First person

What happens when someone raised fervently Catholic gives up the pomp and ceremony and places her faith in modest, secular teachings? By Brigid Delaney.

Believing in secularism at The School of Life

The School of Life in Bourke Street, Melbourne.
The School of Life in Bourke Street, Melbourne.

A few years ago I went to two funerals in a week. The first was humanist, and the man’s achievements in business and public policy were eulogised. The second was Catholic and, other than the woman’s name, scant details of her life were mentioned. The emphasis was on the next life. It was impersonal but also reassuring: we would all be meeting Bernadette in heaven. The funeral did not mark the end – the journey had just begun. The priest’s mood could almost be described as upbeat.

The benefits of a Catholic education aren’t raised much in these days of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Schools are where the paedophile priests and brothers find their quarry. But when it comes to instilling a sense of meaning, a Catholic education is good at flooding the zone. There are the sacraments – first communion, first confession, confirmation. They are celebrations that occasion new dresses, a small party and, more importantly, the absorption into something larger, more ancient and grave than you, as an eight-year-old, can possibly comprehend. 

Each year – the summers of Advent, the autumns of Lent; Palm Sunday, Shrove Tuesday, washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, the way Good Friday always drags – no shops open, nothing on TV except the hospital appeal – the gruesome pantomime of stations of the cross, Jesus falling for a third time, the way Easter Saturday feels like a day whose breath is being held, and the chocolate egg hunt on the Sunday. 

There are the weekly masses and sermons, and the readings that all contain moral lessons, that all address the question, How should a person be? Each shape the response. When you emerge from a Catholic childhood, everything thrums with meaning. 

1 . De Botton’s mission

Alain de Botton has lately been motivated to impart lessons and moral guidance, without the God. His book Religion for Atheists argues that we should take the best of what religion offers – the moral lessons, concept of service and the rituals that give us a sense of occasion and meaning – and incorporate them into secular life. 

The alternative can be a sort of chaos – building your own catechism like a magpie builds a nest – using bits and pieces of Eastern philosophy melded with Beyoncé lyrics, serving “isms” or else descending into nihilism. 

Religion is very good – and very comprehensive – at providing the answer to the question, How should a person be?

And de Botton? His mission – to fill the gap in the market for moral and spiritual guidance without God – may sound ambitious, but his fulfilment of it is modest, grassroots and very accessible. You just have to sign up for a class.

The School of Life is de Botton’s answer to church. Started in London, the school aims to bring a community of like-minded people together who “want to learn how to live wisely and well”. It’s first Australian branch is located at the down-at-heel end of Bourke Street, Melbourne, near Southern Cross Station and the Savoy Tavern – a venue that had been boarded up for decades and once hosted lunchtime strip shows. 

Once inside, the School of Life channels a sort of muted Scandinavian vitality – blond wood, fresh flowers, steaming pots of tea, a magazine rack that heaves with copies of Dumbo Feather

2 . Ready for class

Day 1, term 2 and I’m here for the class on How to Realise Your Potential.

It’s a rainy Monday night, 6 o’clock. My fellow Lifers file in. What does a person with unrealised potential look like? Actually pretty good. Young, mostly – and well dressed – wearing clothes from places that sell plain, tasteful T-shirts for $100. 

The teacher tells us, in a self-deprecating tone, she is from the “People’s Republic of Fitzroy”. 

Several people remove Moleskines from bags to take notes. The men are bearded and there are two young women who have dyed their hair grey. One boy here is in year 9. I cannot help but feel jealous of his potential. Even if he has no talent, he has years.

We have to go around and say why we are here. 

Why am I here? To write a story. But something else. I now know that I will be having the first type of funeral, not the second. There is no time to waste when you stop believing in an afterlife. And that is what I tell the class.

There are a couple of other recovering Catholics who now believe in no life but this one, but also several people who have emerged lately from some sort of personal trauma. Some talk of coming out of marriages and depressions, sometimes both at once. Starting again, the prospect of finding “potential” is potent to them. 

But what is potential? Is it something external to you – like a horse that you jump on and ride to the place where you are destined to be, to your better life? Or is it something in you – like a ghost self, a mist, that can only be grasped by going inward? Or is it like a natural resource that can be exploited but only has a finite capacity: once you use it up, it’s gone?

I had assumed, wrongly, that there would be a romantic cast to the issue of potential – that that’s where we would be headed tonight, into discussions of love and how the “one”, or whatever, could flush out some latent hinterland, some secret self, your hidden potential. 

But this is 2014, not 1814, or 1968 – and it is work, not love, where we harbour our desires, where our greatest investment lies, where we draw our status from, where we are most likely to be fulfilled or let down.

3 . Unleashing potential

As we go around the circle, for many Lifers it is the prosaic domain of employment that is the key to finding potential – or unleashing it, as the common expression goes, as if it were something dangerous, that may possibly bite, or escape, and therefore must be restrained. Meaningful work is the key to reaching potential, and your job can either be a yoke or a liberation depending on how well suited you are to it.

The teacher knows this and talks to this – the hours we put in at our offices, the huge chunks of our life that we spend in the workplace, the frustration when our potential selves are mismatched with our occupation. You may feel you have the soul of a ceramic artist, or an activist, or an actor, but in reality you are a call centre worker, or an HR person, or a systems analyst. What to do?

The teacher asks us to write down “what do I want to be” and “how” but advises us that “a lot of our sense of failure is around ideas of success that are white, wealthy, male or Mother Teresa, but there is a middle ground. You need to work with what you’ve got.”

She then recommended several TED talks dealing with status anxiety that we could watch at home.

Next up we worked in pairs to discuss lists we had made that detailed things that made us happiest in life. From this our partner should be able to glean any common themes that may indicate where happiness and potential lie. 

My list was heavy on “swimming in the ocean during the rain” – an activity I find more delightful than any in the world, but as far as I’m aware, is not something I can turn into employment unless as some human life buoy in a stormy sea.

My partner liked long solitary rides on his motorbike. I suggested this indicates he’s an introvert and should quit his job and work for himself at home. 

He said he’d give it some thought.

In the break, over very good pastries and bowls of nuts, we discuss other School of Life classes. One woman said she was nervous about attending the class on How to Face Death, but that it turned out okay, that it wasn’t too frightening, that there were even some young people there. 

I guessed that the woman wasn’t a Catholic, where from baptism we are steeped in dark material, where even in the memories of climbing into my nanna’s feather bed and the feel of my cheek on her flannel nightgown, there is always this forever overhead, above the bed: Christ sinewy and sweating, slick with the pain, blood down this face, nails through his hands. Death for the religious is so central to “how should a person be” – and there is de Botton, hovering around the edges of it. But at least he’s there. That’s where the action is. 

After the break, we talk about potential and success. “Success needs to match your values,” says our teacher, referring to the list we had written. “Otherwise it’s not success.”

4 . Finding meaning

I’m on the Warrnambool train with a friend of my parents. I tell her I am writing about the School of Life. “Oh, that sounds really out there – really New Agey.” She moves her arms around as if she were belly dancing to accentuate the strangeness of it. 

Not as out there as where we are from, I feel like saying. Not as out there as Drinking His Blood and Eating His Body.

The School of Life as de Botton envisages it may at first blush appear ambitious – a replacement catechism for the secular age. But in reality it is as modest as its shopfronts: be the best you can be; find meaning – if not in your work, then in your relationships or in nature. At its outer reaches, for the secular adventurer, there is How to Face Death.

I like its modesty.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 11, 2014 as "Believe it or not".

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Brigid Delaney is the author of the novel Wild Things.

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