BY SEÁN MULLAN
(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)
I suppose there’s something to be said for being on your own.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard Steve admit that there might be more to life than work, sport, politics and music. He’d been off for a week on his own on the Camino walk in Spain, and something had happened there. He wanted to talk about it, but when it came to trying to get it out, that was the best he could do - the value of being on your own. This was his best stab at talking about the inner life. It had taken three years of walking, talking and listening to get to that point - the notion that there might be something more - something else worth paying attention to.
Steve came to mind last month when Joe, a friend of mine, was telling me about a conversation he’d had in the pub. It was a Thursday night, and two of the usual gang of four hadn’t shown; it was just Joe and Arthur. So Joe’s hopes of a half-decent conversation had been left at the door. Worse still, it was Man U on Sky Sports, so Arthur would not be a silent spectator.
Fifteen minutes into the game, the night’s first surprise comes from Arthur. He asks Joe about the course that he’s doing. Joe has already told the lads that he’s started doing a course in theology. And Joe is pretty sure Arthur doesn’t know what theology is other than the fact that it’s got something to do with religion. “I’m studying theology, Arthur. Why do you ask?” “Ah nothing - just wonderin’,“ comes the reply.
Just then, Man U miss the simplest of chances; Arthur starts swearing at the telly and the moment passes.
As Joe tells it to me, he describes it as the tide coming in and the tide going back out - the moment has passed. But after a trip to the loo, a trip to the bar and some more swearing at the telly, the tide comes in again. Arthur has another question for Joe. “What made you want to study something like that?”
As Joe tells it, the tide comes in and goes out several times. But by the end of the evening, Man U are forgotten and Arthur is no longer asking about Joe; he’s telling Joe about Arthur. And as they leave the pub, Joe knows that he’s learned more about the real Arthur in one evening than in all the years they’ve known each other.
As Joe tells me the story, I’m fascinated. Joe’s the type who’s keen for this kind of deep conversation, but he’s quite happy to watch the tide go out and wait for it to come back in again. He doesn’t push, doesn’t rush - waits for the tide and goes with it.
I often get frustrated that we Irish men can’t talk easily about what’s going on inside ourselves. Seamus Heaney writes about the wind on a Clare beach buffeting the car and catching the heart off guard and blowing it open. It may be that many Irish men experience such moments, but most of us don’t know what to do with them. We’re certainly not going to write a poem about it and, for most of us, the idea of talking about it is as embarrassing as finding your zip’s been open for the last two hours and no-one has told you.
And when it comes to belief in God, or some greater power than ourselves, the embarrassment seems to double. So even at a graveside when what lies beyond death seems the obvious topic of the moment, we dodge it by chatting instead about last Sunday’s match.
But like Joe tells it, there comes a moment when the tide comes in. And whether it’s in the pub, on the road, in the 12-step group or late on the night shift, we could learn a lot by watching for the tide and going with it. Or - if I can mix my metaphors - going with the wind when caught off guard and letting it blow us open.
Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.