The God delusion - Michael Harding talks religion and depression over a fried-egg sandwich
God is dead? Michael Harding is alive? Over a fried-egg sandwich in a petrol station in Mullingar, the author talks religion and how he recently survived the heart attack that almost killed him. He also tells Barry Egan about failure, depression, his father 'the ghost' and mutual solitude in marriage
When Michael Harding was a young child in Cavan town, he went down on his knees at the bedside every night and prayed. He whispered what he calls "little mantras in the dark":
There are four corners on my bed
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There are four angels around my head
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
God bless the bed that I lie on
When Michael lay on his hospital bed in Dublin on December 8 last year, after a heart attack, he says he felt a "good feeling for four or five hours. In the immediate aftermath, I had two days where I felt I wouldn't be afraid of death. There was no need to worry about religion or afterlives or anything. It was actually beautiful."
In his new book, Chest Pain, Michael writes: "Perhaps I did not even know how to open my heart fully to the world, until I had a heart attack."
I ask him what he was like before the heart attack. "I was exactly the same in one sense, but maybe the graph was going in a certain direction," he answers.
Why did you write that your heart wasn't open to life before the heart attack?
"Because maybe I was really going from the head," he says, "even though I'd be saying I was going from the heart, even though I was on the Late Late Show or whatever. Maybe still, there was a huge residue of not trying to work emotionally with the heart."
Do you think some cosmic force looked at you and thought: the only way we can get Michael Harding to truly feel or think with his heart is to give him a heart attack that will almost kill him?
"I couldn't have put it better," says Michael. "That is it. I am only a bit of the cosmos. I'm only a little fucking cog in this thing. I would have grasped the heart attack with a sense of, I can see where this is going."
Which was where?
"Where this was going was, I had got terribly dark, terribly lonely and terribly alone in a kind of a religious way," he says. "I spent two fucking long months in Warsaw, deeply focused on orthodox stuff, and back to Christian religion stuff."
"I felt the minute the heart attack happened, it was clear to me that that was happening. There was something in my body getting really dark. Fear was impelling me towards a certain religiosity. It was saying, 'You are going to have a heart attack so you better get ready for the oul' coffin,'" he says.
In Chest Pain, Michael also writes of when he was a priest and his lively encounters with Eamon Casey at the bishop's residence in Galway on Sunday afternoons. Michael was on an advisory committee on youth affairs, of which Casey had been the chairperson.
"He would conduct the meeting between three sofas in a grand drawing room of the palace," Michael writes, "with coffee and buns served by a woman who came and went without introductions.
"The bishop behaved extravagantly, his thoughts were always off the cuff, he was consistently overexcited and he smoked huge cigars," he goes on. "Brandy would be introduced at the end of the meeting, lavish dollops in cut glasses. By the time we got to the dinner, served in another room, with the bishop at the head of the table, we were well-oiled."
This morning, over three decades later, Harding is enjoying the not-so-extravagant fare of a big mug of coffee and a fried-egg sandwich in the cafe of the Texaco petrol station in Ballinalack. He swallows some pills for his heart with a big slug of coffee.
"I love these places," gushes Michael.
Some people in the search for enlightenment go to the top of a mountain in the Himalayas to meet a wise man. I am in a petrol station outside Mullingar with Michael at 9am. It is not too early, however, to ask him the big question: do you believe in God?
"I do and I don't," he says.
"If I'm honest, it varies from times I'm hopeful to times when I despair," he explains. "And I try. So I like ritual. Whatever religion. At the moment I'm closest to Orthodox Christian, but I wander through the other cultures also. It's not that I believe in God, but that religion makes me human and allows me to hope there is a god. In the end, I sometimes feel the bottom line for me is storytelling and that my attraction to religion is just a fascination with the ritual. I don't know! What the real secret is - other people - when I find others I find joy, and then, ironically, I don't need religion."
Harding says what allows him to say this is the Buddhist idea, "which is the foundation of everything I have ever learned, and that is in the Heart Sutra, ironically," he smiles, referring to his brush with death last year.
"It says the ultimate teaching is, there is no teaching. It is only five pages. It is amazing," says Michael. "It is saying in its own archaic language, the same as Ludwig Wittgenstein was saying, the same as Karl Popper, and that is, things are true as far as they go. The ultimate teaching is that there is no teaching."
"When you hear someone looking at you saying, 'You know, the Christian thing is very important', step back. When you hear somebody saying 'Brexit', anything, we grip language as it is has some sort of absolute base in truth. It doesn't," says Michael who was ordained a priest in 1981, and "retired" from his ministry as a priest in 1985 before spending almost 20 years practising Buddhism.
Are all religions in a sense the same cake but iced differently?
"They are the same in their truth," he says. "They are the same in their flaws. And their flaws are everything from institutionalisation to the manipulation of other people. The very idea that there is some sort of realm that is different to the existential realm that we live in is absurd. It is an idea that people abuse when they are manipulating religion."
He lives not far from here, with his wife, the artist Cathy Carmen, and their two cats, Charlie and Miss Peabody. He has a daughter, Sophia, and a stepson, Charlie.
Michael describes Cathy as "the best figurative sculptor of her generation. We have been together for 35 years. We are married 25 years but we actually met in 1984. I discovered when we went to Donegal camping this year, that sense that we both carry our own solitude.
"There is a lovely line, I think it is Rilke, maybe it's not, 'As two people grow older, each becomes the guardian of the other's solitude.' I think I sense that, because the more you live with someone the more you are able to say, 'I don't know anything about her!' I mean, we glow in the dark at night. I think she is more a mystery to me now than when I first met her," Michael says.
She's from Warsaw, isn't she?
"No, no, no! She's from Portlaoise!" he laughs. When I apologise for my stupidity, he laughs again and says it is his fault.
"I keep saying 'Warsaw' and it keeps confusing people," he says. "I am endlessly writing about going to Warsaw and going to Warsaw with her; she was a year in Warsaw. She worked with the museum, because she is a sculptor."
Michael stops and tells a story. "I was in the Abbey Theatre two years ago with Cathy. Someone introduced themselves to me. He didn't really know me. He knew me as 'the writer.' And because she was standing beside me, I said, 'This is my wife.' He said, [very slow speech as if talking to a three-year-old child], 'Oh. Hello. Are. You. Enjoying. The. Play?'"
"I said to him, 'She is from Portlaoise!'"
I say to Michael that it would be funnier if the man was speaking to his wife like that because he knew she was from Portlaoise!
"That's better! That would make fiction," he laughs.
What do you and she talk about when you are not in solitude?
"Usually the cats. 'Are they fed?'"
Harding has been feeding our imagination, and other bits of us, with his books for some time now. Rarely has depression been written about so realistically as Harding did in 2014's Hanging with the Elephant: "It's a merciless solitude, like a glass wall surrounding the victim, leaving them alone, even in a noisy street, drenched with their own delusions and tormented by their own personal demons."
Did you find depression as almost a part of your journey?
"I found depression as a big door-opener. A Jungian therapist wrote a book called The Swamp Lands of The Soul. It is a beautiful image. It is being down in the dregs of your own psyche. It's like a sewer. There is a smell nearly off yourself; and being down there, being stuck in a swamp, that you physically can't get out of bed. That was 2011."
What was that like for Cathy?
"I'd say it was tough," he says, "living with someone who was so broken."
I think if I lived to be 100, I couldn't meet a more fascinating man over a fried-egg sandwich in a Mullingar petrol station than Michael Harding. He enlightens you without boring the arse off you by being preachy. And he is funny, too. "My whole life," he says, "the bliss has been with being present, with being here now."
"There is no meaning. I don't see any meaning in life."
What drew you to the priesthood then?
"Being here now."
Would you not have just gone up to a field in Cavan?
"Sure. That would probably have been a better and more sensible idea, to do that. I have always said, I did all the mistakes in life," he says.
What were your life's mistakes?
"Going to Maynooth to be a priest. Going to west Cavan instead of London or New York. It was like a choice. When I was 21, and everyone else was leaving the country and going sophisticated places, from which they then came back five years later, I was jiving around country halls in west Cavan, being here now, but going to seed, not challenging myself."
Why didn't you go to London or New York?
"I'm a home bird. I never went much further than my mother when I was young," he says.
What would Freud say about that?
"He'd say I was very fucked-up."
When did you stop being fucked up?
"I didn't. I didn't! I got used to being fucked-up."
Is it like a psychological mash-up of that line from Alice In Wonderland - all the best people are fucked-up?
"No, I don't think so," says Michael. "But I do think that there is brokenness in everybody and that in some way, liberation is recognising the brokenness. So, I do think it can be a kind of a perverse stepping into peace or coherence to actually say, 'I am completely broken.' I'm adequate in many ways. It is not self-effacing or humbling but it is actually liberating. I mean, I do fail."
What have you failed at?
"Like, the Leaving Cert," he says. "I only got three honours. I didn't get the fourth honour. And I didn't get a 1.1 honours degree. I didn't get all the good jobs when I thought of being a teacher. The guy was handing out jobs and he said to me, 'The only one I have left and I can offer you really is in the prison in Blacklion.' And he said it like, 'I know you are not going to take that wooden spoon.' And I said, 'That's great.'"
Michael happily took the job as an English teacher in the prison. "I was teaching guys who were between the ages of 16 and 21. They were the same age as me, some of them."
In terms of what it taught Michael about life, he says he met "a lot of Traveller guys there. For the first time I got really close and intimate with Travellers. I realised that Travellers could be your friends and were very trusting people. I realised that people weren't in there for moral reasons. There wasn't a moral deficit. They were in there because culturally they were defined as deviant. They came from working-class areas of Dublin, Limerick, Drogheda and, you know, Traveller areas, and they were poor, and they saw nothing. And they were labelled when they were 10 years of age."
What was your father like?
"He was 53 when I was born in 1953. So I had an elderly father, which was a lovely thing. I thought he was a beautiful man," he says of Michael senior. "He didn't have any of the young youthful testosteronic vibrancy of a patriarchal male. You'd see the young boys running after their hurley fathers. My father was smaller than me when I was a teenager. His body was so white and skeletal when he was naked. You'd be afraid to meet him on the landing going to the toilet."
He was like a ghost?
"He was a lovely ghost."
Talking to Michael ignites something of a spiritual curiosity within you. Michael says that he "found going back to the 4th and 5th Century [with Christian writers] there was superbly beautiful, clear stuff about how you need to bring your mind into your heart."
Getting up to leave, fried-egg sandwich demolished long ago, he departs with a final thought: "I found my spirituality for 20 years in Buddhism and then I think with the heart attack or mortality, or getting old, my body said to me: 'Maybe you should look back at your old river, Mr Salmon.' That's why I started looking at the Christian ideas again, this time not with any interest in whether the Church should have women priests or the politics of the Church. But is it a good therapy for a human being?"
'Chest Pain' by Michael Harding is published by Hachette Ireland and is available now, €14.99
Michael Harding will be in conversation with Brendan O'Connor in The Helix, Dublin, on Wednesday, October 2 and in conversation with Dave O'Connell in The Meyrick Hotel, Galway, on Friday October 4. Tickets at easons.com/eason-events/michael-harding
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