Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Death of Genius and Mystic

John Moriarty 1938-2007

One of the greatest speakers and one of the greatest persons to walk lightly on this earth that I have ever met must surely be John Moriarty who died recently. One could hardly meet in a long lifetime a more integrated, passionate and compassionate human being. I count it a blessing to have attended some of his lectures back in the mid to late nineties of the last century. To be in John’s presence was like walking in the refreshing breezes of a mountainside or like smelling the turf on a day out in any Irish bog. To hear him speak was to be bowled over by the beauty, strength and depth of his appropriate words. In a second one knew one was in the presence of a great person, a great being and a great mystic. One imagined that Buddha or Christ or Confucius or Gandhi or any of the great spiritual leaders was speaking to you. John shook his listeners to their foundations. There was always a silence or a hush after John had come to an end of his discourse – we were all transfixed. No questions needed to be asked because one left his presence with one’s own questions deepened and sharpened, knowing that only you the listener could do this deepening and sharpening yourself in the quiet corners of your own soul.

Paul Durcan, the Ireland Professor of Poetry, had this to say when reviewing one of John’s last books, Invoking Ireland, (Lilliput Press, 2005) (Paul was a contemporary of John’s at U.C.D., Earlsfort Terrace in the late fifties of the last century): “In UCD around 1960, if O'Reilly was our film-star football idol, Moriarty was our unique conjunction in the one personality of Wallace Stevens, Heraclitus and Isaiah Berlin. When he was awarded a double-first in philosophy and logic, no one passed any comment, for not to have awarded him it would have been as absurd as not to award John Keats the Nobel Prize.” To listen to John, or to attempt to read any of his books, one realizes one is in the presence of a genius and guru, two words that truly go together where John was concerned. One would have to agree heartily with Durcan when he went on, in that same review-cum-encomium that, at least in Ireland, “Moriarty is the original, radical, non-conformist questioner.”

John, needless to say, was anything but conventional; to be such would have been to have sold his soul to the devil, to have compromised his very being. John’s way of being in the world was uniquely his, was totally uncompromisingly John – call it by all those terms that are doing the rounds these days: “authenticity,” “congruence”, “integrity” or “being true to self.” John was such and more. His writing is at once profound and disturbing, calling on us to question our prejudices, our shallow convictions and our easy acceptance of convention. He has published seven or so books drawing liberally upon the legends of Ireland, classical Greece, American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Ancient Egypt, Islam, Asia and the Christian Gospels to try and articulate the inner-most mysteries of human consciousness.

Also he is well acquainted with the best insights of modern science. Anything but a reactionary, which would have been anathema to both his fine mind and his sensitive instincts, he sought rather a melding of both, or more correctly and deeper again a compounding of both which could often antagonize both the hyper-religious and the reductionist-scientist among his audience or his readers. Such is the way of all geniuses – they have a habit of taking us beyond our frontiers. John was always a frontiers man. He would be the one asking us to go further into the wilderness, to climb the next hill, to cross the next river, to view the next valley. However, we are those poor weak souls who prefer to settle in our comfortable houses, near the more pleasant and pleasing surroundings of the duller towns and cities.

It is not surprising that John disappeared for some years. It turned out that he had spent his life living out his philosophy, just as Wittgenstein had done before him. He had wandered the face of the earth, working as a gardener mostly. “He had spent most of this time sleeping rough, walking, walking, walking where most of us would not dare to walk even for one day, not least those of us who would call ourselves environmentalists or cultural historians or artists.” (Paul Durcan again)

This brings me back to my own experience of John. I bought a good many of his books and tapes in the nineties. His books are brilliant and enlightening, but in many senses frustrating because they require so much from the reader. One needs experience of life to read John’s books. A philosophical education just is not enough. One needs to be a bit of a mystic oneself to some extent, or at least be open to the wonderful if frightening world of the great unconscious within us all if not to the spark of the divine. But his tapes are wonderful. His voice is moving, passionate and compassionate. You are transfixed. He remains the best speaker I have ever had the privilege to listen to. He remains the best crafter of appropriate words I have ever been privileged to read. More than anything, John connects with you, the reader or listener, immediately like the ancient storyteller of the Gaelic tradition.

Before typing these ciphers, forming these words, shaping these thoughts I had to go into my attic to find some old tapes of John. I played two of them. I was yet again transfixed, carried back to those lecture halls, to Dreamtime (Lilliput, 1994) the first book I read by him. Immediately John connected with me again. I loved and love his take on the word “love” which he says is redundant and meaningless in today’s world, cheapened out of existence by superficial and greedy advertising. John preferred the words “passion” and “compassion” to the now empty word “love.” This I think is brilliant. Like T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or indeed the wonderful Randall Jarrell (all of whom I love listening to) to listen to these great human beings is to be enthralled, transfixed and transformed. To listen to John is to be shaken to the very foundations, but also to glimpse the valley from the mountain top.

John recounts on one of the tapes how that when he was 17 in 1955 he read Darwin’s Origin of Species under the covers by torchlight. With this reading he tells us: “My world died, my cosmology died, my religion died.” John ceased to be a member of the Catholic Church after this, but tells us that he kept culturally and spiritually in touch with real Christianity through art. Because European art and culture could no longer comfort him he told Andy O’Mahony that after he graduated he went on “a walk-about through cultures” to nourish his soul. He had felt that that European Christianity had not really grown up. He was affronted by a Church that could burn Bruno at the stake or could call Galileo’s marvellous telescope “the devil’s tube.” Moriarty said in that interview that Christianity could still be a great religion if it could “go on the modern voyage with the likes of Darwin and Einstein.” True mystic that Moriarty was he took the scientific revolution seriously. What philosopher with a double first in Philosophy and Logic could possibly not have done so? True mystic that he was, he was to outline a mysticism and a mythology that could take both science and spirituality, and later in his life The Triduum Sacrum of Jesus Christ as experience rather than theology as all part of one whole in the journey of humanity.

He goes on in this interview with O’Mahony to point out that “human intelligence is not enough. Behavioural psychology is not enough. I can’t heal myself. I need healing from outside the system that I am.” (My transcription, there may be some words left out.) This is where spirituality or grace or God comes in – these words are all interchangeable in a way, I think. This last sentence is my take on this, not John’s.

I agree with Moriarty where he said that the Church has never faced up to the new Copernican Revolution. I agree with him when he said so poetically and so passionately in that interview that the Church had never taken seriously Kepler’s horror at, Pascal’s terror of, Coleridge’s dejection by or Matthew Arnold’s recoiling from the sheer terrifying expanse of the universe.

Other little gems I have learned from John. He used say that we had all build “Berlin Walls around ourselves to keep other people out.” This was long before the Berlin Wall came down. He also went on to say that we also built “A wall of cultural immunity around us”. He said this again long before we have had the present flood of immigrants into our country. John always said that we must break down these walls of separation from others. He also said that most of us built up our own “wall of psychological immunity” to keep other human beings out. Shades of Sartre’s famous, “Hell is other people!”

It is in this sense that he said that both passion and compassion are the ultimate experiences we must seek because they break down all these walls of separation. In like fashion to say to someone you love, “How are you?” and to say it compassionately and wait for the answer is much more powerful than to say, “I love you!” The greatest discovery for John and for all of us is the discovery of another human being; the discovery of the sacred otherness of the other person. This I feel is John’s great legacy to us.

In all of the above I have not done justice to this great scholar and mystic. I have merely scratched the surface, but I offer what I have written as a token of my passion and compassion for all the things John helped teach me to love.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal dílis. Leaba i measc na Naomh go raibh aige. Go mairfidh a scribhinní go deo i measc iad siúd a chreideann ina fhís uasal ionspioráideach.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Few Quotations on Personal Growth

In Pursuit of Wisdom

I have been besotted by quotations for years. I remember when I started teaching first in O’Connell School I had an alphabetically marked hardcover notebook into which I wrote sundry quotations from what I’d been reading. I used to give my 2.1 and 3.1 classes a quotation for each day that I had them. I have long ceased that practice. They were good kids who wrote down what teacher required of them. I now just quote them off the top of my head, if I chance to remember an appropriate one that is, and leave it at that. I suppose I’ve got lazy and somewhat sloppy in my approach to teaching, reckoning that if the quotation was meant to be caught by anyone it would stick anyway. This is probably not too good an approach on a pedagogical level I’ll admit, but given that this subject is Religious Education in its broad and non-exam sense one can afford to be so relaxed in approach.

Anyway in these computer days – I spend anything up to 8 hours a day writing, reading and blogging on the WWW during my holidays from school – I subscribe to Buddhist, Humanist, Self-help, Psychology, Philosophy and Spirituality sites and amass an amount of quotations. I have 11 separate files containing thousands of quotations. What a sad life! I do read them as I paste them in.

Anyway, I thought that for this post, I’d pick out some, and maybe proceed like this for a few days while I think of something more constructive to say in my posts.

 There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. -Anais Nin

 Growth in wisdom may be exactly measured by decrease in bitterness. -Friedrich Nietzsche

 The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself, he becomes wise. -Aiden Nowlan

These three quotations I highlighted in colour when I was originally pasting them into the word document because I thought they were profound. They all have a relevance to many of my previous posts which are indeed about growing up. In fact, they are directly concerned with the very motivation for my blog in the first place – my trying to make sense of the project we call life and also in exploring ways to make it more liveable and consequently to learn to grow into the person I really am becoming.

Above I have pasted a picture of a solitary rose in my front garden. In fact it was taken in November 2006

Sunday, July 15, 2007

"Growth is the only Evidence of Life" J.H. Newman

Growing Up

Growing up is always hard to do. That we grow is a law of nature. Newman once said that “growth is the only evidence of life” but I cannot remember where he said this. Growth involves change and change involves pain. We’ve all heard of growing pains. A son of a good friend of mine who has really put on a great spurt of growth recently had to attend the doctor with “growing pains,” which the doctor pointed out was all part of nature.

I suppose our spiritual or psychic or mental life mirrors this physical growth. However, modern medicine and modern psychology would not make such a bold split between mind and body as did Descartes. Rather it sees some sort of complex interrelationship between them both. Some modern scholars talk about the body-mind – especially scholars in the area of psychotherapy and meditation.

I have always liked metaphors. Concepts were enabled to my mind by the forging of metaphors, by the pushing further (the “meta” part of the word) of the signs and symbols of language (the “-phor” or “phorein”{Greek for sign} part of the word!), often forging abstract thought out of concrete images. I intend to write a little about this metaphorical drive within language at a later time. The metaphor I’d like to use here with respect to this particular post is that of the “onion.” I think the growth of the personality may be likened to growing extra layers as we progress throughout life. This links in with the PAC theory of Transactional Analysis nicely – as outlined in the book The Games People Play by Dr. Eric Beirne. Then I’m reminded of another famous metaphor in the form of a paradox by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth and this goes: “The child is father of the man.” This line occurs in the following beautiful little poem:


My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Wordsworth's sentiment is a poetic statement of an otherwise commonplace observation: what you are, and feel, and think, and believe as a child creates a path you will take into adulthood. Even more than this, the adult I now am I have built upon the child that I was. Also the adult I now am I have built upon the adolescent I was and so on up until old age. We never really do stop growing.

And so we grow and change and develop. And all of this is attended by varying amounts of growth pain (natural), “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (all the unwanted and unlooked-for accidents, natural disasters of all kinds, “acts of God” as Insurance Policies like to call these latter), the making of mistakes, and boy, don’t we all make them. We make mistakes at work, at home and even on the way between the two. We make mistakes with our friends, not alone our enemies. We also make mistakes with those whom we love. There is an interesting line of a song which goes: “you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all.” Google tells me that Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers sang this song. There’s a lot of truth in this simple lyric. To let people close to us means we both hurt them and are hurt by them. Such is life, but we have to be open to recognising our faults, apologising for them and moving on. Forgiveness is as important in the life of the “forgiver” as it is for the life of the “forgiven.” However, it takes strength of character to look at ourselves. Often we have to take the criticism of others on the chin, especially if they are sincere about it. The Dalai Lama tells us that often times our enemies are better for us than our friends, because we can learn more from them. That is very true if painful.

There have been times in all our lives when we have hurt the ones we love. As we go on in life we try to make amends as best we can. Life is difficult, we all know that. Like St Augustine once said let’s make a hospital of this world of ours and try to heal as many people as we can. I am reminded also of the words of the great Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde. To meditate upon that ballad is very good for the soul indeed. One cannot doubt how much Oscar suffered in prison and in his life thereafter. His words can cut to the core at times. They are words that resonate with the above words of the song sung by Willie Nelson. I loved this poem ever since I first read it in an anthology by the Christian Brothers at school. Here are three consecutive verses on love and the price paid for it:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Obviously Oscar is stretching language by metaphor here. For all the lovely things I’ve killed I’m sorry. Like Oscar’s famous character in The Picture of Dorian Grey one often feels like running along the roof tops and shouting “forgive me” to the world! Even if those hurt don’t hear, at least you’ve made the effort. No one ever promised that growing up was easy or even that we’d ever be “really grown up!” Does that rare state even exist?

Above I've placed a picture of the first snowdrops in my garden, early February 2007. They are at the height of their growth before being killed off by winds and frosts etc. Such is the ultimate price of growth. Maybe we're all just part of this eternal cycle of life?