From my other medically-focused blog, here is the text of my review of Ancient Medicine by Vivian Nutton from


A family holiday with David Mamet

David Mamet’s reputation seems to have taken a bit of a nosedive in recent years. His “coming out” as an unapologetic free market conservative may have something to do with this. I have always had somewhat mixed feelings about what I have seen of Mamet – which in my case is exclusively cinematic, specifically Glengarry Glen Ross (of course) and State & Main. While both are interesting (no more damning phrase!), and Glengarry Glen Ross is highly powerful in its depiction of a certain kind of desperate male brutality, I must admit to finding both a little too mannered and stylised.


However, one of the things I like about Mamet is the sudden, rather unexpected touches. Indeed, his recent public political conservative leanings mark him out quite starkly from his peers. Aside from this, there always has seemed a strain rather counter to what we expect from “Mamet” the public figure, as opposed to Mamet the actual person.

From a 1994 New York Times profile of David Mamet:

YOU may not think of David Mamet, the prolific author of angrified and angrifying plays and films, as an insecure fellow. But there was a day not so long ago, he says, that in an agonizing fit of self-doubt, he sought out his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, an actress and singer, and in a sort of desperate way, proclaimed his consuming love for her. What, he asked, could have persuaded her to marry him, save him from himself, miserable wretch that he obviously was?

“She looked at me,” Mr. Mamet says, shifting his mimicry from his own earnest pleading to his wife’s deadpan. “And she said, ‘Well, I don’t know, you seemed like a nice guy.’ ”

It’s a funny story for Mr. Mamet to tell on himself, a twinkly-eyed acknowledgment of his reputation as difficult, thorny and impatient. But then, you might not think of Mr. Mamet, a native Chicagoan, as a homebody either, or as a lover of quietude, isolation and coziness. And that’s what comes across here. The center of his universe is a lonely hilltop farmhouse that he shares with Ms. Pidgeon, his wife of three years, and their tiny daughter, Clara, who was born on Sept. 29.


Mamet’s prose is clear and limpid and one cannot accuse him of obfuscation. Recently I came across a Picador anthology, Worst Journeys from 1991. Edited by Keith Fraser, it has a Canadian tilt. It’s quite a mixed bag, but I enjoyed Mamet’s piece on a family holiday. And like the above NYT profile, it has passages that seem quite un-Mametlike, if all you know of Mamet is Glengarry Glen Ross:

I thought: we are an Urban people, and the Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable, to buy more, to eat more, to do more business. Here, on the island, we had nothing to do. Everything had been taken away but the purely natural.

We got tired as the sun went down, and active when it rose; we were treated to the rhythm of the surf all day; the heat and salt renewed our bodies.

We found that rather than achieving peace by the addition of a new idea (quality time, marital togetherness, responsibility), we naturally removed the noise and distractions of a too-busy life, and so had no need of a new idea. We found that a more basic idea sufficed: the unity of the family.


It seems a little churlish to point out that family whose unity Mamet is extolling is in fact a prior one to the NY Times profile above – and in any case the point about the modern drive to do more and more, even turning doing less into doing more, still stands.

#Inktober is coming…

#Inktober is coming…

Last year I participated in #Inktober. This is a month-long drawing challenge devised by Jake Parker. Here is the description from the Inktober site:

Q: What is Inktober?
A: Inktober is a month long art challenge created by artist Jake Parker that is focused on improving skill and developing positive drawing habits. Every day for the month of October anyone participating in the Inktober challenge creates an ink drawing and posts it online. Remember to use the hashtags #inktober and #inktober2018 if you want your art to be seen by everyone.

Q. When is Inktober?
A: Inktober is every October. Post your first Inktober drawing on October 1st and your last on October 31st.

Q: Where is Inktober?
A: There is no official location or convention for Inktober. Wherever you live and create is where Inktober is.

My only art qualification is a ‘D’ in Junior Cert Art. I would have seen myself as a bad draughtsman all my life. I still do, but now enjoy doing my best. Drawing also gives one an insight into the world around. For instance a while back I did some pencil sketching at the Rock of Cashel and saw details I had always missed before. Tristan Gooley writes of how artists see things in a landscape few others do, and again without claiming any expertise I have found this to be true.

Inktober also led me to discover artists like Susan Alman and Mark Chilcott

Here is the official 2018 prompt list (you don’t have to follow it, but I do find it gives a structure and a challenge)

Heschyia – “where peace goes beyond peace” – from Paul Evdokimov’s The Art of the Icon

Continuing posts on heschyia (or heschuia) here is a passage from “The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty” by Paul Evdokimov

“It is very important to understand that apophatic theology, unlike agnosticism, is a particular way of “knowing through nonknowing.” It is the divine darkness conceived as a positive experience of God as the Existing One. Radical metanoia, the turning of the intellect up-side-down, the apophatic way limits nothing, for it goes beyond every limit toward the fullness of mystical union. Contemplation is therefore placed beyond discourse. The suspension of all cognitive, cataphatic activity culminates in hesychia, that is, the silent inner concentration, the gathering together of one’s inner forces where “peace goes beyond all peace

Hesychia – “the rest which flows from unceasing prayer”

I previously posted an extract from Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue on “hesuchia” – the rest that follows striving. I came across this from Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart

The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” The Greek word for rest is hesychia, and hesychasm is the term which refers to the spirituality of the desert. A hesychast is a man or a woman who seeks solitude and silence as the ways to unceasing prayer. The prayer of the hesychasts is a prayer of rest. This rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle. Abba Anthony even says to a fellow monk that it belongs “to the great work of a man . . . to expect temptations to his last breath.” Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy. Mother Theodora, one of the Desert Mothers, makes this very clear: “. . . you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie [sense of boredom], faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away

“silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth”

“silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth”

From Henri Nouwen’s The Way of The Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

These examples of silence in preaching, counseling, and organizing are meant to illustrate how silence can help to determine the practical shape of our ministry. But let us not be too literal about silence.

After all, silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth. Abba Poemen said: “A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent.”9 Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity.

Once a visitor said to a hermit, “Sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered, “My rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace.”10

Charity, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry. About this all the Desert Fathers are unanimous.

Emma Holland on the resurgent popularity of pilgrimage

Emma Holland on the resurgent popularity of pilgrimage

On the website Thinking Faith, Emma Holland has an interesting piece on the resurgence of popularlity of pilgrimage. I’ve blogged a lot here about Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace” a book which is particularly good on the messy human reality of pilgrimage. Indeed, it is good to recall the messy human reality of all sorts of monastic, mystical and otherwise otherworldly enterprises.

Bearing this in mind, as Holland points out, the Camino de Santiago in particular has had a massive surge in popularity:

The statistics about the number of people walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in 1986 point only to the sparseness of a forgotten trail. A low pilgrim population in the 80s turned an ancient path into more of a medieval legend. Rather than a well-known travel destination, the ancient ‘Way of St James’ was then little more than a dusty relic of Christian, and pagan, history. However, 21 years later, statistics show that 301,036 pilgrims received their Compostela certificates in 2017. [1] The powerful resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage, particularly of the Way of St James, is undeniable. Is pilgrimage providing the perfect nourishment for the ritualistic needs of a spiritually hungry generation?

The concept of ‘going on pilgrimage’ has traditionally evoked many ideas: undertaking a journey to serve a personal purpose; giving expression to a difficult situation through bodily action, in the hope of securing an outcome; following in the footsteps of many who have walked the same path before; fulfilling a religious obligation. The idea of pilgrimage has over time evolved to meet the expectations of a 21st century world and yet still, whether the hope is for healing, miracles, peace, or even weight loss, people choose to walk the gruelling 500 miles of the Camino, with the bare minimum of possessions, more than a thousand years after the first pilgrims.

I didn’t realise that in the 80s the numbers were so starkly low. one of the topics Adam DeVille touched on in his blog post which I cited the other day was the faslity of the lazy use of the term secular:

Fong’s book is worth it if only for this central insight, which comes almost exactly half-way through: “there is perhaps no more confused assertion, for a critical theorist, than that capitalist society is becoming increasingly ‘secular’.” Why churchmen and others insist on using this term or its even more fatuous variants (“secular humanism”) has never made sense to me–except, of course, to flog their hideous books.

(he’s talking about Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option)

Holland goes on to consider various frameworks for thinking about this:

Biblical and anthropological insights could shed some light on why this might be. The God of the Old Testament provided the people of Israel with ritual instruction, intending to show them how properly to praise their creator and provider. Rituals were the intended outlet for the heart, reinforced with a physical action. One such example is fasting. As Karen Eliasen describes: ‘Fasting as a ritual act is not merely a symbol or a metaphor for some other-worldly activity. It is an experience of concrete, this-worldly changes.’[3] Eliasen continues to say that these physical changes are part of a communication and dialogue between God and the people. In a similar way, pilgrimage is a way of physically enacting and embodying a conversation with God. It encompasses all manner of the human being: it is spatial, physical and it speaks to the inner emotional and spiritual dynamics of a person. To provide an example of this in another cultural context, anthropologist Catherine Allerton studied the padong journeys undertaken by the brides of Manggarai of Eastern Indonesia, whereby brides would walk long distances from their kin towards their spouse’s family, wailing on the way as a fully embodied image of the journey the heart is also taking.[4] Such pilgrimage rituals witness to an important inner journey and to the importance of documenting emotions through physical manifestations.

However, it is the anthropological theory of ‘liminality’ developed by Victor Turner that might be the most important lens through which to study the contemporary allure of pilgrimage. Liminality can be described as the ‘in-between’ place whereby one has crossed a threshold but has not yet arrived at a final place, communitas, a place of completion. Turner suggests that ‘pilgrimage provides a carefully structured, highly valued route to a liminal world where the ideal is felt to be real, where the tainted social persona may be cleansed and renewed’.[5] In other words, it is a place to forget socially-structured life before the pilgrimage and move towards the place of communitas. In a society seemingly more polarised than ever, the idea of being somewhere outside of the socio-political realm where one is equal with fellow pilgrims could be a highly appealing prospect. Pilgrimage almost has the ability to create a microcosmic utopian society, in which one bonds along the way with all those who are on the same inner and outer journeys.