One of the defining characteristics of life is its sheer unpredictability. This at once adds both spice on the one hand and fear on the other to human existence. Life would be so boring if it were predictable. Yet, unpredictability can bring such tragedy to our little if wonderful lives. As I write these lines I wish them to jar with my five preceding posts on style. Why? Well, very simply I wish my posts to engage with life. When I began blogging in April 2005 I wished to write my reflections on life as I experienced it. For me reflection means at times a more philosophical musing done at a distance as it were – a more objective reflection on life’s issues. At other times reflection for me embraces a more human expression of my hopes and feelings – the whole gamut of human emotions fall within my scope. I have always loved the term “existential” in philosophy with all its ramifications of the ups and downs, the highs and the lows, the ecstasy and the angst of the human project.
Enough bovine manure! Time to cut to the chase! There we were last Friday night enjoying ourselves in the local pub, celebrating with our graduates the end of six long (or short) years spent at school. Our spirits were high – the air was full of youthful expectation and hope for the future. As I made my way home around 11.30 p.m. I heard the sound of sirens – police cars or ambulances, perhaps, I thought. I drove to my brother’s house in Kinsealy (I had not been drinking alcohol) without much more thought. Then, early on Saturday morning’s news I heard that a sixteen year old girl had been mown down by a car not too far the pub we were in the previous night. Fear, despair and terror juxtaposed with happiness, hope and peace of mind. Life juxtaposed with death - uncomfortable bedfellows both! Life has a habit of doing that, does it not? Stopping us in our tracks, waking us up from complacent slumber, slapping us in the face, bringing us to deeper areas in our consciousness – these are some ways of expressing how we feel at times like these.
Then a day or so later the report of the tragic event in the paper – so factual and meticulous in detail – the car had hit the girl at speed (left front headlight broken), the body had come down with force on the windscreen and shattered same and was thrown some distance from the car which was registered to a foreign national. As it happens the young girl’s father was also a non-national – Portuguese. Nationality, of course is irrelevant, but it does show how international our new young Ireland has become. These details just added to the matter-of-fact-ness of the whole episode. Death is so brutal for those bereaved yet so matter-of-fact to the readers of the newspaper reports.
The experts in the mental health field tell us rightly that the greatest repression in modern society id death and dying. It’s easy enough, of course, for the modern means of communication to bring us the latest death tolls from wars, famines or earthquakes or tsunamis, and mostly these reports are clinical and statistical rather than personally moving in the sense of fear or terror or angst-ridden. The advertising industry sells life in its high points mostly. Death and dying in its really existential sense does not sell too well. Yet, it is here that the Great Religions of the world have a role to play. They serve to call us back to reality. Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, religion can serve the purpose of making us less complacent, allowing us the gift of not taking life too much for granted, of putting our worries into context, of learning to appreciate all the good things that we have, of counting death as part of life and not as it were solely the end of it. Indeed to live means essentially that we are dying. If we are not living we are not getting older, and if we are not getting older we’re dead. So to get older is to live, and to get older means that we are dying. Living and dying are the two sides of the one coin – and the coin is the coin of existence. Read those marvellous books from the East like The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, anything by the Dalai Lama, anything by Anthony de Mello, S.J. and you will get the sense of such objectivity and detachment that true spirituality can bring you. When we read and practise the exercises they give we become open to the sheer “now-ness” of existence and we will never again take anything for granted. Even our thoughts and feelings – these, too, are mere chaff in the wind like my last five posts. This last sentence reminds me of my theological days when I had to plough through some of the works of St Thomas Aquinas, O.P. The venerable saint and learned gentleman, it is said, experienced the beatific vision in his last years and he was to say something along these lines: “I count everything I have written to be mere chaff in comparison to the vision I have experienced.” I paraphrase from memory.
Centre above is a painting of the famous Dominican Saint and Scholar Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274, the author of The Summa Theologiae, the greatest work of medieval theolgy.