Slí na Fírinne. A Christian Monastic Hedge School

     In his mid-teens John Moriarty read Darwin’s Origin of the Species and he says, “I fell out of my story.” He was man over-board. It was his Year One Reed when he suffered from Professor Ramsay’s sums! The world was not created in six days after all! (Nostos, 28). John lost his inherited traditional Catholic Faith. Through all his years in College and his years teaching & lecturing in Canada John was an agnostic, though he was still in touch with the Christian story in literature & art.

     On Spy (Holy) Wednesday 1971, at age thirty-three, John made a life-altering decision to leave academia in Canada (Department of Literature, University of Manitoba) and return to Ireland to seek his ‘bush soul’ outside of society. At first, he lived in a modest house on Inisbofin and later in a cottage rented from Lynn Hill of Toombeola, Connemara. He began to baptise himself out of culture and out of Christianity, but to his surprise it didn’t go as planned. Each evening, after work John spent many hours on the mountains or beside waterfalls meditating. He looked intently at and listened deeply to the flowing cascade of water. “One day, a day of soft rain, rain-drops glistening in the high heather, I sank to where there is no ego and now instead of saying ‘I hear’ I found myself saying, ‘Hearing is taking place, hearing is happening, hearing is,’ and instead of saying, ‘I see’ I found myself saying, ‘Seeing is happening, seeing is’, and I said to myself, ‘There’s a rare state of mind that makes the Head obsolete’, and a short while later, quietly finding words for what was going on, I said, ‘The empirical mind is the third eye’s blindspot’. I was back the next day and all of this I experienced all over again and at dusk it happened, I crossed, or no, I was let into other ground. In its bliss would be a distraction and a vulgarity. Utterly be wondered, I said, ‘So this is it’.” (Nostos, 518)

     Another day in the spring of 1974 at Lough Inagh John had a vastly deeper mystical experience that shattered him to his core. The whole universe itself vanished from round about him, leaving him in an infinite void (Nostos, 520) “The world in and through which I had been a self, that was an illusion, it had vanished, leaving that infinitely isolated self in peril of disintegration.” (Nostos, 520) At that moment John felt utterly ruined and he trembled as he struggled to cycle home and that night he found himself a Christ-beseeching praying Christian. “I was a Christian for the first time” (Nostos, 522) In his changed life, John found Gethsemane and Golgotha making sense to him, and his companion now was Christ who endured Gethsemane and Golgotha and came through, giving John hope that he too would come through. (Nostos, 524) Each night now John spent many hours praying—there was more of me more intensely involved in that praying than ever there could be in even the most sensuous, most passionate lovemaking…. that kind of prayer emerges from depths that our instincts have no access to.” (Nostos, 258) John reread The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross and this helped him understand what was happening to him in his ‘dark night of the soul’. He was enabled to blindly surrender to the abyss of faith. (Nostos, 531) “Now, as though the ephphatha of my baptism was at work in me, I saw into Christian truth in a way that I previously hadn’t.” (Nostos, 533) “I saw that I would spend the rest of my life attempting to tell the Christian story. Even if Christianity ceased from the earth and No Christian was left, I must still attempt to tell it. (Nostos, 534) To help him cope now John went for a year (1977) to a Carmelite Monastery near Oxford, UK, where a Fr. Norbert was his advisor and spiritual director. John integrated well into monastic life—attending all the prayers and liturgies and working in the gardens. He found the rhythm of the monastic day as perfect as the Ardagh chalice (Ireland’s most treasured medieval cup for Eucharistic wine). He would gladly spend the rest of his life here, but Fr. Norbert said it would limit him and fence him in, and he advised him to return to Ireland and write.

     John did come back to Ireland and spent many hours and long nights reading and meditating on the works of Mystics, especially St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Henry Suso, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, Pascal and others. John called these writings ‘The Fifth Gospel’. They are a mystical Magna Carta. A Bible that is a trustworthy Vade Mecum (a constantly consulted guidebook). A Bible that can justly say: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.” (Curlew, 251) He said their accounts of what the mystics endured in their ‘dark night of the soul’ gives a better insight into what Jesus suffered in the Triduum Sacrum (Holy Thursday in Gethsemane, Good Friday on Golgotha, and Easter morning in garden of the sepulchre) than the Gospels do. “It is backward from Christian mystics not forward from Old Testament prophets that we best understand Jesus.” (Buddh Gaia, 122)

     Over time John felt the need to promote Christian mystical living and to reach it to people of the wider world. He was inspired to establish a Christian Monastic Hedge School for Adults. He named it ‘Slí na Fírinne’—‘The Trail of Truth’ or ‘The Adventure of our Immortality’. This would be a refounded monastery for a ‘new Christian Epoch’—the epoch of ‘Canyon Christianity’. John used the imagery of Christ in Gethsemane going down through all the strata of the ages Grand Canyon deep in the worlds karma and healing it all towards God when he went to a depth in himself and in the world where “I” is “we.” (Curlew, 249) All life, living and extinct on earth has been redeemed and renewed by what Jesus did. Indeed, the whole psyche is claimed for sanctity and the very earth itself has now become a new evolutionary journey. (Curlew, 250) Jesus is now our “Tirthankara” (an individual in ancient Indian Jainism who prepared the way for others) who opens a way for us to a further shore. John invites us to stay awake with Jesus and fall in with him on this mystical road he pioneered. Jesus said “I Am the Way” John noted: “Mystics, generally speaking, are those who go for broke, letting all experience of themselves fall away in the hope of an experience of God being God.” (Buddh Gaia, 103)

     Some ninety years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, proposed that practical mysticism should be at the heart of religion. Twenty years later Karl Rahner said: “the Church of the future will be mystical or not at all and in September 2021.” Pope Francis said: “There is a danger Europe will become a management office. It must go to the mystical, seek the roots of Europe and carry them forward.” John Moriarty challenges us  to keep the dangerous memory of Jesus alive in the present & on into a new future. Slí na Fírinne would be a local initiative independent of Church and State. It would be in a quiet place of great beauty right in middle of the natural world which would be left as undisturbed as possible and work there would be as little industrialized as possible. (SnF, 154) This monastery would be Christian in inspiration & ethos & practice. In the rhythm of the day, it would be monastic with periods of chanted prayer & silent meditation. There would be work in the gardens and orchards. Animals and hens would be reared and cared for.

     John Moriarty was convinced Christianity will flourish again when people have a life-changing encounter with Jesus that transforms how they see, live and act. He called this transformation ‘movement essential’ which he compared to metamorphosis in insects. In his book Invoking Ireland John felt sad that too many are now Fomorians with Balor’s poisoned eye, reducing everything in sight to commodity. To live a transformed life is ‘to walk beautifully upon the earth’. It is to be on a new road of initiations by inheriting one’s Baptism and walking the Christian Sacramental Road from the moment the Paschal Candle is lit at one’s cradle going before them & guiding them in time to the final time it is lit at their coffin going before them & guiding them into eternity. (Serious Sounds, 55) “There are Christians who don’t only walk behind this light, letting it find their way for them…they advance into sacramental assimilation with it, and so it is that they continue to be what they have become, a willing if wounded light of Christ in the world.” (Serious Sounds, 55) On the Christian Sacramental road encountering the Divine, their lives cease to be just ordinary. They are accompanied by ‘Another’ like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is encouraging, transforming and life giving.

     The late Gabriel Moran, in one of his last books (Believing in a Revealing God: The Basis of the Christian Life, 2009) before his death 2021, imagines the Church of the future as a community of small communities with between eight and eleven people in each. Here all are equal as they listen to one another and celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord among them. Gabriel’s underlying thesis is that Divine Revelation is present both in the teachings of Christian mystics and in community participation of women and men in sacred liturgical praying. This was also John Moriarty’s insight. He had in mind that a small group would join him permanently in Slí na Fírinne monastery to the point of no return. Their commitment and lifestyle would wake up the world. During weekends and at other times they would welcome people from the wider world to spend time with them. These people would be touched, moved, and inspired chiefly by their experience of the Monastic day, but there would also be formal teachings on the works of the great Christian mystics and indeed on the works of mystics from other religions too. John was adamant: “This is not a flight from the world but is serious engagement otherwise & elsewhere.” The monastic community of Slí na Fírinne would be a virtue in the world—a new way of being Christian with Jesus, a new way of being church with one another, a new pilgrim’s progress back to Divine Ground.

     John called this a new ‘Christian Temple’, and he went walkabout to the center of Ireland to bury the ground plan of it. With the help of generous donors, he bought a plot of 23 acres on the hillside above Kilgarvan (Cill Garbháin, County Kerry) and he secured planning permission to build there. The ground plan was a ‘mandala’ design with the oratory in the center similar to many Temples in the East oriented to the cardinal points of the compass. This monastery would also be an ecological initiative with organic orchards, gardens, people, and animals would live together ecumenically as subjects, not as ‘them and us. Work would be as little industrialised as possible without big engine sounds or the revving roars of chainsaws. (SnF, 154) The monastic day would be structured around three periods of chanted prayer and silent meditation. Here the principal ritual would be ‘Tenebrae’ celebrated on Saturday nights, for which John composed a totally new text based on the writings of the Christian mystics, and as the celebration progressed, at intervals one of the fifteen candles on the ‘Tenebrae Harrow’ would be extinguished. As the church got darker in this process so would one ritually enter the darkness of Good Friday and the ‘dark night of the soul’. Eventually only the last candle at the apex of the candelabrum would still be lighted, and this is then taken to a cave behind the altar and all pray and meditate in somber silence in the darkened church. With senses and faculties quenched like extinguished candles, one can be on the way to the cloud of unknowing. “Our next transition is to a new paradigm, the paradigm of mind in its short-comings, of the thread running out…. It is here the journey becomes mystical. Our light of faith quenched, we surrender to the night of faith: Oh, night that guides. Oh, night more lovely than the dawn.” (Buddh Gaia, 116) “Candles quenched and, as though they were distractions, our senses and faculties quenched. As quenched as they are in dreamless sleep. Out of God’s way now what may happen next Meister Eckart has described: ‘Comes then the soul into the unclouded light of God. It is transported so far from creaturehood into nothingness that, of its own powers, it can never return to its senses and faculties or its former creaturehood. Once there, God shelters the soul’s nothingness with his uncreated essence, safeguarding its creaturely existence. The soul has dared to become nothing, and cannot pass from its own being into nothingness and back again, losing its own identity in the process, except God safeguarded it. This must needs be so.” (Serious Sounds, 59)

     John noted Pascal’s belief “in the difference between a book accepted by a people and a book that creates a people.” John’s hope was that what religion selects nature too would in time select. Having become second nature, habit might in time become primary nature. (SnF, 126) Later on when the candle behind the altar is brought back, held high and lighting and placed again on the apex of the candelabrum it symbolises the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead inspiring hope. All the church lights are then turned on in a blaze of brightness. It is Easter morning in our nature now all over again. As Hopkins asserts: ‘Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us’. Like his Irish ancestors, John was convinced of the need for Cabhair Dé (God’s help.) “If, while I was in the womb, my umbilical cord had been cut, I would have been in trouble, wouldn’t I? Similarly, if my connection with the divine is severed, there is essential nourishment I am not getting and whether I acknowledge it or not I am in trouble- and a source of trouble to whatever environs me.” (Horsehead, xxiii) John was convinced that more science and more knowledge are not enough to nourish us for the modern soul is in big trouble. (Nostos, 138) “Yes, our Hadrian’s Wall has collapsed and the cosmologies and geographies our minds were moored to are with the four winds.” (Dreamtime, 15) “We badly need the shelter of a great religion for we are in the desert of Zin with our Cartesian clarities and our minds are dried up.” (Dreamtime, 51-52) We need to embark on a new venture towards God as Noah was called to build a new nave. (Dreamtime, 13) “And God’s adventure towards us! Who knows what God’s adventure towards us will be! A transverberated Universe? A Universe transverberated in every atom? …Religiously, everything is enfranchised. Religiously, the highest possibility, the possibility of blissful transcendence, is available to everything.” (Dreamtime, 16)

     The Slí na Fírinne community would spend much of Sunday contemplating in the great outdoors, spending hours in the solitudes of the natural world with minds, eyes, and ears wide open to the miracle & wonder and stupendousness of nature. It is coming home to the Paradise we live in and we are abroad in the first morning of the world vindicating God as creator. (SnF, 4) We are walking in excelsis—walking in paradise. John contemplated two Easters: in one we awaken to the extraordinary, in the other we waken to the ordinary and of the two this second is by far the more blessed. In fact, the ordinary world calls us even before we are born. Tá sé ag glaoch orainn … (Nostos, 487) Far too often we fail to see the unaccountable beingness and thereness of things. We fail to stand before them in their eternal unexplainableness. “How corrupted by a mind that needs to explain things are the eyes with which we see things!” (Nostos, 492, and Buddh Gaia, 117)

     One’s mind and spirit can be renewed by conscious sensorial contact with nature as it is in itself with no distortion by intention or purpose. Just let it be in its unexpectedness, in its ontologically insurgent strangeness. Just be reverent towards it. (Curlew, 123) Then one can walk beautifully on the earth with a barefoot heart and a barefoot brain and be symphonic with nature as they tune into their surroundings with total awareness and keen appreciation of its wonders and secrets by just being itself in its utter uniqueness. John coined the word ‘thaumophany’ to describe this bewondering of the world in glorious landscapes and in all living species. (Nostos, 483) In the story of the voyage of Bran Mac Feabhail, he introduces us to ‘Silver Branch Perception’ in the wonders of creation. (SnF, 34-46) It is all around us and there is a miracling point in nature just as there is a freezing point in it and people who meditate and pray come unexpectedly into it.” In the end they simply live from it, and then they don’t even need to perform miracles, miracles simply happen in their presence (Nostos, 435). The marvellous other world that Bran Mac Feabhail set sail for turns out to be this world newly perceived…. A voyage to new seeing is, inevitably, a voyage to new be-ing.” (Curlew, 209).

     This makes ‘being’ into a verb calling for altered behaviour towards our sacred earth, towards Buddh Gaia. Then we can emerge into


In a new world. We will then have a centre that will hold.

     On the mystical journey experience, not theory, is central. Whether suffering the dark night of the soul where the absence of God is keenly felt and one surrenders to the night of faith or having a Mount Thabor like experience where Gods immediate presence is felt intensely, the experience in each case is transforming. Of the former Fenelon gives a derelictive description of God in darkness, in privation, in forsakenness, in insensibility, is so much God, that he is so to speak God bare and alone. (SnF, 142) One having the latter experience is in an altered state of consciousness where ego is left behind and they feel all is one in the One. Afterwards one has a tremendous sensitivity to all sentient beings with an urgent concern for ecological initiatives. One moves beyond anthropocentrism to include the well-being of all species everywhere on this fragile planet. One realizes that all of life is alive with the pulse and grandure of God. The human is just one of many species sharing a common home where all are ‘we’ with their own unique consciousness. We are interbeings valuing and reverencing the gifts of each.

     I well remember Thursday afternoon 23rd November 2006, Feast of St. Columbanus, founder of many monasteries. I was visiting John Moriarty who was very ill in his house in Coolies. Yet there was great satisfaction in his face as he gave me a copy of Slí na Fírinne saying: “it is built in words anyway and someone will build it. Maybe it’s in South America this will start!! But it will start some place.” He felt sad that his health was failing but he was careful to surrender his vision to others. He felt it was time ‘to welcome Christ back into Ireland’. He was convinced that a worthwhile and urgent work would attract generous and self-sacrificing helpers and volunteers.

     It is now over to us to found Slí na Fírinne as John envisioned. In this post pandemic time many feel the loss of loved ones who died alone and didn’t even have a proper funeral. There is still a lot of chaos and upheaval, but John Moriarty has shown how life can be less inadequate if we found Slí na Fírinne Monastic Hedge School for adults. It will be a monastery of hospitality where people can visit or stay for a few days or longer. Here the onward rush and tumult of life is left behind for a few days and one has time for the soul to breathe and be refreshed as they tune into the deep hearts core. The support and understanding of an anamchara (‘soul friend’) energises them and gives them renewed confidence to go forward in life knowing they can return again to this monastic oasis when needed. We now need visionaries with intuition, imagination and heart insight who will incarnate John’s vision. We need someone who is a cutting-edge innovator like John was. I recall him saying we need to be as original as Jesus was. Mere logic can be a stumbling block as skeptics say it’s impossible. It is action that will make the difference when one is on the pitch playing full out and not sitting in the stands as a mere spectator. Are you or someone you know ready for this new venture? Will you make John’s dying dream a reality for the 21st century? Then we again, will have a center that will hold, and a light can shine from our island home.

Reflection by Br. Seán Aherne