Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Seeing the wood for the trees

Home Front - Catholic Herald 27 May 2005

It sometimes feels as though one’s children are surrounded by atheism and dark despair. “Religion is basically just someone talking to their imaginary friend” says the Irish comic Dylan Moran in his stand up show, which the teenagers and I were watching on TV last weekend. We noticed how jokes like this always get a huge laugh from British - and Irish - audiences.
This what my children are destined to come up against many times in their lives, so Catholic parents are onto a hiding to nothing if they try to avoid such discussions or suppress them at home. In fact, it makes an ideal RE essay question: “All religion is equivalent to someone talking to their imaginary friend - Discuss.”
The answer is, of course, staring us in the face. Atheism largely consists of a steady and persistent inability to see the wood for the trees.
My daughter’s comprehensive Catholic school had its annual fund raising auction last week. Now having been brought up in an English village, I have long experience of village hall events which bring together people from right across the community. The fairly ordinary large English commuter village where I grew up in the 1960s had four pubs, a post office and two general stores, one at each end of the village; When I was seven the village also boasted a baker, a butcher’s, a greengrocer‘s, an ironmonger’s, a darling little shop that sold knitting wool and needles and toys, and a blacksmith’s. That is far from being an exhaustive list of the village’s facilities…and it makes me feel amazingly old.
If I were to make up a sound picture of my childhood, its refrain would consist of my mother’s voice saying “Goodbye Olive, or Betty, or Mr Careless” and Olive or Betty or Mr Careless saying “Goodbye Mrs Thompson”. For one of the saddest things about living in London is that I have been seeing the same staff in the post office and the supermarket every week for a decade, and yet nobody ever says as I leave, “Goodbye, Mrs Johnson.” I know their names - they have to wear badges proclaiming them; but they never know, or want to know, mine.
The single place where this changes is at the church and at the school. Here we become individuals again. People know our names, or at least ask our names, which is just as nice. All those people you see every day whose names you don‘t know? Asking “Just remind me, what is your name?” is never, never resented (as long as it‘s clear you are not making a complaint).
At the school auction, the wine and salted peanuts flowed like…well, like wine and salted peanuts, as mums and dads were egged on by bumptious teenage daughters to outbid each other for signed Chelsea strip, restaurant meals and, a little surprisingly, genuine Swedish massages. At private schools, the cash value of items offered for auction is so daunting that anyone who cannot offer a week’s holiday in their Tuscan farmhouse feels inhibited. At a state school none of that nonsense applies. Everyone has something to offer a school auction. The bidding for “6 hours of ironing in your home” was particularly fierce, as was the bidding for the offer of a day‘s tiling in your bathroom. A prominent local novelist has dutifully sent signed sets of his novels to every school auction for years. He’s not a Catholic, but he does his bit.
Mr J had brought along a distinguished American theologian who was so carried away by the atmosphere that he bid furiously for a state-of-the-art hamster cage for quite a spell and I feared for a moment that it would end up being impounded by the American anti-terrorism officers at Kennedy Airport.
This was not people talking to their imaginary friends; rather, we were making real friends and supporting a cause for sound and practical purposes. This was community; and it was community drawn together under the umbrella of our Catholic faith. This what atheists can never see for all the trees in the way: not a wood, but a mighty forest.

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