The Roman Catholic tradition has held sway in Ireland for quite some time. Its buildings are sometimes beautiful, its services hauntingly solemn, its organisation impressive, and its power virtually unequalled, but it is hardly truly ours; it lacks anything substantial that makes it distinctly Irish.
The post modern Paddy is not like his recent ancestors; we are better educated, more grounded in science, better travelled, and, in general, have a lot more money than our grandparents ever did. We are a different people. We grew up in a different world. So it is something of a no-brainer that the models of spiritual and religious worship we inherited don’t quite fit this new psyche of ours. Indeed, there’s a distinct feeling that they belong to a different age. But what can be done? Is there a happy middle ground between the hyper formal exactitude of the Roman Catholic tradition and, for example, the sometimes chaotic bedlam of that marks a Nigerian Pentecostal gathering?
This issue has perplexed me for some time and I summed the challenge thus: how can we celebrate the gospel in a way that is authentic, rooted in the New Testament, and yet capitalises upon the humorous and party-seeking qualities of the Irish psyche? After all, if there’s one thing we Mick’s know how to do – it is to celebrate! Surely to God, then, we could devise a form of service that would be: spiritually rewarding and enlightening, strengthening for the community, that enables us to focus on and respond to key issues, celebrates life, gives thanks, praise, and homage to the Father, Son, and Spirit, and does this in a way that is both spiritually refreshing for the whole community and superb fun? Piece of cake, right?
This issue has gnawed away at me for some time and was taken to a whole new level through my experiences with some of the Nigerian Pentecostal churches in Galway city. As part of my post grad in ecumenics I investigated one immigrant church. In my place of work I have several Nigerian friends and had often chatted with them about the college course. Thus when speaking to my lecturer about what kind of church to explore he suggested that a Nigerian Pentecostal church would be ideal. Throughout this experience I was reading that marvellous book by Lamin Sennah, ‘Translating the Message: the missionary impact on culture.’ Orbis Books, expanded edition, 2009. In this book he considers the work of Christian missionaries in Africa and throughout the world. At one point [pg. 182-183] he was reflecting on how completely the Yoruba had consumed the gospel and made it completely their own, it had been utterly absorbed into, and informed, their social structures and I was fascinated!
As I sat in their church, I marvelled at how much they owned their worship experience, how it reflected their values, heritage, and experience. There is no doubt that the Nigerian Pentecostal approach to worship service will never, ever, suit the Paddy but that is unimportant. What made the greatest impression on me was their sense of ownership of their worship experience, how it had become so completely their own and how confidently they expressed the gospel in their own way and, I supposed, I was even a little spiritually envious when I thought about how they had that and we did not and so I began to think, ‘do we have to be Roman Catholics? Why can’t we do things our own way? Why can’t we, as the ad says, ‘Do something Irish’? Why can’t we be Irish Catholics, a sort of new branch within the tradition?’
I reflected on this until I happened upon a bright idea that I feel could go some way toward revitalising the spiritual life of the church in Ireland. [Please bear in mind my distinction, outlined in a previous article, between the living members as the actual church and the tradition which, by virtue of being derivative reality or expression and not a living being, is not the church; it is a man-made creation, a consequence, a shadow, a testimony, guide, record, a reflection upon the ideals that inspire and inform the church, a warning, an idol, but, most importantly, it is not the church. For more see my article [Finding the Hidden Church].
I began by reflecting upon the roots of the Christian communal worship experience – the invitation to the Supper. Jesus always taught, ‘ALL that will may come,’ he did not say, ‘All that will may come…EXCEPT…[insert marginalised group of individual preference here]. In willingly inviting even the Betrayer to the Supper Jesus disallowed all forms prejudice at the Table. It always seemed to me that if Jesus was willing to sit down and sup with the man who was that very night going to bring about his destruction – he established that everyone is welcome at his Table; and it’s not our Table, it’s His. His Table, His rules. Therefore all are welcome: divorcee’s, homosexuals, transgender, travellers, rich and poor, foreigner and patriot, friends and enemies, ‘ALL who will may come.’
The Passover Supper was traditionally quite a feed; a good party, with good food, good wine and good chat; a celebration of liberty and I figured that would be easy talk a Paddy into. However, this cannot be just a party, its purpose is spiritual – to promote spiritual growth – the focus is Jesus.
The life and teachings of Jesus, the whole spectacle, is designed to reveal the nature and character of the Father on Paradise to His children here on earth. The life of Jesus, his whole life, from first breath to last, was a bestowal of the Bread of Heaven.
When he “broke the bread and gave it to his apostles, saying take this and eat it” the bread was a symbol of the life that he had lived being given to us as a gift that could nourish us spiritually. Jesus said, ‘man cannot live by bread alone.’ The bread he gave was the bread of the inspirational life he lived among us – a life of faith, love, and service. He asked that “whensoever you do this” [no time specified – that was left up to us] “remember the life I lived among you”’ and how it was lived , to freely partake in the spiritual nourishment to be found in such a life of faith, love, and service; to share with one another the Bread we have found in him and through him; to share the inspiration, hope, enlightenment, courage, and strength we have found in reflecting upon the life of love and service he lived among us and for us. He has invited us to talk, chat, share, enlighten, illuminate, to gratefully receive from others the enlightenment and illumination that they have acquired as they have journeyed with Jesus in their lives; to come to the Table as a child, to be open, cheerful, hopeful, eager, trusting, positive, grateful, humble, thankful, earnest, ready to share everything and freely partake of the spiritual nourishment to be found in the Master’s life.
When we, in faith, reach into the Basket of the life and teachings of Jesus we never come away empty handed. Further, we are not spiritually diminished when we share from our own spiritual storehouse the Bread that nourishes us. Moreover, we are enriched, for it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Then I thought about the ‘Wine’, the symbol of his service. Wine, as we know, is made from grapes and, in this case, the spiritual wine we offer one another comes from the ‘fruits of the spirit’. Personally strengthened through the Bread, we are spiritually empowered to go forth and ‘bear the fruits of the spirit’, to be kind, gentle, humble, forgiving, to forebear under provocation, to be tolerant of human weakness and have faith in the possibilities inherent in human divine co-operation, to turn away wrath with a soft word, to go the extra mile, to give the shirt off our backs – if need be, to strive to make this world a better place, to prove to the world that love is stronger than hate, righteousness greater than wickedness; to so live our lives that all whom we encounter are enriched; to abide in and allow our lives be illuminated by his ideal of living, ‘to love one another even as I have loved you’.
Jesus invites us into a life of devoted service born of sincere love. We follow one for whom the Father’s Will is the centre and circumference of his whole life and he invites us to make the Father’s Will the centre and circumference of our life. To thus live in genuine kindness, humble before the Lord, gentle in all our ways, to serve our fellows with sincere and unselfish love, is to exalt (raise up) and glorify the life of the Son. That is inspired living. That is inspirational living. Did you know that before Christians were called Christians they were known as the Pneumakoi? That means ‘the inspired’, pretty cool. Inspired living is an attractive way of life and I think we need this now more than ever.
As I see it, towards the end of the meal, we could use it as an opportunity to offer service of some kind to some individual or group, that before we leave the table we would pledge to actually do something for the benefit of another or for the benefit of the group. This simple model works effectively no matter how large the group. It offers intimacy and immediacy, it marries insight to service, allows the rubber of spiritual inspiration meet the road of selfless social service, and it does all this over dinner with friends. Thus when the meal finally ends can we honestly say, ‘Go your way in peace, to love and serve the Lord.’
I wondered how we could adjust this model so that we could render it capable of serving whole communities, the nation, and even the world; that could offer a viable religious alternative that is in keeping with the teachings of the New Testament – at least as I interpret them. It struck me that the model of ‘The Wedding Feast’ would be ideal. If there’s one thing us Paddy’s do well it’s weddings! Our weddings often turn into mighty sessions that go on for days and usually end with a short, refreshing trip to rehab. However, this being a meal of spiritual communion, such excesses would hardly be appropriate, but music, dancing and singing are, indeed ‘there is a time for every thing.’ The format is familiar the world over; as soon as the meal is over there’s a short break and the room is rearranged for dancing, the band arrives and the celebration continues. It is appropriate to give thanks and praise, to celebrate the gift of life, to offer up our laughter and the sweat of our dancing. Further, as a wedding sized group it would be appropriate to use one’s God given talents in music, song, poetry, or what have you, to bring joy to the group and praise for the Father, to enrich the occasion in a way that seems most fitting for the occasion.
The details of location, food, and music could easily be worked out by a steering committee. Each table should have a Facilitator to help move the conversation along. As it resembles a wedding, one could imagine a Best Man saying a few words for the Groom [Jesus, of course] and perhaps a Bridesmaid speaking for the Bride [the Church/congregation], this is just a suggestion. In essence their contributions could be a keynote address that offers pointers for conversations. Unless the speakers are able public speakers one imagines that these speeches would be kept short, humorous, enlightening, and informative. Like all weddings, someone has to pay for them, therefore a donation for the ‘Bride & Groom’ would be appropriate. Any surplus funds can be disbursed towards disposing the various service plans and projects agreed upon at dinner.
The convenient thing about this model is that almost anyone anywhere can apply it. You do not need any special theological or religious training. Such events can be run independently of one another and, generally, would not require any oversight except in the responsible management of donations. Such events can begin anywhere, one can easily imagine interested parties offering to host dinner in their own home – going from one members home to the other in an effort to share the load, bearing in mind that such things need not be held on a weekly basis but as suits. As groups get larger, the various hosts can come together to see about co-ordinating larger events.
These groups would be about celebrating the life of Jesus and the truths of the gospel, not conversion. As Jesus said, ‘All that will may come.’ This modality would be ideal for inter-denominational communion and could go a long way toward achieving ecumenical goals. Further, the model could be adjusted for individuals of different faiths to sit together and share the inspiration they have found within their own traditions. This would be in keeping with the model of church I have outline in my previous article. This type of supper, the multi/interdenominational, I would call ‘The Light Supper’ as we would be sharing the inspiration [the spiritual light] we have found in differing traditions.
I feel this idea has great potential for revitalising the spiritual life of Ireland, if not the whole world. I am open to any feedback anyone would care to share. If you have managed to read this far, well done and thanks! 😉
 There are other interpretations of the text, but I feel that this interpretation is the most fitting to the spirit.
For related Articles by Barry Culligan you can click the following link: Barry Culligan Archive (Spirituality Ireland.org)