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Paths to enlightenment: one man’s story of a mid-life crisis

30 November, 1999

Seán O’Conaill looks back at a personal crisis of faith and how it led him to perceive that the Church only makes sense when understood as an extension of Christ’s self-effacing and self-giving.

The rapid growth of the spirituality market reflects two important truths: first, that ‘materiality’ is no longer enough for many people; second, that we tend to set out to ‘acquire’ spirituality in much the same way that we set out to learn a new language or develop a new skill, such as woodcarving. We look for highly rated books on the subject, or prestigious courses – ideally those given by the more highly rated authors. On my favourite internet mailing lists American acquaintances occasionally ask me to recommend courses in Celtic spirituality – which, of course, I cannot without sampling them, and this I am extremely reluctant to do.

No detours
The reason is that I am entirely convinced that no detours, and especially none that cost money, are of much avail in this matter. By detours I mean indirect approaches to the Trinity. Although I am never done complaining about the mitred pretensions and inertia of my church’s superstructure I must admit that one of the first things I learnt from those mitred heads was that one didn’t need to queue to see the middle managers. One could go straight to the summit of the structure, to the Trinity – communicating in a manner even more advanced than the mobile phone or the Star Trek chest bleeper. One could simply pray.

But of course prayer is these days not at all a simple matter, for we are mostly very short of faith. And we are short of faith, often, because people or institutions in which we once had faith have let us down. But, paradoxically this is actually the beginning of wisdom – the desperate realization that we have no-one to whom to turn – for only when there is no one physical to whom to turn may we be desperate enough to give this prayer thing, this talking to the void, a real spin.

So did I in complete desperation in 1994, aged fifty. It was the commonplace mid-life crisis, I suppose, but for me it was the darkest valley of Psalm 23. As vice-principal and head of history in a Catholic school I was approaching burnout, increasingly preoccupied with petty administrative and disciplinary problems when I wanted time for renewal. Family problems were escalating also, and with them a sense of being unable to give direction to my children or due care to my ageing parents.

Empathy with suffering peoples
Another element was my teaching role. As head of history I was responsible for the development of historical empathy in 800 pupils – their ability to stand in the shoes of Roman slaves, Irish refugees, Holocaust victims, dispossessed Palestinians. To do this convincingly the teacher needs to stand in those shoes also and this inevitably takes a toll. I had developed in the 1980s a computer program that allowed me to file for rapid retrieval news items from different sources accessible by computer – specifically on the problems of the environment, and of children around the globe – and the overwhelming message was a deteriorating situation, with even greater suffering round the corner.

Then one day my youngest son aged fourteen announced that he no longer believed in what his RE classes were telling him. The Jesus story was a feel-good movie, he said, too good to be true. I had always told my children to be truthful, but this was a truth too far. It reminded me that I had never really resolved my own ambivalence towards faith and Church.

That ambivalence can be described as gratitude for the people within the Church who had helped my own development and whose lives expressed a spirit of unconditional service – together with deep abhorrence of the Church’s authoritarian and secretive pyramidal superstructure. As a student in the sixties I had tried unsuccessfully to resolve this ambivalence by resolving intellectually the problem of faith and freedom. That is to say, the problem of how to be both true to oneself and a freely committed follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Instinctively I rebelled against the Church’s historical heaviness, its tendency to override individual freedoms for the good of the whole.

Praying aloud
So now I went to a private place, and in no great confidence that I wasn’t making a fool of myself, said something like this aloud: ‘Oh God, thank you for the life you have given me (here I remembered especially times when I had felt happiest, as a boy fishing Lough Corrib), but take it from me now for I can make nothing of it and look after those I love, for I cannot, and this I cannot bear.’

As usual there was no supernatural response but the thought did occur to take counselling. As it happened there were in Coleraine at that time a small group of Jesuits taking their Tertian year, and one of them agreed to see me straight away. To this stranger I unloaded everything on my mind in the space of about an hour.

Nothing was resolved there and then, but this man’s serenity got to me. Nothing in my story was unique, especially the problem of faith in a rapidly secularising culture. Throughout the West young people are parting company with the Christian certainties of their childhood, so why should things be any different in my own household? And so on. We prayed together, and I left, much lighter.

That night as I looked at the nightscape I asked myself another question. Why was it that when I had needed compassion and good counsel I had been able to get these almost instantly from this man, and totally free of charge? Immediately the question answered itself: because 2000 years ago another man had given his life, completely free of any charge. For the first time I felt directly gifted by that life and death and fell completely apart emotionally. For many months afterwards I returned to that moment, with the same result. I was learning to live in the gospels, to walk towards Jerusalem.

Meeting Christ on the cross
But at another level – the intellectual – something else was happening: a growing conviction that it was in the gift of that life that the only divine compulsion to believe resides. Had I not come closer to Christ through his crucifixion than through half a century of the Church’s heavy leverage? To put it another way, I became convinced that Jesus had accepted crucifixion because the alternative was coercion – the uniting of the sword of state power, offered by Peter in Gethsemane, with the word of truth.

Moreover, since the moment of meeting was with myself as an individual, God cared profoundly about all individuals. This was implicit also in the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son.

Another conclusion followed inexorably: the Church’s use, or acceptance of the use of coercion as a means of building the kingdom of God, over fifteen centuries had been a profound mistake. It had been counter-evangelical, and was the root cause of the ambivalence with which the modern mind considers not just the Church but the Trinity also. The Church’s love had been imperfect, because it had not understood that a love that denies freedom denies all of us something sacred to God. In this respect – the perception of the importance of human freedom – liberal secularism is closer to God than the Catholic Church. 

The Cursillo community
All of these conclusions were reinforced when I made contact, at my wife’s urging, with the Cursillo community in Derry in 1997. On the initial Cursillo (‘short course’) I heard laymen with very varied experience telling in essence the same story as my own. Their crises had to do with, say, addiction or family violence, sectarian conflict or involvement in political violence but always it was the same dark valley in which no alternative offered but the turning to the God of one’s childhood. And always in that valley they had been found, in an astonishing variety of ways, by a presence that had been waiting there for them – the Lord of the Psalms who is also the crucified Jesus.

Something else Cursillo taught me: the nature of my greatest sin. This had been the belief, over many years, that we humans vary in our ability to grasp the more important truths. Mostly the Cursillo folk are not third-level educated but this makes absolutely no difference to their capacity for wisdom. In the most important dimension of spiritual intelligence one characteristic alone determines the wisdom of the individual – the degree to which s/he is guided by hubris or humility.

Academic success, in justifying the former, and in reducing economic vulnerability, can be a barrier to spiritual progress. Those who have faced greatest suffering often arrive in middle age at a spiritual wisdom that may be denied the high-flyer until much later, if indeed the latter arrives there at all in this life.

Scattering the proud
All of these ideas coalesced in Scattering the Proud. (1)  It argues that the life of Jesus was a deliberate ‘downward journey’, a reversal of the normal ‘upward’ heroic journey of the ancient world, whose modern equivalent is the ascent to the Learjet set, epitomised, say, in the story of Bill Gates of Microsoft.

It follows from this that all vertical social systems, which grant dignity to us on an ascending scale, should be seen as ‘pyramids of  esteem’ which are fundamentally mistaken. In concentrating honour/respect/dignity at their summit they ‘tempt’ us to an upward journey which runs counter to that of Jesus. In denying dignity to those at their base they deny what the Trinity offer freely – the assurance that we are all equally loved.

Moreover this paradigm offers us a way of interpreting our present times that is profoundly hopeful. For example the ‘materialism’ that the Church decries is in fact part of the spiritual upward journey – the misconception that it is the possessions of the famous that make them worthy. The sheer foolishness that this has led many people into Ireland – a willingness to sell even their integrity for cash – is now plain for all to see. The inevitable corollary – that unselfishness is the only safe route to self-esteem – follows inexorably. In the pursuit of this insight lies the solution to the overconsumption that blights the world and threatens the global environment.

Thus, far from being ‘junked’ by the flattening of the social pyramid that is so characteristic of modernity, the Trinity can be seen as aiders and abettors of this process. The ‘scattering of the proud’ that is the most important consequence of media invasiveness is following the same programme – in the Church as in the secular world. And the Internet, which gives the teenager the same publishing power as the papacy, is a logical corollary. All pyramids of esteem are in the process of coming down. Insofar as they resist this process their fall will be the more traumatic. God’s view of us is egalitarian: institutions that deny this are, to that extent at least, ungodly – and must give way.

Upsetting the pyramid
This is profoundly true in the spiritual realm. The spiritual distance that we are taught to see between pope and layperson is a distance placed there not by God, but by Roman and medieval man. An ecclesia that proclaims that all wisdom resides at the summit, and must be channelled vertically downward, and then absorbed word-for-word at the base, is counter-spiritual because it inevitably teaches us that to be verbally wise we must be also pope. It is also unbiblical, for the prophets from Joshua to Jesus were humble men to whom Abba directly gave wisdom and coherence.

If pyramids of esteem are counter-spiritual, what of the spirituality market that wishes to involve all searchers in a climb to spiritual self-esteem through purchase of its expanding variety of wares, and mastery of its many wisdoms (some of them decidedly opaque)? There is ample room here for self-deception, confusion and self-distancing from the descending God. That this is not widely understood here in Ireland is a measure of the failure of the Church that set out to make itself a pyramid of spiritual esteem, and now falls inevitable victim to the scattering process that is the Trinity’s true programme.


(1) Scattering the Proud, Sean O’Connell, published by Columba Press


This article first appeared in Spirituality (January/February 2001), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.


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