Origins of spirituality reside in positive care experienced by a child

John McGahern’s fiction offers a perspective suffused with spiritual meaning

John McGahern saw art as ‘a religious activity which is keeping faith to the sources of one’s being and it is, in the pure sense of the words, a form of prayer and praise’. Photograph: Frank Miller

John McGahern saw art as ‘a religious activity which is keeping faith to the sources of one’s being and it is, in the pure sense of the words, a form of prayer and praise’. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Without attributing a personal spirituality to the late John McGahern, worthy of note is what is contained in his novels. On literature he wrote: “Nothing survives that hasn’t a spiritual quality. What is style but the reflection of personality in language, and that surely is the spirit of that person?”

He saw art as “a religious activity which is keeping faith to the sources of one’s being and it is, in the pure sense of the words, a form of prayer and praise”.

Psychologist and spiritual theorist Fr Adrian van Kaam (1920-2007) held that “spirit is the power to disclose and give form to life and world critically and creatively in interformative action with others”. This power, he believed, embodied a transcendent dimension, connected to the dynamic of loving consonance.

Our quest for meaning as such, he held, marks us out as spiritual beings. For him, the origins of spirituality reside in the positive care experienced by a child from their initial primary carers, particularly so from the mother.

This care, he maintained, implies the belief that it is good to be alive, expresses hope in ability to achieve, enables love of self and others, and establishes trust that all will be well in the end.

Shopping trips

A striking example of such an ultimate formative experience is told in McGahern’s recall (from his book Memoir) of shopping trips with his mother: “I was by her side like a shadow, carrying light parcels, glowing in the affection and warmth she created. When the shopping was done, we went to the church to pray . . . When we left the church we always felt uplifted.”

The Christian principles enunciated by a young priest for whom McGahern served Mass as an altar boy were another formative influence (also from Memoir): “Reflection on the mystery of life was itself a form of prayer, superior to the mouthing of empty formulas . . . he claimed a primary place for personal humility and love of others and charity of mind . . . The truth that the priest represented, I believed then, stood outside and beyond human manipulating and bullying.”

His commentary on the mystery of life and the humble acceptance of the unknown is attributed to Elizabeth in The Barracks: “She had come to life out of mystery and would return, it surrounded her life . . . she’d return to that which she could not know; she’d be consumed at last in whatever meaning life had. Here she had none, none but to be, which in acceptance must surely be love.”

In his book Amongst Women, Rose exemplifies a consonant spirituality. With love and attention, she patiently facilitates the development of her husband’s interior journey. In frail health, he is found walking through his farm, his thoughts revealed as follows: “To die was never to look on all this again. It would live in others’ eyes but not in his. He had never realised when he was in the midst of confident life what an amazing glory he was part of. He heard his name being called frantically . . . He stopped suddenly before the door. ‘I never knew how hard it is to die,’ he said simply.”

Having made, as he believed, his peace by letter with his estranged son Luke, similarly so through prayer with the memory of McQuaid, a deceased friend with whom he had quarrelled, the true glory of nature and life came to rest in his quietened soul.

Compassionate empathy

In That They May Face the Rising Sun there is compassionate empathy for those frequently overlooked in society. The personality of Edmund Ryan, whose life had been negatively overshadowed by his older brother, “the apple of his parents’ eyes”, is reflected on by the ever hospitable, perceptive and kind Ruttledge: “As with many diminished people, Edmund’s response was to rephrase each thing the other person said in the form of a question, often with an expression of great interest, even charm. In its humble way it gave the other every encouragement to continue. Many did not know or care that they were responding to an echo. Others mutely acknowledged that this was his simple way. Only a few were openly contemptuous.”

McGahern was 11 years old when his mother died. Her lasting influence is cited in Memoir: “She never really left us. In the worst years, I believe we would have been broken but for the different life we had known with her and the love she gave that was there like a hidden strength.”

McGahern, through his novels, has put ‘windows’ on our world which carry a perspective that is suffused with spiritual meaning and that gives depth to the view. Apparent too is how a child who is loved and affirmed develops as a writer whose fiction conveys the growth of a spiritually enriched and morally ethical world.

Ann Gallagher worked for many years with Irish Red Cross on the recruitment and placement of personnel overseas with the International Red Cross

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