The Prayer That Changed Everything for Me

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That was in 1994, at a time of deep crisis.

Aged fourteen then my youngest son had just told me:

I don’t believe in all this Jesus stuff – and most of my class don’t either!”

As a vice principal and teacher of history and current affairs in that same school this hit me especially hard. I felt deeply that my son was making a huge mistake but could not even begin to explain why.

Our Irish Catholic church culture had mistakenly taught us lay people to leave all deep thinking about faith to clergy and teachers of religion – and that was not my school department. Effectively, I had not considered myself responsible for ‘passing on the faith’ to my own children. My older children had also already opted out of church-going so I realised at that moment that I was incapable of resisting this tide.

Simultaneously then I was suffering a crisis of confidence in the entire secular programme – the western project to use ‘reason’ alone to build a perfect world. In 1994 the early signs of Russia’s turn to extreme nationalism, and away from democracy, were beginning to show – and the likelihood of global environmental collapse from industrialisation was looming. What explained the failure to achieve true equality and social justice in the West – especially in the USA – and the growing indifference to the plight of children in the ‘undeveloped’ world?

Mere rationalism was certainly failing me, so I felt truly overwhelmed in the days that followed my youngest son’s revelation. So, at some point one evening I switched off my BBC ‘B’ PC and went to my room – and closed the door. Sitting on my bed I said:

“This is it for me, Father. I don’t understand the connection between the Gospel world and the history and current affairs I am teaching. Please help me to see!”

There was no voice from heaven in that moment, but in the days and weeks that followed I slowly became aware of the universe of honour and shame in which we humans have always lived – the dimension of fear of scorn that impels all of us to seek affirmation and respect from others – the need of the ego. Always bothered by this need we suffer from Status Anxiety – but not until 2004 did I describe it this way.

People climb!’ That was how I first summarised the pattern I was seeing – and this tendency had me too in its grip. Was I too not on a ladder of hopeful ascent within my own profession? Was that not the cause of the friction that always occurred in our school staff room whenever some post of promotion was on offer? Was that same thing – the need to be first – not at the root of decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, my own dear place?

People wanting to be first even in the church – but there was someone in history who had done the opposite – the outstanding exception who highlighted and pinpointed exactly what is wrong with the world, always. It was He who most clearly explained the pyramids of power and injustice – the pyramids of esteem – that arise in all eras of history, including our own. The emerging icons of commercial power in my own time – the Titans of the digital economy – were merely the successors of the Caesars of the ancient world and the imperial adventurers and rulers who had led the West to global dominance after 1450.

It was this climbing – this need to be first – that lay at the root of all inequality and injustice – and now it was threatening even the climate that gave us the very air we breathe. This was what I now saw.

And Jesus of Nazareth was not just a figure from history, he was the only salvation for us all in our own time. Moreover, through the Holy Spirit, he was offering me guidance too – in everything I thought and wrote. My life was now on a different course – because I had said, at a moment of crisis, the prayer that described my own anguish.

But God will not forgive me if I do not speak the most important lesson of this experience. The Trinity can teach and lead every living person on the planet in the same way – especially at this time of world crisis. They are at everyone’s elbow – now and always – just waiting to be asked.

About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

2 thoughts on “The Prayer That Changed Everything for Me

    1. Yes – I am sure of it, Deirdre. ‘Gratuitous’ is the word that comes to me – an undeserved gift of insight that gave me, for the very first time, a sure place to stand and to write from. Heaven knows I had been wayward intellectually – from my student days running through the points of view of characters like Voltaire and Marx and Sartre and Orwell – that liberal and left wing pov on the Church as incorrigibly reactionary. The tragic failures of Revolutions since 1789 had always staggered me, however, so e.g. Edmund Burke was worth hard thought also – and such a stylist in prose. And there was always that nagging echo from the Gospel – the question ‘which of us is the greatest’ that the twelve wanted Jesus to settle. It echoes down the centuries, and has to be connected with ‘original sin’.

      Without that 1994 gift of insight I would not have been ready to read Richard Rohr and the Girard literature – and come to where I now stand. Yes, as you say, it was an unmerited grace that rescued me from my ‘swithering’. God is more than just ‘good’.

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