The vital importance of being earnest

My first two years in seminary were dominated by the requirement of going to philosophy lectures, in which the lecturer droned on dismally and drearily in dead and dry scholastic language, and without any other sign of human animation, explaining to his long suffering audience the mysteries of ‘being’. Two years. When it was over and we students emerged from the fog and the gloom, we threw our books on the ground and jumped on them. It had been a journey through the shadow of death for all of us.

Then one Christmas holidays some of my fellow students rehearsed and put on a play for our entertainment. It was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a trivial comedy for serious people. I had been rendered very serious by my philosophy trauma and was in serious need of being revived. Thank God for Oscar!

As the play unfolded and the actors gave us their fine performances I felt my whole body and soul and mind thrill to the experience. Here was the magic of words and the dynamic power of dialogue. Here was human expression and humour of the finest and funniest kind. In the midst of all that stodge that emanated from that remote scholastic world, here was human life and the vital ingredient of words being celebrated and tossed happily into the air.

Jesus is the man of words par excellence. His whole life was devoted to speaking words and seeing what they could do to invigorate and challenge and cajole and encourage and inspire. We call him the word of God. God speaks to us in Jesus and there is no dried up dismal dissertation in him. Words of life, words of encouragement to live life, this is the Gospel. ‘God’s spell,’ God’s word.

Ireland has always been a great country for words. England may have literature in Dickens and Shakespeare and others, but Ireland has the ‘craic’, the enjoyment of daily conversation. When I was a child at home on holidays in Erris, County Mayo I was fascinated by my cousins’ ability with words. They could talk and laugh and argue and get the better of one another by the ingenious things they would think to say. Getting the better of one another in words and conversation was a great skill among them. I was greatly entertained by it and impressed.

In that long ago world before television and phones and computers people had the gift of words and they used it brilliantly. Conversation and storytelling was the way to fill up the hours and to entertain hearts that were hungry for life. My road led me into the silent corridors of religion and then into the privilege of the pulpit. I knew from the off, that standing in a pulpit was a great honour, to be able to address people and to have their attention, at least until you lost it.

If the old world of institutional church is fading perhaps that is because what the world needs now is the invigoration of words of life. Address, ideals, challenges, affection – Isn’t that the very essence of the Sermon on the Mount!

I grew into being a good preacher in my time and I looked forward to the opportunity afforded me to get up and speak up and shut up.
The crowds of people in today’s world are no different from the crowds that gathered in Galilee long ago. They are hungry for words that inspire, words that challenge and urge on, words that affirm and impart affection: Words of love.

It is time for us to realise the vital importance and the earnestness of this great gospel.

Brian Fahy
29 May 2018

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