Address by Fr Michael Drumm, Catholic Schools Partnership, at the Céifin Conference 2009

04 Nov 2009

4 November 2009

Address by Fr Michael Drumm, Catholic Schools Partnership, at the Céifin Conference 2009

When the well runs dry where will we go for water…..

Ireland is a country dotted with holy wells. For a country almost cursed with too much water from the heavens you might wonder why our forebears would see wells as holy. Yes in a drier or desert land but surely not here! But, of course, the well has a deeper meaning as a symbol of what gives us life and nourishes our spirit. There are endless different wells from which we drink. Family and friends; education; work and career; the natural world around us; religious faith and spirituality; the imagination – our own and that of others opened to us through music, art and literature; the nation and its history; TV and the internet and, more recently, the booming economy. But these wells can run dry.

  • Family and friends can grow tired; those around us begin to die; human failure can damage even intimate relationships.
  • Education can become little more than a distant memory from school or college; reading more than a few lines too much of a chore.
  • Work can become stale though endless repetition, frustrated career paths and even laziness.
  • Planet earth is reduced to an object that we inhabit and abuse for our benefit.
  • Religious faith can descend into empty rituals as the life of the spirit is numbed by life’s routine.
  • Imagination is nourished by little more than tabloid news and soap operas.
  • Nationalism and patriotism can be obliterated by much more self-serving “isms”.
  • TV can so dominate that reality TV appears more real than what happens in our mundane lives.
  • The internet allows us to eavesdrop on a cyber world which we can confuse with reality and allows us to escape the demands of commitment and the call to form mature human relationships.
  • The booming economy explodes leaving many lives in tatters as people struggle with poverty, unemployment and real fear of the future.

If all of these wells run dry we would inhabit a bleak landscape. Let’s hope that they don’t; let’s hope that individuals, families, friends, institutions and indeed, our nation, will find a boundless well of living water in one or more of these wells. Yet the reality remains that these wells can run dry. What will we do then? We could continue to slake our thirst with sweet drinks and bottled water, or numb our awareness with abuse of alcohol and other drugs. But surely there are better ways? Are there other wells not yet discovered? Should we dig deeper in the same place and hope to discover a new source of living water?

It is interesting to note how religious belief has influenced the history of some of the terms that are often mentioned in our current predicament. Think of ‘economy’. The Greek word means ‘management of the house’. In the sixteenth century the idea of political economy developed meaning the management of the government’s household that was the newly emerging nation state. But early Christians spoke of God’s economy, God’s plan for our world. This is not akin to a modern economic plan for a country or a business but rather an understanding of the whole of human history as an unfolding of the relationship between God and humanity. In a time of critical economic difficulty in our contemporary world it might be no harm to reflect on this older meaning of the word ‘economy’. We will be doing just that as we reflect on the significance of the life of Christ in God’s economy, God’s plan.

If the word ‘economy’ has strong Christian roots then the issues revolving around charging interest on a loan have been central in the history of various religions. Psalm 15 speaks of those admitted to the Lord’s tent as including those who take no interest on a loan. In general, religious observances tended to ban usury – the practice of charging financial interest in excess of the principle amount of a loan. Indeed the first ecumenical council of the Church held in Nicea in 325 AD forbade clergy from charging interest on a loan. Similarly, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and, maybe most ardently, Islam, raise serious moral questions about usury. Yet though we have made great progress as a human race in science and the humanities we have failed to even begin to deal with what some serious minds have always perceived to be one of the greatest threats to civilisation, one that could even destroy a nation itself – usury, the charging of interest on a loan. Aristotle understood that money is sterile; it doesn’t beget more money the way cows beget more cows. He knew that money exists not by nature but by law.

“The most hated sort (of wealth getting) and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange but not to increase at interest. …Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth, this is the most unnatural.”  (1258b, Politics) All political and religious systems have come a long way since Aristotle wrote in the fourth century BC but we should take at least some heed of the moral questions raised by earlier religious and philosophical thinkers. They were no fools. Since our banking system is constructed on credit it is a faith-based system as the Latin word ‘Credo’ implies. Trust is everything but trust is a two way street. The most important questions concerning our credit system are not financial but moral. Any fool could decide to let a credit market run riot. The leader must surely reflect upon what will happen to the weak? What share of the risk must the lender bare? How do we protect the ordinary debtor from becoming a slave? What measures must we take to stop people taking unfair advantage? When should the lender say ‘no’? Maybe everyone should reflect on the words of Psalm 15:

1 Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent
and dwell on your holy mountain?

2 He who walks without fault;
he who acts with justice
and speaks the truth from his heart;
3 he who does not slander with his tongue;

He who does no wrong to his brother,
who casts no slur on his neighbour,
4 who holds the godless in disdain,
but honours those who fear the Lord;

he who keeps his pledge, come what may;
5 who takes no interest on a loan
and accepts no bribes against the innocent.
Such a man will stand firm forever.

So given that our economy, in the sense of a modern political economy is in grave difficulty and our credit lending system has brought us to the edge of an abyss, what should we do now? We could place our hope in a charismatic leader, if we could find one! It is generally accepted in Ireland that we have lost faith in our traditional leaders – in church and state, business and finance. Probably only some artists and sporting heroes are given real respect. But is this healthy? Is there not a danger of an idolatry of leadership, that if we found the right people to lead us everything would be ok. But this avoids the deeper question of re-imagining leadership for our times. This paper seeks to do this by drawing on the riches of our Christian tradition. There are other sources for renewal but this is also an important one.

In a time of serious change it is always good to go back to our origins. The reason for doing so is not to find the answers to our contemporary questions and problems but rather so that we might encounter again some of the energy that gave rise to the reality in the first place. Nations, churches, various communities, families and institutions have their own origins. Given that Christ was both an extraordinary leader as well as an outstanding teacher, I propose to revisit our Christian origins to discover something of the real meaning of leadership in a Christian context. In doing so we will not find answers to our current crises and questions but we might discover something much deeper – we might encounter again the energy which unleashed this Christian vision of the world. ‘Energy’ is an interesting term. We speak of the long-term shortage of fossil-based energies. But, in truth, that which is in most dire short supply is human energy. The task of leadership is surely to unleash energy for the future. What could be a greater tribute to any leader than that he/she taps the human energy that is present?

As Christians we speak of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit of Jesus that continues to breathe in our world. It is interesting to note that the term ‘Holy Spirit’ might also be translated from the New Testament Greek as ‘Holy Energy’. This is the energy that emerged from the ministry of Christ himself.

The good news, the gospel, is that Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world. He is not just another person who lived a good and kindly life, he is the saviour. Jesus’ ministry revolved around bringing healing and hope into a broken world. Most of all Jesus was a prophet; false prophets provide a comfort zone for the present; true prophets unleash energy for the future. But, of course, prophets, unlike profit, are seldom welcome. There is a danger of reducing our Christian faith to little more than a message that we should be good and kind to our neighbour. Of course we should, but we hardly needed a messiah to tell us that. Most of us could work out for ourselves how we should treat others. That is not the nub of our problem and it is not the heart of the good news.

A key element of the Christian message is that life is not the way it was intended to be. It is broken in all sorts of ways. Your life and mine, our families, and, yes, our economy and all our relationships are fraught with human limitations. If we were to place any of our lives under a microscope we would discover that none of us fully measures up in that we fail to live out that which we profess to believe. That is the bad news.

All organisations must face this real human situation. In recent years attention has centered on strategic planning, self-evaluation, detailed reporting, vision and mission statements. But it is interesting to note that strategic planning itself can be paralysing. The fact that the composition of vision and mission statements can lead to a loss of energy rather than unleashing energy for the future is a sure sign that all human institutions face a real struggle. Have you not often felt: “if we only had more time, more resources, more staff then we could implement some of these great ideas but we don’t and so planning and self-evaluation can lead to more frustration.” Notice that this too is bad news. The Christian message is different. It is based on the belief that God is somehow present in the midst of life’s difficulties. We cannot solve all of life’s problems. We must try our best but we are not messiahs. You and I cannot save the world. This, strangely, is the good news. This is a liberating message. Because once we acknowledge that we cannot do everything then we are freed to begin to do something. Like Jesus, we are called to bear witness to the reign of God in our midst.

Almost two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth spoke of the reign of God as healing for the sick, hearing for the deaf, new sight for the blind, freedom for prisoners, good news for the poor. Before we can really appreciate the meaning of healing, hearing, new sight, freedom and good news we need to become aware of the realities of sickness, deafness, blindness, captivity and poverty. When we look honestly at ourselves and those around us we discover that we are the sick, the deaf, the blind, the captive, the poor and not just in a metaphorical sense but in the physical, psychological, spiritual and economic realities of our lives. Only when we immerse ourselves in these human experiences can we discover who Jesus really was, for his ministry was all about lifting burdens. Whether the burdens were created by selfishness or laziness or a scrupulously strict religious sensibility or blind obedience or political corruption or grinding poverty or sickness or lack of self-esteem or pride or prejudice, the result was the same: people were in need of healing. The meaning of the miracle stories in the gospels is not that Jesus was some sort of esoteric magician who could solve all of life’s most inscrutable problems, but rather that he was one who brought healing and hope into the most abject human situations.

The call of Christian discipleship demands that we always seek to lift the burden. Whether this means helping people to stand up and walk on their own, or exorcising their fear of the unknown, or exploding their minds through education, or feeding them when they are too weak to feed themselves, or opening their eyes to the reality of life, or challenging them to let go of hurts and prejudice, or liberating those who are unjustly oppressed, or introducing them to ever greater horizons of transcendence and beauty, or unsealing their ears to hear the divine echo in their hearts, or unleashing their hope for the future, or sowing the seeds of eternal life, the healing ministry of Jesus is continued as ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ (Luke 7:22). To teach as Christ taught means inviting people to live without the crutch or the grudge or the closed mind.

Christian belief is not that we are messiahs with answers to every problem but witnesses to a reality greater than ourselves. We might learn much from biblical figures who were pushed into leading roles as God’s plan unfolded. The old man Abraham was invited to believe more in God’s promise than his own best judgment; Moses encountered the Lord in the burning bush; Jonah was forced to go to the alien city of Nineveh and Mary of Nazareth was asked to believe that what she had conceived in her womb was of the Holy Spirit. Like Abraham we have been called to respond in a way that goes well beyond what reason would justify. Like Moses we have to continually learn that we cannot control God in some easy definition but that we will encounter God in unpredictable ways in our lives. Like Jonah we will have to accept that we must toil and work in places and contexts not of our choosing. Like Mary we are asked to bear Christ to a troubled world.

Jesus revealed much about the reign of God through the parables that he told. Amongst the most important are those that speak of a sower sowing seed. Some seeds fell in thorns and were choked. Some fell in a drain and were drowned. Some fell in shallow earth and perished. And some fell in rich soil and yielded thirty, sixty, even a hundred fold. People often read these parables in a moralistic way – making judgments about the quality of people. But the true meaning of these parables is that the Word of God will not be frustrated by anything human – that though many seeds will not bear fruit the true seed of the Word of God will bear a rich harvest in unexpected ways in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities, in our society.  The task of Christian leadership is not to bemoan all that is wrong with us and our lives but to have the eyes to see that even in the midst of a sad and difficult world the seed of God’s Word is bearing fruit in ways that we could never have imagined.

We began by speaking about the wells from which we drink. During the recent economic boom years we drank too much from a well that will always run dry. If you only drink from a well of money and possessions you will always be measuring yourself against others and in the end you will die of thirst for there will never be enough money or enough possessions. But there are other wells. There is the well that is my own person from which I can give life to the world. This is a bottomless well, maybe even an eternal one. I can be compassionate, I can be forgiving, I can give of myself in service of others, I can be thankful, I can be honest and, yes, I can take a lead.

Do you remember the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well? He asks her for a drink even though the text tells us that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. She points out the rather obvious difficulty that he has no bucket and by implication is saying why does he not take himself off to some Jewish well to drink his own people’s water and leave her in peace to draw from this Samaritan well? But Jesus wants to awaken her to a deeper source – a spring of living water within her welling up to eternal life. Deep within all of us there is a well of life and leadership. This living water can be released if we place our trust in someone greater than ourselves. That someone, God alone, can call us beyond fear, cynicism and self and sectional interest to a new future.

You could think of yourself as coming to this conference and going home with a bucketful of ideas! It’s interesting to note that the Samaritan woman forgot to bring her bucket with her when she went off to tell her people that she had encountered the Christ. Leave your bucket here at this conference. The well is within you. It has not run dry. The real problem is that it has seldom been tapped!


Notes to editors:

  • Fr Michael Drumm is Executive Chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership.  The Catholic Schools Partnership was established in September 2009 and is intended to support all of the partners in Catholic education at first and second level.  This includes patrons/trustees, management bodies including boards of management and teachers in Catholic schools.  The office is based in St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Co Kildare.

Further information:
Martin Long, Communications Director (086 172 7678)
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer (086 817 5674)