In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World

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That’s What Language Can Do: The Millions Interviews Pádraig Ó Tuama

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“Faith shelters some,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “and it shadows others.”

We are lucky—those of us who are believers, and those of us who are not—when our theologians are poets. Ó Tuama makes me think about belief, God, and language in such a jarring, revelatory way. Afterward, I don’t want to return to my tired assumptions. 

I felt invited into In the Shelter not because it was about a life quite like mine—although we both come from the Catholic tradition—but through Ó Tuama’s syntax; how his sentences move from past reflection to present encounter. I often think of good books as journeys, and all of the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings that go along with such movement, and In the Shelter feels like it moves. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and host of Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, where he is the Theologian in Residence. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His poetry collections include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles and Readings from the Books of Exile. He is the author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, and, along with Glenn Jordan, Borders & Belonging.

We spoke about language as exploration, the necessity of questioning, and how we seek sanctuary in this world. 

The Millions: Early in the book, you write of being in the monastic community at Taizé, France, during Lent in 1998. Each morning began with reflections in English, French, German, or Spanish, and a monk “would ask, moving casually from language to language, which tongues he should use in order to be understood by everyone.” Then, on Holy Thursday, he reads from the Gospel of John, and others in the group read it in Dutch and Norwegian. There’s this swirl of language as a glorious but also frayed route toward belief throughout your book, and you include moments of Irish as well in the text. Where does language carry or compel you? Does language bring you closer to faith, to God, or to somewhere else?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: When I was a child, my mother wasn’t very well. So, from September 1978 (I was two, soon to be three) I spent a few hours a day with a woman known only to me as Bean an Tí. This lasted for two years. She was from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, an Irish speaking village in West Kerry and was up in Cork city living with her niece. My dad told me later that he’d heard her try to speak in English once, but she was utterly confused. She had some vocabulary, but no sense of the English language. So, for two years I was surrounded by her Irish, fluent as the salt in the sea. I remember she had a gravelly voice. I remember she wore lots of navy. I remember that I had a plastic cup—was it yellow or red?—from which to drink milk halfway through the day. It was a kindergarten of sorts, there were other children there too. I thought she was two hundred years old. She gave me language. Bean an Tí means Woman of the House, a term meaning landlady perhaps. I was affronted when I heard another woman being called Bean an Tí years later, thinking that I knew the one and only. She was from the Ó Bric family, a well known clan in the Dingle peninsula.

All of this goes to say that the question of language, or, to be more accurate, languages has been a part of my life as long as my life has been my life. I loved speaking in Irish and English, once I realized that I could speak them both already. My older sister Áine started learning French at school so I begged her to teach me anything she could. When my mother had a small accident involving two German motorbikers, they were invited (read: forced) to our house for dinner. I sat next to them admiring their sleek jawlines, begging them to teach me anything in German. My auntie Mary is deaf, so I asked her for a sheet of paper with the alphabet for Irish Sign on it.

You get the drift.

I don’t know if language is a pathway to God. But I know it’s a pathway. For me, learning that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say ‘be quiet’ to the waves in the gospel of Mark, but rather said ‘be muzzled’ fills me with wonder. I am not particularly interested in what it means—because that implies it definitely means something, or, even worse, definitely means one thing—but I’m transfixed by what this implies. It implies so much: the sea like a rabid dog, growling, gazing, muzzled temporarily, saliva and ferocity all crowding the experience. It’s the kind of language that makes literature literature. It doesn’t have to mean one thing in order to mean anything. It is like a mouthpiece at the edge of the universe telling its own story to itself.

Language compels me towards more exploration. Sometimes I feel like language is a tool for exploring the underground, the layers of rock underneath the assumptions and messages that are being communicated. When I was 20 and a man who was trying to cure me of being gay told me that my problem was language, I was accidentally landed into an experience of confidence. He claimed to be an authority in religion and psychology, so I—a good Catholic, always submissive to authority—took him at his word. But when I asked him what his obsession with teaching me how to objectify women was, he became angry and told me my problem was language. And suddenly I was more shiny than I’d ever been before. I saw through his trickery. He was a man making up language for the mouth of God, and he was pisspoor at it. I left and never went back.

That’s what language can do, when language is doing its work: it can spur extraordinary action.

Pisspoor—look at that delicious alliteration. P.P. Two little explosive sounds right next to each other. I needed those sounds to describe the explosion of life that happened in me after I realized that language could be part of being more alive. I know I’m not describing anything like a pathway to belief—because mostly, I’ve been affected by an awful kind of religion, so I’ve needed language to lead me away from it, not towards it. God’s own anarchy, giving humanity the faculty by which God created the world. We can create too. And destroy.  Language can be a terror, as we know well.

I know. I’m still not answering. Look at all this language. Once a man I know was telling a group of people how tired he was of fighting for his rights when his rights were being denied by those who said they spoke for God. He was in a room of a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation community I was leading at the time. A woman sitting next to him said. “It’s okay to rest, others will do the standing for you.” Something about the quality of her words meant he heard them. He cried. The seventh day. It was evening. It was morning.

TM: There’s a real strand of Ignatian spirituality in this book. While in a course of Ignatian spiritual direction in Australia, you learned the vision of the world that transformed Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” You also ponder the humanity of Jesus: “We can ask about when he fell, or when he cried, or when he had nightmares. But we must also ask when he learned truth, or courage, or integrity. When did he learn the human art of apology? How did he live with his own body, the move from boy to man, the richness of a life lived in tension?” What has the corporeal sense of Jesus meant to you? Do you think that people fully reckon with his—and maybe our—flesh and blood?

PÓT: Years ago, when I was definitely more religious, I was teaching a class about the Stations of the Cross. It was a class of adults. I had been doing a daily practice of the Stations of the Cross myself for five years by that stage. I’ve always found the three-fold falling of Jesus to be very affecting. I had some images of Jesus that I was using as we were considering the walk of torture for a man about to be executed.

All of this was in a room in Australia. I was the only Catholic, and I was, in a certain sense, trying to prove to the Evangelicals in the room that Catholics, too, can be Christians. I have all kinds of problems with everything that was happening.

Anyway, after the third “Jesus Falls to the Ground” Station, I asked the people in the room what they’d say to Jesus. A woman named Julie said she’d ask him if it was worth it. Julie had lots of piercings and tattoos and half her head was shaved. The hair she had was dyed pink and green. She wore Doc Marten boots, and lots of leather. She was magnificent. Her own self. I hear she went to do a degree in law and worked in public defense of young people who’d been criminalized by a law system bent on marginalizing the already marginalized. She was somewhat of a scandal in this class because she would regularly say she wasn’t a Christian, even though she was on devotional course meant only for Christians. I admired her so much. There was something about the disposition of her question that moved me deeply. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard someone pose a question about—or, even more audaciously, to—Jesus without expecting they knew the answer. I want what she has, I remember thinking, which was: more distance from religion in order to be able to see a little more clearly.

I have never seen her since—this was 20 years ago—but I think about her regularly. She gave me what others resented her for having: distance and non-predatory curiosity. She was able to ask a question of Jesus of Nazareth without having formulated what she thought his answer should be. In the freedom she held in herself, her Jesus was also freer. I could imagine him saying No, it’s not. Get me out of here in response to her.

So whatever my relationship to the complicated question of Jesus’s identity is (and I wrote complicated essays about the hypostatic union in my degree), I always want the curiosity of the brilliant Julie. I’m not interested in being part of a gang who are so desperate to prove we love Jesus that we don’t take him seriously. I don’t know if I love him. I certainly respect him. I have many questions. I imagine he’d have been exhausting as a friend. I imagine he must have had some kind of energy in him that drew people to him with a heavy appeal. I’ve got a few friends like that. I am drawn to them. I come away depleted sometimes.

Who taught him to read? Was he interested in spelling? Did he skip formalities for the spirit of things? What did he say about Herod when nobody was writing down? Why did he tell the story of the desert with a devil in it? Wasn’t it just himself? When he said Why have you forsaken me, was that the end of his belief? It seems to me that when he posted three friends to keep watch as he prayed that he was leaving room for escape. Who is the escaping Jesus? What would he say?

To take Jesus of Nazareth seriously is to take ourselves seriously, I think. And consequently, to treat Jesus like some kind of perfect boy god is to deny the complexity of the secular everyday today. I’ve still got questions. I think I always will.

TM: You talk about studying redaction criticism during your theology schooling: “the skill of discovering how the texts that we now accept as a literary whole may be the product of decades of editing, with changes, additions, and extractions having happened.” I’m curious: do you find the action of memoir as a form of redaction criticism? What does it mean for you to revisit the stories of your life?

PÓT: A few years ago, I was in a Swatch Watch shop in New York City. I needed a new strap. The people were very friendly in there and after I’d gotten a new strap, the man working there said, “Do you want to come to a Swatch party on Thursday night?” This was not what I was expecting him to say. “What happens at a Swatch party?” I asked. “Oh all kinds of people come and they share their Swatch Story,” he said.

Swatch Story. Jesus. I could almost hear the voice of the branding consultant who came up with this inanity. People had sat in a room wondering how to build their corporate reach, and some overpaid person came up with the idea that the Swatch Story was a way to make people buy more shit.

I didn’t go. Although, I wonder what would have happened if I had. I hope that at that party there were small corners of people talking about what really mattered in their lives. I hope people made friends that night. I hope there are groupings of people who, when someone asks them, “How did you all meet?” answer, “Oh, at some party one Thursday night.” They forget that it was for a brand of watch. They made human in a place where money was the imagination.

Story is everywhere these days as a commodity. And that’s a betrayal of the brilliance of story. Story, if it means anything, is always changing. Story should never be convenient, or pretty, or nice. Stories should have the capacity for change—or, at least, the people who tell them should. If I’m telling the same old story at 60 that I am at 45 then I think I’ll have failed. I’m uninterested in being outraged because sometimes stories of outrage are being told by people who are profiting from my outrage while dodging accountability.

Stories are extraordinarily entertaining, but can leave corpses in their wake. Who is made a hero of a story? Who the scapegoat? How can a new point of view be told? How can a story be told anew? How can powers be re-examined? How can I be suspicious of the neat in a neatly told story? Who is the teller? Is it me? Am I over-identifying with the me in memoir? How can I make plural where commodity insists on single? I need to be made exile and made new. Stories have borders, too. And walls. And guns to keep certain people out. So I need all redaction, all historical criticism, all literary theories, and queering and turning upside down. Life is not a story, but stories—maybe—can help us live a life. So they’d better be good enough.

TM: You intersperse poems in this book, and one in particular, “Staring Match,” really paused me: “I stare at the icon, / the sacrament, and / the sacred story.” I think staring is a form of the ecstatic moment—our eyes locked somewhere, lost and drifting. What causes you to stare, to hold yourself to the point where you can’t look away?

PÓT: I’m intrigued that you’ve found such ecstasy in that poem. And I’m moved, too. That you found this in the poem speaks to me that the poem is doing its work; in that the words made space for you to put yourself into them. Were we sharing a pot of tea (Assam, made with leaves, stewed for seven minutes, proper boiling water. Microwave? Get behind me, Satan.) I’d want to ask you more about the poem, because you are participating in the making of the book, in the sense that you’re engaging with a conversation that I’m only an eavesdropper to.

All of that goes to say that if ever anyone ever says to me “I liked your book,” I always ask, “Why?” Not because I’m interested in checking out whether they’ve read it or not, but because they always say something interesting in answer to the why. Usually I realize the book is just a prompt for them to have a conversation with themselves.

I’d gotten completely stuck halfway through writing In the Shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a plan, as much as I wasn’t sure what the point of writing something new was. I was reading Adam Phillips’s book In Writing, where he says that most things are written in order to be forgotten; but what happens in the experience of reading is what is meant to be remembered. It changed everything for me. I went back to writing.

Staring, for me, in the context of that poem, was actually an accusation. I’d been schooled in the art of the devoted gaze, the gaze of love, the gaze of adoration. I needed something more like the fuck-you-glare towards an icon. If an icon is a window into God, then I had something to say. So much of In the Shelter is a landscape of anger; as well as a landscape of slowly stripping away denial about the violence of religion. Looking at the placid face of Jesus in an icon, I was angry, and in staring at him (through him, to him, with him) I was able to hear parts of my own life that had questions. I didn’t think he was cowed by my anger. I get the impression that if he was listening, he’d have been glad for it. It was my hidden-and-stowed-away questions that required me to get to the stage of exploding towards the very source of the very source. It was such a relief. Like many, I’d found myself caught in a cycle of leaving a suitcase of questions, objections, fantasies and furies at the doorway of the halls of prayer. Learning to bring a few of those items into chapels helped me take whatever it is that religion does more seriously.

The last word in that poem is “hungry.” Hunger, in Irish, is Gorta, a word we use for a body’s hunger, but also a word we use to imply the Great Famine—An Gorta Mór—a famine that was not a potato famine, but was, like most famines, influenced heavily by the political machinations of the day. While perhaps two million Irish people starved to death from the years 1845 to 1847, the British landlords (grabbed lands, I hope you didn’t need me to say that) were making money by supplying over half the corn and half the cattle to Britain. Hungry people were filling ships with foodstuffs they’d farmed but would never be nourished from. People who couldn’t pay the rent to live on the land that had been stolen from them were being evicted. Kindly neighbors who brought in evicted neighbors were subject to a new law that made such hospitality a crime. All of this being watched over by people who said they had God in mind. Jesus Christ. He deserves everything he can get.

TM: You wrote of living overseas, and sharing an occasional meal with people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and “haunted and loved by God,” but who “had found the welcome of the church to be more airy than substantial.” You receive a call that the local priest wants to come to the house and join the dinner, but the caller says the priest “is keen to be seen to respond.” You focus on that language, and consider a few paradoxes. The priest came, brought some wine, and you spent time together. You remain friends. But you let him know that his presence there was fraught, and that what you needed to see “was less his kind words around the privacy of a table and more his public words in the halls of the powerful. Show us your change, please, I asked.” I can’t help but think of your recent erasure poem in response to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the blessing of same-sex unions. Do you feel, as you write in the book, that “faith shelters some, and it shadows others”?

PÓT: God almighty, that priest. He was a lovely man. He’s still a priest, and one of the good ones. But the level of entitlement he had to send a message to me—via a secretary—that he’d heard I had a gathering of LGBT people in my house and he wanted to join, in order to be observed to be doing the right thing… that left me speechless. Of course he couldn’t come. I wouldn’t even tell him the night of the week, and I was aghast at how he’d found out. But he came alone to talk about the message.

There was so little consideration of the safety of the people around that table. Many of them would have feared being fired by him—or, at least, his machinery—had the story of their sexuality become known to him. Was the priest gay? Well, perhaps. But in this instance, unfortunately, who cares? There was a roomful of people seeking sanctuary around a table hoping that a Thursday evening in a kitchen in West Belfast could give enough courage to survive till the next month. His presence there would have been a little echo of empire.

It was a demonstration of the chasm between intention and impact. He would have said that he intended no harm, he intended no worry or threat. But actually his intentions weren’t really of any interest or consequence. His presence there, his self-invited presence, would have had an impact far beyond any intention he’d have used to butter over whatever awkwardness he’d have felt. I’ve grown suspicious of my own intentions, too. It’s all well and good for me to say I mean well. But I’ve been alive long enough to know that when I say I mean well, that that’s only sometimes true, and even when it is true, it can still wreak havoc.

Anyway, like I said. He was a lovely guy, but the luxury of his imagined innocence was a luxury he alone could luxuriate in. I stay in touch, I do. I text him, too. I’m always happy to hear from him, and support him if I can, or ask him for his help if he can give it. He’s not some boogie monster. But he needed to wise up about the impact of his association on a room of people at risk of unemployment.

So of course the establishment of religion works for some and not for others. For some it is important to find a pathway out, knowing that your imagination and safety and creativity might find life outside the borders of religion. Others find religion a salve, and I believe them. Some people say that such violences of religion are evidence of establishment, not Jesus. But I don’t accept that at all. Jesus said many things that, today, would not be considered acceptable. Sheep and Goats and Jews and Dogs and Belief and Gehenna and Pharisees and Divorce and Eunuchs and Devils, oh my. I would love to talk to him. But he’s not an innocent in the corner with angels dancing round his head. There’s blood on his hands, and not just his own. There’s blood on mine, too. Not just my own either.

That recent statement—or Responsum—from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such a strange pronouncement. It was ostensibly aimed towards LGBT people. But any Catholic LGBT person already knew that any space for our unions to receive blessing was unlikely to come from the top. In reality I think that the true target of that document were allies of LGBT people within the structures of the church. It was a shot across the bow of a Cathedral. You next.

Such a use of language from such a platform was a complete failure of language, and authority. So I wanted to mine for something of curiosity within a text that was utterly predictable in its aggression.

Groups of belonging—whether that’s a country, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, or a club—have a long history of violent bordermaking. Some groups are easy to join and impossible to leave. Others deny anything outside them exists. Some are almost impossible to join, but’ll kick you out if you sneeze the wrong question. What is the quality of fluid belonging, is something that’s at the heart of my interest. I don’t need to—or, my god, want to—belong to all the groups. Every group has membership requirements, etc. That’s probably okay, or at least, it could be.  But it’s the quality of entry and departure that interests me. And the quality of the stories told about those who left too; and those who wanted to leave but didn’t for fear of repercussions; and those who needed to; and those who stayed, too; and all of us in the in-between.

We’re back at story. I know. How neat. 

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