In summary then, from being a high flying king of the hill, I was taken down to being a broken-hearted child killer. My social circle was miniscule, and rarefied. I still had a job, and I clung on to that for dear life. I resolved to ‘reboot’, to rebuild myself from scratch, but what with?
I was 27. My numerology book told me that is 3 to the power of 3, and 3 is the number of the Trinity. (Mystic significance, eh?) My astrology book revealed I was a Leo, born in the year of the Tiger. My book of names informed me that I shared my name with the last High King of Ireland, and it meant ‘hill’ or ‘prominence’. My birthplace was Redhill: was this some meaningful coincidence? None of that was of any help to me, except, oddly, to swell my ego. I spent long periods lying on my bed staring at the light bulb in the ceiling of my hospital room, or washing myself clean in the shower. I was lost at sea. I started drinking a lot, alone and in company.
I didn’t know how to pray, only to recite the prayers of childhood, which meant nothing to me. I was long lapsed from the Church, and I didn’t know a Catholic soul outside of my family. My mother rang, one evening, to say she had bumped into an old school-friend of mine, who was now ordained a Catholic priest. He had obviously left a strong impression on her. My sense of abject failure almost overwhelmed me, as she excitedly told me this news. My discomfort made me repress this.
Then, on Boxing day 1989, St Stephen’s day, I suddenly remembered him again, (his name is Stephen). I tried to write to him, but my letter was too wacky and rambling to send. I had been reading random sections from the Bible, and like a silly fundamentalist, getting terribly confused. I was hovering, like a midge, in and out of the mouth of madness, at this point, you see.
I must have cut a pathetic figure wandering around the hospital with a sad face, and little to say that made any sense. Strangers asked me if I was alright, all the time. I became depersonalised, watching myself going through the motions of life. Strangely, I was happiest when buried in my work, at which I remained fully functioning, on autopilot, as it were.
Colleagues noticed my troubled demeanour and provided great support, unbidden. I was invited out for social events, but was always the monomaniac party pooper in return. It was at this point that two books came into my possession. The first was ‘Siddhartha’, a classic novel by Hermann Hess detailing the spiritual journey of a young man during the time of Buddha. I had never read a book like this before, and I wasn’t in the habit of reading much anyway, but I devoured it in 2-3 sittings.
The second was gifted to me by a Hindu Brahmin acquaintance from medical school days. It was a transcript of the words of an Indian guru called Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, titled “I am that”. (This is a book deserving a post all of its own). It provided me with insights into the world of Indian spirituality, a whole new world to me. The book didn’t make any great sense, at this point, but I held onto it.
To relieve my festering soul, I went on retreat to my parent’s home in Ireland, in January 1990. I took three weeks off work, and for the only time in my life, gave up smoking completely. I walked and walked, and read and read, and listened to the radio, and watched the TV. I had bought a posh radio at Luton airport, on my way over: I wanted input, guidance, inspiration, but I was looking to the media for it! My poor parents thought I was having a nervous breakdown, because of my odd talk and ideas. I was far too clever to speak to them, the ill-educated Irish peasants that I saw them as. I was still lovesick for Helen, the junior doctor back in London. I remember being quite obsessed with a pop song/video by Sinead O’Connor, ‘Nothing compares to U’ that was playing incessantly at the time. It just seemed the perfect song for my situation. Silly, I know now.
I clearly remember choosing to set off early one morning to walk in a straight line towards the Cistercian monastery, some 25 miles distant. With my new waxed jacket, moleskin trousers and Doc Martens boots, and a few Mars bars in my pocket, I strode off on my own home-brewed ‘pilgrimage’. Things went well for the first seven miles, but then the wind came up and the rain came down. I was climbing a small mountain range, trying to keep to my line, and the heather and bracken were manageable, but then a belt of forestry got in my way. I ploughed in, but it was very hard going: my ankles were continuously twisting on old tree stumps, and fallen trees were blocking my path in all directions. My progress slowed terribly. I began to feel cold and very lonely. My chocolate ration seemed far from adequate. I noticed that my thinking and moving were getting very slow and clumsy. I had no thermometer, but I guessed I was getting hypothermic. The self preservation instinct kicked in and I headed down and out of the forest. I made it to a clearing full of felled trees, with a track leading out from it. I sheltered beside some logs, to get out of the breeze and driven rain. I still have a photograph I took of my pathetic self, sheltering there. The weather not abating, I went to plan B and started back to ‘civilization’. I knew of a pub some four miles away, and tramped off in that direction, after rejoining the road. It took two hours as I was still groggy, because of the cold. I staggered into the empty pub mid-afternoon and plonked myself before the fire, shivering mightily. I called my Dad from there and was soon retrieved. I couldn’t help imagining my father thinking what a foolish son he had in me, as we drove home.
A few days later, on a trip to town I went into a book shop and came across a plain and simple book called ‘One Minute Wisdom’, by some Indian guy called Anthony de Mello SJ. It was full of short funny tales, one per page. I dimly remembered that SJ meant Jesuit, and that they were the Pope’s stormtroopers (thank God for a Catholic school education). I also picked up ‘Return to the Centre’ by Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk turned Indian Sannyasi. Both books seemed to resonate with my earlier reads: I was turning to the East. I bought them both and went home.
Those little, chance book purchases were to have big repercussions for me, though I had no foretelling of them…….
Cliffhanger ending again, folks. The discussion topics this time are “spiritual follies” and “books that have changed my life”. Please, can some of the silent witnesses of this blog overcome their shyness and contribute a comment or two?