Posted by: stelladuffy | December 24, 2012

not throwing the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater …

Anyone who follows this blog regularly will know I’ve been practicing the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin (SGI version) since late 1986, and one of the things I often say, in speaking about faith – and which tends to surprise people – is how fortunate I was to be brought up in a Catholic family.
Admittedly ours was Catholic-lite, both parents had been divorced before they married each other, my mother didn’t convert from high church CofE, and while we always went to church on Sundays we were not a novenas on Friday evenings or first Fridays or even mass-on-every-Holy-Day family. We went to church every Sunday, both of my parents were solid believers, my father refusing communion to the last (because he’d been divorced) even when the young and modern priest assured him it was probably ok. (Though he died at a mere 67, I’m not sure my dad was ever young or modern.) And aside from a couple of tricky ones, the nuns I was taught by at secondary school were more interested in us getting a good education (a forerunner of feminist nuns in many ways) than in hellfire and brimstone.
So yes, I had a far easier version of Catholicism than many people I’ve met in my life in London (I suspect our being in NZ had something to do with this too, the reformers tending to place themselves further from the Vatican perhaps?) but I still had to deal with the Church’s absurd views on contraception (why do Catholic boys tend to stay Catholic longer than Catholic girls? Because Catholic boys don’t get a period at 11/12/13 and realise they’re going to have to make choices very soon that will affect their own body, and they’re going to need to be their own choices), and abortion and homosexuality … All that stuff.
And it put me off for very many years, sent me on my quest to find a form of spirituality my own heart accorded with, and I was lucky to find my practice all alone (ie, unusually no one introduced me to it), and have been practicing ever since.
BUT, back to the gratitude …
It’s just gone midday on Christmas Eve in London, very early Christmas morning in NZ. And when I was a child we always went to midnight mass. As I said, we always went to Sunday mass as well, but midnight mass was so special. This was Tokoroa, so it’s not as if it was ever swelteringly hot, but it was dark, and it was cool out, and we’d all turn up at the church, families we saw there all year, and others who only came at Christmas and Easter, people rolling in from pubs and from parties, the aisles and the back of the church full. There was a Samoan choir as well as the standard church one (not all of them pakeha/palagi, just not specifically Samoan), and carols might be sung in English or Samoan or Maori, and my mother loved the old fashioned English carols of her own childhood, and my dad didn’t really sing but he’d sing in church, and there were lights and smiles and singing and a procession bringing the baby Jesus into the manger up by the alter. And it didn’t matter how young I was, it was big and shiny and lovely and full – full of people. Full of communion. People in community.
And that’s what I’m grateful for. The sense of spirit that praying/singing/celebrating together gives us, which I now believe is a sense of human spirit. I’m grateful I had that every Sunday of my childhood, that we had a modern NZ Catholic church with gorgeous stained glass windows and a Samoan choir, that my family’s beliefs, my mother and father’s fairly old-school Christianity, gave me an idea of that which is other. Which I believe to be utterly human (and my humanist Buddhist practice does too) and also transcendental. Transcending the everyday and lifting us – and in that lifting, encouraging us to be better people, better neighbours, better humans. And – being human – we get that best in community, when it’s not just about our own families, those we already feel a sense of caring for, but others too. When we are encouraged to extend our compassion beyond just those we already love, already care for, to those we don’t know at all. And even, Buddhistly, (Christly!), to those we actively dislike.
Sure, there’s tons wrong with the way traditional faith is practiced – and enforced – by this pope and plenty before him (and yes, I would say that wouldn’t I?), but I refuse to throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater – I’m glad and grateful I grew up in a family where a sense of spirit was important, I’m glad and grateful my mother loved Christmas and when I put some of her decorations on my tree, and I’m glad and grateful for all those shining, bright, choral, communal midnight masses.
(And the mince pie and glass of sherry when we got home at 1.30am – yes, even when I was tiny, we start ’em young in the Duffys …)
Merry Christmas one and all.



  1. This is better put, I feel, because of the personal story underpinning the beliefs and outlook you have. I do not have a problem with you, or anyone, celebrating humanity, if you believe it deserves to be celebrated and nor do I have a problem with you engaging in festive rituals created by man to mark this religious festival on this arbitrary day which coincides with an historic pagan festival. Have your fill of sherry and have one on me! Enjoy the aesthetics and the joining together with loved ones and others to achieve a communal sense of a desire for peace (whether that is achievable or not!)

    My question (and it genuinely is a question) is what has Jesus got to do with any of that?

    Putting your blog aside and looking at the Guardian article which led to you sharing this specifically with me, my confusion comes from some statements such as ‘we don’t need God to be good’. where does our mark of goodness come from? I’m not immediately alluding to a divine source but he seems to be suggesting that humans have an innate goodness we can all agree upon… that may well be the case but we also have ‘evil’ and to discern and distinguish between the two is complex, if not impossible. What was defined and accepted as ‘evil’ in the past is now not so as we change and develop and so good and bad is not a) static or b) agreed.

    His statement that we need to establish a state where we can all be different and accept one another and at the same time praise humanity with all that’s good is just ignoring the big question: why has this perfect, harmonious state not been achieved? Because, the truth is, we, as humans, can’t live side by side with people who are different because we’re afraid of difference. I don’t want to go into that point because I can go on and on (more so than usual!)

    I have no problem (genuinely) with atheists, agnostics, jews, muslims, UFO worshippers, whoever, from choosing this season to be with friends and family and to sing/celebrate/pray/whatever; the more the merrier but to do so under the name of ‘Christmas’, is an unnecessary lie (this is a strong word and I don’t mean ‘lie’ but pretence is wrong as well… forgive my lack of vocabulary today…it’s Christmas Eve and I’m tried!) Christmas’ distinction, for me, is about naming humanity’s weakness, fallibility, brokenness and violence and calling out for help. I celebrate that call being answered in the birth of baby who would reveal to us redemption of our natural human lives.

    This comment sounds antagonistic and defensive: I really don’t mean it to be. I just want to outline my questions about the Guardian article. As an ordained member of the Church of England at Christmas time I am currently facing a barrage of fragmented and confused ideas of what this festival commemorates and being asked to make everyone’s Christmasses as they would like. It’s not the commercialisation that I primarily object to, but the individualised notion of, or to put it a better way, the desire to make Christmas ‘for me’. Christmas, the mass of Christ, is about naming Christ, about recognising Christ, it’s about expressing our desire to be with and like Him. As we (C of E) try to accommodate everyone’s opinion and view I think we can easily slip into not saying anything as we try to say everything all at once. No one has to celebrate Christmas: it is a choice. You can choose to celebrate it (whatever it is) anytime.

    Please forgive my outburst against the Guardian article. I’m sure he meant well and was trying to be helpful but I don’t think it was necessary and confused matters really. It also just got to me because I’ve been writing a book exploring this issue and I’m struggling to articulate, in a thought through and intelligent way my disease with the whole societal project we’re currently involved in in the West. I am in the minority and I am fully aware of that and trying to be both prayerful patient but proactive is a difficult task.

    Thank you for contributing this article and I really do wish you, Shelley and all those you love (and should love!), a very happy ‘Christmas’ wherever and whatever you decide to do to celebrate. May you transcend the everyday and receive an inner peace. I will be preaching on grace and truth tonight and I hope you have both; grace, free undeserved gift and truth, how ever you discover it.


  2. thanks Ned. and for anyone wondering which piece Ned is speaking about it’s this (which I enjoyed), in the Guardian today :

  3. It was very mystical for me. I asked my mother to buy me your novel about Theodora (do you have Polish edition?). And I spent all free moments during Christmas with this book. And some elements of Theodora’s spiritual expiriences seemed to be very familiar. And today I found this blog and I understood everything because I am SGI member too🙂 And I am from catholic family too.
    I sent strong daimoku to meet you next year in London because I’m going to live there.
    All the best

  4. […] offers a little more nuance to the atheist writer above. Her article was interestingly named ‘Not Throwing the Baby (Jesus) Out with the Bath Water‘. In this personal account she talks about the need to be with others, to sing, celebrate and […]

  5. thank you Bart, yes, the Theodora books have been published in Poland (I think Theodora was published in thew past few months and The Purple Shroud will be in the next year or so). That’s a nice connection, though I certainly didn’t base any of Theodora’s religious experiences on my own buddhist ones, hers is a far more traditional early Christian/ascetic conversion.
    here’s a link for Polish translation (and I assume it’s probably in shops too) :

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