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A religious education opened the doors of the world to me

Convent teaching: feminist Germaine Greer says nuns pioneered women's education in Australia
Convent teaching: feminist Germaine Greer says nuns pioneered women's education in Australia

By Mary Kenny

The Republic's Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn, has suggested that school pupils nowadays should be taught more maths and less religion in schools. And there are some parents who agree. I certainly agree that maths should be taught properly – and more inspirationally, too. It was only many years after I left school that I came to understand that mathematics involved beauty, philosophy and music – people who are clever at maths are likely to be musical.

And maths is an unfailing guide to braininess, though not necessarily to emotional intelligence and common sense.

Pure maths is abstract, and keeps your head in the clouds, which is not always a bad place to be.

But in education, as in life, it's not just what you do that counts – it's the way that you do it.

If you are taught religion (or maths, or Irish, or geography, or anything else) with slaps or mean-spirited attitudes, let alone abuse of any kind, you are unlikely to emerge with an innate love for the subject, unless you are an exceptional person. But if you are taught inspirationally, you will be enriched by any subject.

I'm hugely grateful to have had an Irish Catholic education with a strong emphasis on faith (and fatherland, yes, too).

Aside from any spiritual values involved, my religious education opened the door to culture, to history, to a sense of universality, to an understanding of the rich heritage of faith in so many different societies, going back to the Palaeolithic Age.

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And, most helpfully of all, to an acceptance that in every life there will be sorrow and suffering, but you must show courage and fortitude in the face of such trials. Didn't the saints go through the very same thing!

I also believe that my Catholic formation sowed the seeds of an early feminism, and, incidentally, Germaine Greer, convent educated, has expressed something similar towards the nuns who taught her.

If brave Irish sisters hadn't tramped across the broiling Australian desert in the 19th century, Germaine has said, "Australian women would not have had any education".

Germaine has also ascribed her sensibility towards art to her convent school days. If she hadn't been given "holy pictures" at school – cheap reprints of Raphael and Murillo – she might never have opened her eyes to exquisite Renaissance painting.

Not only did nuns pioneer women's education: the saints they upheld were as often female as male.

Who could forget the image of St Catherine of Siena drinking a cup of leper's pus to prove that she wasn't afraid of anything?

It wasn't just the leper's pus that was such an indelible picture: it was the idea of not being afraid of anything that emboldened me. Or Joan of Arc, the peasant girl leading a king and an army in chain mail?

But then, perhaps, I was fortunate in that the family ambience in which I grew up was, on the whole, kind and generous-minded, and faith values were associated with tolerance and "Christian charity".

There were some stern rules, to be sure, but I think I even benefited from the stern rules in that they gave me something big to rebel against. Yet attitudes at home were seldom narrow or bigoted, and "live and let live" was a prevailing idea.

My parents had a firm faith, but it was open, easy-going and high-minded.

My father had once been a Jesuit seminarian in Beirut, and – so sad to think of now – both Lebanon and Syria were then cultivated and sophisticated societies in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in a neighbourly harmony.

Religion doesn't have to mean war and persecution: it's not what you do, but the way that you do it.

If some parents today wish to raise their children without religious education, that's their choice, and they should have the entitlement to pursue it.

I personally think that those without a faith education miss out on something essential to the human species – faith being a persistent aspect of human life since Stonehenge and Newgrange, and even before.

I think it's harder to understand the conflicts of the modern world without a religious sensibility, and perceiving where the mixture of religion and politics and the struggle for power can make matters toxic.

A person can behave morally without faith, certainly. But, as the author Piers Paul Read has written, they are often drawing upon a deposit of faith that was laid down in previous generations.

Karl Marx's moral view of capital and labour was surely built on the historic faith scholarship of his rabbinical forefathers: every direct male ancestor traced back to the 15th century had been a rabbi.

The schoolmaster in Dickens' Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind, has a mission to stop children being taught anything "fanciful", crying for "Facts! Facts! Facts!" and a utilitarian education minister may well become a Gradgrind calling for facts only.

Atheists are given to a Gradgrindish view of the world, like the celebrated one who forbids Santa Claus to his young daughter, lest she be infected with ideas about the fanciful.

But there are more things in heaven and Earth than facts alone can illuminate, and the doors of perception are often opened by an enlightened spiritual education.

'There were some stern rules but they gave me something big to rebel against'

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