Shelter from dark nights of the soul
A book about religion that offers inspiration to even the staunchest of atheists
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and a theologian. He is the leader of the Corrymeela community, a community dedicated to conflict transformation. He is based in Belfast.
The title of his latest book, In the Shelter, suggests that it might be another cosy book about self-improvement and the attainment of happiness. While it definitely embraces those two, it is not a cosy read. It is complicated and confronting.
The book begins in a monastery in Taize in France during a week-long silent retreat. It is here that Ó Tuama posits his first confronting observation with the aid of a poem called 'Lost' by David Wagoner.
Stand still. The trees and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
When we are lost, we run, we "wish to be elsewhere". Ó Tuama writes that if we are to become wise, we must stand still, and learn from here and now. The wisdom we gain is described as a frightening wisdom, but if we are afraid of fear we will continue to run, and we will never outrun truth.
So the book continues in a series of episodes, each yielding their here and now truths to the writer and reader. As each truth emerges, Ó Tuama greets it, be it pleasant or otherwise. "Hello to fear", "hello to happiness", "hello to facts of life, "hello to facts of death".
The book is resolutely Christian, in tone and theology. The Bible is quoted at regular intervals. At first I baulked at this; however, I soon realised that the author's Christianity is a more inclusive, learned and subtler version than the one I grew up with.
Ó Tuama 's love of language causes him to analyse words and phrases from the Bible. A case in point being the word "repent", beloved of Bible-thumpers. This word, when translated from the Greek into English, becomes metanoia, which means "beyond thought or mind". The word metanoia, therefore, means to change direction, to go a different way. A far cry from the sackcloth and ashes meaning of repentance I was familiar with.
How many times were we told, "God says it, don't question it". If I had a teacher like Ó Tuama, I might have kept my soul's wagon hitched to Jesus, instead of switching to Buddha. But would it matter? Whether one is Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, this book offers illumination and education.
Ó Tuama is gay, and it is when he talks of his struggle with his sexual orientation that the book is particularly moving. In his words, he tried to repent from being gay. Of course, this attempt failed. What is so affecting is the compassionate, and resolute way he deals with the dilemma of being an outsider in the institution that claims to speak for the Jesus he loves so much. He writes of his experiences of prejudice and inclusion, courage and danger. The writer comes to know that it is not a question of a decision between sexuality and God, but of turning towards God and accepting the truth. He lives his truth and remains an outsider. It is both saddening and inspiring that the outsider often has most to teach about compassion and inclusion.
In the Shelter is infused with poetry, mostly Ó Tuama's. In one, 'Narrative Theology 2', we come close to the author's idea of God.
God is the fracture,
And the ache in your voice,
God is the story
Flavoured with choice.
God is the woman who bleeds
And who touches.
We are the story
Of courage or blushes.
I am not uncomfortable with God, but there are many who are. For this reason, the sincerity of belief in this book may put people off. I really hope this does not happen. The most staunch of atheists would find inspiration and, if I may use the hackneyed phrase, life lessons in its pages. It is infused with bruised, loving and confused humanity. For believers it is infused with a bruised, loving God. He/she/it is probably confused, too. I couldn't possibly say.
This is not an easy, cosy read. It is challenging, erudite, poetic and at times the word acrobatics make it hard to follow, but it is rewarding and will live long in the mind. A book to be kept at one's bedside for those dark nights of the soul when sleep evades, for though it may not be cosy, it offers us ways of accepting life as it is, of standing still in the moment, and it offers the courage needed not to run from fear.
In the Shelter
Pádraig Ó Tuama
Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 272p, €16.99
Available with free P&P on kennys.ie or by calling 091709350