Gar O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I come is twenty-five years old. He has grown up in a tiny village, like all the young men of that village, he has attended Mass Sunday by Sunday, but on the night before his departure for the United States, he looks to the church for meaning. He hopes that somewhere in his alienation from his father, in his alienation from the community, in the grinding monotony and pointlessness of life, there will be someone who will interpret, someone who will grant significance to the otherwise pointless existence in Ballybeg.
While the public persona of Gar is in his bedroom, his private persona watches his father sat at a table with the local parish priest, playing draughts as they have every evening for years, the stakes a halfpenny each. Gar’s private self cries out in desperation:
‘Canon, because you’re warm and kind and soft and sympathetic – all things to all men – because you could translate all this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery into Christian terms that will make life bearable for us all. Isn’t this your job? – to translate? Why don’t you speak then? Prudence, arid Canon? Prudence be damned! Christianity isn’t prudent, it’s insane.’
Friel wrote the play in 1964, setting it two years previously in 1962. If there was alienation in 1964, if life seemed without translation, if the Christianity on offer seemed shallow and unduly conservative, what would Gar O’Donnell be saying today?
Perhaps the gently comical Fr Mick O’Byrne and the surly and discontented Gar would now be so far apart that there would be no possibility of translation, that even if Fr O’Byrne were a mystic and a scholar instead of a benign, draughts-playing country priest, Gar would be so distant from the church that there would be nothing that he could hear.
I wonder if Gar would have found something in the words of Pope Benedict published yesterday? Spe Salvi includes the lines,
There used to be a form of devotion, perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago,that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating jabs, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great ‘com-passion’ so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.
Does Gar’s frustration at “this loneliness, this groping, this dreadful bloody buffoonery” find expression in Pope Benedict’s description of life’s “irritating jabs”? Is the only way of translating the sheer mundane dullness and meaninglessness of life to include them in “the treasury of compassion”? Or is that a cop out on the part of the Pope?