Tag Archive: spirituality


My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.

Once A Jew

One of the ways my Bipolar illness manifests itself is in religious ideation. Before I started at Northwestern, in what you might term a previous incarnation, I got a master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, and I distinctly remember one time walking in, on an emergency basis, to the student health center at U of C, and asking the Jewish psychiatrist whether she was my mother. Her response? “I think we might need to go to the hospital.”

I couldn’t articulate or explain at the time that I believed I had been Jewish in a former lifetime, that I may have been exterminated in the Holocaust, and that some of my mental problems might stem from previous life traumas.

For those who have been following my blog for a while, I’m clearly identified as an Irish Catholic, an identity that’s as much an ethnicity as a religious affiliation, but I must confess, there’s something about Judaism that draws me in, beckons me, compels me to pay attention to that which is at the root of all our modern society. Plus, as a gay man, I understand what it’s like to be marginalized, and Jews have certainly been marginalized over the course of their long and storied history.

During my very first Fiction Workshop class taught at Northwestern, an instructor named Goldie let me know that even some Orthodox Jews subscribe to the belief system of reincarnation, that reincarnation is not completely at odds with the idea of waiting for the Messiah. Just writing the word reincarnation makes me wonder what is meant by the term? How can a person reincarnate himself over the course of his own lifetime, or does he have to wait for successive lifetimes to correct the mistakes he has made this time around?

I know I suffer greatly from Jewish guilt, guilt that I haven’t been kind enough, generous enough, smart enough, hard working enough, a good enough son, a good enough dad to my two dogs, an Akita and Beagle. There’s a saying that the Catholics have confession, and the Jews have psychoanalysis–I guess I’m the lucky one, I have both.

Gentle James

You simply haven’t lived, dearest, until a straight man has cried for you. I went out with my friend James the other night, and told him about the six times I had ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy–in late October and early November, and his eyes welled up, but he managed to contain himself, if only for my sake. How often do we do that? Keep ourselves together for the sake of another?

James reminded me of days gone by, and had to tell me his story again, because I’d forgotten the details of his life. Some would call it the detritus of one’s world. I choose to look at it otherwise. Indeed, we do imbue our actions with meaning, but in my mind, there is meaning that goes beyond the mere action. I hold with Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher who also happened to believe in God, quite the mind fuck, maybe mind cluster is the more correct term.

But I digress. . .

James reminded me that he himself had had seizures as a child and takes anti-seizure medication. Personal disclosure between writerly friends is always valuable because it is what makes us unique that makes us valuable, yes, but it is also what makes us fully human.

Spiritual Calluses

There was a time where I romanticized joining a monastery, if only for the discipline provided from the Liturgy of the Hours and the attendant order imposed by communal living. At St. John’s University, where I went as an undergrad, monks and priests gather each day at 7am for morning prayer, once again at noonday, and vespers at 7pm. There is also a daily mass at 5pm, but not everyone is expected to be in attendance for that. Even though I have always been and still remain woefully ignorant about religious matters, I felt that if someone were forcing me to do something, I could impose order on my life from the outside. Then, I hoped, time would be a gift, not viewed with a sense of something lost, something slipping ineffably away. When I broached the topic of entering a monastery with a priest who is also a monk at St. John’s, I talked about my lack of discipline in getting up to greet the day, and he said, of course, he would pray for my ability to discern my vocation more clearly, but he also mentioned the idea of spiritual calluses. I felt like Maria in The Sound of Music, sensing that I would be rushing off to morning prayer begrudgingly, starting my day not with prayerfulness, but with a chip on my shoulder.

While I was at St. John’s, this same monk was deliberating carefully whether he should invest in a CD player. He was always very careful when making any sort of material decisions as if he were afraid of polluting himself with too much worldliness. There always has been, and remains, a sense of deliberateness to the lives of the monks and priests at my former school. Kathleen Norris, who wrote the very profound, “The Cloister Walk,” about her experiences as a lay person at St. John’s, but someone who committed herself to living out a monastic life as a married woman, said it best: “Benedictines often remind me of poets, who while they sometimes speak of the art of poetry in exalted terms also know that little things count, that in fact there are no things so ‘little’ as to be without significance in the making of a poem. Monastic life also requires paying attention to the nitty-gritty.”

In essence, a monastic life can be a poetic life. I crave a poetic life for myself, but realize it requires daily discipline and hard work. There’s the old adage, “Nothing worth doing comes easily.” I guess I need to just develop a few more spiritual calluses, the ability to forge ahead and find peace and grace in my days, even when it involves a bit more work on my part.

The Seventh Sense

People have long talked about the sixth sense being intuition, what some might call extrasensory perception. There’s a great movie, titled, The Sixth Sense, where a young boy can sense the intentions, wishes and desires of the dead. In many ways, belief in the sixth sense has taken the place of belief in a traditionally understood afterlife. Then, of course, there are those who dismiss the sixth sense entirely.

Never before, however, have I heard of a seventh sense. I’m reading The Once and Future King, by T.H. White right now, about the legend of King Arthur, Lancelot, Guenever, and the Knights of the Round Table, and the book mentions a seventh sense. Specifically, it defines the seventh sense in contrast to a different definition of the sixth sense. White writes, “Balance was the sixth sense, which she won when she first learned to walk, and now she has the seventh one–knowledge of the world. The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which both men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy–this discovery is not a matter for triumph.”

This seventh sense relates to our need to understand our place in the world, to understand our relationship with a God of our understanding, to make peace with the things we will accomplish and the things we will not live to do. I guess you could call it some kind of ordering principle. The interesting thing about the book The Once and Future King is that it tells the King Arthur legend from a modernist perspective. It references contemporary thought and contemporary belief systems. The author further writes, “Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the commandments, without difficulty.”

One reason the King Arthur legend is so powerful and continues to resonate today is that Arthur established a code of conduct, a code of chivalry. This mythical character believed that people ought to behave decently, and his strongest proponent, his most chivalrous knight Lancelot, turned out to be the one to break the code most dramatically by having an affair with Guenever.

In many ways, White establishes the seventh sense as the “grown up” sense. I have long remembered the New American biblical quote, “When I was a child I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child, but when I became a man I did away with childish things.” I did my undergraduate at a Catholic university, and my belief system then was simpler, more well ordered. I look around at the seeming chaos in the world, and realize that now, the trick is to hang on to faith in spite of doubt. There’s a good reason why doubting Thomas has become one of my heroes. That’s why, I suppose, they call it a leap of faith. To put it another way, an author named Julia Cameron wrote a book called, The Artist’s Way, and she said, “Leap and the net will appear.” She is talking more specifically about creative leaps, but isn’t the same thing required in religious terms? When bad things happen to good people, we are called to use our seventh sense, not to abandon faith, but to embrace it all the more.

Saint Michael the Archangel,

Defend us in battle.
Be Our Protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray.
And do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host–
by the Divine power of God–
cast into hell, satan, and all the evil spirits
who roam throughout the world
seeking the ruination of souls.

Amen