Ruth Whelan is Professor of French at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Q. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
A. I have been Professor of French at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth since 1997; before that a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin from 1984. I was educated in primary and secondary schools run by Holy Faith and Loreto nuns. I studied for my BA in French and Spanish at TCD (1977) and for my doctorate at TCD and later in Paris, awarded in 1984.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I was nurtured in faith from my earliest years; it was the frame of reference in which our north Dublin Catholic family moved. However, my parents, who grew up in Tullow, Co Carlow, never really left their rural, narrow and somewhat superstitious Catholic beliefs behind. As I grew in body, mind and spirit, their frame of reference progressively became a bad fit for me.
As a Trinity student, I began reading scripture. I also audited classes in New Testament Greek and, after a couple of years of reading and reflection, I left the Catholic Church for the Reformed tradition. After a few more years of exploration, that meant throwing in my lot with the Presbyterian Church and I am currently a member of Christ Church Sandymount.
But my spiritual home is the French Reformed Church, where exegetically-based biblical preaching and a broad spirit of openness go hand in hand (contrary to what the PCI has become over my lifetime, although it was not always so).
Q. Have you ever had a crisis, or a gnawing doubt, about your faith?
A. Being a person of faith is a form of ongoing crisis — if I stop questioning, then I will be dead. The pandemic is my latest crisis; I can’t square all those dead people with the loving providence of God. But, like the psalmist, I prefer to shout that out to the heavens rather than give up a spiritual sense of the world and the presence/absence of God, which is vital to my existence.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God and, if so, why?
A. There have been a number of times, some lengthy (illness, hopelessness, death of a beloved, betrayal, near-fatal accidents, workplace bullying, workplace misogyny, whatever...), when I stomped on, fists clenched by my side, head bowed with effort until I came out the other side. But, sometimes, I got through precisely because of a consciousness, or a deliberately cultivated consciousness, that the power of God was sustaining me.
Such are the complexities of faith in the challenges of life. During one very difficult time, I repeated as a mantra “dunamis theou” (power of God) — somewhat obsessionally — as a way of maintaining equilibrium when all seemed lost.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. When I moved from the Catholic to the Reformed tradition, I experienced sharp hostility, rejection and constant, even unremitting, criticism from family and friends. When I competed for the chair of French and was appointed at Maynooth, I was met with barbed comments about Penal laws; remarks such as “all Protestants are foreigners” (from an academic staff member who should have known better), sectarian comments about Presbyterians, exclusion and even students who asked permission from their priest before following courses on Protestant authors (I am a specialist of the Huguenots and their literature, especially in exile from 1680-1730).
As the only woman professor at the time, and one of few Protestants on campus, I was something of a transitional figure, contributing to a shift in mores.
Maynooth University is now multicultural and people of faith are rarer than hens’ teeth, apart from St Patrick’s College, with which we share our beautiful campus.
In the early days, as a Reformed Christian, when life was unbelievably tough, my minister said simply to me one day, “Everyone has to plough their own furrow.” So, that’s what I do. I just go on plowing my own furrow.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. The PCI’s decision in 2018 to exclude LGBT people from communion, and their children from baptism, is a source of shame and embarrassment to me.
The shoddy, ideological abuse of scripture; the superficial and poorly prepared preaching of many ministers (with some notable exceptions) is another source of shame.
Q. What about people of other denominations and faiths?
A. They are often beautiful and unwittingly, perhaps, can sometimes put Christians to shame.
Q. Are the Churches fulfilling their mission?
A. The echoing sound of all those footsteps walking away from the PCI in the last few years, and from the Catholic Church over the last quarter-century, is answer enough to that question.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. I am unable to answer that question; but I cherish the memory of those from Northern Ireland who loved and supported me in my early life, when the world seemed against me, and who embodied for me what it means to belong to the mystical body of the Church.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. The films of Robert Guediguian are favorites. To unwind, I love detective fiction, including Louise Penny, Fred Varga and Ausma Zehanat Khan. Bach and Mozart never grow old for me; Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen continue to inspire. I long to be back at a concert in the Philarmonie de Paris with its vast auditorium, extraordinary acoustics and world-class musicians.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. In mindful meditation on scripture; floating cruciform, rocked by the waves, in a calm sea.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. “The darkness is not dark to thee”. Or, as a life-long public servant, devoted to educating the young: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things.”
Q. Any major regrets?
A. As a former abbot of Glenstal Abbey once said during a radio interview (and I never forgot): you live the life that you can. So, let’s all channel Edith Piaff: Non, rien de rien, non je ne regrette rien...