The boxer’s faith makes interviewers squirm but is intrinsic to her world view, her personality and her right hook
THE OLYMPIC victory and homecoming of Katie Taylor has been one of the most telling episodes of Irish public reality in quite a while. Before our eyes, Katie became the centre of a drama in which our culture’s developing understanding of human life and possibility became briefly visible.
Were the implications less serious, it would have been entertaining to observe the squirming of sports presenters and journalists confronted by Katie’s matter-of-fact understanding of the centrality of God in her life, their discomfiture as she expressed her gratitude for the contribution to her success of the prayers of other believers.
Each time, it was as though she had not spoken or had said something else – as though she had been talking about her training regime or wittering about the thrill of winning a medal. Her interlocutor would jump upon some smaller dimension of what she had just said, as though terrified that the “religious” dimension of Katie Taylor might cause the medal to melt.
If, instead of referring repeatedly to Jesus, Katie had referenced her aunt Margaret, or Richard Dawkins, we can be certain that there would have been lots of follow-up questions, and that the newspapers next day would have provided chapter and verse of the life, times and perspectives of the credited mentor.
But it was as if Jesus had never been mentioned, as if each of us who had heard Katie Taylor speak His name had been suffering from some odd tic of hearing that had made some other word (perhaps “busier” or “easier”) seem to come out as “Jesus”.
They tell us that Katie is a “simple” and “humble” girl. Allow me to translate: “Katie is a great girl when it comes to the boxing. We wish she were more like us and did not have her head stuffed with this simple-minded stuff about Jesus, but in the circumstances we are prepared to overlook this eccentricity.
“Normally we would insist she keep her religious beliefs to herself, but we are tolerant people and, since she is the most successful Irish sportswoman for aeons, will not make an issue of it. Please understand, though, that in our endorsement of her there is no approval of the delusions which she, in her simplicity, insists upon purveying.”
When I look at and listen to Katie, I do not detect simplicity, nor is “humble” a word that springs to mind, anymore than it might in respect of Muhammad Ali. The word that occurs is “grace”, followed shortly by “centred”, and “whole”. I see a woman inspired by a singular, irreducible idea, who as a consequence shines more brightly than gold.
There is nothing simple here: such certainty about reality requires long reflection, contemplation and asking. Humility? Perhaps – if you have in mind the idea of a human creature contemplating her place amid the dizzying firmament and understanding what power really means.
Katie Taylor understands her own heart. In her I see an intensely lived humanity of a kind being rendered atypical by the crudity and stupidity of contemporary culture. Katie is totally at ease in the world because she has come to understand reality as coherent and positive. This understanding is not an extraneous, add-on element of her personality but intrinsic to it, generating her smile, her ease, her right hook.
When she refers to Jesus there is no hint of piety or preaching. Her tone doesn’t change or shift gears. There is always the sense that she is speaking about something obvious. And when she thanks her supporters for their prayers it is as though she has never contemplated the possibility that she could have won without them. The whole thing is a seamless exposition of an understanding of reality in which boxing is just one element – and by no means the most important one.
Occasionally nowadays, the culturally imposed banality and meaninglessness of Irish public reality is punctuated by some famous sporting achievement, provoking a massive expression of vicarious triumphalism.
In the disproportionate commotion of the occasion it escapes mention that such moments increasingly serve as a destination point for the collective imagination, generating a feeling that, with the addition of injudicious quantities of alcohol, seems vaguely to pass for a “reward” for the attrition of the quotidian grind.
An Olympic medal, or a creditable appearance by an Irish team in the finals of some international competition, is proposed as something fundamental, rather than a mere passing cause for celebration. This enhanced sense of meaning can be detected not just in the intensity of the partying but in the repeated invocation of the concept of “hope”, which the sporting victory is deemed to have delivered.
And it is indeed as if such successes occur to provide a kind of hope by proxy for the entire population, for whom more enduring forms of hope are nowadays culturally inaccessible. Sport, in this schema, stands as a shield against the nothingness that is the logical end of the collective thought process, a fragile, short-lived distraction that usually ends in drunken tears.
But here’s the news, folks: the medal belongs to nobody but Katie, who alone seems to know that it’s but a token of the embrace that enfolds her.