This is painful news from Dublin:

The Church of Annunciation in Finglas has announced it will celebrate its final mass on October 7, before it is demolished and replaced with a much smaller church.

The church, which has a capacity of 3,500, is one of the largest Catholic churches in the country, but attendance had dropped significantly in recent years.

The new church will have a capacity of just 350.

The announcement was made on the church’s Facebook page today.

The post read:

‘**VERY IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT**

‘We are now in a position to announce that the LAST MASS in the church of the Annunciation will take place on Sunday 7th October at 11am.

‘Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. All are welcome at the mass and please spread the word to those who may not be on social media.

‘Please note all other updates regarding the closure of the church and arrangements while our new church is being developed will be posted as soon as we are aware of same.

‘MANY THANKS.’

I’ve been reading lately an excellent book that a reader gave me, The Celtic Way of Prayer, by Esther de Waal. What I find most interesting about it is that this way of prayer de Waal identifies as Celtic is a lot like normal Eastern Orthodox prayer. Read this beautiful passage from de Waal’s book, about how discovering Celtic spirituality broadened and deepened the Christian commitment she had from her youth:

I was taught to recite the creeds, I was prepared for conformation on the basis of a catechism that in effect told me that there were certain articles of belief to which I must subscribe. My head was constantly engaged, my mind filled with information. But this did not involve the whole of myself, my five senses, my emotions and feelings, and above all my imagination. Nor did it bring any sense of continuity or belonging, seeing myself as being inserted in my own generation into a great and continuing heritage of the past. I had no sense of being a member of a long chain of family and kin stretching back into the past, and so being able to draw from a shared common storehouse of memory and storytelling. If I am discovering how to pray differently (and also to think and to feel differently), it is because I am not finding a holistic way which better responds to the wholeness and the fullness within my own self. And this of course helps me to become the person who I would much prefer to be.

What is “Celtic spirituality”? According to de Waal, it is “monastic spirituality,” in the sense that it is marked by a sense that all of time, and everything around one, is liturgical. It involves the sanctification of time, and of the world. It is pagan in the sense that it takes up and Christianizes the pagan sense of the sacredness of all things. It is rhythmic, in a way that is natural to rural farmers, who lived by the rising and setting of the sun, and the seasons, but which is alien to us today.

Reading this book clarifies for me what the Benedict Option is supposed to be trying to do. The thing is — and I invite you readers who know something about this to weigh in — I wonder if what de Waal identifies as particularly Celtic is not simply plain pre-modern Christian spirituality. That is, I wonder if she is not simply identifying Christian life in the pre-industrial, pre-Reformation age, when all of life was lived under a sacred canopy, and was experienced as a sacramental tapestry.

You might remember these thoughts of mine from a couple of years ago, when I was watching Tudor Monastery Farm with my kids. Excerpt:

The show is part of an ongoing BBC series showing what farm life would have been like in various historical periods (Victorian, Edwardian, Wartime). In the Tudor version, a historian and two archeologists recreate what it was like to be a farmer under Henry VII, just before the English Reformation. Ruth Goodman, the historian, talks about what she learned from the experience:

‘I had such a happy summer I feel somehow lighter,’ says the 50-year-old historian, her eyes widening. ‘The lack of machines had an impact, as did the religious texts I was reading. We had to make a lot, too – even rush mats to sleep on – and I think there’s something about making things that’s good for the soul. I also got very good at spinning; I’ve done it before but now I’m practically an expert at turning sheep’s wool into yarn.

‘When we did the Wartime farm last year I didn’t really enjoy it, I felt ground down. But with this one I’ve felt such a connection with the countryside. It was like I really felt and smelled and tasted and touched what it was like to be on a Tudor farm. It’s been a bit of an epiphany. It helped that the main drink of the period was ale,’ she adds with another giggle.

Tudor Farm goes further back in time than the series has before. It’s the year 1500 and the reign of the first Tudor King, Henry VII. The Church was absolute and like many farms of the time – up to a third – Ruth’s is on land owned by a monastery.

‘What’s so interesting is that Protestantism hadn’t really made much of an impact in Britain and there was little science, so the Catholic Church was the only way of understanding the world,’ she says. ‘It felt unchallenged. I don’t think there’s a place anywhere in the modern world where religion is the only way of understanding things.’

Goodman is, and remains, an atheist. Funny thing is, watching that first episode made me, a Christian, feel an intense longing for the sacramentalism of the life those people had. Watch the episode linked above and see if you don’t agree with me. What I mean is the sense they had that God was everywhere, and that their lives had real substance because they were anchored in and ordered by the divine. I’ve been reading intensely for the past two weeks about the ideas involved in the medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation religious consciousness, but this is the first time in recent memory that I’ve seen a sense of what that must have looked like. (The recent novel Laurus, set in roughly the same time period, but in Russia, powerfully evokes the same sensibility.)

To read Esther de Waal’s book and to reflect on the collapse of Christianity in Ireland is to weep at the loss. But this did not happen overnight, simply as the result of the sex abuse scandal. Something as deeply woven into the life and the consciousness of a people doesn’t disappear suddenly.

I found a clue as to how this might have happened this weekend when I watched the brilliant Brendon Gleeson film Calvary. My God, what a movie. I strongly recommend it to you, but be warned: it is not for young people, nor for the faint of heart. It contains some very rough material.

It is set in modern-day Ireland, in a seaside village in County Sligo. Gleeson plays Father James, a burly priest who ministers in the wake of the financial collapse and the sex abuse scandal, both of which devastated Ireland in the past decade or so. The film opens in the confessional. A man, unseen by the viewer, tells Father James that he was molested brutally and repeatedly by a priest for five years. He tells Father James that his molester is dead, and that some priest must die for the molester’s sins. That priest, says the man, must be innocent. You are that man, Father James, he says. You have done no wrong. I will kill you on the beach in one week.

That’s the first scene. The rest of the film follows Father James during the following week. We see him moving among his parishioners, and interacting with his troubled daughter, who is prone to suicide (Father James was a late vocation; after his wife died, he entered the priesthood.) What we observe is that the people of this village — the butcher and his adulterous wife, the publican, the police inspector, the doctor, the gay prostitute, the immigrant, the rich banker — they are all living broken lives, spiritually and otherwise. Father James is the only link they have to anything higher. His ministry is to bear them up. The bearish priest confronts them at times, but you can tell that he has cultivated a deep patience with them — a patience that runs out at times, when he gets fed up with their cynicism.

There is another priest in Father James’s church. He is a martinet. He is rigid, but it’s not a steely kind of rigidity. It’s brittle and moralistic and fussy about the institution. He has no feel for the people and their struggles. Father James doesn’t like him. Observing this character, I thought: This is the stereotypical Irish priest that people hate, and he symbolizes the Church that people have rejected. 

Obviously I won’t tell you how things end, but the film left me with a haunting thought. Those people of the village are lost in their sins — in their secrets and lies, their brokenness, their cruelties. This is all of us, you know. If we throw off the faith, and rid ourselves of the Church, we will not have rid ourselves of our sins, and our tendencies to sin. These things will continue to torment us, beneath the veil of respectability. What then? How will we discharge the guilt, the rage? How will we reconcile ourselves to our brother? How will we reconcile ourselves to ourselves?

Rene Girard told us that civilization, deep down, demands sacrificial murder. If we cast aside the Christian mechanism for dealing with sin and brokenness without resorting to sacrifice, we are throwing away the gift that makes our civilization possible without resorting to bloodshed. The man who threatens to kill Father James is tormented by rage at his abuser, and feels a primitive urge to make somebody pay for his humiliation. We know that this is an illusion, that if he kills Father James, it will have done no good for him. Only forgiveness — of the kind Father James preaches, and can teach — can heal the victim’s soul. Forgiveness, not making another innocent man suffer.

If the man goes through with his plan to kill Father James, will the people of that village be any better off? There will be no one among them to call them to repentance. To tell them to stop beating their wives. To stop sleeping with men not their husbands. To make restitution for the money they stole. And so forth. In their righteous disgust over the abuse scandal, are the Irish people destroying something that stands to protect them from themselves? That’s the question this film poses. What is to me most powerful about Calvary is its refusal to sentimentalize the Irish people, even as it takes full measure of the horror of clerical sexual abuse of children. It condemns a certain kind of Irish priest, no doubt, but it also holds a mirror up to contemporary Irish society.

Thinking of Calvary in the context of Esther de Waal’s book greatly magnifies the tragedy of what’s happened to the Irish church. Believe me, as someone who lost his own Catholic faith over a decade ago because of the scandal, I deeply understand why people would be so disgusted with the Church that they would want to walk away from it. I was fortunate to have a sacramental Church to go to — the Orthodox Church — but this may not be possible for the Irish.

Still, I find it a terrible, terrible thing that so many people there are casting aside this rich, deep legacy of Celtic Christianity, something that generation after generation of their ancestors. This is not just saying no to some tinny, moralistic priest. This is throwing away a priceless treasure. And when it’s gone, it will be very, very hard to recover it.

In this light, I understand The Benedict Option as advocating for running towards the Church — the Church understood not as an institution, primarily, but rather as a way of life. It was always supposed to be that for us — as I quote Leah Libresco saying in the book, the Benedict Option is just a call for the Church to be the Church — but we have forgotten that. Contemporary church life is not supposed to be as Esther de Waal experienced it (merely learning and affirming doctrinal propositions), but a way of life that involves our entire body, and that re-establishes a sacred canopy over our lives.

The old Celtic Christians knew how to do this. All the pre-modern Christians did. This is a very hard thing to do in modernity, but we have to figure out how to do it. The survival of Christianity depends on it.

If I were in Ireland, I would certainly despair over what has happened to the faith, and to the institutional Church, but I would take this as an opportunity to go deeper into traditional Irish Christian spirituality. Remember what Marco Sermarini of the vibrant orthodox Catholic Tipi Loschi community told me in The Benedict Option:

“We invented nothing. We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

Ireland, you are rich in Christian tradition! The contemporary Catholic institution has failed you all terribly — but it is not the whole of the Church! Many Catholics there have fallen away, and will yet fall away. This is what it means to be under judgment. But those who remain will hold on because they will have gone very deep into the Celtic Christian past, and recovered the deep spirituality that their ancestors stored up for them.

It is true for the rest of us too, isn’t it? Here in America, we don’t have that easy connection to the deep Christian past. But it is our inheritance too. Laying fierce claim to it, and learning to live by that spirituality, adapted for our postmodern circumstances, may be the only way that we can make it through the crisis upon us, and yet to come.

(By the by, readers in New York City will want to plan to go meet Leah Libresco next week at First Things, and hear about her great new book, Building The Benedict Option. I’m not kidding: Leah and people like her are the future of the Church. )