Saturday, May 27, 2006

Style 1

Style 1

Words are my passion and my hobby, and I wish they were my métier.  Many years ago as a young boy I fell under their spell and was seduced by their magic and lure.  I remember as a small boy doing my homework on the flat surface of a wooden kitchen chair – such was my first desk top.  I remember well mouthing the words of English and Irish which I had learned that day at school.  I loved their sounds and got lost in my own world of make-believe. Later in secondary school when my desk-top was transformed into the parlour table and eventually into a proper study desk made by my carpenter uncle Ted, French words would entrance my forming mind.

Even today not a day goes by in which I don’t read or write something.  Not a day passes during which I am not captivated by the magic and lure of new words, and new combinations of them, new formations of them parading for inspection before my eyes in this, that or the other book.  At school two English teachers were formative of my love of words and they were Mssrs. Bartholemew Doyle, M.A., and Michael McLoughlin, B.A. (Hons.), both teachers in the O’Connell Schools Dublin. Bart, or Dracula as we students used call him, had an obsession with words and spelling – so much so that in his later years he became a little confused – once spelling the word concoction as “concoxion” on the blackboard.  However, in one fell swoop he taught me care – I had once done what I considered a fairly good essay after much sweat and care to find the mark of 75% scratched out and a mere 60% given to the disappointed student.  Why?  The reason he gave for the deduction in marks was my repetition of the same word three times in the opening paragraph. I had need of expanding my vocabulary and learning what comprised a good writing style he commented.

Michael McLoughlin was a true gentleman and scholar.  He taught me both honours English and honours Latin.  He was gracious and erudite in the most self-effacing manner possible.  He taught us a love of literature and a marvellously open way of engaging with texts.  His love for his subjects imbued his every word.  Then his sense of humour was infectious.  If someone was absent on this or that day he would allude to the “lacuna”or gap in our seried ranks.  It was his ease and very personal approach to a text that won my heart.  The text seemed to talk intimately to him.  He did not appear to be struggling with it as poor old Bart, the ill-fated Dracula, alluded to above, did.  This same Bart had died at Christmas, December 1975 to be precise, and Michael, or Mac as we called him, took us on for honours English.  We already had him for Latin for the previous year and a half.  That a text could talk to one was for me a marvellously rich discovery.

Then, at college I studied English literature, theology and philosophy for four years.  These were indeed formative years in my love affair with books and with literature.  We had writing classes, which for me were to prove inspiring.  We had a rather dry old scholar for these classes, a man with a double doctorate, one Rev Bernard Kelly, D.D., D.Litt. – a traditionalist in dogma and a writer of many books on theology and a reviewer for various academic journals.  He got us to review books – books which he had been given to review himself, and then with little modifications to our style here and there, he published these reviews under our names.  Thus, I began to learn the rudiments of style – what style was appropriate to a learned book review or the more personal style in reviewing a more popular devotional or spiritual book.  We also wrote short stories, essays and poems under Barney’s tutelage.  One comment which he wrote at the end of an essay I had written for him remains with me to this day as a singularly perspicacious piece of advice for any budding writer and it is this: “Your style is stilted, but ease will come with practice.”  What a brilliant piece of advice.  He might have said almost the following words: “Don’t give up, Tim.  Practice will make perfect!”  However, Barney was never one to be demonstrative with his feelings.  He confined himself totally to words and their possible combinations.  Once I remember him cutting a rather famous theologian’s book to ribbons for its crass style, examples of which Barney had given rather fulsomely in his text with that dreaded word “sic” in parenthesis after them.  Thanks, Barney, for the practical writing classes all those years ago.  They have stood the test of time and have made me not alone a passionate, but such a better writer.  Here’s a toast to your memory.
The photograph above is of my greatuncle Tim and his wife Annmarie, taken in Jersey City, New Jersey some time in the late 1890's. They had a certain style, I suppose.

Good Luck to All our Graduates!

I’ve done this before – exactly eighteen times this summer.  I’ve been here and experienced this rite of passage so many times that I’m becoming emotionally unattached or emotionally objective.  I have become neither cynical nor indifferent – far from it.  Maybe it’s tiredness on my part, or perhaps the desire to move on.  Well, I’d better tell any possible reader out there in cyber land that I’m talking about school graduation masses and graduation ceremonies.

All the meditation practices I do instil in me the importance of living in the now, of being present in the moment, of observing and being compassionate.  In so doing one becomes more objective, more focused, more aware, more awake to the moment and all that happens in it.  In this way, one becomes more unattached and more independent and freer in spirit.  Far from being indifferent one becomes open to life as it is in the here and now.  The emotions of the moment become less intense and overwhelming, while real compassion and empathy reign in one’s heart and soul.  For what it’s worth, that is the way I felt tonight.  This is the end of school for many here and the beginning of their workaday or college lives.  Perhaps it’s even an end for me as I face into some interviews over the coming weeks.  And I don’t feel in any sense emotional, though many around me were.  

In many ways, I have developed this sense of ease and peace, what you might call a still pointed-ness as a result of the 15 counselling sessions I have attended so far.  Combine these with the meditation and the keeping of a journal and analysis of my dreams and you get a more centred and self-contained being.

I wish all the present lads from sixth year well.  I wish them the best of everything for their lives.  I wish them health and happiness first, and then enough money and goods of this earth to keep them satisfied and to keep their families happy.  And as for my future, who knows?  I feel like the late great nineteenth century Cardinal and theologian, John Henry Newman, that “I have not sinned against the Light,” and that my God “has a work for me to do” that I have not discovered yet, but am on the way or in via to discovering!  Newman’s light was his Lord Jesus Christ while mine is the vibrant and newly discovered dreams of my soul.  Soul work is the most interesting type of work any human can do, i.e., the attempt to get to know the real self, the real core of what it means to be uniquely you.

And so another year ends and in so ending another has begun.  Such is life – the interminable cycle of things.  The theme the boys chose for their graduation mass and ceremony was “Wish you were here” after the eponymous song sung originally by Pink Floyd and more recently by Christy Dignam of Aslan fame.  Well done on such a lovely rendition of such a lovely song.  What a marvellous theme and what a brilliant homily by our good friend, former student and former teacher – Fr Finbarr Neylon.  To all the lads I say “Ad multos annos!” or the same sentiments in Gaeilge, “go maire sibh an céad!”  MAY YOU LIVE LONG, FULL AND FULFILLING LIVES!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

What is Truth?

"What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not wait for an answer."   I think I have quoted this some few times before in these posts.  However, it is worth repeating.  The author of this quotation was none other than Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) who was a famous British philosopher and politician. His theme was empiricism – that is, if one can prove it by experiment, then it must be true.  His refrain was along the lines of “knowledge is power.” Francis put everything to experiment and to the verification of human experience.  Indeed he died as a casualty of his own drive to scientific knowledge, or proof by evidence of the senses – he developed pneumonia after trying to freeze chickens on Hampstead Heath.

Bacon's well known quotation shows Pilate to be a busy and sensible administrator, who was aware of problems but who knew how to avoid unnecessary conflict most of the time. However, his washing of hands for the trial of Jesus had unexpected consequences. He realized that any discussion of truth awakens arguments, since people tend to select their facts to support their view.

We’re all captivated by the question as to what in fact truth is.  Or in a more problematic and possibly questionable formulation we might be captivated by the same word preceded by the definite article, what the truth is.  How often have we heard the well-known opening of the American Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident etc...” and other such well-worn phrases as “The truth of the matter is...,” “Tell the truth”, or “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Again what religious person or former religious being has never heard the formulaic “the truths of our faith?”

Having studied philosophy and theology at postgraduate level in the distant past I’m still intrigued by this simple and deceptive word “truth.”  I have long since disabused my mind of the term “The Truth”, and certainly of the phrase “The Ultimate Truth!”  As I grow older I grow more skeptical and questioning and more plural in my use of the word – “truths” are more acceptable to me now.  I am less likely to accept things blindly as self-evident as I did when I was a teenager or student at college.  However, in hindsight I was never a blind follower of anything, and I always loved questioning things and pushing against the not too sturdy defenses of badly-thought out answers.  Any religion which proclaims that it alone has the essential truth is sadly misled.  Sometimes it seems that some versions, even widely promulgated versions, of the World Religions proclaim themselves the sole custodians of Truth (in capitals) or of The Truth (also in capitals, but strengthened by the definite article).  Any philosopher (or even theologian) worth his/her salt can see that such a situation is untenable and quite simply contradictory.  Most modern theologians have watered down such blatantly foolish contentions to make their concept of their faith much more reasonable as it were and much less contradictory.  (However, it is a watering down, albeit an honest and sincere one on their part).  It is beyond my intention here to say anything much about say that famous book by that wonderfully modern theologian, John A.T. Robinson (Bishop of Wolwich and Lecturer in Theology and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge till his untimely death in 1983) entitled Honest To God (1963) or say those wonderfully modern documents of Vatican II that were never really put into action.  However, I will say this - they were wonderful (if at times ambiguous) attempts to come to grips with the modern age per se and with the sciences and arts and all the varieties of belief and non-belief of this age. Along with the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, Robinson founded that wonderful school of theology (my favourite) called “secular theology”.  Perhaps I may write a note on that in a forth-coming post.

As I have grown older I have lost my interest in religion, but have increased exponentially, if I may be permitted a mathematical metaphor, my interest in spirituality.  Religions that offer no spiritual sustenance to modern folk, to my mind, will cease in their relevance.  Religions which maintain some spiritual sustenance will remain more relevant.  I have ling since become an admirer of the sentiments of AA:  “Religion is for those who fear hell, spirituality for those who have been there!”  This is possibly a cliché now, I suppose, but I think there lies within it a kernel of truth.  I have for many years now become a lover of the psychology of religion or indeed in a psychology that replaces religion.  By this I mean that religion provides both a social and psychological function in society for individuals and groups of individuals.  It fulfills certain needs such as the need for belonging, the need for meaning, the need for direction in life etc.  However, if these psychological and social needs are fulfilled elsewhere, then I think religion becomes superfluous to the individual.  That, I feel, is my own case.  I feel that I have outgrown my need for religion in my personal life.  However, I will never downgrade it or adversely criticize it unless it is pointedly and patently wrong and unjust say in matters of sexual ethics like say the homophobic attitude of many religions to homosexuality etc.

Religion can and does provide a good social function namely in pointing to strong moral codes of behaviour.  The Catholic Church and other Churches no doubt are good at what the Irish journalist, John Waters, calls “hatching, matching and dispatching”, that is, good at baptisms, christenings, marriages and funerals – these are all beautiful ceremonies – high points or rites of passage in human life.  

However, I must now draw this rather long rambling post to an end.  One other point I must underscore here is the rather forbidding and negative and at times outrageous attitude to the mystics – those exemplary spiritual beings who sought to go their own way, to plough their own lonely furrow to God without the help of the institutional church or churches!  What a dreadful sin – to go one’s own way, to plough one’s own furrow!  Why?  Quite simply they were setting themselves up as, to quote some rather officious mandarin in the Roman Curia of The Catholic Church, as having “privileged access to the truth!”  

No one and no institution, I contend, have any privileged access to “The Truth” or “Truths” in capitals, with or without the definite article.  Those who proclaim these shibboleths are engaging in nothing short of power playing and in seeking to enslave others to their versions of “The Truth”  It is, to my mind, and to the minds of the great thinkers and spiritual guides of the ages and of modern times in the most all-embracing understanding of those terms, becoming more obvious to the committed thinker and committed pilgrim of self-knowledge that the individual’s “truth” is the only truth that matters to him or to her and that we each “see the world not as it is in itself, but rather as we are in ourselves,” and that truth is somehow found at the intersections of ourselves with others, in dialogue and in loving relationships which seek to build up the human community.  In so living and loving we do indeed create the truth or truths with or without the definite article or capitals.  Such truths are always enriching in all senses – moral, ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, ontic and ontological.

The picture above is one I took in Winter 2005 in Malahide castle.