Spirituality for a time of bewilderment

December 16, 2008 in General, News

gerryoh_01b.jpgTheologian Gerry O’Hanlon SJ works at the Centre for Faith and Justice, and lives in a corporation estate in Cherry Orchard, at the far end of Ballyfermot. He sees the signs of change this Christmas in the housefront decorations. The recession is kicking in and many people are left bewildered by the rapidity and the intensity of the change. There is a change of mood everywhere. For the full reflection, click on ‘Read more’ below.

Spirituality for a time of Bewilderment

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ

xmas_lights.jpgI notice that Santa Claus and his reindeer, in lights, are conspicuous by their relative absence from the house walls and roof tops of Cherry Orchard this Christmas. How is it where you live? It begins to feel like the party is almost over. Just time for one more fling, over this coming holiday period?


This deep recession has us bewildered. Most of us are simply stunned, even in denial: how could things have changed so much, so quickly? We were flying high, we enjoyed the feeling of being a success story, the envy of many other parts of the world. How then could we come crashing to earth with such a bang?

The mood is one of discontent, crankiness, even anger. Those politicians, those bankers and financial traders, those property speculators – why were they so irresponsible?

And as jobs are lost, as mortgage re-payments become more difficult, as pensions lose value, there is a growing caution about spending money, and an insecurity and even fear about what lies ahead, the ‘carnage’ that may await us in 2009. Some of us, indeed, are already faced with tough decisions about important aspects of our own lives and those of our families: can we continue to keep our businesses open, without letting employees go? Do we need to consider going abroad to find work? Can we continue to afford private health insurance or school fees? And, of course, it is much worse, as always, for the poor: the cancer of unemployment, with accompanying loss of self-esteem and confidence, the cut-backs in services that sharpen anxiety and lead to depression.

We sense that we are all faced with a big adjustment of expectations and life-styles, and we don’t like it.


There are resources in our Christian tradition that may give us insight and energy to face this adjustment.

We know that ‘those who have gone before us’ experienced similar, often much more extreme crises in their lives. At this time of the year, in particular, we think of the deep disturbance and shock of Mary, when she learned that she was to be a single mother; the birth of her son in a stable because ‘there was no room in the inn’; the flight as asylum seeker to Egypt. We note, with Aidan Matthews, that the drama of this birth ‘begins badly and will end worse – in the public execution of this child as a condemned criminal in a rubbish dump far away from the leafy suburbs’.

And yet, it is Mary who can cry out with joy that ‘my soul glorifies the Lord’; and it is the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who have their disappointed hopes renewed by the Stranger who accompanied them along the way, to the point that ‘their hearts burned within them’.

May we be helped by this Stranger, the Holy Spirit of the Risen Jesus, to understand our own situation better and to continue along our way with hope? Maybe we can engage in that kind of Ignatian ‘discernment of spirits’, an Examen, which may help us sift through our thoughts and feelings, and give us renewed energy?

Taking stock

It might help, first, to be grateful for the real achievements of these recent times: almost full employment, the spirit of entrepreneurship, the enhancement of national self-confidence. Being grateful is another way of accepting that all this was real, and it’s something we easily forget: ‘only one returned to say thanks’. Being grateful helps us to identify what was good in our recent past, and to bring it with us into the future, without succumbing to the extreme temptation of writing off as negative all that we have just gone through.

But perhaps we are angry? Well-directed anger can be a just and powerful galvanizing agent towards constructive action. Jesus toppled the stalls of the traders and money lenders in the Temple, and perhaps we too are right to be angry about the kind of ‘savage capitalism’ (Pope John-Paul II) recently in vogue.

But wait: if we go a little deeper, might we not be somewhat rueful, even ashamed about our own role in all this? Were we completely immune from a certain grudging admiration of the ‘greed is good’ mantra which seemed to inform the mentality of our political and economic leaders? Were we immune from a certain superficiality in giving priority to fashion and appearance, to the cult of celebrity, to the pursuit of a consumerism that was heedless of consequences, not just for our personal indebtedness, but for the sustainability of our planet? Did we acquiesce too unthinkingly in a life of stress and long commutes, which put such pressure on our being together as families? Were we, in other words, complicit in the idolatry of false gods?

And so we need to use our, perhaps contrite, anger, together with some clear thinking, to plot a way forward. This will be a way that does not seek simply to return to ‘business as usual’, but which thinks in terms of economic growth that is moderate and sustainable. This will involve less inequality, within Ireland and between the West and the rest of the world. It will value public services, in particular systems of health, education and affordable housing. It will seek to cushion the poor from the worst of the effects of the recession and treat prisoners like human beings. It will respect the need for a sound economy, but value even more friendship and love, faith in God.

The birth of Jesus in us

I remember as a child how worried my parents were at a time of recession in the late 50s. But a stronger memory from that time is the wonderful pleasure of playing billiards at home with my father, whose small business was on short-time due to the recession: an unusual joy, given how hard-working and out of reach my conscientious father normally was.

We will get through this recession. We are starting from a better base than our ancestors. Grandparents often have wise counsel to offer: ‘They won’t starve’, one veteran of rationing and war was heard to say, apropos the real worries of his own extended family. And another noted that ‘you can only sleep in one bed at a time, wear one suit at a time, eat one meal at a time’. We will re-discover important values.

And, with God’s help, we will experience conversion, we will repent of our giddy pursuit of wealth, we will listen to the cry of the poor, we will refashion a culture of solidarity, with sustainable economic growth. The early theologians used to speak of Christmas in terms of the birth of Jesus in each one of our hearts. This is what we can pray for this Christmas: that the waters of our resistance to Gospel values may break, and that we may give birth to a new commitment to ‘the good life’ that turns its back on the idolatry of unregulated markets, and embraces instead a vision of the common good, which has time and space for those who now have ‘no room in the inn’.

We need the hard thinking of cool heads, and seemingly old-fashioned virtues like prudence and moderation, to see us through our crisis. But most of all we need the assurance that, like the child Jesus, we are held securely, that we need not worry, that ‘all will be well’- remember, ‘not a hair on your head will be touched’, we are ‘more precious than the birds of the air and the lilies in the field’, ‘do not be afraid’. Because, we remember, it was that same Jesus who, through his life, death and resurrection, has ‘overcome the world’, has conquered all ‘the Principalities and Powers’, and has given us the promise of unfailing access to the happiness that we crave.

In short, our hope is sure.