Pensees de Pascal
At the time of my ordination to priesthood my mother asked me what gift would I like. I asked for a Jerusalem Bible and that gift has been with me ever since, during 47 years of life. When I received the book and opened it I found inside a card that my mother had selected. It was a quotation from Blaise Pascal and it told that ‘thinking is the cause of man’s greatness.’
I was surprised at this choice in that moment since I had just spent six years incarcerated in a seminary where the main occupation was prayer and attendance at lectures. The deeper matter of thinking and teaching students to think, and to think for themselves was something that was never attempted. The seminary was a formation machine.
We were clothed in the same religious habit of a long black gown with rosary beads attached and we were put through a six-year programme of indoctrination. In other words doctrine was put into us through lectures every day. Being cut off from any other forms of life and from meeting any other people, the cut and thrust of controversy and argument was far from the land. We really were programmed for the clerical life. That was my personal experience.
That was why I was taken by surprise by the words on this card. I thought I might have been exhorted to pray more, but no. This sentiment urged me to think more and to think for myself. It jarred with my immediate past. It urged me to do something that I had never been encouraged to do, although thinking has always been with me.
My junior seminary teacher, James Mythen expressed, to others, not to me, the concern that senior seminary might destroy my spirit. These words were prophetic. Senior seminary absolutely destroyed me. I can see clearly now what happened.
Being put into seminary at the age of eleven I was moulded into obedience so strongly that I never developed my independence. I was always at the beck and call of church and priests and religious authority. My mind was bright and my spirit was willing but my will power, that vital force by which we direct our lives was flat and effectively non-existent. I could see things but I did not have the courage or the confidence to act on what I could see. Critical issues were muffled and covered over by religious piety and conformity and given the glorious name of faithfulness and obedience.
Had I been allowed to grow up in a normal environment I would have walked a better path. Girls, friends, college, and contemporary life – all these would have been mine. Instead I was removed from the normal world and placed in an aristocratic villa in the middle of Shropshire fields where we saw and met nobody for years on end. It was prison. The memory of it never leaves me. My writing always takes me back to it. It was a torment at the time and the memory surfaces in my writing to annoy me still.
I write about it to name the foolishness and the stupidity of what we often do in God’s name.
Thinking is our greatest gift. It is in this vital spiritual power that we can see and interpret life for ourselves. We become responsible for our own lives and that is a wonderful freedom. The power of thought is the power by which we are called to live our lives. Doing what we are told is our early experience with our parents and guardians and teachers. But as we emerge into the world we are always being asked to think and to see for ourselves. The stubborn independence of a child is a marvellous reality.
Today we find our lives heavily directed by the sheer weight of public information. We are forever watching the news and hearing the great public statements that seek to control and direct world events in a manageable way. But our attitudes are strongly influenced by these public noises and very often we merely repeat what we have heard and thereby reinforce the dominant narrative of our time.
In the face of this powerful tide we need to stand firm in ourselves and to think. We need the silence and the quiet in order to do the work of thought. This thinking then begins to clear the fog and to perceive things that on the surface are often hidden from our eyes.
I remember in the 80s how my father saw through the mass media momentum that had built up against the miners. In the great conflict of Thatcher and Scargill I asked my father for his thoughts. He said to me, ‘well there are faults on both sides, but what I find very disturbing is that I have not heard one voice in the public media in support of the miners. I find that very disturbing.’ Sitting quietly in his chair my father had done some thinking.
As we face an increase in violence in our world I read today the words of Jesus on this matter. Offer the wicked man no resistance. This is not a counsel of apathy. Jesus continues. Rather, he says, wrong foot your adversary by your willingness to be kind. One mile? Go two miles with him.
Only the work of goodness can overcome the wastefulness of wickedness. Defiance is a natural reaction but it is not the appropriate response. Active love of others is the only way.
Think about it.
19 June 2017