Friday, June 08, 2007

Small Things Matter!

An Uplifting Note

Small things matter. When we look back on the time that has somehow vanished all too quickly in our short lives – no matter what its span - it is often the smallest things that bring a tear to the eye. Such is life.

Today I witnessed and partook in a small gesture which was both beautiful and meaningful. It seems that I have been too much in graveyards of late. I was returning from John Devitt’s funeral Mass in Seabury Church Malahide after having spoken to both his sons and his dear wife when I decided that I’d go into Balgriffin cemetery where Seán Nolan is buried. Having prayed or meditated at Seán’s grave and taken some photographs I returned to my car pensive but relaxed. Then I saw two 5th year students from our school St Joseph’s arriving at the graveyard with two bags. I greeted them and they asked me where Seán’s grave was. I led them there and they took out a bunch of flowers in the school colours – blue and gold – placed them neatly on the grave and watered some of the less wilted flowers and bouquets from a plastic container they had brought with them.

Small gesture, but beautiful and meaningful. It’s at times of crisis like these that the best in the human spirit comes out. Then the boys told me that they had visited another grave – that of Scott Kelly, 17, who had died in the last few days – in Fingal graveyard just across the road from this one. We then decided we would go and visit Scott’s grave. Scott was only with us from September to Christmas 2005 of the Transition Year, so his death did not impact that much on the school community. His death was also tragic, but drug-related. Resquiescat in Pace, Scott! What a blitz – three youngsters dead within the space of six weeks, Stephen Dowdall (15), Seán Nolan (18) and Scott Kelly (17). God rest you all, lads.

It’s at time like these that I like to escape to my own personal haven, that is, poetry. This is the one thing I had in common with the late great John Devitt – an insatiable love for poetry. Here’s a short poem by the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called Heaven-Haven.


I HAVE desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

The picture I have placed at the top of this post is one I took of Scott Kelly (1990-2007) sometime before Christmas 2005. This was during our cookery classes in the old East Wall Community Centre on St Mary's Road. Rest In Peace, Scott!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Terror Within!

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

In times of need we turn to various sources of comfort. Some turn to poetry, others to favourite pieces of music, others to art, others to the Bible and yet others to a favourite film or activity. Some walk, some run and still some play games. Others seek refuge in a quiet country stroll – others in a garden or a walk by the sea. Indeed, some of us may seek refuge in more than one of these activities.

Those of an addictive nature may seek refuge in drink or in drugs. While we all like a social drink, to seek refuge in the end of a glass is not a healthy alternative at all.

For me, I turn to poetry and music, interspersed with a little walking. A poet to whom I turn again and again is none other than the great Robert Frost (1874-1963). I have always loved his poetry because somehow his themes resonate with some deep wellspring of meaning or more correctly with a deep desire for meaning within me. Yet again, I was introduced to him by the late great teacher and lecturer John Devitt. In fact, John only died in the last few days – Resquiescat in Pace. John was a marvellous English and Latin scholar. It was his enthusiasm for his subject that lit the fires of love for language and literature in me while at college.

Here is one of my favourite poems by Frost – “Desert Places.” I suppose I, as well as all my colleagues and pupils, together with their parents were in such waterless wastelands over the past few weeks with Seán Nolan’s untimely and tragic death. Frost sums up how I feel at this moment in time.

Desert Places
by: Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

I feel that the last two lines are wonderful and like the refrain of a good poem or song are worth repeating: “I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places.” Dear God, I have many such desert places within me. Who hasn’t? And this goes on to resonate with further thoughts of terror and to the famous Pensées of the beloved Pascal, which are so full of beauty and wisdom and pearls of great price. Let this thought from the French philosopher and sage ring in your heart: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” This sounds wonderful in the original French: “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie.”

Truly at heart we are mystery to ourselves. There are heights of passion and of dreams, the gold of the imagination within us as well as the depths of insights and wisdom. Then there is the breadth of our ever-expanding knowledge and the very desire to know it. There are the great Love of Truth and the Truth of Love which both reside within us, often clouded by the fogs of hate and resentment. Truly we are strange folk indeed!

Above is a picture of Orion's famous Horsehead Nebula

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Synchronicity 2

Synchronicity 2

In my last post I spoke about synchronicity or “meaningful coincidence” of seemingly unrelated events. To the “unbeliever” (in the general sense of that term – in other words the sceptic) there is no such thing as a “meaningful coincidence.” For him or her everything happens by chance alone. Stephen Hawking, the great Oxford theoretical physicist, belongs firmly to this group – it’s all a mere question of luck or bad luck. Seán was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have happened to anyone. Some of us die young. Others die old, and yet again others die at any point in-between. That’s what’s meant by the statement: “You die when your number is up!” It’s all sheer statistics and nothing more. It’s a random world governed by statistics! However, to live by blind statistics and dry mathematics is like eating sawdust, and like sawdust it is a poor diet indeed. Deep down we need a meaning or a pattern. We need a reason to live and a reason to die. We need a meaning both within us and beyond us.

I suppose, all I can say by way of response to Hawking is that life is a little more than mathematics or physics or statistics. The human mind is much more complex than an intellectual understanding alone allows. For example, Howard Gardner outlined 7 different intelligences in his famous book Multiple Intelligences and he initially listed 7 such intelligences, and others have gone on to add to his list. I would contend that such scientists as Hawking and more recently Richard Dawkins have reduced intelligence to the more mathematical and logical. Hence they rule out the insights we gain from philosophical/existential intelligence, musical intelligence and artistic intelligence. In fact, it seems to me that these two academics are working from the left side of the brain, the logical side, solely. They leave no room for the intuitive side, the right side which is all about intuition, imagination and creativity. Intuition leaves room for synchronicity for a world of “action or activity” beyond our immediate knowledge.

Now, I return again to the seemingly unconnected occurrences around the night of our Graduation Mass and Ceremony. These below are roughly the “meaningful coincidences”:

1. The theme of the Mass – “Do not forget me!”
2. The readings chosen – The call of the prophet Jeremiah as a young lad: “Lord I am only a youth”; the Gospel recounting the story of the Good Thief on Calvary – “This day you will be with me in Heaven.”
3. Ian Lowry’s speech on the brevity of life, his breaking down during it. Pick the daisies today because tomorrow you will be pushing them up.
4. The fact that I had asked Seán to be the candle-bearer at the ceremony is meaningful for me because the light-bearer always represents the group like the athlete at the Olympics who carries the torch. Also the fact that many of the small read and white candles burned out so quickly that they left candle-grease all over the stage is significant. Then, the eerie fact that Mr Oonan went and got some knives for us to scrape off the candle grease – 2 ordinary dinner knives and two longer knives, one of which was a sharp knife like a carving knife. This knife went missing, and Christy Oonan was worried because it could be so dangerous. I remember remarking that if that knife got into the wrong hands it could do damage or injury.
5. The fact that Seán’s dad was the only parent to photograph Seán’s receiving his certificate and tie. In this picture Seán is looking directly at the camera. It is a lovely picture to remember Seán by.
6. The fact that Ian Lowry gave his emotional speech with the message of living life to the full because it is so short coupled with the fact that Ian was the one who broke the news to Seán’s parent’s on the night of his death is significant also. Ian is both the messenger of life and death which itself is the role of an “angel”. Remember that the Greek for angel is “angelos” = “messenger”. Ian told me as I was outlining the significance of this linking, by stating that when he went to place flowers at the site of Sean’s death he found a “feather.”
7. The fact that Seán’s maternal grandmother connected so well with Fr Finbarr Neylon and requested that he be the priest to be called over to the hospital.
8. The Mass celebrated on the Sunday following his death was extraordinarily moving and uplifting to say the least. It happened spontaneously almost. Fr Finbarr celebrated it and we used the very same readings as we had on the night of the Graduation.
9. The sad but humorous comment by Seán some weeks before his tragic death that he would like “Tears in Heaven” played at his funeral could also be seen as uncanny.

I am sure there are many more “meaningful coincidences” connected with Seán’s sad and tragic death. I will add them in as I am told them by others. Each one on its own is indeed a mere chance occurrence, but put them all together and you get a pattern, a meaningful pattern. Anyone who lived through these experiences, as we have in St Joseph’s, is left bowled over by the pattern that emerges. It is a pattern with a profound message – to live life to the full, to trust your instincts, to trust oneself, others and finally God. It tells us that we are all connected in deeper ways that we might imagine – that we are connected at an unconscious level and at a really deep spiritual level, that we can help each other through the worst storms of life, that we can be there for each other, that even though the young candle-bearer be dead, the light lives on. From this sad death much good will come even though it is so hard to see it. Those of us in St Joseph’s feel that we have been touched deeply by something much deeper than anyone has hitherto experienced. We have been brought closer than ever as a result. Indeed, it was a high price to pay for our newly experienced closeness. I will never forget the events of these last few weeks. Neither will or sixth years, their parents and the family of young Seán.

May the light of life always be with you, Seán.
May your smile enlighten your dear family.
May they always give thanks for your life,
For all the good memories and the laughs,
For the tears as well as the shouts of joy,
For the silly little memories that warm a heart
On a cold, dismal and gloomy night.
May their days of grief shorten as summer comes,
Their sorrows lessen as the clouds clear.
May the love poured out by all their friends
Fill the yawning gap with smiles of solidarity.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Synchronicity 1

Mere Chance or Powerful Synchronicity?

The provenance of the contention that “we see the world not as it is (in itself) but as we are” is contentious. Some attribute it to Carl Gustave Jung to whom I alluded in the previous post, while others attribute it to the Talmud. I have even seen it attributed to various other kindred spirits also. Whatever about its origins, it contains an amazing truth. There are other phrases, too, which come to mind, like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “it’s all in the mind, anyway” and “we’re reading into the situation in hindsight.” All of these contentions contain more than a grain of sense. Yet, at a deep existential level of our being, especially when we have been emotionally moved or have been caught up in the “enthusiasm” of any shared experience, we may see patterns in various acausal episodes, that is, occurrences that are not causally linked.

Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events which occur in a meaningful manner, but which are causally inexplicable to the person or persons experiencing them. Here, I will give an apt quotation from the Wikipedia entry on synchronicity: “Carl Jung coined the word to describe what he called "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." Jung variously described synchronicity as an "'acausal connecting principle'" (i.e. a pattern of connection that cannot be explained by direct causality), "meaningful coincidence" and "acausal parallelism". Jung introduced the concept in his 1952 paper "Synchronicity — An Acausal Connecting Principle", though he had been considering the concept for almost thirty years. It differs from mere coincidence in that synchronicity implies not just a happenstance, but an underlying pattern or dynamic expressed through meaningful relationships or events.” (See the following link for reference

Now I wish to return to the “synchronicity of events” around Seán’s Graduation Mass and Ceremony. Firstly the theme chosen by the graduands was “we will never forget you.” Their poster for the Mass was based on the famous WW1 American Army recruiting poster “We want you” which depicts Uncle Sam pointing at the prospective recruit. Underneath Uncle Sam were written the words “We will never forget you!” Also, I had asked Seán to be the candle-bearer on the night. Seán carried the candle, neatly nestling in a red glass bowl and surrounded by red rose petals, to the altar, while a reader read the words of the Service of Light alluding to hope for the future. The readings were also most apt, especially the Gospel which was the prayer of the Good Thief on the cross beside that of the crucified Jesus Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The Old Testament reading was from the prophet Jeremiah lamenting his call as a prophet, “Lord, I am only a child,” and God’s words of encouragement to him to rise to his calling. After the Mass Ian Lowry gave the student address which was very emotional as he was the last in a line of five Lowry brothers to attend St Joseph’s. His speech was brilliant, apt and to the point, underlining the shortness of human existence and encouraging his friends and graduates in these or similar words “You will be a long time pushing up the daisies so pick them while you can!” In short it was a “carpe diem!” speech. In fact Ian broke down just at these precise words.

In the light of Seán’s tragic murder, the words were prophetic almost. I admit that those of us emotionally caught up in the tragic death of our pupil and friend do run the risk of reading back into these sad “coincidences” and in imposing a pattern which was never there. But, for us there was a pattern – that was our experience of things. Here we are dealing with deep personal, interpersonal and collective unconscious stuff which are outside the bounds of science. All as I can say is that the human heart and mind work as a total unity. Human nature is greater than the intellect which is only one small, albeit significant part, of the overall totality.

I contend that synchronicity incorporates the wholeness of experience and operates in a non-scientific way or in an intuitive way. In the words of the late great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, synchronicity would work at a first level of reflection, that level of reflection which makes possible “to put it paradoxically, the scientific nature of being legitimately unscientific in {all} vital questions. There is a first level of reflection which has to be distinguished from the level of reflection of science in the contemporary sense because life and existence require such a level.” (cf, Foundations of Christian Faith, Darton Longman and Todd, 1978, p. 10)

Above, I have pasted another picture I took of Seán's funeral Guard of honour. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal óg.

In Memoriam Seán Nolan 2

In Memoriam Seán Nolan 2

Many years ago I learnt the stages of grief at college during some psychology lecture or other. I was to hear them reiterated many times over the last thirty years of my working life. The psychiatrist responsible for outlining and studying them was none other than the famous, Swiss-born Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1926-2004). She outlined her famous 5 stages of grieving in her 1969 book called On Death and Dying. This was a seminal study of the attitudes and feelings of those who were close to death or actually dying. Kübler-Ross originally applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (job, income, freedom). This also includes the death of a loved one and divorce. Kübler-Ross also claimed these steps do not necessarily come in order, nor are they all experienced by all patients, though she stated a person will always experience at least two.

The stages are:

1. Denial - The initial stage: "It can't be happening."
2. Anger : "How dare you do this to me?!" (either referring to God, oneself, or anybody perceived, rightly or wrongly, as "responsible")
3. Bargaining : "Just let me live to see my son graduate."
4. Depression : "I'm so sad, why bother with anything?"
5. Acceptance : "I know that I will be in a better place."

I suppose we went through the first three or possibly four stages this week when we as a school were grieving for the loss of young Seán Nolan. The delay in releasing Seán’s body, necessitated by a second autopsy at the behest of the family of the accused, made us all very angry indeed. There ceretainly was plenty of denial: “I can’t believe that this has happened” etc etc. How many times I heard these and such like sentiments I cannot recall, but it was countless times.

I noted that many of his fellow classmates exhibited stage number 4 – they just did not and even do not want to bother with anything. Indeed, even the Leaving Certificate rates very low in their priorities and I heard a good number of them talking about failing, about repeating and one lad even stating that he would not even bother sitting his Leaving Certificate. These are all normal reactions when we are stressed out, when we are traumatised, not alone by an untimely death of a young much-loved lad, but traumatized by a random and horrendous murder. Of course, it is hard to get one’s head around such a dastardly and cowardly act.

Over the coming weeks the psychologist, Fíona Clancy, the counsellor Mairéad Martin and I, along with the Principal and Deputy Principal will be on stand by to help all to get as close as possible to stage 5. from the depths of grief, it sometimes seems that this stage cannot be reached. But together we will get their. After all, we never walk alone. We have one more angel in heaven to help us!

Seán we have no answers,
We have no words of consolation
For your poor heart-broken family.
All we have are our memories
Of a lovely young lad
On the threshold of manhood.
We cherish your good humour.
We remember your roguish smile.
We give thanks for your care-free manner,
Your refusal to get angry,
Your easy-going nature.
You will always be remembered
By so many friends.
Though your candle may be extinguished
Your light will shine on forever
In all our hearts.
You will alawys be our candle-bearer.
Smile on, smile on, smile on…

Above I have placed a picture I took at Seán's funeral of the guard of honour. Our Sixth Year Graduates are wearing white shirts and a past-pupils' tie.