Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's it all about, anyway, 11?

Into the Desert

Self with fellow students in the Augustinian Order, 1985. Not one person shown stayed!
I have already alluded to the fact that the metaphor of journey is a central one in all cultures and literatures.  There are many related metaphors, of course, like being stuck, being lost, going astray etc.  There is also the existential image of wandering in the desert.  This is an obviously Biblical motif, both from the Old and New Testaments when the Israelites wandered for forty years as a nation in the desert which prefigured Christ's forty days in the desert in the New Testament.  One could say that the classical version of this desert motif is that of the descent into Hades, the land of shadows.  That spiritually and existentially many of us go down into the pit of despair, the Slough of Despond as John Bunyan put it in his classic Pilgrim's Progress is without doubt a central part of the human condition.

When I left Religious Life I spent nearly two months literally in this Slough of Despond, in this personal Hades, in the Desert.  This is a far more desperate place to be than the experience of being lost.  Indeed, to use a very facile mathematical image, it is like being lost raised to the nth power.  That experience is akin to how the Gerard Manley Hopkins felt in the Terrible Sonnets or the despairing psalmist felt at stages in the Book of Psalms or how Josef K felt about his torment in Kafka's novel of despair, called The Trial

This is the heart of existentialism - the angst of lived existence, and only those who have been there, experienced some despair can talk about it.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, to whom I have referred a few lines back knew this black despair as he wrote:  "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.// What hours, O what black hours we have spent//This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!// And more must, in yet longer light's delay."  These are the first four lines of the Terrible Sonnet No. 45, and later on in the same angst-ridden poem he gives us this wonderful, if angst-filled line to ponder: "Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours" and opines that all other lost souls, or rather despairing souls "are like this, and their scourge to be// As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse."

Night sweats are indeed often part of the depressive's night as I can attest from my personal experience.  Being in the desert is a lonely experience, and one cannot just decide to exit from it at any time one wants.  One goes with the experience till it ends, whether that be by medical intervention or quite simply when the period of depression burns itself out, or when any particular sickness runs its course.  It is truly the Slough of Despond as one does not know when the dwelling in the desert is going to end.  In the midst of the desert there is the sheer blackness of unknowing and this, too, adds greatly to the physical and mental suffering.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Self, teaching in the Gaeltacht in more recent years
However, thankfully, as most of us who suffer from clinical depression know, bouts of that dreadful mental illness do come to an end.  Hence, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  Moreover, as many sufferers from depression can attest, sometimes it takes far too long - often years - for some medical practitioners to diagnose it.  In my case, I was attending the doctor for some twelve years before it was properly diagnosed.  Now the fault does not lie solely with the medical profession, who are picking up more of it, but also with general knowledge among the public at large about the symptoms of depression, especially of the clinical variety.  With me, the situation was that I had been enduring sleepless nights for say a week at a time over a period of some twelve years, yet this mini-desert experience would abate and not return for several months.  I wrote it down to just insomnia and/or worry.  However, as I am recounting this narrative in a fairly sequential or chronological fashion, suffice it to say that after two months of recuperating after exiting Religious Life, I got a job teaching Mathematics and Religion in St David's Secondary School , Artane.

Teaching with Renewed Vigour and Energy

It was as if I had been tested in a furnace; that I had journeyed in the desert; that I had been to Hades and back, and had survived.  I had come through, and had emerged wounded and broken maybe, but not crushed or left for dead.  I found that I had a new confidence in class.  I was now no longer as idealistic as I had been during my first period of teaching.  I remained in St David's for two years where I taught Mathematics, Religion, History and English.  Once again, the range of subjects in which I was qualified was no little help and my general knowledge was always wide.  This time round I made precious few mistakes in disciplining any class.  In fact, I was pretty good with all classes and had little or no trouble during my two years in the hallowed halls of St.David's, Artane.  I loved my time teaching there, and did a lot of Meditation work, in which I had built up a certain expertise over the years, with the pupils there.  Indeed, I worked closely with a former Provincial of the Christian Brothers, a Bro. Timothy Claver Leonard, CFC in leading meditation sessions in line with Eastern and Christian practice.  I also qualified, under Tim Leonard's direction, in presenting and assessing the MBTI, an indicator which seeks to determine, or, at least allow the candidates, to determine their character type.  This was interesting work from which I learnt a lot about human behaviour.

Also, while in David's I met one of my life-long friends, Tom Gleeson, and I engaged in team-teaching or co-teaching and observation of classes with Tom.  We learnt a lot from each other as to what teaching could and should be.  Over the two years there, I grew in confidence as a teacher and felt that I had a store of practical wisdom to share with my pupils from all my own experience of living.  Bear in mind that I had done several months of pastoral experience while in Religious Life - two months in Meath Street where I co-ordinated a Summer Project and I also did a month of visiting the sick.  Later I was to spend a month in Galway where I worked in a drop-in centre called Tagaste House.  While there, I worked with reformed alcoholics and drug addicts.  All of this practical experience, coupled with my academic studies and my descent into Hades had strengthened me and given me a deep insight into life which I could share with my charges.

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