Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 2

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.

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 1

The Real Thing

The Book of Exits, miraculously copied
Here in this convent by an angel’s hand,
Stands open on a lectern, grooved
Like the breast of a martyred deacon.

The bishop has ordered the windows bricked up on this side
Facing the fields beyond the city.
Lit by the glow from the cloister yard at noon
On Palm Sunday, Sister Custos
Exposes her major relic, the longest
Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.

True stories wind and hang like this
Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.

Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.

– Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

This poem came to me in meditation this morning, but since I am not yet willing to credit my mediative state with the power to attract wisdom from sources greater than myself, I assume it has been rattling around in my head due to a series of more earthly conversations. My post about an identity crisis in a Dublin lecture hall leads me to contrast a graduate student seeking only the subversive bits of Irish poetry that declared a native feminist spirit deeper than any imported religion with a more mature seeker who has redefined the “subversive.” Because I was constantly seeking the Goddess in verse, I paid little attention to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. A few volumes are full of notes and comments, but most of them are tinged with irony as I marveled at such an obsession with the Church; clearly she was occupied with the spirit of the sacred feminine, why did she have to veil it in a habit? Now, as my definition of the sacred moves beyond such gender discrimination (to both rather than either/or) and I have a broader sense of history and context, I read her work with fresh eyes, wondering what that thesis of mine would have looked like if I had not limited to such a specific view of the divine.

Another reason I believe I was drawn back to this poem is a half-baked online chat session with a friend who knew me in my professionally irreverent pagan days in Ireland. To him, my new investigations of Catholicism are akin to asking politely to don the moral straight jacket and requesting a steady stream of lies at the hands of patriarchal victors. In the twisted medium that is “talking” online (I am sure enough people have pontificated quite enough on how such interactions contribute to our chronically fragmented personalities and our pervading sense of isolation even as we drown in “communication”), I tried to express something about babies and bathwater and waste. Luckily we have poets to save us from clichés!

I wonder at my former ability to write literary criticism even when a poem shook me to the core. Was I like a surgeon of words, hiding behind an impersonal mask that refused to become emotionally invested in the subject (or was it the object)? Or if I was affected, was I resigned that an English class could not always fulfill my needs? I suppose that I decided against the PhD path because, in the end, the classroom is not a cathedral.