Saturday, July 25, 2009

Malachi O'Doherty's "I Was a Teenage Catholic": Book Review

Theology vs. decency? During the Troubles, this Belfast journalist mulls over how Irish Catholicism and Ulster evangelicalism tangled his generation. Long an astute observer of republicanism, he proves here a diligent seeker into belief. Stubbornly skeptic, he concludes that in a sectarian North both sides may be groping, along with increasingly secular or agnostic counterparts, towards a simple human need: to test tradition that we're born into against our hard-won experience.

Like the republican and loyalist movements, Catholicism and Protestantism have operated in the North of Ireland upon fundamentalist tenets; their adherents generally claim allegiance not after mature choice, but by habitual upbringing. "I fostered fantasies of my own martyrdom, perhaps because that was all I could ever imagine my teachers would approve in me." (22) Early on, O'Doherty chafes against a 1950s childhood among the Christian Brothers. He insists upon testing what he's told to avow against his own bold life, and he finds wanting the faith of his fathers.

Yet, such a fantasized martyrdom "became more tangible against the background of Northern Irish sectarianism." (28) Circa 1968, "I was deciding that I wasn't a Catholic when others were deciding I had no say in the matter." (53) Losing his commitment before his convictions, his faith withers. He leaves a career in journalism after three years covering Irish strife, and after three aimless years in England he snags a vague job offer to compile a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu sage. He's off in the mid-'70s down the countercultural trail to an Indian ashram outside Delhi.

Swamiji looks like a mop of black hair, whether back or front. Loneliness consumes O'Doherty, and he tells movingly of the despair that kindles desperate trust in a stronger man than what one perceives as oneself. Beaten down by the Brothers as a boy, he struggles as a man nearing thirty to recognize how the soul's longing can or cannot be separated from devotion to a cause. Those who resisted the Christian Brothers, he notes, belatedly became Provos in the IRA, bowing to an Irish need for old conservative ways drummed in by parents and teachers. Threatened early on by the British Army in an home invasion, O'Doherty covers the Troubles for three years, while figuring out how far he can go down the path to belief as a secularized Irish man, schooled in the tenets of a creed and a cause both of which he has disavowed. After England, in India his need for uplift returns. He's attracted to an even more idolatrous manifestation in the utter obesiance a guru demands from a disciple.

He drifts, it seems, into lengthy meditation, mind-expanding to the point he envisions his head swelling like a ball, until he sees a white disc hover before his eyes, after years of relentless practice. Yet, he shrinks from Swamiji's Brahmin disdain for everyone else. O'Doherty, of no caste, is as untouchable as the Hindu tradition he cannot defend for his own adaptation or appropriation. Compared to Catholicism, at least its worst priest, he reflects, would have to care for a beggar he publicly met on the street; gurus like Swamiji loftily disdain any such charity. He grows impatient with O'Doherty's humanism, while Swamiji tries to impel his Irish charge to bend to traditional ways. But, as in Ireland, O'Doherty cannot kneel.

No surrender brings eventually his epiphany: "I cannot die to the world to save my soul." (134) Religion, he reflects, seems in the Irish to be divided between magic and fatalism; neither can soothe his innate rebelliousness. After a year apart from Swamiji wandering India and resuming his writing career, he goes back to the North as a religious affairs correspondent, whose specialty becomes the soundbite from the field, or the parade route, without profanity but with enough naivete or hatred from his earnest or fiery interviewees in the field that will get the best bits aired.

The first part of this narrative began as he braved a protest while working for the BBC in the Protestant enclave of Harryville; as his name reveals O'Doherty's counted among the enemy. After the central Indian portion, the story pivots back to his continued immersion in the North, where religion battles with politics. It's where one standing on the sidelines with a BBC microphone in hand must jump into the fray again, still marked by friend or it seems more often by foe by the faith he left behind. He's a wise interviewer; he stays detached. His discovery: God keeps out of our affairs, entreaties by gurus and claims by visionaries to the contrary. "Our language about God is like the language which in our dreams describes the world. In both we are insulated by metaphor from what we cannot know or must not know." (169)

As expected by readers of "The Trouble With Guns: Republican Strategy and the Provisional IRA" (1998), O'Doherty can be prescient about the dangers of rigid fidelity to irrational ideals and rabid trust in destructive ideologies. He's at home with Irish end-games of all pursuits. I note that he has since written more about republicanism as "The Telling Year: Belfast 1972" and continued decline in Irish religion as "Empty Pulpits." I look forward to these; unlike other analysts of the Troubles and Irish culture, he's able to link the rise and fall of monolithic republicanism and inescapable Catholicism to the maturation of his fellow citizens.

He proposes that the peace process and the collapse of clerical authority came about when "literal minded and obedient religion" dissolved, and when the republican cause found itself concurrently unable to command once unswerving ranks of those who learned that for contraception or decommissioning, "truth itself became negotiable." (137) O'Doherty lacks fellow commentator Eamonn McCann's radical stance, in his similar blends of autobiography and analysis "War and an Irish Town" and "Dear God"; the two authors share an ability to move between the personal and the political nimbly, although McCann's harsher on these twin fallen idols than O'Doherty, whose faith led him not to Marx but to India along the way, expanding his perspective in metaphorical and practical ways neither lad raised in postwar Northern Ireland might have imagined. O'Doherty's tenure in these twin fields of wartime dissension and religious agitation provides many anecdotes, at first appearing perhaps as casually as this short but densely packed and philosophically challenging book's title.

That is, it seems a throwaway line. But, "teenaged Catholic," existing in the past tense for this first-person subject, stands for a whole world-view, one that younger folks like myself (exactly a decade younger), cannot truly remember. O'Doherty's exploration takes familiar topics such as priestly scandal, poverty, hypocrisy, Ian Paisley, theodicy, and the impossibility of proving God's existence. "And if God is a myth, he is the patch we cover ourselves with." But, he's too smart now to deny God. "I take God to be the mirror in space of the whole self, to which nothing need ever to be said, which acknowledged, can be taken wholly for granted." (169-70) Facing death in his family, he accepts it as "Nature's rebuttal of tradition." (166)

This 2003 memoir stands beside his peer's eloquent 1995 defense of a similar agnostic balance that measures an adult's distance from pre-conciliar Catholicism, by the late Waterford-born, Cork-based journalist-poet Seán Dunne. "The Road to Silence" tracked an interior journey paralleling O'Doherty's, if removed from the Troubles in the relative calm of the South and the Continent. Younger journalist-memoirist, Manchán Magan, in his "Manchán's Travels" in early '90s India, provides another skeptic's testimony, another republican-raised Irishman's more recent reaction to Hindu fanaticism and the predicament of outcasts and India's poor. All three writers share respect for their Irish culture, and objectivity about their own loyalties as men who've outgrown their childhood pieties, political or spiritual, while becoming cautious and patient enough to listen to the yearnings and to record the longings of those at home or abroad who hold dogged beliefs or generous decency within themselves as believers.

Enriched by his probably unique comparison of a Belfast boyhood with a Hindu exposure, plus a journalist's objectivity with a cradle Catholic's scrutiny, O'Doherty combines disparate threads and casual scenarios. Upon reflection, for this reader he reveals a carefully arranged pilgrim's progression through the byways and highways that all of us, whatever our denomination or lack thereof-- or muddle between-- can recognize as an modern man's honest tale of how he tried to look God in the eye, and what happened when he faced that moment and decided to turn away.

(I've reviewed Dunne & Magan on my "Blogtrotter" blog and on British & US Amazon; also see my review of "The Miracle Detective" by Randall Sullivan on Amazon US about the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje that O'Doherty also recounts in a vignette here; Posted to Amazon US and Britain 7-25-09.)