In my last post I presented Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “The Real Thing” as a response to why I seek to learn more about the Catholic tradition of my birth even when I see so many problems with its execution over the last two millennia. Throughout the cultural upheaval/revolution of the last few decades that called into question centuries of Catholic Church rule of Irish social norms Ní Chuilleanáin examined and assessed her religion but continued to affirm her connection to it.
In an essay by Catriona Clutterbuck in this Spring-Summer’s Irish University Review outlining the ways Ní Chuilleanáin has uncovered the “liberating potential of religion,” this poet is declared to “trace the power of the imagination to excavate space for the agency of belief.” As I examine the authenticity of my faith, I often wonder at the place of imagination in such an endeavor; is there a demarcation point between divine guidance and an overly active brain, or can we credit our imagination with being, at least at times, divinely inspired? To hear that Ní Chuilleanáin’s imagination serves to produce fertile territory for belief is reassuring, even if it does come from an academic who is probably less interested in the quality of the poet’s connection to God than we might be here.
The Brazen Serpent of the Old Testament is a kind of homeopathic cure: God tells Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole so that the Israelites who had been stricken by the bites of fiery snakes sent to punish their sins could be healed. In the same fashion, Ní Chuilleanáin’s reimagined Church is an antidote to the hegemonic legacy of Irish Catholicism; something so traditional as the figure of a nun in a reliquary can be presented in a new way so as to soothe the injuries done by formalized religion. The rejuvenation comes in the reclaiming of seemingly irretrievably sullied entities.
Sister Custos herself seems to operate under the assumption that all that has been decreed by her Church is true: without question she takes pride in the relics in her care; she does not seem to protest that the windows that would allow her to look to a world beyond have been barricaded; she moves placidly through this Palm Sunday. At the same time, though she appears so oblivious to her own individuality and her place as a woman in this Church, the poet places her in a bricked up room. She is locking away an object that once produced miracles while her own vows are subterranean and inaccessible. The scene has been set for dissent. It is the nun’s own foot kicking under the white sheet of history, an indomitable spirit that enlivens her faith even in the presence of so many imprisoned, lifeless things because it is the person who is the authentic center, “the real thing. ” Just as the Brazen Serpent relieved those who suffered God’s wrath at the hands of snakes, it might be able to sooth those who suffered at the hands of an organization that did not see individuals deserving love but a flock of sinners to be subdued.
It is the modern reader who would read this piece as the modern poet lays it out. My interpretation assumes that the Church can in fact be questioned and yet still places a sense of worth on the monastic existence (though she lives a cloistered life without a view of the countryside once can assume that her lay sisters have a much more difficult time of it, here she is permitted education and time for a contemplation of God). It is not necessary that the Church cease to exist, but instead that it grows to recognize a woman such as this one who lives within it.