Different portrayals of religious life

I thought I detected a faint distaste on the scriptwriter’s part towards the nuns and religious life.

In the last two weeks, RTÉ Radio 1 has launched a new Sunday night ethics series, Life Matters, which is repeated on Monday evenings on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra. It felt a bit like the God Slot without the God.

I wasn’t too taken with the first episode, which was about monogamy and polyamory – the practice of spouses in a marriage being content (really?) with their partners having other love interests. While the show wasn’t exactly promoting the practice, there were four speakers in favour with only two against, including Dr John Murray of Mater Dei inserting some sense into the discussion.

Last Sunday night, however, there was a much better episode on forgiveness. I was most touched by the story of Jude Whyte who brought himself to be able to forgive those who had set a bomb that killed his mother during the Troubles in the North. Julie Nicholson on the other hand was not forgiving towards the London bombers who had killed her daughter and she had eventually resigned as a Church of England vicar as a result of this.

Author Fr Brian Lennon SJ had some very enlightening things to say on the subject, particularly on misunderstandings around the concept of forgiveness. The show opened with a Jewish man quoting a night prayer from his tradition – a prayer expressing forgiveness to anyone who, that day, had offended the person praying.

Another new series launched on BBC 4 last Thursday on the monastic history of these islands. Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monasteries is as much a story of monastic politics as it is of spiritual heritage – you could come away with a deep appreciation of the tradition and a queasiness about the less spiritual goings on. But then I suppose that’s human nature.

Despite the title, I was glad to see Ireland getting its deserved share of the coverage. The opening episode featured quite a bit on Skellig Michael. Archaeologist John Sheehan outlined some of the findings of research, including the harsh physical life of the monks and the apparent findings that there were child monks.

Presenter Dr Janina Ramirez focused quite a lot on a paradox of the monastic life – how in one sense it was originally all about the monks seeking solitude and yet developed a strong sense of community. Thus, individual monks’ cells were often clustered around a community area, including a shared place of worship. She also detailed conflicts, especially in Britain, between the Celtic monastic style of Ireland, Scotland and North Britain and the more Roman approach of the southern monasteries.

The cloistered religious life also featured Tuesday night of last week in the fictional Midsomer Murders (UTV Ireland). Midsomer is a fictional English county that attracts murder at an alarming rate. The series must be quite popular to have lasted so long, but I find it rather limp. Last week’s episode had a nun and a priest murdered, so the police had to enter the cloisters. I don’t remember the convent being mentioned before and, indeed, one of the characters didn’t even know the place existed until the nun’s murder.

It was a dwindling congregation, struggling financially, but, typical of the genre, lots of people, including the remaining nuns, had secrets.

I thought I detected a faint distaste on the scriptwriter’s part towards the nuns and religious life. One of the police forensic team called the nuns “holy crows” and said her convent education had led her to be a “rationalist and an atheist”.

The nuns were dedicated, but some weren’t that pleasant, and the detectives seemed bemused by their lifestyle, e.g. one asking what an elderly nun’s name was ‘in real life’.

The stereotypical reverend mother put him right on that one. A younger nun was very enthusiastic, modern and spiritual, though she too had a secret, one that turned out to be innocent.

Detective Barnaby asker her at the end how she was going to get more entrants in these modern times and she answered that it would be through work, faith and prayer. Could hardly argue with that. The hard-drinking local priest was generally disliked and came across as a rather slimy character.

It was hard to get much sympathy worked up when he became the second murder victim.

The bishop however was portrayed sympathetically and the young nun’s final vows ceremony was touching, with a muted, interior kind of joy. 


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