Inis Aoibhinn Art Collection Opening
September 14, 2007
On the occasion of his official opening of
The art collection of Inis Aoibhinn
Cancer Care West - Residence and Support Centre
Friday 14th September 2007
Bail o Dhia oraibh, agus tá an-áthas agus riméid orm a bheith anseo leis an ealaín seo a sheoladh. Is iontach an áit é, go bhfuil an t'ealaín agus an slánamh ag obair as lámh le chéile anseo - agus tá bailucháin ealaín anseo a tá don scoth. Tá an buíochas go dtí na h'ealaínteoirí ar fad a thug ón na gcroítha a gcuid oibre don áit seo. Beidh an tádh ortha da bháir.
One of the amazing things about being in the world that can never be reversed or stopped, is that absolutely anything can happen at any time to anyone. Even in the midst of a controlled, organised life something can come from an angle that you never anticipated and suddenly you are standing in a new world. For instance, you might be in the middle of your life doing fifty things and you get a phone call that somebody close to you has been taken seriously ill, and there is a question as to whether they are going to die or not. It takes about a minute to get that communicated, but when you leave down the phone you are already standing in a different world.
It is amazing, when you are healthy you never think about illness at all, and you forget that it is there. The other night some German friends of mine, they were over, one of them got very ill and we had to go over to the Regional, to the A&E, but when you went through the doors, actually into it, and saw the people lying there on trolleys in all stages of pain and forsakenness - it was just incredible.
Illness shows us - in the way it comes - that the ground is never sure, and that anything can happen to anyone. Even mountains are merely suspended on strings.
Illness is one of the strangest visitors that can show up in a life because what it extends to you is a dark invitation. It takes great courage and great generosity and great hope to meet it in a way other than reaction and complaint and a sense of being a victim - to learn that you could possibly turn it in some way towards the light. When a person gets ill the first thing that happens to you is an incredible feeling of aloneness. All the connections that you could depend on before are now suddenly revised and qualified and you are looking out at things from a different space. Then there is fear. The fear of what will happen now that this thing has now begun and it is dark; Will I be able for it? Will I suffer? Will I have someone to talk to? What pressure I will be putting on those close to me. And then the; you have no idea what lies ahead.
Usually when we embark on a journey we are excited about the prospects of the geography and the territories we will see, but a dark journey like illness introduces you to, and brings you to the edge of geographies that you thought you would never see - it is very difficult in that way.
Of course the fundamental thing about it is that your only home in the world is this 'clay hut' that we call the human body, and when that begins to get ransacked and rifled by illness it is the ultimate ungrounding of a person.
I have always thought that hospitals are not buildings on ground. They are more like buildings that are up in the air, and they have very weak floors. And every so often, there is someone falling through.
Those who are ill are negotiating very difficult thresholds. When you are in your ordinary life and you are in the full of your health you can pretend things, you can have all kinds of masks, and you can get on with things. But one of the central bleak gifts of illness is that it unmasks everything and there is no possibility of pretending anything anymore.
A friend of mine told me he met an old man in Connemara one time, and he was sitting down with his hands on the wall, and my friend says to him, "Ceard tá tu ag deanamh?" [what are you doing], and the man answered back, out of the side of his mouth he says, "Tá mé cinneál ag straicfhéacaint amach ag an lá" [I am kind of looking out sideways at the day]. Which is a great phrase!
Sometimes you might be sideways to things, but yet then illeness arrives and everything has to engaged in and met. Then the structures that supported you before, your structures of meaning, your structures about your own identity, all become revised in a new kind of way - and my contention this afternoon is that all the rational structures go; they are no good to you, because suddenly you are on bleak new ground. You have to reach in to somewhere else to find the new ground. It's there, but it is hard to find it. I believe that is what Artists try to do all the time. They try to go aside from the quotidian daily round - and find the strange place to stand, so that something else can emerge into vision, or word, or sound.
A piece of art meets you in a way that nothing else meets you. When I go to London there is a couple of thing I go to see in the National Gallery by Murillo, I would be dying to see them - and I'd have seen them a hundred times, and chances are that I won't see anything new in them!, but you know that if you stand in front of them for a half an hour or whatever, something different happens to you. That is the importance of having art in a place where people are fundamentally dislocated from their old ground of health and are now on strange and shifting ground. Art speaks the language that their souls are now learning to be acquainted with.
One of the central things about healing is presence - one of the things about a good doctor or a good nurse or a good therapist is that the quality of their presence has healing in it, and when you engage with it, regardless of the words or the tangle of explanation or emergence, the presence comes across to you and heals you.
When you are ill you need the most fine, dexterous and subtle of presence - and that is why I think that in a place like this that the art actually creates that atmosphere; which isn't an attendant luxury but is actually an inner necessity in the journey of healing.
Art, in the way that it keeps us back from itself… a good painting won't let you in - but it will make you work for a long time, approaching on the outer rim, and then it might give you a little glimpse and then it will hold you out again; so that what it is doing is refining how you are seeing things. It is inexhaustible in that way.
For patients who are here or for people visiting them or for people with them… it is hard going when illness is going down. Everyone who deals with the ill or helps people who are sick will tell you of the importance of a break and of free spaces. That is why, when you are visiting someone you could take a break in front of one of these paintings, and for 10 minutes or 15 minutes you are 'gone off'. Your body is still here, but you have gone off to a totally different place and become renewed.
I think that the imagination is an amazing faculty and I have seen people engage with their illness in ways that would absolutely surprise you. They discover things in themselves that they could never have anticipated.
Some people make out of an illness the most incredible masterpiece, in terms of the refinement of presence and in the places they discover and the healing they can bring to their own spirit and to others even though the physical illness might not be reversed.
I think this is a very special place. I am delighted to be invited by Jim to open this and to say as well that it is very poignant because a good friend of mine who has one of her pieces here, Maura Flannery - her anniversary is around this time and her family are all here - just to remember her; illness came for Maura and that she had a really difficult, but very gracious journey in and through it and I know that she is present with us here today.
I will conclude by inflicting something I have written on you. I have done a book of blessings and one of the blessings is for a friend on the arrival of illness, and I think that this is probably the best place I could read it.
I would like to thank you for your attention, and to congratulate Conor and the Kennys and Chris and Jim and Eamonn on the great, great work :
For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness.
Now is the time of dark invitation.
Beyond a frontier you did not expect,
Abruptly your old life seems distant.
You barely noticed how each day
Opened a path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected deep down to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth becomes full of threat,
Before your eyes your future shrinks.
You lived absorbed in the day-to-day,
So continuous with everything around you
That you could forget you were separate.
Now this dark companion has come between you
Distances have opened in your eyes
And you feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.
Nothing before has made you feel
So isolated and lost…
When the reverberations of shocks subside in you
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself a courageous hospitality
Towards what is difficult, painful and unknown.
May you learn to use this illness as a lantern
To illuminate the new qualities that will emerge in you.
May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
In all the fog of old unease and anxiety,
Until you feel arising within you a tranquillity
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness
Ask it why it came,
Why it chose your friendship,
Where it wants to take you,
What it wants you to know,
What quality of space it wants to create in you,
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself,
That your presence may shine in the world.
May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night wound
Gradually towards the freedom and healing light of dawn.
May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and self-pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.
And may you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly that it may leave you newborn
Willing to dedicate your time to birth.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.
John O'Donohue September 2007