A Good Friday Story

A New York nurse working in ICU has posted a harrowing story of her heartbreak as she accompanies a patient to the point of death. We have become inured to the videos and stories from Italy and we no longer comprehend the stats from the medical officials dashboards. This one story makes it all unbearably real. This is a story of the Crucifixion. Her name is Jennifer. This is her story.

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I lost a patient today. He was not the first, and unfortunately he’s definitely not the last. But he was different. I’ve been an ER nurse my entire career, but in New York I find myself in the ICU. At this point there’s not really anywhere in the hospital that isn’t ICU, all covid 19 positive. They are desperate for nurses who can titrate critical medication drips and troubleshoot ventiltors.

I’ve taken care of this man the last three nights, a first for me. In the ER I rarely keep patients for even one 12 hour shift. His entire two week stay had been rough for him, but last night was the worst. I spent the first six hours of my shift not really leaving his room. By the end, with so many medications infusing at their maximum, I was begging the doctor to call his family and let them know. “He’s not going to make it”, I said. The poor doctors are so busy running from code to code, being pulled by emergent patients every minute. All I could think of was the voice of my mom in my head, crying as I got on the plane to leave for this place: “Those people are alone, you take good care of them”. I was the only person in that room for three nights in a row, fighting as hard as I could to keep this man alive. The doctor was able to reach the family, update them. It was decided that when his heart inevitably stopped we wouldn’t try to restart it. There just wasn’t anything else left to do.

Eventually, he gave up. It was just him and me and his intubated roommate in the next bed. The wooden door to the room is shut, containing infection and cutting us off from the rest of the world. I called the doctor to come and mark the time of death. I wished so much that I could let his family know that while they might not have been with him, I was.

I shut the pumps down (so horribly many of them), disconnected the vent, took him off the monitor. We didn’t extubate him, too much of a risk to staff. Respiratory took the vent as soon as I called. It’s just a portable one, but it’s life to someone downstairs. The CNA helped me to wash him and place him in a body bag, a luxury afforded only to those who make it out of the ER. Down there the bodies pile up on stretchers, alone, while the patients on vents wait for the golden spot my gentleman just vacated. We’ll talk about the ER another time. My patient was obviously healthy in his life. I look at his picture in his chart, the kind they take from a camera over a computer when you aren’t really prepared. A head shot, slightly awkward. I see someone’s Grandpa, someone’s Dad, someones Husband. They aren’t here with him. My heart breaks for them.

I fold his cute old man sweater and place it in a bag with his loafers, his belongings. I ask where to put this things. A coworker opens the door to a locked room; labeled bags are piled to the ceiling. My heart drops. It’s all belongings of deceased parents, waiting for a family member to someday claim them. A few nights ago they had 17 deaths in a shift. The entire unit is only 17 beds.

These patients are so fragile. It’s such a delicate balance of breathing, of blood pressure, of organ function. The slightest movement or change sends them into hours long death spirals. The codes are so frequent those not directly involved barely even register them. The patients are all the same, every one. Regardless of age, health status, wealth, family, or power the diagnosis is the same, the disease process is the same, and the aloneness is the same. Our floor has one guy that made it to extubation. He’s 30 years old. I view him as our mascot, our ray of hope that not everyone here is just waiting to die. I know that most people survive just fine, but that’s not what it feels like in this place. Most of the hospital staff is out sick. We, the disaster staff, keep our n95 masks glued to our faces. We all think we are invincible, but I find myself eyeing up my coworkers, wondering who the weak ones are, knowing deep down that not all of us will make it out of here alive.

A bus takes us back to the hotel the disaster staff resides in, through deserted Manhatten. We are a few blocks from Central Park. We pass radio city music hall, nbc studios, times square. There is no traffic. The sidewalks are empty. My room is on the 12th floor. At 7pm you can hear people cheering and banging on and pans for the healthcare workers at change of shift. This city is breaking and stealing my heart simultaneously. I didn’t know what I was getting into coming here, but it’s turning out to be quite a lot.

Living Now

Creativity and Freedom

A few days ago I read a post from a monk in Mount Saint Joseph’s Cistercian Abbey in Ireland. St Bernard, a follower of the great St Benedict, understood human nature very well. He believed that human flourishing thrives when it our well being is supported by both creativity and structure. All of the great artists knew this. Creativity becomes truly itself when it is supported by a structure. The struggle to be avant-garde one hundred per cent of the time is too much for post people. And, indeed, those who reconstruct the tradition often do so by dismantling the structure only to assemble a new one. I think of the Irish American artist Seán Scully, who is at once a cutting-edge modern artist in a truly contemporary idiom, and, yet, there is a discernible underliying structural form underpinning

This was brought home to me some years ago when I went to an exhibit in the National Gallery of Ireland on landscape painting. There, I came across Seán Scully’s interpretation of landscape. At first, one admired the choice of colours and the linear structuring of the work. Here and there, there were breaks, the breaks where ‘the light gets’. The commentary accompanying the exhibition helpfully pointed out that the painting was inspired by the stone walls of the Aran Islands. These walls are wonderful human scale creations, all achieved by painstaking and demanding toil, the hewing of stone, the laying of stone upon stone, and the precise placing of each individual rock. The gaps there are there to allow the wind to blow through.

So, creativty and freedom can go hand in hand with structure.

So, what has this got to do with our present predicament with the coronavirus, you might ask.

Living Apart while Still Connected

Many of us, maybe even a majority of the world’s population at this stage, are in self-imposed isolation or, indeed, imposed isolation. How does one live isolation?

The monastic life and the life of the artist suggests that the adoption of a structure to our day is key. There is a strong temptation to binge on Netflix or to wallow in bed. That way lies disaster and misery.

Morning

For myself, I have created the following structure, which, so far, is working really well. I live with other people so the needs of others make their own demands. But still there is freedom to develop one’s own structure.

I rise early. I pray the Morning Prayer of the Church using the app from Surgeworks (the €30 I ever spent!). I log in to a Mass from Letterkenny Cathedral at 7.00am. There follows the first coffee of the day and twenty minutes on language learning with DuoLingo.

Breakfast in my room but I also do some household things, especially, do a sanitising of the ktichen area. A colleague is ill so, this morning, I brought him his breakfast, leaving the tray at the door.

That leaves time for catching up with the news on the radio and other news from the web. This morning the news from both China and Italy are encouraging. There seems to be a positive shift in the metrics from Italy, signs that the extreme social distancing is working.

Work in the office, which is nearby, from 9.00am. That’s where I am now typing up this blog.

For the moment I have access to lunch, a real blessing. I hope it lasts, but probably not for much longer. Social distancing imposes a two-shift regimen.

Afternoon

In the afternoon I go for a long walk on the college campus where I live. I bring my camera with me to hone my close-focusing manual photography skills. I greet the walkers, runners, football players, dog-walkers and mothers with their small children that I encounter on the walkways and in the park. Social distance is practiced by everyone.

Later, I catch up on some study and reading. At the moment I am focused on New Testament Greek and working my way through David Nineham’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

Evening

Supper is also in two shifts and simple in form. It is a time to catch up with others and find out how people are coping. We’re in this together.

At 7.00pm I try to catch the online Rosary from a parish in Glasgow, Scotland. I have come to enjoy this thirty minute period. It is very reflective and reassuring. Thank you, Father Dominic.

By 8.00pm it is time to take another walk on campus, a shorter one this time, and, at this time of the year, in darkness. This is my podcast time. There are very few people around, just the ocasional jogger.

By 8.30pm it is time for a few phone calls, checking What’s App and connecting with family and friends. No big drama. Just a check-in.

9.00pm. It is now time to catch the evening TV news. This is the time when I have my window on how the public authorities are doing. It is oddly inspiring as I see the images of the medics, the volunteers, the nurses and the meetings of experts. The political messages are all positive, supportive and strong. That’s good. Reassuring. One theme which is very prominent is: testing, testing, testing! It is good for us to know that there is a strategy and that there are people who not only believe in it, they are also prepared to drive it.

10.00pm. Night prayer in bed with the audio from the online service. Sleep follows fairly quickly and another day in the land of staying at home comes to an end.

Will I Keep this Up?

I ask myself that question, will I keep this up, every day now. So far, I have found the discipline supportive. In an odd kind of way I am discovering a new energy in this. It is partly because of my belief that my actions are contributing in a very small, tiny way, at the nano level one might say, to the welfare of others.

A YouTuber in the North of England, a medical doctor and scientist of the old-school, asked rhetorically the question: would you be prepared to die for your country? To which most people silently probably said, yes. To which he responded rhetorically, all you are being asked to do in this crisis is, stay at home. Can you do that? To which I said, yes, and yes, and yes.

God Bless you all.

Heroes and Saints

Medic in a Tent

I am convinced that this period of global crisis will be a deep existential moment in our story on this planet. Yesterday evening I listened to Gavin Ashenden on the Anglicans Unscripted blog . He reflected on the theological meaning of what is happening. He was interpreted as suggesting that, in some way, God is punishing the human race for the many ways in which we have been guilty of inflicting serious damage on God’s Creation. This way of thinking would be entirely consistent with the biblical narrative where, time after time, the prophets pointed this out to the people of their day.

There is a sense in which we have become so wedded to the idea of a human story that is guided by a progressive narrative and eschatology, that it is difficult for us to accept that we may have taken a wrong turn. Not just one but several wrong turns. Some of them we can accept as being entirely wrong, the destruction of natural resources come to mind. Pope Francis has been very strong on that. But that there are others that also come to mind. Again, Pope Francis has not shied away from naming them.

This is a time for saints and heroes. It is not difficult to see the courage and self-sacrificing actions of our health care workers, doctors, nurses and emergency personnel as representing spiritual and ethical choices that are saintly in character.

This is clearly visible in today’s Italy where so many workers, priests, doctors and nurses have already died.

Yesterday evening I directed my web browser to ChuchServices.TV to participate in Rosary from a parish in Glasgow. The Rosary was led by the parish priest who did so in a most contemplative and reverent manner. It recalled for me the Rosary of my childhood when praying the Rosary was a frequent service in the local parish church. I picked up my beads and joined him in this traditional prayer.

At the end he read out a letter from a doctor on the frontline in an intensive care unit in a hospital in Lombardy. It is a heartbreaking text. But through it all there shines through the work of God’s spirit in the hearts and souls of the medics and nurses working so selflessly for their patients. They are exhausted, broken, torn asunder by the trauma and barely able to keep going. But they continue on. In the process, they are discovering their own inner courage and encountering the mystery of God within the chaos.

Testimony of an Italian Medic

Iulian Urban 38 years
Doctor from Lombardia area Milan fighting against coronavirus 

 Never in the darkest nightmares have I imagined that I could see and experience what has been going on here in our hospital for three weeks. The nightmare flows, the river gets bigger and bigger. At first some came, then dozens and then hundreds  and now we are no longer doctors but we have become sorters on the tape and we decide who should live and who should be sent home to die, even if all these people have paid Italian taxes for life.

Until two weeks ago, my colleagues and I were atheists;  it was normal because we are doctors and we learned that science excludes the presence of God.

I always laughed at my parents going to church.

Nine days ago a 75 year old pastor came to us;  He was a kind man, had serious breathing problems but had a Bible with him and he impressed us that he read it to the dying and held them by the hand.

We were all tired, discouraged, psychically and physically finished doctors when we had time to listen to him.

Now we have to admit: we as humans have reached our limits, we can’t do more and more people die every day

And we are exhausted, we have two colleagues who have died and others have been infected.

We realized that where what man can do we need God and we started asking for help from Him when we have a few free minutes;  We talk to each other and we cannot believe that as ferocious atheists we are now every day in search of our peace, asking the Lord to help us resist so that we can take care of the sick.  Yesterday the 75-year-old pastor died;  that to date, despite having had over 120 deaths in 3 weeks here and we were all exhausted, destroyed, he had managed, despite his conditions and our difficulties, to bring us a PEACE that we no longer hoped to find.

 The Shepherd went to the Lord and soon we will follow him too if it continues like this.

I haven’t been home for 6 days, I don’t know when I last ate, and I realize my worthlessness on this earth and I want to take my last breath to help others.  I am happy to have returned to God while I am surrounded by the suffering and death of my fellow men. “

Testimony collected by: Gianni Giardinelli 

Ireland’s 9/11

View of the Upper Lake at Glendalough

Yesterday, like many others, I celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day by getting out into the outdoors. I went to Glendalough National Park in Wicklow. I was not the only person who had that bright idea. I have rarely seen such traffic jams, even on the finest Summer days. It was as if people were collectively saying to themselves, we may not be able to do this again for a long time.

Like so many in Ireland last night I watched the Taoiseach’s Address to the Nation. Maybe my expectations were low. Maybe I expected him to be bureacratic, perfunctory, playing the role, trying to please people, thinking too much of the political ramifications. But, boy, was I stunned.

His speech was rivetting from the first word. He spoke to us with sincerity, empathy, compassion and inclusion. It was truly a national moment of coming together. I was conscious of so many across the nation watching and listening. I watched it with others. There was silence that suggested that all of us were delving deep into our emotions.

He began by evoking our shared memories of the day, the great feastday of our national patron, Saint Patrick. “This will be a day that none of us will forget”, he said. How true. We won’t. I was in Glendalough all afternoon along with so many more who shared that beautiful spot on a day when we would normally have participated in the big national parades and festivities. I was very conscious of being in a moment, a moment when I was saying to myself – when will get to enjoy outings like this again without the overhanging shadow of COVID 19.

The Taoiseach touched into this feeling, shared by so many. Yes, there will be better days. But not just yet. He did not just give us the ‘wash your hands and be kind’ platitude. We know this. Instead, he spoke to our hearts and souls as a people, as a community.

He acknowledged our fears and anxieties. Even the ones we have not yet articulated. Such as, will the State be able to weather this crisis financially? Is there enough money to pay for everything? There isn’t. But, he said, we are prepared to borrow billions on the international markets to make sure that we get through this. We’ve been there before and we know that we can come through it.

In 9/11 there was a great outpouring of solidarity across the world with America in that moment. This is our 9/11 moment when we are challenged to make whatever personal sacrifices are needed to ensure that we care for one another, that we reach out to the vulnerable, the elderly and the homeless. We are not sending out troops to Iraq but we are deploying our bravest men and women on the frontline of this war against an unseen and silent enemy that threatens us all.

God Bless us All.

Girding the Loins

I have decided to resume this blog on a daily basis since I have time on my hands because of the Irish decision to require most of us to work from home, if we can.

I am a person of faith and this colours to a large extent my point of view. That is not to say that I am totally ignoring the science when it comes to the Covid19 virus. We in Ireland have the history of the Irish Famine, the Spanish Flu of 1919 and the more recent threat to agriculture of the Foot and Mouth disease. So we are well aware of the need to inform ourselves fully of the science.

So, what have I been doing. First, on the advice of so many I spent most of yesterday doing a complete sanitising of my surroundings, including the laptop, the iPad, keyboards and accessories. I also done a complete clean of my bedroom and home office. I share my accommodation with others so I have become super aware to make my contribution to good practice in relation to kitchen equipment, the kitchen itself and laundry facilities.

Yesterday

Yesterday, my very first act was to go to my local shop where I purchased soap, only two packets of two bars each (if you need to know, Dove, my favourite). I then paid a visit to my local pharmacy Given my age I am in the ‘at risk’ category and so I explored what I need to do to get my regular prescriptions organised with my local medical centre. Some analgesics and paracetamol were also part of my purchase. It is a tribute to my local pharmacy that they still have masks in stock at the actual original retail price rather than the exorbitant prices demanded by some pharmacy chains. So, yes, I purchased one, – just in case.

I spent the afternoon getting myself up to speed on the policy decision relating to our situation in Ireland where we are not quite at the Italian level of lockdown but, maybe, heading there. I am always interested in understanding the scientific basis for policies. It was then I discovered the ‘herd immunity’ discussion. I was pretty horrified about this policy since it implies that older people may be left to fend for themselves. The algorithms are determining policy and it would appear that policy is guided by a theory, which is, as yet, never deployed before in a real-life pandemic scenario. I have a Chinese friend, a student who has been here for the past year, and he has helped me to understand just how effective the Chinese lockdown has been.

I went on to Reddit and posted some of my thinking. Needless to say, I was fairly well backed up against the wall at first. But I had done my homework and I knew about the R/Zero piece and I was also aware of the figures suggested by the modelling. So, I held my ground and kept pointing out that the success of the herd immunity strategy depends on the existence of a vaccine which we do not have. When I woke this morning I noticed that Reddit was alive with the issue. There is an emerging view in the UK that they may have adopted a policy that is totally unproven. This is not a time for public health policy experimentation. That said, if the science can demonstrate that the herd immunity theory is not only theoretically valid but feasible in practice, then I will be on board. But not just yet.

So, my focus on following to the absolute letter the instructions from our Irish health authorities whom I trust. My focus will remain on extreme social distancing.

Today

No Mass today, of course, except for private ones. This morning I followed a service from Saint Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny. The priest was first class. He did not act as if here were the only person present in the Church but spoke directly to his online congregation. He even read the announcements for us and they were relevant for us, the online congregation. So, whoever he is, I congratulate him and, indeed, the other priests who have taken on this role

 

Biblical Text of the Day

Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be our strength.

Nehemiah 8: 9-10.

Prayer in a Time of Great Anxiety

O almighty and eternal God, refreshment in our weariness, support in weakness: from you all creatures receive energy, existence and life.

We come to you to invoke your mercy because
today we know deeply the fragility of our human condition as we live in the midst of a new viral epidemic.

We entrust the sick and their families to you:
bring healing to their body, their mind and their spirit.

Help all members of society to carry out their tasks well and strengthen the spirit of solidarity among them.

Support and comfort the doctors and health professionals on the front line and all the carers in carrying out their service.

You, who are the source of all good,
bless the entire human family abundantly,
remove all evil from us and grant us firm faith, hope and love.

Free us from the epidemic that is affecting us
so that we can return to our usual occupations calmly and praise you and thank you with a renewed heart.

In you we trust and raise our plea to you because you, Father, are the author of life, and with your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in unity with the Holy Spirit, live and reign forever and ever. Amen.

Mary, our Mother, health of the sick, pray for us!

The Great Warming



The Great Warming is the title of a book by climatologist and archaeologist, Brian Fagan. The book describes the global warming that took place in Europe during the early medieval period, from about 1100 to 1400. It was, for example, a time when the Norsemen were able to undertake long-distance voyages to North America. It was also a time when wine-growing was commonplace in medieval England. And it was also the period when massive deforestation took place in Medieval Europe as agriculture expanded due to the warmer climate and longer summers.

I am finding Fagan’s work fascinating because of his ability to insert the human person into the landscapes of the earth and climate stories. Here a link to a podcast by Brian Fagan that you might wish to explore.

The story of the emergence of human beings against the backdrop of the larger story of the Earth, I find fascinating. Reading Teilhard de Chardin’s work, The Phenomenon of Man, in recent weeks has been both enlightening and challenging. It is not an easy read but rewards the reader’s effort generously.

It is also an appropriate book to read during this period of Advent. The Coming of Christ in historical time, which we celebrate at Christmas, was preceded by the Coming of the Human over the long history of the Earth. Both belong to the same process involving the Universe and the emergence of Consciousness. We who are Christians believe that this story must include the Christ-event from the very beginning.

Where we stand today is a mere nanosecond distant from the period of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament when viewed against the vast expanse of Earth Time, not to mention cosmic time.

I have often thought when reading the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible how similar are those seemingly remote spiritual searcher are to ourselves. What those distressed, sometimes joyful, people experienced, the emotions they expressed and their vital concerns, are remarkably similar to my own. I, too, can relate to their ways of thinking and to their psychology. I do not find them at all distant from me. Rather they are companions on the same journey as myself.

What Brian Fagan and others have done has been to expand my horizon of inclusion and to inspire within me a wisdom born of a greater feeling of humility.

We are not the first to explore this planet or to make discoveries. Indeed, the discoveries of early humans were just as hard-won and as momentous in their implications for the story of humanity as the marvellous scientific advances of our own age. The Lascaux artists who gave expression to their stories of the hunt, to their experiences and to their thinking about life on the walls of caves were profoundly open to the movement of the Spirit within them. They were inspired to share their experience with others by means of artistic expression. That story continues today and is amplified by our modern means of communication. The artists of the Lascaux Cave share the same spiritual impulses as Charlotte Prodger, the young Scottish woman, who yesterday won the Turner Prize.

We are all on the same journey. The question which excites me is the final destination of the journey. Does anyone know? Maybe we, no less than early humans, catch only glimpses of answers to that question. And therein lies the mystery of existence. Why do we exist. What is the point of the journey.

Something “abhorrent to any civilised society”

This thoughtful commentary based on Professor William Benchy’s remarks to the Irish Parliamentary Committee considering the repeal of Article 8 of the Irish Constitution goes to the heart of the matter. He argues from a consistent right to life position based on a long and revered human rights tradition that where the disposition of human life is concerned an ethic based on choice theory is at best inadequate, and, what is more troubling, dangerous. The proposition that either the State or an individual has a right to so dispose of a human life has underpinned the legitimation of the worst excesses of totalitarian regimes.

Garvan Hill

img_1114 Pawns in a pro-choice game

The chilling implications of the underlying philosophy of those advocating the repeal of Ireland’s constitutional protection of the right to life of all human beings were laid bare last week in the Irish parliament. Currently a committee of elected members is hearing evidence from those proposing and those opposing repeal.

Professor William Binchy, an expert in constitutional law, challenged both those advocating repeal and the legitimacy of international pressure being put on Ireland to make this change.  Clearly the implications for civilization of an argument which gives one human being the right to choose to end the life of another innocent and defenceless human being brings us back to not just the dark ages but to one of barbarism  where right and wrong are no longer rooted in reason but on the whims of individuals.

Human rights, Binchy explained to the members of the…

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Gaudete Sunday

Over sixty years ago about this December time of the year, I recall standing outside my childhood home in that moment before the hall door was opened as people searched for keys. It was following our return from what we then called ‘Saturday Night Confessions’. Looking up I was struck by the beauty of the night sky. It was a frosty night and the stars glistened in their pristine splendour hanging above the dark outline of a distant mountain. A frisson of awe ran down my spine and an intense joy filled my little childhood self. I understood then what it all meant. Christmas was near. Baby Jesus would be born in the stable and would appear soon in the splendid crib of our local church, the best Nativity Crib in our whole area. Santa Claus would be riding across the sky and all would be right with my little world.

It was easy to believe in the joy of Gaudete Sunday then. Now, in my later years, it’s not so transparently obvious.

The Melancholy of Time

Where is joy to be found in a world where everything is subject to the erosion of time? T. S. Eliot’s poem, Burnt Norton, explores this question of living in the flux of time.


Time present and time past.
Are both perhaps present in time future.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind.
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future.
What might have been and what has been.
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Eliot seems to be evoking a sense of a timeless, eternal now in which something is present, something we cannot bear, a reality we cannot perceive, a mystery so dazzlingly real that we cannot bear its sight.

So much Reality we cannot Bear

This Third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, is traditionally focused on rejoicing in the anticipation of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour. Mind you, it is distinctly difficult to rejoice in these days as we learn daily of the passion of Aleppo, now in the final days of a Syrian, Russian and Iranian assault on the city. The lands where once emerged the great narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are undergoing brutal destruction and slaughter. And there are few hands innocent of this crime.

There is indeed much reality in our present time that we cannot bear with ease. Suffering, mass dislocation of peoples, cynical displays of military power, insane religiously-motivated violence, monstrous distortions of even the most ordinary truths, have all contributed to a sense that our wold is spinning out of control.

People ask: what does the future hold? Will peace, humanity, joy ever return? The readings of this Third Sunday are also focused on this question. But also seek to assure us that better days lie ahead. The blind will see, the lame will walk, the crops will once more grow, cities will be rebuilt and will enjoy a new flourishing.

We need the comfort of time future, however uncertain it may be. We hunger for our utopias . And if they are slow in coming, we do our best to imaginatively construct them. Or we go in search of them in a great odyssey of adventure like Gilgamesh, the forerunner of all who seek escape decline, decay and death. And like the Ithaca of Cavafy’s poem, our utopian dreams often disappoint.

The Dazzlement of Godness

A newsletter from a Christian Brother in India arrived in my mailbox this week-end. It was a reflection on his own faith-journey, the movement away from what he calls ‘the props of tradition’ to a more inclusive understanding of God, the gods, the universe, the ‘whole thing’ as he would name it. He says:

One gets blinded by the sheer profligacy of Godness, that this God from whom this Godness emanates dazzles us with Its dimensionlessness. We retreat to our minimalness, “I’m only human”, and feel good to be less than dazzled, to be in fact as blind as we choose to be so as to be freed from the relentless urge within us to aim ever higher. Sorry, deeper. Sorry, wider. Sorry, more cosmic. Sorry, more more.
Brother Brendan Mac Cárthaigh cfc, Kolkata, India

The Mystery

And to quote Eliot again, "the end of all our striving will be return to the place from which we began and know it for the first time." The striving is over, the relentless urge released, and something like peace has come. My writer friend describes it in terms of a new knowing, of facing towards the reality we cannot bear. Somewhere within this experience we encounter what Rahner calls ‘the Mystery’.

Perhaps, it is in the emergence of insight and the attainment of wisdom, like Gilgamesh, like Jesus, like Paul, that we come to the joy we celebrate in this Third Week of Advent.

In that wonderful little book, The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons, the compiler provides us with a beautiful reading from Karl Rahner where he reflects on the sadness that descends upon us in late Autumn has we walk among the dead leaves.

Time, Rahner says, disappoints us, time future as much as time present and time past. Instead, we look more to what is really real, the eternity out of which time came. He says: “Here is the moment to conquer the melancholy of time, here is the moment to say softly and sincerely what we know by faith: ‘Gaudete, let us rejoice. I believe in the eternity of God who has entered into our time, my time.'”

In what can we Rejoice

The deep down Good News is that we live in God’s eternity. As Richard Rohr might put it, this is what the perennial wisdom teaches us. It is the mystery that is hidden from us. The apostle James, in the Sunday reading, calls it ‘the seed that is secretly growing’. We are living in the Now of God’s eternity. Rahner again: “A ‘now’ of eternity is in you. And this ‘now’ has already begun to gather together your earthly moments into itself” (Karl Rahner, The Eternal Year, 1964).

Thomas Merton understood this way of seeing. He experienced it in that moment, standing on the street in Louisville, Kentucky, on the corner of Fourth and Walnut when the ‘now’ of God’s eternity dazzled him with an intense mystical light. Of this moment he says:

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Here lies the joy of this Third Week of Advent, the realisation that we are not condemned to remain the victims of the ‘stupidities of the human condition’, that something lives in us that is utterly indestructible, that is not subject to the passage of time or the apparent oblivion of death. We are all of us bathed in that mystic light of Fourth and Walnut.

Someone this week described to me Advent as a progress from darkness to light. Perhaps now we can say that we live always in the light, bathed in all the light we cannot see.

For a Moment of Meditation

Enjoy a quiet moment of reflection on Advent. Reflect on how we can engage in soulful ways with bringing Advent Light to our immediate world of family and community.

There is a Way

Tidying my book shelves the other day I came across a set of books carefully lined up. All were books by the University of Notre Dame scholar, priest and spiritual guide, Father John S. Dunne csc. He died some years ago in 2013.

This past while I have also been immersed in a biography of Thomas Merton by Monica Furlong simply entitled Merton, A Biography, first published in the UK in 1980. Reading this book, and especially the biographer’s recounting of Merton’s later years, I was struck by so many parallels with John S. Dunne.

Both were American priests with a strong rootedness in American life. Merton was already dead when Dunne began writing. There were, however, literary and artistic relationships that wove them both into the same story: Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, T. S, Eliot, and so many writers and thinkers from the vast panorama of Western culture and philosophy. Both became fascinated early on by the contact with Eastern philosophy and mysticism. And both had been drawn into the late 20th century struggle for justice in Latin America. It was left to Dunne, however, to make the journey to Latin America that Merton never did.

An Awakened Spirit

What ultimately links both writers is their commitment to the inner life and their fascination with the journey of the self. This journey was a particularly modern one, albeit with roots in Augustine. Early in his writing John S. Dunne picks up this thread from Kierkegaard, Hegel and the poetry of Rilke. For Merton, the quest for authentic living was hard won in the teeth of opposition from religious authorities and the accepted limitations of his enclosed life as a Trappist monk. Dunne described the quest as shaped by the desire to become, as he said, ‘heart-free’.

Although Merton spoke much about solitude, he comes later to the insight that his ultimate quest is the ‘search for God. Oddly enough, this was the title of one of Dunne’s first books, A Search for God in Time and Memory (1977). Much of Dunne’s writing over the years was devoted to the nature of the spiritual quest. Had Merton been reading Dunne he would have been struck by the number of times that Dunne describes his work in terms of insight and discovery. Life is a process of making discoveries. Not too hard to discern the influence of Lonergan somewhere in the background here.

Becoming Heart Free

As a graduate student at the Institut Catholique in Paris, I undertook an analysis of Dunne’s corpus as it was at that time in the early 1980s. It took the form of a thesis, directed by the late Père Kowalski, and it took for its title, Becoming Heart-Free. I later fetched up at Notre Dame where I met John S. Dunne and many of his colleagues. He was a revered figure on campus, much sought after by young college students. His influence on their lives was obvious to all. He was a charismatic figure in the fullest sense. His place of ministry was the college lecture hall. But many flocked to see him for spiritual direction and advice. Like Merton, he spent much of time writing writing, thinking, contemplating. In a move similar to that of Merton’s, John sought to live closer to people by moving off campus to a simple house on the corner of a South Bend street.

Both men were seriously aroused in their spiritual core by aesthetic experience. Artists such as Klee, Rouault , Rothko, and Kandinsky resonated deeply with their spiritual imagination. Something in the artistic theme of the outsider, of the pilgrim, of the loner found in these works touched their psyches. Rilke, too, was an important poet who spoke to the experience of loneliness (or ‘aloneness’ as Dunne would say) that sharpened their spiritual sensibilities and eventually opened up for them the wider world of relationship. For men with a clear contemplative orientation this a path of discovery and insight that they both shared.

There is a Way

Each in his own way undertook an inner journey that called each away from the narrow conventions of 1950s America towards the wider horizons of a suffering world. In their respective journeys their dialogue partners were artists, poets, writers and contemplatives from many spiritual traditions. While, in a sense, Father Dunne travelled the world in imaginative ‘thought experiments’ without ever leaving Notre Dame, Merton did the same without leaving his monastic enclosure.

Everywhere John S. Dunne perceived the unity of the spiritual quest across time, across cultures and across the varieties of religious experience. In what is for me a favourite expression of his, he articulated this unity and universal dimension of experience when he repeated, as he did throughout his writing:

Things are meant.

There are signs.

There is a way.

Like Merton, Dunne’s search throughout his life was for the authentic path, the way of truth, that would lead him to an iner harmony of life, the world and the spirit. Merton perceived a similar resolution of his own spiritual quest when he said:

Coming to the monastery has been for me exactly the right kind of withdrawal. It has given me perspective. It has taught me how to live. And now I owe everyone else in the world a share of that life. My first duty is to start, for the first time, to live as a member of the human race which is no more (and no less) ridiculous than I am myself.

From the The Sign of Jonas, 1953.