The Myths By Which We Live

© Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The word ‘myth’ tends to have two quite different meanings in modern English: one is that of a traditional story used to illustrate or explain some phenomenon; the other is that of some fiction, widely held but ultimately untrue. As an example of the first, think of the old ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. It’s more than an adage, it contains elements of myth. In this case, that of eating fruit making for a healthy diet which means less need for physicians. It’s an uncomplicated example of something true expressed in traditional form.

Now let’s take something more ambiguous. You may have noticed how often World War II has been invoked recently, especially by those who wish to downplay the possible complications of  a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Very few of us now alive played any part in that war and yet, again and again, we hear or see ‘we managed this or that during the War so we can cope with x or y.’ Actually, we didn’t do any such thing; our parents and grandparents did, and I am far from sure they would approve our hijacking of their story for our own ends today. The myth of Britain standing alone against the dark forces of Nazism is a powerful one containing elements of both truth and exaggeration beyond the scope of this post to analyse. What I would question, however, is its appropriateness as an argument in the Brexit debate. To me, it is slightly absurd and can come perilously close to demonising others. It is what I would call an ambiguous myth with elements of fiction in it.

I know some readers will take my introductory illustrations as the subject of this post. They aren’t, but I hope they will help with understanding something less easily examined because most of us don’t often reflect on the stories that make up part of our inner landscape. I want to ask whether there are some religious myths that are having an equally powerful but possibly distorting influence on our lives as Christians and more particularly as Catholics. Take, for example, our idea of a kind of Golden Age Catholicism which we locate in a time other than our own (of course) and which, amazingly, seems to reflect all our own preferences and prejudices. Thus, we have scraps over the liturgy, vestments, devotions, church art and architecture, music and what you will. The essential element in all these conflicts is the fact that we are right and everyone else is wrong, and we have history, or at least our favourite interpretation of it (our myth), on our side to prove it. The results can be disastrous.

The history of the Church is full of examples of misunderstandings and misapplied zeal. At the moment, for example, there is an attempt by some to make everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand. Now, there are some good reasons for that, but the way in which some people are presenting their case is so irreverent and accusatory that it undermines their position. It is, quite literally, hateful. Unfortunately, under the guise of a concern for reverence we can all become hugely irreverent. Our desire to impose our own vision on others can extend even to the most personal element in anyone’s life, their prayer. I have myself been taken to task for not praying in the way that some well-meaning folk think I should (I am not a Carmelite nor a Jesuit and find Fr Baker’s simple, old-fashioned, indeed very medieval, way of prayer much more natural to me than anything more structured). 

In monastic life the myths by which we live tend to be more subtle. Our founding fathers or mothers all had to undergo great hardships and trials at the beginning (mainly true) and encountered much opposition (not always true) but won through in the end to live in perfect peace and amity with their local bishop and powerful personages (if only!). But the myth is important and helps to shape the character of the community and define its values. It is when it ceases to be a help and becomes a hindrance that we have to be careful. The community living off its past reputation for holiness or the activities in which it once engaged can prevent its current members from being fully open to what the Holy Spirit is asking of it now. For instance, we were early adopters of an internet-based hospitality in which the production of free audio books for the blind and visually-impaired was a significant element. That is not the case today. Technology moves on at an astonishing rate and religious institutes with more resources than are available to us have recognized the potential of web-based activities. We have ceased to produce audio books and are looking again at how we use the internet to reach out to people. We have no plans to give up our online ministry, but we know we must adapt to changing times and circumstances, not cling rigidly to the past. There must be no compromise about our primary aim, which is to seek God, but integrating that search with our service of others requires thought and prayer and will inevitably involve mistakes of one kind or another. The myth must be re-assessed.

I hope I have written enough to suggest a few questions. What are the myths by which you live, either as an individual or as a family — or perhaps as some other entity, e.g. a business? Do they help, or do they imprison you in a past or an attitude that is not genuinely life-giving? In other words, do your own myths encourage you to go forward into an uncertain future or do they hold you back, fearful of what may lie ahead? How does grace come into the picture? As summer comes slowly to an end, the idea of fruitfulness comes to the fore. Oughtn’t it to play a part in our own lives, too?

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19 thoughts on “The Myths By Which We Live”

  1. As ever, thank you for a stimulating challenge. Myths abound, and some are within our ability to bring change. Having been kindly invited to write the content for a Benefice website, the starting point was to enable people who had either stumbled on the site, or were positively enquiring, to explore without the challenge of finding someone to ask. What do we believe meant Roman Williams brief interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer. What might it be like to come into Church meant a brief, positive account of how Services are experienced. Being a Godparent not only described the Service, but also how to nurture the faith of that child.
    Small steps, but perhaps necessary in a country where a generation has lost its natural contact with the Church, and yet feels that loss.

  2. Such a wonderful piece. I was infuriated recently by yet another pronouncement about women must not preach in church. But when I had calmed down I remembered all your blogs, many of which I retweet on my church’s twitter account (which I run) and realised that your words of wisdom – which are never ‘preachy’ have far more effect than many a dull sermon which so many of us have endured. Thank you.

  3. Immensely helpful and encouraging. I have been caught in a debate, internal in the main, over the past year where I have found myself questioning many of the ‘myths’, both religious and political, which govern society. I am gradually evolving a personal point of view which helps me come to terms with my concerns. It is of great help to hear your comments – I do not seek to control the world merely to make sense of my little bit.

  4. This is a very stimulating post, thank you. I think that all the myths by which I lived 30 years or so ago have been exploded into smithereens – family, home, church, career, health -nothing is as it was. At the times when these eruptions occurred, life was extremely painful. I mourned for what had gone as for a loved one. I had no choice in the matter. But gradually the strange sense grew that I was now free, like I imagine a chick feels breaking out of its egg. All around shattered egg shell, but I could breathe properly. Now I can say with deep gratitude „ Thank you, dear Lord, for the wonderful life you have given me instead“.
    Don‘t know if this makes sense in context!

    • It does. ‘When I became a man, I put away childish things,’ says St Paul. We outgrow some myths, see a deeper meaning in others. Bl. Henry Newman recognized that perfection here below means to change often.

  5. Dear Sister Catherine, a welcome reflective piece, which asks so many questions both of us as individuals and as members of a rapidly evolving society. There are so many aspects of our lives which need constant questioning for relevance if nothing else. Being a Christian is more than a way of life or thinking. It’s more than not harming others or the world we live in. I cannot necessarily put my finger on our purpose. Perhaps this is because l am tired and my grey matter needs rest.
    I will pray for answers and more importantly for your health and wellbeing. God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you.

  6. Unfortunately the attempts by some to force reception of Holy Communion on the tongue, and in our case kneeling on the floor, rather than in the hand is only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve lost a number of parishioners due to the efforts of some extremists who believe themselves to be the true remnant. Letters to our previous Pastor and a meeting with our bishop have been a waste of our time.

    The one good thing to come of our sad experiences has been a reevaluation of what we formerly accepted as necessary for salvation and what are merely control tactics. In turn, my husband and I have realized we need not hold either ourselves or others to those unnecessary standards. It has been a liberating summer to say the least.

    I believe it’s healthy to move forward and included in that we have let go of the formerly taught belief the Catholic Church is in sole possession of the fullness of truth. The more we learn of other people’s religions and how they live their faith the more we grow in our own, while loving and appreciating them all the more. Holding onto myths with a death grip and trying to impose bygone era practices upon others is surely not the way to work out our salvation.

    • I am very sorry to hear of your experience. The self-appointed guardians of the tradition sometimes have more zeal than good sense or charity. I entirely agree with you about the way in which those who are not Catholics/Christians can be an inspiration and often put the rest of us to shame. That said, I do believe that the fullness of revelation is to be found in the Catholic Church — it is why I am still a Catholic despite many things I find difficult or frankly unacceptable. It sounds as though you and Harold are in the throes of a painful but ultimately grace-led journey. I pray that the Lord accompanies you every step of the way.

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