Nicht der Fluß fließt,
sondern das Wasser,
nicht die Zeit vergeht,
(it’s not the River that flows, but the Water, it’s not Time that goes by, but us.)
During my fortnightly stays in Oviedo, in between chemotherapy sessions, I am sleeping in a room that is furnished floor to ceiling on every wall with books. There are books about physics and biology, history and art, religion and philosophy, mythology and civilizations, biographies and novels, classical and neo-classical, Spain and Asturias, the natural world and cooking, dictionaries and maps, to classify in some way.
But above all else, the subject which most occupies these shelves is mathematics. There are books here on the inside and outside, upside-down side and right side up side of all areas of mathematics. I, as a middle school teacher of maths in Madrid by chance, would neither have the imagination nor the inclination to open even one of those books as I fear I’d get lost in trying to understand just the introduction.
Collectively they make up the great depth of knowledge that my brother-in-law José has of the very broad subject of mathematics. They demonstrate, at least to me, a great passion that José has for the subject he imparts year-in, year-out at the University of Oviedo. It forms perhaps a complex and intricate scaffolding of understanding of the world, the kind of perspective I don’t think I’ll ever have in this lifetime.
I wonder about the simple beauty of numbers and the complexity with which they can be manipulated into patterns and series and curves and lines, (and I’ll stop right here with my descriptions of mathematics, lest I destroy it with flowery falsities) and ponder if their discovery, collectively called mathematics, could be a demonstration of the existence of a God, who is marvelous.
As a maths teacher, I am well aware that it is not a subject for everyone. Many students are not touched by the energy of mathematics. But lying here now surrounded by hundreds of titles and not just mathematical ones, I am aware of a spirit of great minds, of advancing minds, which over time must cause shifts in perspective a kind of societal evolution.
I call this spirit The Holy Spirit. (The admission of this here in a public place has caused me some anguish over the last few days and it has taken a few discussions and arguments and a lot of reading to come to terms with it). I thought by naming, what I believe is the spirit or breath or energy of God, the Christian way, I was isolating myself from over half the world but when I scratched the surface of some of the major world religions, I realized in fact I’m not.
The recognition of some other force that transcends the mere human energy is a phenomenon, named distinctly in all religions. For example, Buddhism calls it mindfulness, (https://mettarefuge.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/thich-nhat-hanh-on-buddhism-mindfulness-and-the-holy-spirit/), Hinduism calls it Shakti, though inherently different from the historical meaning of the Christian Holy Spirit apparently (http://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/hinduism/articles/holy-spirit-is-not-the-same-as-shakti-or-kundalini.aspx) and Islam calls it in Arabic Ruh al Qudus, which translates into English as… the Holy Spirit, as quoted, not from The Bible but from The Quran,
“(The day) when God saith: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.”
I was washed up onto a predominantly Catholic (at least at the time of my birth) Irish shore. My parents, perhaps due to a strong conviction or perhaps because it was still the accepted norm, initiated my journey with Catholicism by accepting on my behalf the first blessed sacrament of Baptism shortly after I was born. Educated in a school under the auspice of The Mercy Order of nuns (and which then still actually had nuns teaching), I continued to receive the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation, in theory strengthening my faith and union with God, but in practice I was part of a rote system where no other choice was available.
I quickly undid my ties with the Church when I realized I had a mind of my own and decided that it was scientifically impossible for a virgin birth to occur and that it was all a pile of fictitious codswallop. It was like a sacrament of Coming of Age. And I got a thrilling pleasure then out of first skipping mass and later deciding outright not to attend any more.
I remember well the day Jesus Christ was presented to me again. By then a university student, I was sitting in a café in Galway with my good friend Elaine. We were chatting, about what I don’t recall, but suddenly she said that there was always Jesus. That literally stopped me in my tracks,
Tell me more and she told me more. I bought a Bible and I devoured it, underlined it. It all made sense to me then and I felt at peace. It was, at the time, my opium.
I gave it up again the instant I began to feel uncomfortable with public worship. Something didn’t quite sit right with me. So I left my relationship with Jesus lapse again and I placed the The Holy Bible on an upper shelf.
But like a loyal friend, He has always shown his face and pulled on my heart and soul strings both in good and in bad times, most often when accompanied by that profound sense of emptiness and the missing entity which pervades over my mood. It is then when I realise I am craving for something more, a spiritual depth of understanding and being.
For me, an important definition of who you are and what you stand for comes when you have a child and the life of important decisions opens up before you. The first, and perhaps now the most important one for me I realise, is the decision to baptize or not to baptize.
I did not want to baptize or christen my first child, Pablo. My instincts told me that baptizing my son into a major world religion was conditioning him for the rest of his life according to the norms of the Catholic shores (Spain and Ireland) he was washed up onto. Who was I to hand down to him a less and less (at least in Europe) accepted way of thinking and living. My instincts said, “Let him decide for himself when he’s older”. So Carlos and I did nothing except play and bath and feed and enjoy our first born for a year and a half.
And then we succumbed to whatever perceived pressures we felt at the time and opened up the gates of the Catholic Church to Pablo. He walked up in his white and baby blue linen suit to the Baptismal font in Malahide and had the whole church in stitches at his eyes and reactions of wonder and curiosity at the pageantry of the whole event. Of course we followed suit with the two girls. The decision to christen or not to christen had already been made.
I would say so far in our children’s religious education we have taken a lazy approach. We go to church on Sundays sometimes, we say a prayer before going to sleep, Pablo reluctantly receives a Catechism lesson on Tuesdays in preparation for his “Communion with the saints” and we read stories from the Bible when I remember to or it takes my fancy.
But there’s nothing constant about my children’s spiritual guidance. I put it down to not making it a priority when it comes to time management, not being a well educated Christian myself and therefore not being entirely convinced by the religious path itself. There are always niggling doubts about other world religions, a good God who allows so much suffering, the perception of judging others by your own standards, the past and present crimes of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and all in the name of religion.
And yet here I am again, lying down with the fatigue and nausea of the third chemotherapeutic session, no longer surrounded by all the books in my brother-in-law’s house but back in the now unfamiliar quietness of my own home (some important and instructive time has lapsed since I first started writing this post). My heart swells with a certain presence, a certain glow and I, perhaps because of my Christian birth shores, or perhaps by constantly popping up unexpectedly throughout my life in a friend’s voice, in an aunt’s book, in a sister-in-law’s words and a brother-in-law’s book recommendations, detect a persistent and loyal friend named Jesus Christ and it is He that fills that pervasive void in my life.
Once again, He has shown His face in my illness. By reading my daily devotions, referring to the Bible, discovering how other people in history have lived their spiritual experiences with God and comparing my findings with other world religions, I have come closer to the face of Jesus Christ.
I do not compare the suffering I have endured because of this breast cancer (and I quote from My Morning Prayer, ” In this world I know this pain Is nothing, But it’s mine), to that of Jesus Christ, who was pursued, arrested, tortured on the streets of Jerusalem and crucified to death. But somehow it has made we want to get to know this person more and listen to what He has said. And in that spiritual journey I read The Word and it resounds in truth.
Praying – that constant conversation with the presence of God in my heart- listening to my thoughts, which I know are sometimes just mine and very much “this worldly”, but on other occasions and especially during my illness are coming from beyond me, letting my impressions form, reading, discussing and writing are all helping me to deepen my faith, understand and carve out my spiritual walk through life.
Putting my findings into action is the challenging part and I make it my goal for the rest of my life.
My human experience has been greatly enhanced so far by a persistently continuous awakening and re-awakening to the life beyond the “porcelain”. I have found Jesus Christ, thanks to that seed that was planted by Noel and Mary forty years ago, and I have no doubt that practitioners of other religions and even atheist and agnostic people of this world, have found their own means to spiritual awakening.
In these times of massive upheaval and wars in the name of God, when there seems to be a definite trend towards the meeting of Eastern and Western philosophies, religions, medicines, cultures, civilizations, I do believe that I personally must face the challenge of understanding the Other – all that is different to me – so that one day, as society evolves, a common understanding of good and evil, spirit, God and the Son, the prophets and the saints, may be reached. That we may live in Love and Forgiveness, as laid out in The Word.
And now playing patience with myself for the umpteenth time to allay the cancer tedium, I see my grandmother Ellen’s arthritic hands laying out the cards. She was born on the eve of the First World War, gave birth to seven children during the Second World War, became a young widow and lived until she was ninety nine. She never heard of the Internet and didn’t have access to the global and collective knowledge we have at out fingertips now. All that she had (and by that ‘all’ I mean everything not only) was her own heart, her own spirit, the shores onto which she was born and the passed on wisdom of the times. Like my paternal grandmother, Mary, she had the rosary beads and the bells of the Angelas, chimed out every day over the airs before the six o’ clock news on RTE Radio 1.
“Jesus the branch, Mary the flower, Jesus and Mary be with us this hour.”
That was the first and most simple way I learnt to call God’s presence into my heart. And I think it is beautiful.
I like to think that in the long tedious hours of aging my two grandmothers found immense comfort and strength and joy, which to me represent the enhancement of the human experience that I mentioned earlier, in the presence of God in their hearts. And I am grateful that Carlos and I made the decision to plant that seed in the hearts of our children. Now all that awaits us is its constant nourishment.