Jacob Well by MikeJenny

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									                                          CARE OF THE SOUL

I once met a “futurologist”. He specialised, he said, in studying the future. We thought he was joking,
but he looked and sounded very serious, even intense. A futurologist.

We often talked about it later, a few of us. What would the world be like if you really knew the future? –
if you knew it as you know the past? It would be the greatest horror, I imagine, a life without surprises;
it would be unliveable. Quite often we suffer because we don’t know the future; but that would be
nothing compared to the suffering of always knowing it. In such a life the future would not be the future
but a kind of unlived past. God has spared us that at least.

The nineteenth century came to an end in a glow of optimism: progress was the name of the future. I
wonder what our futurologist would have predicted then. How could he or anyone have known that
they were just then entering the most murderous of all centuries? Someone reckoned that by mid-
century a hundred million people had been killed in war and by the effects of war.

Early in the 20th century there was a movement in art, called ‘Futurism’. Centred mainly in Italy, it was
a rejection of all traditions, and it attempted instead to glorify contemporary life, mainly by emphasising
its two dominant themes: movement, and the machine. It celebrated change and innovation, and it
glorified the dynamism, speed and power of the machine, and the vitality and restlessness of modern
life. The car had only recently been invented, and the ‘Futurists’ idolised its beauty, its speed and
power (though we might think the Model T, with its two forward gears and its box-like appearance, was
especially lacking in these!). The movement became much more than a movement in art; it exalted
violence and conflict and called for the sweeping rejection of traditional cultural and social values.

‘Futurism’ seems very adolescent to us now, and that is perhaps what it was – if you can speak of
societies going through their adolescence. Like adolescence, the full flush of the movement didn’t last
long, fizzling out before 1920. But also like adolescence, aspects of it became permanent: its influence
survived in the worship of the machine, which became a fundamental part of Fascist doctrine. And it
had a significant influence on the early development of the Soviet Union. A naïve fascination can have
dire consequences.

Today we still worship the machine, especially the car and the computer, and we again repudiate the
past, and we are even more restless than those early 20th-century Futurists. Their cult of modernity
looks comical beside ours, so far have we outdone them. Our culture remains somehow adolescent.
Like those Futurists, when we try to visualise our future we don't see a world filled with goodness,
justice and love. Instead we imagine a world filled with computers and robots. We worship the
machine more than any Futurist ever did. We are so fascinated we don't notice that it isn’t working.
Travel is vastly easier than before, but we visit one another less. We fill our lives with time-saving
devices, but we have less time than ever. Means of communication have multiplied beyond measure –
mobile phones, text messaging, email, etc. – yet we lose touch with friends. We are hurtling ourselves
so fast into the future that we have lost touch with the present: in other words, with our lives. We have
fictions of the bionic – beings that are half human, half machine. We are becoming what we have

Is there anything at all we can do about this? We have grounds for being sceptical about political
initiatives, but at the level of the individual and of the family, can we do something? We are the ones
taking the early steps in the 21st century, as the Futurists were in the 20th. Let’s start a To-do list,
which you can add to from your own experience: to look again at the way our grandparents did things,
believing that we can learn something from them; to do as many things by hand as we can reasonably
do, developing a spirituality of work; to make a habit of switching off as many machines and gadgets as
possible; to visit our friends more often; to get to enjoy walking more; to sit by the fire with the family,
with the TV switched off; to read books again....
I can recommend a really good one: The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore. And
when you have finished that, you can go on to his Care of the Soul. That, in a few words, is what it
comes down to: care of the soul.

Donagh O'Shea

                                          A PLACE OF MERCY
                                   [A talk at the Mercy hospital, Cork]

Seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water. We are now quite used to seeing
photos of it, taken from space. We see our blue planet floating in the immense darkness, beautiful
beyond words.

All the rivers of the world are making their way to join that vast body of water. Some of them, like
the great rivers of India and Pakistan, or the Amazon, can be seen from space, but the endless
network of lesser rivers cannot be seen from so far away. You can't see the river Lee from there! If
you want to see the Lee, you have to come near it, not move away. If you wanted to see it in its
entirety you would have to go to Gougane Barra and walk the length of it, all the way to Cork
harbour! If you were to do that, you would know the Lee in a way that no one watching from space
could ever know it. Your knowledge of it would be more detailed, of course; but it would also be
knowledge of a different kind. It would be intimate knowledge: the river would become part of you;
you would come to love it, having travelled with it every inch of its fifty-six miles. You would see it in
all its moods: you would see it as it struggles through narrow places, and you would see it as it
calms out into the lakes at Inniscarra. You would have struggled with it, and so it could never again
be just a line on a map for you, or a photograph. It would have become part of your life.

You may not feel like walking fifty-six miles at present, and it isn’t really necessary! Like every river,
the Lee has many tributaries. Most of them have names, but the smallest of all have no names.
Focusing in very closely you can give your attention to the mesh of little streams and gullies that no
one bothers to name. Some of them don't live long enough to be named; and yet even these
trickles of water after a shower are making their way, like the Ganges, to the sea.

How far in can you focus? The raindrops running down your window pane are on their way to the
sea. They are part of the vast ocean, and they are coming home. Without raindrops there would
be no sea, without the sea there would be no raindrops.

The tears running down your face are part of the world and not separate from it. They are not
visible from space; they are close and intimate. Only your family and your closest friends are
allowed to see them, and sometimes even they are not allowed.

Is there anything closer than this? Yes, there are unshed tears. Many people want to hide their
tears even from themselves. Many have a water-table of unshed tears that only God can see.
Don't think of God as living in outer space, watching from a distance. God is closer to us than we
are to ourselves, said St Augustine.

Our life is many things, but it is never free of suffering. To hope, or even wish, for a life free of
suffering would be like wishing for a world without water. Tears and suffering are life-giving, if we
don't divert their proper course. The great Christian affirmation is that our suffering is redeemed by
Christ, it is channelled into life; it is a breaking through into deeper life. “Those who have not
suffered, what do they know?” wrote Henry Suso. “All the saints are cup-bearers of a suffering
person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they call out with one voice that it is free
from poison and a wholesome drink.” Medicines can taste like poison; healing can feel like
sickness. Sometimes we are being healed of illnesses we scarcely know we have, particularly
illnesses of the heart and the spirit. We have to be patient. We are in the right place: here we are
referred to by everyone, visitors and staff alike, as ‘patients’.
“Go into the cave of your heart,” said the monk of Spencer Abbey, “and you will hear the roar of
mighty waters. They are the tears of the whole world.” We don't suffer alone. Our suffering is part
of the world’s suffering. Sickness appears to isolate us: we are physically separated for a while
from our own place, our family, our friends, our work. But in a strange way it draws us into a caring
community. The hospital community takes care of us; they are with us and for us; when they ask,
“How are you?” they want to know; they are walking beside our river of pain. Nor are the other
patients just looking on; they are suffering with us. We are not alone; we are part of poor wounded
humanity – more intimately so, it may be, than when we are well. It is a privileged time to see
deeply that we are part of the Body of Christ. It can be a time of homecoming.

Looking out at the river Lee as it flows past the Mercy hospital you can put these realities together
in your mind and heart: your tears, the tears of the whole world, and the place of mercy. A hospital
is a school of mercy, and for the people of Cork this particular hospital is ‘The Mercy’, not only in
name but in fact. Here the grace of God is at work, drawing us into the healing ocean of God's

                                                                                    Donagh O'Shea
                                         HELL AND HEAVEN

It was a parish mission in my village a long time ago; my informant was Bart, who died in 1986 aged
ninety-four. The missioners started at the end, with the Last Judgment and Eternal Damnation, the
usual procedure. Their aim was to frighten people out of their wits and into Confession, and their
aim was often achieved, at least in part. One evening as the congregation left the church, a farmer
said to his neighbour, “That’s going to be an awful bad day, that Day of Judgment!” “Not half as
bad,” replied the neighbour, “as the day after it!”

Hell seems to have cooled down since then, but it remained as hot as ever right into the 1960s. I
remember reading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the 1960s and wondering, when
I reached the sermon on hell, why all this was called literature rather than religion, because I had
sat through an identical sermon two years earlier during a school retreat. It was night-time. “Go
now to your beds,” said the preacher in a low voice, having terrified us in a very loud one for three-
quarters an hour with facts and figures about temperatures at the core of the earth, “go now to your
beds, and as you climb in between the sheets, thank your God that you are climbing in between
sheets of linen, and not between sheets of fire...! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of
the Holy Ghost....”

Dante imagined these words written over the portal of hell:
        Through me you pass into the city of woe,
        Through me you pass into eternal pain,
        Through me you pass among the damned....
        This place was created by divine Power
        And supreme Wisdom and original Love....
        All hope abandon, you who enter here.
Terrible words: all hope abandon.... Why? Because you are entering a place, he said, created by
Power, Wisdom, Love: in other words, Father, Son and Spirit. George Steiner, who is Jewish,
believes that centuries of morbid Christian fantasy of this sort account psychologically for the
Holocaust. “It is in the fantasies of the infernal, as they literally haunt western sensibility, that we
find the technology of pain without meaning, of bestiality without end, of gratuitous terror. For six
hundred years the imagination dwelt on the flaying, the racking, the mockery of the damned, in a
place of whips and hellhounds, of ovens and stinking air.” We brought about in this world, he said,
what we had always imagined in the next.

It certainly created a kind of holocaust in the consciences of millions of Christians throughout the
centuries. The crux was how to love Someone who was infinitely cruel. If you did not love, you
were damned; so out of fear of damnation you tried to love the One who threatened to damn you.
What a business for twisting emotions! “Sing!” roared the teacher as he throttled the schoolboy (my
father remembered this from 1910), “sing, I tell you!” “You might as well tell me to fly, sir!” said the
boy when he could breathe again. Bravo, little feller from 100 years ago! You stood up for
humanity. And now you make us think: Likewise how could anyone love out of fear? “Perfect love
casts out fear,” St John wrote.

Then, on the other side, greed. The joys of heaven. Every sermon, as I remember, ended with
more or less the same words, “...and so to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Greed and fear
are not our noblest instincts. They certainly move us, but by the same means that people use to
move animals: the carrot and the stick.

Still, people didn't lose their spirit...the throttled schoolboy, for example. Between what we ignored
and what we didn't understand, we came through reasonably well. Bart told me of another parish
mission (or perhaps the final day of the same one) when the preacher had been quoting a passage
from St John's Gospel repeatedly: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” Afterwards
one farmer remarked, with professional interest, to another, “That priest’s father must have a fine
Donagh O'Shea
                               GOD THE FATHER?

The ancient world - and indeed the modern, until fairly recent times - tended to
see the child only as an incomplete adult; children, someone said, are a recent
discovery. It is normal enough for Christians to refer to themselves as God's
“children” (even when they are in advanced old age), and some saints made a
speciality of it: one thinks of St Thérèse of Lisieux and her way of "spiritual
childhood." This emphasis was known before her time, of course, but it tended
to fix on the miseries and humiliations of childhood, while she emphasised
instead simplicity, joy and love.

Today, we lean to the opposite extreme from the ancient world, without always
catching very much of what St Thérèse had in mind. We tend to glorify and
romanticise childhood in a way that suggests a lack of meaning and direction in
adult life rather than any wise appreciation of childhood. Parents, in our age, are
losing confidence in themselves as parents. Particularly fathers.

Fathers are fading out of the world. Many of them are becoming invisible in their
families: they leave home for work before the children are awake, and they return
after these have gone back to bed. Unless they take special pains they may
seldom even see their children. In addition there is a habit in popular psychology
of blaming parents generally, and fathers in particular, for everything that is
wrong in one's life. There are even cartoons that habitually show fathers as
rather stupid, absurd and inept figures.

Some writers take for granted that no one could relate meaningfully to God as
Father any more, because this word, they say, connotes only authority and
power. For people, male or female, who had a good relationship with their
fathers, this will always sound peculiar, despite every effort of imagination; it is
other people's stuff, like shoes that are not your own size. Though I was an
adult, when my father died I thought the world had ended. I hope I am not
mistaken in thinking that this is normal. Let's not be persuaded by any writer to
take the abnormal and the failed relationship for normal.

But what if you have had an unhappy relationship, or none much at all, with your

In that case, consider the following thought. To call God `Father' is to go beyond
human fatherhood; “call no one on earth your father; you have only one father,
who is in heaven” (Matt 23). Jesus had no human father, his only Father was
God. This becomes true of us too, in a sense: to call God `Father' is to say that
our life in Christ is such a new kind of life that God alone can be its Father. This
effectively sets aside all patriarchal structures. “Do not presume to tell
yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father,' because, I tell you, God is able
from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt 3). These must be
among the most subversive words ever uttered: they are a ringing assertion of
the supremacy of God and of the vertical relationship to God. But with the
passing of time horizontal structures try again and again to take precedence; the
patriarchal chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees are always waiting in the
wings, waiting for any weakening of prophecy, waiting to step in and take over.
Far from being patriarchal, it is prophetic to call God your Father.

It is important to know what you are not saying: you are not saying that God is
like your human father. And even if your father looked like God to you, God
would still not be like your father. God is not an instance of fatherhood. Our
relationship to God is not symmetrical: let me explain what I mean. I can stand
or the right or on the left-hand side of the tree, and while that makes a difference
to me it makes no difference to the tree; we have an asymmetrical relationship.
Likewise God is not related to us in the way we are related to God. It has been
said, and it is still repeated like an axiom, though it is illogical, that if God is male
then the male is God. This is not how religious language works. Our names for
God are names for the unknown: they are like a finger pointing to a horizon, and
not like a finger pointing to an object. There is no object that might point back,
making the relationship symmetrical; God is not an object, God is transcendental.

But doesn't all this help to fade fathers out even more?

I don't think so. An unloving father does not make it impossible for you to think of
God as Father, but a loving human father makes it easier. Like all created
things, human fatherhood can be (at its best) an image of the divine, a vestige, a
pointer beyond itself. And by the way, fatherhood is not the same as maleness:
there are many males who are not fathers. Maleness is a characteristic of an
individual, but fatherhood is a relationship. Perhaps because of this distinction I
feel comfortable calling God `Father', but not `he' or `him'. It is this relationship,
not a whole package-deal of maleness, that is used by Christians as a metaphor
for God.

If your relationship with your father is so damaged that in practice it cannot work
as a pointer to God, then take some other human relationship that will serve
better. Every human relationship, Julian of Norwich implied, can open out to
God: “I saw that God rejoices that he is our Father, God rejoices too that he is
our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true Spouse and that our soul is his
beloved wife.” She travels farther along this line than any feminist of our own
time. “Christ rejoices that he is our Brother,” she wrote, “and Jesus rejoices that
he is our Saviour....The fair lovely word `mother' is so sweet and so kind in itself
that it cannot truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of him and to him who
is true Mother of life and of all.” This remarkable freedom with `gender' is not a
manoeuvre in a war of the sexes, rather it is a profoundly theological point. She
is not saying that Jesus is like your mother. She is saying the reverse of this:
your mother, at her best, is like Jesus. He is the incarnation of God's wisdom
(“she who knows and understands all things”) and like a mother he feeds us with
his own body. Julian has as little trouble in calling Jesus Mother as in calling
God Father.

God rejoices, she said, and Jesus rejoices: it seems to me that Julian herself is
rejoicing in a vivid theological imagination that gives her immense freedom. Oh
for a piece of it!
Donagh O'Shea
                            TIBETAN LAMA

“My bishop said to me...” began the Tibetan monk – or ‘gelong’ or ‘lama’. I
didn't catch what the bishop had said, because I immediately fell to
wondering why Tibetan Buddhists were following the example of one Zen
group in the West who translated their own monastic titles into ‘Christian’
language, converting their roshis, for example, to bishops! (But they
wisely changed back.) Why should they burden themselves with our
history...? But I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. In a moment I
realised that the monk was talking about a Catholic bishop in the Vatican
who was sponsoring his studies in Rome. “My bishop.” It was in keeping
with his general outlook: he was embracing everything!

He was in Rome to study Christian philosophy and spirituality. There are
better places in which to do that, but he was embracing Rome at the
moment, and who knows how they might benefit each other? The hardest
concept for him was ‘God’. But there is something in Buddhism, he told
me, that is beyond karma, and he was beginning to study how it might
relate to what Christians call ‘God’. He loved St John of the Cross. But
some philosophy professors were a puzzle to him, especially the one who
said that reincarnation, “while being philosophically possible, was
theologically unacceptable.” This sort of distinction made no sense at all
to the monk. I suggested that philosophy frequently seems a foreign body
to Christians: it was there at the birth of the Christian faith, already an
adult, and it often appears to be either coming from elsewhere or leaving
in rebellion, unhappy to stay except for brief periods or in unexciting
places. Buddhist philosophy, he said, is different: it arises out of Buddhist
meditation and is therefore never foreign to it. Our history is different.
Perhaps what Buddhists call philosophy Christians call theology. But this
genial monk, loved by everyone he met, was now experiencing the dismay
of meeting a truly ‘other’ mental world.

Double truth, duplex veritas, was a device used by some Christian
thinkers in the thirteenth century to preserve their own religious identity
while agreeing with Aristotle, whose works (written more than fifteen
centuries before) were only then becoming available to them in full. It was
a lazy position to adopt, a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. It was no
better than the other two lazy positions adopted by other groups: total
rejection, and total acceptance. The fourth position, that of St Albert the
Great and St Thomas Aquinas, was the only one that involved hard work,
the laborious study of strange texts in poor translations, the stitching and
unstitching of thoughts, the immense effort to include the ‘other’,
transforming it and being transformed by it.

To say that Buddhists are atheists (as some Christians have said) is like
saying that Christians worship three Gods: the statements are at about the
same level of comprehension. We need to listen to what they say – and
try to listen to what they do not say, or cannot say in language intelligible
to us – rather than deliver ready-made verdicts on them. Many Christians
think of God as an object (a very big one), forgetting that God is not
encompassed by any of our concepts: neither ‘object’, nor ‘subject’, nor
‘person’, nor ‘one’, nor ‘three’.... God is transcendent. “We cannot grasp
what God is, but only what God is not,” wrote St Thomas Aquinas. “In
Christ, “ he added, “we are joined to God as to the unknown,”. Of course
there are other things too that we say about God, but this stands. All of
this is unsatisfactory to people who have a passion for clarity, but that is a
passion that reality has no obligation to satisfy. Thomas was renowned
for clarity, but there is a false kind of clarity for which you don't need a
head but only a neck.

“...To God as to the unknown,” tamquam ignoto. It has been called
‘Christian agnosticism’: “Father, holy be your name.” Holy, kadosh,
means ‘separate’, ‘wholly other’; we cannot soil or spoil God; indeed, we
would if we could. If the Tibetan monk is struggling to understand what
Christians mean when they say ‘God’, we can keep him company. It does
not mean that we are in the same position: ‘Christian agnosticism’ is
embedded in a different mental world, a different religion, a different way
of life. But we can stop talking as if we had God in our pocket. Religion is
before all else a way of living. Thinking and talking are parts of it, but they
can never become the whole. Thoughts, however clear, do not convey
the very pith of a lived life: not because they are somehow defective, but
because they are not the whole of life.

I sighted him again in town one evening: a younger version of the Dalai
Lama, striding eagerly through the Roman rush-hour, going perhaps to
visit his bishop. He was thousands of miles from his monastery, and
facing with eagerness the wholly other, the unknown....

My gelong, my lama.

Donagh O'Shea
                               NO SPEAK


He was sentenced to seven days in prison for contempt of court, though
contempt was the farthest thing from his mind; in fact he was only trying to
help the court. He was a dock worker in Cork harbour who had gone
drinking with a German sailor. The sailor misbehaved in the city and was
arrested and brought to court. The docker went along to show solidarity
with one who was almost a colleague. When the judge asked if there was
anyone present in court who would act as interpreter, the docker raised
his hand in a spirit of friendly co-operation. He was invited to the front of
the courtroom and seated near his drinking partner. The proceedings
began and the judge said, “Ask the accused to state his name.” The
docker turned to the sailor and uttered as gutturally as he could, “Vot iss
your name!” And that’s how he got himself a week’s worth of porridge.

When you like someone it’s remarkable how little of his or her language
you need to know. A shortage of vocabulary can bring people back to
their shared humanity, as an abundance of it may drive them apart.

The German sailor was acquitted.


Love, they say, comes in at the eye. In a certain part of Ireland a teenage
girl met an Italian sailor, and mutual love came in at the eye. But
everyone knows that it tends to go out in large volumes at the mouth, but
she and her sailor had no common language. Still, she was not without
resources: she knew that the local bishop spoke Italian, so she brought
her sailor to the bishop’s house to have their mutual sentiments translated
(with an imprimatur as a bonus). Which he did! Still, even if he had not
been so helpful they would have managed to communicate with each
other: love always finds a way, and happiness has a rich repertoire,
“Quips and cranks and wanton wiles / Nods and becks and wreathèd

I'm sure there is no connection between the two words ‘amo’ in Italian: one
means ‘I love’ and the other means ‘a fish-hook’. Good heavens! And he
a sailor and all....

St Paul made groans respectable as a language of prayer. Truth is God’s
language, and a groan is usually more truthful than the smooth worn
phrase falling from a practised lip. God sees the heart, which has a richer
and poorer vocabulary than the intellect.

Or we should say God sees our whole life, and how we lay it down day by
day: for ourselves or for our friends...
...even one week of it, like the helpful docker in Cork.

Donagh O'Shea
                  THE BOILER IN THE BASEMENT

“...My house being now all stilled.” It is remarkable how spontaneously
and often the image of house recurs in the writings of the mystics; it is an
image of the self. Others pursue the image into greater detail: windows
are eyes, the attic is the higher self, the hall door is the transition from
private to public, and so on. At the risk of being crude, may I suggest that
the sexual instinct is the boiler in the basement!

First of all, God be heartily praised for that boiler: it warms the whole
house and makes it a place of human habitation. It often causes
problems, true, but how chilly the house without it! “Thank you for all your
help,” said the young woman. “It wasn't for you I did it,” replied the older
one, “it was for the Lord!” This frigid spirituality needs melting, needs
singeing, needs licking with the recreative flames of Eros. A warm firm
handshake, a largeness of mind, an ability to sympathise with others: all
are evidence of a flame of life burning quietly within the person, keeping
feelings, intellect and will at human temperature.

There has been a negative fascination with sex that leads to ruin in that
very area. Fascination, in the strict sense of that word, is a life and death
matter: stoats and weasels are able to fascinate their victims, robbing
them of the power of flight and attracting them, spell-bound, to the
murderous tooth and claw. The sexual instinct was lent this power
principally by the teaching on ‘no parvity of matter’. This was the teaching
that even the littlest unlawful sexual pleasure was ‘grave matter’; in other
words, if accompanied by ‘perfect knowledge and full consent’, it was
mortally sinful. Nothing like this was said of any other kind of immorality,
not even violence or injustice, the deadliest enemies of “the Master’s
whole teaching,” love. It was the wrong kind of abyss, and it is not
surprising that so many now, whether for or against it, are so fascinated
and held by sex.

All the problems of the age come back to it in one way or another: marital
breakdown, abortion, homosexuality, the war of the sexes, child-abuse,
failure in celibacy.... Other ages agonised about the Trinity or the divinity
of Christ or the place of icons in worship, killing and being killed for their
beliefs; but our age has to come to terms with this one. Blind
fundamentalism will not serve; neither will self-indulgence; it will require all
the wisdom we can find, and much more....

Perhaps we will find some fragments in Plato, who was not as other-
worldly in this matter as he might seem; or at least we might find
encouragement to move, rather than remain fixed in the heartless clarity of
imperatives. He regarded Eros as an education, because of its intense
energy that needs gradual sublimation, and because it can raise a person
above selfish interest. Equally, of course, he knew that it can corrupt and
destroy. It is a terrible divinity, like fire: it can destroy or give life, it can
consume or purify, but it does not paralyse. How fluently we Christians
speak about light, but how fearfully about this dangerous fire in the belly.
Light is comfortably outside us and we have it under control, it is safe and
rational, it has every possible religious credential. But fire is dangerous, it
is able to challenge and (for better or worse) transform us out of

God is not only light but fire. The part of ourselves that we have often
considered farthest from God is the very material of transformation. Send
down the Divine Fire: Veni Sancte Spiritus! Bend the rigid, warm the
frigid, straighten the askew!
         Flecte quod est rigidum,
         Fove quod est frigidum,
         Rege quod est devium.

Donagh O'Shea

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who
oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring
something to drink!’” (Amos 4:1). Amos didn't like the women of Samaria!
Nor the men: “An enemy will overrun your land,” he told them. Not that he
knew many of them. For purity of racial hatred it is better not to know the
people you hate.

This particular racial hatred went back a long way, to about the seventh
century B.C. At that time the Assyrians had invaded Samaria and
succeeded with a ‘plantation’ of the population. To take the place of the
people who had been thrown out of their land, foreigners from five
neighbouring regions were brought in. These brought their pagan
religions with them and mixed them with the religion of Israel, as they
themselves mixed and intermarried with the Jews who had managed to
stay on. Samaria became a melting-pot of different cults and customs,
and Jews despised it as a blot on their country.

It was a very inconveniently situated blot: right in the middle. So when
Jews wanted to travel between Galilee in the north and Judea in the
south, they had either to pass through Samaria or to skirt it. Things could
be unpleasant for them if they passed through, but the journey was twice
as long if they went around.

Doesn't everyone have a Samaria right in the middle of his or her life? It is
the part of your life that is a mess: where you are at your very weakest
and worst, where your thoughts and motives are all mixed up and unclear,
where you have never had peace and hardly dare to hope for it. It is the
part of you that you don't accept (Jews referred to Samaritans as
“foreigners”). You don't want anyone crossing into your Samaria, and
people learn this quickly enough; they learn how to go around it, how to
avoid touching those dangerous triggers in your personality. Your
Samaria is the dead part of you. It is your Samaria that makes you feel an
outsider in many human situations: there is a moment when real sharing
with a friend is possible, but you feel disreputable in some way, you shut
yourself up tight, your face becomes a mask, and the moment that might
have given you life is past.

Many of the heroes and heroines of Jesus' stories were Samaritans! The
one leper who came back to give thanks was a Samaritan; the man who
stopped to help the one who fell among robbers was a Samaritan; and in
John’s Gospel there is the incomparable story of Jesus with the Samaritan
woman. So much did he seem to like Samaritans that the Jews once
threw him the worst insult they could think of: “You are a
Samaritan!” (John 8). What is wonderful to remember is that Jesus went
right into the heart of Samaria (John 4). It tells us that he is ready to go
into ours too.

For very many people Samaria is their sexuality. That is where the real
confusion reigns; externally they are married to one woman, but internally
they may out-Don Don Juan. “You are right when you say you have no
husband,” he said to the Samaritan woman, “the fact is you have five
husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” It was the
truth, but it must have been spoken with love, because she did not walk
away. On the contrary she left the water jar there at the well (country
women don't usually do such impractical things!) and went back to the
town to tell people, with enthusiasm, “Come and meet someone who told
me everything I ever did!” Usually when people tell you everything you
ever did, you want the ground to open and swallow you.

If we meet Jesus in our Samaria he will not walk past us; he will speak to
us with such love, such absence of condemnation and with such belief in
us, that we can never deeply feel like outsiders again.

Donagh O'Shea
                           BRIDES IN BOOTS

In the twelfth century St Bernard of Clairvaux taught his monks to see
themselves as Spouses of Christ. If you thought that this phrase was
never used of anyone but nuns, you may now begin to relish the image of
those strong monks, with muddy boots from working the land, as Spouses
of Christ. Imagine them in procession! And the smell of the soil! Brides
of Christ.

“Real men don't eat quiche,” it used to be said. But I think many are
beginning to take a nibble now. I wonder who made that rule anyway. Or
who made the rule that real men are tough and silent, that they are
typically competitive and ruthless, that they are at their best when they are
knocking back pints of beer in the company of other men, or boasting of
their conquests of women, that they bear even the worst tragedies dry-
eyed and unfeeling, that they wouldn't be seen dead in a kitchen or doing
‘women’s work’? Hollywood films certainly reinforced it, even boys’
comics and innocent-looking cartoons reinforced it. Generations of boys
have grown up with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood as icons of manhood.
You can recognise the swagger, the boastful talk, the cult of toughness.
What a tragedy for them and for the women who live with them! Yet I am
suspect that most of those mediaeval Cistercians were much tougher men
than they.

But those films and comics only reinforced something that was already in
place. I remember the greatest embarrassment that I suffered in primary
school: for misbehaviour I was made to join the girls for sewing class! I
remember feeling like a leper, a freak; I remember my face alight with
shame; nature itself must rebel at the injustice of it: a boy in a sewing
class! At an early age, no doubt, we try to find our identity by saying who
we are not, but this game goes too far: it follows many into adult life and
old age. As young adults we should already be quite secure in our identity
as men, and not needing to play this game anymore. Only when we stop
playing it do we become free to allow qualities we used to identify as
feminine: gentleness, receptivity, intuition.... A man who is lacking in these
is not yet an adult, no matter how old he is or how tough, or how many
pints of beer he can put away.

St Bernard was once the most powerful man in Europe: more powerful
than the Pope, who was a former monk of Bernard’s community. Yet for
almost twenty years he poured out sermon after sermon on The Song of
Songs, a book that contains some of the most tender love poetry ever
written. In the opening verses it is the Bride, the Beloved, who is speaking
(or singing):
        Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth –
        for your love is more delightful than wine.
This Bride, Bernard said, is “the soul which thirsts for God.... No names
can be found as sweet as those in which the Word and the Soul exchange
affections, as Bridegroom and Bride, for to such everything is in common,
nothing is the property of one and not the other, nothing is held
separately.” The soul is ‘feminine’ to God, in the sense that discipleship is
primarily a listening and a receptivity; it is a communion of being, not a
feat of will-power. This does not mean effeminacy in a man: proof of it is
Bernard’s monks! Look around at them: farmers, blacksmiths, builders....
They would put us to shame as males. They are so secure in masculinity
that they have no need to act the role of tough men.
        Set me as a seal on your heart,
        as a seal on your arm,
        for love is as strong as death. (Song of Songs, 8:6)
Donagh O'Shea

When they told me in Italian that there was a “pechinese” to see me I
thought they meant a little dog, a Pekinese. But then she arrived, like light
in the mind. She was very human indeed, most gracefully so, and she
was from Peking – or Beijing as we say now. That was the first of many
meetings with Lirong; her name means “Beautiful flower of December”.
She was to become a good friend, and she opened my heart to terror and
pity – which is what we feel, the ancient philosopher said, when we
witness tragedy.

She described with astonishing casualness the horrors of the Cultural
Revolution in her childhood: a demonic destruction of the past with all its
cultural products; the uprooting of people as if they were a crop to be dug
out by machinery; the imprisonment, the torture, the death of seventy
million people – all in the name of a single crackpot theory. Lirong often
spoke with warmth about a favourite cousin. Then one day (it must have
been the fourth or fifth time she had spoken of her) she mentioned
casually that this cousin had spent seventeen years in prison. One day (it
was Easter) she spoke of her boyfriend, who had spent three years in
prison after Tiananmen; when she met him on his release she literally did
not recognise him. All this and much more she spoke of without the
slightest hint of self-pity or hatred. As I listened to her I felt I was like an
Easter egg, made of chocolate and nothing.

She remembers paging through a prayer-book when she was a small
child, and recognising just a few of the many words – or rather characters.
“When will I be able to read this?” she asked her mother. “One day you
will be able to read it all,” said her mother. That prayer-book along with
every other religious object in the house was destroyed by the Red Guard
on the first of their many vicious attacks on the family. The parents were
terrified to utter a single word about the Christian faith in Lirong’s hearing,
lest she repeat it to a neighbour and the Red Guard pay them a definitive
visit. So she grew into adulthood in complete ignorance of the Faith –
apart from that vestigial memory.

She recalls a day in her early twenties when she visited her uncle’s house
and he spoke to her in whispers about the Faith, glancing often at the door
and the windows (Mao’s ideal was a spy in every home). He locked the
door, drew a parcel from under the floor-boards and unwound its many
layers of wrapping. It was a small booklet on the Stations of the Cross.
She had a sudden sense of recognition; no, of course, it was not the book
she had seen in her childhood, but it had the same atmosphere about it –
that was all she knew of the Faith. She prevailed on him to lend it to her
for a few days, and she remembers running home through the snow, with
the booklet inside her blouse and her heart beating crazily. Some visiting
cousins were at home and she greeted them briefly before going to her
room and hiding herself completely under the bedclothes. There she drew
out the booklet and began to look at it with the light of a torch. She could
read every word! For the first time in her life she could see in black and
white that Jesus died on the Cross to save us from eternal death. From
deep inside her there arose a great wave of sobbing, then wave after
wave till her nose and forehead ached, and she knew that there was a
power in the world greater than the power of violence. Her mother came
to ask why she was not with her cousins. They wept together for a Faith
that had been torn from them, but which was all the more theirs. “Tell me
where you have put him…Rabbuni!”

Where I live, you can go into a bookshop and buy the Scriptures, or any
religious book, and you can sit in the public square reading them. No one
will come and drag you to prison for it, no one will even say an unkind
word. In full freedom the western world is casting aside the Faith of the
martyrs. There will be a religious and cultural December, a harsh winter.
Pray for us, Lirong, “Beautiful flower of December.”

Donagh O'Shea

Henry Suso studied theology under Meister Eckhart in Cologne. But
Eckhart was more than a teacher to him: there is a touching account in
Suso’s autobiography of how he went to Eckhart when his hypersensitive
conscience was tormenting him, and how Eckhart gave him complete
peace. Suso was born Heinrich von Berg, a formidable name for
someone so slight and sensitive. In fact it proved to be altogether too
heavy a burden for him, and he changed it for his mother’s maiden name,
Sus or Süss. Perhaps it was the father himself who was too much; Henry
described him as “a child of this world,” while his mother was “full of God.”
She suffered greatly “because of a vexing dissimilarity between her and
her husband;” she wanted to live in a religious manner, but he “was full of
the world and opposed this with unrelenting severity.”

At the tender age of thirteen Henry entered the Dominican Order in his
native Constance. The real beginning of his religious life, however, he
places in his eighteenth year; it was then he had his conversion to a life
with God. He had a profound religious experience which he described in
great detail. It was the beginning of a great love story, told with
impressive literary skill in the tender language of courtly love. “Eternal
Wisdom (a feminine noun in German, as in most languages with noun-
gender) offers herself in the Holy Scriptures very affectionately, as a fair
beloved who adorns herself beautifully in order to be well pleasing to all
men, speaking gently in the guise of a woman, in order to incline all hearts
to herself.”

In light of this it is something of a shock to read in the autobiography his
account of his fierce ascetical practices. Hairshirts, whips, chains,
deprivation of food, drink and sleep: he used them all. He continued his
ascetical practices for sixteen years and then suddenly abandoned them.
These practices are shocking to modern sensibility; and we have to adjust
our minds to see the meaning of his suffering for love. The language of
chivalry, parodied in a later century by Cervantes in Don Quixote, was still
viable in Suso’s century. “Your young unruly heart,” he said to himself,
“can scarcely endure to be without a special object of love.” So he often
“meditated about her, thinking of her lovingly, and liking her full well with
all his heart and soul.” The mediaeval knight delighted to suffer for the
lady he worshipped.

For a time Henry’s work was teaching, then preaching and giving
individual guidance. He seems to have been especially gifted in his
apostolate to women – much of his work was with Beguines, nuns and
laywomen. The autobiography is full of stories of unforgettable
tenderness. One of the most beautiful friendships among the saints is
surely his with Elsbeth Stagel, a spirited Dominican nun with whom he
remained friends till her death. If all this was the fruit of chivalry, then the
plant must have been a healthy one. “By their fruits you shall know them.”
But the modern reductionist tendency is to judge everything by its
psychological origins – which is to judge it by its past. Henry’s vivid life
makes this look pale indeed.

He is able to speak to us of many things that trouble us today. We have
trouble with exclusive language. But our trouble goes deeper than
pronouns; it is about relationships between the sexes, and about power in
the Church; ultimately it is about the ways in which we relate to God.
What kind of love is love of God...? This is the abiding question of Eros
and Agapè. Our love of God will be a cold unfelt thing unless our affective
nature can flow into it. Henry managed just this by a radical method: he
expressed his devotion to God as to a feminine presence. It is men who
should be expected to have trouble with God as masculine! In the twelfth
century, St Bernard solved the problem in the opposite way: he made the
disciple feminine, even persuading his robust monks to think of
themselves as Brides of Christ! One way seems as extreme as the other;
but perhaps to talk about God at all is to be brought to extremes.

Our thoughts and feelings about God say much about ourselves too.
They are an expression of what we are, and also of what we aspire to be.
A man fighting battles for the exclusive masculinity of God is perhaps in a
Nietzschean mode: God as the expression of a people’s will-to-power, an
expression of what they are (or rather, pretend to be). But when a man
allows himself to aspire to God, it will also be (by way of consequence) an
aspiration to a fuller humanity, which will include so-called feminine
qualities too. The Nietzschean man delights to overcome, even to
overcome himself; but he never overcomes his will-to-power, and he never
aspires to include ‘feminine’ qualities. Henry Suso has much to teach us,
with his tender-heartedness and his chivalrous love of God. As we endure
our growing-pains in this area, Henry may have something else to teach
us, in his other style of writing (he had at least two). He can teach us how
to think and speak in ways that show the influence of Christian charity. He
sounds just like his master Eckhart when he says, “The actions of those
who are truly abandoned to God are their inaction...for in their actions they
remain at rest, and in their work they remain at leisure.” Our actions (and
our speech) are to fall from us like ripe fruit from the tree; there is to be no
will-to-power, no violence; for we are nothing if we are not people in love,
aspiring beyond ourselves to God and to the fullest humanity.

Henry died in Ulm on 25 January, 1366, and was buried in the Dominican
church there. His books are regarded as spiritual classics. He was
beatified by Gregory XVI in 1831.       Donagh O'Shea

This prison had no gates. It didn't need them. You could call it an open
prison. Nor was it even a building in the proper sense. “Where’s the
catch?” I hear you say. The catch is that it was dug out of solid rock, and
the opening was at the top, twenty feet above the reach of the tallest man.
Through that narrow hole the prisoner was lowered by a rope into the dark
and squalid interior. If the very thought of it is terrible, and the sight of it
makes your flesh creep, there can be no words to describe the experience
of being imprisoned there.

Today you can enter the prison by a staircase. But why, you ask, would
anyone want to go there? Why, because it was the prison where Jesus
was held the night before his execution.

Inside that dark pit today (there are lights now) you can read on the wall
the words of Psalm 87. Never was a psalm more appropriate to a place.
Jesus, who certainly knew all the psalms by heart, must have prayed that
psalm over and over on that terrible night. Earlier in the evening all his
friends had fled; and in the courtyard just above, Peter had denied all
knowledge of him. He was alone in the dark and condemned to
Lord my God, I call for help by day,
         I cry at night before you...
         For my soul is filled with evils,
         my life is on the brink of the grave,
         I am reckoned as one in the tomb,
         I have reached the end of my strength,
         like one alone among the dead,
         like the slain lying in their graves,
         like those you remember no more
         cut off as they are from your hand.
         You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
         in places that are dark, in the depths...
         You have taken away my friends
         and made me hateful in their sight.
         Imprisoned, I cannot escape,
         my eyes are sunken with grief....
         To you I stretch out my hands....
         Lord, why do you reject me?
         Why do you hide your face...?
         Friend and neighbour you have taken away:
         my one companion is darkness.
To stand there, even today, is to know faith as a necessity. The reality of
Jesus' suffering bears down on you with overwhelming force. As your
body cannot escape through those rock walls, neither can your mind
evade the reality of what lies before you. It is a sobering thing to be put in
prison, even for ten minutes, with the truth.

But there is now a stairs, as I said. When you come up from there, you
know that you can never again play the sophisticate, you cannot have a
shallow and superior attitude to faith and to believers. Faith has deep
roots underground; Jesus' human spirit agonised there during an
interminable night. When you emerge you also know something else,
equally compelling: that you can never again be indifferent to the
countless ways in which human beings are imprisoned by hatred,
ignorance and addiction, by a shallow popular culture (bred on capitalism)
that has no love for anything, by exploitation of every kind, by illness,
broken relationships and betrayal....

Every Friday night, the Prayer of the Church includes this psalm 87. It is
prayed not only by priests and religious but by an increasing number of lay
people. Through all these the Church carries again in its heart the
memory of Christ’s imprisonment, and the imprisonment of all his brothers
and sisters throughout the ages and throughout the earth.

         (from I Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about
Death, by Donagh O’Shea (Dominican Publications, and Twenty-Third
Publications, 1997)

Lent is a Spring season. In countries that have four distinct seasons,
Spring is like a new birth.
        Sunlight runs a race with rain,
        All the world is young again.

But even in hotter countries like the Holy Land, its charm is not lost: “For
see, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on
the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the
turtledove is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11f).

This is the atmosphere of Lent, strange to say! We may have associated
it rather with winter, but the word itself, ‘Lent’, comes from ‘lengthen’: the
days begin to get longer in Spring. The Liturgy (1st Preface of Lent) calls
it “this joyful season.” It is about the surprise of new life coming from what
appears dead, as Spring comes from Winter.

The Gentle Spirit of God came down, like a dove, on Jesus at the Jordan,
and God spoke within him, “You are my Son, my beloved one...” But the
very next verse says, “Then the Spirit drove him into the desert!” (the
beginning of today’s Gospel reading). It doesn't follow ordinary logic. We
would have expected the Spirit (“the Comforter”) to keep him in comfort!
Instead he is driven out from all comfort and security, into the desolation of
the Judean desert. The name for that desert was Hinnom, “the

What kind of comfort can we expect from the Comforter? But look more
closely at the word ‘comfort’. It comes from the Latin fortis, which means
‘strong’. Comfort therefore means strength! But modern usage has
weakened the meaning with softness and gentle touches; in fact it has
come to mean just about its opposite: weakness.

Jesus was driven into the desert so that his gift might become his, by
being tested. Nothing can be given to us on a plate (except biscuits!).
There is no contradiction between receiving something as a gift from God
and earning it. This is the right season of the year for remembering that!

In Jewish and Christian spirituality the desert is the place where you meet
a) wild beasts and demons, and b) possibly God. It is a place of
ambiguity: the worst could happen, or the best. A desert offers you
nothing, so you have to find resources within yourself; you are put to the
test: in biblical language, you are ‘tempted’. We all like to put ourselves to
the test, just a bit; we like to pit our strength or skill or intelligence against
odds, but we also know when to stop! Luke says Jesus was “led by the
Spirit through the desert” (4:1), but Mark says more bluntly, “the Spirit
drove him out into the desert” (1:12). He was tested beyond what he
thought he could endure. That is what makes a hero; all the rest are

Mark’s Gospel (which we are reading in the Liturgy this year) never
attempts to smooth the edges of a story. He shows Jesus getting angry at
times, where the others don't. It works both ways: he also shows him to
be more affectionate than the other Gospel writers do (for example, Mark
10:16). Mark’s Jesus is more emotional, shows his feelings more. Why
not? “He was like us in all things but sin,” St Paul said. We somehow
develop an image of holy people as stoical, impassive, bland. It may be
because so many wretched statues look just that way. But surely, the
holier you are the more you feel, not the less! If you always live within
your ‘comfort zone’ you become selfish. It is only when you have dared to
go beyond that zone - into the ‘desert’ - that you begin to know even
what you yourself feel, let alone what others feel. Lent is the season for
that journey beyond comfort.

Donagh O'Shea

A friend of mine succeeded in making a metal gate once, and for about six
months after that success he had an eye for nothing in the world but metal
gates! That's what interest means. If you develop an interest in
meditation you will want to learn from everyone about meditation; you will
get to know people who lived centuries ago as if they were your next-door
neighbours. Here is a passage from Johann Tauler, a disciple of Meister
Eckhart. It is a passage I never tire of quoting!

     “It is certain that if God is to be born in the soul
     it must turn back to eternity….
     It must turn in towards itself with all its might,
     must recall itself,
     and concentrate all its faculties within itself,
     the lowest as well as the highest.
     All its dissipated powers must be gathered up into one,
     because unity is strength.

     Next the soul must go out.
     It must travel away from itself, above itself….
     There must be nothing left in us
     but a pure intention towards God;
     no will to be or become
     or obtain anything for ourselves.
     We must exist only to make place for God,
     the highest inmost place….
     There, when we are no longer putting ourselves in the way,
     God can be born in us.”

These are words of extraordinary depth and simplicity. Breathing is the
first and last thing we do. It is the movement of our life taking place,
moment by moment, from birth until death. Our different moods and
states are characterised by different kinds of breathing. When we are
asleep, for instance, our breathing has a distinctive pattern; when we are
concentrating, the pattern is a different one; and when we are amused and
we laugh, our breathing goes a little crazy for a few moments. It’s not
surprising that many other movements of our being should also be
described in terms of breathing. Even the deepest movement of our spirit
is a kind of breathing. The word ‘spirit’ comes from Latin ‘spirare’, which
means ‘to breathe’. Spirituality, then, is a kind of breathing – a movement
inwards and a movement outwards.
       The first part of the passage from Tauler describes the movement
inwards; all the verbs there describe that movement: ‘to turn back’, ‘to turn
in’, ‘to recall’, ‘to concentrate’, ‘to gather up’. It’s clear that there is no
spiritual life without interiority, a movement inwards. This is very strongly
stressed today, perhaps in reaction to the breathless speed of life around
us and the superficiality of many products of modern culture. We must go
in, yes. But we should not go in for the wrong reasons. A wrong reason
would be to escape from realities and responsibilities, or to escape from
challenges and problems, to run for cover. Tauler says we must go in to
find the unity of our being, “because unity is strength.”
        But no matter how good our motives for going into ourselves we
can't go in to stay; we can't breathe in forever. We must also breathe out.
“Next the soul must go out; it must travel away from itself, above itself.”
Our life is for giving away, not for keeping. It’s the paradox of the Gospel:
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose
their life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). The simple act of breathing tells us the
same story. We must go out of ourselves completely, Tauler said; “we
must exist only to make place for God…. We must have no will to be or
become or obtain anything for ourselves.” This is a hard saying, and it’s
important to understand it in the right way. He’s not suggesting that we
should become listless and lifeless, not knowing what we want. He is
talking, rather, about the tragedy of deciding in advance what we are
going to be and what we are not going to be, what we are willing to accept
from God and what we are not willing to accept. This would be to force
our own shape on our life rather than allow it to be shaped by God. It
would be to subscribe fully to the ego’s agenda. Give yourself away!
Tauler tells us; go out of yourself completely. This is the only way that
your spirit will be saved from rotting inside you. He teaches us a
spirituality of emptiness, not one of accumulation. It’s a joyful emptiness,
with none of the anxiety that accumulation brings with it.
        As you sit in meditation let your breathing itself be a kind of prayer, a
prayer without words. When you exhale give yourself away, to God and to
the world; don’t feel that you have to protect some little patch of ground
called ‘me’; give yourself away with joy, like someone diving into a river,
holding nothing back. Then as you inhale, receive everything as God’s

Like the text from Tauler, Roublev’s icon of the Trinity is from the 14th
century. These two – the text and the icon – are well met. As you
contemplate the Trinity you may wonder: What are the Divine Persons
doing? The only answer we can give is: They are giving and receiving.
The Father is poured out eternally in the Son, given completely; and the
Son receives everything from the Father. Their giving and receiving is so
total that we have to speak of it as another Divine Person: the Holy Spirit.
‘Spirit’, as we saw, means breathing. You could say they are breathing!
       Our own breathing too is a kind of giving and receiving. As you sit in
silent meditation your breathing is in harmony with the divine breathing,
the inner life of the Trinity. The Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov has a
sublime reflection on this icon (this month’s Wisdom Line has one part of
it), ending with the words: “Your secret is the secret that God is in you.
Become aware of that in the land of silence....”

Donagh O'Shea
                           MARY AND MARTHA

     Martha had the strengths and weaknesses of an active person, and
Mary had those of a contemplative person. Martha was “worried and
troubled”, and complaining; but she was also the first on the scene when
there was an emergency, her brother’s death. Mary was quiet and
reflective, but she may (at least on one occasion!) have loved her interior
life more than she loved the Lord: John’s gospel says, “Mary stayed sitting
in her house,” while Martha ran out to meet Jesus (John 11:29). Both
were unbalanced, in that sense. (Is anyone ever fully balanced?) That is
why they needed each other. Each made up for the unbalance of the
No one needs to have all the gifts. If I don't have a certain gift, that is all
right, because my sister or my brother has it. We are members of one
another, and gifts are always for the whole community, not just for the
person who has them (see 1 Corinthians12).
Martha and Mary serve to remind us of the vast differences there can be
between people even in the same family. Jesus loved them both. The
Marys of the world can sit in contemplation, while the Marthas are busy
doing everything.
         Lord of all pots and pans and things,
         Since I've no time to be
         A saint by doing lovely things,
         Or watching late with Thee
         Or dreaming in the dawnlight,
         Or storming heaven’s gates,
         Make me a saint by getting meals
         And washing up the plates.
Still, we each need to search for balance. I mustn’t expect others to carry
certain gifts for me forever while I make no effort at all. If I am a Martha I
am grateful that there are Marys to carry the possibility of meditation for
me, but I must attempt to enter it myself. And if I am a Mary I thank God
for Marthas who serve to remind me that I too must attempt to serve.
It struck me that Martha and Mary were among the few people who were
asking nothing of Jesus. Everyone wanted something from him! There
was hardly a person who didn't have his or her hand out begging! Gimme!
gimme! His kindness seems to have had no end, but there must have
been times when he wished someone were there just to give, for a
change. It may be that Martha and Mary’s house was the one place
where he could really get a break. They don't ask him for anything: Mary
just sits there listening when he talks, and Martha is busy preparing
snacks or something. Later on, they didn't ask him to raise their brother
from death; such a thing was unimaginable anyway.
         It’s perfectly right, of course, to pray to Jesus; strictly speaking, the
word ‘pray’ means ‘ask’ (“I pray you...”). But he did say, “Ask the Father...
in my name.” The expression ‘in my name’ meant ‘in my presence’.
Christians have always known that it is right, sometimes, just to be in the
presence of Jesus, like Martha and Mary: whether doing nothing, like
Mary, or working, like Martha; but for once, not begging.
          In John 12:3-8 there is a touching moment when Mary pours a jar
of precious ointment over Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. At
that point in the gospel story Jesus was a hunted man. His time was
short, and all must have been aware of it, particularly Mary, Martha and
Lazarus. The extravagance of her loving gesture is indeed remembered
for all time, as Jesus said it would be (Matthew 26:13). The jar of perfume
she poured out on his feet was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was a
man’s wages for a day’s work, so the ointment was worth about a year’s
wages. It was love’s extravagance, in sharpest contrast to Judas’s
calculation. These are the two main roads: love and money. Love gives
itself now, but money is for the future.

       The Gospel is always challenging us to live now, to give now, to
love now. Now is the only real time. As each future moment comes it is
suddenly transformed into now; in a sense there is no future. Martha and
Mary show us how to live in the now.
                             PASSING AWAY

      There has always been a reluctance, it seems, to talk directly about
death. People have been saying that ours is the first age in which it has
become the great unmentionable. This is not true. A look at the history of
the word ‘death’ will tell you. Etymologists say that the word ‘to die’ was
borrowed from Old Norse. It may seem strange that English should have
to borrow a word for what is a universal occurrence, but it is normal for
‘die’ words to slip their meaning faster than other words, and therefore to
need constant replacing. From Old English, ‘steorfan’ and ‘sweltan’, both
of which mean ‘to die’, have come down to us in attenuated forms as
‘starve’ and ‘swelter’. Likewise ‘cwelan’ (‘to kill’) has come down to us as
‘quell’. You sense an unease. Euphemisms like ‘passing away’ and
‘falling asleep’ are not such new inventions; and at the other extreme (an
extreme always calls out its opposite) there is the vulgar way of referring
to death: ‘snuffing it’, and so on. There is some kind of denial built into this
too: violence is always a denial. To talk of ‘stiffs’, for example, is to
brutalise death so far that it seems foreign to us.
          The other great unmentionable has been sex. But now, as a
reaction, it is mentioned with brutish persistence; there is a kind of
flaunting that looks like nothing but revenge on the past. The expressions
for pregnancy, likewise, pass at both sides of the reality itself: the vulgar
and the euphemistic. In Italian, a woman is said to be “in an interesting
condition”. It all goes to show that it is very hard to look straight at some
things, especially sex and death.
          Why is it difficult to look straight at death? What do we see when
we look? The end. But we don't want our life to end, so we don't want to
look. The end puts everything in question. The end means that I can no
longer project into the future: it is the end of all procrastination. My idea of
who I am includes many fictional notions of who I will be, many big and
small plans - to fix that window, to finish some projects, “to become a
better person” - but the thought of death puts paid to them all, big and
small. The end means a cataclysmic now! - a vivid here and now, as
when you are involved in an accident.
          That is what the thought of death does to us, but do we know
anything about the reality? In a strict sense, no, because we are still alive.
But many of us have seen others die, and all of us have known people
who died later. It is common experience that a dying person has no
difficulty in talking about death, while the relatives are rigid with inhibition.
I once saw an old man become really angry (it was one of the few times in
his life, it seems) when a nephew tried to pretend that death was nowhere
near. “That’s only stupid talk!” he said, “I’m dying!” It seems that people
who are dying can cope better with death than the rest of us who are only
watching it or thinking about it. As we watch, we have to admit: it doesn't
seem to be so bad when a person gets on with it.
         This stands to reason. When we are in a situation we have the
resources to cope with it, otherwise we don't. In our bodies, it seems, we
know something about death that we don't know in our minds. “My grace
is sufficient for you.” Grace doesn't keep; it is given for now, not for cold
storage. When death comes we will receive the grace of death. Look
back on your life: you always received the grace of the moment but never
a future instalment!
         The old man on his deathbed knew it first, and reassured us with
his eyes. He didn't ‘pass away’ euphemistically; he died fair and square.

From I Remember your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death,
Donagh O’Shea,1997
(Dominican Publications, 42 Parnell Square, Dublin 1;
Twenty-Third Publications, P.O. Box 180,
185 Willow Street, Mystic CT 06355
                          THE POTTER’S HOUSE

     Most people hate or fear or are bored by matter. Clay is just
straightforward matter; having no shape or size of its own, no one
consistency and mainly borrowed colour, it could be said to be almost the
essence of matter. It is a good indicator of one's basic attitude….
    It is a sensitive substance, mirror-like, registering every touch of the
fingers. It is much more sensitive than wood, for example, which registers
only strong action with metal tools. The changing shape of the clay mirrors
everything that is in the mind: haste, confusion, boredom. But I never
make any at•tempt to interpret what I see. What matters is that the indi•
vidual should do his or her own seeing. Another person can no more do
your seeing for you than he or she can do your eating. And anyhow this
world is far too full of interpretations….
       A lump of clay in the hand is a minor planet. It is the very stuff that
planets are made of. It is feldspar rock that has disin•tegrated through
millions of winters and summers, before there were human beings to
shiver or sweat. The earliest earthenware clays were deposited three
hundred million years ago. Some clays, called secondary clays, were
washed downstream into the beds of rivers, lakes and seas. But since the
surface of the earth (if the process were speeded up) is as active as the
surface of a pot of boiling water, this clay can be found not only in low-
lying places, but anywhere - not everywhere but anywhere. Builders and
farmers hate it be•cause it holds water and nothing grows in it. It is a
headache for everyone except potters.
       Now as we hold these lumps of clay I suggest an experi•ment. Break
the lump into two lumps of equal size and make them round. Pinch from
one and add to the other until they seem to be of the same size and
weight. Now hold one in each hand and try to discern which is heavier. (It
is extremely unlikely that they have the same weight, if it came to ounces
and grams.) These tiny planets, like all planets, are subject to the law of
gravity. It is this force that pulls them towards the centre of the earth. I
never ask for silence, for the clay does that. In their concentration they fall
silent, and many tend by instinct to close their eyes. It is a wholly
simplified situation: the body alone is being asked a question; the mind
has noth•ing to offer. Perhaps the closing of the eyes and the mouths
signifies this; and, as if to confirm it, I notice that many by in•stinct lift their
forearms from the table. The body is saying, "let the message through."
       It is a pleasure to watch people becoming sensitive in their bodies.
These friends are rapt in effortless concentration, and there is a softness
in their faces such as people have when they pray. What a transparent
miracle the body is! But how we exploit and dishonour it! The apparent cult
of the body in these times is not one thing; it is many things together, good
and bad, with only the word 'body' in common. There is a new sensitivity
about diet, fitness, rhythms. But there is also the world of fashion and
cosmetics, which is a multi-million dollar industry, and its advertising
method is a cult of image, not body. Unlike any actual body this is quite
abstract, and many people think badly of themselves for not having a body
that matches the current image. This contempt for one's actual body is the
fatal weakness that makes people fair game for the advertising industry.
There is a special pathos about heavy make-up; however glamorous the
effect, there is a cringing person behind it. But when I look now at my
friend with clay on her face, I am reassured that here in the Mews, 'body'
means actual body and not 'image'.
    This absurdly simple weighing of two lumps of clay in the hands is an
exercise in being-in-the-body, Faced with this problem we would normally
reach for a kitchen scales; in other words, we would bypass the sensitivity
of the body and let a gadget be sensitive in our stead, We fill our lives with
gadgets, every one of which helps us to be less sensitive, We alienate our
sensitivity, becoming more and more empty and dead, An alive person
cannot be exploited, only a half-dead one, Anyone who comes along can
exploit people who, for example, feel hungry when the clock tells them to
be hungry, The body itself has an exquisite sense of timing, but if we
never allow ourselves to depend on it, it grows duller and duller till we
hardly know day from night.

From Go Down to the Potter’s House: a Journey into Meditation, Donagh
Michael Glazier, Inc., and Dominican Publications, 1988

Children dance with expectation; there is nothing at once so joyful and so
painful as waiting.
      After waiting comes fulfilment, which is nearly always a bit of a
disappointment. Expectation is often steeped in illusion and wishful
thinking; it enlarges everything beyond the dimensions of the real. The
reality, when it appears, looks smaller than our idea of it.
Christians are sometimes described as “people open to the absolute
future.” This is good of course – better than when the Church thought it
had everything packaged already. There’s a necessary openness to the
future: the final description of God in the Bible is “the One who makes all
things new” (Revelation 21:5). Yet sometimes you wonder if we aren't
being put back into the Old Testament time of waiting. There’s a kind of
‘futurism’ abroad now. Isn't there any fulfilment already? Hasn’t anything
taken place already in Christ?
      Assuredly it has. If it were not so, then the Good News would not be
Good News but only Good Advice; the world and its future would rest
entirely on our shoulders – and that would make for very dour joyless
religion. “From gloomy saints,” wrote St Theresa of Avila, “good Lord
deliver us!”
     "Go back and tell John what you hear and see," Jesus said (Matthew
11:4). He didn’t say, "Tell him what our plans are for the future." No, the
blind see again, now; the lame walk now, lepers are cleansed now, the
deaf hear now, the dead are raised to life now….
      But, we might ask, is it still happening? If so, where? When did I last
see a blind person having his or her sight restored? Or someone being
raised from the dead? Show me! "Tell John what you hear and see."
What do we hear and see in our time?
     Are we to strain our ears for 'messages' and our eyes for 'visions', as
many are doing now? I think that would be to miss the point of the
Ascension. Jesus was taken up into heaven, out of our sight. "When
Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud
took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up
toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They
said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?'" (Acts
1:9-11). When he did appear they didn’t recognise him very well. Even
Mary Magdalene didn’t recognise him at first. In other words, it required a
different kind of seeing – seeing from the heart and the spirit, not from the
eyes. The preoccupation with 'messages' and 'visions' in our times
represents a return to eyesight, and it gives the impression that this is
superior to faith. Religion is always only millimetres away from
superstition; that is why there is such need for great care.
     What kind of seeing are we talking about then? Seeing in faith. Yes,
but how am I to know that this isn't just a faded version of the other? What
does it mean to me, for example, to say that Christ is risen from the dead?
It means a great deal in itself, but nothing to me unless I am also in some
sense rising from the dead, now. Some things can be understood only
from the inside. Standing back waiting for a vision or a message is not
     Joy is one of the chief characteristics of Christian faith; naming the
fruits of the Spirit, St Paul put it right after love: “Love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-
control” (Galatians 5:22). As desire is about the future, joy is about the
present; it is about Now. (You may or may not be interested to know that
this is the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas.) There is joy when we put
ourselves fully into something. Small children, when they laugh, are all
laughter; when they cry they are all sadness. But as we grow up we learn
to drag ourselves along: half-way into things and no more. Half in, half
out. If you walked like that you would resemble a person a hundred years
old. We have to learn to go fully into everything we do and say and think:
to die into everything. Then we will know what it means to see and hear,
and rise from the dead, now.

Donagh O'Shea

For almost an hour I have been listening to a relentless assault on every
kind of authority in turn, except his own. We are sit•ting over empty coffee
cups outside a bar on via Cavour, in sight of the ruins of the Imperial
Forum. Focusing beyond him on those gaunt skeletons of ancient Rome I
wonder if the likes of us drank refreshments here two millennia ago, and
made similar complaints about Emperors and their officials.
     Kings in past centuries had jesters in their courts. A jester's job was to
amuse the king, and he was allowed to take liberties that would cost other
people their heads. It was a sign of great sanity in a society:they knew
then that when kings are not regularly reminded of their human frailty and
folly they end up by thinking that they are God. The Roman Emperors had
no court jesters, and yes they ended up by being divinised. Count•less
Christians of the early Church were martyred for refusing to burn incense
to those humourless dead Emperors.
     Even Fool's Day has almost died out, and what a pity! In the Middle
Ages it was called The Feast of Fools; it was a great festi•val. Kings and
princes, cardinals and bishops:everyone in a position of authority was
made rollicking fun of on that day. So many centuries later we are used to
seeing authority mocked, but somehow we lack that earlier mirth and
exuberance. Our mockery is usually rather bitter and mean. Being
unsupported, it has to fight for its place, and this gives it a mean spirit.
How badly we need jesters and Feasts of Fools in the Church! But my
coffee companion should not apply; he needs these himself. No one has
more urgent need of a jester than the man who is tak•ing on his shoulders
the divine attributes.
     Is it just possible that we commit more sins out of humour•lessness
than from any other cause? Should we not have many more jesters in
public life and in the inner court of our own life? They could do much good
work there. They would prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously.
They would prevent us from becoming so identified with our role that we
cease to be fully human. And if we are in some position of power (even
the impotent power of the alienated) they would prevent us from taking
ourselves for God.
     Our humour is the best part of us - the liveliest, the most in•telligent,
the most original. We underestimate the amount of intelligence it takes to
understand a joke; and it takes still more to make one. A joke is a swift
leap of intelligence: we are being carried along unsuspecting on the
straight tracks of a story, when suddenly (on the play of a word or an
image or an idea) we are hurled onto a different level of meaning. It is the
human spirit at its best. It is by leaps similar in many ways to this that
great saints have been able to contemplate God by looking around at the
      It was a custom in the Eastern Church to sit around on the evening of
Easter Sunday, telling jokes to one another. It was a way of celebrating
the joke that God played on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. The
devil had calculated every•thing and seen his plan succeed “at the
opportune time,” but de•spite his best calculations and his timing, God
snatched Jesus out of the tomb. There is a fresco in Florence by Beato
Angelico that shows St Dominic witnessing the resurrection of Jesus, and
      Yes, the devil is humourless. You can see it in the people who do his
work. But God's saints are full of joy and laughter. They worship a God
who is the greatest practical joker, who pulls life out of the grave.

From In A Fitful Light (1994) by Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, 42 Parnell Square, Dublin 1)
                                THE MASS

Hoc est enim corpus meum. The priest genuflects as the altar server
holds up the tail of the chasuble and another one rings the bell. Then as
you begin to bow low you see the white host held up in the distance and
the bell rings again. A wave of coughing is released by the sixth bell.
         Mass…. It is the very stuff of memory. We think of parents who
were alive and with us then, elderly neighbours, uncles, aunts: all of them
solid and real. Memories cluster around the Mass, even for people who
have since abandoned it. Whether in the old rite or the new, it is bound up
forever with childhood memory.
         The Mass is about memory. “Do this in memory of me.” This is
why we celebrate Mass at all: to remember the Lord and what he did, to
repeat the story of who is he for us. Real memory, of course, is not an
aimless wandering in the past, a way of distracting oneself from the
present. Essential memories make us who we are. We recognise
ourselves in the story. Memory is about identity.
         This became vividly clear when a twenty-year-old nephew
suddenly wanted to know everything about the past generations of his
family. He travelled from Dublin to the heart of the country and asked us
hundreds of questions: about our parents and our grandparents, what they
were like, the things they said and did, even their relics (I found three
generations of old hats in the attic). He pondered long in the cemetery.
He was a man smitten with a sudden great awareness: that his life was a
much longer story than his twenty years. For us it was a wonderful
experience to be the medium of that awareness; it was like meeting him
for the first time as a man. Places and things and stories that bored him
senseless a year before were now matters of complete fascination.
Before our eyes he was coming into possession of his inheritance.
         At Mass we remember who we are and who Christ is for us. We
come into our inheritance. Words and things that were boring beyond
endurance in religion classes begin to come to life. They are about us.
But there is more than natural memory here. Christ's death and
resurrection become actually present to us - or is it that we become
present to them? St Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) wrote: “I believe
Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives and the Resurrection to be truly
in the heart of the one who has found God.”
         Painting scenes from the life of Christ on the walls of his brethren’s
cells in San Marco, Florence, Fra Angelico included a Dominican friar in
each fresco, though there were no Dominicans in existence for twelve
hundred years after the death of Christ. He understood a profound truth:
when we pray (and above all when we are present at Mass) we are
contemporaries of Christ. Time has not simply marched forward; it has
looped to include us all in an eternal instant. We are present at Calvary
and at the empty tomb. (And all our ancestors are present too in that
instant when we touch the eternal present.)

Donagh O'Shea
                             THE HOLY SPIRIT

     The words ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, ‘spirituality’ come from the Latin ‘spirare’:
to breathe. “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
         We breathe in, drawing in oxygen, which gives us life; without it we
would quickly die; it is our first food.
         But we cannot breathe in forever: we must breathe out too; we
must give away everything that has been given to us.
         There we have an image of the spiritual life: breathing in and
breathing out. Everything you receive is a gift, free as the air. Everything
you have you have to give away, a gift; it is yours only for a little while.
         Breathe in: go into your deepest centre; find God there. Breathe
out: “go out to the whole world,” find God there and bring God there.
         Breathing is the first thing and the last thing that we do in our life.
It is the bearer of great wisdom. It reveals something of God’s Holy Spirit.


Some books (and lectures, and articles) are full of answers, like bad
poetry. Full of answers to questions that have not been asked. No
opening of the spirit, no sense of wonder.
        A question is an opening. Your senses are continually questioning
the world around you: that's how you are able to walk without crashing into
things, how you recognise your name and the words of your own
language; it is how you are able to tell a friendly handshake from a cold
one, how you know when food is fresh….
        Your mind too is made to ask questions, to be a living mind and
not a dead one. It is right to ask questions.
        When Jesus was about to take leave of the disciples, you might
expect that he would check that they had all the answers to all the
questions they would be asked. They never had so many questions as
they had then. But he gave them no ready answers. He left them with
many questions - to ensure that their minds would remain alive. But he
promised them something more important than answers; he promised that
he would send his Spirit.


A human mind is like an island. It is not possible for the truth to come
ashore at every point. In many places there are high cliffs, in other places
dangerous rocks and gullies, or ferocious animals….
       The truth cannot come home at these points; it has to sail around
the island - perhaps many hundreds of times and over very many years -
before it finds a place to come ashore.
         This is why Jesus was not able to say everything he wanted to
say. “It would be too much for you now” (John 16:12). And that is why the
Spirit of Truth has to stay with us, sailing around us, year after year,
seeking a place to come ashore.

Donagh O'Shea

    Christians through the ages have focused a lot of reflection on the
large stone that had been laid to the mouth of Jesus’ tomb. When Mary
Magdalene went to the tomb she found the stone removed. That large
material object - which was also the most convincing objection to faith -
was gone; and she was the first witness to this. The Risen Lord would
show later on that he could no longer be restricted by material conditions:
“When…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked
for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19).
And so, that stone could not have held him prisoner in the tomb. Its
removal was a sign of the resurrection, not a condition for it. Bede the
Venerable (8th century) wrote, “[The angel] rolled back the stone not to
throw open a way for our Lord to come forth, but to provide evidence to
people that he had already come forth.”
         No tomb on earth can hold the Lord and giver of life. No material
stone, however heavy, can imprison him. But we should not imagine that
material stones are the hardest and heaviest things in the world. Who
would have guessed that thoughts, which are made of nothing at all, could
be heavier and harder than any stone? But experience tells us it is so.
We are able to seal our minds and hearts with impenetrable stones of
prejudice, hatred and fear. “To behold the resurrection, the stone must
first be rolled away from our hearts,” wrote Peter Chrysologus (5th

Donagh O'Shea
                        THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

     "Outrage and violence, that is all I see,
     All is contention, and discord flourishes."
No, this was not written by someone who had just read the morning paper
or watched the news on TV. It is from the prophet Habakkuk, who lived
many centuries before Christ. Despite all the change we see around us
some things don’t change.
    Meanwhile where is God? There are many whose belief in God falls at
this hurdle, the problem of evil. It has been the agonising cry of all the
ages before us, even in the Scriptures. "How long shall the wicked
triumph? They bluster with arrogant speech; the evil-doers boast to each
other" (Psalm 93). The writer of that Psalm did not stop believing in God,
but he solved the problem of evil to his own satisfaction. However, he did
it in a way that says nothing to a Christian. "[God] will repay them for their
wickedness," he said, "destroy them for their evil deeds. The Lord, our
God, will destroy them."
    Vengeance on the enemy is a regular theme in the Old Testament,
disconcerting when it turns up in the Daily Office of the Church. On
Sunday mornings we read the lines, "Let the faithful rejoice… Let the
praise of God be on their lips and a two-edged sword in their hand" (Psalm
149). That is a headline for religious terrorists rather than for disciples of
Jesus. It is there in the Psalms, but every Sunday morning I wonder why
we have to use it.
    There is a lust for vengeance in Habakkuk too; it was the only recourse
that people of his time had, since they didn’t believe in a next life - and
they had not heard the Good News, the Gospel. Yet, in Habakkuk there
are some redeeming sentiments. He was more willing than others to stay
with the question: "Why do you [God] look on the treacherous, and are
silent?" (1:13). He was also aware that the problem of evil was a profound
mystery, and not just a matter of settling a score: "The Lord is in his holy
temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" (2:20). And he was able
to hope for something other than the destruction of his enemies: "The
earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the
waters cover the sea" (2:12,14). Finally, he almost anticipates the New
Testament when he says how we are to live our lives in the teeth of evil:
"The upright will live by their faithfulness" (3:4). That phrase became a
keystone in St. Paul's teaching on justification by faith. (Romans 1:17;
Galatians 3:12).
    "The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'" It is only by faith in
God that we can endure the evil of the world without becoming twisted and
vengeful. We are not too big to learn something from children; they can
survive terrible situations when their father or mother is with them.
   The Old Testament blossomed in Jesus, and Paul and in all the other
great figures of the Christian faith. They are the blossom and fruit of that
tree. We should not be too shocked when we see dead leaves on it too,
and twisted roots. But we are to hold fast to the Good News. For us, the
problem of evil is seen in a new light. We see the death of Jesus and we
don’t call for vengeance but we strive to understand the inscrutable ways
of God, "the mystery hidden for ages in God" (Ephesians 3:9). That is
what shapes our attitude to all evil, whether man-made or natural.
   One of the peaks of Christ's teaching is "Love your enemies" (Matthew
5:43). We are used to hearing it now, but it was a strange thing for a
religious leader to say. More typically they tell people to hate their
enemies, not just with an ordinary hatred but with a religious (= infinite)
hatred; demonise them; say they are enemies of God (= there is nothing to
be said for them). But he said, "Love your enemies." In his time it must
have seemed like saying black is white, or evil is good.

Donagh O'Shea
                    THE SPIRIT AT WORK IN US

   Many years ago, during the lifetime of Bernard Leach, the greatest
Western craft potter of modern times, a ceramics teacher showed slides of
Leach’s work to his own students. To his surprise and disappointment
they made little or no comment…. But he noticed that from that time on
they kept few of their own pieces! - they returned them to the lump
because they could see now how uninspired their pieces were! That is
what happens when you see the work of a master. It becomes easier to
give up things because you see how little you are giving up; in fact you
can hardly wait to give it up, because you want to keep the coast clear for
a thing of real value.
   We all plod our way as best we can. We try to keep the
commandments, or at least not to disown them formally. We even
manage to give body to one or other of the Beatitudes. But where is the
inspiration? Inspiration is that magic ingredient without which there can be
satisfaction, yes, but no joy. An ancient pagan poet, a contemporary of
Christ, wrote, "There is a God within us, and we glow when he stirs us."
Why don’t we Christians glow more? There are some who do, but why so
few when we have the very Spirit of God living within us?
   Look at the rich young man mentioned in Mark 10:17-22. He came
running up to Jesus, and with totally exaggerated courtesy (there is only
one parallel to it in Jewish literature, and that in the 4th century A.D.)
asked him what he must do, etc. Full marks for enthusiasm, but not a lot
for follow-through! You can imagine him running up to any and every new
teacher, and turning away disappointed when they asked him to change
his life. He wanted religion as entertainment, not as challenge. Some of
us avoid the challenge by refusing to change, others by changing all the
time. We feel we will have to give up too much. But the strange thing is
that it's much easier to give up something than to think about giving it up!
"The more a person gives up the easier it is to give up," said Meister
Eckhart in the 14th century. "One who loves God could give up the whole
world as easily as an egg."
   Unless I have given up something with joy I haven't really given it up: its
shadow is still over me. And of course I will see myself as a bit of a
martyr: "If you only knew what I've had to go through!" This doesn’t set
anyone free, least of all oneself. I have to look beyond. I have to be
attracted beyond my self-imposed limits and expectations, I have to have
seen the Master at work, I have to know the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
within me.
   Matthew and Luke write simply, “Jesus answered...”, but Mark writes,
“Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him, and said....” From Matthew
and Luke you get the impression that that rich young man was a write-off.
True, he is never heard of again in the New Testament, but could anyone
whom Jesus loved be a write-off? Jesus did not demand perfection of
him; he just held it before him as an invitation. An invitation is an
invitation, not a command. There are ages and stages in our life, and the
Lord has more patience with us than we have with ourselves or with one
   All three Gospel writers say that the rich man became “sad.” They
didn't need to say that Jesus was sad, because it was so obvious.

Donagh O'Shea
                         THE DEATH OF JESUS

   We sometimes turn Jesus into a magician by the way we imagine him
floating through his life with never a shadow of doubt or anxiety falling
across him. He must have known everything from the beginning, we feel,
because he was divine. But this image of him owes nothing to the New
Testament; there he is seen as “one like us in all things but sin.” To cling
to the magic image of him would be to allow his divinity to swallow up his
humanity. If he was like us in all things except sin, then the future must
often have been a dark mystery to him, as it is to us. Moreover, the
Scriptures say that he “increased in wisdom and in years” (Luke 2:52); he
was then a 12-year-old boy, but if he was capable of increase at all he
must have continued to increase throughout his life.
    The gospels open a chink through which we can see into his mind and
know his feelings as “his hour” approached: his impending death. “Now
my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this
hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).
His anxiety was not theatrical, it was real. Later in Gethsemane he would
perspire with fear, but his Gethsemane is starting already.
    He had said once in a parable (and perhaps many unrecorded times)
that the word of God is like a seed that falls into the ground. He, the Word
of God, now applies it to himself: he is to fall into the ground and die if his
life is to bring a rich harvest.
    Many followers of Jesus have made this their rule of life; others have
spectacularly failed to do so. If a disciple of Jesus – or indeed anyone – is
to do good, he or she must be willing to fade out of the picture. The way of
truth leads along a humble path. Every real path is a humble path: it is
along the ground. The live or try to live by the truth is to “lower the flag of
the ego.” The phrase “to lay down one’s life” is very telling: we use it to
mean sacrificing one’s life in one heroic act of martyrdom, but it also
suggests placing one’s foot on the ground – the ‘here and now’ – and
putting one’s whole weight on it. That is the way that a far greater number
of Jesus’ disciples lay down their lives. They give themselves fully to one
another, to their families, to others, holding nothing back. The ego is
always blindly gathering in a store for tomorrow, for security against the
future, because it doesn’t know how to give itself away, it doesn’t know
how to love.
    John the evangelist loved to play on the ambiguity of the phrase “lifted
up.” Jesus will be lifted up in shame on the cross; but that shameful lifting
up will be transformed by God into a lifting up in glory at his resurrection. It
is the one lifting up, but the glory will appear only after his death. Any
disciple who looks for glory before death is practicing a different religion
from that of Jesus.
Donagh O’Shea

   December 25th was almost certainly not the day of Christ’s birth! That
date was not fixed on till the 5th century. Would it affect your faith if you
heard that Jesus was born in the middle of August, for instance, or at the
end of February…? Would it at least ruin your Christmas? Would it shock
you even more to know that scholars are not even sure of the year of his
birth? But one thing is sure: he was not born in the year 0, because there
was no such year! (1 B.C. was followed immediately by 1 A.D.) His birth
is usually put at 3 or 4 B.C.
   December 25th is the winter solstice (more or less), the shortest day in
the year. Christmas festivals, generally observed by Christians since the
4th century, incorporate pagan customs, such as the use of holly,
mistletoe, Yule logs, and so on.
   Many other things that we might have imagined deriving from
Bethlehem itself are of much more recent origin. The Christmas tree, an
evergreen trimmed with lights and other decorations, is derived from the
so-called paradise tree, symbolising Eden, of German mystery plays. The
use of a Christmas tree began in the early 1600s, in Strasbourg, France,
spreading from there through Germany and then into northern Europe. In
1841 Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, introduced the Christmas
tree custom to Britain, and presumably to Ireland, if there was any humour
for Christmas trees in pre-Famine and Famine times here. Emigrants
from Britain carried the custom to America.
   Meanwhile, Dutch settlers in America had brought with them the custom
of celebrating St. Nicholas' Day on December 6th, and especially St.
Nicholas' Eve, when gifts were given to children, of whom the saint was
patron. British settlers there took over the tradition as part of their own
Christmas eve celebration. The English name of the legendary jolly, red-
garbed man who delivers presents to good children at Christmas, Santa
Claus, is derived from the name 'St Nicholas' (say it fast and it sounds like
Santa Claus).
    If any of that information disappoints you, let me assure you that our
faith doesn’t rest on dates or customs or folklore, but on the simple
accounts of the life and death of Jesus that the gospels give us. It is true
that St Luke takes care to show that the events he is recounting are
precisely located in history: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius
Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of
Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias
tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and
Caiaphas…” (3:1). But it is enough to know that the Word became flesh in
human history; we don’t need to put exact numbers on it.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice has immense symbolic
meaning, however, and that is why the date was chosen in the first place.
When the days are shortest and it looks as if the sun is abandoning the
world to darkness… suddenly the sun begins to return, and the days
lengthen! The Sun is returning to us! It is the surprise of Newgrange,
experienced since 3,200 B.C. But symbolically it is the surprise of the
Incarnation: the Light has come into a dark world…. “The Word was made
flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the
only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Donagh O'Shea
                               ALL SOULS

   Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die,
   Passing through nature to eternity.
That was Hamlet’s mother trying to console him for the death of his father
(whom was murdered by his stepfather Claudius). Her efforts were not
successful. His stepfather then took a turn with him, trying to make him
see that the "death of fathers" is quite natural and indeed "a common
   You must know, your father lost a father;
   That father, lost, lost his….
But that was no consolation for Hamlet. There is no such thing as death in
general, or common death. Death is always particular. Compare your
own father's death with a death you read about in the papers: they seem
quite different. You could philosophise with ease about the other death,
but your own father's death plunges you into silence. That is because you
have deep feelings about the one and less deep about the other.
         Many of the things we say about death have no heart in them.
They are no consolation to the bereaved, and it would be better to remain
silent. . A Zimbabwean friend told me that in her country when you visit a
bereaved family you do ‘kubata maoko’, which is, to hold hands in silence.
You cannot do it by post or over the phone; you are there in person. You
offer your presence, not your words of comfort (it is easy for you to feel
comfortable). How much more sensible than the embarrassed mutterings
we go on with!
         Christian awareness of death is not a theory about death in
general. It is shaped by a particular death: the death of Jesus. It is the
death of one man, yes, but more; his disciples of every time and place are
part of the picture. Its meaning does not evaporate into generalities. “If
one has died for all, then all have died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14). In a
mysterious way we have died with him when we were baptised in his
name. When we look at his death we see ours, and when we look at ours
we see his. St Paul quoted an early Christian hymn, “If we have died with
him, then we shall live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). His living and dying
and rising are the energies that shape Christian identity.
         The story of Christ's suffering lies deep in the spirit of anyone who
has ever been touched by the Christian faith. Its image, the cross, is
visible everywhere. To suffer is to know by first-hand knowledge. “People
who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso, a man who
suffered more than most in a century (the 14th) that suffered more than
         God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor Mary, nor any
of his disciples through the ages, nor your parents or relatives whom you
remember especially in this month. We cannot expect that it will protect
us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no mercy. This
‘knowledge’ of the meaning of suffering is not book-knowledge or factual
knowledge; it is experience that continues day by day and is never
finished. It is this first-hand knowledge alone that is able to open us to
new life.
        We are not alone in our suffering. “The Passion of Christ belongs
to us as fully as if we had suffered it ourselves,” wrote St Thomas
Aquinas. This is a statement of extraordinary depth and power. It means
that we do not cower before the Father in guilt and shame; instead we
stand before the Father in the person of Jesus, the Beloved Son. The
Father can see no difference between us and Jesus.
        Julian of Norwich (14th century) wrote: “In his great and everlasting
love for all humankind, God makes no distinction between the holy soul of
Christ, and the most insignificant soul to be saved. It is very easy to
believe and trust that the holy soul of Christ has a supreme place of
honour in the glorious Godhead; yet if I truly understand our Lord's
meaning, where Christ's blessed soul is, there too, in their essential being,
are all the souls who are going to be saved by him.”

Donagh O'Shea

    Ordinary men…
    Put up a barrage of common sense to balk
    Intimacy….          (Louis MacNeice)
Have you ever seen it: the awkwardness, the avoidance, the
embarrassment on a person’s face when more is expected of them than
they are able to give? I mean in the area of intimacy or friendship. Yes,
we shy away from intrusion, particularly of the emotional kind, and we
have learnt how to protect our space. But it is possible to protect it so well
that few people ever see it; after a time, no one sees it; and eventually we
even lose touch with it ourselves. That is how to “balk intimacy”, how to
block it and avoid it and never know it at all.
         Why would you balk intimacy? Why, because in intimacy you are
vulnerable, you are fully visible, you can be got at, and therefore you feel
unsafe. There are people who are very spontaneous in every other
matter, but when it comes to anything personal they are like prisoners in
chains. They talk business or football with great enthusiasm but they
never speak their real feelings about life or love or death or anything
personal. Perhaps it is because they associate love (and anything like it)
with entangling obligations, jealousy, resentment and guilt. So they
develop a protective layer against all such subjects. A man was described
after a family funeral as “the noblest Roman of them all.” In other words
he had shown no emotion but only a stoical dignity. That was surely some
kind of achievement, but I'm not sure that we should strive to imitate it.
         The wise ones tell us we should be intimate with everything, with
every thing! - with our own experience moment by moment, with every
object in the house, with trees, with every plant in the garden, with music,
with the sound of people’s voices…. Then we might not find it strange or
threatening to be intimate with people!
         The word ‘intimate’ comes from Latin intimus which means (among
other things) ‘deep’. We would surely want to be deeply immersed in our
life rather than glancing over the surface. Wise people have told me many
things and I pass them on to you! “Taste your food, don’t just stuff your
face!” And “If you don’t hear the clanking of the pots and pans as you
work in the kitchen, your meditation is not deep enough!” Add pots and
pans to that list, then! “When you walk, walk as if you were kissing the
ground with your feet!” If I can walk on the ground with respect and
awareness, it will be harder for me to walk on people! If I can be fully
present to a plant or tree (or even a pot or pan), then I will find it easier to
be present to other people. It’s not so strange: our life is one thing, it is all
of a piece. People are not in a separate compartment from everything
else; you cannot despise or ignore the material world and love people. All
are God's creatures. I've always noticed that we treat people in much the
same way as we treat furniture.
        Meditation is: being intimate with everything, not dividing things into
categories - interesting and uninteresting, important and unimportant,
nice and nasty…. These categories are about oneself and nothing else.
Meditation means “dying to oneself” and discovering, as a consequence,
that I can be intimate with everything: I can be immediately and directly
present to every thing and every person and to the Source of all.

Donagh O'Shea
                           A WAY WITH HEART

   There is a chilling poem called 'Invictus' (unconquered) by a minor 19th-
century poet Henley. It captures perfectly the desolate vanity of the ego.
He writes of his "unconquerable soul", and throws out defiant phrases like
"My head is bloody, but unbowed." Not surprisingly he expects nothing
from beyond.
   Beyond this place of wrath and tears
   Looms but the Horror of the shade,
   And yet the menace of the years
   Finds and shall find me unafraid.
   It matters not how strait the gate,
   How charged with punishments the scroll,
   I am the master of my fate:
   I am the captain of my soul.
When I first read that poem I wondered if he was married. I never found
any information about him, but I hope for the sake of some woman that he
remained a bachelor all his life! No softness, no openness, no love, no
relationship to anyone or anything… nothing but that empty defiance. No
one could live with that, not even he himself. The Oklahoma bomber
quoted this poem on the eve of his execution for killing 168 people.
   The Christian faith is a way with heart. Not that the head hasn’t a part to
play, but the heart is central. This may be why the Lord chose simple
people as his apostles. St Augustine wrote, "He chose not kings, senators,
philosophers, or orators, but he chose common, poor, and untaught
fishermen." Elsewhere Augustine remarked, "Our Lord Jesus Christ did
not use philosophers to win over fishermen, but he used a fisherman to
win over an Emperor." All these people - kings, senators, philosophers -
are perceived as self-sufficient, with a touch of Henley about them. But
simple people know that they depend on many things and many people,
and on God. Fishermen in particular depend on just about everything,
even on the weather. And they cannot command the fish to get caught.
They just have to wait. When you have to wait you know that your ego isn't
the only thing in the world.
   What a real contemplative offers us is the polar opposite of the defiant
ego. What a different world we enter when we read any of them! Compare
Henley’s poem with the following brief passages from Thomas Merton.
   “The shallow ‘I’ of individualism can be possessed, developed,
cultivated, pandered to, satisfied: it is the center of all our strivings for gain
and for satisfaction, whether material or spiritual. But the deep ‘I’ of the
spirit, of solitude and of love, cannot be ‘had,’ possessed, developed,
perfected. It can only be, and act according to deep inner laws which are
not of man’s contriving, but which come from God. They are the Laws of
the Spirit, who, like the wind, blows where He wills. This inner ‘I’, who is
always alone, is always universal: for in this inmost ‘I’ my own solitude
meets the solitude of every other man and the solitude of God. ”
   "The message of hope the contemplative offers you…is…that whether
you understand or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you,
dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and
light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons.
The contemplative has nothing to tell you except to reassure you and say
that if you dare to penetrate your own silence and risk the sharing of that
solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you, then you will
truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond
words and beyond explanations because it is too close to be explained: it
is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God’s spirit and
your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit."

Donagh O'Shea

   Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the great English philosopher of the
Renaissance period, wrote about the four kinds of ‘idols’ that hinder
understanding. 1. Idols of the tribe (idola tribus): these are errors inherent
in human nature itself; the mind has a tendency to rest in received ideas
that are pleasing to it, and to pass over instances that run counter to them.
2. Idols of the cave (idola specus): errors peculiar to each individual,
arising from temperament, education, reading, and other special
influences. 3. Idols of the market-place (idola fori): errors due to the
influence of language. We are apt to think, for example, that there has to
be some reality corresponding to every word we use; he gave the example
of the word ‘chance’. 4. Idols of the theatre (idola theatri): these are
thought-systems of the past, which he held to be nothing better than
stage-plays representing unreal worlds of people’s own creation.
    This is a formidable list, and it leaves the poor mind naked before the
truth. But people have often used the expression ‘naked truth’; so it may
be a good thing to be reminded that what conceals the truth from us is not
something covering the truth, but something (or many things) covering the
    It’s rather easy to apply this to the contemporaries of Jesus: they liked
him while he said things they liked to hear, but when he said things they
didn’t like to hear they wanted to throw him over a cliff. As always, it is far
more difficult (and urgent) to apply it to oneself.
    Everyone has a little pride, however muted, in their own ancestry. It’s
probably a good thing when it’s not carried too far. A ‘Tidy Towns
competition’ can do wonders for a country. Within that context of a basic
fidelity to the local sanctities, we can even tolerate criticism: it’s all right if
it’s from ‘one of our own’.
    John the Baptist said the most awful things to his own people: he called
them “a brood of vipers,” and he said they deserved nothing but
destruction. And the people flocked to hear him! He must have been
playing by accepted rules. He was their theatre; he was the horror movie
of his time. He was even dressed for the part. But he was one of their own.
    Jesus came from the desert too, but he was much friendlier. He sat
down to table with all kinds of people that the locals would call scum. He
spoke of mercy and forgiveness and hope. More than that: he embodied it
for them. He said that prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of heaven
ahead of the pious (Matthew 21:31); he praised the faith of people of other
religions and none: Samaritans, Roman centurions, the Syro-Phoenician
woman…. This was clearly breaking the rules. They wanted their theatre
(as we all do) to be safely ‘out there’: they went “out” to John the Baptist
(Luke 7:26). But Jesus came in; he saw them from the inside; he didn’t
“play the prophet,” as he was challenged to do (Luke 22:64). He got into
their minds; he saw what they were made of. He knew them too well; if
their illusions were to live on, he had to die.
    Our faith isn't just belief. Belief could be a purely a theoretical matter.
Our faith is also hope. St Peter exhorted his readers to be always ready to
give an account of "the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Just as our faith
strips away all illusory beliefs (Bacon's 'idols'), it also strips away all
illusory hopes. Those 'idols' are not only false beliefs but also false hopes:
hope in the idols of the tribe, the cave, the market-place, the theatre….

Donagh O'Shea
                         THE DARK MYSTERY

   The 13th-century mystic, Bl. Angela of Foligno, had a deep experience
of God, and when her confessor asked her to tell him about it, she said,
"Father, if you experienced what I experienced and then you had to stand
in the pulpit to preach, you could only say to the people, 'My friends, go
with God's blessing, because today I can say nothing to you about God.'"
   This could be a remedy for the excessive fluency we have when we
speak about God. The word comes tripping off our tongue as if it there
were nothing puzzling about it at all. It was not so in the beginning. In the
Old Testament God revealed his name to Moses: it was Yahweh. "That
will be my name forever, and by this name they shall call upon me for all
generations to come." The Jews regarded this name as so holy that it
should not be pronounced. In Hebrew, vowels are not written, •only
consonants. So the name was something like YWH. When they came to
this name in the Scriptures they said 'Adonai' instead (Lord). As time went
by and no one had ever heard the word pronounced, no one knew any
longer how it was meant to be pronounced! (Later, some people began to
put to vowels of' Adonai' with the consonants of YWH, and it yielded -
more or less - the artificial name 'Jehovah'.)
   It's somehow a wonderful thing to have a name for God that must never
be pronounced. We Christians don't talk like that, but in fact we say
something that is even more radical. For us it is not that there is some
particular word that must never be uttered, but that all words fall short of
the mark. Use any words you like, we say, or as many as you like, but
know that when you have said them all you have said nothing! This is
something that is not stated clearly enough or often enough. So that you
will be reassured that this is not some new teaching, here are some brief
extracts from the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) on this
   "God is ultimately known as unknown, because then the mind knows
God most perfectly when
   it knows that his essence is above all that can be known in this life of
   "Whatever is comprehended by a finite being [that is, us] is itself finite."
   "God is honoured by silence, not because we may say or know nothing
about him, but because
   we know that we are unable to comprehend him."
   "Neither Christian nor pagan knows the nature of God as he is in
   "We only know God truly when we believe that he is above all that
human beings can thinkabout him."

  God is a dark mystery. But isn't God light? "God is light and in him there
is no darkness at all" (1 John 1 :5). Yes, but excess of light, as St
Augustine said, has the same effect as darkness.

There are occasions when we are all lost for words: for example, when we
are brought up against the fathomless problem of evil. Is there any answer
to it? We are lost for words when tragedy strikes at us - or strikes near us.
We use a lot of words, certainly, but we know that they all fall pathetically
short. On an ordinary day we can say pat things about God and about
suffering and evil. But when we are actually touched by any of these we
fall silent. Then the only word we have is the one word that expresses God
and humanity to the full extent that they can be expressed in our flesh:
Jesus, the Word made flesh. All the puffs of air that we call words are
insubstantial beside him. He is present to us whether we are awake or
asleep, whether speaking or silent, whether full of joy or full of pain. His
presence is "complete comfort," as Julian of Norwich put it. But remember
that the word 'comfort' comes from the Latin 'fortis', which means 'strong'.
   What a dark mystery we point to when we say the simple words, "The
Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us!"
                                              Donagh O'Shea

In French, the word ‘spirituel’ has two meanings: spiritual, and witty or
humorous. In Italian the word for witty or humorous is similar: ‘spiritoso’.
And likewise the German word ‘Geist’ has both meanings: spirit and wit.
All those people can't be wrong! There must be a connection between
spirituality and humour.
         A humourless person is a danger to the public as well as to him or
herself. It is said that “whom the gods would make bigots, they first
deprive of humour.” Of course there is a cruel kind of humour (found even
in children) that should not be classed as humour at all but as cruelty.
What is humour? It is a leap: you are being carried along on the even
tracks of a logical story, when suddenly, on the play of a word or an image
or whatever, you are hurled onto a different level of meaning. It is the
unexpectedness of it that shakes you up. Humour is the proof that
someone around here is alive, that all isn't predictable matter and beaten
tracks; that there is a living spirit present. See what it does to an
atmosphere: everyone wakes up and makes strange illogical noises in
their throats and looks extremely joyful for a moment: we call it laughter.
Even the highest of the other animals don’t make these leaps; they can
look very pleased at times, but they never make jokes. Humour is a
distinctly human kind of leap. It is a leap of intelligence: chimpanzees leap
from branch to branch, but we alone can see different levels of meaning
and leap from one to another. Someone lacking humour may indeed by
intelligent, but there is something mechanical and inhuman about such
intelligence. I have not heard that computers make jokes either.
         I lived for a few years in a country where people seemed to put
humour in a special compartment, all by itself. It was permissible on
certain occasions to produce a specimen from that box and exhibit it, at
which everyone would laugh in concert for the correct duration, before
returning to the “serious” business of life. To the rest of us this is worse
than no humour at all. Humour should be like yeast, leavening the whole
lump of soggy dough, making air bubbles and lightness everywhere.
Deadly seriousness can be a form of anxiety, a desperate clinging to the
self and to the objects of its attachment. It is often just plain insecurity and
fear. Frightened children don’t leap, they stay stock still.
         Don’t measure humour by the amount of laughter you hear.
Laughter may be many things besides humorous; it may be cruel, cynical,
bitter, taunting, nervous, crude, morbid, or plain mad. But there is a
distinctive joy in pure humour. Laughter won't tell you, but the eyes will;
like joy, like intelligence, humour is visible in the eyes.
         I drew your attention to the French, Italian, and German words; but
we didn’t look at the English word ‘humour’. It is related to ‘humid’ (the
“bodily humours” were body fluids). So English suggests that humour is
fluid - able to flow. (Yes, we do speak of ‘dry wit’; that's a special
concoction, and it is dry in the sense that a Martini is dry.) Humour is able
to flow, it is not rock solid. It doesn’t see everything as hard and solitary
and deadly serious, like a corpse. It is evidence of spirit, a spirit that gives
       Is God deadly serious? A Rabbi found no reason in the Scriptures
for creation, no reason but joy. And Thomas Aquinas said, “God is pure
joy and joy requires companionship.” Was Jesus always serious? It is not
recorded in the New Testament that he ever laughed, some writer said.
For pity’s sake! If he had never laughed, that would have been recorded
as a most unusual thing about him. The fact that nothing is recorded is
proof enough that he was like us in that respect too. I suspect that when
he played on Peter’s name, calling him ‘Rock’ (that’s what the name
means in Greek), he had a huge smile on his face and they all had a good
chuckle (Peter was the least rock-like person among them). How could
the Word made flesh be lacking in humour? Humour, as I said, is an
unexpected leap. Well, what could be more unexpected than the leap of
the Word into human flesh?

Donagh O'Shea

"Self-knowledge is impossible for you in the West," said an Indian guru
some years ago, "because you are unwilling to pass through suffering.
You are not looking for wisdom, you are looking for tranquillisers. You say
you are looking for ways of meditation, but you are only looking for new
ways of drugging yourselves. Meditation is bound to pass through
suffering. It is not a pastime."
   It is a strange thing that the Western world, which was so profoundly
shaped by the Christian faith, should have to be reminded of this by a non-
Christian. The story of Christ's suffering lies deep in the spirit of anyone
who has ever been touched by the Christian faith, and its image, the
cross, is visible everywhere. How could we forget the place of suffering in
any deep life?
   Everyone discovers the reality of suffering soon enough, but its
meaning takes longer to discover. Popular culture does not reveal that
meaning to us; in fact it goes far to make it invisible. It creates a vast
dream of comfort, satisfaction and security that couldn't possibly be true to
actual experience. Even when the media show us gruesome pictures of
human suffering, these are quickly followed by ads for sportswear, faster
cars and alcohol. The images thereby lose their power, and there is an
unspoken assumption that it is all right to pass suffering by. News bulletins
are increasingly being cast in the form of entertainment programmes. It is
true that the media can wake us up on occasion: television has been
credited with helping to end the Vietnam war. But the overall effect is
soporific, "tranquillising", as the Indian put it; television in particular doesn't
raise questions of meaning, because everything is presented in a finished
form and the viewer has nothing to do but be entertained.
   But why suffering? Am I supposed to think that it's good for me? And
why do we celebrate and glorify the suffering of Christ, instead of
deploring it? What meaning does it have? Nobody will ever be satisfied
with a quick answer to that; suffering is too close to us for book• answers.
Suffering is a different kind of 'knowing'.
   "People who have not suffered, what do they know?" said Henry Suso,
a man who suffered more than most in a century (the 14th) that suffered
more than most. Here is his statement in context: "There is nothing more
painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered.
Suffering is short pain and long joy. Suffering has this effect on the one to
whom suffering is suffering, that it ceases to be suffering Suffering
makes a wise and practised person. People who have not suffered, what
do they know...? All the saints are the cup-bearers of a suffering person,
for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they cry out with one voice
that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink."
   “The one to whom suffering is suffering.” He was being precise about
this. To many who suffer, suffering isn't suffering as such, but misery and
anguish and rejection of suffering. The word 'to suffer' in English means 'to
allow', whereas the word 'anguish' comes from the Latin 'ang(u)ere', which
means 'to choke'. Suffering, Suso persuades us, is "a wholesome drink."
We should not choke on it. The saints have tasted it before handing us the
cup; they are the proof that it is not poison.
   Have you ever met anyone who never suffered? What would such a
person be like? He would have no depth, no growth, no awareness; he
would be absolutely juvenile. Imagine parents who protected their child
from everything! God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor
Mary, nor any of his disciples through the ages. We cannot expect that it
will protect us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no
   This 'knowledge' of the meaning of suffering is not book-knowledge or
factual knowledge; it is experience that continues day by day and is never
finished. It is not the kind of knowledge that gives us security and control
(which would be a kind of closing-down) but which opens us up to
experience, to new life.

Donagh O'Shea

  It is said that Martin Luther looked up from reading Romans 8:21 (“The
creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay”) and said to his
dog, “Any you will have a little golden tail!” He was joking, of course,
because we have no assurance that the animals will be our companions in
the next life. But they are certainly our companions in this life. Yet, a
stranger to our planet would not think so, from the way we treat them.
    In general we seem to have a very neurotic relationship to animals:
taming and spoiling some of them, buying them special food and even
clothes (I have seen small dogs wearing waistcoats), and then going out
to kill their brothers and sisters for fun, reducing beautiful elegant
creatures to bloody masses of fur and feathers. It is like the way a neurotic
man can be tearfully sentimental about his wife one minute and terrorising
her the next. If you want to kill animals, I suggest, you should leave the
birds and small animals alone and pick on someone about your own size:
a chimpanzee or a gorilla. And don’t hide behind a rock and shoot him:
that's a shameful piece of cowardice; be fair, face him with your bare
hands! Admit it: without your firearms and your traps you are no match for
any of them. The hawk has incomparably keener vision, the deer can
leave you standing, the dog has a vastly superior sense of smell, the
chimpanzee is several times stronger….
    We sometimes say of people that they are “fighting like animals.” Would
to God that we always fought like animals! Have you ever noticed that
animals don’t drop bombs on cities or exterminate one another by the
million, or send young conscripts to the front while the organisers sit safely
at home, or use nuclear or chemical weapons to destroy whole
populations? Then look at how dogs fight. There is a lot of noise and
threat, but very little action usually. And then, once one dog submits,
exposing his most vulnerable part (his throat), the other is unable to close
its jaws on it, killing him - unless, that is, he has been specially trained by
humans to do so. (If you want to know more about this, read some of
Konrad Lorenz’s books.) When we compare ourselves with animals, it
seems we are the ones who have reason to be embarrassed.
    I say all this by way of preface to a long quotation from The Art of
Teaching, by G. Highet. Our language of insult features many animals:
dog, cat, snake, rat, chicken, etc. This is an aspect of our neurotic
relationship with them. But once we understand that, we can usefully think
of human traits in terms of different animals. We have to know that if
anyone should be insulted by the comparison, it is the animals. This
quotation from Highet has been with me for more than thirty years, and I
don’t want to keep it to myself any longer. Here it is.
    “The young are quite unlike adults. They are so different that it would be
easier to understand them if they looked like animals. You know how a
baby before it is born passes through the main stages of evolution. It
begins by looking like an amoeba, goes on to look like a fish, resembles a
big-headed monkey for some time, and ends up at birth still looking
remarkably like a little red blind clutching grimacing ape. I have often
thought that in this first fifteen years of life it passes through another series
of animal existences. Boys of nine or ten, for instance, are very like dogs.
Watch a pack of them hot on the scent, yapping, running and jumping,
bouncing aimlessly around, full of an energy, kicking one another or
breaking down a door as carelessly as a dog nips at its neighbour’s flanks
or bursts through a hedge. When they are really enjoying the chase, all
their teeth and eyes gleam and their breath and laughter go ‘huh, huh,
huh, huh’, like a leash of fox-terriers. Girls in middle teens are like horses,
strong, nervous, given to sudden illnesses and inexplicable terrors, able to
work remarkably hard if they are kept firmly in hand, but really happiest
when they are thinking of nothing in particular and prancing about with
their manes flying. Both dogs and horses are amiable creatures and can
be domesticated, but it is a mistake to treat them as though they were
human. It is also a mistake to treat horses as though they were dogs, or
dogs like horses.
   “So if you are interested in teaching, do not expect the young to be like
yourself and the people you know. Learn the peculiar patters of their
thought and emotion just as you would learn to understand horses or dogs
- or other animals (for there are all kinds of different animals implicit in
children: the very small ones are often more like birds) - and then you will
find that many of the inexplicable things they do are easy to understand,
many of the unpardonable things easy to forget.”

Donagh O'Shea

  It is in our incompleteness that we are close to God. Show me the man
or woman who feels complete and I will show you a very shallow person.
The Scriptures tell us that "God is close to the broken-hearted." This
doesn’t mean that if you want to be close to God you have to be broken-
hearted; but you do have to be open-hearted. But to be open is to be
  Imagine a completed circle, with no chink in its circumference.
Everything on the inside remains sealed inside, and the outside cannot
penetrate. The animate creatures we share the world with are like that:
their natures are somehow complete. Birds build their nests the same
way, century after century; whatever changes we see in animal behaviour
are negligible compared to human change. We human beings are like a
circle with an incomplete circumference: what is inside can flow out and
the whole world can flow in; everything becomes possible. Four centuries
before Christ, Aristotle said that the human soul is, "in a way, everything."
That chink in our armour, Christian thinkers said, makes us "capable of the
infinite." It is therefore to be cherished, it is to be kept clear, however
strong the temptation to settle for less and be comfortable like the animals.
   How we crave to close the circle and be complete! We would use
anything whatsoever to exclude that draught from beyond, from the
infinite. We would fill our lives with things, experiences, travel, distractions,
entertainment, loves and friendships (yes, we are capable of using people
as draught-excluders!) None of these, we know, not even love, can
exclude the draught forever. In the much-quoted words of St Augustine in
the 5th century: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You."
   We have moments when all our draught-exclusion begins to come
apart. We feel empty, and it is a painful experience. It is 3 pm and you
don’t know what to do with yourself. Everyone else seems to be so busy,
but you feel no will to do anything or go anywhere, or read a book or the
newspaper or listen to music, and you are tired of TV. So what do you do?
You eat! You fill your stomach but your heart remains empty.
   There is no solution. Why is there no solution? Because there was no
problem in the first place! You created a problem out of something that
was not itself a problem. In trying to flee from the experience of openness
(that chink in the armour) you have created a problem for yourself. The
real problem is not the openness but your fleeing from it. It is not a
solution to find a new way of fleeing. Instead you must stop fleeing and go
   To do this is to meditate. It is possible, of course, to turn even
meditation into a way of filling the gap, but meditation itself will show you
this if you practise it. To meditate in the right spirit is to sit quietly before
God in your incompleteness. It is your very incompleteness that is your
most original prayer. Don’t try to fill that empty space with words or forced
feelings. Leave it as it is. Forget about yourself and your need to feel
complete; you do this by focusing your attention on God. I know that this is
not a clear instruction, because God is mysterious and beyond our focus.
But as we can know about (and sometimes sense) the presence of a
person whom we cannot see, we know about (and sometimes sense) the
presence of God; this is enough. Don’t be on the lookout for high feelings:
that would probably be just another attempt to close the circle - yes, we
are capable, as I said, of using even meditation and prayer as ways of
fleeing from God.
   After twenty minutes or half an hour of this you may have nothing much
to report. It is quite possible that you were just sleeping and moping, but
that would not be as bad as insulating yourself in a cocoon of feelings. It is
also possible that you were meditating: holding your spirit in its
incompleteness before God.

Donagh O'Shea

 We have so often criticised ourselves for having ‘bad’ memories (I mean
the faculty of memory) that it may be time to take another look. Having a
bad memory is not always a bad thing. There are many situations where it
might be a very good thing.

    Krishnamurti said that a bad memory is essential for a deep spiritual
life. A naturally forgetful person is less likely to bear a grudge for long, as
King Darius knew when he commissioned a special slave to shout in his
ear three times a day: “Sire, remember the Athenians!”

  Forgive and forget: these two words are often seen in each other’s
company. We must not only bury the hatchet; we should also forget where
we buried it. If we say we have forgiven but are determined not to forget,
we are only saying that we have not really forgiven.

    However, there’s a problem: we cannot just decide to forget. Some
things just stay in our memory, whether we want them there or not. We
remember even things that we want to forget.

   There’s a difference between simple recollection and a wilful
harbouring of resentment. The wife of Tam o’ Shanter (in Robbie Burns’
poem of that name) sat at home “nursing her wrath to keep the warm.”
With that kind of dedication, it was unlikely that she would ever forget. But
we can choose not to nurse and feed our resentments; then they lose
weight and may eventually die.

    Resentments are a heavy weight, and when I shed them I not only set
the other person free, but I set myself free as well. Life is too short for
resentments. But sometimes it is very hard to forgive. We have been told
to forgive our enemies; it is even harder to forgive our friends and our
families when they hurt us.

What should I do when I have been hurt and find it difficult to forgive? I
should will to forgive. Forgiveness is an act of the will. If I will to forgive, I
have already forgiven. My feelings of hurt will continue for a long time, or a
short time; but the main root has been cut, the source of bitterness is

Is there anything I can do to help my will? Yes. I can turn several things
over in my mind, feeding my mind with right thoughts rather than with the
poison of resentment.
1.   My own books are not balanced either: I have need of forgiveness
myself. "He that cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he
himself must pass…for everyone has need to be forgiven," wrote George
Herbert 350 years ago.

2.     Whether I like it or not, other people are part of me. If I close myself
off from another person I close myself off from part of myself. When I see
that person, something in me freezes. If I close myself off from many
people I will end up like a block of ice.

3.       Let me look at someone who is full of resentment - who piles it up
as other people pile up new clothes, or books, or money - and ask myself
if this is the kind of person I am choosing to become. I make myself by my
choices. Each time I choose to carry resentment in my heat I am making a
decision of death. Each choice is only one choice of course, but fistfuls
make a load: the pattern of death emerges gradually. I am like the person
who thinks he or she is giving up cigarettes but keep smoking just one

The Old Testament has a great deal of murderous thought in it, but
alongside this there is a gradually evolving teaching on forgiveness. “You
shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your
neighbour lest you bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). This is
definite enough, but the forgiveness is limited to “your brother” and to “the
sons of your own people.” One of the few Old Testament passages on
forgiveness is which there is no limitation and no condition is Proverbs
24:29. “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the
man back for what he has done.’” But in the Gospels, Jesus always
teaches unlimited and unconditional forgiveness. The essence of this
teaching is in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have learnt how it was said:
‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say this to you: offer the wicked man
no resistance… You have learnt how it was said; ‘You must love your
neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say this to you: love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:38, 43).

      This tells us not only what to do, but how to do it. “Pray for those
who persecute you.” This is the practical way to cut that root of bitterness.
Every time the memory of the person who hurt you returns to your mind,
say a very brief prayer, such as, “Lord, have mercy on us all.” This
includes yourself in the same picture with your enemy, and it puts you
both in the right relationship to God. It really works.

Donagh O'Shea

What do you do when you can do nothing? Well… nothing! If you do
nothing out of strength, that is good; but when you do nothing out of
weakness, that is just more weakness. From my own bitter experience I
have put together a couple of thoughts that may help. They are the

¨          If you feel stuck, if you feel that nothing you do has any
significance, do something! Action has a way of waking us up. Clean the
footpath, clean the car, clean the sink: just do something useful! Do
something useful, however small - even brush your teeth! You will feel
better; you will feel that you exist, and that your existence makes some
sort of ripple in the world.

¨        The only way to do something is to begin to do it! A friend of
mine, a very bookish man, took up meditation. On the very first evening
the teacher began to teach them some simple physical postures - simple
in themselves, but difficult for my friend, who was, as I said, a bookish
man. All the others were making painful efforts to assume a particular
posture, but my friend just sat there making no effort at all. When the
teacher came around to see what was wrong, my friend launched into a
complicated explanation why he was doing nothing. "I am only a beginner,
you see!" he explained. The teacher suddenly gave him a powerful thump
on the back and shouted, "Begin then!" It makes perfect sense: if you are
a beginner, begin!

¨         After you begin how do you continue? "The work will teach you
how do it," said the wise one. You don't need to see all the way to end;
just begin and you will soon know all you need to know. I knew a man who
needed to be able to speak French. He said to himself (being very logical),
"First I must learn it." He set out to learn it from books, missing hundreds
of opportunities to speak it (he was in a French-speaking country). Of
course he never did learn it, because it is by speaking it day after day that
you learn it - •which doesn't seem so logical, but it's the only way that
works. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, or learning to swim. It is by doing
something that you learn how to do it.

¨        It doesn’t matter if you do it badly. We have a saying, "If
something is worth doing, it's worth doing well." Right! - but somehow it
doesn’t give me any encouragement; it suggests a schoolmaster standing
over me and criticising my efforts. G.K. Chesterton, who loved to turn
things around, said, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly!"
Better than not attempting it at all! At least I will learn something from the
effort. All the most important things we do, we learned to do by doing them
badly! How did you learn to walk? By walking badly. How did you learn to
talk? By talking badly. How did you learn to dance? By dancing badly at
first. Then you improve by keeping at it.

¨          It you try to be completely balanced you will never do anything.
To do anything at all is to be a little unbalanced; it is to come down on one
side; it is to choose. If you are not convinced of this try walking without
waddling to one side or the other. That will teach you that you have to be a
bit unbalanced if you want to do anything with your life or anywhere. You
can be perfectly balanced when you are doing nothing; but if you decide to
do something, be prepared to be unbalanced, prepare to take a risk.

¨         If you are waiting for conditions to be exactly right, you will be
waiting forever and you will do nothing. You yourself are imperfect: how
could you perform a perfect action? Your perfectionism is likely to be only
an excuse for doing nothing; your contemplated action is just too perfect to
exist, too perfect for this world. Come down here to earth and join us!
Centuries ago there was a guild in London called the Annaburg
Clockmakers' Guild. Like all guilds in those days it regulated the lives of its
members in ways unthinkable in a modern trade union. There were strict
rules of behaviour. In regard to violence between members of the guild
there was an amusing rule in two parts: (a) If a member struck another
member he forfeited a week's pay; (b) if member made to strike another
member but missed he forfeited two weeks' pay! See? The mind of a
clock-maker! For such a person, failing to be accurate is the bigger fault!

¨        How do you feel when you fail at something? Rotten? But maybe
it was a blessing that you failed! Can you not imagine future
circumstances in which you will be thanking God that you failed in some
venture? Imagine all the wonderful things that happened because
someone missed a bus or lost a wallet or failed to convince his wife about
something…. Imagine all the great discoveries that happened by accident.

Good luck!

Donagh O'Shea
                        ON BECOMING HUMAN

I knew a man who would defend fanatically everything he had ever
identified with in any way, while all the rest he regarded as rubbish. It
mattered nothing that this identification was often purely accidental, or
only imagined, or very superficial; once he put his ego into something, no
external force could separate them. If, for example, he had visited a place
where no one else in the company had been, that became the only place
in the world worth visiting; if he read a book, that alone promoted it to a
classic; if he had shaken some politician’s hand, that politician became the
saviour of the nation. That is the nature of the ego - which means the
false self: not my reality, but my idea of what I am, my self-image. Being
nothing in itself, it is forever creating images and fictions of itself, living
outside itself because it belongs nowhere, wandering in rags, imagining
grandeur, like a demented beggar.
         Who are you, Ego? Who are you, poor lunatic? Why is every word
you speak a lie? Are you something? Are you nothing? Where did you
arise? And what great shame sent you out alone to beg along the roads?
I am the child of fear so deep that it fled even the knowledge of itself. I am
Golem, of Jewish folklore, the quasi-human creature constructed by
human beings in imitation of the Creator’s work. I was Adam, on whose
forehead once stood the Hebrew word Emeth, ‘truth’; but the first letter I
erased, I am become meth, ‘dead’, and I fall to dust. Falling to dust I see
nothing but dust; and even God is dust to me.
         How are you to find the truth again? How are you to become
Adam? How will you stand in the truth? Yours is a hardhearted poverty,
there is no compassion in it. It is not truly poverty but cupidity: an
unrelenting possessiveness. You must become Adam with his soft flesh,
yarek - the very word means ‘to be soft’. Stand naked there, trembling,
new-made, Adam, poor child of the dust of earth. Tremble, but do not run
to hide yourself, do not make fictions to cover your nakedness. Your glory
is Emeth, truth, shining vulnerably in your eyes; it is not possessed, but
shining. How could you possess the truth? No more than you can
possess the sun or the stars. It is around you, within you, everywhere,
shining. Shining darkly, strangely, everlasting.
         Turn back from fictions to the place where fictions arise. See them
in their genesis; see how you created a false heaven and a false earth.
See how you divided the waters above from the waters below: mine and
yours, ‘one of us’ and ‘not one of us’. See the false lights of your
firmament, a mock sun and tinsel stars: your guiding thoughts. See the
trail of death behind you, a poisoned world, its creatures dying. See all
that you have made. And see Golem, the self-made man, Ego, with his
tormented brain. Then turn away from all this, from your false heaven and
earth, from your fictions, from your impressive thoughts, your preferences,
your selective principles; or rather turn them away: they have no
existence. Seeing their unreality you will be free of them.
        Enter deeply into that freedom; know it, not as an idea but as a
place, yet limitless. From that place, everything becomes substantial for
the first time. Know the feel of absolute silence, with no striving of the
mind or will. That is a real place in you, it is not another fiction. When you
look out from there you are Adam and not Golem, a child of God and not a
jaded false god. You see the world full of beings at once splendid and
transient. You want to open your heart to them, to meet them directly, to
be one with them. You cannot think of possessing them, you give
yourself to them, you are one with them.
        That sad egocentric man I mentioned at the beginning, died. He
died as he had lived, considering also his death superior to other deaths.
For years he had controlled people by means of his sickness. From his
deathbed, for months, he tyrannised his family, enslaving them to his
wishes. Till the end, the light in his eyes was cupidity. Then one evening
the light faded and he went the way of all flesh. But between the death of
his ego and the death of his body, in that moment - who knows? - Adam
was born, and the new Adam, Christ: born and died in the same moment,
in the same moment died and rose again.

[Extract from
I Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death,
 by Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1997;
Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT)]
                        PRIVATE AND PUBLIC

St Augustine (354 AD – 430) was amazed that Ambrose of Milan read
books silently. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart
explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still....
Perhaps he was afraid that if he read aloud, some obscure passage might
raise a question in the mind of a listener, and he would then have to
explain the meaning or even discuss some of the more difficult points. If
he spent his time in this way, he would not manage to read as much as he
wished. Perhaps a more likely reason...was that he needed to spare his
voice... But whatever his reason, we may be sure it was a good
one” (Confessions, VI, 3)
         Today one needs no reason, good or bad; it is simply the way it is
done. So much has silent reading become normal that when people have
to read aloud they tend to do so rapidly and monotonously, as if they were
still reading to themselves. In the 19th century, perhaps because of poor
lighting, and the absence of radio and television, reading aloud to the
family was a common form of entertainment in the evening; one person
would settle down close to the lamp and read for everyone in the room.
Nowadays anyone who reads bits from a newspaper while others are
immersed in their own newspapers, is seen as rather a menace; reading
has become a private matter. It is likely that it parallels many other
movements from public to private, because everything in the world is
         In St Augustine’s time the focus of people’s lives was more
outdoors, and so while public buildings were very grand, homes tended to
be plain and simple. When people begin to concentrate all their energy on
their houses and gardens it is an indication that the social sense is
slipping. The present craze for interior decor and gardening is something
that only the very rich of long ago would have understood, but then their
homes and grounds were as much for show as for themselves. Today,
everyone has to have a little world of his or her own. It was the old
woman of the roads - in other words, the one who had no real place in
society - who longed “to have a little house, / To own the hearth and
stool and all....”
         It might appear that there is no safer burrow in which to hide than
one’s own psyche - in practice, one’s own ego. These two image each
another: my house and my ego. Yes, I need to peep through my window
at the world, to see what others are doing; but I don’t like to be seen
myself, so I read about them in the newspapers or watch them on
television. This anonymous mole, then, from living like that, develops
emotional problems - especially in relationships. He resorts to
psychotherapy to find peace within his four walls, and he gets some
encouragement to venture out a little. To venture out is very healthy.
Confine the mole for long enough and he may break out violently: many of
the great evil-doers of history were once lonely isolated young men.
Introspective people can be helped greatly by some forms of psychology,
provided that the psychology in question is not itself a flight into
        This last is the most profound problem: to what kind of ‘beyond’ do
these different psychologies deliver us? Some practitioners have no
religious or philosophical vision at all; perhaps they even took up
psychology as an alternative to these. If many people take flight into
privacy it must be for good reasons, and the modern world offers us new
ones every day. We need even better reasons to persuade us to come
out again! It would not be enough to be told, “It’s healthy to get out of
yourself.” We need a ravishing vision that will transport us beyond
ourselves, a vision large enough to embrace private and public. We have
a thirst for the beyond, for what is called “transcendence”. We are
capable of hearing and embracing the truth. “You have made us for
yourself,” wrote St Augustine in a famous passage, “and our hearts are
restless until they rest in thee.”
        There is another imbalance of private and public: it is when I flee
from interiority into activism. For this, see this month’s text in ‘Wisdom

Donagh O’Shea
                               OUR FATHER

Did you know that there are two Our Fathers? The commonly used one is
in Matthew 6, but there is another version found in Luke 11. Luke’s
version is shorter. In place of Matthew’s ‘Our Father in heaven,’ Luke has
simply, ‘Father’. That longer phrase is so characteristic of Matthew’s
writings. In all likelihood, Jesus said simply, ‘Father’.

      It seems to us a strange request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jews
prayed every day since childhood. Why would they ask him now to teach
them to pray? The meaning of it seems to be the following.

        They were asking him for a distinctive prayer as his disciples.
John's disciples had a special kind of prayer, but Jesus's disciples
apparently did not. In answer to their request he taught them the Our
Father. This makes it very special: it is not just any prayer, it is a
distinctively Christian prayer.

       But look now: there is no mention in it of any of the Christian
mysteries! There is no mention of Jesus, nor of his passion, death and
resurrection, there is no mention of the Trinity.... What sense can we
make of this? Here is how I found the meaning of it.

       I remember praying some years ago at the Wailing Wall in
Jerusalem, surrounded by Jews. It is a privilege to stand there beside
them, at the only remaining part of the Temple which was destroyed by
the Romans in the year 70. There is a very deep nostalgia, it seemed to
me, in their prayer. You could feel something of the weight of their
thousands of years of yearning and longing for God.

My tears have become my bread,

By night, by day,

As I hear it said all the day long:

'Where is your God?' (Psalm 41)

They have a custom of rocking back and forth as they pray. It is as if it is
too much for the mind and has to overflow into the body. I thought of
Jesus, a Jew, as I stood there groping in my mind for words. There is no
mention of him in his own prayer, the Our Father. I realised that any
Jewish person at that Wailing Wall could pray the words of the Our Father
and not find them the least bit alien. Jesus was among his own people.
But how then can the Our Father be a Christian disciple’s prayer?

         Suddenly it came to me: if there is no mention of Jesus, his life,
death or resurrection, nor of any of the Christian mysteries, it is because
this was his own prayer. In prayer he was seized by one single
awareness: the Father; he was not thinking about himself. When we pray
the Our Father we are not praying to him, but with him; we are praying his
prayer. We are so close to him that we cannot see him; like him, we see
only the Father. We are, as it were, inside his head, looking out through
his eyes: seeing the Father, and seeing the world as he sees it. We are
totally identified with him - we are indeed his disciples. We are praying
through him. All our prayers end with the phrase, “through Our Lord Jesus

If Jesus sometimes seems absent it is because he is everywhere. He has
drawn the whole world into his heart. As usual the poet puts it better.
Jessica Powers found him in everything, or in her own words “in his

I went into the Christmas cave;

there was no Child upon the straw.

the ox and ass were all I saw.

I sought his stable where He gave

His goodness in the guise of bread.

Emptiness came to me instead….

I found Him (and the world is wide)

Dear in His warm ubiquity.

Where heart beat, there was Christ for me.

Donagh O'Shea
                       THE JEALOUSY OF GOD

   Jealousy is an exhausting emotion for all parties, and you have to
resolve it in some way; it isn't possible to live always on the edge of your
emotions. If you are giving cause for it, the honourable thing is to remove
the cause, to part from the “other”.
   Is God jealous? It is a large theme in the Old Testament. In one place,
‘Jealousy’ is even said to be God’s name (Exodus 34:14). Who or what do
we have to get rid of to satisfy God’s jealousy?
   What other gods are you flirting with, then? Odin? Thor? Isis? I have
reason to be suspicious in particular about the first two: you talk about
them almost every day! (These Scandinavian gods gave their names to
two days of the week: Odinsday = Wednesday, and Thorsday =
Thursday.) Is God jealous of these? One can safely say no! Who is God
jealous of, then? If not of ‘gods’, then perhaps of people? But we are
expressly told to love other people. Is God unreasonably jealous, like an
insecure husband or wife? When jealousy goes too far, you develop dull
responses: “Of course I love you,” (without lifting your head from the
newspaper). If we understand God’s jealously wrong we may get into the
habit of saying the right things, but without sincerity.
   If the jealousy of God is not to be just an archaic expression, we have to
look for it in experience. It can make itself felt. It may appear in a very
diminished form - as a vague unease, or a scruple, or a disturbing memory
of a time when we were closer to God - but it can still pack a punch, even
with tough characters. In certain atmospheres it dares to show itself. God
wants to be God in our lives, and there are times when we know it.
   God is absolute. This means: God is not prepared to be part of
anything. A God who was less than absolute would only be a plaything for
human beings. This doesn't stop us from turning the absolute God quite
often into a plaything. To confine God to a corner of our life - Sunday
morning, for example - is to make God a plaything. The question is: what
god do we worship for the rest of the week? Not Thor, not Odin...who
   Quite often Mammon, I think: God’s great rival. Older translations of the
Scriptures called it by this name, but most modern translations say
‘wealth’. “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).
Mammon means not only money but any possession. But why should God
be jealous of our possessions? All these things are God’s creatures.
   It is not our possessions that God is jealous of, but our possessiveness.
“When God wishes to give us Himself and all things in free possession,”
said Meister Eckhart, “He wishes to take from us, once and for all, all
possessiveness.” If parents saw their child turning out to be greedy,
grasping and selfish, they would be very worried. We can think of God’s
jealousy in this light. God is a loving Father and is constantly watching to
see how we are turning out. God is not ‘needy’ or possessive or
neurotically jealous. “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and neurotic jealousy is no
part of love.
    Is God jealous of other people in your life? Again, think with the heart of
a father or mother. If you saw your daughter getting into an intense
friendship with an abusive person, you would be very jealous indeed! This
does not mean that you want to keep her locked up forever. You want her
to meet people who will not use her as a plaything, but instead respect
and love her. Likewise God, only infinitely more so. Jealousy is so often
neurotic - excessive, obsessive and gloomy - that we have to adjust quite
a bit when we talk about God’s jealousy. There is a wonderful passage in
Jeremiah (31:3,4), describing the joy of God’s love for us, like the joy you
have in your favourite daughter:
    I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have always been faithful to you.
    Again I will build you up, and you shall be built….
    Again you shall adorn yourself…
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

Donagh O'Shea
                         I'LL DO IT TOMORROW!

   Some things we keep postponing for a whole lifetime, and other things
we would not think of postponing even for a count of ten. "Have you read
that book?" I asked a philosophy student. "No," she replied, "I'm keeping it
for the next life!" But anger we seldom postpone, or depression, or fear....
If we could postpone these and never postpone courage, love, justice,
goodness.... If.... The word 'if' is itself a postponement. When there is an
emergency we don't delay over 'ifs'. To be more specific, there are two
kinds of 'if', which unfortunately are known by the same name, 'if': there is
the 'if' you consider when you are determining the best way to do
something, and this is an excellent 'if'; but there is also the 'if' that is only
an excuse for doing nothing: "What if I fail? What if something were to go
wrong? What if people don't like it?" Yes indeed! And what if the sky
should fall?


Krishnamurti used to insist that time is our biggest problem. You create
time, he said, by not relating fully to what you are doing at every moment.
Then he explained. Instead of doing what needs to be done, and doing it
fully, you think about it. Thinking is a good practice, but not when it is a
substitute for doing. By thinking instead of doing, you create a gap
between them - a time-lag - and through that gap the whole energy of your
life leaks away; you relate to ideas and images of things (and of people,
and of situations) rather than to the realities themselves. Reality is given
no chance to redeem you; you begin to live out of your mind. His
message: don't let your thinking become procrastination. "I will follow you,
but let me go and bury my father first," said a man to Jesus (Luke 9:59).
This was just an idiomatic way of saying, ‘After my father dies I will
become your follower.’ At the obvious level, procrastination says: I will do
it tomorrow (in Latin, the word for 'tomorrow' is cras), but what it really
says is: I will not do it now - which is just a tactical way of saying: I will not
do it.


I sat at the bedside of a dying man, one who had always been an
intensely private person. So private was he that he was never known to
talk about himself. I was alone with him in his last hour. Suddenly he
began to talk about his life. He talked and talked compulsively, as if
making up for lost time. At the end he said, "I never did any harm to
anyone in my life." I had known him most of my life, and I knew that this
was perfectly true. Then he added: "And I never did much good either." It
was a cruel assessment, and on his face I saw profound regret for a
privacy too well protected and for too long; a thousand regrets for all the
things he had put off till tomorrow, and now he had no tomorrows left.


A young man went to a Rabbi and asked, “How can I love God with my
whole heart, since I see that there are bad parts in my heart?” The Rabbi
replied, “Well, it seems you will have to love God with the bad parts too!”
Anything that is worth doing is worth doing well, the saying goes. But G.K.
Chesterton amended it. Anything that is worth doing is worth doing even
badly, he said! Do you refuse to sing until you are as good as Pavarotti?
Do you refuse to dance until you are another Nijinsky? How did we learn
to walk? By walking badly, by toddling, by falling down innumerable times.
How did we learn to write our names? How do we learn to love? To
procrastinate is to learn nothing and to do nothing.

Donagh O'Shea

    An American priest tells the following story.
His grandfather, afraid of flying, drove 3,000 miles to attend his ordination
- and of course another 3,000 to get back. A few years later he was
discovered with cancer. It was now the young man’s turn to drive 3,000
miles. His grandfather was still well enough to be about, and they went to
a music store together. “What’s your favourite music?” asked the
grandfather. “I could listen to John Denver all day,” replied the priest. So
the old man bought him a CD (they were new at the time). But a CD isn't
much use without a CD player, so he bought him one. The young man
played it all the way home, and used it for years, often having to have it
repaired. When the old man died, it became even more valuable. By now
there were much better machines on the market, but none could compare
with this old one. It was more than a CD player; it was like the presence of
his grandfather. “It had meaning for me,” he said, “because it was a gift.
For me, it was a connection to my grandfather; it evoked memories of him,
of those fun days we spent together, memories of his wicked grin that
always melted into a warm and loving smile. Because that CD player was
a gift from him, it held a meaning for me that nobody would be able to
detect by just looking at it.”
   Then one day it was stolen. It even happened to have that John Denver
CD in it at the time. What hurt him most was the thought that the person
who stole it probably hated it and threw it away after a day or two! “I'll
bet...as soon as [the thief] got the CD home, and opened it up, and found
the John Denver CD in there, I'll bet he snorted and said, "What is this
junk?" and threw the CD in the trash. He had no idea whatsoever what he
had just done. There is no way he could know what that CD or the CD
player meant to me. He couldn't see the meaning, because for him it
wasn't a gift.”
   He continued to tease out this meaning. “Suppose you had asked that
teenage thief what it was that he stole. He'd say he stole a CD player,
nothing more. Suppose further that you were to ask him what that CD
means. What would he reply? He'd say, "Whaddya mean, what does it
mean? It doesn't mean anything. It's just a CD player, it's just a
mechanical device made of metal and plastic, it doesn't have any deep
meaning." Suppose further that you were to say to him, "No, you're wrong,
that CD player appears to be just a machine, but it actually has a deep
meaning due to where it came from." What would he say? He'd say, "How
should I know where it came from? I don't know where it came from, and I
don't care. What is the meaning of this CD? There isn't any. It's mine now,
and I can do whatever I want with it, and that's the only meaning it has."
   Then the wider application. What is the meaning of life? Some people
say that life has no meaning; they say that life is just a biological process,
the chance result of some primordial ooze getting hit by lightning; they say
that we're nothing more than very clever animals. Like that thief, they don't
see the meaning because they don't know that it's a gift. The meaning of
life is that it's a gift. That CD player meant a lot because it was a gift from
his grandfather. Life has meaning because it is a gift from God.

Donagh O'Shea
                        THE GENTLE BREEZE

There's a passage in the Old Testament that Christians especially love to
quote. It's about "God in the gentle breeze!' The fact that we pick it out
should put us on the alert - but we'll come to that. That passage is about
Elijah's encounter with God. "There was a great wind, so strong that it was
splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was
not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the
earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire;
and after the fire a sound of a gentle breeze. When Elijah heard it, he
wrapped his face in his mantle..!' (I Kings 19:11-13). In another translation
it's even more striking: instead of the gentle breeze there is "sheer
silence" (NRSV). Other translations say, "a still small voice," or "the sound
of a soft breath” or "a quiet whispering voice!'
    All this would seem to make us think of the God of the Old Testament
as a soft, gentle, unchallenging Presence - until we read on and hear what
he said to Elljah in his 'soft whispering voice'; he told him take up his
sword and put his enemies to death! In its original context this passage is
saying that God is spirit and he converses intimately with his prophets. It
doesn't mean that God's dealings are gentle.
    In a way, you could say that we Christians misread it. We take it out of
context and apply it wholesale. But Christians have always been doing this
with the Old Testament; you could say that for us the Old Testament is not
the last word. God's word to us is primarily in the New Testament. We
don't look at the New Testament from the standpoint of the Old; we look at
the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New. We take what suits us,
reinterpret it, and pass a blind eye over the rest. Even when we read the
most gruesome things in the Old Testament some passages in the
psalms, for example - we read them differently. Every Sunday in the
Prayer of the Church we placidly recite the words of Psalm 149, "Let the
praise of God be on their llps and a two-edged sword in their hand!" These
words are the classic headline of religious terrorism, but we don't really
hear them; we gloss over them for the sake of the rest of psalm 149,
which is beautiful: "Sing a new song to the Lord...!' We know something
about the gentleness of God that people of the Old Testament could never
have imagined. "Blessed are the gentle," said Jesus (Matthew 5:4). St
Paul gave a list of the 'fruits of the Spirit': "love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22).
If you had no love in you, you could hardly claim to be a Christian; likewise
gentleness (and all the others). One name for the Holy Spirit is 'paraclete',
translated sometimes as "the Comforter" John 14:26).
    Does this soften our religion to the point of weakness? What kind of
comfort can we expect from the Comforter? Look more closely at the word
'comfort'. Modem usage has weakened its meaning to softness and gentle
touches; in fact its real meaning is just about the opposite. The word
comes from the Latin ‘confortare’, which means 'to strengthen'; ‘fortis’
means 'strong'. Comfort therefore means strength! The Holy Spirit will
make us robust. But this is entirely different from the unrestrained violence
of the Old Testament.
   Many growing boys and young men think that gentleness is weakness,
and that strength can be expressed only in violence. The task of growing
up includes learning the falsity of these equations. Jesus himself is the
clearest expression of it: his presence among his contemporaries was an
extremely powerful one, yet he could say, "Learn from me, for I am gentle
and humble in heart" (Matthew 11:29).

Donagh O'Shea
                             GOD IS LIGHT

     Non so, fratello mio ... she sang, her eyes wide and grave, her empty
palms upturned; “I do not know, my brother, if you have tried to capture in
your hands the morning light….” Her voice unsteady with age. La luce c'è,
son vuote le tue mani. “The light is real, but empty your hands remain.”
Her great grey head inclined....
    She sang of a strange moment, astray in a wide place. Ho gridato,
gridato, I cried aloud, but the infinite rocks returned my words to me
unheard. I cannot feel your warmth, my God, I yearn with a woman's heart
to embrace you. Ho cercato la vita, searched, searched for life and lived
with full emotion, but when I look, all is turned to emptiness and loss. I am
left with nothing and my God is only light.
   Once, long ago, tracing a mere item, she wandered into the back room
of Being, and found with dismay that the world was made of nothing. It
was, all her life long, a severe blessing; she saw things, people,
silhouetted against the void, the strangest light. There hovered around the
edge of every being an irreducible poignancy. How particular, how frail,
how local everything was! If you saw it truly your tears would never
cease... fratello mio....
   God? God does not exist this way; God is the void or hiding in the void -
O God - a womb from where emerges every creature naked and grieving,
orphaned from light into the darkness of the world. You embrace us,
enfold us trembling, your tears running down. If I could hold you, my God,
I could console all beings and every being. But you are light... son vuote le
   Yet you came to birth through woman's blood, la luce mi tocca la vita,
you are flesh of my flesh. You stepped forward from the void and stood
among beings, you could not stay apart from our grieving. You feel our
grief as ours, you touch us truly and embrace our darkness now as yours.
   Then she was silent, her grey head bending, bending to her shadow -
the light touched but not possessed....

[Extract from In a Fitful Light, Donagh O'Shea Dominican Publications,
Dublin, 1994]
                        THE BODY OF CHRIST

    One day in 1797 some farmers in the region of Lacaune, in the south of
France, saw a naked boy fleeing through the woods. The following day
they saw him again, collecting acorns and digging for roots to eat. In the
following year he was sighted several times, and eventually captured and
put on display in Lacaune. He was described as “a disgustingly dirty child
affected with spasmodic movements, and often convulsions.” He was the
wild boy of Aveyron, and he held extraordinary interest for the scientists
and philosophers of the age.
   The interest lay in the fact that this child had grown up in the wild,
outside human society; and therefore by studying him one could learn
something about society itself and how it shapes us. There were opposite
expectations. Would this child give substance to Rousseau’s belief in the
“noble savage”, the human being in a state of nature, free, creative and
beautiful, uncorrupted by society? Or would he prove, as most thinkers
expected, that the human being is nothing without society? Some of the
greatest scientists of the time took an interest in him; Jean Itard, a young
doctor, even took him into his home and strove for five years to teach him
to speak. Itard’s methods became the basis of modern techniques for
teaching the mentally handicapped and the deaf. In modern times, Maria
Montessori extended Itard’s methods to the teaching of ordinary preschool
    One could say that Itard succeeded brilliantly, but not with the Wild Boy
of Aveyron. The boy never mastered speech, despite Itard’s intense
efforts and his genius for inventing new methods of teaching. “His
emotional faculties likewise,” Itard admitted sadly, were still “subject to a
profound egoism.” Reflecting on his attempts to socialise the boy, he
wrote: “In the ‘pure state of nature’ the human being is inferior to a large
number of animals. It is a state of nullity and barbarism that has been
falsely painted in the most seductive colours, a state in which the
individual pitifully hangs on without intelligence and without feelings, a
precarious life reduced to bare animal functions.” So much for Rousseau’s
“noble savage”.
   Yet the myth of the noble save lives on, even to our own times. It thrives
in much of modern psychology; for example in the prestigious International
Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Neurology
you can find the following sentence: “Man is basically constructive,
accepting, creative, spontaneous, open to experience, self-aware and self-
realising. It is parental, societal and cultural controls, through manipulation
of rewards and threats of punishment, which inhibit the otherwise natural
development of self-expression and self-actualisation.” If you are a parent,
read that sentence again, carefully. See how you, and schools, and all
cultural influences are being blamed for everything that is wrong with your
noble savage. You have to wonder if that writer ever witnessed the
tantrums, the jealousies and the tyrannical will of an ordinary child.
    Family and society blamed for everything that is wrong, the individual
absolved from all blame: what a simple picture! It has all the signs of a
reaction to the opposite view: when society was thought to be always right
and individual always wrong.
    In the teeth of all this propaganda, Christians stand up and speak about
the Mystical Body of Christ. Briefly, it means that Christ is seen as an
immense ‘Body’ of which he himself is the head and we the various
members. This is expressed in many places in St Paul’s letters: "Christ is
the head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18); "For as in one body
we have many members, and not all the members have the same
function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we
are members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5). “In the one Spirit we were
all baptised into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were
all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).
    It is a tremendous affirmation of the place of others in our life: Christ
first of all, and then all the members of the Church, and ultimately the
whole human race. We are not saved as isolated individuals, whether
noble or ignoble; we are saved as members of Christ's body. Yet the
individual is not submerged in the collective: every individual member of
your body is you; your hand is you, your foot is you, your eye is you. “The
eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
Likewise every individual person is indispensable.
    The myth of the noble savage is a recurring dream through the
centuries: from Romulus and Remus to Tarzan. It is like the fantasy that
many children have at some point: that they do not really belong to the
family, that they were adopted and that the best thing they could do is
pack up and leave. The parable of the lost sheep is for children of every

Donagh O'Shea

   “The Father I and are one.” Jesus is not saying this in a weak sense: he
is not just saying that he and the Father are of like mind, etc. Had his
hearers understood him in the sense they would not have taken up stones
immediately to kill him. The union of Jesus with the Father is the
inexhaustible mystery of our Faith.
    It is not only about Jesus; it has to do with us too. He is “the first-born
of many brothers and sisters,” “He is the head, we are the body.” He came
into the world not for himself but for us. In our age the individual is
supreme: the individual is seen as the sole bearer of meaning. So when it
comes to thinking about Jesus we are inclined to see him too as simply an
individual - a totally exceptional one, to be sure, but still an individual. That
could not be a full account of Jesus. When he says 'I' we are somehow in
the picture too.
    In 1943 Pius XII wrote an encyclical letter called Mystici Corporis, The
Mystical Body of Christ. In it he said, "Some people through vain fear, look
upon so profound a doctrine as something dangerous, and so they shrink
from it as from the beautiful but forbidden fruit of paradise…." But, he
added, "Mysteries revealed by God cannot be harmful to us, nor should
they remain as treasures hidden in a field, useless."
    This, of course, was not a new teaching. St Paul comes back to it again
and again. Here are a few instances:
"Christ is the head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18)
"For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members
have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and
individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5)
For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body - Jews or Greeks,
slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians
    St Paul's was not a lone voice. Pius XII adds, "The unbroken tradition
of the Fathers from the earliest times teaches that the Divine Redeemer
and the Church which is His Body form but one mystical person, that is to
say, the whole Christ."
    The saints and mystics down the ages have tried to draw us back to
this depth of our Faith. Meister Eckhart had an overpowering sense of the
union of every Christian with God in Christ. This was the passion of
Eckhart's life. He and others like him have the power to rescue Christians
from excessive individualism in our thinking and in our practice, and to
restore us to an awareness of the Mystical Body of Christ. “The soul is one
with God and not united. Here is a simile: if we fill a tub with water, the
water in the tub is united but not one with it, for where there is water there
is no wood, and where there is wood there is no water. Now take the wood
and immerse it in the water. The wood is still only united and not one (with
the water). It is different with the soul: she becomes one with God and not
united, for where God is, there the soul is and where the soul is, there God
     This is strange language - "one with God and not united" - but when
people speak about this mystery their language is bound to seem strange.
Clearly he did not mean that there was no difference in being between the
soul and God, but that they were one in love. Julian of Norwich in the
same century (the 14th) wrote, "I saw no difference between God and our
substance: but as it were all God; and yet my understanding took it that
our substance is in God: that is to say, that God is God, and our
substance is a creature in God."
     These texts that I quoted are not the language of scientists or
philosophers; they are the language of love.
        Donagh O'Shea
                          THE WHOLE APPLE

    There on the table is an apple. Someone comes up and says, “Oh,
here's an apple! Let me tell you about it. It has two sides: an inside and an
outside, and the essence is the inside, the ‘inner life’ of the apple. The
outside is much less important and you cannot put much trust in it.
Concentrate on the inside and you will understand all about apples.” You
say, “Rubbish!” Then the person goes away and tells everyone that you
are denying the existence of the insides of apples. Rubbish! You are
denying the value of the distinction between insides and outsides, and
that’s a different matter altogether. For apples, say human beings, and
now you're talking. We did indeed put such emphasis on the inner life (we
also call it the spiritual life) that we seemed to be making light of the outer
life; and then when we begin to stress the importance of the outer life we
appear to some to be denying the inner. It is useful, I think, to reflect on
     Consider infant baptism. There are some Christian groups that
disagree with it, but in the Catholic Church it is the normal practice. We
bring the baby along, hoping it will sleep through the whole ceremony! (To
facilitate this, we even arrange to have the baptismal water at body
temperature.) What is said and done there is said and done by adults; the
baby is passive. But, you may ask, how could anyone become a Christian
while sound asleep? And even awake, the baby couldn't care less about
baptism. Now, what about his or her inner life? Well, that baby has an
outside - not a very extensive one yet, but a real outside. And inside and
outside, in any case, are not like two separate worlds. There is only one
baby, for God’s sake, and this is it. To say that babies cannot be
Christians is to say that being a Christian is a matter of thinking,
consciousness, awareness, decision.... It is like saying that you cannot be
a Christian while you are asleep. Consider the consequences of thinking
that way. If you die in your sleep, is yours a Christian death? Or if you die
in a coma, are the sacraments they administer to you futile? And what
about all the times in your life you have not been fully conscious, aware,
and so on (all the times you fell asleep at prayers, or when you were sick),
were you a Christian then? Of course you were! And if you die in your
sleep, yours is a Christian death. So if you were baptised as an infant, that
was your first lesson that the Christian faith is not something of your own
devising. “This is the love I mean,” wrote John, “not our love for God but
God’s love for us,” and “God loved us first.”
    In fact all the sacraments, not only baptism, are seen as moments of
grace (a word that means ‘gift’). Something is done for you: people pour
water over you, or they rub you with oil, or feed you, or lay their hands on
your head, or say words over you... (in the case of marriage it is you who
say the words, but the presence of other people, to listen and watch, is
regarded as essential). In other words, there is a full recognition of you as
a bodily being: the Church does not see you just as an ‘inside’, an interior
and solitary ghost; it sees you whole. It is obliged to tell you that God loves
all of you, not just your brain-waves.
   All of this should give us some indications about prayer. I met a very
earnest Christian who said he was allergic to Our Fathers and Hail Marys
and Grace before and after meals. Or rather he was allergic to the way
other people said them. He said that all prayer should be quiet and
thoughtful, deep and heartfelt. This is a lofty ideal, and no one could ever
pull it down, but I feel there has to be room for other kinds of prayer too.
We are not always quiet and thoughtful, and if we prayed as if we were, it
might be very forced and even hypocritical. There’s a place for what you
might call encrusted prayer: prayers that have become quite habitual. We
are not always tender shoots and delicately opening buds; I often feel
more like a tuft of scutch-grass or a piece of dried bark. There’s a place for
repetitive prayer, Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Graces, at whatever speed.
There’s a place for regular prayer: prayers on a timetable, and not just
when one feels ‘moved’. There’s a place for not feeling so ‘inward’ and
precious all the time. In other words, there’s a place for all of us, in both
senses: all of us together, and all of each person, inside and outside - the
whole apple.

[Extract from I Remember Your Name in the Night: thinking about death,
Donagh O'Shea, Dominican Publications (Dublin) and Twenty-Third
Publications (CT), 1997

         Donagh O'Shea
                                SHOES OFF!

    In An Evil Cradling, in which Brian Keenan vividly described his
kidnapping and imprisonment in Beirut by Islamic fundamentalists, there is
a passage where he speaks of a fearful attachment to his shoes. If these
were taken away from him, he felt, he would surely never see freedom
again. When you have no shoes you are going nowhere. In some religious
traditions the shoes are always removed before meditation, and perhaps
for a similar reason: to meditate is to stop moving.
   To meditate is to stop moving, to stop running away. It is to ‘imprison’
oneself in a discipline of meditation and to make oneself vulnerable. Jesus
was fastened hand and foot to the cross: this meant that he could do
nothing and go nowhere. In some icons he is called the ‘Pantokrator’, the
Ruler of all; but in the supreme moment of his life he could not rule even
his own limbs. Clearly the word ‘freedom’ is one of those deep but highly
ambiguous words.
   If you are in prison you are unfree in a physical sense, but spiritually
and mentally you may be very free: much more so than any of your
warders, perhaps. If you are out of prison you are free in a physical sense,
but spiritually and mentally you may be deeply enslaved. Walking around,
apparently in freedom, are millions of people who are securely imprisoned
in themselves: through addictions of all sorts, through fear of ever being
alone and unoccupied for more than a little while, through mental or
physical laziness, through enslavement to passions and evil habits.... The
deepest enslavement is to oneself. Personal freedom is a personal
conquest, wise men and women tell us: high talk has nothing to do with it;
much of what is trumpeted about freedom is only a rattling of chains. We
inflame one another about external freedom because we are all equally
embarrassed by our own spiritual and mental slavishness. A real conquest
of freedom is an urgent matter for every person. If you are not free of
yourself, we are told, you are not free at all. But if you are free of yourself,
then nothing can imprison you.
   Meditation is a conquest of inner freedom. You ‘imprison’ yourself in a
practice of meditation in order to be deeply free of yourself. When I say
‘imprison’ I mean to say: hold yourself to the practice and do not let it
depend on whims of the moment. Nothing is ever achieved by stopping
and starting; you are up against the constant urge to enslave yourself in
different ways, and so your effort has to be a constant one. Choose a time
and place where you will meditate every day, and make it an invariable
practice. Place an icon there, if you wish, and light a candle. Use whatever
helps you. That place deserves honour, for it is going to become the
anchorage of your life.
   Take off your shoes! Begin by remembering the Lord’s presence and
asking for help. Remember the priceless gift of time that is given to you
moment by moment. Be aware also of the constant urge there is to ‘push’
time past you: to overrun the present moment in order to make something
happen.... Be aware of that restlessness. I don't say, Control it! (You
would begin to do that with the very same restlessness!) Instead, be
simply aware of it; that’s enough. Anything else that may happen will
happen of itself. It is a matter of getting down (on your knees, so to speak)
to look at time in the closest possible way: looking at the texture of it,
knowing the feel of it, liking it, and not wishing to push it past you. Enter
each moment as if it were an eternity. You are not going anywhere, you
are not trying to make anything happen, you are simply sitting still and
watching time closely as it passes. Time is a priceless gift of God; the
least we can do is look closely at it. If a feeling of boredom assails you,
look at it! Look at everything that arises within you. Just look, don't judge.
And don't try to hurry anything up, or to slow anything down. If you can
stay in that ‘place’, you have gone down below the storms of restlessness
and all desire, the whirlwinds of addiction and compulsion, the disquiet
that fear of being unoccupied causes in you. Only when viewed from that
place can your thoughts and actions be really understood. That is the
place where freedom is born.

[Extract from I Remember Your Name in the Night: thinking about death,
Donagh O'Shea, Dominican Publications (Dublin) and Twenty-Third
Publications (CT), 1997

         Donagh O'Shea
                      PERSON, PLACE OR THING

    Is a person a thing? I don't mean just any old thing; I mean a very
special kind of living thing. Or are persons so special that you cannot
properly call them things at all? Still, “You poor thing!” we say to people
(and not only children) when we are filled with pity for them. They are not
insulted by our choice of words; they are often consoled. But on the other
hand, try treating people as things - pushing them around, or ignoring
them, or throwing them out - and you get a very different reaction indeed.
So, why can’t we make up our minds: are we things or are we not?
    I'll come back to that. What if we were to think of persons as places? I
listened for hours to a person of very strong will who was in constant
trouble (with himself as much as with other people) for that very will-power
of his. I had the impression of a small ball of steel. From that steel core he
had been trying all his life to impose his plans on the world; and when it
was not plans it was expectations, which are just as bad. Suddenly I
thought to say to him, “Why not think of yourself as a place, instead of a
thing?” He was very surprised: this kind of talk was not according to any
plan of his!
    I'll come back to him! There are precedents for calling people places. St
Paul called us “temples of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6). A temple is a
place. The Litany of Loreto is like a museum of titles for Mary. We can
scarcely imagine what kind of worlds they came from or what some of
them once meant. In it Mary is called an ark, a house, a vessel, a tower....
All these could be described as things, of course, but they are just as truly
places. Think of yourself as a place where God is at work, and you will be
less tempted to think that the world’s salvation depends on you and your
    The word ‘room’ (and its German cousin ‘Raum’) means ‘space’. But we
build a room and then proceed to fill it with clutter, making it the opposite
of a room. There is a need for empty space there; if there were no empty
space it could no longer be called a room in a proper sense. It is the same
with us: the essential is to get rid of the clutter in our lives, our hearts, our
minds; the essential is to make room.
    The trouble with clutter is that you become so used to it that you think
you cannot do without it. In that sense you become identified with it. This
is even more true of inner clutter. You become identified with your work,
your ideas, your plans; and if you were ever to be deprived of these, you
would feel that you scarcely existed any more. But of course you would
exist, and you would be more yourself than before. You would be
identified with yourself rather than with your clutter. You would know the
indestructible beauty of emptiness. You would be a place where God was
at work.
    Rooms have walls. So have we, walls of some kind: boundaries, limits
(and limitations), ways of being private. These walls are not so stout as
the ones of stone or brick; with one word someone can breach your wall,
and with a bit of sustained effort they can knock it to the ground. This is a
disaster if you have identified yourself with your clutter: it is all exposed to
view, it looks so petty and embarrassing - as household things always do
when a wall is knocked down and they become visible from the street. But
space itself is inviolable. And when all your walls fall down in death your
identity, you believe, will not be dissipated. In some mysterious way you
will be more yourself than ever before, and there will be no barrier
between you and God, nor between you and others. Then the Spirit will
blow where it wills and you will be rapt up in a mystery beyond
imagination. Meditation is when you sit for an hour or so and live with that
detachment from clutter, and you try not to care so much about your walls:
you open your mind and heart to God and the world.
   In that attitude fear lets go of you, fear that usually makes you feel small
and cornered. It unties its traps and releases you into a wider world....
Whenever you want, you can go back to being a thing! Physicists (a race
of people, I think, who dislike ambiguity more than most) have to live with
ambiguity: they cannot settle the question whether light is particles or
waves, so they work with the understanding that it is either, or both. Why
should not a Christian (who inherits a profound wisdom about symbolism
and language) think, and live, sometimes like a thing and sometimes like a
place? Even the steel man, I later discovered, has begun to attempt it!

[Extract from I Remember your Name in the Night, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications (Dublin) and Twenty-Third Publications (CT) 1997]

"Pride in their port, defiance in their eye, I see the lords of humankind pass
by," wrote Oliver Goldsmith. By 'port' he meant of course 'deportment', the
strut. Yes, it's highly visible. But there's good and bad pride. The good
kind is just self-respect; a person could be proud in the way that, say, a
horse is proud: it doesn’t crawl around cringing; it expresses its true nature
with dignity. The bad kind is exaggerated self-esteem; this kind, because it
is based on nothing, verges towards vanity (which literally means
'emptiness'). Pride (the bad kind) is listed as the first and chief of the
'seven deadly sins'.
    Thomas Merton gave us this story by Chuang Tzu (Chinese, 3rd
century B.C.): “Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole was fishing in Pu river.
The Prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors with a formal document: ‘We
hereby appoint you Prime Minister.’ Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole.
Still watching Pu river, he said, ‘I am told there is a sacred tortoise, offered
and canonised three thousand years ago, venerated by the prince,
wrapped in silk, in a precious shrine on an altar in the Temple. What do
you think: is it better to give up one’s life and leave a sacred shell as an
object of cult in a cloud of incense three thousand years, or better to live
as a plain turtle dragging its tail in the mud?’ ‘For the turtle,’ said the Vice-
Chancellor, ‘better to live and drag its tail in the mud!’ ‘Go home!’ said
Chuang Tzu. ‘Leave me here to drag my tail in the mud!’”
    A turtle dragging its tail in the mud has more self-respect (good pride)
than the one that relies on status or marks of honour or fancy dress.
Sadly, the disciples of Jesus in every age, are not resistant to this. The
great 4th-century Doctor of the Church, St John Chrysostom was
conscious of the order in which the apostles are listed in the gospel.
"Observe," he wrote, " that he does not place them according to their
dignity; for to me John would seem to be greater not only than the others,
but even than his brother." Great eminence in the Church doesn’t prevent
a man from being silly at times. Jesus had explicitly said, "Do not take
your seat in the place of honour," and "the last shall be first and the first
last" (Luke 13:30).
    In the gospels, many of the images used by Jesus speak of littleness
(the mustard seed, yeast, the grain of wheat). Everything has tiny
beginnings - that is to say, everything real. But in the world of advertising
and entertainment, things have to create a big splash to get our attention.
It’s an indication of their unreality. Real things grow from tiny seeds.
    As the French say: a lot of noise, with little to show for it - beaucoup de
bruit, peu de fruit. In Aesop’s fable a fly sat on the axle of a chariot and
said, “What a dust I’m raising!” As we grow up we develop skills of
concealment, but the ego is all the more efficient for being able to work in
secret. It becomes secret even from oneself. Then there ensues a lifetime
of comparing and competing and trying to look bigger than we are.
Exhausting! It’s only someone very conscious of being small who
struggles to look big. A snippet of dialogue I once heard brings out all the
complexity of the ego, “Don’t be making yourself so big - you’re not that
   “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble
themselves will be exalted." This saying occurs no fewer than four times in
the gospels (Luke 14:11 and 18:14; Matthew 18:4 and 23:12). It’s rather
like the piece of wisdom I heard on the street, “Don’t be making yourself
so big - you’re not that small!” It’s like economic inflation, when money has
less and less value because of repetitive price increases. The ‘price
increases’ in this case are when I think and talk above myself. The more
common word for it is ‘vanity’. In Latin these two words - inflatus and
vanus - mean the same thing: empty.

Donagh O'Shea
                      SURRENDERING TO GOD

    “The single greatest lie we tell ourselves, blindly and endlessly, is ‘I
already know how things are.’" So someone wrote, a few years ago. How
boring it would be to know everything already! - or rather (because no one
knows everything) to think that I know everything. The world would be an
old place, a second-hand place. I would be going around thinking and
feeling (and probably - to the disgust of everyone - saying) things like: I
already know what I am, and I already know what the world is; I already
know what God is! But the world is perfectly new every moment, so it is
impossible to know it already! All I know is my memories, and the
limitations that go with them. I am confusing reality with my ideas about it.
That way lies madness. Chesterton once said that a lunatic was not
someone who had lost his mind, but someone who had lost everything
except his mind!
    The only thing that memories can do is repeat themselves over and
over. This is how life loses its wonder and magic for many or even most
people. How awful to think: I already know what kind of person this is; I
already know what this place is; I already know what this situation is
about; I already know what my body is; I already know what kind of
experience this is; I already know what pleasure is; I already know what
pain is; I already know what 'relationship' is; I already know what being
alone is; I already know what success is; I already know what failure is…
and so on and on!
    Yet we don't really know. How could we? To be awake, to be open, to
be innocent, to be free, is to be ready for what is, and what is cannot be
known in advance.
    Even when we have had a moment of clear sight, there is a tendency
to slump back to old mental habits and assumptions - like the ‘default
mode’ on a computer.
    Jesus spoke about “dying to oneself in order to live.” I think this means
dying to one’s old self in order to be alive with the life that God is giving
me just now. It involves surrender and humility. It involves putting to death
that awful ‘know-all’ in me who spoils the freshness of existence moment
by moment. It involves abandoning strategic and ambitious thinking,
especially in matters of the spirit. Even many ‘holy’ people are capable of
no other kind of thinking. Faith is about innocence; that is why Jesus said
we must be like children in some way. Spiritual surrender is the way to
God; no other way works. Other ways lead straight to Pharisaism, to fear,
greed, anger, isolation, and loneliness. You can easily verify this for
    Somewhere deep in us there lurks the secret hope that what I want can
be made secure and permanent. This has never worked, yet we continue
to hope that maybe next time something will lead to permanent happiness.
That is what must be surrendered: not because it's bad, or immoral, but
simply because it doesn't work. It doesn't work because life is not like that.
In life, nothing ever stays the same, even from one moment to the next. I
cannot hold onto anything forever.
    So the art of spiritual surrender is really the art of "not knowing". Then it
doesn't make any difference at all whether you are walking down the
street or eating lunch or sitting alone at home…. This is the first and last
time you will ever be doing it.
    What do you really want? If you want peace, then be peace now,
instead of dreaming about it or just remembering it. If you want love, then
be love now. If you want freedom, then be freedom now. There is nothing
real in the way.

Donagh O'Shea

In the well-known hymn, Rock of Ages, there are lines that make a very
vivid image:

         Nothing in my hand I bring,

         Simply to thy cross I cling.

It would be hard indeed to cling to the cross of Christ if we were also
clinging to our own achievements and reputation and virtue. The cross
begins to make sense the very moment we reach the end of our own
resources. It often happens that people discover its meaning in prison or
in wartime, but rather seldom when they are in the lap of luxury. During
the second world war Edith Sitwell wrote

         Still falls the Rain -

Dark as the world of man, black as our loss -

Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails

Upon the Cross.

This makes it very clear that the cross of Christ, far from being a
decoration or just an external badge of identity, is the very substance of
our pain and struggle. It tells us there is hope for us even at our very
worst; and equally that our best is not good enough - "Nothing in my hand
I bring." It extends beyond us at both ends of the scale: it measures our

           Or rather, Jesus - the man who bore the cross - is the measure
of our life. The cross shows his range: and it goes beyond our reckoning.

          St Thomas Aquinas was asked where he got all his wisdom. "At
the foot of the cross of Christ," he replied. There, contemplating the life
and death of Jesus, he found a wisdom that went beyond human wisdom.
Wisdom is described (in the Book of Wisdom, 8:1 ) as "reaching mightily
from one end of the earth to the other." In Jesus we see this as no
abstract thing, but as a lived experience. He reaches mightily from one
end of the human scale to the other, and beyond. He so identified with us
that St Paul could say he became sin for us: "For our sake God made the
sinless one into sin," (2 Cor. 4:21). And at the other end of the scale
"Through him we have access to the Father" (Eph. 2:18).

           There is a difference between inevitable suffering and the
suffering we bring on ourselves. (Still, they are equally painful.) Much of
our suffering is self-inflicted. Have you heard of the monkey trap? It is a
box with a very small opening at the top. When the monkey reaches into it
for a piece of fruit, he can’t pull his hand out again because his fist
clutching the fruit is too big. To be free, all he would have to do is open his
fist and let go of the fruit. But that is the one thing he is unwilling to do!
And so he is caught. He is caught by his own greed…. Aren't we all? Don’t
we make our life a monkey trap? We trap ourselves with our own greed,
fear, lazy habits, addictions, anger… in a word, everything we hold onto.
Then we say, "Oh I'm suffering so much! I feel frustrated! Life is so hard!"

          Of course we are trapped in the other kind of suffering too, the
inevitable suffering that is part of every human life. We have reason to
believe that birth, life and death are all difficult.

But whatever our suffering is, self-inflicted or otherwise, it finds its
meaning and its remedy in the cross of Christ. Because Christ is one with
the Father he too is the beginning and the end, the full range. "I am the
Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End" (Rev. 21:6).

Donagh O'Shea
                              LAMB OF GOD

“It was about four o’clock in the afternoon,” John said. He was writing
about it sixty years or so after it happened. It was for him one of those
vivid moments that you remember for the rest of your life. It was the
moment when John the Baptist, that terrifying prophet, stared at a man
who was passing by and said, “There is the Lamb of God!” This other
John (the writer of the gospel) perhaps only a teenager at the time, along
with his friend Andrew, took off after the stranger. He heard them
following, he turned around and asked them, “What do you want?”

          How would you answer that question? It’s one of the hardest of
all, especially when you don’t know what you want! Even when you are a
mature man or woman it is hard to say what you really want from life;
when you are young it is totally bewildering. All you know is great unease,
restless idealism, and loneliness, with an intense desire to understand and
be understood. The two could think of nothing to say, so they said, “Where
do you live?” “Come and see!” he said; you can guess how it took them by
surprise. They went, and he talked with them for the rest of the day.
Neither of them would ever be the same again.

          It may be a while since you called someone a lamb! For us, a
lamb is just the cuddly joyful little animal that you see prancing in the fields
in March or April. We project a lot of soft emotions onto lambs, as we do
with the young of many animals: kittens, puppies, chicks, ducklings, etc.
But what did John the Baptist - that terrifying figure from the desert - mean
when he called Jesus the lamb of God?

            Remember that every morning and evening of life a lamb was
ritually killed in the Temple as a sacrifice to God. The priest cut its throat
and it bled to death. The blood (which to Jews was the life of the animal)
was then thrown on the base of the altar, a gift to God, and the meat was
burnt. There were scores of other regular occasions for these sacrifices.
The one for Christians to think about is the Passover feast.

The oldest Jewish memory of lamb-sacrifice was the strange story of the
Passover lamb in the Book of Exodus. The Passover was (and is) an
important Jewish festival commemorating their escape from slavery in
Egypt and their safe flight across the desert and the Red Sea. To protect
themselves from the plagues of Egypt, they were told to mark their
dwellings with lamb's blood. Every year thereafter each family would
sacrifice a lamb in memory of that deliverance. It was just at the time of
the Passover feast that Jesus was put to death in Jerusalem, so it was
natural for Christians later on to see him as the Passover Lamb, the Lamb
of God.

          But when John the Baptist called him the ‘Lamb of God’, it may
have been an echo of a remarkable passage from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah lived about 700 years before Christ, and he was writing about a
mysterious “Suffering Servant” who would save his people. But “he was
despised and rejected by people, a man of sorrows and acquainted with
grief…. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was
wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…by his
wounds we are healed…. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he
opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a
sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth…. He
poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the

          At the Eucharist when you see the raised host and hear the
words, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world,” let
some of these ancient echoes dwell in your mind, as they have dwelt in
the minds of Christians throughout the ages. And let the passing Stranger
fascinate you as he fascinated the youthful John and Andrew.

Donagh O'Shea

"How many persons are there in the Trinity?"

         "All of us!"

         It's always good to give the teacher something to think about; it
puts her off the track for a while. But this one wasn’t intended; it was the
wisdom that comes "out of the mouths of infants and nursing
babies" (Matthew 21:16).

          But isn't it only three? Yes, three Divine Persons - but all of us
too, as the child said. We live in God. We are more accustomed to
saying that God lives in us, but it is equally true that we live in God.

           If you have a jug of water, said Meister Eckhart (14th century),
and you pour it out, it is now outside and no longer inside the jug. Before
we came into being we existed in the mind of God. Then when we came
into being we were "poured out", as it were. Does this mean that we are
no longer "in God"? The image of water being poured out would suggest
so. But that image is a fully material one and not up to the job of throwing
light on this subject. Think instead of knowledge and love. When you
know something, that knowledge is of course in your mind, "within" you.
Then you share it, you pour it out: to a few friends, or perhaps to many
people, like a teacher. It poured out, but it still remains within; you have
imparted it but you not parted with it. Likewise with love: when you give
your love to someone, you do not lose it; in fact it is only in giving it that
you have it. In some such way, when we come into being, we are "poured
out" from God, and yet we remain within. A child is able to speak the truth
in a direct and immediate way, with none of our complicated explanations:
we are living in the Trinity.

           Another 14th-century saint, Catherine of Siena, wrote: "The soul
is in God, and God is in the soul, as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean
in the fish." It is exaggerating greatly to saya that the ocean is in the fish,
because only a couple of cubic centimetres of it are in the fish's gills at any
time. But it is as far as a material image will take us. We want to say that
all of God is in the soul. God doesn’t have parts, so wherever God is, all
of God is there. All of God is in me and all of me is in God. This is a
useful thought on days when you feel lost and lonely.

         If you were to ask a fish to point to the ocean, it would have to
point in three directions: up (or down - anyway, you know what I mean;
you are good enough even to tolerate me when I speak about a fish
'pointing'!); it would also have to point all around; and (remembering those
cubic centimetres) it would have to point in. We too, when we want to
point to God, have to point in three directions: up (or down, if you prefer to
think of God as in depth), out and in. We point up to God our Father (from
childhood our neck muscles tell us the look up at our fathers and
mothers); we point out (at eye level, so to speak) at the Word made flesh
who has become like us in all things but sin; and we point in at the Holy
Spirit who lives within us, for we are "temples of the Holy Spirit."

            Of course all this is very imprecise language, but if it stimulates
you to reflect and meditate on the supreme mystery of God, Three in One,
it serves its purpose. It is the people who have penetrated furthest into
the mystery of God - the mystics - who keep repeating that all language
is inadequate to express what they have experienced. "Stammering," they
have called it. But why should lit be so difficult to talk precisely about the
Trinity. If the mystery was revealed to us, why shouldn't it be crystal
clear? Was it badly revealed, like a blurred photograph? It is not that. If it
is difficult to talk about the Trinity, this is because the Trinity is not just for
talking about. "I bind unto myself today / The strong name of the Trinity,"
says the hymn (St Patrick's Breastplate). "I bind unto myself today / The
power of God to hold and lead." The Trinity is for living; we want to give
every part of our being to God, not only our mind. When we read the
newspapers, the mind is involved while the rest of our being is just sitting
back. The Trinity is for living, because we are involved in it; we are in it.
"All of us."

Donagh O'Shea
                       JESUS AND AUTHORITY

"The great image of authority: a dog's obeyed in office." A farmer's dog
can bark at a beggar and be obeyed because he's a farmer's dog and not
for anything that he is in himself. Elsewhere Shakespeare mentions "the
insolence of office," and generally he leaves the impression that he
suffered as much as anyone from authority and officialdom.

          It is of the greatest interest to see how Jesus faced people in
authority. His way is ultimately the model for how we ourselves are to
face authority, as we do every day, in one way or another.

          It is not a pleasant thing when a policeman approaches you and
says, "Documents!" It is like being asked what right you have to exist.
Jesus was asked precisely this kind of question one day in the Temple.
"The chief priests, the scribes and the elders" approached him: these were
the three component sections of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious
authority of the Jews. They questioned his authority to teach.

          When authorities are quick to question people's authority, it is
because their own authority is the uppermost thing in their consciousness.
He had innate authority, but theirs was borrowed: that is why they felt so
threatened. The weaker a man is, the more he will insist on his authority
and privileges. I heard someone say: if you gave a man a nose who never
had one, he would be blowing it all day! But Jesus was in no way
intimidated by them, though they had power of life and death over him, as
they proved in the sequel. Shakespeare spoke of "Art made tongue-tied
by authority," but Jesus was not lost for words; he defeated the official
deputation in debate. Many a heroic stance by Christians was inspired by
his strength, his manliness.

          In the gospels there are seven occasions when Jesus healed on
the sabbath. Far from winning the Pharisees' admiration, he incurred their
implacable opposition by these healings, because he was breaking the
rules they had deduced from the Law of Moses. He was invited to a meal
in a Pharisee's house on the sabbath, and the gospel says, "they were
watching him" (Lk 14:1). Not good for the digestion! How would you feel if
you were invited to a meal and you knew it was really a trap? The sick
man may have been planted there deliberately; or he may just have
walked in, as people were free to do. Jesus was fully aware of all this; he
was used to it!
          Imagine the meal, and the insincere talk. Imagine the pre-
cooked food. In a Pharisee's house everything would have been
according to the Law - or rather according to their own grindingly narrow
version of it. Food had to be cooked the day before the sabbath (because
cooking was work) and kept hot till the sabbath - but in such a way that it
was not further cooked! There were dozens of regulations about how this
was to be done.

         Suddenly Jesus swept aside the falsity of the situation and,
without being asked, he healed the man. A false atmosphere is as false
as the worst kind of lie.

          Jesus defied human authorities when he had to, but he was not
against authority in principle. "Give to Caesar the things that are
Caesar's," he said (Mt 22:21). People who are against authority in
principle are often simply looking for authority themselves. But the
ultimate words about authority are surely his: "The Son of Man did not
come to be served, but to serve."

           How extraordinary it is that we Christians exempt ourselves from
his strictures on the scribes and Pharisees! - as if everything in the
gospels was about Jewish clergy only. "I am with you always; yes, to the
end of time," he promised (Mt 28:20). Does this mean that he always
supports us as we are? I dare say it does not. He is with us always, yes,
to challenge us even more severely than he challenged the scribes and
Pharisees; more severely, because we claim to speak in his name.

Donagh O'Shea

The bus was so crowded that inching towards the exit door was like being
squeezed through a mangle. "Permesso?" ("May I pass?") seemed such a
ridiculous request - until you realised it was not a question at all but a final
warning. Yes, this was a Roman bus, and you counted yourself lucky if
you were extruded from it at the right stop.

          Above the noise a shrill voice rose in anger, creating some
silence all around. One woman was brow-beating another with
unrestrained fury, charging her with things unspeakable; it was humiliation
on a grand scale, almost like a public execution. The other would reply in
a voice so downcast that the anonymity of the crowd seemed to change to
a shared pity and horror... And again the second voice, only barely
articulate, more like a howl of sorrow. After a while, the most striking thing
was the repetitiveness on both sides; somehow this made it worse. The
Italian vocabulary of abuse is very rich; why this clinical repetitiveness? It
was like slowly cutting someone's throat.

         As I edged towards the exit I came in view of them - or rather
her. To my astonishment I saw that the two voices were coming from one
and the same person! Still she continued, not only her voice but her whole
appearance changing as she switched from one role to the other; she was
both people. She was all alone on the bus, as if we were not there; but
inside her she was two people in terrible conflict with each other. Just
imagine: they could never be separated day or night, and their conflict
would go on forever.

             I thought I was being very large-minded when I thought, "There
but for the grace of God go I!" But in a while I had to shorten it. "There go
I!" I talk to myself too, and I often berate myself without mercy. So do you,
probably. It's always a revelation to see the extreme. The extremist is just
further along the line than we are. Run your eye back a bit and see
yourself! The extremist is yourself written large. Schizophrenics are not
the only persons who are divided within themselves. We all are. In that
poor woman you can see exposed what you have managed to keep
hidden. The divided self.

          To meditate is to touch that spot. We switch off all our life-
support systems, such as radio and television; then we switch off that sub-
vocal dialogue that we keep going day and night (this is not as easy as
switching off a radio). We find that we don't disappear, we are still alive. In
fact we are more alive, more awake. We may think we are cutting our
contacts with the human race. On the contrary, we are going deeper than
entertainment and gossip to the level where we are truly one with other
human beings. We begin to get used to the paradox that solitude can put
us in touch with others, that without solitude our contact with others is
superficial. This is the level of meditation. If we enter it every day, even for
a short time, we discover a greater depth in our lives; and this depth, far
from cutting us off from others, will deepen our solidarity with them. We
will be one with those we meet and with every sufferer; we will also be
able "to rejoice with those who rejoice" instead of being jealous of them.

            Meditation is about sitting quietly at a certain time every day in a
place where you will not be disturbed by phones ringing, or especially by
human voices or music (other noises are no problem). Sit upright and
relax the body (we often think that relaxation means flop-down). As you
exhale, let all your tensions and nervousness leave you with the breath.
As you inhale, breathe in peace. When you begin to fret about something,
notice how this is expressed by muscular tension somewhere in the body.
Relax that tension, and continue to breathe quietly. If you persevere you
will find that your heart opens to include other people in all their pain and
joy (without thinking about them). You are one with them in the Body of
Christ. Your own humanity is theirs - and his. Their pain and joy is
somehow yours - and his. This, not the 'I' that talks to itself, is our true

Donagh O'Shea OP

         “Endeavour to be inclined always:

          not to the easiest but to the most difficult;

          not to the most delightful but to the harshest;

          not to the most gratifying but to the less pleasant;

          not to what means rest for you but to hard work;

          not to the consoling but to the unconsoling;

          not to the most but to the least;

          not to the highest and the most precious but to the lowest

          and the most despised;

          not to wanting something but to wanting nothing;

          do not go about looking for the best of temporal things

          but for the worst,

          and desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness and

          poverty in everything in the world....

This advice if truly carried out is sufficient for entry into the ‘night of the

          Thus wrote St John of the Cross in the 16th century. He is
considered one of the greatest of Western mystics. When reading
something written four centuries ago it is important to approach it wisely.
If you started ‘cold’ to carry out that advice of his that I quoted above, you
would surely drive yourself insane within a few weeks. It would be a ‘night
of the senses’ all right, but it would have no connection with spirituality. If
you noticed that some great chess players held their heads in their hands
when they were planning their moves, and you began to do the same,
thinking that this is how one becomes a great chess player, you would be
considered very stupid. There is no use in monkeying the behaviour of
chess players; you have to go and learn the game. You have to begin
with chess, not with chess players and their idiosyncrasies. Chess is a
mental activity in the first place. Similarly in the spiritual life, one has to
begin with the spirit, not with imitating other people’s behaviour or
following their rules.

           St John of the Cross is also considered by many the greatest of
Spanish poets; in 1952 he was proclaimed patron of Spanish poetry. The
remarkable thing is that his collected poems are a mere handful, with only
three or four major ones. They are of enduring beauty and power. Later
on, he wrote lengthy prose commentaries on a few of these poems, and it
is from one of these that the quotation above is taken. It is truly surprising
to find that in most editions of his collected works the poems are put at the
end of the volume - even though the prose works are commentaries on
them. From these tortuous volumes scholars extract ‘the spirituality of St
John of the Cross’.

           There are lessons for us in this. Athletes put themselves through
physical regimes that would make the lives of Carthusian monks look soft
and self-indulgent. This is because they are heart and soul in love with
their game. Love urges you to tremendous effort, but no amount of effort
can urge you to tremendous love, nor even to mediocre love. We whittle
down the truth of this by repeating that love is a decision; the intention is
to say that work can get you there. In the absence of deep understanding
and an inner spirit of love, such sacrificial love breeds guilt and
resentment. The question is: how do we learn to love? Where do we
start? It is a very difficult question, and it is not surprising that in the
absence of clarity we start on the outside, with the visible side of it, the
works of love. All the better then, we think, if we can find a rule-book that
tells us how to proceed. In this way, from time immemorial, religion has
tended to turn into rules of behaviour.

           How does a Christian learn how to love God? The traditional
answer is that we don't really! It is “infused”, it is a gift; you just have to be
in the right place at the right time and it is yours. The place is the Church,
the Christian community; the time is now, the time of the new covenant.
Instead of trying to learn to love, we should try to understand how we
manage to unlearn it! Watch with careful attention the way you live, the
way you act, the way you react, the contents of your mind when you are
with people, when you are alone, when you are daydreaming. Just watch
and try to understand. There are no rules for doing this.

Donagh O'Shea

 Lent is a Spring season. In countries that have four distinct seasons,
Spring is like a new birth.
     Sunlight runs a race with rain,
     All the world is young again.
But even in hotter countries like the Holy Land, its charm is not lost: “For
see, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on
the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the
turtledove is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11f).
   This is the atmosphere of Lent, strange to say! We may have
associated it rather with winter, but the word itself, ‘Lent’, comes from
‘lengthen’: the days begin to get longer in Spring. The Liturgy (1st Preface
of Lent) calls it “this joyful season.” It is about the surprise of new life
coming from what appears dead, as Spring comes from Winter.
   The Gentle Spirit of God came down, like a dove, on Jesus at the
Jordan, and God spoke within him, “You are my Son, my beloved one...”
But the very next verse says, “Then the Spirit drove him into the desert!” It
doesn't follow ordinary logic. We would have expected the Spirit (“the
Comforter”) to keep him in comfort! Instead he is driven out from all
comfort and security, into the desolation of the Judean desert. The name
for that desert was Hinnom, “the Desolation.”
   What kind of comfort can we expect from the Comforter? But look more
closely at the word ‘comfort’. It comes from the Latin 'fortis', which means
‘strong’. Comfort therefore means strength! In the Bayeux tapestry
(depicting the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066), the
English commander is shown at the rear of his troops, prodding them on
with his spear, or as the caption reads, "comforting his troops." But
modern usage has weakened the meaning with softness and gentle
touches; in fact it has come to mean just about its opposite of strength:
   Jesus was driven into the desert so that his gift might become his, by
being tested. Nothing can be given to us on a plate (except biscuits!).
There is no contradiction between receiving something as a gift from God
and earning it. Someone offers to teach me Russian: they give me
endless hours of their time - a generous gift; but the language will never
become mine if I don’t work at it. No contradiction between grace and
merit. This is the right season of the year for remembering that!
   In Jewish and Christian spirituality the desert is the place where you
meet a) wild beasts and demons, and b) possibly God. It is a place of
ambiguity: the worst could happen, or the best. A desert offers you
nothing, so you have to find resources within yourself; you are put to the
test: in biblical language, you are ‘tempted’. We all like to put ourselves to
the test, just a bit; we like to pit our strength or skill or intelligence against
odds, but we also know when to stop! Luke says Jesus was “led by the
Spirit through the desert” (4:1), but Mark says more bluntly, “the Spirit
drove him out into the desert” (1:12). He was tested beyond what he
thought he could endure. That is what makes a hero; all the rest are
   Mark’s Gospel never attempts to smooth the edges of a story. He
shows Jesus getting angry at times, where the others don't. It works both
ways: he also shows him to be more affectionate than the other Gospel
writers do (for example, Mk 10:16). Mark’s Jesus is more emotional,
shows his feelings more. And why not? “He was like us in all things but
sin,” St Paul said. We somehow develop an image of holy people as
stoical, impassive, bland. It may be because so many wretched statues
look just that way. But surely, the holier you are the more you feel, not the
less! If you always live within your ‘comfort zone’ you become selfish. It is
only when you have dared to go beyond that zone - into the ‘desert’ - that
you begin to know even what you yourself feel, let alone what others feel.
Lent is the season for that journey beyond comfort.

Donagh O'Shea OP

     Remember the story in Matthew's gospel (chapter 25) about the wise
and foolish bridesmaids? There is a church in Cork (where I live) that has
carvings of them at the entrance - the wise at one side and the foolish at
the other. I'm afraid the foolish ones look much more interesting that the
wise! They look more individual and more alive. In the Gospel story too
the wise bridesmaids are far less likeable characters than the foolish! If
you were really stuck, you would be more likely to get help from one of
those foolish bridesmaids than from any of the wise ones. Nobody loves a
little ‘Miss Perfect’ (except her mother!). And these Miss Perfects refused
to help out when they were asked. Was Jesus having a bad day when he
thought up this story?

   We have to remember that a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a
story that has many points of reference to human experience - many
punch-lines, so to speak - but a parable has only one. The development of
the story itself has only one purpose in a parable: to add strength to that
one point. For that reason, the refusal of the wise to help the foolish is not
being held up as model behaviour for us. Jesus himself had passionate
regard for “the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed, the lost” (See
Ezechiel 34, as the model for his ‘lost sheep’ parable). The one point of
this parable of the bridesmaids is readiness. Jesus was continuously
telling people to wake up and stay awake.
   But to come back to those ten bridesmaids.... Why do the wise ones
seem so boring and the foolish ones so much more interesting? Maybe
one reason is this: while our foolishness is our own, our wisdom is usually
borrowed; our wisdom is all too often an imitation, and it doesn’t fit us as
well as does our foolishness! We care little for goodness and wisdom; in
truth we are bored by them, and it shows in our face!

    Can wisdom be mine, really mine? Are the best things really for me? Or
can I only look on and imitate, like a football supporter wearing the team
colours? Goodness was obligatory at home and in school, and so from
earliest childhood we may have seen it as ‘what other people want’. Evil
then became identified with what we wanted ourselves! We may never
really have interiorised goodness. We may then feel that it must be the
same with everyone else: that goodness is always false. That would be
the final caricature of Christian education. We must face the fact that
many children now grow to adulthood with nothing more than this.
    Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body. It’s no use unless it’s
mine. Information and knowledge can be anybody’s: I can get them on a
CD! But wisdom has to be my own. The Latin word for wisdom, 'sapientia
', is related to ‘sapor’, which means ‘taste’: wisdom is ‘sapida scientia’,
tasted knowledge. It is not knowledge in a book or in someone else’s
head, but in me: in my mouth, so to speak, in my heart, living through me.
I heard someone say, “English is only our second language. What we
ARE is our first language!” This expresses it exactly.
   Do we know with how little wisdom the world is governed? I think we do
now. Politics - and life itself - now seems little more than a matter of
acquiring and controlling information. T.S. Eliot asked the key question:
   Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
   Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Donagh O'Shea OP
                  HOW MATERIALISTIC ARE YOU?

    A beautiful Christian teaching says that every creature is a word of
God; in other words, every creature is a revelation of God, every creature
‘speaks’ God. Therefore seeking God does not mean shunning creatures,
but attending carefully to them and respecting them whole-heartedly.
   But, you say, should we not try and loosen our attachment to material
things in order to draw close to God, who is spirit?
   One has to say, first of all, that God is no enemy of material things, but
their source. “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1). Go to the heart of
the creature and it will reveal God to you. The trouble is that we seldom go
to the heart of anything, but only to the surface; and the surfaces of things
can well distract us not only from God but from any depth whatsoever in
our life. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 41:8), but it is also true that surface
calls to surface; the more we relate to the superficial aspects of things, the
more superficial we become ourselves. The answer is not to try and break
our connection with things (how?) but to relate ever more deeply to them.
This leads a person to have a truly contemplative Christian spirit. The
‘other-worldly’ attitude is a caricature of it.
   Is the modern world materialistic? If materialistic means ‘in love with
matter’, then one has to ask: is it out of love for matter that we are
poisoning the air, the land and the seas? Is it out of love for the earth that
we have become the most destructive species on this planet? Is it love for
matter that allows us to risk reducing whole regions of the earth to heaps
of radioactive dust? Is it for love of matter that we are creating nuclear
waste that will be unsafe for tens of thousands of years? Again: does
modern art demonstrate a love of material things? Are modern buildings
generally a proof of greater love for natural substances? And on the
domestic scale: look at the material things on your mantelpiece and count
how many were made by crafts people and how many were mass
produced. If we loved matter, the world would look quite different,
beginning with our mantelpieces.
How does the world speak to us now of God? Where do our symbols and
images come from? They tend to come now, not from the world of nature
but from the dream world: they are dredged up from the pit of the tortured
human psyche. The world is perceived as dead or meaningless, and there
is a flight into the self.
   Of course you cannot really get away from the material world, for the
very good reason that you are part of it; it goes with you as your body. It is
not surprising that so many of today’s major problems are about sexuality:
any structural stresses in a person seem to register immediately in that
area. The body is then thought to be the origin of these problems, but
nothing is more certain than that is not the body but the mind. Your body is
decent material; it is your mind that is disordered. It is the sick mind that
sends deranged messages to the body. We have much to learn from the
body, as we have much to learn from every creature, every word of God.
   Chesterton once remarked that a lunatic is not someone who has lost
his mind, but someone who has lost everything except his mind.

Donagh O'Shea OP

    The beauty of the world has made me sad,
    This beauty that must pass.
What I am going to ask now is very unpoetic, but would you be happier if it
didn't pass? What would the world be like if nothing ever passed away?
There would never be anything new! Everything would be old but unable
to die. It would be like Sartre’s world in Nausea; everything would be just
there, meaningless, mouldering, superfluous. In Sartre, the only factor of
change in the world is human freedom (and that too is meaningless);
everything has disappeared into the ego, and to no avail. But wait! Surely
there is plenty of change in the world: enough to take your breath away,
much of the time - and literally so in the end! There is enough change in
the world to keep you alert and on your feet for a whole lifetime (except,
ahem! at the end). You cannot sleep your life away, because everything
around you and in you is transient. If that makes you sad, think of what the
alternative would do to you!
    Still, everyone understands that sadness. It is perhaps a symbol of our
own passing. It is good to connect these two, the transience of things and
our own transience: they receive a certain resonance from each other.
“Just as at a certain point in that most striking of changes [death] we must
leave each other altogether,” wrote Rilke, “so we must, strictly speaking, at
every moment give each other up and let each other go and not hold each
other back.” He advises us to get into the spirit of transience. We might as
well, for how could anyone defeat it? It seems wise to embrace the thing
you cannot defeat; wiser still when even wanting to defeat it would be the
greatest madness. Swimming, I believe, could teach us much: to swim we
have to accept the nature of water, its fluidity, its different reliability from
that of solid objects; and we have to avoid putting a drowning man’s grip
on our friends. Moreover, they tell us that about 90% of the human body is
composed of water, so it should not be difficult to learn fluidity and
transience from it.
    Everything passes and it is right that it should pass; that is clear on
reflection. The most transient things of all, one would think, are ideas, but
it is not always so: we sometimes cling to ideas as to life itself, ideas of
who we are and what we want, what is worthwhile and what is worthless,
what is possible and impossible.... We would get away with this rigidity
forever if it were not for death. The thought of death goes deeper than all
these other thoughts, and digs them all up. There before us in a moment
lies the upturned sod, black and bare, the earthworms recoiling, their poor
privacy discovered. It seems a cruel invasion. “The human being is a
being-unto-death,” wrote Heidegger, and it was not at all his purpose to
depress us. He meant that death prevents us from settling down forever
with a stunted understanding of ourselves and the world; it thrusts
greatness on us, sooner or later. It digs deepest, intimating an awesome
sowing and reaping.
   What a freedom it gives, when you don't recoil at the thought of it! It tells
us there is no need to keep anything back, that it is pointless to try.
Embrace the inevitable. Leap on the great wave of transience and praise
the God of the ages. Why crouch there shivering, unable to decide to
plunge? The water will teach you. The water of transience.
   Every night of life the Church prays in the words of Jesus, “Into your
hands, Lord, I commit my spirit.” In Paschal time it adds, “Alleluia!

Donagh O'Shea OP
                       CARRYING ONE'S CROSS

    Watch this procession. "They were on the road; going up to Jerusalem;
Jesus was walking on ahead of them; the disciples were in a daze and the
crowd were bewildered" (Mark 10:28). What's strange about that?
Nothing, except that they would appear to be going in the wrong direction!
In Jerusalem he would meet his death. Everyone sensed this, and that is
why they were bewildered. They should have been going the other way!
It's natural to try to escape suffering and violent death.
    But there is some deeper wisdom here - a strange wisdom that tells us
to embrace our suffering rather than flee from it. This is just as puzzling to
us as it was to the bewildered crowd that followed him, but countless
Christians through the ages have somehow not only understood it but
lived it. When we read that Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English
mystic, prayed for suffering and sickness we look around for psychological
terms with which to dismiss it. But Julian's intention was clear. "My
intention was that I should be wholly cleansed thereby through the mercy
of God, and that thereafter, because of that illness, I might live more
worthily of him." She wanted some part in the Passion of Christ. But much
more than physical illness, she wanted what she called "Three wounds:
the wound of genuine contrition, the wound of true compassion, and the
wound of sincere longing for God." This is very challenging. We tend to
assume that all wounds should be healed. She would reject our popular
axiom, 'holiness = wholeness'.
    Julian wants her heart to be opened by "the wound of genuine
contrition"; she wants "the wound of true compassion" to bleed and never
stop bleeding for the world; and she wants to feel "the wound of sincere
longing for God." If you ever became absorbed in the book I'm OK, you're
OK, how hard it is to pray for the wound of contrition, or compassion, or
longing for God!
    The Christian faith is all too seldom allowed to challenge the ego;
instead it is often used to extend it to infinity. But saints are people who
have received the challenge and lived by it. They assure us that there is
no such thing as a painless life, and so running from pain cannot be the
answer: we only run into the arms of greater pain. Yes, they tell us,
exclude all foolish self-imposed pain. Work with what is left: the inevitable
pain of life. Rest at peace with this pain, as far as you are able: it is your
best teacher and friend; it opens a gate to life. It questions your
understanding of who and what you are. It takes away your cushions so
that you touch reality. This is not horrible, it is a promise of life - because
only reality can save us. If things go against you don't take it as a personal
insult; it is God trusting you. The dream of endless comfort is an insult, not
this. God loves you enough to take you out of yourself. This is the
demanding lesson of the saints.
    Jesus predicted his suffering, to prepare his disciples for the shock. But
otherwise he never talked or complained about it. When you talk about
your suffering you are creating a distance between it and you; you are not
'suffering' your suffering ('to suffer' originally meant 'to allow'). It cannot
work its chemistry in you if you don't let it come near - in fact, nearer than
near: you have to become one with it. When you are one with it, there is
no distance and therefore no talk.
   When you talk about your suffering, people are usually too polite to
change the subject. How boring a subject it is! People have too much
suffering of their own, they don't know what to do with yours. If you said
you had a leaking roof they could off to fix it for you, but what can they do
about your suffering if all you can do about it yourself is talk? And behind
the talk they can often sense a plea for pity and sympathy; they sense that
you are trying to make capital out of it. Instead we have to make a life out
of it. Jesus didn’t say, “Take up my cross,” but “Take up your cross.”

Donagh O'Shea OP
                        HOW TO GO TO SLEEP

   Someone said, "I do two very difficult things every day: I get up and I go
to bed; and by far the more difficult of the two is to go to bed." In a
switched-on world it's very difficult to switch off. Every influence is sending
us up: the urgent voices of advertisers, the accelerating speed of travel,
the ever faster means of communication. When the first cars came into
use, scientists studied the effects on the human body of travelling at 30
m.p.h.! We have left those days behind in a cloud of dust and a screech of
tyres. We know very little about slowing down and stopping. Strange to
say, rush hour is one of the few times when we have to do that!
   But when you park the car and enter your own house you can really
switch off, right? Wrong! That's when you switch on something else, the
television. It puts you back on the street, you become a spectator of car
chases, break-ins and foul murders, shooting, lying, fighting, lusting,
cheating…. You are party to all that till 11 p.m. or midnight, then you turn
off the light and expect to go to sleep! Forget it!
   But you have to sleep, whether you are able to or not; so you drug
yourself to sleep: you take a sleeping pill, or you get drunk or half-drunk.
That just knocks your body out, as if you had been hit on the head; and
you call that sleep? You have not been asleep, you have been
unconscious, that's all; you have been ill! How can you be awake
tomorrow if you are not asleep tonight?
   We have to learn how to go to sleep. Our life is no artificial that we have
to learn the natural things, the things that came naturally to all the ages
before us. It is 11 p.m. or midnight. Switch off the television, put away the
newspapers, or go into another room. You have to begin to creates some
kind of ritual of slowing down, quieting the mind, preparing yourself for
sleep. You have to find a way that suits you. No one can prescribe for you.
But we can make suggestions.
   The last small jobs that you do before retiring, such as rearranging
furniture, putting papers or books away, brushing your teeth… do them
quietly and slowly, taking your leave of things, and taking leave of the day
that is just about to end. That day needs to get a thoughtful farewell as it
moves away into history, never to return.
   Nature dims the lights slowly on us, but electric light (unless you have a
dimmer) is either full blast or nothing. Why not have a special light for this
time: with, say, a 15 watt yellow bulb? Initially it will seem very dim, but
your eyes soon adjust and you find that it gives a quiet peaceful light. Sit
upright in a comfortable chair (not a television couch) and relax your body.
It would be good to have a special corner in which you do this every night.
Consciously enjoy the silence and rest. Let the day's tensions ebb away.
Feel that you are coming back to yourself. If you feel jittery and restless,
know that this is just the speed wobbles of the day; sit it out, wait, rest. If
you feel bored, know that this is just the same thing: you have been so
wound up and so external to yourself in your activity that when you return
now at last to yourself you think there is nothing there. Sit it out. Rest. You
have forgotten yourself; ;be reintroduced!
    Place a picture of Christ before you, or any sacred image - a good one,
in fairness to yourself, not one that drips with weak sentiment. Hand the
day over quietly to God: the day and everything in it, your work, your
family, everything, and in a special way your worries. Imagine, if it helps,
that you are lifting them off your shoulders one by one and handing them
to the Lord. Whether you know it or not, you are praying. As children we
were told, "Say your night prayers!" And we gabbled a few prayers as fast
as possible. As we bear the burdens of modern life, this won't do any
more. It is not enough to 'say your prayers'; you have to learn to pray.
    We were also told not to fall asleep during our prayers. And now in adult
life we may discover that unless we pray we may be keeping vigil with the
millions of people in the modern world who don’t know how to fall asleep.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                             SALT AND LIGHT

    Did anyone ever call you ‘the salt of the earth’? It’s a great compliment
to get: it says you are completely reliable, and honest through and
through. It also suggests that your goodness is not showy; you work away
behind the scenes, doing good, never calling attention to yourself.
    Salt doesn’t put itself on show: there’s nothing much to see. In itself, in
fact, it is colourless; what makes it look white is the presence of trace
elements of calcium and magnesium. Then it loses itself in the food, giving
itself up completely, you might say, to bring out the taste of what you eat.
   Salt served as currency in some ancient civilisations. The English word
‘salary’ comes from the Latin word sal, ‘salt’: soldiers in the Roman army
were paid a salt allowance. Even though it is colourless in itself and
becomes invisible when it does its work, that's how important salt is! Did
you know that it is also used in some refrigeration processes, in dyeing,
and in the manufacture of soap and glass, and even in making the prisms
and lenses of instruments used in the study of infrared radiation? It has a
hundred uses, and yet it never brags about it; it does its work humbly and
anonymously. That Jesus called his followers ‘salt of the earth’ means
more than could be said in a very large book.
    Did anyone ever call you ‘the light of the world’? If you are the salt of
the earth you probably would be mortified at such a compliment! Light
would appear to be as visible as salt is invisible. Light would appear to be
all show and appearances: to be ‘in the limelight’ means to be centre-
stage. (‘Lime’ refers to the way in which they used to get intense white
light in theatres before the age of electricity.) So if you are the salt of the
earth, the last thing you would want, probably, is to be the ‘light of the
    And yet... light is invisible in itself! It makes visible anything it falls on,
but in itself it is invisible. This is a great natural mystery, and it bears
thinking about forever. In outer space, which is shot through with light in
every direction, there seems to be only pitch darkness, because there is
nothing for the light to fall on. Light has that in common with salt, that it is
not for itself but for something else.
   And God is light! “O Light Invisible, we praise Thee! / Too bright for
mortal vision,” wrote T.S. Eliot, in a prayer-poem in ‘Choruses from The
Rock.’ Like salt, like light, God is invisible. “God is light,” said St John (1 Jn
1:5). And light is God's element. St Paul recognised the presence of God
in a blinding light (Acts 9:3; 22:6); the glory of the Lord shone around the
shepherds at Bethlehem (Lk 2:9); God “dwells in inaccessible light” (1 Tim
6:16); and Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12; 9:5).
    It seems to point to one thing: if you want to do any good in the world
you will have to be willing to disappear! Everyone complains about
politicians who only do things in order to be seen and to scoop up votes.
But the complaint is valid against anyone at all, not only politicians! “I am
the light of the world,” he said; but also “You are the light of the
world” (today’s reading; see also Eph 5:8). “Let your light shine before
others, so that seeing your good works they may give the praise to your
Father in heaven.” That is the nature of light: to make others shine. It is
the nature of God, John says. As it is the nature of salt to be useful to
others in a hundred ways, claiming nothing for itself.

Donagh O'Shea OP

    The first thing you normally require of your friends is that they be human
beings! A friend is someone to hang out with, who will keep the
conversation going and stand up for you in tough times. That kind of
friendship is one of the sweetest things in life. But I want to write here
about a different kind of friendship: broader - so broad that it can include
just about anything!
    This friendship can be with persons, yes, but it can also be with a thing,
a place, a situation…anything that challenges us or makes us suffer. The
point I want to make is that all of these can also be our guide, our teacher.
There is a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Whether we are ready or not, teachers are constantly appearing in our
lives, but sometimes it is difficult to recognise them because we are
looking for someone who matches our idea of ‘teacher.’ Or, we regard this
person or thing as an obstacle in our life, rather than as something that
can awaken us to life’s meaning.
    There was once a famous spiritual teacher named Gurdjieff, a Russian,
born in 1877, died in 1949. In his community there was a very difficult
person who seemed to rub everyone up the wrong way. One day,
Gurdjieff learned that the man had left the community in disgust because
no one liked him. Gurdjieff went in search of him and begged him to
return, because he saw that this man was in reality a great
‘teacher’ (without knowing it!); he brought people to their edge - the only
place where you learn anything.
    In every community, in every group, in practically every family, we have
our impossible people. In fact, each of us is the impossible person for the
others at some time or other! Even saints can be impossible. A child,
praying the ‘I confess’, was heard to say, “…the holy impossibles Peter
and Paul.” We may think that the would be better without impossible
persons, but remember Gurdjieff! An Italian cardinal said recently (in
reference to criticism of the Church), “One who loves does not criticise.” I
would prefer to say, “One who is perfectly indifferent, who doesn’t give a
fig one way or the other, doesn’t criticise.” But people who love, and
people who hate, both criticise: one out of love, the other out of hate.
Jesus often criticised severely because he cared and loved beyond
measure. Your indifferent friends never criticise you; your true friends
always do, in one way or another (to your face, of course!).
    Sometimes it may be an illness that becomes our new teacher, or a
bereavement, or the birth of a child, or falling in love… Anything that
shakes us out of our slumber, and opens us to wider and deeper
experience, is a spiritual friend worthy of our gratitude.
    It may be difficult to regard a painful experience as a friend. We
instinctively want to push such experiences away, or grasp something else
by way of compensation. But wisdom lies in learning to sit in the midst of
our suffering, much as we would do with someone in need. Just sit, just
watch, just be present, just taste and touch your suffering. Keep that inner
soft spot soft! Don’t build a hard shell around it! Don’t give into blaming
others, or life (or even yourself) for your suffering. Just stay with it, as you
would stay with a frightened and weeping child. “Take care of your
suffering,” someone said once. It is your best teacher. It may becomes
your best friend.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                    THE END OF MY RESOURCES

   "My task was simplified the moment I realised I could do nothing by
myself," wrote St Thérèse of Lisieux. For many of us, such a moment is
the beginning of despair or of indifference, but for Thérèse it was different.
She had a astonishing gift (in William Blake's words) for "building a
Heaven in Hell's despair." At first sight she seems so protected and
'petite' (it was one of her favourite words; she was even nicknamed 'the
Little Flower'). But she knew something that could only have been called
despair if she had not been a woman of extraordinary courage and faith.
"Jesus allowed pitch darkness to sweep over my soul," she wrote. "This
trial was not something lasting a few days or weeks. I suffered it for
months and I am still waiting for it to end. I wish I could express what I
feel, but it is impossible. One must have travelled through the same
sunless tunnel to understand how dark it is…. I must have seemed [to
you] like a child for whom the veil of faith is almost pulled aside. But there
is no veil, but instead a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars."
    I have met many who entered that frightful tunnel. We all have met
them; I met one recently. You who are reading these lines may well be
one of them. If so, I bow in respect to your terrible suffering and I admit
that I have never been there myself. I am glad, though, to be able to
convey Thérèse's words to you. Her next words were (how amazing!), "I
have never before felt so strongly how gentle and merciful God is. He sent
me this heavy cross just at the time when I was strong enough to bear
it…. Nothing now hinders me…. I no longer want anything except to love
until I die of love. I am free and fear nothing."
    A recent French biographer of Thérèse said it was characteristic of her
to be always at the end of her resources. It is because she always gave
everything she had. She never had anything up her sleeve: no tricks, no
escapes, no clever explanations, no blaming, no postponing…. She
remained always fully present and vulnerable to experience. That is why
God could give her so much.
    "We worked hard all night and caught nothing," said Peter (Luke 5:5).
Peter was quite often at the end of his resources. He had given up
everything to follow Jesus around the country and learn from him how to
live right. It didn’t matter that all he gave up was a boat and a few nets; it
was everything he had. It is not these (or any material possession) that
would hold him back, but his reliance on them. He had had the courage to
come to the end of his resources. Later he would be dragged even further
beyond. The man he followed would be killed, and having nothing else to
do Peter would go back to fishing; but that terrible night he would catch
nothing (John 21:3). He would be without a past and without a future. That
must have been like Thérèse's wall reaching up to the sky and letting in no
light. But, as with Thérèse, it was the moment of recognition: "It is the
Lord!" (John 21:7).
    Can I too, in my measure, "build a Heaven in Hell's despair?" Every
Christian is called to be a saint. We don’t all go willingly, we have to be
dragged. The ego, the self-centred self, does not easily relinquish its hold.
It has hold of us body and soul - mind and memories and feelings and
muscles…everything - and taking leave of it is a matter of being dragged
beyond ourselves. Where? To God and to those strange creatures, other
    Love seeketh not itself to please,
    Nor for itself hath any care;
    But for another gives its ease,
    And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.
                  (William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794)

Donagh O'Shea OP

   “Without the Holy Spirit,” wrote Ignatius of Laodicea, “God is distant,
Christ is merely an historical figure, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church
is just an organisation, authority is domination, mission is propaganda,
liturgy is only nostalgia, and the work of Christians is slave labour. But
with the Holy Spirit, Christ is risen and present, the Gospel is a living
force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity, authority is a
service that sets people free, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory
and anticipation, and the labour of Christians is divinised.”
            The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. The feast of Pentecost
is an annual invitation to the Church to look into itself and discover its soul.
It is tempted, like all of us, to keep looking the other way. In a famous
phrase, it is tempted "to lose its soul to save its face."
            In one sense it’s more natural to forget about one’s inner life and
to get on with living. If you are always worrying about your heart or your
liver, etc., you will not take risks or do a lot of work. A healthy person just
goes to it. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, and there is a sense
in which that Spirit likes to work unseen, undeclared.. Adapting Jesus's
words (Matthew 7:21), “It is not those who say ‘Holy Spirit!’ who will enter
the kingdom of heaven. It is those who live by the Spirit." During the 2nd
Vatican Council an Eastern bishop complained that there was little
mention of the Holy Spirit in the documents. The next document was full
of it! But something tells us that talking about the Spirit is not the same
thing as living by the Spirit.
            However, we do have to pay attention to that inner place, to see
by what spirit we are being driven. If you never paid any attention to your
health you would be asking for trouble. Today’s feast is a reminder.
            But obviously there is much more to it than this. Traditional
images of the Holy Spirit are: Fire, Wind, Water, Cloud, Dove…. Why such
strange images? All of them (except ‘dove’) have indeterminate
boundaries or no boundaries at all. They are reminders that we should
not dare to restrict the activity of the Spirit to a few things we can
            O Dove, O Flame, O Water, Wind and Cloud…!
            O love that lifts us wholly into God!
The Holy Spirit lives in us but is not confined in us. The Holy Spirit is God
and could not be diminished; rather it “lifts us wholly into God,” as the poet
said. Any soul is for expansion, not constriction. Things that have no soul
- sticks and stones - are restricted entirely to themselves; plants have a
certain ability to reach beyond themselves, for food and for propagating
their species; animals still more. But human beings are able to reach
vastly beyond themselves and touch the depths of everything. This
capacity is enlarged infinitely by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so that
we can touch even the depths of God. “The Spirit searches all things,” St
Paul wrote, “even the deep things of God. For who knows the thoughts of
a person except the person’s own inner spirit? In the same way no one
knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received
the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may
understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor 2:10). O love that lifts us
wholly into God!
           The Holy Spirit is not the property of noisy people. In a daring
image Jessica Powers wrote that silence is a sort of decoy of the Holy
Spirit! Just as hunters attract the flying birds out of the sky by placing a
plastic or wooden imitation of them on the ground, we call down God's
Spirit by our silence.
           The decoy of silence,
           hope’s unuttered sigh,
           that the Ultimate Silence
           drift down from the sky.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                              TO KNOW GOD

   This isn't only the information age. It is also the age of experience.
Deeper than our need to know about things is our need to experience
them for ourselves. It used to be said that learning taught you more in one
year than experience in twenty, but we now have our doubts about that! It
may be true of the less profound kinds of knowledge (like information, or
even theoretical knowledge) but it is not true of the deeper kind of
knowledge we call wisdom. Information and theoretical knowledge are like
coins: you can take them out of your head and scatter them around just
like coins from your pocket. Like coins too they have the stamp of
someone else's head! But wisdom has to be your wisdom, just as your
hunger is your hunger and your eating is your eating.

   O God, you are my God, for you I long;
   For you my soul is thirsting.
   My body pines for you
   Like a dry, weary land without water.
   So I gaze at you in the sanctuary
   To see your strength and your glory. (Psalm 62)

   Knowledge is power, we say. Much of what we call knowledge is about
having power or control, or at least the feeling of power and control. In
contrast to this, notice the verbs in that psalm: to long, to thirst, to pine, to
gaze…. These are not 'control' words; they are just the opposite. They are
words that express incompleteness.
   Is that a good thing? Wouldn’t it be better to be complete (whole)?
   Despite the nice words, no. Have you ever looked into the eyes of
someone who felt complete? What you saw was smugness at best; and at
worst, arrogance, indifference, a separateness that had no love in it. I met
a man recently whom I hadn't met for twenty-five years. On that occasion
long ago he was giving a lecture at a theology symposium, and he was
very fluent and clever, at ease with his subject. But the other day there
was a different quality in him: he had suffered greatly in the meantime,
and there was such vulnerability in his eyes, such humanity. His friends,
who see him every day, may not be as conscious of the transformation;
but I could see it all in one instalment, so to speak. I feel that this was a
glimpse of the meaning of human life. It gives substance to what someone
quoted to me recently: "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to
hell; spirituality is for people who have been there."

   To end, some lines from Patrick Kavanagh:
   O God can a man find You when he lies with his face downwards
   And his nose in the rubble that was his achievement?

    His implied answer was yes yes yes. In John's gospel (12:20) some
Greeks came looking to see Jesus. When Jesus was told this he said,
"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a
single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." In other words, that is the
place to see him. Not in the halls of power, not in the glare of publicity, but
in the ground of humility.
    I would like to hear that vulnerable man speak about God now. I think
only such people can really talk about God. That man has followed Christ
to Calvary: that's the qualification required.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                              I AM THE GATE

    When Mass was in Latin, the Gospel readings always had the words In
illo tempore….(‘At that time’) attached to the beginning, even though these
words were not in the Gospel itself. One wonders what purpose it served.
We know that it was ‘at that time’ that Jesus spoke, but we need to hear
the Gospel now.
    Many people today think of the faith as a thing of the past. If you are
reading this, it is likely that you are still connected with it and believe that it
has a future. But I think the reason someone comes to believe it is a thing
of the past, with no future, is that it is so seldom a thing of the present.
This puts an urgent question to us all. Am I, are we, now being imprisoned
or set free? Is the word of God setting me free in fact, on a daily basis?
Looking back on my life, can I truly say of God, deep in my heart, “God
brought me forth into freedom” (Psalm 17)?
    What is the way to freedom that my faith speaks so often about? Is it
something I can credit, or is it a dead account? How do I access it? I know
it must be more than a matter of signing my name.
    For a start, let’s study the gate! Jesus said, “I am the gate of the
sheepfold” (John 10:7). It doesn't seem at first a very personal image: a
gate. But for someone seeking a way out of prison or out of slavery of
some kind, it is a thing of passionate interest! And it is a thing of equal
interest to someone trying to find a way in! - not into prison, but into
security or well-being.
    There are several similar images in the New Testament: the way, the
door, the doorkeeper, the keys…. All of these have this in common: that
they are perfectly ambiguous - they can mean opposite things.
    You can travel in two different directions along a way.
    A gate or door can lock you in or out, include or exclude you. (And even
inclusion is ambiguous: it can be protection or imprisonment.)
    Keys symbolise power, but it can be power for or against you.
    A basic question, then, is: when is freedom really freedom? And when
is it another form of enslavement?
    I've learnt this much in my life: freedom isn't freedom unless it’s
freedom from myself. The very thing that sets another free could make a
slave of me, if I have no inner freedom. Many things are advertised as
new freedoms that are really just new forms of enslavement. Parents
agonise over these questions in relation to their teenage sons and
daughters. They worry that the new social and personal freedoms young
people have may lead to addiction and self-destruction. But these are not
questions affecting only teenagers: we all have to think about them in
relation to ourselves. Have we found the true gate to freedom? Are we
going through it? - are we actually being set free?
   Another thing about a gate is that it is not the width of the whole wall; it
is a relatively narrow opening in a wall. Finding the gate to freedom is not
like knocking down the whole wall. Western people today tend to wary of
restrictions. That could not lead to freedom. “I am the gate,” Jesus said.
The following of Jesus entails restrictions: I cannot pretend to follow him
and then follow my every whim and base instinct. But following him leads
through that narrow place into the wide world of genuine freedom. Meister
Eckhart, the 14th-century mystic, put this well: “God leads us through
narrow paths to the highway, that we may come out into the open”. And
“The more the soul is concentrated, the narrower she is, and the narrower,
the wider.”
   "I am the gate." We need to choose well the gate we go through: if it is
not the gate that is Christ, it could easily be a gate into prison.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                               IN THE END

    An Indian friend of mine who had lived for a year in Europe said,
“Europeans are always asking, ‘How much?’ and ‘Why?’ and ‘What time is
it?’” I have never forgotten her words, because I find that they are true.
    But Europeans may not be the only ones with that obsession. ‘How
many will be saved?’ the disciples of Jesus wanted to know. He didn’t
answer their question. Instead he told them how they themselves might be
saved. Similarly when he was talking about the destruction of the Temple,
all they wanted to know was, ‘When is it going to happen?’ (Matthew
24:3). He didn’t answer that question either. ‘How can this man give us his
flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52). No answer. ‘How can a man be born when he is
old?’ Nicodemus asked (John 3:4). No answer. There must be a message
in that.
    The passage from curiosity to wisdom is a very long one, but it is our
slowness that makes it long. Idle questions make us dawdle along the
way: they don’t challenge us, they only entertain. They are the main
reason we read the papers and watch TV.
    No doubt curiosity is a good thing; cattle sheep and pigs have hardly
any. It makes us different from them, open somehow. But we limit
ourselves if we are never more than curious about anything, if we try to
keep everything ‘out there’, not affecting ourselves in any practical way.
Then it is a refusal of depth and wisdom. It is better to curb it then: not in
order to close that gap that separates us from the beasts, but in order to
open our spirit in a still deeper way. Jesus ignored questions that came
from mere curiosity.
    Will many be saved? Will everyone be saved? Christians haven't
always been wise in the way they approached these questions. Even St
Augustine put a foot wrong. He lived from 354 – 430, but he was the first
to claim to know that there were people in hell. That he was the first is a
remarkable fact, for it shows that for 400 years Christians approached the
profound mystery of salvation without the curious question, ‘How many?’
The great modern theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasaar, summed up the
matter. If you claim to know that there are people in hell, he wrote, you are
claiming to know more than you can know; and if you claim to know that
there is no-one in hell, you are also claiming to know more than you can
know. In other words, curiosity is not gratified in this matter. It is too
profound for curiosity.
    Jesus responded to the question by saying what you (and I) should do if
you (and I) want to be saved. He said it is a narrow door. If he had said,
"It's dead easy to get into the Kingdom of heaven, don't worry, relax," no
one, or very few, would consider it worth lifting a finger for. Anything that
comes cheap, or for nothing, must be worthless. George Bernard Shaw
said a cynic was a person who knew the price of everything and the value
of nothing. We easily confuse price and value, and so we think that what
has no price has no value either. In our brutal world everything can be
bought, even love - or rather a semblance of it. It means that priceless
things like real love, truth, goodness, virtue are thought worthless. Money
will get no one into the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24), but that does
not mean that it requires nothing of us. On the contrary, we know that
anything of real value requires everything of us. You would love, for
example, to be able to give your knowledge and experience to another
person automatically, like photocopying a page; you would love to transfer
your knowledge of a language or a subject, but it can only be done by
effort on both sides. This doesn't mean that you are reluctant to give; on
the contrary you would give everything instantly if you could. But if you
could do that, the knowledge or the experience or the language would not
really become the other person's; it would remain alien material in their
memories and minds.
   Likewise the Kingdom of God. It requires everything of us, and yet it is
all gift.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                       FAITH AND NOSTALGIA

    I grew up on a farm in simpler times than these, but I have lived in cities
most of my life. That earlier experience seems now like life on a different
planet. It is hard to convey an impression of its simplicity to anyone who
has not lived it. Sometimes it is hard even to remember it accurately, so
different is the world now.
    A farmer (before farming became agribusiness) had to trust. He sowed
his fields and trusted that the crop would come. He waited and trusted and
knew that even if she occasionally let him down, nature was a friend to be
trusted. He lived with plants, trees, hills, rivers. There was no need to
doubt: trees don’t play tricks, there was no need to be wary of them. Fields
are not cunning; they are not like politicians. Everything familiar could be
trusted. Nature taught him to have faith in mysteries beyond his control.
    I remember gazing around me in the town, up at the tall buildings, at the
cars and the people; and being told by my brother to stop it, I would be
recognised as a country cábóg! (a bumpkin). Maybe it was that single
moment that made me set those two worlds wide apart. You could gaze at
hills and trees and they would just gaze innocently back. But in town you
had to hide yourself.
    Christianity was at first a towny religion. In fact the Latin word for a
country person was paganus, a ‘pagan’. But it spread out in city, town and
country alike. The word ‘pagan’ no longer suggested a country person, but
an unbeliever in any quarter. By the 16th century, the Renaissance had
spread or was spreading to the whole of Europe. It was a movement that
glorified human achievement in art and science, and was set to destroy
the older feudal society of the Middle Ages. An agricultural economy
would be replaced by a society increasingly dominated by central political
institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and a powerful merchant
class. A new form of Christianity, Protestantism, suited these new
developments better. A merchant must “have things in writing,” and the
new emphasis on the written word of Scripture would replace, in
Protestant countries, the older mysteries of the priests. It felt more right to
receive Christ through the power of one’s own personal faith than through
some miracle on the altar that could not be verified.
    Nowadays we are all urbanised, even the oldest-fashioned people living
in remote parts of the country. We take radio, TV, phones, cars - all the
means of communication and travel - perfectly for granted. We do our
shopping in supermarkets, we take out insurance on our houses and our
health, we keep our savings in the bank…. “Faith moves mountains,” the
Scriptures say, but nowadays we use a JCB. I often wonder if losing that
simplicity we once had makes us less capable of mystery. A child knows
how to trust, and Jesus said we must be like children to enter the kingdom
of God. I shouldn’t even say a child knows how to trust. A child just trusts
and doesn’t need it in writing.
   We have lost a great deal of simplicity, true, but at the same time faith
isn't nostalgia for how things used to be. Faith is about living one’s life in
the surrounding reality rather than in a dream of past or future. Can it find
a place between the tins of processed food, the clamorous newspapers
and magazines, the never-ending television programmes? No, because
faith is not a thing on a shelf, competing for space. It is in human beings,
at the core of our existence. Also at that core is the child that you once
were. In a real sense, the past is not behind you: it is a present memory.
The layers of experience that you laid down as a child are present now as
memory. But also more than memory: that experience opened something
in you, and that part of you is still open. No matter what your life-
experience afterwards, something innocent lies deep in you and is
capable of faith. Sometimes it is the toughest criminals who discover it in
   There is a great future for faith, but there’s never much of a future for

Donagh O'Shea OP
                                 Give it up!

   Jesus said many shocking things; one of the most shocking was this: “If
anyone comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children,
brothers, sisters, yes and even his own life too, he cannot be my
disciple” (Luke 14:26). "Hate" father, mother...? This word hardly suits
Jesus. This is a deeply puzzling statement, and we have to look carefully
at it. A scholar writes, “The Semitic mind [Jesus was a Semite] commonly
associated opposing pairs of words, without distinguishing intermediate
shades of meaning. ‘To hate’ could signify ‘to love less.’“ (He gives
examples of this usage: Gen 29:31; Deut 21:15; Mt 5:43; Jn 12:25.) Many
modern translations of these and similar passages substitute some other
word for ‘hate’. So the strange verse is not telling us to hate our fathers
and mothers, but not to give them precedence over justice love and truth.
   Are real Christians extremists, then? Yes, if you mean that they take the
most important thing in the world and put themselves wholly behind it.
Moderation doesn't mean never going to any extreme; it means not going
to false extremes. There is no limit to the effort we are to put into living the
Christian life. St Paul's manner of speech was very forthright: “Fight the
good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience.” You couldn’t
imagine him saying instead, “Do take a little interest in what's going on in
the Church, holding onto a bit of faith, and try to be nicer to people!” Other
creatures put everything they have into what they do. Domesticated
animals so often look listless; but look at the wild ones. Even little ones….
Yesterday I had a close view of a bird singing. What energy he put into it!
He was singing, body and soul; there was nothing in him that wasn’t
singing. He wasn’t singing because it was expected of him, nor because
he wanted to be popular, nor because he was drunk…. He was singing,
pure and simple. I was made aware immediately of how I hang back in the
very act of doing things, how I put only part of myself into what I do. This is
more or less what we call ‘normal’. How hard it is to be pure and simple!
Every creature can be our teacher.
   When we were very small children we lived fully! We put everything we
had into everything we did. We didn’t think about ourselves. If someone
put a mirror in front of us we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. But soon
the fatal limiting began. We begin to be self-conscious and to worry about
ourselves, we begin to have a distinctive character. It is a kind of armour
around one; the more character you have, the more you are limited. There
is a kind of infinity about a small child - everything is welcome, everything
is possible - but we learn to hang back and to limit ourselves more and
more. You will occasionally meet an adult who is unable to be part of
anything and whom nothing can please.
   So when we meet someone who is very like a child - Jesus, who told us
we too should become like children - we think he’s an extremist. No, he’s
just alive! That's what makes him different from me!
Being alive, he breathes! He receives deeply and gives deeply. “The
Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands” (John 3:35).
And “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father
I have made known to you” (John 15:15). It was this same Jesus who said
to us, ‘Give up everything!’
     I've met other child-like people too. A Japanese Zen Master, who had
little English, was giving instruction in meditation. He just said, “Sit there,
and give up everything!”

Donagh O'Shea OP
                      THE NEW HUMAN BEING

    The theory of evolution was once a burning coal. Darwin’s Descent of
Man (1871), like his earlier book On the Origin of Species (1859), caused
consternation in his time. The idea that all living things, including human
beings, had evolved by natural processes seemed to place humanity on a
par with the animals.
   That burning coal has cooled down considerably. Practically all
Christians now feel that God's providence over us is not less for our being
part of the immense family of living beings. Besides, from the time of
Aristotle (whose thought for about seven centuries had a commanding
position in Catholic theology) the human being has been described as “a
rational animal.” In reality we have less reason to worry about what we are
descended from, and more reason to worry about what we have
descended to! As human greed and aggression are seen to exceed by far
that of any other creature, we are less ashamed of our kinship with the
   What counts now is the upward journey: not where we have come from
but where we are going - the ascent of humanity. Every year on the feast
of Christ's birth, we are given a vision of what we truly are, and where our
destiny lies. That vision has no need to deny our kinship with the animals,
because it shows us our kinship with God, who is the Father of all
creation. Christ was born among the animals, and the first announcement
of his birth was to shepherds minding their sheep on the hillside. The
Christmas story - especially as elaborated in folklore - is full of animals.
We don’t go forward alone, our world rises and falls with us, because it is
part of us, and we are part of it. “From the beginning till now,” wrote St
Paul, “the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act
of giving birth” (Romans 8:22). The agonising labour of the ages has not
been in vain: the Christ Child is born into our world.
   Some time ago I spent a week in a Cistercian monastery and joined the
monks seven times a day in the chanting of the Hours and the Liturgy.
One of those Offices (not the first!) began at 6 a.m., another at midday
and another again at 6 p.m. - Angelus times. When the Angelus bell rang
the monks would stand in silence in the choir, facing the altar. No
words…. It was deeply impressive - more so for the silence and stillness.
Those silent figures, some of them weighed down with years, had an
extraordinary dignity. That scene seemed to say: “Here stands the new
human being, the ‘new creation in Christ’ (2 Cor 5:17); the billions of years
that our planet has seen have not been in vain; in these men, Christ is
standing on the earth.”
   Later in the guesthouse I got to know a young couple with their child. It
was the same mystery, the same dignity. The simplicity, the non-grasping
presence of people, the silence of a monastery: if the whole world knew
these, what a revolution it would bring about!
   The Word became flesh, wrote St Irenaeus in the 2nd century, “in order
to accustom human beings to dwell in God and to accustom God to dwell
in human beings.”
   Several centuries before Irenaeus (as many as six or seven), in the
Book of Job, from the depths of his misery Job spoke the undying words:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the
earth” (Job 19:25). From that great distance he glimpsed the pinnacle to
which the human race is ascending.
   The matter of our descent is of great interest in itself, but our ascent is
even more fascinating. “What you really are,” someone said to me once,
perhaps quoting, “is where you are going, not where you come from.”

Donagh O'Shea OP
                      WHAT IS YOUR HEART?

     We say we keep some people (and some things) in our heart. Is it a
place, then? What kind of place would it be? Very different, I imagine, from
other places. It has some kind of topsyturvy geometry: when it’s crowded
there’s room in it for more; and when it’s empty there’s no room in it for
anyone. Then again some pleasure or interest seems to fill and overflow it,
but when the froth subsides it is left half-empty. And famously in the
matter of love, just when you think you’re getting to know how it works, it
tells you that one and one are often not two.
    “The purposes of the human heart are deep waters,” says the Book of
Proverbs (20:5). They are so deep that they are often murky even to
oneself. The heart’s biggest problem, someone said, is when it doesn’t get
what it wants; and the next biggest problem is when it does! Is it possible
to understand such a place, where nothing ever stands still and no law
seems to stay in place?
    But why this urge to understand everything? When you fully understand
something you can go to sleep! - you have a certain control over it and it
cannot surprise you any more. But when you don’t understand, you have
to stay awake: anything could happen! When you think that the sound at
night is only a mouse you go back to sleep; when you don’t understand it,
it becomes a ghost! If we understood our own hearts fully we would lose
all sense of wonder; we could ignore the depths of everything; we could
become fully occupied with objects. Life then would have no depth, no
inner echo; we ourselves would be just objects among objects. How
boring that would be! Instead be on the alert! “Be dressed for action and
have your lamps lit.” “Be ready to open the door.” These phrases are from
the Gospel.
    The paradoxes of the heart don’t become less when we think of it in
relation to God. St Augustine, the great 5th century seeker after God,
wrote, “God is within the inmost heart, yet the heart has wandered away
from him.” And referring to Christ he wrote, “For he did not delay, but ran
through the world, crying out by words, deeds, death, life, descent,
ascension -- crying aloud to us to return to him. And he departed from our
sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there.” As in many
things that Augustine wrote, there is an inner resonance. Some people
write about God and the human spirit as if they were writing about nuts
and bolts. Or if they have any sense of wonder they reserve it for outer
space. “People go out,” Augustine wrote, “and gaze in astonishment at
high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers,
the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they
pay no attention to themselves.”
    It's true that to keep gazing into one’s own heart could be pure egoism.
But it could also be a sincere search for God, because God is there. It
depends on how we approach it and do it. We in the present age find it
natural to look inwards. Let that inward looking be the deepest kind of
search, and not self-seeking in a narrow sense. We have ready access to
that holy place. But as soon as we open the door a little, a thousand things
blow in there! I'm saying nothing that I don’t know. In old-fashioned
language we have to “keep vigil at the door of the heart.”
   I will leave you with a few words that were spoken even earlier than
Augustine’s writings. They are from Abba Poemen, a 3rd or 4th-century
monk of the Egyptian desert. He too was talking about that mysterious
space, the human heart, and the need to keep it warm for God. “As long
as the pot is on the fire, no fly nor any other animal can get near it, but as
soon as it is cold, these creatures have no trouble getting into it!”

Donagh O'Shea OP

   If you wanted to split up a family the best way to do it would be to start a
dispute about inheritance. Most people could name three or four
instances. It’s not a new kind of problem; it has always been there. In
today’s gospel reading a man brings such a dispute to Jesus. It was
common to bring these disputes to a Rabbi. But Jesus brushed it aside
and gave the man a lesson on greed instead!
   It is common experience that those who have most want most. This
must be because they don't really have what they have: it doesn't fulfil
them, it only baits them into further accumulation. Greed is a bottomless
pit and nothing will ever fill it. Many misers even live very poor lives - in
order to die rich! A tycoon stipulated in his will that he should be buried in
his limousine, seated at the wheel, with a Havana cigar in his mouth. It
was done. As the crane was lowering the limousine into the grave, one of
the bystanders said to his friend, “Man! Some people really know how to
   How do you calculate your wealth? Usually we calculate it by checking
how much we have, but the saints tell us we should calculate it by
checking how much we have given away. The psychology of possession
is full of paradoxes. Wealthy people, by spending their lives accumulating
wealth, prove how poor they feel; people who feel deeply enriched within
themselves would not stoop to that. Poverty feels the want of just so
much, but greed feels the want of everything. If you collect a million are
you happy then? The chances are that you are not; the collecting has
done something to you, it has captured your mind and imagination; you
want to continue collecting; you have become a collector, just warming to
the task. So you collect another million and another... you will never finish
collecting. What is it all about? What is it for? What are you adding to
yourself? You are adding zeros! You are cheating yourself! So much work
for zero! Someone said about a very wealthy man once that he was just
the keeper of his wealth, “only a turnkey.”
   Can you measure greed? Not exactly. But even a rough estimate could
be very useful! Have you ever noticed that the size of a sum of money
seems to change depending on whether you are getting it or giving it? The
sum is the same, the difference shows your partiality. If you could
measure that difference, even approximately, it would be your greed
   Why would we want to know such an unpleasant thing about ourselves?
For the same reason that we would sooner look in a real mirror than in a
distorting one. We want to know the truth about ourselves, however ugly.
In fact the uglier a person is, the more he looks in the mirror! “The truth will
set you free,” Jesus said (John 8:32). Self-flattery only knots us up in
   Instead be a giver, the wise ones tell us. Know the freedom and joy of
giving. This we will know only by doing it, not by thinking about it. As the
French poet André Gide said, “Complete possession is proved only by
giving. All you are unable to give possesses you.” In other words, greed is
Is it wrong, then, to desire anything at all? We should desire only one
thing, the heart of the matter, the central meaning of our life. It is this that
the saints and sages have been trying to tell us. The same Gide said in
another place, “One should want only one thing and want it constantly.
Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get

Donagh O'Shea OP

     In the time of Jesus strict orthodox Jews wore little leather sachets
(“phylacteries”) around their wrists, containing verses from Scripture. One
of these verses was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). To which the Scribes added, “You
must love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). In other words,
when the Scribe (in today’s gospel reading) asked, “What must I do to
have eternal life?” Jesus gave him the Scribes’ own answer!
    The further question was also a common one: “Who is my neighbour?”
Some Rabbis restricted it to fellow Jews; others gave a somewhat wider
definition. But Jesus turned the question inside out. He did not answer the
question, Who is my neighbour? but a different question, Who should I be
neighbour to? These two questions may seem more or less the same, but
they are quite different. The first question is about other people and how
they are to be classified; the second question is about myself and how I
should behave towards others.
    It is easier to deal with questions that only have to do with things (or
people) ‘out there’. But many of the difficult things that challenge us are
very much ‘in here’! Assuredly that is why we project things onto other
people. I remember a teacher long ago who used to spend the whole day
telling everyone they were stupid. The explosive way he pronounced it -
steuuuupit! - made it sound much worse than stupid. Meeting him years
later I saw he was not a clever person. What he was doing, all those years
before, was projecting onto us the stupidity he couldn’t admit in himself,
and condemning it.
    It’s a bit terrifying when it first strikes you clearly: what you see around
you is what lies within you. “Two men look out through prison bars, One
sees mud and the other stars.” Two people grow up in the same family;
one remembers the good things, the other remembers nothing but bad.
Two people look at a third; one sees a decent person struggling, the other
sees a write-off. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the
Levite pass an injured man and see only a problem to be avoided; the
Samaritan (and to Jews, Samaritans were heretics) saw the same man
and saw his need of help. How you see and act depends on what is inside
you. Jesus looks at you and says, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are
the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14). He was able to say that because
he himself was the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). He was willing to say
it because he was filled with love.
    Do you recall a question in the catechism, “What is commanded by the
first Beatitude?” Or, “What is forbidden by the sixth Beatitude?” Or, “What
else is forbidden by the third Beatitude?” No you don’t, because there
were no such questions. The catechism paid scant attention to the
Beatitudes, though these are the essence of the Christian way of life. The
Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel), of which they are a part, is
called ‘the Gospel within the Gospel’. Well, then, these are the Gospel
within the Gospel within the Gospel! They are the heart of the matter, but
we devoted all our attention to a summary of Jewish law. The Ten
Commandments are that, but of course they are also basic morality, and
therefore irreplaceable. However, the world of the Beatitudes is a world
beyond them. Our minds were attuned to commandment and prohibition -
both of which are manageably ‘out there’ - but love in practice is closer to
the bone. It is about you and me.

Donagh O'Shea
                        THE BODY OF THE LORD

“See the big rat in the GPO!” shouted the treble voice…. The boy was
making what he could of ‘Sicut erat in principio….’ Yes, you remember the
altar boy of old, called in Italian a clerichetto, “a little cleric” - not seriously
a lay person at all. He was dressed up as a miniature cleric (in some
Italian parishes he even wore a little clerical collar). Who was he? He was
your representative in the sanctuary! - just a token layperson. Meanwhile
the church was full of genuine lay people, struggling sometimes heroically
with poverty, hardship, worry, sickness, tragedy, life and death. But all of
them were silent…. Their only choral responses were the jingling of coins
at the Collection and the outburst of coughing after the Consecration.
Everything was taken out of their hands.
    But what does the Mass mean if it is taken out of your hands? Referring
to the Mass, St Augustine said (in the 5th century), ‘All of that is about
you!’ But he said it better than that. “The mystery being celebrated on the
altar is the mystery of you! You became his body and his members [at
baptism], when you said, ‘Amen!’ to that mystery of what you are. Now
you receive his Body and you say, ‘Amen!’ Be a member of his body in
such a way that your ‘Amen!’ is true!”
    Glance back even further than Augustine’s time. An ancient book called
the Didachè, written in the first century (earlier than some of the New
Testament) was discovered in 1883. It contains an account of the Mass
and the words that were used then. Here is one sentence of it. “As this
broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and
became one loaf, so may your Church be brought together from the ends
of the earth into your Kingdom.” It is a beautiful image. The grains of
wheat were gathered from the fields and the hillsides and made into this
one loaf; likewise the people, whose homes are scattered all over the
hillsides, have come together to form one community - one Bread, one
Body of Christ. And may that gathering be endlessly wider and deeper, till
Kingdom come!
    Neither the Didachè nor St Augustine could have imagined the Mass
becoming something that people just stood and watched - or were
physically present at while saying prayers of their own. It was an
individualistic world: “Remember, man, thou hast but one soul to save;
and after that, the judgment!” I remember that phrase still, though it is forty
years since the missioners pounded it out at the parish mission. Save your
own skin.
    We have a lot of ground to make up. What will it take to make us know
that “in Christ we, who are many, form one body, and each member
belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5)? Remember, man (and woman!),
thou hast every soul (and body) to save, not just your own! That's what a
community is, as distinct from a collection of individuals.
   I have always found that a Mass somehow absorbs whatever went
before it. What transpires during a retreat, for example, finds expression
(even without anyone planning it) in the Mass. The difficulty with the
ordinary Sunday Mass is that frequently nothing has gone before it, so
nothing finds expression. It bears out that connection assumed by the
Didachè and St Paul and St Augustine and countless others: the
connection between the two bodies of Christ. The Body of Christ in the
Eucharist is for building up that other body of Christ, the parish
community. The Mass is a community celebrating its own identity: its
identity in Christ. That is why it is so absurd to receive Communion if you
are at enmity with others. Jesus himself said, “If you are offering your gift
at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against
you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to
your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24).

Donagh O'Shea

     Snow is water, and ice is water and steam is water, and these three
are one. What do you think? Does that explain the Trinity? Or try John
Wesley’s image: “Tell me how it is that in this room there are three
candles and only one light, and I will explain to you the mode of the divine
existence.” Does that explain it? No. He meant that it was impossible to
    If it is impossible to explain the mystery of the Trinity why was it
revealed to us? Or why wasn’t it revealed better? asked the 19th-century
satirist Samuel Butler. “If God wants to do a thing he should make his
wishes sufficiently clear.”
    This assumes that the perfect fulfilment of our life is to have
explanations of things. But what do we do when we have complete
explanations of things? We forget about them and go on to something
else! And what is the result? Our minds may be satisfied, having made a
conquest of something, but the rest of our being may be empty and
dissatisfied. I know several parents of exceptionally intelligent children.
They have formed themselves into a support group, because they feel a
daily need for such support. One of them told me about the great cost of
such an imbalance of faculties in a child. She told me about his
restlessness, his boredom, his anger, his coldness, his emotional
immaturity, and the consequent problems for the other children and
themselves. We estimate intelligence above all other gifts, but I shudder to
think what kind of society would result if such children were to become the
norm. In religious tradition the world has been called “the place of soul-
making.” All the gifts should grow in proportion, like the fingers of your
hand. That is what an ideal human being would be: someone in whom all
the gifts can grow and flourish.
    If there are mysteries that the mind cannot crack, that is indeed a good
thing. We have to experience them in a deeper way, with our whole being
or not at all. We can easily repeat the well-worn phrases about the Trinity:
three Persons in one nature. But that by itself only makes it a sort of
impossible maths. If it is the ultimate mystery there must be more than that
to it.
    I will leave you with the famous Memorial of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).
It is his most intimate religious piece of writing. It is only a scrap of paper,
which records his religious experience on one unforgettable night in 1654.
It was found in the lining of his coat after his death. It conveys some
impression of an experience that took him far beyond mathematics (and
he was one the world’s greatest mathematicians).
“From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
GOD of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Your GOD will be my God.
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD.
He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have departed from him:
They have forsaken me, the fount of living water.
My God, will you leave me?
Let me not be separated from him forever.
This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that
you sent, Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified.
Let me never be separated from him.
He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel:
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day's exercise on the earth.
May I not forget your words. Amen.

Donagh O'Shea
                             CITY ON A HILL

     “A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.” If you go to Italy you see
towns and cities built on hilltops and mountaintops. Throughout the world,
in fact, this is the preferred location. How inconvenient for old people! Was
it for the view that people built in such awkward places? Yes and no: it
was not to admire the landscape, nor to be admired, but to get a view of
approaching enemies! It would be hard to hide a city, so you make it fully
alert instead: full of eyes, full of consciousness.
    As you guessed, this is not only about cities; it is about human beings.
The valley is a symbol of sleep and unconsciousness, the hilltop is a
symbol of wakefulness and watchfulness. Most religious sites are high
places: Mont St Michel, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, Croagh Patrick,
Skellig…. The list could go on and on. And not only Christians have this
instinct; most people do. Hindus have said that Shiva lives on Mount
    When you choose unconsciousness you descend into the valley of
darkness. Sleep is a kind of valley. In sleep you lose your awareness of
everything. But our world now finds this kind of sleep no longer enough: it
creates TV that enables you (if you overuse it) to turn even your waking
hours into a kind of sleep. It also creates drugs that send you into even
deeper sleep; it creates some strange suicidal instinct in many of the
young. Popular culture is addicted to sleep and unconsciousness.
Everything becomes a flight and a kind of merging of the self that
caricatures the religious merging of the self. Music, drugs, alcohol and sex
have all now taken on this significance.
    Why all this flight? It is because consciousness is painful. To be on a
hilltop in some sense, to have to be awake, to be exposed, to be
vulnerable and to know it: all that is painful. Or perhaps what makes it
painful for me is that I am only partly conscious, fluctuating say between
5% and 10%, or even less. That is enough to provide a glimpse of the
90% or 95% unconsciousness in me. So I bury my head! I blot out that 5
or 10% consciousness. I am an ostrich! An ostrich buries its head (which, I
suppose, is about 5% of its body size!) when it sees danger, thinking that
it is hiding itself completely. But in doing that, of course, it is helping its
enemy. Let me look at yesterday, or even this morning, and count all the
times I took flight from direct experience into unconsciousness….
    A city on a hilltop cannot be hidden. “You are the light of the world,”
Jesus said. I don’t feel like that, do you? Much of the time I'd rather climb
under a tub. I accept it when he says that he himself is the light of the
world (John 8:12), but when he tells me that I too am the light of the world
I feel deeply puzzled.
    Jesus can hardly have been stroking my ego, saying, “Ah, you’re not as
bad as you think!” He was referring to something that is lodged in me
whether I think I deserve it or not, something that is there before I ever
perform either badly or well, something given to me through no merit of
mine. At the natural level it is the light of consciousness. At a deeper level,
for a Christian, it is the light of faith. St Paul described it as ‘the light of the
knowledge of the glory of God.’ “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of
darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the
knowledge of the glory of God, shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians

Donagh O'Shea

    In the past a celebrity was a person who was famous for some
achievement or good fortune; but more recently a celebrity is a person
who is famous just for being famous. You have to try and see them
because millions of others have seen them. Achievement seems to matter
less than the sheer fact of being seen and recognised. It is pretty harmless
as long as it is only about dressing up and cutting a shape. But a daring
crime will do it just as effectively as a lifetime of effort, and much more
quickly. Some criminals are really like the naughty child who wants
attention at any cost and by any means (which doesn’t make it easier for
you when you become their victim).
    It has a strange contradiction in it (in the case of the naughty child too):
he - or she - is being anti-social in an attempt to be part of society: to be
noticed and taken account of. What a contradiction we are! How
complicated our relationships! How ambiguous our motives! When Jesus
comes near us he looks as if he's putting everything back to front and
upside down. But let's admit: it could be the other way around!
    The gospel story is full of paradox - seeming contradiction. Jesus loves
people beyond measure, so he challenges them and becomes angry
when they let themselves down. He wants to be one among them, so he
goes into the mountains to pray. He wants to be closer to them even than
their very mothers, and for the sake of it he does not flinch from execution,
the ultimate form of exclusion. He is a paradox to us, as the fame-seeking
criminal is. They are at opposite sides and we in the middle. At least I am!
How about you? I would find it troublesome to be anywhere else! For a life
of crime I would need better nerves than I have! - and for a life of love,
more heart. Yes, here in the middle, there's a still place! No strong lights
or bright colours, no great passions, no need even to be wide awake…. It
is quiet and peaceful. It is not for the adventurous!
    Like the criminal, Jesus is wide awake. Like the criminal he is deeply
conscious of other human beings. Like the criminal he disturbs our peace.
It's no wonder he was taken for one!
    He came to his home town and began to tell them home truths. What a
dangerous thing to do! The first impression was good: "he won the
approval of all." But he was not looking for approval, as most of us are in
one way or another. Instead he showed them how narrow their hearts
were, how firmly closed were their minds, how low their horizon. "They
were enraged," and they tried to throw him over that small horizon, the low
cliff on which their village was built. He escaped because no small place
could contain him: he had a vision larger than theirs, a heart deeper and
stronger, a love for them so uncorrupted that they could not comprehend
    So, how would you like to be a celebrity? Would you like to be on
everyone's mind, a familiar face, a household name? If so, you will have to
stand up - which will make you different from all the people sitting down!
You will be exposed to the view of all, which most people are not. Your
very attempts to be with us will set you apart.
   Or will you care nothing for your name or fame, or looking good, or
being interesting or important or famous? Will you care so much about us
that you will risk alienating us and having us throw you over a cliff? And
will you care so little about yourself that you will lay down your life for us?
And will you be buried in someone else's grave?
   If so, like him, you will be closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Donagh O'Shea
                         MAKING YOUR HOME

  "We live in a humble abode," said Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. That
was 1850; I don’t think anyone refers now to his or her house as an
'abode', humble or otherwise. But the word itself is interesting. It is related
to 'abide'. You abide in an abode. (The words 'ride' and 'road' have a
similar relationship.)
   The word ‘abide’ is used repeatedly in John's gospel. It is variously
translated as ‘live’ and ‘remain’ and 'make your home'. It is a beautiful
word. It was a word much beloved of Meister Eckhart, the 14th century
German mystic. He wrote, “It is not right to love God for His heaven's sake
nor for the sake of anything at all, but we should love Him for the
goodness that He is in Himself. For whoever loves him for anything else
does not abide in Him, but abides in the thing he is loving Him for. If,
therefore, you want to abide in Him, you must love Him for nothing but
   That's how a person behaves at home: we love the people there for
their own sakes, not for what we can get from them. Some saint (St
Teresa of Avila, I think) said she would like to close down both heaven
and hell, so that people would do good for its own sake, not because of
greed or fear, and love God for God's own sake. That would be ‘abiding in
   Equally, God abides in us - in our ‘umble abode. “Those who love me
will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them
and make our home with them.” He promised too to send the Holy Spirit.
This means that the Trinity lives in us. And we in the Trinity.
   How did we get the idea that God was distant from us? I suppose it was
because many people who spoke to us about God neglected to mention
that “God is love”; and because some of them had no love for us either.
Love brings near. Fear separates, it makes you want to run away. How
terrible that we run away from our very Source like frightened creatures!
How terrible that we feel like strangers and exiles from our own home, our
abode. Recently I read a tract written by an atheist, who very honestly
revealed the source of his atheism. “Why am I sceptical about everyone
and everything…? Nobody has ever seriously believed in me, so the
starting point must be self-doubt. The best my parents could manage was
that kind of hope you hold out for winning the lottery. But barely concealed
was a deeper message: they invested in me the same kind of despair that
they had about themselves.”
   In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father saw his son “while he was
yet a long way off…and was moved to pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him
in his arms and kissed him tenderly.” Then he gave him the best robe and
put a ring on his finger. This ring symbolised that he was a true son, and
not a servant as he wanted to be. That was Jesus describing God. How
then could we ever have imagined that God was distant from us? Even
when we try to make ourselves distant from God, God remains close to
us. Meister Eckhart, whom I quoted above, wrote, “You need not seek Him
here or there, He is no further than the door of your heart; there He stands
patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let Him in. No need to
call to Him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for
you a thousand times more than you long for Him.”
   ‘Abide’. It is a word you might use to describe what you are doing in
meditation: you are abiding, you are making you home in Christ, you are
within his mind. You are in God and God is in you. You are in your true

Donagh O'Shea
                        LIBERATION FROM SIN

   The sins we have committed ourselves are behind our backs, so we
don’t see them, but the sins of others are before our eyes.
   The sins we condemn most sharply in others are likely to be the very
sins we commit most often ourselves. We condemn our own sins in
others. It is less upsetting than turning around to condemn them in
   Even when we have enough clarity to condemn our own sins, we show
a preference for condemning our past sins; it is more difficult to condemn
the sins we intend to commit.
   We are tempted to call our sins by many different names, making
believe that they are not sins at all. But in any walk of life names change
nothing; “periorbital haematosis” sounds very grand but it only means a
black eye.
   So we are sinners. That is part of the truth about us. The other part is
that we are saints. The seed of sanctity has been sown in us, but it is
stifled with weeds. There is much hoeing to do.
   Anyone who has tried it will know that hoeing is a skilful job. In unskilled
hands a hoe is as great a threat to the good plants as it is to the weeds.
My programme of self-improvement could prove to be a greater disaster
than the shortcomings it was intended to remedy. Any programme that
looks only to the self will make me self-centred: sensitive to myself,
indifferent or callous to others.
   How then are we to be liberated from sin if our efforts at liberation are
so ambiguous and ineffective? The Christian teaching from the beginning
is that it is through repentance: a turning away from sin and a “living
according to the truth.”
   Truth is irreducibly objective. It makes no sense to talk about ‘my’ truth.
I may indeed have an insight that no one else has had, but I immediately
want to share it with others and even defend it by argument - showing but
that fact that I believe it to be true in itself and not simply for me. In one
sense we judge what is true and false, but in a deeper sense we are
judged by the truth - even by the truths that we alone may have
   To live “according to the truth” is to live with humility. There is a telling
line in one of Hemingway’s novels, “The strong ones of the earth are all
the same: they face the truth with a bullwhip.” The rest of us may be
tempted not to face it at all.
   When we face the truth with no ready-made attitude such as the
arrogance of the strong or the timidity of the weak, we put ourselves in the
way of being liberated from our sin. “The truth,” Jesus said, “will set you
   “Do not be afraid. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered,
and everything now hidden will be made clear” Jesus was speaking of
good things and bad alike. Murder will out, we say. So will everything,
good and bad alike. This seems frightening, but it is a word of hope. God
cares enough about us to draw us out of the shadows. Our sins cannot be
glossed over. A ‘nice’ doctor may be tempted to tell you that you are fine,
but a good one will take your illness seriously and do what he or she can
to help you heal. Most people would prefer a good doctor to a nice one.
    To hide our sins is as foolish as to hide a disease. We tend to hide the
bad things and reveal the good things. We hide what is ugly in us, and we
advertise the attractive things, even when they are only a pretence of
    When we hide something in the heart it grows like a plant in rich soil.
But when we throw something out it withers and dies. This is how we
nourish badness and throw away the seeds of goodness. If we had the
courage to do the opposite we would be set free of our sins. Nourish what
is good; give it time to grow; do not display it; it will display itself in a non-
ego way eventually if it really is good. But throw out what is bad, confess
it, let it be seen. It will die like a weed that has been skilfully hoed out.
“Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may
be healed” (James 5:16).
    St Augustine in the 5th century said that all sin is a kind of lying.
Ultimately only he who is “the way, the truth and the life” can set us free of

Donagh O'Shea
                          THE RESURRECTION

   Once upon a time there were three trees that grew beside one another
in the forest and were good friends, sharing their deepest thoughts. They
often talked about the next life. (The next life, for a tree, is what it will be
made into after it is cut down.)
   The first tree used to say: “In my next life I would like to be associated
with new things, with youth.” Now, there is one way that a tree can be
associated with youth, and that is by being made into a baby’s cradle. So
the tree longed for this with all its heart, longed for it so much that it
imagined it had to be.
   The second tree was a traveller at heart. “I want to travel the world,” it
said. “I am tired of being in this one place all my life. I want to spend my
next life travelling.” There is one way for a tree to manage this: it is by
being part of an ocean-going liner. The tree dwelt so much on this hope
that it began to see certain beyond doubt.
   The third tree was different, more reflective, contemplative. “I have no
desire to travel,” it said. “I have loved to stand here all my life, pointing to
heaven, reminding people that there is a God in heaven who loves them.
In my next life I would wish to be able to do the same, somehow.” Its mind
lived so naturally in a world of truth, beauty, goodness - far above this
painful world - that it believed this contemplation must last forever.
   Then one day the foresters came, bringing axes, saws, ropes, all the
instruments of felling. “What will I be used for?” cried the first tree,
trembling in the face of death. “Am I going to be turned into a baby’s
cradle?” The foresters laughed. “Baby’s cradle, indeed!” they said. “We
have news for you: you will not be a baby’s cradle but an animal’s feeding-
trough!” The tree died beneath their blows. It died a double death, for its
hopes died with its body. It died in despair; never would it be associated
with new life, but only with filthy animals and their food.
   BUT… this feeding-trough became the cradle in which the Lord was
placed when he was born in Bethlehem! So it was associated with new life
after all - with life so new that thousands of years later it is as new as it
was in the beginning, and it will continue forever to be new. The tree’s
hopes were not fulfilled; they were surpassed!
   Next day the foresters approached the second tree with their axes. “Am
I to be part of a ship?” it asked, its leaves and branches trembling with
fear. “What big notions you have!” they said. “You are going to be a little
fishing boat!” The tree’s hopes were shattered and it died, like the other, in
   BUT… this fishing-boat was the one in which the Lord sat to preach to
the crowds at the Lake of Galilee. For that little boat the Good News has
gone out to the whole world and continues even today to circle the globe,
and it will continue thus to the end of time. The tree’s hopes were not
fulfilled; they were surpassed!
   Then the foresters came to the third tree. “There’s a man to be crucified
tomorrow,” they said roughly, “and you will be the cross!” Like the other
two, the tree died in despair. Never again would it be associated with God
or with a world of truth, goodness and love; instead it would be associated
with cruelty, failure and death.
   BUT… (and this is the greatest ‘but’ in history) that tree stands in a
million places throughout the world, pointing to a God who loves us more
than we ever dared imagine, a God who does not fulfil our hopes but
surpasses them.

Donagh O'Shea

    Most people, said Scott Fitzgerald, would accuse themselves of at least
one of the cardinal virtues. He was writing in 1925 and I'm not sure if it is
still the case. Prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance: we older folk had
them beaten into us in school - the names and definitions of them at any
rate. All of them are meant to be for all year round, but temperance gets a
special outing in Lent.
    The word temperance doesn’t have a very inspiring ancestry; it comes
from the Latin 'temperare', which means 'to mix', and it is related to the
word 'tamper'. How can it be a virtue at all?
    St Paul mentions it as a 'fruit of the Spirit'. "The fruits of the Spirit are
love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, trustfulness, meekness
and temperance" (Galatians 5:22). (We oldies call it 'self-control'.) Notice
that it is the last in the list. There is great wisdom in that. You have to have
ingredients before you can mix them! You have to have some other virtues
before you can hold them in a right proportion. That proportion, when you
settle for it (if we ever settle long for anything) is called your
    Temperance, then, means a mixture, a proper proportion of virtues.
How important a sense of proportion is! Everything destroys itself by its
own excess. Courage in the absence of love, for example, becomes just
bluff and bluster and a huge ego-trip. It is the same with all the virtues:
they need one another if we are not to destroy ourselves and everything
around us.
    In my childhood temperance meant in practice 'giving up' sugar or
sweets for Lent, and we felt very heroic when we did it. Nowadays we
want to make everything sound very positive, so we say, Don’t 'give up'
something but do something positive instead. Very good, but I would fear
for someone who never had the experience of 'giving up' anything. There
are all sorts of things I can do without. I can easily become a collector. I
have a very serene friend who taught me a useful practice: she is quite
poor, but she likes to walk through big shopping malls, looking at
everything; and she says, "How rich I am! I need none of these things!"
I've tried it, and in its small way it is a wonderful liberation.
    "To many, total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation," wrote St
Augustine in the 5th century. As if they were having a chat about it by the
fire, Meister Eckhart in the 14th century replied, "Sometimes it is harder to
keep silence about a single word than to cease speaking altogether. And
sometimes, too, it is harder for a person to endure a single word of
reproach, which means nothing, than a fierce blow that he was prepared
for; or it is much harder to be alone in a crowd than in the desert; or to
abandon a small thing than a great, or to do a small task than one which is
considered much greater."
     Temperance, as I said, is one of the fruits of the Spirit. These are (sort
of) fingerprints of the Spirit. Wherever you see love, joy, peace, and the
rest, you know that the Spirit has been there, and still is - hiding, as the
Spirit likes to do. The Spirit hides very well in the virtue of temperance.
You expect some sort of ecstasy or exuberance when you think of the
Holy Spirit. At the personal level, temperance is a quiet and modest virtue.
But the need for it in society becomes very clamorous if we lift our eyes
from our own private lives and see the reality of global poverty, while the
western world indulges in spectacular consumption. This is a challenge to
every Christian. It is common decency that makes us want to raise funds
for groups such as Trócaire or Concern during Lent. We know by instinct
that our religion and moral life are not purely private matters - even though
that is the modern pitch. The message, as someone expressed it, is “love
till it hurts.”

Donagh O'Shea OP

"Love your neighbour as yourself!" we are told from childhood. But we are
also told from childhood that we have to compete with our neighbour: in
school, in sport, in everything. "Nice guys come last," they say. These are
two different (even opposite) religions, and we are continually persuaded
and educated to follow them both. Is it any wonder that we become
confused? "No servant can be the slave of two masters," said Jesus, "he
will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect
and the second with scorn" (Luke 16:13). As if rediscovering that truth,
someone said that if there was an outbreak of Christian love, the whole
economic system would collapse immediately!
    John Milton, the 17th century English poet, imagined Mammon (which
means 'wealth regarded as a God') not really as a god but as a fallen
angel. Even before he fell from grace Mammon's character wasn't quite
upright ("erected"); he had his greedy eye on the gold.

Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell From heaven,
for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy….

  It is not today or yesterday that avarice was invented! You could go back
much further than Milton's century to the ancient Greeks. In their story of
King Midas there is the deepest wisdom about avarice. For some favour,
the god Dionysus offered to grant Midas anything he wished for. The king
requested that everything he touched would turn to gold. But he soon
regretted his choice because even his food and drink were changed to
gold! That is the punishment of the greedy, and it is self-inflicted. Their
focus narrows down to acquisition. It is like deciding to breathe in and
never to breathe out any more.
     The wisdom of the world shines out clearly in print, yet how hard it is to
translate it into one's life! "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be
also," said Jesus (Mt 6:21) - for better or worse, one might add. The Irish
proverb appears to take it up from there! "Where your heart is, there your
feet will take you." (An áit a bhfuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa
thú.) And that could well be a very narrow stony place - if our treasure has
a pitfall in it, like Midas's.
     What about the other religion, the religion that told us to love? That
sets the flow in the opposite direction: rather than spend your life
acquiring, it tells us, give yourself away! Breathe out! Be a fountain rather
than a drain!
   How can I pour myself out continually when I feel so limited, so poor,
so needy? Surely I should admit I have needs - I need to breathe in too!
   Yes! I could not breathe out if I couldn't breath in! I proclaim joyfully that
I am part of the world and of everybody, and I depend on everything to
make my life human! But the primary urge should be to give everything
away, to give myself away, and not to hoard. Meister Eckhart, the great
German mystic of the 14th century, said that only the person who is able
to give everything away is really rich; people who accumulate a great deal
of goods (the people we would normally call rich) are showing how poor
they are! They feel poor, so they need all these things in order to feel rich.
But a person who knows inwardly that his or her father is a King has no
need to accumulate ciphers of wealth. That person is everyone who calls
God Father.

Donagh O'Shea
                       CHRISTMAS AND XMAS

    On the north side of Manila there’s a shop called ‘Paskohan’, which
means ‘the Christmas shop’. It has all the trappings: a resident Santa
Claus, decorations, Christmas trees and carols; but it has them all the
year round! The idea is that customers would be overtaken by the
Christmas spirit the moment they stepped inside (even in the middle of
July), and would reach for their wallets and begin to buy everything around
them. However, the idea was not a great success; people are proving that
they can be smitten by that particular spirit only at Christmas. There is a
similar Christmas shop in Washington D.C, and its business too, I’m told,
and is under par. There is hope for us still!
    In hot countries Christmas is a very different experience from Christmas
in the cold. Never any snow, no robins, no holly or plum pudding, no open
fire, no cold and so no ex use for hot whiskeys…! How different life would
be without seasons! Where people have only two, they want to hold onto
them, I suppose, and so they steer clear of Paskohan. Many of the
Christmas cards in hot countries are imported from Europe and America
or they are modelled on that kind of card. They show incongruous snow
and holly and robins! Perhaps the idea of Christmas atmosphere in those
hot places is mostly just that: an idea. Or more likely, they form their own
set of associations. That Christmas should still be seasonal, despite the
power of commercial advertising, is a tribute to people’s sense of time and
    It is customary to complain about the commercialism of Christmas. Very
well, let’s complain: there is no shortage of people who want to cash in
commercially on Christmas. But neither is there a lack of Scrooges who
see the holy season only as a waste of money. But what are people
buying, mostly, at Christmas? Gifts and gifts and gifts! I don’t see anything
wrong with that! In fact a touch of it would do the world of good throughout
the rest of the year. If that could be spread over all the seasons it would
be a fine thing; but the fact that people cannot be conned into it (as proved
by the unspectacular success of those ‘Christmas shops’) shows that they
are still able to hold out against the wiles of commercialism.
    But we can't let you go without some complaint. Xmas cards. These are
not Christmas cards. Xmas cards have heartlessness written all over
them, and minimalism: just half a dozen words and a signature, or
sometimes just ‘From’ and a signature. They are roughly the postal
equivalent of a water biscuit. But they are not yet the bottom of the bag.
Right at the bottom you get the cards that are untouched by human hands.
They are usually sent out by companies and groups, but also unbelievably
by some religious communities. You just get a printed name. I transfer
these directly to the waste paper basket. They convey the spirit of
Scrooge with bitter accuracy.
   Someone tells me that he can never take seriously Scrooge’s
conversion to generosity in Dickens’s Christmas Carol. That, I tell him, is
the very spirit of Scrooge speaking in him. The inability to believe well of
people, or to hope even foolishly for them: that's the Scrooge spirit. And its
polar opposite is gift-giving. To give a gift is to say: “We’re not in this world
to make money out of one another. You in particular deserve to get
something for nothing; you are more than you earn. In a word, I believe in
   As for those wretched cards (I mean Xmas cards), what they say is: “I
hardly believe in you at all; you’re just a name on my list. By sending you
this minimalist card I’m discharging a faint obligation towards you; and if
you don’t send one to me, all the better! I can then cross you off my
annual list. That will save me about 30 pence or cents or whatever
Scrooge’s currency is. (If I leave the envelope open, will it be only 28?)
Happy Xmas!”
   Never mind! Happy Christmas!

Donagh O'Shea
                            WHERE YOU ARE

   There was a sailing vessel off the coast of Brazil, out of sight of land.
The crew had run out of fresh water, and when they spotted another
vessel they called to them in their distress. "We need water,” they
signalled; “we'll send over some boats with barrels to collect it." They got
back a signal, "Let down your buckets where you are!" They were deeply
disturbed, thinking that the other sailors were only making fun of them. But
one of the deck-hands - a very simple man, almost a simpleton - let down
a bucket, and when he drew it up again he began to drink the water
greedily. The others watched, expecting him to spew it out. When he
didn’t, one of them tasted the water and found to his amazement that it
was fresh.
   Although they were out of sight of land, they were where the Amazon
River empties into the ocean. It is such a massive river that even a
hundred miles from land there is still fresh water. So, "put down your
buckets where you are," was not a cynical joke; it was the best of advice!
   How many people have ever told us that we are missing nothing in our
life, that we already have everything we need? Very few, I think. We have
an ingrained habit of admonishing one another to change, to move, to
acquire something we don’t have, to be something we are not…. If we
were to stop all that, even just for one day, what a strange experience it
would be! I saw the following attributed to Meister Eckhart (but I have
never been able to find it in his works - perhaps it doesn’t matter): “In truth
there is not a cent’s worth of difference between my actual condition and
the best I could imagine for myself.” If it was indeed Eckhart who said it, it
was not an expression of smugness; it was an expression of his “taking
everything evenly from the hand of God.” I can scarcely imagine the peace
that would be mine if I could feel like that!
   I remember being fascinated by some small monkeys in a zoo, and I
would often go back to watch them. At feeding time they nearly went
berserk: a monkey would grab a piece of banana, and just as he was
about to eat it he would spot a piece of apple; he would drop the banana
and grab the apple, but just as he was about to eat it he would see
something else…. For several minutes they would be incapable of eating
anything at all! Then one day I saw clearly that I was that monkey! (and
that's why I was fascinated by them!). It is our very eagerness for things
that makes us overrun them, it is our searching for things that hides them
from us, it is our restlessness that conceals the truth. The truth (the saints
assure us) is always right here. “Let down your buckets where you are!”
   There’s another trick we have too (I’ve seen it many times in myself, and
in other people). Very often when we go for something we’re not really
seeking it, we’re only running away from something else. What is the
energy that makes us run? What makes us run these mad dashes? Fear.
Fear doesn’t have to look like fear. Your face doesn’t need to be white,
your knees knocking, your whole body trembling. You may look quite
calm, relaxed; you have the short-lived peace of someone who has turned
aside from a duty or a challenge. How hard it is to stay where we are and
not be tossed around by fear and desire! Desire makes you jump forward,
fear makes you jump back. Both are ways of avoiding the patch of ground
you are on.
  We are always telling ourselves how restless these times are, how fast
everything moves. But there’s evidence that we’re not the only unsatisfied
people the world has ever known. Writing in the first century to the
Christians of Corinth, St Clement of Rome said, “There was a time when
you were...satisfied with the provisions of Christ.” (Evidently that day was
gone!) They used to be satisfied with what Christ provides for the
journey…. Now they were looking for something else: something that
would distract them from their lives. “Why are you people of Galilee
standing here looking into the sky?” said the mysterious presences to the
disciples when Jesus was taken out of their sight (Acts 1:11). They might
have added, “Let down your buckets where you are!”

Donagh O'Shea

    Someone suggested that fear was the very sentence pronounced on
the snake at the beginning of time: “You will crawl on your belly and you
will eat dust all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14)! Fear is certainly a very
great curse, and it has deep roots in our nature. Add to that the fact that
further fear is educated into us. Very unwisely, adults play on a child’s
fears in order to control him or her. A pattern of fear then becomes second
nature, and this is the main cause of aggression in our world. It became
crystal clear to me once in meditation and I have never forgotten it: most
aggression is fear. Experience bears it out: the world’s greatest tyrants
have all been cowards. A human being (or a snake for that matter) who is
not afraid is usually not aggressive. It is not only in our own interests, then,
but in everyone else’s too that we learn to control our own fears.
    But how do we try to control our fears, in fact? In the same way,
probably, that we try to control anything whatsoever. Each person will
attempt to control fear by the same methods that he or she uses to control
children, animals, or indeed anything at all that needs control. How do you
try to control your children, for example? Is your method wise and
successful? If so, then that would probably be a good way to control your
fears too!
    People have different ways of controlling children. Some do it by being
cruel, or by allowing them no freedom at all, or by spying on everything
they do, or by being distant and censorious, or by belittling them (I know a
few who do that), or by trying to make them nervous and fearful of
everything. I think most people, when they think about it, would consider
all these methods wrong. Wise people tell us that the only way to control
children is to understand them. Of course there is a cold clinical sort of
understanding that may well do more harm than good. But real human
understanding has warmth built into it - in a word: love. A psychiatrist
friend told me that her method with her own children was, “Love ‘em like
hell, and let ‘em alone!” In her case, at any rate, it seems to have worked
very well: they all grew up to be fine people.
    The great difficulty is that it is so very hard to think clearly in one’s own
case. It is easier to advise other people, because we don't have their blind
spots (even though we have our own). Our own affairs are so close to us -
like the glasses on our nose - that we cannot easily see them. Fear is one
of these affairs, if not the principal one.
    So, how do we control our fears?
    By repressing them? That is the same as being cruel to your children,
or over-controlling. Your fears hide from you then, by telling you lies - just
like over-controlled children.
    By belittling them? “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” But if there is
nothing to be afraid of, why are you afraid? Fear is a fact about you when
you’re afraid, and you don't need people (even yourself!) telling you it’s not
a fact!
   By always giving in to them and taking at face value everything they tell
us? Obviously not.
   We need instead to understand them. In order to understand them we
need to look at them. “Everything that is now covered will be uncovered,”
said Jesus. Why not look at our fears now rather than later on when they
have had time to disguise themselves and to poison our whole life? “Do
not be afraid!” he kept saying. It means: Don't let your fears dictate to you;
hold your ground, don't run away! It is like developing confidence in
yourself as a father or mother.

Donagh O'Shea
                                The Future

   'Futurism’ was an early 20th-century movement in art, centred mainly in
Italy. It was a rejection of all traditions, and it attempted instead to glorify
contemporary life, mainly by emphasising its two dominant themes: the
machine and motion. It celebrated change and innovation, and it glorified
the dynamism, speed and power of the machine, and the vitality and
restlessness of modern life in general. The car had only recently been
invented, and the Futurists idolised its beauty, its speed and its power
(though we might think the Model T, with its two forwards and one reverse,
and its box-like appearance, was singularly lacking in these!). They
exalted violence and conflict and called for the sweeping rejection of
traditional cultural and social values. Futurist poetry was frequently an
incoherent blend of words stripped of their meaning and used for their
sound alone.
   Futurism seems very adolescent to us now, and that is perhaps what it
was - if you can speak of societies going through their adolescence. Like
adolescence, the full flush of the movement didn’t last long, fizzling out in
about 1916. But also like adolescence, aspects of it became permanent:
its influence survived in the worship of the machine, which became a
fundamental part of Fascist doctrine. And it had a significant influence on
the early development of the Soviet Union.
   Why bring all this up? Because today we still worship the machine,
especially the car, and we again repudiate the past, and we are even
more restless than those early 20th-century ‘futurists’. Their cult of
modernity looks comical beside ours, so far have we outdone it. Our
culture remains somehow adolescent: some men especially remain
adolescent all their lives. Though we should have learnt something from
that early 20th-century experiment, when we try to visualise our future we
don't see a world filled with goodness, justice and love; instead we
imagine a world filled with computers and robots, morally neutral: we
worship the machine more than any futurist ever did - even Marinetti, the
most radical of them. “Today we live lost in a spider’s web of machinery,
material and social, and don't know what we are living for or how we
manage to live at all,” wrote the philosopher George Santayana. It is
almost fifty years since Santayana’s death - we have mechanised and
accelerated our life a hundredfold since his time.
   In a new millennium we try to imagine the future. What shapes will fill
the thousand empty pages ahead? What will history tell about us in some
future time? What will they say about early 21st-century Europeans? or
Americans or Asians…? They will tell of the vast social, cultural and
religious changes that swept over us - or rather, that swept us along. We
ourselves are conscious of these things already; what sharper, deeper,
even less flattering image will the future have of us? What will they praise
us for? Some kind of courage, honesty, hope against hope...? They may
even envy us many things - things that would surprise us now: perhaps
even our adolescent quality. Pray that our obsession with machines and
with speed, to the virtual exclusion of weightier things, will not have the
terrible carry-over that futurism had. You recall that futurism contributed to
Fascism and to the Soviet regime. Pray that there aren't ferocious beasts
towering over us invisibly - invisibly to us, but plainly to posterity. What
horrible birth lies ahead? In 1919 W.B. Yeats, who was deeply worried by
the Soviet Revolution, wrote of “a vast image” that “troubles my sight.”
With the prescience that poets can have, he wrote of something with “a
gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” an approaching beast “moving its slow
  What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
  Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Pray that we are not giving birth to some great beast. Pray that instead
“the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the
calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a Child will lead
them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Donagh O'Shea

   "As the lights in the penitentiary grow dim when the current is switched
on for the electric chair, so we quiver in our hearts at a suicide, for there is
no suicide for which all society is not responsible.” (Cyril Connolly)
  Those who are bereaved by suicide are only too ready to blame
themselves, but the point that Connolly was making, I think, is a
sociological rather than a moral one. All of society is somehow implicated,
for a person committing suicide is opting out of all human society; the
causes of suicide are rooted in the whole society.
Suicide appears in all societies from the earliest times, but immense
differences have existed in attitudes toward it, in the way in which it is
committed, and in the rates of frequency at various times in history.
  The ancient pagan world accepted it and sometimes even admired it:
the Roman philosopher Seneca, for example, praised it as the last act of a
free man. But several early Church councils disapproved vehemently of it,
even going so far as to deprive the suicide of the ordinary rites of the
Church. Medieval law usually provided for confiscation of the suicide's
property. Later, English law compelled forfeiture of lands and goods in all
cases of suicide, and this remained in force until 1870. Such measures
seem extremely harsh to us today. The tendency today is to view suicide
in psychological and social terms rather than in moral terms.
  There are about 400 suicides annually in Ireland: greater than the
number of road deaths; and you have to grant that some road deaths may
be disguised suicides. It is a very serious problem - an agonising one for
the families concerned. It is being studied with great urgency by experts in
many fields. Psychiatrists, for example, have found deep depression to be
fairly common in cases that they study. The most common element,
however, seems to be the person's perception that life is so painful that
only death can provide relief. Prolonged pain, physical or emotional, may
lead to a sense of personal helplessness to change one’s circumstances,
and to “tunnel vision” in which death is perceived as the only way out.
  There are ‘outbreaks’ of suicide: for example, among young people in
Germany after the first World War, and in the United States at the height
of the Great Depression in 1933. What is causing the present outbreak? It
is easy to mention many causes, but difficult to narrow them down.
  One could mention the loss of stable traditional values that used to
anchor and guide many aspects of our life, the widespread decline of
religious faith, higher and often unreal expectations of success and well-
being, greater competitiveness in all areas; but above all, I think, less
ability to wait for anything. I want to dwell a little on this last one.
  Time used to move more slowly in the past. Our ears were not deafened
by the excited voices of advertisers telling us (screaming at us, cajoling
us, flattering us) to go out now and buy their product, which will solve all
our problems. There were fewer false promises then, and no magic
solutions. We knew that it was only through perseverance that anything
would come our way. But the pace of everything has speeded up, till it is
now more than we can handle. Cars are just a symbol of it: everything has
speeded up. Someone remarked that the human frame is designed to
travel at no more than ten or twelve miles an hour: our sensory equipment
is designed for that. Other creatures, like cheetahs, are designed for much
greater speeds, like 70 mph. But now we can travel at that speed, and at
much higher speeds. Our sight, our reactions, our nervous systems are
not adapted to it. Hence all the accidents. Cars, as I say, are only a
symbol of it; everything is faster now - faster and relentless. Even holidays
and recreation are at breakneck speed! When our very rest is restless, we
are in deep trouble. We need to study every possible way of slowing
down. It is now a matter of life and death.

Donagh O'Shea
                      THE TWO IN THE TEMPLE

   Many a story begins with, 'Two fellows…’ and that is how one of Jesus's
stories began. Two fellows went up to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10).
The Pharisee...said this prayer to himself....” Indeed! - to himself in every
sense of the word. God was called in only as a witness to the man’s self-
righteousness. Imagine the company that such a person must be! - how
boring! Well, neither can it be much fun for God to listen to such talk. But
the tax-collector at the back is more human, softer, simpler. “O God, be
merciful to me a sinner!” In Greek it says "me the sinner." He thought he
was the worst of all sinners, that is why he stayed at the back, and that is
why God’s heart, and even ours, is open to him.
   We are at our worst when we pretend to be good: when we dress like
angels to do the devil’s work. Hypocrites are the real atheists, because
they inflate the currency of religion and make it worthless.
Bobbie Burns wrote:
        God knows I’m not the thing I should be,
        Nor am I even the thing I could be,
        But twenty times I rather would be
                An atheist clean
        That under gospel colours hid be,
               Just for a screen.
   The “leaven of the Pharisees,” hypocrisy. It’s very easy to write about,
and there are wonderful things written about it! Excuse the many
quotations, but it’s very enjoyable. Shakespeare called the hypocrite “a
goodly apple rotten at the heart,” and Thomas Hood, referring to jackdaws
(“daws”) on the church spire, but referring really to the clergy, wrote,
         A daw’s not reckoned a religious bird
         Because it keeps a-cawing from a steeple.
   But perhaps the most thoughtful words were those of the 17th-century
Frenchman, La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays
to virtue.”
   The Greek word from which we derive 'hypocrite' means 'to play a part'.
From there it came to mean an actor in a play. And from there it came to
mean anyone who is insincere in speech or action. Incidentally the word
'person' also has a stage connection. This one came from Latin, per
(through) and sonare (to sound). In ancient times actors wore masks over
their faces, and 'spoke through' them. In this strict sense, every person is
an actor hiding his or her real self and displaying a mask that makes them
look like a great hero or a god. Words change their meaning with the
centuries, but human nature doesn’t change very much!
    Jesus didn’t hesitate to throw around the word 'hypocrite' - presumably
because it was the right one! I counted fifteen times he used it in the
gospels. In case there was any doubt about who he meant, he said, "Woe
to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" The scribes were the
experts in the interpretation of religious law; the Pharisees, in close
alliance with them, were a group who saw religion simply as observance
of law. In the heat of controversy Jesus told them they were like "whited
sepulchres, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of
dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27).
What was it about them that he condemned?
        a) Their harsh exclusiveness. When he sat down to eat with tax-
collectors and sinners they objected (Matthew 9:11; Luke 5:30); when he
allowed a prostitute to put oil on his feet, they objected (Luke 7:39).
        b) Their legalistic rigour, particularly about not working on the
Sabbath. For example, when some of Jesus's followers rubbed a few
heads of corn in their hands, blew away the chaff and ate the grains, the
Pharisees claimed that this was breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:2).
        c) Their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. They placed human
traditions above the word of God (Matthew 15:6), "the doctrines they teach
are only human regulations" (Mark 7:7).
    Does this sound familiar in some strange way? Yes, the stuff that went
into the making of the Pharisees is still universally available! We have to
say to ourselves,

"Thou art that man!"

Donagh O'Shea OP
                    IS 'VOCATION' A BAD WORD?

       It was common, in a previous generation, to find books of popular
wisdom with a chapter (usually the last) on 'My Station {in life} and its
Duties'. Nowadays you never find such chapters in such books. There is
little sense of vocation, of being called to a way of life. The emphasis is
rather on career, which is something one chooses for oneself.
      This change is an index of many other changes in society. We feel
(correctly or otherwise) that we have much more control over our
individual lives than people had in the past; that our lives are not
something handed to us, but something we construct.
       It's good, of course, to be responsible for one's life, and to have freely
chosen its direction. Then there is no reluctance in living it. But there are
accompanying dangers; and there are extremes in both directions. When
we have total control and freedom we begin to feel somehow isolated....
Many years ago experimental psychologists discovered that the
autonomic systems in the body are not so independent in their operation
after all; they can be taught to do things! Rats have been taught to speed
up or slow down their hearts at a signal, or to alter their blood pressure, or
to switch off certain brain waves and switch on others. The human
applications, these people suggested, are endless.
       What do you think of it? The trouble, as someone said, is that our gall
bladders and livers (for example) are much more intelligent than we are!
Left to themselves they do their complex work infinitely better than if we
were interfering with them. Likewise all the other parts of us. To have full
control of everything that happens in you would be like having an airline
pilot wave you to his seat at the controls, 39,000 feet up, and say,"It's all
       Thank God there are many things not subject to human will! The
deeper you go, the more things you find that are less subject to your will,
or not subject at all. A controller in a big company may be poorly able to
control his or her own emotions, and quite unable to control what goes on
in his liver or spleen. And there are many historical things about him that
he was never in a position to control - like the date of his birth, and the
place, and who his parents were.... Many things are given us without our
being consulted.
       There is a world out there, too, that is given us. It is vast and
mysterious, and it draws us far beyond ourselves. Then if we think for a
moment about the mystery of God, the mystery deepens infinitely.... In
that context, the word 'vocation' is somehow a humbler word than 'career'.
It means 'to be called'. We are beings whose nature it is to be called
beyond ourselves.
       It's consoling to see even the closest friends of Jesus eyeing a career
instead of a vocation! Peter, James and John were the innermost circle.
But in Mt 19:27 Peter comes in with a rather crude question! "What about
us? We have left everything and followed you. What are we to have,
then?" Then James and John made a shameless request for promotion:
"Master, we want you to do us a favour.... Allow us to sit one at your right
hand and the other at your left in your glory" (Mk 10:35). They are asking
for important places in the Kingdom (in politics it is known as 'jobs for the
boys'). It was so self-serving that Matthew (20:20) edits it and has their
mother make the embarrassing request!
     But they all did learn eventually (see the Gospel Commentary for July
25). They were all drawn far beyond themselves. In the Christian vision,
everyone is called to a special way of life, and called in a unique way.
Clergy and religious have somehow appropriated the word 'vocation', as if
they were the only ones called. But every Christian is uniquely called by
name: the words "Come follow me!" are addressed to you as if to none

Donagh O'Shea
                            FEAR AND FAITH

   The hall of your house is so nice and proper; and the front room is kept
so well. All the right pictures are hanging there, the carpets are clean, the
furniture nicely arranged. This is the route for visitors who are not really
part of your life. But your friends come in the back door, directly into the
kitchen. That is the place where everything happens: not only the cooking,
but all the talking and laughing and fighting; it is the place where the family
really lives. It is often a bit of a mess, but when you are there you know
you are home. Still, front and back are the same house; the front door and
the back door are two valid approaches to the one family home. It is so
with many things in our Faith: you can approach from the front or from the
back. In the New Testament, the opposite of faith is a certain kind of fear:
not the natural instinct of fear, but the kind of neurotic fear that
immobilises you, that wants nothing to happen, good or bad. What I want
to say now is that the front door and hall of your house are like the Creed
we recite at Mass (everything is correct, nothing is missing); but if you
want to know what's really happening in your house of faith, approach by
the back door: look at your fears.

    Hundreds of times I have asked groups of people, young and old, to
write down their fears. It is a useful thing to do, for while you are writing
down your fears you are looking at them, and that is always the first step
towards managing them wisely. I always asked the group not to sign their
names, and I always asked their permission to read those pieces of paper
to the whole group afterwards. I found over the years that the three
greatest fears were death, loneliness and the unknown. But two of these
were double: death was sometimes one's own death and sometimes the
death of someone near; and the unknown was sometimes the 'spooky'
unknown and sometimes simply the future. That makes a list of five: one's
own death, the death of someone close, loneliness, the future and the
spooky side of life. I always got this list, not from every person without fail
(human beings are not predictable even in this) but with remarkable
regularity. But even if the lists were identical, the human experience would
always have a salty individual taste.

  Beyond these common five fears there are of course others. There are
purely individual fears occasioned by some event in a person's life, but
there are other common ones, I found: some that are distinctive to men
and boys, and others to woman and girls. Again, not with absolute
regularity nor to the exclusion of the other group, I found that men and
boys very frequently have a great fear of making a wrong decision; while
women and girls very frequently have a fear of the four elements - fire, air,
earth and water: fears of being trapped in a burning building, for example,
or of being suffocated, or buried alive or drowned. No doubt, if you asked
a man whether he would experience fear in a burning building, he would
say yes, but the point is that he doesn't often think of it when you don't
ask. I have often asked myself why decisions and why the elements. I
don't know the answer, but perhaps it has something to do with men living
in their heads, and women being more 'incarnated', more in touch with
elemental things.

   I recommend this exercise: in a quiet moment, find a piece of paper and
pencil and write down at random (without thinking too much about it, for
you would rationalise it) a full list of all your fears, no matter how particular
or detailed. It has the following benefits: ·

   While you are doing that you are looking at them, and as I said earlier,
that is the first step in making peace with them. Fears mainly grab you by
the back, when you are running away from them; but when you face them,
they diminishes: they are like cowardly dogs. ·
   It will help you to see where your faith is at the moment. As I said
earlier, fear and faith are opposites, so when you locate your fear you are
also locating the spot where faith has work to do.

   We recite the Creed every week; it would be useful to recite
occasionally the list of our fears, so that we might see what our next steps
of faith will be.

Donagh O'Shea
                          BUILDING ON ROCK

Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic, wrote, "When St Paul had
done a lot of talking to the Lord, and the Lord had reasoned much with
him, that produced nothing, until he surrendered his will, and said: 'Lord,
what do you want me to do?' Then the Lord showed him clearly what he
ought to do. So too, when the angel appeared to our Lady, nothing either
she or he had to say would ever have made her the Mother of God, but as
soon as she gave up her own will, at that moment she became a true
mother of the everlasting Word and she conceived God immediately....
Nor can anything make a true human being except giving up one's will."
   It is one of the most familiar themes: the difference between talking (or
thinking) and doing. People in every age feel the need to tell themselves
again about that difference! We all tend to think that when we have said
something we have as good as done it! Of course we know there's a
difference, but it isn't always clear-edged. There's one moment in day,
however, when it is painfully clear-edged: it is when the alarm-clock goes
off in the morning! You can think and think about getting up, but really to
get up you have to move, and that is a completely different order of reality
from thinking! (Would you like to know a trick for that crucial moment?
When you put out your hand to stop the alarm, continue the movement:
keep moving! Don't go back to thinking! Keep moving slowly and gently
until you are standing on the floor! That's my trick. It works!)
   What did Eckhart (and a thousand others) mean by 'giving up your will'?
Obviously it doesn't mean: not using your will. It means something much
more like 'giving your will up to something', as when we say of someone
that he has given himself up (for example) to a life of study, or to some
service...or much more humbly, to that action I described of rolling slowly
out of bed. Call it putting yourself in motion. Or if you are mechanical
minded, say that after all that revving of the engine you must let in the
clutch. And as we know, the clutch has to be used gently.
   If then that motion is a godly one, you are doing God's will, as far as you
can judge. Your life will have a real base and a real direction. You will be,
as Jesus said, like a man who built his house on rock rather than on sand.
Sand is rock of course (a billion little rocks!), but it behaves more like
water: it doesn't hold its shape, it doesn't hold anything, it flows away. To
be forever thinking as a substitute for doing, would be like building your
house on sand.
   A rock is the very symbol of stability, consistency, concreteness.... (Of
course it is also the symbol of hardness and rigidity, but that is not in focus
   We need those first qualities:
   Stability: not to be blown around by every wind of opinion, every
passing enthusiasm, every fashion of the moment....
   Consistency: not to try and get by with clever words alone, but to have
the weight of one's life behind each word we speak - so much so, and so
habitually, that quite often no words are necessary
at all. Concreteness: not to evade issues, but to face what lies before us,
even if it threatens to try us sorely or defeat us. Since the Incarnation,
abstract-sounding realities like the mind of God, the will of God, etc., are
become concrete in Christ. "You are the house whose foundations are the
apostles and prophets, and whose cornerstone is Christ Jesus" (Eph

Donagh O'Shea

   The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life 'in the state of
nature' as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Today, more than three
hundred years later, any attempt to describe a 'state of nature' would be
seen as a work of pure fiction. But his phrase lingered on, and it has often
been mistakenly thought to refer to the Middle Ages. The result is that
most people think the Middle Ages have nothing to teach us - especially
about the 'soft' side of experience: pleasure, happiness, intimacy….
   But there has been wisdom the world before now, and much can be
learned from the centuries that have gone before us. A perspective from
another century can even make our wisdom look quite shallow at times.
The 'pursuit of happiness' is a hallowed phrase, but what would it mean to
someone living, say, seven or eight hundred years ago? What kind of
happiness do you get when you have 'pursued' it? The very word
'happiness' is related to the word 'happen': a straightforward view tells us
that happiness has to happen; if it is tracked down and possessed, it is
only like the dead body of what it was. What kind of pleasure do you get
when you have pursued pleasure?
   Pleasure, St Thomas Aquinas said in the 13th century, is good and not
evil: it accompanies the right working of each human faculty. (There is no
Puritanism there at all: that was the invention of a later century.) A
colleague of his in the following century, Johann Tauler, wrote: "Pleasures
should come and go with the actions that occasion them, but they then
should not remain with you." This is the soundest advice we are every
likely to get, I believe! There is nothing here about the pursuit of pleasure
or happiness - in itself a very nervous notion, as well as exhausting and
profoundly cheerless. These people from an older time tell us: Do
something that is valuable in itself, and pleasure will accompany the doing
of it. But happiness and pleasure are side-products; they arise
spontaneously when you are doing something else. The secret of being
miserable, said George Bernard Shaw, is to have enough time on your
hands to worry about whether you are happy.
   Pleasures "should not remain with you." What did Tauler mean by this?
Look at it this way. When something is over, it is over; to bring it back is to
bring back a dead thing, and it is to be dead oneself - not available to what
is happening in the present. When we try to prolong some pleasure or
bring back an old one, we open the door to addiction, and then follows the
self-defeating cycle of pursuit followed by dissatisfaction followed by
frantic pursuit. In this way, if we take it to its extreme, we are capable of
side-tracking our whole life. Let bygones be bygones, we say, in relation to
personal hurts; but we need to say it also in relation to pleasures. Let them
pass, let me not be attached to them. Attachment spoils everything. There
are perfect moments that can only happen, that cannot be planned and
that cannot be prolonged. A spontaneous gesture of affection from a
friend, or a compliment, or a spirited conversation: these are no longer
spontaneous when they are planned, they become flat and empty. Even in
nature there are moments like that: the quality of light across a hillside, the
behaviour of an animal or bird, a particular hush of the wind in the trees.
These are moments of natural 'grace', and when Christians speak of
divine grace they mean something like that, but going beyond it. The word
'grace' means 'gift'. Such moments are gifts, gifts of the moment, and they
cannot be captured in greedy hands.
    "You are too attached…to be able to understand what is going on,"
Tauler said. It was a throw-away remark, but a statement of deep
understanding. Attachment to pleasure blinds us: not to every aspect of a
situation, but to every aspect but one. To live a deeply human life requires
a great deal of natural intelligence. This intelligence has nothing to do with
school or college, and its one 'subject' is life itself. If we become weak in
that subject, it matters little how strong we are in any other. The real
wisdom, said Tauler, is to be able to respond in the moment to "whatever
God gives, whatever God takes away."

Donagh O'Shea
                   SMALL THINGS AND BIG TALK

  In the world of advertising, there has to be as much initial coverage as
possible, even to the point of saturation. Advertising campaigns are
planned and executed like a military assault. Some companies mount the
assault first, and then gauge the response. Only if the response is good do
they finally make the product! In other words, the advertising is literally
about nothing!
  The way of the Gospel is the opposite of this. Everything begins on a
small scale: Jesus spoke of seeds hidden in the ground. Seeds are very
small, but they are not nothing; they are a tremendous something; to
understand even a single seed in its very essence would be to understand
the universe.

Tennyson wrote
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
Hold you there, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

  Every living thing (including ourselves) has a small beginning. That is
the mark of reality. But big talk is usually a substitute for reality and a sign
of nothing.

   Loud is often shallow. There is a kind of Christian advertising (let's not
call it preaching) that has none of the depth of the Gospel. This is already
visible in the gospels, and Jesus himself had to discourage it. He
frequently enjoined silence on people, and even on demons (Mt 16:20; Mk
8:30; Lk 4:41, etc.). This is called 'the Messianic Secret'.

  Why, we might ask, did Jesus want to make a secret of himself? We
usually imagine him rather wanting to make himself known! The reason is
that people expected the Messiah to be a political leader, and that is
exactly what Jesus did not want to be.

  He was not a politician, and not an advertiser. These speak in
generalities to the generality of people. But he spoke from the heart to
every kind of person. And he has spoken to countless millions of people
throughout the centuries. He has been heard because his voice is
humble,gentle and particular.

  We need to listen carefully to ourselves (talking and thinking), to hear
whether our voice is the voice of the one who was "meek and humble of
heart". How are we to talk, for example, to teenagers or even younger
people? Certainly, they will be stone-deaf to any political-sounding
diatribe; and no advertising gimmickry will make any impact on them,
because the advertisers do it so much better. Our voice is too general, too
theoretical, too impersonal, too political, too distanced from their
experience - and even from our own experience. It is too often not a caring
voice at all but a tactical one, showing little genuine sympathy for the
actual human being before us, in his or her struggle.

As in all the ages of the past, what convinces people is action and not
words, experience rather than theory, small things rather than big talk.

We Christians need not be too proud to take lessons from a pagan. "In the
age when life on earth was full..." said Chuang Tzu (3rd century B.C.)
&quot;people loved one another and did not know that this was 'love of
neighbour'. They deceived no one yet they did not know that they were
'trustworthy people'. They were reliable and did not know that this was
'reliability'. They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know
that they were generous.

Donagh O'Shea

A monk asked the abbot, "How do I enter upon the Way?" The abbot said,
"Do you hear that stream that is running by outside, bubbling?" The monk
said, "Yes." The abbot said, "Enter there!" Then another monk said, "What
if there were no stream running outside? Then where would I enter?" The
abbot said, "Enter there!"
     That story has a Zen ring to it; it is universal experience. "Enter there"
doesn't necessarily mean "Go for a dip in it!" (though that is a good way to
become one with a stream). You can enter the stream by becoming one
with the sound of it, or the sight of it, by being completely present to it and
     In the Christian tradition there has not been a strong emphasis on
entering your ordinary experience and becoming one with it. Belief is very
good at lifting things above the ground and putting them in holy niches.
Then when they touch the ground again, even for a moment, that seems
extraordinary! Nobody says, "How down-to-earth they are!" when the
women wash up after the old people's party, but if the parish priest dries a
few cups they say, "How down-to-earth he is!" Or if the pope takes two
steps that are not in his itinerary, people say, "How ordinary he is!" We
have tended to honour a stagy affected ordinariness, making the real
ordinary look shabby. Shabby and pagan: if the religious spirit in action is
identified with a few empty gestures, then ordinary experience has no
religious meaning.
     The importance attached by many today to visions, miraculous
healings, messages from Mary, secrets, and simply to anything that is out
of the ordinary, is a warning sign that our spiritual teaching is dangerously
off-course. It does not return people to their ordinary lives but distracts
them instead.
     Ordinary experience is not the property of the clergy; it belongs to
everyone, and that may be the reason there has not been a strong
emphasis on it! It is everywhere: you can no more miss it than you can
miss the ground when you put down your foot. "Enter there!" Enter each
momentary experience. And if what you were expecting to be there is not
there, "enter there!" But we make the holy into a special object. Yes, of
course, there are special times and places and things, but these are
meant to enrich and not to rob from ordinary experience. Hegel wrote
splendidly on this topic. "The holy as a thing has the character of
externality; thus it is capable of being taken possession of by another, to
my exclusion; it falls into an alien hand, since the process of appropriating
it is not one that takes place in the Spirit, but is conditioned by its quality
as an object. The highest of human blessings is in the hands of others."
     An earlier German, Eckhart, said that you can get as much of God "by
the fireside or in the stable" as you can by devotions, ecstasies and the
like. To think otherwise, he said, is like "taking God, wrapping a cloak
around His head and shoving Him under a bench." God as the private
property of religious people! The Word of God took on human nature, not
just a religious segment of it. For anyone attempting to live the Christian
life, all experience - even what goes on in stables and by the fireside - is
religious experience. How do we split ourselves from our own
experience? What is the mechanism of it? I think there is a tendency in us
all to live out of descriptions and stories rather than directly from reality.
For experience you have to be naked: free of descriptions and stories, free
of ideologies and projects, free of all judgment. I am sending you out like
lambs among wolves, Jesus said; so take nothing with you! We would
have expected the opposite: take everything with you because you are so
vulnerable. But no, take nothing, be naked to your experience. "Unless
you become like children…" he said. If you want to know what love is, you
have to be in love. Your theories are of no avail. Theories may tell how
love happens, but that is not what love is. Can you feel anger without
going into the story of what caused you to be angry? Can you feel fear,
just as it is, without rehearsing a situation? Theories and stories and
explanations are distractions: they draw you away from the reality of love
anger and fear.
    When we try to be fully present to our experience we will see the tiny
fatal gap (unless we are very unusual people): the microscopic 'hanging-
back' that has become second nature to us. It is very small but crucial: as
small and crucial as the difference between Stop and Go when you are
about to dive off the diving-board. It is very easy and even normal to be all
Stop. To change the metaphor: an electrical switch creates only a tiny
gap, but that is enough to cut off the current. Meditation means putting the
switch to On. If you can do that regularly even when there is nothing to
look at and nothing to do (that's meditation!) it will gradually become
second nature to you to live in your experience. There is no name for it; it
has no stories to tell, no theories to defend…. It is the wonder of
existence, God's gift moment by moment.
    Meditation means being intimate with everything, not dividing the things
into categories: important and unimportant, interesting and uninteresting,
nice and nasty…. What are we doing with such categories? We are
looking sideways at the world, picking out bits that support our ego-plans
and rejecting the rest. We are not being intimate with the world, not
waiting for anything to reveal itself. We are consequently uprooted and
restless, as if our experience had no value and we needed something else
to make us happy. And so we are continually running around trying to find
something that will make us feel richer, stronger, safer, more loving, more
loved…. We are so distanced from our own experience that we do not
know its richness, and so we behave like beggars!

Donagh O'Shea
                            THE REDEEMER

   'To redeem' means 'to buy back'. If you have pawned your coat you
may be able to redeem it. In older times, slaves could be redeemed or
ransomed. It is a surprise to find this image from the financial world at the
heart of our Faith - and even used as a description of the Lord: 'The
Redeemer' we sometimes call him.
    Some ancient theologians applied this image in a very literal way to the
work that Christ accomplished.
    One said that we had become the devil's property because of original
sin, so God paid him his price: the suffering and death of Christ. Another
said that the 'ransom' was paid to an angry God: he was angered by
human waywardness and needed to strike out at us, but Jesus (who is
truly one of us) took the rap instead.
    These are obviously very crude uses of this word 'redeem', and not
intended by the Scriptures, where this word has almost always a rather
loose meaning. Indeed, it is a word that is surprisingly scarce in several
books of the New Testament. When we meet this word in the New
Testament we should try to see what it means in the context. In different
contexts it carries different shades of meaning or emphasis:
    a) it often means, quite simply, 'to release', 'to     save';
    b) it emphasises that this work of saving has been          done by
Christ. Our faith is not an old-fashioned        way of talking about self-
help, self-reliance,       self-sufficiency;
    c) it serves to remind us of the desperate plight we        are in; we
may not be enslaved to the Moors, but           we are more despairingly
enslaved to ourselves          and to destructive ways of living.

   Thousands claim to be our redeemers and saviours: insurance
companies, banks, advertisers of every imaginable product. All of them
use the most sophisticated means (photography, video-production,
psychology, music, art) to persuade us, against our better judgment, that
we need their services. This false and cluttered atmosphere can blind us
to our deepest need: the need to stand in true relationship with ourselves,
with others and with God. There is an urgent necessity to distinguish every
false redeemer from the Redeemer, and while being sceptical of the one,
to know our ;need of the other.
    There is another Scriptural word, 'reconciliation' (meaning more or less
the same thing as 'redemption'), which may come closer to home for us. If
I want to know what I am redeemed from ('saved' from, 'freed' from), and
what I am redeemed for, let me remember a time when I had the deepest
experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: when I could see that it
was not about being carpeted or accused or embarrassed, but about
returning (like the Prodigal Son) to a loving father. That is a perfect
moment when I know what 'redemption' means, and what 'salvation'
means. That is also the moment when I know most clearly that it is a gift: it
is received and it is most personal. It is a totally different experience from
rationalising my faults. To rationalise is to deny: it is a lonely and untruthful
way, and it leads me nowhere. But to be redeemed is to be filled with a
free and freeing joy.
    The Prodigal Son had a speech prepared: "I no longer deserve to be
called your son, etc." (Luke 15). But the father did not allow him to finish.
"Quick!" he said, "bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on
his finger and sandals on his feet…." There are beautiful telling details in
this story: the ring signified rank - he was to be no second-class citizen -
and the sandals signified that he was other a servant but a son of the
family. Redemption is not an arrogant self-assertion against the truth, but
a joyful return to a the Father. Jesus, our Redeemer, shows us the way.

Donagh O'Shea
                        THE MADNESS OF GOD

   I once heard a Japanese Zen Master talk about Jesus. "He must have
been a deeply enlightened man," he said. "No one could have said 'Love
your enemy as yourself; still less could anyone have said, 'If your enemy
strikes you on the right cheek, offer the left as well', unless he was a
deeply enlightened man. He saw that when your enemy strikes you, it is
really the same as your striking yourself - friend, enemy, left cheek, right
cheek, you, the other: no difference!" I have never forgotten these words; I
can still hear the accent in which they were spoken. And they were spoken
not by a Christian but by a Buddhist. Sometimes others see the depth of
our religion better than we do.
    If your love is a calculation, he seems to say, it is not love at all; if you
are measuring it out, it is not really worth giving, because it will create guilt
and obligation and dependency; if there is ego in it, it is diseased and you
had better keep it yourself....
    Jesus asks us to do the impossible! He asks us to live like God. We are
not to live by mere calculation and organisation. Love is a kind of
madness; it goes beyond logic. If it were perfectly sensible it would be
given only to those who deserved it. But like God's grace it flows out freely
on good and bad alike.
    Up to a few years ago, there were countless religious books telling us
to "cultivate this and that virtue and eliminate vices and imperfections."
Suddenly it is a language that seems strangely dated; it looks now like a
kind of gardening for introspective souls. We have lived and changed a lot
in the Church in the last ten years! The remedies called for now are much
more drastic, and somehow out of our hands: self-improvement won't do;
we are at the mercy of God. When we emerge from this crucible we will be
a deeply humble, even humiliated, Church. We may know more then
about compassion, about powerlessness, about the madness of love,
about seeking the lost rather than defending the secure: in a word, we
may know more about spirituality than about ideology. The laity will have
come into its own and they will bring a new vitality and practicality to the
Church. But these are prayers, not predictions. Ultimately we are at the
mercy of God, and that is the right place to be. Yes perhaps we have
been far too reasonable! The cross is madness. Loving your enemies is
madness. Our religion is full of madness, and we make it a religion of
reasonableness! "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is perfectly
reasonable and logical; it is like arithmetic! But the very word 'reasonable'
is ambiguous. It can mean 'according to reason' (like arithmetic), or it can
be 'just so-so' (as when you say something is 'reasonably good'). We are
capable of both meanings, and very capable of confusing them! "The
language of the cross may be illogical to those who are not on the way to
salvation, but those of us who are on the way see it as God's power to
save.... God wanted to save those who have faith, through the foolishness
of the message that we preach," wrote St Paul (1 Cor 1:18). The madness
of God! It has been a major theme in the writings of the saints. St
Catherine of Siena wrote in the 14th century (when they knew a degree of
confusion and disturbance that makes our century look almost sure of
itself!): "You [God], deep well of love, it seems you are so madly in love
with your creatures that you could not live without us!"

Donagh O'Shea

"Love your neighbour as yourself!" we are told from childhood. But we are
also told from childhood that we have to compete with our neighbour: in
school, in sport, in everything. "Nice guys come last," they say. These are
two different (even opposite) religions, and we are continually persuaded
and educated to follow them both. Is it any wonder that we become
confused? "No servant can be the slave of two masters," said Jesus, "he
will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect
and the second with scorn" (Luke 16:13). As if rediscovering that truth,
someone said that if there was an outbreak of Christian love, the whole
economic system would collapse immediately!
    John Milton, the 17th century English poet, imagined Mammon (which
means 'wealth regarded as a God') not really as a god but as a fallen
angel. Even before he fell from grace Mammon's character wasn't quite
upright ("erected"); he had his greedy eye on the gold.

Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell From heaven,
for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy….

  It is not today or yesterday that avarice was invented! You could go back
much further than Milton's century to the ancient Greeks. In their story of
King Midas there is the deepest wisdom about avarice. For some favour,
the god Dionysus offered to grant Midas anything he wished for. The king
requested that everything he touched would turn to gold. But he soon
regretted his choice because even his food and drink were changed to
gold! That is the punishment of the greedy, and it is self-inflicted. Their
focus narrows down to acquisition. It is like deciding to breathe in and
never to breathe out any more.
     The wisdom of the world shines out clearly in print, yet how hard it is to
translate it into one's life! "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be
also," said Jesus (Mt 6:21) - for better or worse, one might add. The Irish
proverb appears to take it up from there! "Where your heart is, there your
feet will take you." (An áit a bhfuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa
thú.) And that could well be a very narrow stony place - if our treasure has
a pitfall in it, like Midas's.
     What about the other religion, the religion that told us to love? That
sets the flow in the opposite direction: rather than spend your life
acquiring, it tells us, give yourself away! Breathe out! Be a fountain rather
than a drain!
   How can I pour myself out continually when I feel so limited, so poor,
so needy? Surely I should admit I have needs - I need to breathe in too!
   Yes! I could not breathe out if I couldn't breath in! I proclaim joyfully that
I am part of the world and of everybody, and I depend on everything to
make my life human! But the primary urge should be to give everything
away, to give myself away, and not to hoard. Meister Eckhart, the great
German mystic of the 14th century, said that only the person who is able
to give everything away is really rich; people who accumulate a great deal
of goods (the people we would normally call rich) are showing how poor
they are! They feel poor, so they need all these things in order to feel rich.
But a person who knows inwardly that his or her father is a King has no
need to accumulate ciphers of wealth. That person is everyone who calls
God Father.

Donagh O'Shea

"How are you?"
"Can't complain."
It's much the same in Italian:
"Come stai?"
"Mi tiro avanti." (I drag myself along.)

    Why are people so often reticent about feeling good? It is because they
know that it is very boring to talk about happiness. They say very few
people read to the end of Dante's Paradiso; that the Inferno and
Purgatorio are far more popular! There's nothing much to be said about
happiness. But misery is inexhaustibly long-winded.
    How is it then that people band together when they are happy, but tend
to go into isolation when they are miserable?
    I think this may be the answer: when happy people band together it is to
be happy together, not to talk about being happy; but misery is the
favourite topic of conversation for people who feel miserable (when they
succeed in isolating someone who will listen).
    The search for happiness is full of paradoxes. It is well understood that
if you strive to feel happy, you are almost certain to miss it: you will over-
shoot it to the very measure of your striving. It has to come spontaneously,
like a gesture of friendship or like the song of a bird. You could organise
these, it is true: you could constrain certain individuals to show you signs
of affection, and you could tape-record the birdsong. But these would be
experiences of emptiness and failure. You cannot harness the feeling of
happiness. Besides, when you think about it, what a low ideal it is: to feel
happy. It is small and self-regarding. "Strive to be happy," it said in the
poem Desiderata, in a tone that seemed highly religious. It made this
striving seem like a religious duty. Chekhov said somewhere that if we are
happy we have a right to say we are doing God's will. To me it looks back
to front. He did not say that if we are doing God's will we are happy, but
just the reverse: if we are happy we are doing God's will. In the context, he
meant feeling happy. This must be a God who makes no demands at all.
That could be nice for a while, especially if we were brought up with a God
who made too many demands for our comfort; but then it surely palls. It's
like breakfast in bed and sleeping all day when you are not sick. God does
not see us as softies but as beings who are capable of the infinite, as the
mediaevals put it ("capaces infiniti"). We are led and taught by God, not
simply indulged. Jesus was regularly called "Teacher"; he was on fire with
something to teach. Perhaps you had a teacher in school who was easy-
going and didn't care at all about teaching you anything. You respected
them very little at the time, and less and less as the years passed. There
is something objective missing in all this talk about feeling happy.
    The mediaevals (to mention them again) wrote quite a lot about
happiness. Major questions were: What is happiness? In what does it
consist? When is one happy? The interesting thing is that they spoke of
objective happiness, not the mere feeling of happiness. Today we have so
completely identified happiness with the feeling of happiness that
'objective happiness' looks almost like a contradiction in terms. But surely
it is the only solid foundation. It means: to be objectively in a right
relationship with God, others, the world and oneself. You may feel little or
nothing yet, because your taste is deadened, but you are on the right
road. Whether the road is the right one is the main question, and not how
nice it feels to travel along it. In other words, questions about happiness
cannot be separated from questions about truth. Mi tiro avanti, I drag
myself along. Perhaps there is a rugged truth in these off-hand phrases
that goes deeper than all the analyses of feelings.
    (See Sat. Oct. 7 of the Gospel Commentary)

Donagh O'Shea

   We all know a few of them: little old ladies stooped right over with age
and arthritis, unable to look up or to see anyone face to face. They have
existed in every age, so it is not surprising to find a few of them in the
gospels. Jesus met and healed one of them (Luke 13). "She was bent
over and could not straighten herself." He healed her without being asked.
There are other examples of Jesus healing people without being asked:
see Luke 6:8 (the man with the withered hand) and 14:4 (the man with
dropsy). Sometimes we feel we have to grovel when we ask God or
Jesus for something; we imagine (at some level) that God sees us as dirt,
and that we have to grovel and to learn the false language of beggars if
we are to get anything.
    But the woman in the story had been grovelling for eighteen years until
she met Jesus! It was he who enabled her to stand up straight with the
unique dignity of a human being. "At once she straightened up and she
glorified God." There's another little old lady, a widow, in Luke 18:1-8.
She was looking for her rights. Widows were always penniless, and
therefore of slight interest to a corrupt judge. But this one was persistent.
"She will wear me out!" said the judge. This was a story told by Jesus, a
very robust one! It is about prayer. But there is no swooning or moaning
recommended, no forced emotions, no whining, no false manner. It tells
us we should come to God as we are, warts and all.
    The God revealed by Jesus is one who invites in "the poor, the
crippled, the blind, the lame...." But that doesn't mean that we have to look
or feel like that figure you often see in religious paintings, the typical
beggar. The saint, looking supremely smug and condescending, strides
among beggars as they lie strewn on the steps of the church, with pious
plaintive looks on their faces. They are all very clean and well laundered
(which should be the clue to how unreal the picture is); and they look as if
their language could only be the most reverent imaginable. They and the
saint have one thing in common: they all accept their respective roles
without question. The beggar is not really a long-term human being; he or
she is there only to highlight the sanctity of the saint. As the beggar is a
model of beggary, so is the saint a model of sanctity; he experiences no
ambiguity, no challenge, no shame, no call to lay down his life. Neither he
nor the beggar has the faintest flicker of political awareness.
    The beggars that we know in reality could hardly be more different.
Usually they are addicts to alcohol or drugs, sometimes both; and it is this
that leaves them penniless. Their clothes are not nicely laundered like the
clothes of the painted beggars, nor is their language! They are more real
than any painting. Try loving a few of them, dear painted saint, and you
may become a real saint instead of a painted one!
    Very little religious imagery (either of sanctity or of misery) touches us
today; much of it is remote from our reality, and perhaps from all reality.
Therefore we have to make our own! We have to look straight at the
miserable patches in our own lives, with no disguises or evasions; and at
the patches of misery in our society. The times require great honesty of
us. I have to ask myself: In what area of my life am I prostrate? In what
area can I only see the ground, and a small patch of it at that? - like the
crippled woman in the gospel. Only when I admit my own real poverty will I
be willing in fact to look at it in other people. Then as human misery is
revealed to me more and more, so will sanctity become more than a holy
picture. It will be the Gospel, the Good News, for "the weak, the sick, the
wounded, the strayed and the lost" (Ezech. 34).

Donagh O'Shea OP

Boredom is one of the great sufferings of modern life. It stretches a minute
into an hour, a day into a year. "I spent a year in that place, one Sunday,"
someone said about a certain town! "All our wonderful education and
learning is producing a grand sum-total of boredom," wrote D.H.
Lawrence; "modern people are inwardly thoroughly bored." He wrote
nearly 70 years ago. What would he say of us today?
     We live at a truly extraordinary time, a time full of contradiction and
paradox. Our world is filled with time-saving devices, and you would
expect that there would now be a huge capital of saved time. On the
contrary, we never had less of it! Likewise, we never before had so many
things to amuse and divert us, but we are more deeply bored with every
passing year. Many are tempted to moralise about it, especially when they
are talking about young people, but it affects young and old alike. It is not
enough to moralise about it; we need to understand it as far as possible.
     I experience boredom when I have been totally occupied with things
and activities, and suddenly they are no longer there. Then I am thrown
back on my empty self: that is the dull ache that we call boredom. It is a
feeling of inner emptiness. I can avoid it while there is something to
occupy and distract me, but when there is nothing I am plunged back into
it. It was there all the time, but I was avoiding it; now I can no longer avoid
it, and it feels like non-existence. "Christianity decomposing," Georges
Bernanos called it, but that's a bit heavy. Yet it is something or other
decomposing: it is my inner life neglected and gone mouldy.
     In solitary confinement people have gone insane. Why? Because they
were a little insane already. If they were fully sane, then confinement
would have made them more sane; what was in them had an opportunity
to grow. But what grew in them was their seeds of insanity. If I have
nothing to do I have to live with myself, and that is when I discover the
state of my sanity. An afternoon with nothing to do is not the same as
solitary confinement, but it's a little like it! Such an afternoon could be the
best opportunity to find out about this unknown person, myself!
     I have to learn to be unoccupied at times and to get used to it. That is
another way of saying I have to learn to meditate. Many people try to be
occupied twenty-four hours a day. I knew a man who used to sleep every
night with earphones connected to a radio station. Try to persuade me that
that wasn't a man on the run! A first step would be to turn off the radio
(and TV, etc.). That's the easy part. The next step is to turn off that
rambling mind of ours. That is not so easy, or rather it is different: it is not
like turning off a radio. It is a matter of becoming aware of what is going on
in the mind. Normally the mind drifts along in a half-conscious state from
one object to another. I need to become aware of that haphazard activity:
just aware of it in detail, nothing more. I need to be like the mother of a
hyperactive child: I know that telling it to be quiet is no good (in fact it has
the opposite effect). I need to be quiet myself, to 'model' quietness, so to
speak, to be an atmosphere of quietness. After a time the mind quietens
down (but with frequent lapses!), and that is the doorway to the inner
    Nobody can promise you anything from there, not even relief from
boredom (because promises are for God to make, and God may yet want
to teach you something through your very boredom). But at least you will
know that you are not actively blocking the door to the inner life. When
that inner eye is bright, the whole world looks better.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                          GOD AND MAMMON

"If you have no money, be polite!"
I heard someone say.
It says a lot about money; it says that money is that which makes it
possible for you to be rude to people.

Money means a lot of different things; it is much more than it appears to
be. It is God's greatest rival:
"you cannot serve God and Mammon." But did you know that it is called
after a goddess?

Her name was Moneta. But in her earlier days she had a different name,
Hera. In ancient Greece she was queen of the gods, and mother of Ares,
the god of war (that figures!); she was known for her vindictive nature and
never forgot an injury (that figures too!). Angry with a Trojan prince for
preferring Aphrodite, goddess of love, to herself, she aided the Greeks in
war and was not appeased until Troy was destroyed (that figures most of
all!). When this unpleasant goddess was adopted by the Romans she was
renamed Juno Moneta (Juno the Monitress - or schoolmistress!), and she
presided over a Roman temple where gold was coined. Moneta is still one
of the Italian words for money. And our word 'money' is derived from the
same disagreeable lady!

It retains a great many of her personality traits: it is often the cause of war
and jealousy and revenge. It is much more than the paper it seems to be,
or the metal, or the plastic.
It is our love of things; it is our escape from dependence on people; it is
our security against death; it is our effort to control life....

It is much easier to love things than to love people. Things are dead, so
you can possess them easily. You can possess a great deal of money and
property very easily: it will never criticise you or complain about you, and it
will never try to be free of you. But even a very small child can criticise you
and complain, and strike for freedom. It is easier to love money than to
love even a baby. If you can't love people you will begin to love money. It
will never hurt your feelings or challenge your motives, but neither will it
ever respond to you - because it is dead. That's the problem! And after a
while the problem will begin to show: you will begin to look dead yourself.
The more money you accumulate, the more afraid you will become and
the more isolated from people: because you will suspect that they are
coming near you only for the sake of your money. After a while you will be
incapable of loving anyone, and then you might as well be dead.

But people who love people become careless about money. They know
from experience that money cannot buy love; far from it, it can even be the
enemy of love. There is nothing wrong with it in itself; it is neutral. But an
extreme attachment to it is
not neutral; it is a kind of opposite religion. "You cannot serve God and
Mammon." Or as a more modern translation has it, "You cannot be the
slave both of God and of money.
" The religion of God is the religion of love. The instinct of love is to share,
to give away. But the instinct of Mammon is to accumulate. Love is such a
deep fulfilment that you can
be poor and yet full of joy. St Francis's father, a businessman, was forever
nagging Francis about giving away things and money to the poor, and
threatened to cut off his inheritance. Francis told him to keep the lot, and
running out he threw off every stitch of his clothing! He needed nothing!
He was a free spirit. He was no hostage to a miser. He became a great
saint and stole the heart of the world. He is still doing immense good,
inspiring inner freedom in countless people; he is better known than any
other saint in the Church.

If you were stranded on a desert island with a million pounds you would
die of hunger. Money is abstract: it is rows of figures on a piece of paper in
the bank. But love is concrete; is real here and now. If you are incapable
of life here and now, you will surely give your heart to Mammon.

Donagh O'Shea OP
                                 MY STORY

    Everyone has a story to tell and everyone keeps on telling it in
hundreds of different editions! This is the age of story: in therapy, in
spirituality, in everything. In psychoanalysis, for example, you tell your
story; theologians embark on 'narrative theology'; and page one of a book
on spirituality announces, "It's story time!" Folklore too is enjoying a
renaissance. Everywhere it is story-time; and everyone wants to hear (and
tell) a story.
     One of the most basic needs of every person is to be listened to. When
someone listens to you, you begin to hear yourself; the frightening swirl of
emotions - the fears, the insecurities, the shapeless things - begin to take
shape and to be lit up with recognition. If it is not too much of a cliché, we
have to be heard into personhood. It could be called 'socialisation', and
when it does not happen, the result is crippling inadequacy or violence.
     We have not always been good at listening to one another in the
Church - preaching to one another, yes -
and there was a heavy backlog to make up. The current emphasis on
Story is perhaps part of that catching up, so badly needed. There are
many more whose stories have seldom or never been heard. And there
will always be a need for story-telling, and especially story-listening. But
we are so heavily, and perhaps one-sidedly, into it now that for balance
we need to look also at the other side. Let me just try and put the other
side (for a trial).
     We do tell an awful lot of lies about ourselves (I've often caught myself
at it): lies so deep that we don't see them as lies at all. We cherish
illusions, story-lines so often imagined that after a time we don't know
whether they are true or false . Nothing is gained by that kind of repetition.
It is the ego maintaining its grip over us. "This is me, this is the package!" -
to repeat the exact words I heard from someone who was announcing (not
for the first time) his aggressive story of himself. My story can be my
defiance, my limitation, my 'own goal'. It can be a closing of my account
with reality.
     "'I don't have any personal history,' [Don Juan] said, after a long pause.
'One day I found out that personal history was no longer necessary to me
and like drinking I dropped it....If you have no personal history, no
explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts.
And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts.'" (Carlos
Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan)
     What am I when I am not telling myself what I am? It is important to
know that I am creating a world when I talk; I am either creating or
maintaining an image of myself. Whenever I finish talking to myself, my
world is just as I want it to be, and my position in it is vindicated, isn't it? I
confirm that I have been right all along. That is the danger in telling my
story - especially in telling it to myself.
    I don't suppose that dropping one's story is a simple matter. But when
you sit in meditation that is what you are doing in a fleeting manner,
perhaps for only split-seconds at a time. What freedom you have when
you do it! You experience the ultimate freedom: freedom from yourself.
The mystics are trying to tell us about it. "You must give up yourself,
altogether give up self, and then you have really given up," wrote Meister
Eckhart. "In truth, if someone gave up a kingdom or the whole world and
did not give up self, he would have given up nothing."
    To keep up our courage while we meditate, we can always keep a
story or two near at hand! - to fall back on during the countless split-
seconds when we are not meditating....But in time we can wean ourselves
off them. What will be our story then? Our story is like clothing, it is a
coat.... What will happen to our coat? In such a moment of new freedom, a
turning-point in his life and in his poetry, W.B. Yeats wrote:

                       ...let them take it,
                        For there's more enterprise
                        In walking naked.

Donagh O'Shea OP

Imagine a poet awake all night, watching and waiting for the right words to
come. Hour after hour he or she sits or paces up and down, now in high
spirits, now in low, gloating at times or moaning, now very quiet and then
agitated, biting the end of a pencil or filling the waste-paper basket with
crumpled paper.... Slowly (or suddenly) the words are there, shining in the
mind and on the page. How was it done? Is success the result of effort?
Could I do it if I put in the work? If I spent a night imitating that poet -
pacing up and down, sighing so many times a minute, biting a certain
number of pencils and filling a basket, etc. - would I also produce a poem
in the small hours? No. Work will not do it. But neither will leisure. At
another time those or better words might have come without effort or pain,
yet if the poet were to rely on such moments of grace and refuse to work
and suffer, those moments would probably never come. Sweat and tears
are necessary, yet poetry is the result of inspiration, not of sweat and
    In the place of poets put saints. Now what happens? All the religious
people of the world begin to imitate them: the things they did and said, the
feelings they are supposed to have had, sometimes even the way they
dressed. But, you say, didn't St Paul write, "I urge you...be imitators of
me" (1 Cor 4:16)? Yes, and you could add 1 Cor 11:1; Phil 3:17 and 1
Thess 1:6, where he said something similar. But he also wrote in Eph 5: 1,
"Be imitators of God." This is nearer to what Matthew reports of Jesus
(5:48) who said, "You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
How are we to think about imitation in the spiritual life? I once heard an
honest man say that all imitation is external and monkey-like. Is that the
only honest view? Let's call a witness: Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century
German mystic.
    He wrote, "People may become anxious and distressed because the
lives of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the saints were so harsh and
laborious, and one may not be able to imitate them in this.... Take heed of
how you ought to follow God. You ought to know and to take heed of what
it is that God is requiring most of you; for not everyone is called to come
along the same way to God, as St Paul says. [Probably a reference to 1
Cor 12] It is not possible for everyone to live alike, for all to follow one
single way of life, or for one person to adopt what another or everyone
else is doing.... One ought indeed to imitate our Lord, but still not in
everything he did. We are told he fasted forty days. But no one ought to
undertake to imitate this. Many of his works Christ performed with the
intention that we should imitate him spiritually, not physically. And so we
ought to do our best to be able to imitate him with our reason, for he
values our love more than our works. Each of us ought to imitate him in
our own way."
    This sounds like sensible advice. We are not to imitate anyone
slavishly, not even Christ; we are to imitate "spiritually" and "with our
reason." If we imitate slavishly we are slaves. Our Father's house is not a
place of slavery, nor is it a place of neglect; it is a house of love. We are
not imprisoned, nor are we cast on the seas without a compass. We have
freedom to be who God made us to be, yet we are never abandoned.
Eckhart catches the balance of it perfectly in the arresting phrase, "Each
of us ought to imitate him in our own way." It seems a contradiction: if it is
imitation it is not our own way, and if it is our own way it is not imitation.
But by instinct you know exactly what he means; and if you don't, the best
one to tell you is a successful father or mother.
   A poet's imagination finds body in words; a Christian is inspired by the
Holy Spirit to give body to the Word of God. The cases have something in
common. We know the labour and the suffering that fidelity to that Word
requires; and still it is entirely a grace. External imitation may show desire
and good will (and these are essential of course), or it may show
insecurity and fear. But real inspiration is "spiritual" and "with our reason."
There have always been people who tried to impose faith on us as an
external conformity, playing on our fears and insecurities. But just as love
drives out fear, fear drives out love. There are probably many poets who
have remained anonymous even to themselves because they feared they
could never write anything of value; they never had the courage of their
gift. It is the same with faith: it takes courage - also called 'fortitude', and it
is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Donagh O'Shea

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