A European cultural Summer
Can cultural exchange and open, honest dialogue about our faith-inspired convictions draw us together rather than drive us apart ?
The mounting international tension which has marked 2014 – and we are only at the half-way stage – has been cast by many as symptomatic of a deeper clash of cultures, of Weltanschaungen in frontal assault on one another. All too often religious convictions are part of the toxic mix. However, celebration of our different cultures can widen our horizons; so much of that culture has become common (and not just thanks to Facebook and the web) that cultural exchange has become an exercise in soft power where music, literature (poetry in particular) and the visual arts enable people who think they are so different to realise just how much they jointly own.
Summer is a time of festivals. And festivals – be they Festspiele, summer schools or tournaments – fuel inter-cultural diplomacy.
Fifty five years ago the first Yeats International Summer School was held in the Irish town of Sligo (my late father one of its leading lights) and for over half a century it has drawn to one of Ireland’s most scenic towns scholars and students from all over the world to deepen their understanding of W.B. Yeats (1869 – 1939), Nobel Literature Laureate and commonly regarded as the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century, and the countryside which inspired his verse. The Sligo venture went on to spawn other international summer schools and festivals across Ireland, all characterised by animated discussion long into the Celtic twilight.
The English summer opens on the May bank holiday with the great Literary Festival in the Welsh border town of Hay on Wye (it has more second-hand book stores than any other town in the UK) which describes itself as the occasion for “a big conversation about discovery and intellectual adventure” and as the days begin to shorten and the temperature drops a degree or two, the cultural festival to cap all others, with fringe events that rival the main features of the celebration, opens north of Hadrian’s Wall in Edinburgh.
Festivals also dot the cultural landscape of continental Europe across the summer season. It is sufficient to mention but a few: there is the Salsburg Festspiele, with the operas of the town’s native son W.A.Mozart in prima fila alongside the full range of the classical repertoire; the Torhout/Werchter Rock Festival (at which U – 2 made one of their first mainland Europe appearance); and there is the Bayreuth Festspiele, held this year between 25 July and 28 August, which draws lovers of the operas of Richard Wagner from across the world.
Religious festivals too bring enormous numbers of people together to pray, sing, process and share a common table together. There is the Liborifest in Paderborn (26 July – 3 August), the feast of St. James in Compostella (25 June), and the annual confluence of foot-weary pilgrim streams from all over Poland for the celebration of the Assumption (15 August) at the shrine of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa.
Does this have anything to do with European integration? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Festivals heighten awareness of our common cultural heritage and the values which underlie it, they enable local people to share their pride in their town or region with visitors from other parts of Europe or beyond, they enable us to realise that enjoying ourselves together, singing together and praying together facilitates our understanding of one another, and they put us all in touch with the many components of our complex identities.
A fresh appeal was made by President José Manuel Barroso at the Senior Religious Leaders’ Meeting (10 June) for a re-launch of the search for Europe’s “soul”. It was almost his parting shot as his mandate as Commission President reached its term. Senor Barroso might think of booking in to the Great Southern Hotel in Sligo from 27 July to 4 August and registering for the 55th Yeats International Summer School.
Patrick H. Daly