Archive for the ‘Joe’s Blog’ Category

More Humanist musings

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Time passes so quickly! As ever, the challenge is to live in the present. To  savour this moment. To be thankful for all we have and all we are. Being human, all too often we only appreciate things when we’ve lost them.  So enjoy this day. Count your blessings. All you have going for you. Stand back a bit and reflect. Breathe. That heart won’t tick forever. It’s later than you think, and all that. Health, our greatest wealth. The people in our lives. Be thankful too for yourself. I always liked the line from one of the psalms: ‘For the wonder of myself.’ Most of us need to consider that. For each life, ours included, is full of wonder. Sure, we’ve all made mistakes. But we’ve got a lot right too. Made more good decisions than poor ones. We’re survived. We’re reading this. We live. Hope lives. Life exudes all around us. Expel air. Breathe it in. You won’t always be able to do that. Heart ticking. Yours. Mine. For now. So, enjoy this moment.

A Humanist Ash Wednesday?

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Ash Wednesday, 01 March 2017
The Last Word has phoned me and there’s a pre-recorded interview scheduled for 3.45pm today on the theme of Ash Wednesday.
I gave it a bit of thought and rang back agreeing to do the interview.
I feel privileged to have been asked.
I guess it’s exploring a question I’ve been musing on a bit myself. Yes we don’t need the penitence and the guilt.
But it is a day, an opportunity, a moment to ponder our inevitable mortality, the inevitability of our own death.
And it is perhaps an invitation to live this day well.
You never see a hearse with a trailer, so amassing possessions isn’t what life’s about.
Fame is a deceitful and unfulfilling thing.
Winners’ trophies may end up pawned or thrown into skips.
Excessive work can lead to an early grave and an empty home.
Remember man thou art but dust
And unto dust thou shalt return.’
Perhaps it’s forgetfulness of our inevitable mortality that leads us down so many cul de sacs in life.
As a Humanist, I am convinced that this is my one and only life. I do not believe nor do I feel the need to believe in an afterlife.
So Ash Wednesday reminds me, lest I forget it, that I will die.
And I could die before tomorrow’s sunrise, or even before today’s sun has set. Or even before the interview with Matt – partly why I chose to upload this now! The interview might not happen or it might not be broadcast. But now is real. Now I live.
Lessons for me? Don’t worry about tomorrow – I mightn’t even be alive.
Live this moment to the full.
Choose time out to ponder and reflect and to be self-aware.
Be grateful for those who have loved me, and those I love.
Enjoy this moment – it really may be my last one.
Choose moderation rather than excess – there’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.
Embrace ‘enough’ as a value and be wary of that seductive word ‘more’
Cultivate the gratitude attitude.
Know thyself. (Socrates)
And do what you are best at for the benefit of others. (Aristotle)

The interview with Matt Cooper was broadcast on Today FM on Ash Wednesday 1 March 2017. Prof Salvador Ryan, Professor of Ecclesiastical History,  St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and Joe Armstrong discussed the significance of Ash Wednesday, for Christians and Humanists. It was a fun, lighthearted and harmonious discussion.

Time flies

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

Sometimes it feels like there’s just too much going on – like children growing up and leaving home. Was I blinking? How did that happen so fast? College calls. CAO. UCAS. Wherever.

Choosing what to do aged 18 or 19 is probably most people’s first adult decision. Mine was to enter a seminary (although I’d later see leaving it, nine years later, as my first adult choice). And today new generations set off on their chosen paths aged 18 or so to learn their trade or profession, to chart their course, to create their future. They decide. They act. And off they go embarking upon the great adventure of life!

Humanist musings

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

I’m loving being a Humanist celebrant. There’s something wonderful about it for me, doing something I love, something that has meaning, something I’m good at, something that each day, for each ceremony, for each couple or family or individual, is different.

It helps me to live in the here and now. Celebrating this particular couple’s marriage, or this unique family’s new baby, or this distinctive person’s life.

It’s working and living in the real. It’s inclusive of everyone. Being with people crying with joy – what a privilege that is! Crafting ceremonies appropriate to each couple or family or person. And then from planning to execution, celebrating the moment, conducting the words and the readings and the music and the rituals. Yes, living in the now.

Humanists ask questions. That is where we start. We never shy, or should never shy, from asking our questions. We endeavour to think for ourselves, trying never to let others think for us. We choose. We decide. We act. We create. We are responsible. That’s what we try to do anyway. Fail, of course; and probably often. But we keep trying, keep asking.

The couple whose wedding I conducted today chose wonderful readings. Stimulating. Different. Thoughtful. Reflective. Moving. Dramatic. There were lots of moist eyes in the room. The hairs were standing on the back of my neck during one of the readings, the poem ‘It Is Here’ by Harold Pinter, which ends:

What did we hear?

It was the breath we took when we first met.

Listen. It is here.

Dear Sarah, On the Eve of your Leaving Cert

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Dear Sarah, my daughter, on the eve of your Leaving Cert,

I know you think that the entire outcome of your life hinges on how well you do in your exams.

It doesn’t.

I know you think that the grades that you feel you have to get will determine your happiness or unhappiness in life.

They won’t.

I know you think that your performance during your exams will open or close doors for you.

It won’t. (Really, it won’t: there are thousands of doors you don’t even know exist – and you will choose one of them for you!)

You may think that a certain outcome will open the particular door that you feel you most want in life.

It might or it might not open that door. But your happiness does not depend on that door opening.

You may think that the grades you get will determine how clever or otherwise you are.

They won’t.

You may think that others will judge you by the points you get in your Leaving Cert.

They won’t. (And those who do are not wise, so you can discount their judgments anyway.)

You might feel like a sword is hanging over your head.

There isn’t.

If you get the grades you want, they might or might not lead to happiness.

You could learn much more in life and be far happier if you get fewer grades than you’d like.

You know lots. Of course there is lots more that you don’t know. So in the celebrations of knowledge which are about to begin try your best to celebrate on the page what you know.

And, by the way, you know far more than you realise.

And you also know far less! (Since the more any of us know, the more we realise how relatively little we know.)

Don’t expect to be able to share everything you know: nobody can do that.

Live the moment. Live this moment.

Enjoy this moment, and, yes, enjoy, really enjoy, these celebrations of what you know. See them as your opportunity to do yourself justice – because you do deserve to do well. Just don’t worry how anyone else estimates what well means for you.

Detach! Don’t worry about the outcome. Just live in the moment. Enjoy every moment!

Love, Your Dad. 7 June 2016

What would a Humanist Ireland look like?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

It would begin with children. Every child in Ireland would have equal access to his or her local national primary and second-level State-funded schools. None would be discriminated against because he or she was not baptized.

How shameful it is that in 21st-century Ireland that that still remains the case!

And, staying with children, in a Humanist Ireland, young children would not be taught to believe in deities simply because their parents or grandparents believed in them. The integrity of children’s minds would be respected. Children would not be taught as ‘fact’ something for which there is not one whit of evidence.

Warping children’s minds is intellectual child abuse. There was a time when lots of people got away with child sexual abuse because the wider community didn’t appreciate how shameful a thing it was to sexually abuse children. Or they didn’t realize how pervasive it was. Or it was just hidden and not talked about, so unlikely and outlandish did it sound.

Likewise, it’s not that long ago since corporal punishment was allowed in schools: physical abuse of children was socially acceptable. Now, thank goodness, neither child sexual nor physical abuse is tolerated.

So how long will it take before people realise that to abuse children’s minds is equally despicable?  Why do we still think it’s OK to teach children that man-made deities exist, watch them, judge them and will punish or reward them?

I speak as someone who believed in a religion for years, who staked my life on that false belief and spent nine years studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood. I, more perhaps than many, realize the tortuous and difficult path from belief to unbelief. It is like casting off an addiction. It is to rethink everything.

Imagine if a society believed it acceptable to give alcohol and drugs to children as young as three and five and seven and nine and twelve? And yet, I submit, that is what we do in having children ‘imbibe the faith’. A nice word for indoctrination.

Religions indoctrinate children because if most sensible, rational and reasonable adults were to  first encounter the crazy doctrines of religion as an adult they would laugh and dismiss them without giving them another second’s thought.

So what would a Humanist Ireland look like? Equal access by all children to their local State-funded primary and second-level schools, with baptismal privilege abandoned as not only discriminatory but abusive of children’s innocent minds.

‘Email to ISIS’ by Michael Murphy is magnificent

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Michael Murphy, psychoanalyst and author of A Chaplet of Roses – Twenty-four Poems,  had a fascinating discussion on the RTE Radio 1 ‘Today’ Show with Sean O’Rourke on Monday 16 November. Hosted that day by Keelin Shanley, the 8-minute clip explores the Terror attacks in Paris and asks what drives people to carry out such attacks?

Five minutes into the clip, the peerless and regrettably former RTE newscaster reads from his ‘Email to ISIS’ in his new book. It is brave and sure, providing a brilliant synthesis, overview and critique of the insanity of dangerous religious ideas.

You can listen to the full eight-minute interview by clicking here which would be time very well spent but if you’re pressed for time, you can scroll forward to his extract from ‘Email to ISIS’ which begins five minutes into the clip.

I think it should be part of any religious studies syllabus in any school which truly wishes to educate rather than to indoctrinate pupils. Seminaries of all religions should regard is as compulsory reading too.

How better the world would be had its wisdom been known to the Crusaders, the Inquisition, Hitler, Stalin and of course the newest manifestation of intolerance and tyranny: ISIS.

The complete poem can be found in Michael Murphy’s new collection A Chaplet of Roses which is available in all good bookshops.

Blanchardstown Hospital Memorial Event

Monday, November 30th, 2015

I was honoured to be invited to represent the Humanist Association of Ireland at a commemorative event held at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, on 30 November 2015.

A psychotherapist spoke of the process of coping with grief and loss, how we can feel lost and that our very identities have changed when someone close to us has died. She spoke of the value of talking about the deceased, taking time out during the day to sit perhaps with a cuppa and a photo of the loved one. Letting memories surface and remembering even their foibles. Often, she said, people can feel distracted and feel that they’re going mad. That certainly echoed in me: I was so absent-minded after the deaths of my mother and brother earlier this year. My mind was elsewhere, as it needed to be.

There were two separate 90-minute commemoration services held. At each there was a choir from nearby primary schools. The kids were great and they contributed a lot to the ceremonies. In the second of the two sessions a Roman Catholic priest, chaplain Tony O’Riordan, spoke from a religious faith perspective; followed by a guitarist playing the Ave Maria. Then Rev Ken Lynsey, a Methodist minister spoke, structuring his contribution around the four words trauma, tears, talk and time. In short, bereavement is a trauma, it’s good to cry and talk, and grief takes time. A Muslim woman spoke and then the choir sang and then a nurse manager read ‘For Grief’ by John O’Donohue. Then the guitarist played the Beatles’ ‘In My Life’, followed by Church of Ireland chaplain Hilda Plant, who chose an apt quotation from anti-Nazi dissident and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The choir then sang the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ and then I spoke. I was conscious that much of the contributions had been from a religious faith perspective and I thanked and commended the organisers for inviting voices inter-faith “and none” and I was happy to be a representative of people who do not believe in any deity or an afterlife.

I shared ‘We Are Leaves’ which I had written this time last year for the Humanist Association of Ireland’s annual commemoration to support the bereaved. A month after reciting it last January, my mother had died, and a month after that, my brother died. And a dear friend, Marist priest Denis Green, died more recently still.

People seemed to get some comfort from it and I enjoyed delivering it, and I was very happy to be there representing people who do not feel the need to believe in a deity or an afterlife in order to find their meaning in life, even in the face of death.

Denis Green, Marist priest, RIP

Friday, October 9th, 2015

DenisGlendalough A man whom I loved, Denis Green, Marist priest, died on Wednesday night 6 October 2015. He will be buried today. He was the priest whose distinctive, lovely voice forms the backbone of my RTE Radio One Documentary, From Belief to Unbelief. He was with me when my father died in 1981. He helped me break the psychological umbilical cord with my mother. Aged 94, he was, to the end, the youngest man I have ever known. He was open. He was himself. He was engaging. He was genuinely interested in people and ideas and books. He was devout. He was, every inch of him, an actor. From the first moment he lectured us in novitiate back in 1980 he stood before us as one who might have leaped from a Shakespearean stage. He loved life. He loved people.

He was one of the worst singers known to human history, but that never stopped him singing! A memory: some 40 seminarians doubled over with uncontrollable laughter in the chapel at Mount St  Mary’s, Milltown, as Denis attempted with abject ineptitude to sing the Eucharistic Prayer.

His infamy as a singer was very closely matched by his reputation as a driver. On one occasion after I was astonished still to be alive I felt something needed to be said.

‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re a good driver, Denis?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t believe anyone ever did.’

‘Think about it.’

And he was the kind of guy you could say something like that to – i.e., be entirely honest with – and nothing would harm the relationship.

He told me years ago that he wanted ‘How Great Thou Art’ sung at his funeral. Yesterday, before his coffin was brought from the chapel at Mount St Mary’s – the same chapel in which his gorgeous voice reverberates in my documentary – I told the congregation gathered there that Denis had told me that he wanted it sung at his funeral. And I, atheist and Humanist celebrant, appealed to those present to sing it with gusto and I led the singing and everyone joined in and we did him proud. The place came alive again, Denis’s final farewell to Mount St Mary’s.

Born on 11 June, 1921, in Clontarf, Dublin, he was a pupil at Catholic University School (CUS), Leeson Street, and he worked there as a chaplain until very recently. CUS is closed today as a mark of respect to him. He entered the Marist novitiate in 1940 and was ordained on 23 March 1947. In 1952 he was offered a place at the Sorbonne but he accepted a place in Cambridge! He worked in England from 1955 to 1975, as a teacher, headmaster and as Provincial of the then English Province of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers). He came back to Ireland in 1975 and he was one of four priests in charge of us in my novitiate 1980-1981. He also taught at Chanel College, Coolock;  was associated with the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow; with St Killian’s German School, Dublin; and he was for a while Secretary General of the Marist Fathers in Rome.

Denis, I loved you. You were a human being! You lived a good life! You were open and thoughtful, creative and caring, affectionate and loving. Goodbye my friend.


Still loving conducting Humanist weddings

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

I still love conducting Humanist wedding ceremonies. Each one is different. Each couple is different. Every gathering of relatives and friends is different.

Ironically, it’s great when something goes wrong! Everyone relaxes and realizes the burden of it having to be ‘perfect’ is a myth. It’s always great once that first thing happens that puts people at their ease. A baby cries. A song goes wrong. A little ring bearer runs off with the rings. The parents can’t light a candle because the air conditioning keeps blowing the candles out. Someone has a fit of the giggles.

Once, at the very end of a ceremony, the bride was trying to say something to me but the music was loud and she was on the far side of a table and it was hard to catch what she was saying.

Eventually I heard her, ‘He didn’t kiss me!’

‘Stop the music!’ I cried. ‘The groom didn’t kiss the bride!’

And the music stopped and the audience watched and the groom kissed his bride and everyone cheered and clapped and roared with glee and the music resumed and the couple processed down the aisle and there was great merriment, excitement and fun.

And yes there was a little lad who blew out the candles and ran off with the wedding rings just before the exchange of rings. He was rugby tackled by his dad – well, OK, not rugby tackled – but brought back into the ceremony room, and the rings restored to the Best Man just in time.

And yes once a guest dropped the wedding rings early in a ceremony and they were a hair’s breadth from dropping down a gap between floor boards in an ancient stately home.

It’s great when the couple, especially the bride, relaxes and enjoys every moment; realizing that it isn’t about external things at all. It’s about living the moment, cherishing the important things, celebrating the love the couple share for each other and the commitment that they are making publicly to their partner. I think of the bride who decided, when I met her outside the chapel, that she’d be far more comfortable in her boots than her wedding shoes and decided to go up the aisle in the boots instead. She asked my view. I suggested comfort first. ‘I like your style,’ she said.

And once the bride is chilled out and relaxed and living the moment it’s much more likely that everyone else will enjoy themselves too.

Happily, I’ve encountered very, very, very few bridezillas! But, unlike the deities, they do exist – perhaps just one per hundred brides. You can spot them by the state of panic of the unfortunate groom, who might remove something beautiful a florist or decorator did because ‘she’ would see red. Or I’m told confidentially by the venue manager that they’re all on tenterhooks because of the unreasonable demands of the bride. Or the musicians might agree with a small last minute amendment I propose but they wouldn’t make the change because they’re terrified of Zilla, lest the improvement incur her displeasure. Or I spot something that I know won’t work for the ceremony, fix it and come back moments later only to see that someone playing watchman for the bride has changed it back to the way that I know won’t work.

The exceptions might make the good stories but the greatest stories are the ordinary, lovely, gorgeous, hopeful, committed couples who just want a personal ceremony that is about them and who want to show their families and friends their loving commitment to one another. They want to feel relaxed and they want their guests to enjoy their wedding. I think of all the couples that I have met, wonderful people, who have found love and hope and joy, and whose lives have joined together in a union of trust and encouraging mutual acceptance. And they want to celebrate that love by getting married.

Often they may have their children there and we include the children in the ceremony. Often the kids make the ceremony. We might have planned to stand for the vows but junior decides he’s crawling up on his mother’s lap and we adjust and do the vows sitting down. Or up come the kids to pour sand or tie ribbons or have candles lit for them.

I love my work – being with people at such important turning points in their lives.