Friday, January 04, 2008

Band of Brothers



Pope Paul V1 died on 6th August, 1978. During his speech to the United nations Assembly on 4th October 1965 he expressed his belief that "one cannot love while holding offensive arms". Also, I recall it having been said by a lecturer at college, that the Pontiff departed from his prepared script and seemed to make a plaintive cry: "War, never again, War!"

Over the Christmas season I have watched the complete series, plus the documentary, called Band of Brothers. This latter is an acclaimed 10-part television World War II mini-series based on the book of the same title written by historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose. It was co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after their successful collaboration on the Academy Award winning WWII film, Saving Private Ryan.  This mini-series first aired in 2001 on the HBO channel.  It is a slow paced meditative series of ten episodes with each episode concentrating on the reflections of a soldier on their particular experiences of war.  Needless to say, it does not spare any details about the horrific nature of war and shows it with all its starkness and random indifference to human suffering.  A memorable episode is where one soldier (Bill Guarnere: whom we meet in the documentary) has one of his legs blown off in the Normandy forests during the depths of winter - the graphic nature of the scene with red blood on pure virgin snow along with the dismembered leg is moving.  An interesting technique (if it can be called that) is that of pertinent anonymous interviews with the actual surviving paratroopers before each episode.  It is also commendable that they chose not to name them before each series until the final Documentary where they are all named - that was a good plan indeed, and makes the viewing all the more riveting.

Band of Brothers gives the history, told with some poetic and literary licence, and outlines the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. Drawn from interviews with survivors of Easy Company, as well as soldiers' journals and letters, Band of Brothers chronicles the experiences of these young men who knew extraordinary bravery and extraordinary fear.  Easy Company (E Company) were an elite rifle company who parachuted into France early on D-Day morning, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and eventually captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden. They were also a unit that suffered enormous casualties, and whose lives became legend.

I am reminded as I write these lines of W.H. Auden's wonderful poem September 1, 1939, which he composed after hearing of Hitler's invasion of Poland.  I am copying the first three apt and moving stanzas here (There are nine stanzas altogether, and anyone interested can read the rest elsewhere.)

 

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.


Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Wherever we sit - in comfortable armchairs in a hotel, in fine sitting rooms in big houses or on a simple kitchen chair in a worker's house or, God forbid, on a wooden box in a shanty in some developing country - we are probably all "uncertain and afraid" when War is proclaimed.  I am also continuing to read Jonathan Glover's magisterial work Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.  This is one of those books which I read slowly as I must digest all he says as he writes beautifully and profoundly.  Today I read a couple of chapters on tribalism and on the sad, sorry and bloody break-up of former Yugoslavia.  The litany of crimes against humanity delineated therein was blood-curdling and horrifying to say the least - enough to give any ordinary decent human beings nightmares.  Hence, it's not a book I can stay with for long periods of time as it upsets me too much.  However, it is a deeply enriching book of deep moral and humane insight which is a great tonic for the shallowness and superficiality of the present Christmas season.

It is also salient to note that one episode of the Band of Brothers deals with the liberation of Concentration and Work Camps.  Episode 9 depicts the liberation of one such camp near a town called Landsberg.

All in all I found this series riveting viewing and taken in tandem with Glover very inspiring and insightful into the human condition.  One would almost be inclined to become a pessimist about the same human condition given these types of experiences as delineated in both media.  I'd almost be inclined to become as negative as Freud was about our essential human nature.  Heroism as depicted in Band of Brothers is realistic, all too realistic - it comes at a high price.  When the retired commander of Easy Company, Major Richard Winters is asked by his grandchildren whether he was a war hero he replies: "No, child, no, but I served with many heroes who died."  There is some food for thought there, I should imagine - especially from one such obvious hero who does not like the term.  Soldiers know what War is like and so "heroism" is much different for them than it might be for armchair soldiers.

I'll finish with a quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V from where the title for this marvellous mini-series comes. The title for the series and the book on which it is based comes from a speech delivered by Henry V of England before the Battle of Agincourt in William Shakespeare's Henry V; Act IV, Scene 3.

However, be warned, it does contain the "lies" kings like Henry V,Generals and Politicians tell - "It's sweet and fitting to die for one's country" - soldiers whom they want to go out and fight and die for their various countries.  I have already quoted the famous WW I poet, Wilfred Owen's famous poem against war in these pages where he excoriates those who tell the old lie: "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,"

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


King Henry, V.iii

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Tao of Things 5



Years ago they used to say that the biggest repression was that of sex - at least way back in Victorian times.  I remember our English Lit. lecturer at college telling us that the Victorians used to keep the legs of their pianos covered or veiled in case they could be interpreted in a phallic way.  They also say that the past is a different country - Victorian times could just as well be on the planet Mars.  Today we are obsessed with sex among many other addictions and obsessions that 21st century humankind is addicted to.  However, to stand things totally on their head, most experts today say that death and dying are now the ultimate repression.  Modern society does not want to know about mortality at all.  Our very repressions have changed.

Hereunder, I'd like to quote a few lines from one of my favourite books - The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (Rider, 1992):

When I first came to the West, I was shocked by the contrast between the attitudes to death I had been brought up with, and those I now found.  For all its technological achievements, modern Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death.

I learned that people today are taught to deny death and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss.  That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it...

Our society is obsessed with youth, sex, and power, and we shun old age and decay.  Isn't it terrifying that we discard old people when their working life is finished and they are no longer useful?..

In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as a whole, where death is a beginning of another chapter of life.  Death is a mirror in which the meaning of life is reflected...

As Tibet's famous poet saint, Milarepa, said: "My religion is to live - and die - without regret."

(Opus citatum. 7-12)

We have a lot to learn from all the various great religions of the world, especially Buddhism.  Our own Christian tradition(s)  have a lot to teach us, too, except that the power structures of the various Churches somehow have strangled its spirituality to death.  All religions have great spiritual traditions which for one reason or another have been corrupted, emasculated and asphyxiated.  That's where the spiritual masters and mystics come in, because these fellows see clearly the corruptions of power.  Real spirituality refuses to be chained by any doctrinaire or dogmatic stances.

I will finish with a few more lines from Sogyal Rinpoche's great modern spiritual classic which I have quoted at length above, because I think and feel deeply that what he says contains not a little wisdom for modern human beings alienated from their very selves, abandoned on a sea of moral and spiritual confusion.  The following lines I love for their sheer poetry and wisdom:

And doesn't this point to something fundamentally tragic about our way of life?  We live under an assumed identity in a neurotic fairytale world...Hypnotized by the thrill of building, we have raised the houses of our lives on sand.  This world can seem marvelously convincing until death collapses the illusion and evicts us from our hiding place.  What will happen to us if we have no clue of any deeper reality?



Above I have placed a picture I took of a small boat on the Garravogue river just a little outside Sligo town, Summer 2006

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Tao of Things 4




One can be very lucky with one teachers.  Alternatively one can be singularly unlucky.  Then again, a good student will make the best of what he/she finds - using his/her creativity and intelligence to overcome whatever shortcomings he/she finds in themselves or in others.  Be that as it may, I was particularly lucky in my teachers - both at primary, secondary and tertiary levels.  At Third Level the teacher/lecturer/professor who stands out the most for his erudition, insight and wisdom still remains after all these years first and foremost in the estimation, is Professor Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., whom it was my privilege to have as a wonderful English lecturer - more properly teacher - back in the late seventies at Mater Dei Institute of Education. Michael Paul is simply brilliant, humble , wise and erudite - I learned so much from him from English literature to Meditation techniques (on which I have since written and published a book), a light way of being in the world, not to mention a sincerity and honesty and integrity of living that I am still attempting to emulate.  I have placed a link to his personal web page at the right-hand side of this blog under his name.  At present Michael Paul is Dean of Theology at The Gregorian University Rome where he teaches fundamental theology.  He is also a distinguished author and has written many books about religion and culture; how Christianity might dialogue with other religions and even non-believers.  In short his major scholarly preoccupation  is with the dialogue of religion with culture in all its various dimensions.

Anyway, one of the great novels that Michael Paul introduced me to was Saul Bellow's Henderson The Rain King (1959) which we read and studied in 1978.  This is a brilliant novel, and my reference to it here is because it fits in nicely with the theme of my last four or five posts, namely the search for meaning which I'm reflecting upon in a more Buddhist and Taoist way over these last few posts.  I was enthralled by Henderson and his quest.  In the novel Henderson is a middle-aged, 55 year old to be precise, menopausal male looking for some meaning in his "meaningless" and boring life.  Indeed the hero, or anti-hero, of this novel is a send-up or burlesque of the more seriously depicted heroes of the modernist novel - the likes of Stephen Dedalus in our own James Joyce's marvellous wee book : The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man (1914/1944) comes readily to mind. 

Through parody and satire, Bellow renders laughable many of the banalities of modernism with its self-conscious importance. Eugene Henderson, our anti-hero, is one of Bellow's few WASP protagonists, is a  violinist and pig farmer and a menopausal social outcast. He is a direct parody of the Hemingway stoic or narcissist - he is metaphysically earnest, introspective, solipsistic, bumbling, and egocentric. He believes with his Eliotic fisher king forbears that there is a curse on the land. This Eugene Henderson, after he has alienated his wives, children, and friends, and shouted his housekeeper to death, uses part of his inherited wealth to finance a spiritual pilgrimage to Africa.  Obviously Bellow is here sending up the self-important pose of the modern explorer or the modern searcher for meaning.  Our protagonist goes on a journey to Africa - again a sort of burlesque or send up of the obviously all-too-serious quest of Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) - in search of himself, in pursuit of some inkling of some meaning to his life.  Again and again, Bellow has his anti-hero utter the refrain or chant (or mantra even): "I want, I want, I want..."  What he wants is not too clear to Henderson at all.  He is just a restless seeker - shades of the great St Augustine's phrase, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!"  For a modernist or post-modernist one might re-write this phrase exactly but leave out the last 3 words and finish with "until they..."  I'll leave it to the reader to put in the omitted word or words.  What we may want may not be all too clear to us readers either.  However, I suppose we all want some form of happiness, though in a previous post I referred to Professor Ivor Browne's contention that happiness was/is the wrong goal.  Meaning I suppose is a better goal insofar as it brings with it an ease with self, an ease of being alive and at least an ability to live relatively comfortably in one's own skin.  Through Henderson's journey, or more particularly pilgrimage, as it is at once a physical and spiritual journey, Bellow succeeds in demythologising much of lofty ideals of romanticism and the high seriousness of modernism.  Henderson has many long philosophical conversations with the kings of the various tribes whom he encounters deep in the jungles of darkest and wildest Africa.

He is at last seen rejoicing in his recently acquired spiritual equilibrium, embracing a woolly-haired orphan child on the polar ice cap of Newfoundland. Finally, the "I Want" voice in his heart is still. However, we are left wondering whether he can maintain this equilibrium found in the monastic solitude of a polar ice cap within the social context of his family.  In the end Henderson finally offers his soul in prayer to an unknown God: "Oh you...Something...you Something because of whom there is not nothing. Help me to do thy will.... O Thou who takes me from pigs, let me not be killed over lions. And forgive my crimes and nonsense and let me return to Lily and the kids."  This again is a send-up or burlesque of a religious conversion.  What Henderson has found is probably that the search itself was the only interesting thing in the whole escapade.  His restlessness is over.  The demons have been exorcised in the pilgrimage to Africa and the polar ice cap of Newfoundland.

I'll finish these reflections with a little reading from the Tao Te Ching.  Stanza 16 was written for the Henderson within us all.  Every line speaks to the restlessness within us.  It offers some consolations too, but we must be willing to contemplate them and synthesize them into our own lived experience:

 

Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realise the source,

you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realise where you come from,

you naturally become tolerant,

disinterested, amused,

kind-hearted as a grandmother,

dignified as a king.

immersed in the wonder of the Tao,

you can deal with whatever life brings you,

and when death comes, you are ready.


Above I have uploaded a picture of a piece of drift wood I photographed with my mobile phone on the last Day of 2007, 31st December.

The Tao of Things 3

 

Being versus Having

 

Well, we're into a New Year - 2008 to be precise.  Here's wishing all my friends and any readers out there a happy and prosperous time during the coming year.  Christmas holidays mark a time of excess and surfeit for us in the West.  We eat too much; drink too much; travel too much; buy too much; see too much; hear too much; party too much; dance too much; play too many stupid mind games with each other; have too much sex (if that's possible?) - we simply cannot get enough of anything.  I have met many people over this particular break who have admitted to excess in a good number of the items on the foregoing list.  Some even admitted to vomiting a few times.  This brings the wise words of Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the famous sociologist and psychoanalyst, to my mind, namely that we should make a clear distinction between "Being" and "Having."  All the above examples of excess belong to the simple confusion about happiness, that is the Western preoccupation with "Having" over "Being."  (Shall we call this error a category mistake?  Would Gilbert Ryle agree?  I think and feel he would!)  I can get a new iPod, a new car, a new laptop, a new palm-top, a new gadget for this or that, a Karaoke machine, the latest computer game, a new suit, a new suite of furniture, a new bathroom, a new set of windows - the list is endless.  Fromm is right - the Western mind with all its whims and desires is driven by "Having," or in a sharper and cruder phrase is driven by simple naked greed!

With Fromm, I argue here that "Being" should have priority over "Having."  To really be means to be "at peace" or "at one" or "in harmony" with the real Self.  I remember a former colleague of mine who is now retired saying that the most important thing in life was whether one could live with oneself or not.  How true he was.  His sentiments capture for me the priority of "Being" over "Having."  "Being" for me means simply that - being at ease in my own skin, being able to live with myself!  With all the rampant greed and desire to have, it would seem that humankind is still not happy with his/her lot.  There is still a dark hole - perhaps a black hole - at the centre of his/her heart.  There is an emptiness that simply cannot be filled by things or, perish the thought, even by people.  The second part of this last sentence needs more expatiation indeed, but that must wait for another time as I have not quite thought that one through.

In keeping with my meditation practice I have being reading the Tao Te Ching.  Here are a few lines form stanza 12 (in fact the whole stanza) that are pertinent to the theme of Being versus Having.

 

Colours blind the eye.

Sounds deafen the ear.

Flavours numb the taste.

Thoughts weaken the mind.

Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world

but trusts his inner vision.

He allows things to come and go.

His heart is open as the sky.

 

Too many colours, too many sounds, too many flavours, too much thinking, too much wanting sickens us - how true the Tao is.   William Wordsworth had similar sentiments and intuitions in his great poem The World is too much with us (1807)

 

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

I find the same sentiments and Taoistic intuitions in the wonderful songwriter and poet Bob Dylan.  The first two verses of his song "Up to Me" (1974) are profound and worth reflecting upon.  Better still listen to the song a few times.  I'll finish this post with these verses from our greatest contemporary balladeer:

 

Everything went from bad to worse, money never changed a thing,
Death kept followin', trackin' us down, at least I heard your bluebird sing.
Now somebody's got to show their hand, time is an enemy,
I know you're long gone,
I guess it must be up to me.


If I'd thought about it I never would've done it, I guess I would've let it slide,
If I'd lived my life by what others were thinkin', the heart inside me would've died.
I was just too stubborn to ever be governed by enforced insanity,
Someone had to reach for the risin' star,
I guess it was up to me.



Above I have uploaded a picture I took with my mobile phone at Laytown on 31st December 2007 - Last Day of the old year!

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Tao of Things 2



I return again and again to my translation of the Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell which is beautifully illustrated by many artists.  Like Blake's illustrations the pictures and drawings are themselves contemplative.  Each line in each stanza has a Zen-like quality which draws one ever deeper.  Stanza 10 has just caught my eye and now my heart.  It is worth quoting in full here:

 

Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep the original oneness?

Can you let your body become

supple as a newborn child's?

Can you cleanse your inner vision

until you see nothing but the light?

Can you love people and lead them

without imposing your will?

Can you deal with the most vital matters

by letting events take their course?

Can you step back from your own mind

and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,

having without possessing,

acting with no expectations,

leading and not trying to control:

this is the supreme virtue.

There us a lot of meaty "stuff" to contemplate here.  Twice in the above stanza, the writer refers to power and control.  In many other stanzas throughout the Tao Te Ching the author returns again and again to this factor.  From my own 50 years experience of life the "will to power" or the "desire to control" - call it what you will - is a central drive in most human beings.  It's probably there residing in our ancient brain, a primal desire going back to the caveman or cavewoman in us!  I have no doubt about this as I observe my colleagues at work and how they play games of control with each other.  I have also seen it in use in several families whom I know very well indeed.  This drive is deeply rooted in us like all those other drives alluded to by Freud and the host of psychiatrists and psychologists with all their varying schools that followed in the great master's wake.

And so let me ask of myself this instant with Lao Tzu: "Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?" Only the person to whom the question is directed can answer that!  I hope so.  I dearly hope so.  I also ask myself, again with Lao Tzu: "Can you act with no expectations, lead and not try to control?"  Leadership is always difficult.  Oftentimes it's a lonely place to be as you have to make decisions which will be pleasing to some and unpleasing to others.  It's very hard to change people - indeed, it's probably impossible.  However, the leader can change his own "modus operandi"; he or she can lead by example and encouragement rather than imposing his or her will which will be seen as autocratic and authoritarian and while it may effect a temporary change, it certainly won't bring about long-term change at all.

What Lao Tzu terms "the original oneness" has always intrigued and inspired me ever since I started to study philosophy and theology way back in 1976.  I have come across so many terms for this concept - The Unity of the Godhead, The One behind the Many, The Unity behind the Multeity (S.T. Coleridge), The Ground of Being, The Ultimate Being, The Holy,  The Ultimate Concern, The Good, The Truth, The Ultimate Horizon, the Ultimate Mystery, The Mystical Unity etc.  There are many terms for the "original oneness" which all spiritual traditions say is the aspiration of their adherents.  In this connection several traditions refer to a "mystical union" with this Godhead or Ultimate Concern etc. I suppose more agnostic or "polytheistic" or "eclectic", and even atheistic, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, analysts and psychologists might call this by such terms as "individuation" (C.G. Jung); "integration of the personality" (Anthony Storr); "Making the unconscious conscious" (Freud); "Self-realization" (Carl R. Rogers).  Anyway whatever we call it, I believe and feel that the phrase "mystical union with the Ultimate Good or God" is a religious metaphor for these last terms used by these psychologists.  I'm not decrying religion or any spiritual tradition.  I recognize the validity of all paths to wholeness whether that be devout religious, monotheistic or polytheistic, Gnostic, agnostic or even atheistic.  All humans who are on the path to wholeness are life-givers and are life-enhancers and will be healers and of others and builders of community wherever they are.  Okay, so I may be a bit of a relativist or pluralist or a perspectivist at least.  I abhor any system or persons within any system who seek to control both the beliefs and the behaviours of others.  I abhor the strangle-hold of fundamentalism whether religious or scientific, whether theistic or atheistic.  Let us be open to all that enhances and builds up human life and human community.  Let's go further still and build up all life - animal and vegetable.  Let's even be green or even greener than green.



Above I have uploaded a picture I took of a stained glass window in St Cronin's Church Roscrea last February 2007. Stained glass I find very mystical indeed!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Still Searching After All These Years 3




Putting The Jigsaw Together

I remember many years ago attending a dynamic group workshop loosely based around a spirituality/self-development theme.  Initially we were broken into groups by the facilitators as is the way with such workshops and asked firstly to come up with a name for our individual groups.  This proved to be a very interesting exercise indeed.  As far as I recall from this distance in time our group called itself "The Searchers."  Another called itself "The Explorers", another "The Pilgrims" while still another called itself "The Sunflowers."  There were at least seven or so groups - I've forgotten the other names.  The ensuing discussion/open forum about this exercise revealed a lot.  The word "Searchers" seemed to imply a task, indeed hard work while at the same time it implied something of value or someone being lost.  "Explorers" suggested something freer and more liberating, a freedom to find anything one wished on the landscape being explored and, I suppose, many different possible routes to get anywhere or somewhere on the journey.  "Pilgrims" obviously carried many deep religious and spiritual resonances - one is reminded of such medieval pilgrimages as that to Canterbury as we have recounted for us in The Canterbury Tales  by Chaucer or that still famous camino to Santiago de Compostela which modern pilgrims still make right up to this day.  We Irish may be reminded of other more Celtic pilgrimages to the top of Cruach Phádraig or Croke Patrick in Co. Mayo or possibly St Patrick's Purgatory on Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. Anyway, such pilgrimages require renunciation of self - so the work "Pilgrims" suggested something ascetic, forbidding, self-denying and somehow weighed down with centuries of religious struggle through sin and guilt - at least to me at the time and still now today.  Anyway, the discussion around the chosen group title "The Sunflowers" was very liberating indeed.  This group saw themselves as responding to a source of power, a source of energy, a source of enlightenment outside themselves.  Also they were moving in response to this outside power or force or energy.    While there may be a passivity of approach to this spiritual view of life, yet there was something refreshing in it also.  Nor was it totally indolent or lazy in approach - after all there was growth and movement (the flower head turns to follow the sun) involved and this requires a receptivity to light and water and a working with these sources of energy to grow.

Perhaps, in a way there is some of all these possible designations in all of us - we are at one and the same time searchers, explorers, pilgrims and sunflowers.  Maybe there are other possible names we could give our human quest for meaning in this world - perhaps "Divers for Pearls," "Climbers" or "Voyagers" or "Eternal Students."  I don't think any group would set itself up as "Guides" or "Pilots" or "Leaders" or "Mystics" or "Gurus" or would they.  At least, we had no such designated groups.  Perhaps we were all too humble.

I have alluded in these pages many times to the growing anger in society and especially among our younger adults.  We only have to read the papers and listen to the daily news on any TV channel to be aware of this if we have not been unlucky enough to have encountered such anger or violence in our own lives.  There is obviously a lack of constraints on people in today's society.  Why?  Well, my friends and I believe that as regards Ireland in the past twenty years the strangle hold of the Church is decidedly gone.  When we were growing up the Church still had power over us youngsters as there were still enough religious in our schools and parishes to preach and enforce these rules.  The Church had a moral authority and a consequent fairly effective moral control of its people.  Those times were indeed authoritarian and perhaps we were far too obedient and dependent. However, in a poor, underdeveloped and practically rural or provincial country not much short of dependence was possible.

The Church today in Ireland is an emasculated wreck of itself in terms of what it was from the fifties through to the eighties of the last century.  Now it is one voice among many alternatives.  This is no bad thing indeed as it means that people have a wider freedom of choice in their lives.  However, it also unfortunately means that the experience of wide choices means that many find themselves existentially cut adrift on a veritable sea of confusion.  Add into all of that the drug culture of Ecstasy tablets and the modern addiction to Cocaine coupled with that all-pervasive traditional addiction to alcohol and one gets an explosive mixture. 

As a secondary teacher of some 28 years experience in an inner city school in Dublin I find that there is a growing minority of young males who have never had a significant other adult male influence in their lives and this is a major cause of concern.  These kids are ripe for exploitation by all possible sources - from aggressive advertising to drug pushing and all the consequent disharmony or even aggression and/or violence that may ensue.

How do we try to improve this situation with all its concomitant woes? Well, I suppose outside religious gurus and organizations like the great The Elders alluded to in the last post, there exist all the helping professions like Doctors, Nurses, Police Officers, Fire Officers, Ambulance Crews, Teachers, Special Needs Assistants, Care Workers etc who seek to bring a little healing to this broken world.  Beyond these helping professions there are legions of charitable organizations from the Samaritans and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to the Simon Community, most of whose workers bring love and care to others without any payment besides the pleasure and privilege of doing charitable acts.  I myself am inspired by and drawn to the Counselling/psychotherapeutic profession which deals with the healing of the human soul.  Perhaps with a change in career in the offing I will be further drawn in that direction. 

Recently I have been reading the books of a favourite psychiatrist and psychotherapist called Irvin Yalom - whose books I have listed among my favourites in the column on the right of this blog.  He gave a wonderful speech on being awarded the Oscar Pfister prize (for important contributions to religion and psychiatry) in the year 2000 by The American Psychiatric Association. Yalom writes like an angel even though he is a self-professed atheist like Sigmund Freud before him, but he agreed to accept this award because of certain convergences between religious and spiritual goals and those of psychiatry/psychotherapy.  In fact he states that Sigmund Freud is one of his heroes. I'll quote a little here from his wonderful acceptance speech.

"I'll also sketch out some comparisons between existential psychotherapy and religious consolation. I believe these two approaches have a complex, strained relationship. In a sense, they are cousins with the same ancestors and concerns: they share the common mission of ministering to the intrinsic despair of the human condition. Sometimes they share common methods – the one to one relationship, the mode of confession, of inner scrutiny, of forgiveness of others and self. In fact, more and more as I've grown older, I consider psychotherapy as a calling, not as a profession. And yet, still, it is true that the core beliefs and basic practical approaches of psychotherapy and religious consolation are often antipodal."

I have deliberately highlighted one sentence in bold italics above because this, while overtly and patently a negative sentence, contains considerable realism and a not a little truth.  I am reminded of the words of the contemporary famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking which I am paraphrasing here because I cannot remember the exact words:  "There's no use bemoaning our station in  life or our state of health because life is all a matter of luck.  You accept the hand of cards you are given and play the best game you can with that!"  There's a lot of realism, common sense or wisdom in that indeed, and this from a great mind locked in a body crippled with motor neurone disease.  However, look at the imaginative and intellectual heights to which the genius Stephen Hawking soared.  All limitations can be transcended in many significant ways if only we have the vision to see it. 

Acceptance to my mind must always precede understanding.  This acceptance then leads to an openness to welcoming help or procuring help or developing coping skills.  Being able to learn how to cope with whatever life throws at us is the most essential way to doing something about (note that I did not say solving) whatever problem is besetting us. Yalom, again in this talk and passim in his books has this to say about existential therapy, which has these four points in common with all religions (Yalom has read the liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich  and refers to his category of "ultimate concerns.") which I feel is worth quoting here:

"Four ultimate concerns, to my view, are highly germane to psychotherapy: death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom. These four themes form the spine of my textbook and I shall elaborate upon them as I proceed today."

I loved this speech as I loved those of Yalom's books which I have read because they are so rooted in the very "stuff" of life - real existence with its all-too-real problems.  Don't read Yalom if you cannot face life and death head on.  To read him is akin to reading the wonderful spiritual classic The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by the equally wonderful human being and spiritual master Sogyal Rinpoche.  When you read either of them you are left with the thought and the feeling - we're all in this boat ( = life) together; there's no getting out of it alive; the wisest person will perish like the dumbest; not one single soul is immune to it's tragedies.  As well as that you get the thought and the feeling that there is someone there who can help me; there is someone there who has some grasp on reality; there is someone there who has developed ways of coping with the existential problems life throws at us all too frequently.  And that someone can be another person or indeed even myself or both! Acceptance as I've said must come before understanding.  This acceptance will lead to openness and to a humility to learn to accept help and to give it when called upon.

Above I have enumerated the problems that beset modern humankind.  Perhaps there is little any of us can do about the real problems of the world on a global level or even about the real problems of our own country or city or town at a micro level.  However, there is much I can do on a personal level to get to know myself; to work on improving my strengths and decreasing my weaknesses; to care for my Self on a spiritual or psychological level; to develop coping skills to handle my own problems.  We will find that once we really begin to care for our inner being or Self that it's then that we are liberated most especially to care for others; to offer others real and practical and useful help in living with and coping with, and hopefully transforming, what I think and feel that Yalom expresses realistically, if a little too pessimistically above as "the intrinsic despair of the human condition."


Above I have placed a picture I took of St Cronin's Church, Roscrea where I was baptized in 1958. It is a splendid architectural feat!