide yourself.
Christianity was at first a towny religion. In fact the Latin word for a country person was paganus, a ‘pagan’. But it spread out in city, town and country alike. The word ‘pagan’ no longer suggested a country person, but an unbeliever in any quarter. By the 16th century, the Renaissance had spread or was spreading to the whole of Europe. It was a movement that glorified human achievement in art and science, and was set to destroy the older feudal society of the Middle Ages. An agricultural economy would be replaced by a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and a powerful merchant class. A new form of Christianity, Protestantism, suited these new developments better. A merchant must “have things in writing,” and the new emphasis on the written word of Scripture would replace, in Protestant countries, the older mysteries of the priests. It felt more right to receive Christ through the power of one’s own personal faith than through some miracle on the altar that could not be verified.
Nowadays we are all urbanised, even the oldest-fashioned people living in remote parts of the country. We take radio, TV, phones, cars - all the means of communication and travel - perfectly for granted. We do our shopping in supermarkets, we take out insurance on our houses and our health, we keep our savings in the bank…. “Faith moves mountains,” the Scriptures say, but nowadays we use a JCB. I often wonder if losing that simplicity we once had makes us less capable of mystery. A child knows how to trust, and Jesus said we must be like children to enter the kingdom of God. I shouldn’t even say a child knows how to trust. A child just trusts and doesn’t need it in writing.
We have lost a great deal of simplicity, true, but at the same time faith isn't nostalgia for how things used to be. Faith is about living one’s life in the surrounding reality rather than in a dream of past or future. Can it find a place between the tins of processed food, the clamorous newspapers and magazines, the never-ending television programmes? No, because faith is not a thing on a shelf, competing for space. It is in human beings, at the core of our existence. Also at that core is the child that you once were. In a real sense, the past is not behind you: it is a present memory. The layers of experience that you laid down as a child are present now as memory. But also more than memory: that experience opened something in you, and that part of you is still open. No matter what your life-experience afterwards, something innocent lies deep in you and is capable of faith. Sometimes it is the toughest criminals who discover it in prison.
There is a great future for faith, but there’s never much of a future for nostalgia!
Donagh O'Shea OP