Category Archives: Crisis

The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

Views: 125

The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

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The Story of the West: I – The Idea of Progress

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006

We all live today in a climate of crisis. For us Catholics there is a particular crisis in our own church in Ireland, in Europe and North America (‘the West’) – raising deep questions about its future in this part of the world.

And our internal Irish and western Catholic crisis is being exploited by those who believe that all religion is a barrier to progress. Only irreligious secularism, they believe – a total focus on the here-and-now and a rejection of any idea of God – has any future.

But secularism now has its own deep crisis. The original secularists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century never foresaw problems like global warming or global terrorism or mass addiction or the use of automatic weapons by teenagers in schools.

Thoughtful secularists are aware of this crisis of secularism. Perceiving a decline in community values throughout the west they now ask where such values come from, and how they are to be communicated to younger generations. Paradoxically, they often find that Church schools seem to be most effective in this regard. This leads some to look for dialogue and a fruitful relationship with the churches.

This series of articles will argue that a fruitful dialogue can indeed take place between Christianity and secularism. There are key attitudes we share – and one of these is a belief (despite the present crisis) in the possibility of human progress. Because we often understand the term very differently we need urgently to discuss what we mean by ‘progress’ – but to do this fruitfully we need to understand where that idea comes from in the first place.

The story of the West – the societies fringing the North Atlantic – is a story of unprecedented progress – an economic, scientific and technical progress that has precipitated the great global environmental and human crisis of our own time. If we are to deal together with that crisis we need to reach a common understanding of where that idea of progress comes from, and what it must mean for all of us today.

Progress and the Ancient World

We all tend to simplify the past – to bend it into a simple narrative or story that we can carry about in our heads as easily as possible.

Jesus Christ and Christianity are central to that story for us Catholics. Our map of the past will often tend to emphasise the violence and brutality of the ancient world, the goodness of Christ, and the relative peacefulness of Christian Europe before the extraordinary violence of modern times. We will tend to locate the origins of our present world crisis in the decline of Christian faith in recent centuries. Our hope for the future will be very much bound up with our hope for a revival of that faith.

The secularist map of the past will be very different. It will tend to emphasise the importance of reason and science in history. It will tend to credit the ancient Greeks with laying the foundation for a victory of reason and science over faith. It will blame Christianity for the Inquisition and other intolerances of the Middle Ages, and even for the aggressiveness of the Bush administration in Iraq. It will credit the secular ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century with restoring the importance of reason and with advancing the scientific and technological revolutions of our own time. It will place all of its hope for the future in reason and science also.

When John Paul II clashed in his last years with those drawing up a constitution for European Union, he held in his head the Christian map of the history of the West. Those who refused to include any mention of God or Christianity in that constitution had in their heads this second secularist map. These two clashing views of the past couldn’t agree.

But there is nevertheless a core shared idea in both maps, both ‘stories’ of the past – the idea of progress itself. Westerners all tend to believe, or want to believe, that history is going somewhere, not simply repeating itself endlessly.

What Christians need to be aware of is that the more positive aspects of the story of the west do indeed have to do with a victory of reason (however incomplete).

What secularists need to be aware of is that the idea of progress itself did not come from the ancient Greeks, or from any ancient civilisation, but from the people of Jesus – the Jews – and from Jesus himself.

Not even the most advanced of the ancient Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed in progress. They held that even though there might be temporary improvement in the technology or prosperity of a society over short periods, everything happened in cycles. Decay would inevitably follow any temporary improvement, and nothing dramatically new or different could ever happen. History was essentially cyclical, not progressive. No ancient Greek predicted the modern world or the scientific and technical revolutions that produced it.

The intelligentsia of Ancient China were more secular than religious, but believed essentially the same thing – that the wisdom of the ancients would never be improved upon. So China never developed a belief in progress, or in a progressive science, until awoken by the West in modern times.

Abraham had an entirely different vision of the future – of his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and of God being with this people throughout their history. Moses and Jesus shared that vision – and it permeates the whole of the Bible.

The idea that history is essentially linear – moving towards a destination – and not cyclical (endlessly repeating itself) – comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. So does the essentially hopeful element in that worldview – that there can be a ‘New Creation‘. St Paul centred his belief in a ‘New Creation’ upon the redeeming life of Christ.

Christians need to know this because all beliefs we share with secularists are a starting-point for discussion. Our idea of progress must always, of course, be centred on the primacy of our relationship with Christ. We must continue to question a notion of progress that is entirely material and external – focused upon technology and science.

And we should notice something else: many entirely secular people today are now focused upon something that isn’t completely material either: self-improvement. As the crisis of secularism grows, self-improvement literature has almost taken over from Christian literature in our secular bookstores. Books such as The Power of Positive ThinkingThe Road Less Travelled and The Power of Now are often avidly read by the most secularised modern people. The best of this literature can be a pathway away from materialism and into a worldview that Christians can agree with – especially the realisation that wisdom is more important than knowledge.

True, St Augustine would probably say that much of today’s secular self-improvement literature is ‘Pelagian’ – that is, that it exaggerates our power to improve ourselves without God’s grace, which we cannot control or acquire simply by willing it. Christians will never forget their need for relationship with God, from whom all grace flows. We can also take the opportunity to point out that the problem of addiction in modern culture tends to support this point of view.

Addiction is now as pervasive a part of our modern crisis as technology. And the most universally attested method of self-help for every kind of addiction is the ‘Twelve Step’ process. And the first of the twelve steps, the step that every addict is advised to repeat every day – is an acknowledgement of his own inability to control his addiction. The second flows from it: the decision to commit himself to the care and support of a ‘higher power’.

The most strident secularists – apparently committed to driving Christian faith back into the catacombs – seem not to have noticed this. The Twelve Step process, originated by two US Baptists in the 1930s, is the most powerful evidence in the western world today of our deep-seated need to be in relationship with a power outside ourselves – a power that wishes us well, that seeks to enlighten us, and that does not desert us even when we flee from it.

For, co-operating with that power, there is indeed such a thing as progress, and technological progress is part of it. But personal progress must always take priority, and personal progress can only take place in relationship.

And the amassing of material wealth – the origin of today’s environmental and human crisis – is merely another form of addiction. Many honest secularists are recognising this as well.

So, the key to the future lies indeed in clinging to a belief in progress, despite all current difficulties. And the concerns of Christians are now beginning to converge with the concerns of thoughtful secularists – especially the concern to pass on a viable shared sense of values to rising generations.

Progress is therefore indeed a Christian idea – but Christians must not be triumphalist about this, or about anything else. The irony is that in unconsciously adopting Christian ideas, secular culture has often employed them more effectively than the churches themselves. This series of articles will examine this cross-fertilisation of ideas, and outline a possible future based upon the translation of the Christian ideas of redemption and salvation into terminology that secularists will be able to make sense of, without distorting their meaning.

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Reprieve!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2003

My two-month course of chemotherapy intended to stop the spread of cancer in the lymph system ended in mid August 2003. Another CT Scan followed in early September. It found that the cancerous nodes in the lymph had indeed been reduced, and that an operation to remove a cancerous bladder could go ahead.

This was the first indication that I could indeed be cured of cancer, that I was no longer in the ‘departure lounge’, and that I could hope for a resumption of normal life. Naturally I was relieved – but the experience of the nearness of death had changed me. I found that I wanted above all to remember that experience in all of its detail, not to escape from it.

The reason was that as a writer I had discovered the validity of what my church had always taught: the reality of a mysterious presence just beyond the range of our normal perception, available to us in time of greatest peril, especially when we come to evaluate our own lives. Trusting to that reality I had given myself to it completely, and then experienced also its power to heal our bodily ills as well as our closest relationships. I wanted above all to maintain contact with that reality.

The operation that followed involved major surgery. In a four-hour procedure, the cancerous bladder was removed. Then a 40 cm section of the smaller intestine was excised and formed into a new reservoir, connected to the kidneys and urethra. This has become the standard procedure to deal with bladder failure in the US and continental Europe, but it is comparatively new in Ireland.

I awoke to find myself seriously weakened and surrounded by infusion drips, with several tubes draining the new reservoir to allow it to seal itself before becoming fully employed. I felt as though I had suddenly become many times heavier, as it took an immense effort to accomplish even the slightest movement of an arm or a leg.

This was my time of greatest dependence, as I could not move, wash or even drink without help. When the human bowel is handled by a surgeon, it shuts down completely, refusing even to receive the contents of the stomach. In my case this meant that the saline infusion gathered in my stomach, creating an intense pressure. There was only one way of relieving this – by passing a tube through my nose into my oesophagus, and from there into my stomach. My very worst hours now followed, as I had to try to sleep with this tube in place, attached to my nose and impeding even my ability to swallow.

It would be great to be able to report that even in this crisis my faith and serenity were unaffected – but the truth was otherwise. I suffered, and there was no way round this. I could, and did, pray – but I was overwhelmed by the bodily pain and discomfort that enveloped me, and I experienced, at times, a profound despair.

I am now convinced that anaesthesia does not allow the human body to escape the effects of the deep trauma involved in the excision of a major organ. I felt as a child feels in the aftermath of a heavy blow: traumatised and expecting further similar blows – and unable to dwell on anything else.

Pain of this kind has a deep spiritual impact – persuading us that somehow we have merited the blow that has fallen, and leading to a profound loss of confidence in ourselves. Even now I am battling against this tendency.

In the middle of all this I was told that an exhaustive biopsy undertaken during the operation had confirmed that the lymph system was now entirely clear of cancer. I was indeed now ‘cured’, and had everything to look forward to. Only gradually did this sink in, as my strength came back, and with it my independence.

Almost four weeks after the operation I am home now, recuperating. My new bladder is fully operational, only slightly less efficient than my old one at its best. I don’t receive the same signals, of course – and need to remain aware of time passing, and of the need to relieve the new reservoir before it relieves itself!

One thing above all I have learned from all of this – how dependent we are upon the normal functioning of our own bodies – something we take entirely for granted – as well as the fragility of that body. An amazingly complex organic machine, it is the medium through which we experience and learn to function within our physical environment. When it becomes dysfunctional – as it always does eventually – we are faced with total separation from that environment, and with the question of what happens next. There is no evading this question.

I am above all profoundly grateful that my church has given me a framework within which I can face that reality, connecting my bodily environment with one that transcends it – one that will receive my essence with love when the moment of final separation comes. In that truth I will try to live out the rest of my earthly life, knowing that in the end God will find it sufficient that I commend my spirit to him, in love and trust.

In the meantime I must never forget what happened when, believing myself close to death, I trusted to what I had been taught – to the real presence of the Lord, especially in the valley of the shadow of death. If I can pass on that assurance to just one other person in the same awful circumstances I will perhaps feel that I have earned my reprieve.

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‘Ubi caritas …’

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2003

In 1975, at the age of five, my only daughter, Cliona, told me to stop smoking:  she had just heard on TV that every cigarette shortened my life by a few minutes.

I stopped straight away, touched by the directness of the child’s heart and mind. Certainly that decision gave me good physical health for most of the ensuing period.

Cliona was named after an Irish goddess of the waves. Drawn to the Gospel story early on, she found herself as an adolescent repelled from a church that seemed to her sin-obsessed and authoritarian. Leaving for London in her early twenties she fitted perfectly into the New Age mould of that time – environmentally aware and drawn to oriental mysticism. The Catholic worldview of her childhood simply slipped away and she became a free spirit, travelling widely and becoming a writer.

Now in June 2003 when Cliona heard of my cancer she had the same child’s directness: she travelled to Coleraine with her partner, Ajay, a disciple of the mystic Osho. She also proposed that she and Ajay give me a Buddhist therapy called Tibetan pulsing – directed at the seat of the cancer in my bladder.

I had initial misgivings – to do with the fact that I had handed my condition over to the Great Physician, the Lord Jesus Christ. But then I remembered again the Taizé hymn I had heard in hospital: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Wherever there is caring and love, God is also.) Had I not accepted the ministry of everyone in the hospital, irrespective of their faith, so why not that of my own daughter?

So I received three sessions of Tibetan pulsing – involving relaxation to rhythmic music, gentle massage, and meditation upon the role of the body part being affected. I learnt that the bladder was a delicate reservoir for the waters that I needed to preserve life – not a mere receptacle for waste. This eastern spiritual perception of the human body is so different from the western one, in which we have too readily learned to think of the body as a machine, with the doctor in the role of mechanic. It blended easily with my Christian perception of the body as sacrament of love.

At the beginning Ajay invited me to call into the therapy whatever spiritual presence I wished – so, of course, I called upon Jesus to heal whatever was awry. Ajay said that he detected that this was a particularly powerful prayer.

At the end of the last session Ajay asked if anything unusual had happened. I said, truthfully, yes – as I had seen an image of the cross, and superimposed upon it, an image of a fern leaf uncoiling as it does in spring. I had taken this to mean that the cross was the tree of life, and that my healing process had begun.

Now that my chemotherapy regime has just ended, with another CT scan scheduled for next week, I feel certain that there has been a great healing over those three months.

But, far more precious to me has been the healing of my relationship with my daughter. I believe I had resented her throwing away apparently everything she had received from her home and school, in which both of her parents had taught. Now I found her very sharp and intuitive about the pressures in my own life that had led to my illness. Especially the habit of being glued to the electronic media to collect data on the deteriorating world around me. She was also an invaluable guide to the organic diet I now moved on to, with great benefit.

She was also a mature and wise person, capable of communicating the necessity of spirituality to her own generation.

Best of all, I can see so much of myself in her – intellectual independence, a desire to communicate insights, a preference for wisdom before knowledge.

From this latest experience I have learned also not to be afraid to let my God mix freely with those of other faiths, confident of his ability to make his presence known in imagery that will communicate across all barriers.

Now Ajay will never again associate the cross merely with suffering, and will be open to contact with other Christian influences in his own country. The gentle pacifism of Buddhism, and the robust pacifism of Jesus, cannot be antithetical to one another. The truth is that Christian violence – too often sanctioned by Popes – has always been a betrayal of the Gospels, and it is time to recall the Church to the full pacific intent of the Gospels. The Dalai Lama and Ghandi call us in the same direction – and it is time we followed.

So, using the formula Ubi Caritas, no Catholic need be afraid of being unable to discern how to behave in the context of the many different faiths we encounter today. And we should not be afraid to let our children experience these faiths and cultures, and to ask their own questions. The truth need fear nothing from the truth. All of us are pilgrims whose paths cross for a purpose – to enrich everyone with the gifts of wisdom that are then exchanged.

Already the departure lounge had given me insight into the wondrous transaction that takes place between carers and patients. Now it had healed a relationship of great importance to me. In both cases, I had been learning something new – something I could write about – giving myself an added impetus to survive.

Next Monday I receive another CT scan, and a fortnight later the consultant will report the findings to me. Already I am confident that the cancer has receded generally, as I have practically no bladder discomfort, and the bladder has recovered its full capacity. Will I still need an operation to remove the bladder then?

I must wait and see – praying as I do so – for prayer has already proven to me its power to heal.

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“You have possibly incurable cancer.”

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality, 2003

“You have an aggressive cancer of the bladder – best cured by removal of the bladder. But the cancer appears to have spread to the lymph system, making this probably inadvisable. You first need chemotherapy, which has a fifty percent chance of enabling the operation.”

This was the essence of the news I heard from a consultant in one of Belfast’s major hospitals in mid June of 2003. Knowing that bladder cancer can kill if unchecked, I realised my near future was all I had left for certain.

Now, in early August 2003 I am two-thirds of the way through the chemotherapy course. Until this point, with my earth-survival horizon still uncertain and my family still fretting, I haven’t been sure that I could ever find the strength and the inclination to write about this – or anything else for that matter.

I have written before, from a safer distance, about the prospect of dying. For about nine years now I have been a committed Christian and Catholic, familiar with St Paul’s assurance that if we go into the tomb with Christ we rise again.

But there are many degrees of distance from the tomb, and for most of those nine years my distance from it has been very comfortable. I had, especially, until February 2003, good physical health – and therefore no experience of the shattering impact of physical collapse and dependency.

It’s all very well to write and speak heroically about death from that distance, but now I found that when an essential natural function collapses, begins to cause intense pain, and threatens basic survival, all of this romantic long-distance heroism about death collapses also.

I simply wasn’t in any way prepared for the bitter prospect of imminent departure. Aged sixty, I am the eldest of three brothers, with both parents still living, aged ninety-one. They lost my older brother to cancer in 1962, so shouldn’t I be allowed to survive them – to look after them? Wouldn’t any reasonable God agree?

And what about that better book I had planned, and that course of study, and those articles on this and that – and that first trip to the US I had looked forward to, taking advantage of a friend’s invitation?

Most of all though, I was assailed by an intense sense of loss – of losing everything I loved. My wife, my children, my parents, my home, the daily routine, the Ireland I love. I might soon, now, lose everything – to go into total uncertainty, dispossession and powerlessness.

I had previously in my writings drawn a distinction between death and humiliation – but now all separation between the two was lost. Death, I discovered, is in itself the final humiliation – the extinction of everything we humans are surrounded by in life, everything that gives us a sense of our own identity and significance.

I felt also an intense sense of isolation – of having been shut into a cell on my own, which no-one else could really enter – because it was an ante-room to death itself, a departure lounge from which there might well be no return, from which every instinct tells us to fly.

My worst night ever was that night in the hospital – as I faced a painful biopsy and no certainty of living far beyond the end of 2003. My wife was 60 miles away in Coleraine – as I had blithely travelled to Belfast on my own. Doctors and nurses were kind and encouraging, but they could not be with me in my isolation either. When the lights in the ward dimmed about ten and my neighbours turned to sleep I felt a degree of abandonment and loneliness that totally overwhelmed me emotionally – in a way I had never before experienced.

Desperately I sought some solace. As fate, or providence, would have it, I had brought a portable CD player with me – and my wife Patricia had packed a two-disc compilation of Taizé music. Not expecting it to be much help I had no other recourse.

“Lord, hear my prayer!” was soon echoing in my head – and my prayer was for a sense of His presence with me, there in that strange place, with people I did not know. Soon enough came something even more appropriate:

“Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away!”

Somehow the faith of choir singing this became at that moment my faith too, and I began to echo the music and the words.

Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth, and a certainty that I was among friends – even, in some sense, at home. I also felt a sense of time slowing down – and an awareness of slight movements around me that indicated living souls – dependent like myself upon the nursing staff nearby.

Dependent! That was part of my problem – the fear of dependence, of being incapacitated and increasingly useless. But, watching those nurses, I had realised already that their role and sense of duty and fulfilment rested wholly upon the dependence of others. For them it was the expected duty – not something burdensome and tiresome.

There, then, I began to come out of the shell of isolation into which the shocking news had pushed me, and to take a new interest in everything going on around me. By the time the discs had finished, time itself seemed to have slowed down. I even fell asleep for an hour or so.

A few days later I was reminded even more strongly of this sacred relationship between patient and carer, when my chemotherapy regime began. Tethered to an electric pump infusing various obscurely named liquids over a forty-hour period, I was confined to the oncology ward. The pump was clipped to a wheeled stand, allowing me, in theory, to push it ahead of me.

At 2 a.m. I received an urgent bladder signal in the darkened ward. For the sake of my morale I needed to make it to the bathroom eighty yards away. But when I had swung my feet to the floor I found the pump wouldn’t move more than a few inches.

“Are you all right there, darlin’?” came a Belfast accent. A nurse was at my shoulder.

“It’ll work off the battery,” she continued – unplugging the pump from the wall. She looped the cable round the pump, and I set off successfully, dignity maintained.

She had answered my question, the question everyone seems to be asking these times: – “Where is this God of yours when you really need Him?”

The answer was in another one of those Taizé hymns:

“Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est! – Where there is caring and love, God is also!”

And it was there in the ward – among patients I could observe, many of them more ill than I was. I could observe them second-to-second, and I suddenly realised that my perception of time itself had changed.

Our attitude towards time seems to be strongly influenced by our perception of how much of it we have left. For children it seldom passes quickly enough, because it stretches away limitlessly. Although many of us now plan our lives a few years ahead, we somehow assume that the final frontier to this life is beyond every horizon for which we plan.

I could no longer do this. In fact I couldn’t plan anything now but my immediate response to the possibility of death within a year. “Depend upon it, Sir,” said the great Dr Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I had a lot more than a fortnight, but my mind was indeed concentrating hard. By now I was aware of different schools of thought on the subject of cancer itself, its causes and treatments and how to fight it. My daughter had presented me with three different books on the subject and many of her own ideas coincided with those of a friend who is also fighting cancer from an alternative medical standpoint involving a completely organic diet. Hadn’t he told me he had sailed through chemo as a consequence?

First, however, I made what has turned out to be my most crucial decision: to place myself completely under the protection of the one I now call the Great Physician – the healing Lord of the Gospels. The Taize music had given me a sense of the Lord as always present – and especially in the darkest valley of Psalm 23. Above all I did not want to lose my awareness of that presence, whatever happened. I determined that from now on I would simply check out if I felt myself losing this awareness.

By ‘check out’ I mean simply disengage from the moment, close my eyes, and place myself again in the presence of the Lord. By now I had a prayer that allowed me to do this – one familiar to every Catholic:

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls to heaven, especially those in need of thy mercy.”

It’s the first three words, not the mention of hell, that are crucial for me. They immediately state and invite a relationship. The rest of the prayer states a lack of presumption that anyone else is less loved or precious than I am. We don’t know what Hell is – unless it is endless futility and loneliness – but we surely wish to get wherever heaven is. And if we are truly into the spirit of the Gospels we know also that Jesus wishes to save every last one of us.

Something else had helped me immeasurably through that crisis – the messages of support that came from all who knew me – old teaching colleagues, Cursillo friends, Internet contacts abroad. I might now be in the departure lounge, but I was not forgotten – and the most powerful force for healing was active in my regard: prayer.

By day twelve of my hospital stay I was buoyantly looking forward to going home – and I had with me a journal detailing the state of my mind, soul and body from the start of the crisis. I continued to keep it at home – for I had much more to learn from that seat in the departure lounge called cancer. Editor permitting I will cover that in a second article under this heading.

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