Pontifex Minimus: Presidential reflections on the Catholic intellectual tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

What follows is a slightly longer rumination than what I intend as a weekly blog entry, but the topic is especially germane, and so I have rationalized a greater length.

We all listen attentively, eagerly, often with anxiety, and sometimes with optimism, to the latest statements and data provided by public health authorities, epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, infectious disease researchers, as well as sociologists and psychologists, in our effort to make sense of our current global reality.

And, of course, our political leaders. Or at least the ones who credit science as a reliable source.

But, we also need to think more broadly, and more deeply, about the spiritual and existential challenges we face around human meaning, Ultimate Meaning, Creation, Nature, the constituitive role of faith in shaping our understanding of what is happening now and how it is re-shaping us as a global community.

One figure who can provide us with some insight at this time of urgency and fear is the little known Irish philosopher, poet, and mystic, John Moriarty, dubbed by the philosophy columnist of The Irish Times, and yes they have a philosophy columnist, Joe Humphreys, “the greatest Irish thinker you’ve never read,” and by Brendan O’Donoghue, a Moriarty scholar, who ruefully observed:

Moriarty is very much underappreciated. I think that very
few have managed to realize what he has achieved. My
doctoral supervisor at University College Dublin compared
him to Dostoevsky, claiming that like Dostoevsky he was
not only not understood in his lifetime, he was not even misunderstood.

And yet we need to understand him now more than ever. His impressive legacy of inventive insight into our human malaise—starkly underscored by our current global pandemic—can be discovered in his prodigious output of reflections, essay, and poetic probes, all sifted through autobiography.

And yet, he remained throughout his life (1938-2007), an eccentric curiosity, an academic outlier, a mad peasant poet with Medusa-like hair, mesmerizing storytelling skills, and uncommon intelligence. His obscurity in name and memory is a telling indictment of our capacity to marginalize thinking that discomforts us at the core.

It is Moriarty’s Canadian connection that helped solidify his thinking around human nature and culture. Adrift in a cloud of penury in England in 1965 he was lured to the University of Manitoba to teach literature.

On one occasion, while Winnipeg was being battered by a winter storm of near hurricane proportions, Moriarty found himself in the middle of a whiteout—disorientation and hypothermia palpable fears—and while he navigated the wintry maelstrom he realized that “in this blizzard, it was somehow clear to me that we ourselves are the iceberg we will crash. Rather did it seem that we ourselves are the iceberg which we have already crashed.”

What Canada provided Moriarty with was a cartography at once imaginative and spiritual, a map that would allow him to model a fundamental re-connection with nature. In light of the many issues around the ecological threats to what Pope Francis calls “our common home, “ as well as the heightened awareness of the gifts that our Indigenous peoples can bring to humanizing our society, Moriarty is especially prescient:

When I came back from Canada to Connemara, County
Galway, it wasn’t Aristotle or Plato or it wasn’t any of the
European philosophies or psychologies that helped me to
stand again on the Earth. . .it wasn’t Descartes, and it wasn’t
even Shakespeare. . .it was some old, aboriginal stories, it
was some old, Native North American stories that
took me by the hand and took me back to the Earth.

Moriarty needed to find a corrective to the legacy of Bacon, Descartes and Newton; he needed to work out a path back to nature rather than a flight from nature; he was desperate for an intellectual architecture that would make sense for a culture suffering from “somatically sensuous deprivation.” He had to find an alternative way of being in the world.

And that different way of being was best articulated not through a tight system of logical reasoning but through the diverse narratives of cultures living and dead outside the Western orbit. Like Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor he knew that “it is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time,” and that by importing myths, what he called his magna cartas, Moriarty was “inspiring, permitting and fostering a new way of being in the world.”

This was Moriarty’s dreamtime because he knew that “it isn’t only houses that shelter us. Only a great story can shelter us.”

In a time of pandemic, of seismic upheaval, our species can do with a great story, a new story, the basic plot conceived by an Irish pilgrim and thinker in a Canadian setting.

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