Posts Tagged ‘Humanist Celebrant’

Humanist musings

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

I’m loving being a Humanist celebrant. There’s something wonderful about it for me, doing something I love, something that has meaning, something I’m good at, something that each day, for each ceremony, for each couple or family or individual, is different.

It helps me to live in the here and now. Celebrating this particular couple’s marriage, or this unique family’s new baby, or this distinctive person’s life.

It’s working and living in the real. It’s inclusive of everyone. Being with people crying with joy – what a privilege that is! Crafting ceremonies appropriate to each couple or family or person. And then from planning to execution, celebrating the moment, conducting the words and the readings and the music and the rituals. Yes, living in the now.

Humanists ask questions. That is where we start. We never shy, or should never shy, from asking our questions. We endeavour to think for ourselves, trying never to let others think for us. We choose. We decide. We act. We create. We are responsible. That’s what we try to do anyway. Fail, of course; and probably often. But we keep trying, keep asking.

The couple whose wedding I conducted today chose wonderful readings. Stimulating. Different. Thoughtful. Reflective. Moving. Dramatic. There were lots of moist eyes in the room. The hairs were standing on the back of my neck during one of the readings, the poem ‘It Is Here’ by Harold Pinter, which ends:

What did we hear?

It was the breath we took when we first met.

Listen. It is here.

Denis Green, Marist priest, RIP

Friday, October 9th, 2015

DenisGlendalough A man whom I loved, Denis Green, Marist priest, died on Wednesday night 6 October 2015. He will be buried today. He was the priest whose distinctive, lovely voice forms the backbone of my RTE Radio One Documentary, From Belief to Unbelief. He was with me when my father died in 1981. He helped me break the psychological umbilical cord with my mother. Aged 94, he was, to the end, the youngest man I have ever known. He was open. He was himself. He was engaging. He was genuinely interested in people and ideas and books. He was devout. He was, every inch of him, an actor. From the first moment he lectured us in novitiate back in 1980 he stood before us as one who might have leaped from a Shakespearean stage. He loved life. He loved people.

He was one of the worst singers known to human history, but that never stopped him singing! A memory: some 40 seminarians doubled over with uncontrollable laughter in the chapel at Mount St  Mary’s, Milltown, as Denis attempted with abject ineptitude to sing the Eucharistic Prayer.

His infamy as a singer was very closely matched by his reputation as a driver. On one occasion after I was astonished still to be alive I felt something needed to be said.

‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re a good driver, Denis?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t believe anyone ever did.’

‘Think about it.’

And he was the kind of guy you could say something like that to – i.e., be entirely honest with – and nothing would harm the relationship.

He told me years ago that he wanted ‘How Great Thou Art’ sung at his funeral. Yesterday, before his coffin was brought from the chapel at Mount St Mary’s – the same chapel in which his gorgeous voice reverberates in my documentary – I told the congregation gathered there that Denis had told me that he wanted it sung at his funeral. And I, atheist and Humanist celebrant, appealed to those present to sing it with gusto and I led the singing and everyone joined in and we did him proud. The place came alive again, Denis’s final farewell to Mount St Mary’s.

Born on 11 June, 1921, in Clontarf, Dublin, he was a pupil at Catholic University School (CUS), Leeson Street, and he worked there as a chaplain until very recently. CUS is closed today as a mark of respect to him. He entered the Marist novitiate in 1940 and was ordained on 23 March 1947. In 1952 he was offered a place at the Sorbonne but he accepted a place in Cambridge! He worked in England from 1955 to 1975, as a teacher, headmaster and as Provincial of the then English Province of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers). He came back to Ireland in 1975 and he was one of four priests in charge of us in my novitiate 1980-1981. He also taught at Chanel College, Coolock;  was associated with the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow; with St Killian’s German School, Dublin; and he was for a while Secretary General of the Marist Fathers in Rome.

Denis, I loved you. You were a human being! You lived a good life! You were open and thoughtful, creative and caring, affectionate and loving. Goodbye my friend.


I feel like the luckiest man alive

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

When I was in my teens and an ardent believer and I wanted to be a priest, one of my good reasons for wanting to be a priest was to be with people at key moments in their lives – like birth, weddings and bereavement. I wanted to engage with the real needs of people.
After my nine years in religious life, when I walked away from not only my priestly path but, in time, from all religious beliefs, I assumed that gone was my dream of being with people at core turning points in their lives.
I spent five years as a teacher. And I was privileged to work at St Bonaventure’s comprehensive boys’ school at the heart of the East End of London, under the leadership of the now knighted Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was subsequently made head of the English schools’ inspectorate, OFSTED.
But I knew that remaining a teacher for the rest of my life wasn’t what I wanted to do, and so I left teaching after five years.
For the guts of the next 20 years I worked as a journalist, columnist and author, in a self-employed capacity, enjoying being my own boss and working from home. I spent the guts of three years during that time as a publisher too. And then I took time out to delve into my own story, how I shifted from belief to unbelief and I celebrated that story, or part of it, in my RTE Radio 1 documentary, From Belief to Unbeleif, and in an as yet unpublished manuscript of a memoir.
And then, earlier this year, I thought about becoming a Humanist celebrant. And that is why I feel like the luckiest man on earth. If, as a teenager, I wanted to be with people at key turning points in their lives, helping them to express sorrow and joy, laughter and tears, I have discovered that I can do that as a Humanist celebrant. And I could do so without having to pretend I believed in religious fantasies that lost any claim on my allegiance, acceptance or intelligence.
As a humanist celebrant there is no nonsense about ‘ontological change’ happening at ordination. I’m a regular human being just like everyone else. And I don’t have to pretend to have the ear of a deity! Or to know his will! Or to interpret his ‘revealed word’ accurately. I’ve outgrown all that nonsense. All that superstition. I know that we have only one life and that it can be a wonderful life, and that the birth of each child warrants celebration. And that the marriage of two people is usually a happy time, and that it’s OK for people to be sad at weddings too. And I have been privileged to facilitate funerals – celebrations of a life ended, at which I have witnessed laughter and tears, joy and sadness, classical music and hard rock!
Now in my fifties, I realize that being a Humanist celebrant uses the skills and talents I’ve been lucky enough to have: my original desire to be with people at key moments of their lives; my writing skills in drafting ceremonies that are meaningful and personal for the people concerned; my teaching skills of speaking and engaging with a group of people; my empathy and compassion and listening skills; and my gratitude for being able to do this work which I love.

Humanist Celebrant – Joe Armstrong

Monday, July 29th, 2013

I am very happy to say that I have been accredited as a Humanist Celebrant by the Humanist Association of Ireland. It’s like an aspect of my life coming full circle – having trained for the Catholic priesthood, spent nine years in religious life, left, stopped believing in God, given up on the idea of being with people at key moments in their lives like births, marriages and deaths, and now, unexpectedly, finding myself able again, with integrity, to celebrate these turning points in people’s lives again.

When I was moving beyond religious faith but still attending religious ceremonies I often used to try to deconstruct the religious content and language of baptisms, weddings and funerals. I tried to translate them in my head, quietly and privately, so that the ceremonies could mean something to me. What was the essential human meaning behind the tissue of myth of religion? There was essential meaning there and I sensed that it was a pity that it should be clouded by religious ritual, language and daft beliefs. I wondered if they could be stripped of the nonsense and if we could just celebrate the human moments they signified: a new life born to us! a new loving union of two people committing their lives to each other publicly! a life ended, that life celebrated and mourned in equal measure, and without the unnecessary facade of an afterlife.

I conducted my first funeral last Friday. I feel that Humanist funerals do great justice to a live well lived. A person attending a Humanist funeral who did not know the deceased will have a good sense of what that person was like by the end of the ceremony. After a whole life well lived, surely it’s the least we can do, to honour someone who has died. And to remember the deceased. And it’s such a relief to be able to do that without nonsensical talk of ‘sin’ or an ‘afterlife’. Death is the most natural thing. All living things and beings die. Nothing and nobody lasts forever. And so when we die let’s be adult enough to see death as the end but to recognize that we loved the person who died and wish to honour their life and their passing.

I very much look forward to conducting naming ceremonies for families and couples welcoming new life into their midst. It is important to celebrate new birth, a new life, a new name, a new individual. It is a time of joy and wonder, a time of celebration and delight. And we can welcome new human beings without having to believe in nonsensical beliefs, such as that a baby is born in ‘original sin’. What nonsense! But let not our distaste for old mythologies discourage us from having a naming or welcoming ceremony because ceremonies are important. They are key moments in our lives.

And, yes, let is celebrate marriages. Courageous couples who publicly commit their love to one another. Love is what it’s all about, as we know. And so it’s important to celebrate love publicly and not only privately. The community gathers to acknowledge and support a new couple in their love for one another, and to publicly mark the love between two people which manifests in a new public commitment. Even in Catholic theology, the groom administers the sacrament to the bride and the bride administers it to the groom. They are the ministers of the sacrament. The priest is only there as a witness. Likewise, in Humanist ceremonies, the bride and groom marry each other and everyone else is there as a privileged witness of the loving commitment made by the couple.

Love needs support. Marriage needs support. Couples need to know that love is indeed the way, and that love can and does survive. That love is a beacon in what can at times be the stormy seas of life. And that love is worth it. Money, success, power, pleasure, health…all these things will end. But love survives.

What a privilege to be able to conduct weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals! It is an honour to be with people at such moments, at such turning points in their lives. Each is a threshold through which lives pass, changing almost everything. Each is a human moment, a singular moment, unique to that person, that couple, that family; and yet also shared by all humanity.

I look forward to helping couples and families and loved ones to craft and create ceremonies that are unique to them at key moments of their lives.

For more about Humanist Ceremonies, see Humanist Association of Ireland