A tall grey man comes intently towards me in the cloister garth and shakes my hand firmly as if he had known me all his life. His handshake is cold and hard. He deplores at length the morning's weather and then speaks of recent weather in general, picking out flaws that had escaped my notice. But he excuses it on the grounds that God hides a purpose even in the foulest events. As I wait patiently to be released again to solitude and prayer his argument progresses by itself, ranging fluently over all contemporary evils, but always in the end exhibiting God's wisdom. After half an hour the torrent shows no sign of abating, and I wish I were alone.
But wait! I have only half the picture: his image of the world seems very godly, yes, but there are hidden cankers everywhere. He broods on evil, and his God is a capricious Dad whose ways have to be explained to the neighbours lest they get the wrong impression. Evil is uppermost, or innermost. Goodness is remote and improbable, and this is why he has to prove that it exists somewhere. And what more appropriate place than in God? Yet, clearly, it is not safe even there. God has to be defended. This man has taken on himself the responsibility of God's point of view. But his vindication of God arises out of his own need, because I have given no sign that I have any quarrel with the weather or with any of the other problems he mentioned.
I will pray that he gets a better opinion of the world, I tell him, and I begin to take my leave, because I want to return to the tent. But he walks beside me, and soon I see that he has no destination of his own. He is probably in flight from his own interiority, and he intends to invade mine.
I want to protect my secret space from him, and I give the tent a wide berth, like a mother bird protecting her family from a predator. By now he is reaching a crescendo: the Church and the whole world, in his view, are filled with traitors and conspirators on the one side and self-defeating softies on the other. Simplified by a cartoonist his philosophy would approach the demi-language of the Dandy and the Beano: Wham! Pow! Eek!
I have never been so certain of being useless to someone. He is not to be helped. Not now, at any rate. I am sure of it. He is asking no questions, leaving no spaces. There is no silence in his spirit. And he has prescriptions for the whole world. I try to speak of humility. I intend it for him, but he directs it outwards: others should be more humble. His presence begins to chill me to the bone. It is the compacted sediment of great ambitions, wretched failures and fierce angers. It is frustrated omnipotence.
I have made a habit of spending an hour or so in the parish church every day, and I decide to head for there now. This much silence is sure to shake him off, and I will be allowing the church to serve one of its ancient purposes – sanctuary from the enemy.
Free of his entanglements I breathe freely, and it has the freshness of a new discovery. That great echoing space welcomes like a mother and it cares nothing for imagined conflicts or twisted emotions. The Lord is there who understands the secrets of hearts. I pray long for my neurotic friend in flight from his interiority. Gradually it becomes clear that I am not praying simply for one man; I am praying for myself too, and for the whole human race heavy with inner life. He is part of what I am; he is the perfect counterpoint of what I am trying to attain; he is my brother. What a burden the inner life can become! It will weigh us to the ground if we see ourselves only as individual unfortunates. Who will roll away the heavy stone so that we can rise with Christ? Who indeed?
Can we ever heal one another's interiority? I believe that the Lord alone can do so - and those who are so close to the Lord that even God might mistake them.
I imagine the inner world like a city: not a grand city but an impenetrable complex of hovels half-built or falling down, projects begun with joy but never completed, or beautiful things neglected and abandoned. There is no main street because fifty streets are called the main street, a different one each day. Whole neighbourhoods seethe with violence; others are haunted by indefinable fears. Briars and nettles and every kind of undergrowth block the entrances and windows of houses. Yet here and there you can see beautiful, unselfconscious things: a peaceful window, a corner where one might live. All in all it is a jungle. If you are not going far you will be all right, but to enter deeply there without a guide is to be lost. The Lord alone can guide you through the deepest places, pointing out good things that give you heart, steering you clear of others, choosing the right time to take you through certain areas, moving always in the right direction.
As I leave the church I am sustained by this image of the Lord as guide in the inner city; and I make my way along the street and down towards the corner of the meadow where my tent is pitched.
To my horror, there he is! – investigating, sniffing, walking around the tent, strumming guy-ropes to test their tension, standing back to think, consumed with empty curiosity. "Are you camping?" he asks superfluously as I come up. "Yes," I answer simply, as I open the flaps, crawl inside and draw the zips together after me. He attempts to continue the conversation but I remain enclosed in grand silence. Interiority can make a temple out of thin sheets of nylon. I will try to be his silence. I am closer to him in reality than if I had consented to another of his bouts of recrimination. I will be his temple. Or rather I will try to be my own, and he may remember his. He attempts to knock on the nylon flaps but that is a task not easily accomplished. They are stouter in that respect than doors of oak. For the first time I am comfortable with my curious friend. Some kind of truth is expressed perfectly in this arrangement; and sooner or later the truth will set us free. I love it when things are reduced to such simple essences. I am comfortable here. Porcupines, snails and tortoises do something like this. I should honour them more! All honour to every centre of being in the whole creation! All praise to the Lord who contains us in all our confusion!
Take Nothing for the Journey: Meditations on Time and Place, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1990 (2nd edition, 2013)