I spent the first quarter of 2006 living in Galway City, a small, nearly perfect town in western Ireland. Here’s one thing I learned while there.
In the early 1960s, on the site of what was once a jail, Galway chose to erect something rather surprising: a great stone cathedral, in the tradition of similarly grand religious buildings scattered all across Europe. It’s sorta’ brilliant. Situated on the banks of the river Corrib, it’s a relatively new building that feels old. Entering it is almost akin to experiencing what a medieval cathedral must have felt like shortly after it was built. Sitting inside it was as calming as it was awe-inspiring.
Sometimes on Sundays, I and Roxanne, the charming lady with whom I lived at the time, would saunter over to the Cathedral to partake in the Sunday service. Though I’m far from ‘a believer’, the lingering antagonism I had toward theism simply gave way in the face of the peace and ritual of a Sunday morning spent with others, heads bowed.
What struck me most, however, was the idea of taking time each week to reflect upon one’s life and its relation to one’s principles. The priest’s sermons, though obviously underpinned by the Catholic faith, nonetheless had a way of speaking to me. It wasn’t so much about the assertion of a particular set of principles that drew me in, though. Rather, what appealed was the opportunity to ask myself whether I was living by mine. What I heard was something like “Are you, good Christian soldier, spending your time chasing one definition of success and abandoning what’s really important?” But put Art, Pleasure or Family in the place of God and the question once again becomes relevant to those who don’t believe.
Instead of simply fostering an ethos of ‘self-help’, however, I also liked the anti-modern feel of the whole thing. I can’t find it now, but scholar Alan Jacobs once tweeted something like “modern Christianity is transgressive because, in its refusal of selfishness, it resists the tenor of the age.” I may have that wrong, but that’s the idea which stuck with me. Regardless of what you think of that, there’s something very interesting about a ritual and community space explicitly not meant to fit within economic structures of consumption and the attendant focus upon self-concern. In our imaginary secular meeting space, there is no equipment to buy, no smartphone through which to access something, no purchase or insider knowledge to conspicuously perform. There is only a desire to put yourself somewhere and pause in order to think about whether there is a disparity between the kind of person you are, and the kind you wish to be.
So. Idea #6 is the secular Sunday service: a weekly gathering, led by a rotating set of speakers who, in relating a tale or a series of thoughts, beckons you to always be on two seemingly contradictory paths that are in fact one and the same: of ever being on the verge of becoming a radically different person; and being just about to truly become yourself.
Oh: a really really nice building also helps.