Friday, January 20, 2012

What's it all about, anyway, 10?

Self-Knowledge and Compassion versus Self-Obsession

There's nothing as bad as a person who is self-obsessed or narcissistic, or even egotistic.  These posts are of the self-knowledge variety I hasten to add.  My preoccupations throughout this week have been work-related mainly and with preparations for the Vincent de Paul Party for the local old folks.  I have also been moved by the tragic loss of life to the sea, internationally and nationally, firstly of the people on a cruise off the coast of Italy due to the silliness of a Captain who should have known better and secondly of the Irish and Egyptian fishermen lost tragically to the vagaries of the sea here at home off the coast of Cork.  One could not fail to be moved by the media reports and the on-line testimonies of the survivors and relatives of those lost to the unforgiving sea. Also, I helped some students with big problems during the week which ranged from depression, consequent on the suicide of a close relative, to OCD and on to a session on grief counselling with a group of four young men who had lost their fathers over the last number of years. 

All of these things help to keep me real, lest I get lost in any form of self-obsession or even be touched with a little egotism.  As well as that, a former Deputy Principal of our school who has cancer and has had his left hip and leg removed from it, arrived into the school with €100 for our Vincent de Paul Party.  This man has never succumbed to his disease nor has he given in to riding in a wheelchair.  He still goes around on crutches and drives his automatic car.  How could one not fail to be touched by such wonderful kindness and such wonderful strength.  I've always loved Shakespeare's words which he places in the mouth of Miranda: in The Tempest, Act V, Scene I:
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world!
That has such people in it!
I always feel like reciting these words when I am touched by all these wonderful as well as tragic events that occur in the wonderful, if at times cruel and painful, world.

Back to my Personal History

John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890)
Over the course of the 54 years which I have lived on this earth I don't think I have ever planned out my career with any definite specifics.  I always knew the direction that I would travel in, never the particular road.  Teaching, whether at second or third level always attracted me, never at primary.  I have done a little lecturing over the years on a very occasional basis at Third Level mainly in classroom practice and other school-related activities.  While working in the library in Orlagh, the Novitiate house of the Augustinian Order here Ireland I discovered the wonderful works of the great John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890).  I read his Oxford University Sermons, a must for any theologian or philosopher, and especially for any student of good English.  The beauty of Newman's prose is a joy to read and a singular pleasure to read aloud, even to oneself.  This is a habit I have long had ever since a child.  I used always read passages aloud from my schoolbooks if I liked them!  My late father used always laugh sympathetically at this peculiar habit of mine.  Another book I particularly relished, even though I admit I struggled through parts of it, was his wonderful Grammar of Assent.  I was equally enamoured of the great Cardinal's The Idea of a University which is a must for any would-be educationalist.  Consequently, the subject of my S.T.L. thesis would be the philosophical/theological thought of this great Victorian scholar.

Minor Break-Down, Minor Break-Through

Self, around 1985, some six months before I left the Augustinians
It's always the way; when one least expects it the body speaks.  While I was studying for my Master's I got sick several times with the flu or, at least with flu-like symptoms.  I also spent periods of several weeks sleepless.  Then somehow the sleep would return.  I went several times to the Doctor and was sent to a neurologist when my G.P. suspected something akin to ME at least or MS at worst.  However, our neurologist could find nothing wrong with my nervous system.  Concomitant with the rebellion of my body went a spiritual rebellion.  My student master noticed that I was considerably out of sorts and recommended that I take a break in a centre city parish where I had been happy previously during some pastoral experience.  While there I visited the sick and dying several times in the local flats.  Needless to say this was deeply moving work.  In the evening time I once again, as is my wont, escaped into the world of reading.  This time, as a break from more academic reading I read novel after novel, until one day I picked up the book The Last Battle about the fall of Nazi Germany at the hands of the Allies and the Russians.  It was written by Cornelius Ryan, (1920 – 1974) who was an Irish journalist, born in Dublin and who went to Synge Street School, another famous Christian Brother School.  He was a war correspondent and author mainly known for his writings on popular military history. 

Anyway, this wonderful book, The Last Battle  (1966) is about the Battle of Berlin.  It contains detailed accounts from all perspectives: civilian, American, British, Russian and German. It deals with the fraught military and political situation in the spring of 1945, when the forces of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union contended for the chance to liberate Berlin and to carve up the remains of Germany.  One evening, as I was tiring of reading, I left the book down just to muse on what I had read, and the following thought, which is as clear now in my head as then, occurred to me: "What am I doing here in Religious Life at all?"  When I took up the book to continue with the sorry saga of the fall of Berlin, I had already decided that I was leaving that way of life for good; that it was not my spiritual home at all.  As I have already written in a previous post, drawing on an image from the famous twentieth century sociologist Peter Berger, that the person is truly integrated who has found himself to be truly at home in his own mind.   Unfortunately, I wasn't at home then, at all, in my own mind. I realised on that fateful evening, while reading Cornelius Ryan's wonderful book, that I, too, had fought my last battle in Religious Life.  Nothing remained for me, but to go forward into different pastures, continue on my personal journey to God knows where.

From this distance - some 26 or more years later - I realise after much reflection and discernment that during my last year with the Augustinians that I had undergone a minor nervous breakdown, that what I was suffering from was clinical depression, with which I would be diagnosed years later at the significant age of forty.  However, minor breakdown that it was, it was, also, a minor break-through into the deep down world of the soul.  As I have learned in the years since then, it often takes the body to speak loudly to us in order to hear what the soul is saying at all.  And sometimes those who fail to heed the soul are often hit with the most weighty of crosses.

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