A Roman Holiday
To help the reader grasp better the image of two towers, let me give an actual account of an incident in my life that convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt that de-Christianization is the separation of the tower of Faith from the tower of morals.
On December 25, 1987, I found myself in Italy conversing with an Irish historian. In a way, this is true. I was in Rome. It was Christmas Day. And I was speaking to a sheep-herder named Liam Riley, an Irishman well-versed in the history of his homeland.
It just so happened that the two of us were staying at the same hotel on Via Aurelia, a stone’s throw from Saint Peter’s Square: Piazza del San Pietro, if you will. Prior to a chance encounter, we had never met one another before.
Apparently, Liam Riley had spotted me at his son’s ordination to the priesthood the day before, and remembered my face and name. This was certainly probable. I was invited to give a short talk by Father Salvatore Grissini after the ordination ceremony. Father Grissini, a former student of mine, was elevated to the priesthood on Christmas Eve alongside Liam’s son, Seamus. That is why Liam and I were in the Eternal City, and, by happenstance, he said, "lodged at the same inn."
There is an entirely different reason, however, why the two of us were now in the hotel lounge, taking the tiredness from our bodies and the chill out of our bones with some "heavenly dew." Only moments before, my wife, daughter, and I had entered the hotel lobby and were heading toward the elevator to take us up to our room. This required passage by the lounge.
"Meehan!" A raspy-toned, Irish brogue called out again, "Meehan!" I peered into the sunlit bar; my wife and daughter went directly to the elevator. My beloved spouse understood only too well that for her and Katie to loll around the lobby would be lunacy since it was an Irishman who called out to me from a "pub."
Entering the premises, I spotted a thin, well-dressed gentleman with a weather-beaten face and mop of curly white hair. He was sitting in a large, but comfortable lounge chair. It was not difficult to assume that the person who "come hithered" me with a gnarled forefinger was the voice. He was the only person in the place. As I approached, he raised up a six-foot frame and we exchanged formal introductions.
After I sat down in a chair that faced Liam Riley, a few pleasantries were passed. "Social blather," he called it. He ordered a pair of potations and, in the round-about Irish way, began to storytell.
Like all superior tale-tellers who know their art well, Liam Riley exuded maturity, experience, and knowledge of lore. He considered himself a sagacious elder, and, in the social context of the lounge that day, it was proper for him to do so. Liam Riley understood, too, that history should serve as the background to a good story. Whether the history presented is fact or fiction is irrelevant. What counts is the rhythmic thrill of a lilting dialogue.
My encounter with this wise patriarch brought to mind another truth about the Irish. They are the saddest of people in their music, literature, and poetry. Yet, they are the most joyous of people when it comes to the prospects of engaging in a good fight. Sitting across from Liam Riley on that Christmas Day at mid-afternoon in Rome, and looking into his unwavering, cobalt blue eyes, I prepared myself for a healthy go-around — of dialogue, that is.
Liam Riley asked, "Now where is it that you come from?" My response was geographically accurate, "The State of New Hampshire in America." A deep groan came from within his soul, and the pain expressed on his ruddy wrinkled face was more than I could bear. So I queried, "Did I say something wrong?"
Intensely irritated, Liam Riley bellowed with the belligerence of a beleaguered teacher, "Something wrong! Something wrong! Are you Americans so dull as to think that the world originated in 1776 and that history began with the Declaration of Independence? When I asked where it is that you come from, I was not trying to help you find your way home. I want to know where your people come from in Ireland. If they were Orangemen, do you think for one wisp of a second I would have extended my personal generosity and invited you to sip and sass with me? Glory be to everything that is divine and holy, see if it is possible for you to respond unlike a dumb beast. Even Balaam’s ass was capable of speaking with some eloquence!"
Immediately, I remembered that an historical setting should open a story, and that "sip and sass" is rhythmic dialogue in thrilling Irish meter. What an idiot! The elderly Irishman had to instruct the American dullard in English tutorial fashion. How embarrassing! So, with reverence and docility, I ordered another round of sips so the sass session could proceed on its appointed course.
"Connemara," I blurted out after the waiter had deposited two libations on the low table that lay between our chairs. The one-word answer caused Liam Riley to pause. He took a long draught from his tumbler-sized glass. That "sip" not only lubricated his well-worn vocal chords, it readied himself for the arduous task of imparting a history lesson as preparation for the story to be told.
For Liam Riley, the task was going to be burdensome. The American did not respond with awe and respect for his forefathers in the Catholic Faith. Obviously, the American was unaware of the price that his ancestors had paid to preserve the tower of Faith in Ireland. You see, Liam Riley is first and foremost a Catholic.
"Sheep-stealers!" There the two of us were — face to face. I said, "Connemara." He replied, "Sheep-stealers." By calling my forefather’s "sheep-stealers," Liam Riley might as well have said they were Catholic criminals. What a two-word dialogue this is, I thought.
The ever-observant eyes of Liam Riley saw that the reaction he sought to bring about within my soul was there. Anger churned within my heart and my cheeks were burning. Satisfied, Liam was prepared now to teach by story. Somehow or other, I was ready to listen and to learn.
With a very brief and short-lived display of gentleness, Liam Riley provided the kind of consolation only a father can give to a son. In a paternally affectionate tone, he stated with sociological certainty, "It was not their fault. They lived on rock. They depended on others to eat and, therefore, to live the Faith." Intrigued, I asked with a truly inquisitive voice, "How did this come to be?" With a pleased look, Liam paused. Taking only a small sip from his glass this time, I realized that real sass-time had arrived.
Stretching his long legs out under the low table, the tension departed from Liam Riley’s face and physique. Then, he gave another pithy, one-word answer, "The rock." I gasped, "The rock! By all that is sane, what do you mean by the rock?"
Here I was faced with the dilemma of the relationship between Faith and morals: my ancestors were Catholic sheep-stealers! And here, the shepherd, Liam Riley, was resolving the ancestral enigma with one word, "Rock." Mustering up every bit of courage possible, I imitated his own expressive language and asked, "Glory be to everything that is divine and holy, what on earth are you talking about?" He smiled and replied, "Earth."
To say that I was numbed is an understatement. Clearly, rock and earth fall into the same general geological category. But, what do pebbles and dirt have to do with the tower of Faith and the tower of morals; how do rock and earth explain the problem of Catholic criminals?
The earlier emphasis by Liam Riley had been on the word, "Faith," not on the immoral act of stealing sheep. This perplexed me, and a querulous frown came upon my countenance. Taking an even smaller sip from his half-filled glass, Liam settled back into his chair with a wide grin. Mentally, I mused that this must be "solemn high" sass-time.
Liam Riley began with a condensed history of a de-Christianized England and a somewhat morally-impoverished Irish populace. He started with King Henry VIII (1491-1547). "‘Defender of the Faith’ he was proclaimed," said Liam. But, he had another title for the English King with eight wives. "Whoremaster," Liam pronounced. In reality, however, the story-telling shepherd was not interested in King Henry VIII and his adulterous acts while seeking a male descendent to occupy the English throne. Liam Riley used the British monarch as a way to introduce the central figure in England’s attempt to de-Christianize Ireland: Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). With personal and political passion, Cromwell, appointed Lord Protector of Ireland, hated, respectively, the Catholic Faith and the Irish people and was determined to annihilate the former and exterminate the latter.
In compact form, Liam Riley gave the historical account of why Cromwell’s efforts failed. Once again, the connection between the tower of Faith and the tower of morals came forth from the lips of this childlike believer, that is to say, Liam Riley grasped well that there are two towers in Christendom: Faith and morals. He understood, too, what happens whenever the two towers are assailed from within or from without. In this particular case, King Henry weakened the tower of morals in England through adulterous living; Oliver Cromwell sought to destroy the tower of Faith in Ireland by persecuting the "papists."
This period of violence in England and in Ireland was not unknown to me. The novelty was the way Liam Riley juxtaposed King Henry and Cromwell, as if they represented two towers: the tower of Faith and the tower of morals. For Liam, each historical figure represented what was wrong with England and the institutional Church in that country at that time: apostasy (Faith) and personal vice (morals). "It is one thing," Liam remarked, "to be a fallen-away Catholic because of immoral living as was the dissolute Henry. It is quite another to be anti-Catholic because of sinful hatred, as was the infidel Cromwell."
The hatred of Oliver Cromwell for the Catholic Faith and the Irish people impelled him to try to eliminate what he considered aboriginal pagans. To do so, Cromwell marched his militia all the way to the west coast of Ireland. He wrote from Drogheda near Dublin in September, 1649 that the ruthless campaign he waged against the Irish would "tend to prevent the effusion of blood in the future . . . . which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret." As he went along, he slaughtered childlike-believing Catholics English-style: hanged by the neck, drawn-and-quartered, and left as bird bait. Cromwell and his army finally arrived at Connemara, a remote place just short of the deep cliffs that overlook the Irish Sea.
"Hah!," Liam Riley chortled with a joyous heart and victorious grin. "That is where the Catholic Faith and the Irish people survived. The faithless fraud and his band of butchers had reached the west coast of Ireland, turned around, and never came back. The land, laddie, the land! The rocky land saved the Catholic Faith and the people living on it. Connemara! There is your Faith and your birthright, my boy, a place of Catholic glory and Irish heroism!"
Having established the thrill factor, Liam Riley intensified the rhythm of the story by describing the rocky land of Connemara, the locale of beautiful hand-cut marble. My not-so-rhythmic response was that of an obtuse American. I asked, "Why is that important?"
Sitting bolt upright with his back as straight as a steel beam, the jaw of Liam Riley clenched iron tight. A steam-like hiss came from his trembling lips. His answer was spewed forth by a powerful inner force. "Connemara! Connemara! The rocky land saved the Catholic Faith and the Irish people. There was not a tree to hang them on! There was not a stream to drown them in! There was not a piece of earth to bury them in. Hah!"
From a pragmatic point of view, the west coast of Ireland did become an obstacle in the vicious campaign of Oliver Cromwell. Yet, it is also true that the land represented the triumph of a people whose unyielding courage delivered them from extermination and, thereby, preserved the Catholic Faith and personal belief in their homeland.
The images of trees, streams, and rocky land did not escape me. No persecution could make my ancestors waver ("There was not a tree to hang them on"); no apostate could overwhelm them ("There was not a river or stream to drown them in"); and no misery could swallow them up ("There was not a piece of earth to bury them in"). So, according to Liam Riley, despite their renown as "necessary" Catholic sheep-stealers, my Connemara ancestors were heroic saints. Their unwavering fidelity and courage, he suggested, was the only reason that Catholic John Meehan had the privilege to sit before and learn from Catholic Liam Riley.
As if he himself had just won the victory over Oliver Cromwell and, hence, preserved forever the Catholic Faith in all Ireland, Liam Riley settled back with ease into his paternal throne — the lounge chair. Like the now-setting Italian sun, the prince of storytellers had completed with competence this day’s assignment, and he seemed really pleased to have taught an ignorant American about his Catholic heritage.
Sipping ever so slowly on the last of the John Jameson whiskey, the two of us sat in silence for sometime. Then, with a sudden surge of energy, Liam Riley stood up and stretched his slim frame to the limit. He shook my hand with the strength of a father’s love and said, "Good-bye." I watched his confident gait enter the lobby and disappear. I never saw or heard from Liam Riley again.
Sated by the session of sass, I took the final sip from my own glass. As I reviewed Liam Riley’s tale, the famed Connemara marble took on a new luster because it now had historical meaning: childlike belief and rock-like Faith.