I was seventeen and in Leaving Cert. year when I was thrown out of Religion Class. The teacher’s pathetic attempts to answer (or evade) our questions left me bored, frustrated. I laughed. Ended up in the Headmistress’ s office … I don’t remember a punishment but I do remember swearing that I would do something about the way Religion was taught in schools.
Before the days of the CAO we could apply to many colleges at once and I had picked UCD to study English and French, St Patrick’s College Drumcondra to pursue a career in Primary School Teaching and now added the Mater Dei Institute of Education to study Theology and the accompanying subjects that would qualify me to teach RE.
I was nervous about it really. Friends said things like “Are you going to be a nun or something?” And I thought “something” but wasn’t sure what it meant. My father thought those kind of studies better suited to men who were to become priests and besides it might lead to a nervous breakdown. It didn’t. In fact, quite the opposite.
What kind of person would study Theology?
I have asked myself this question many times. My answer always brings me back to the idea of searching. Traditionally theology was understood as faith seeking understanding. And I guess I have always wondered what’s it all about? Whether that meant life or faith or my own human existence, I have always sought answers to life’s deeper questions. “Oh No! The seekers are here again” my nephew would moan when his mother and I got down to the serious business of conversation about what really mattered.
Theology which means the study of God (theos and logos) would expand over the years for me and become a study of the God-Human-World relationship. My understanding would change as I encountered the critiques of Liberation theology inspired by Latin America’s quest to see justice as inextricably linked to the study and praxis of theology.
Feminist thought would radically challenge me to re-consider theology as thealogy - where the image of God was seen as female (theas), and ecological theology would bring my thinking into a world that saw the divine embodied in the natural world.
Further studies in theology would help me understand the importance of hermeneutics - (the philosophy and method of text interpretation) - a word that my students joked about for years - so much a part of my vocabulary and teaching would it become in the decades that followed.
After more than forty years I can say that what I learned in those early days of studying theology has been hugely influential in my life and career. Learning to understand and appreciate the importance of ritual, symbolism, interpretation, narrative, sacred poetry, meditation and celebration are elements that I have continued to study all through my life. And they have taken me in many different directions.
Beginning my Career
As a young graduate I taught for three years in a large girls ‘secondary school in North Dublin, and when my second child was born I worked part time for a couple of years in community and adult education giving occasional classes and seminars, supervising teaching practice with students studying theology or training for teaching at second level.
Appointed lecturer in Religious Studies in St Patrick’s College Drumcondra - I would work there for almost thirty years, lecturing in feminist theology, liberation theology, Celtic spirituality, sacramental and liturgical theology. I also spent time working on curriculum development and was largely responsible for developing the theology modules for the BA in humanities, and also contributed to developing and teaching the curriculum for a Masters in Religious Education.
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A career in theology encourages one to develop many different aspects of oneself - both at a personal and academic level. I completed further Master’s degrees in Theology in Maynooth, Drama Studies and Creative Writing at UCD. My PhD thesis through NUI Galway was an exploration of the soul in contemporary Irish theatre, and was later published as the book Sacred Play.
Alongside this academic work I also found time to pursue personal development and training in Naked Voice work, Meditation, Poetry and Sacred Clowning. All this work fed naturally into my teaching life and I am sure enriched both my students and myself - and of course influenced those conversations with my sister where poetry and buddhist meditation teachers became part of our soul dialogues.
Where can theology take you?
Friends and students of mine who studied theology have gone on to variety of careers. Teachers became principals, others became guidance counsellors or psychotherapists. Some became involved in curriculum development, were appointed diocesan advisors or went into journalism.
Other career paths my peers have followed include mindfulness teaching, chaplaincy (in schools, colleges, hospitals), working in retreats and with National Government Organisations.
High profile people whose initial studies were in theology include Dr. Linda Hogan, Vice Provost of Trinity College Dublin and Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan and Dr. Katherine Zappone who spearheaded the national campaign for Marriage Equality in Ireland - Ann Louise and Katherine, who are both theologians, met while pursuing Doctoral Studies in Theology in Boston College in the 1980s.
(Both St Patrick's College and Mater Dei are now colleges of DCU)
Poetry Doc ~ www.anneforeilly.com
Dr. Anne F. O'Reilly