In conversation with Andrew Louth

On 26 May 2015, the relaunch of my 1995 book The Unknown God took place at the Metochi Study Centre of the University of Agder. Thanks to Prof. Louth, Kari and Ivar for this lovely occasion. If you are interested, you can watch the conversation here.


Love and Negative Theology

Perhaps a strange title for a conference paper, but this is what I spoke about recently in Metochi on the island of Lesvos, Greece. Since I couldn’t speak in the abstract, I chose Marguerite Porete (burned at the stake in 310 on 1 June in Paris for perceived heresy) to illustrate the relationship between the two concepts.

For those interested, this is the abstract:

Negative Theology and Love:  Love and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls

In this paper I examine Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls (I also make frequent reference to some of the vernacular sermons of Meister Eckhart) as an illustration of how the two concepts: love and negative theology – which at first sight appear to have little in common – can be brought together in one, most unusual spiritual journey.

The fundamental thesis I attempt to develop is that both love and negative theology have the same impetus if we understand negative theology as praxis, not simply as a word game or an exercise of mental abstraction. Both (if we take negative theology to its ultimate goal of unity with the Divine) entail a going out of oneself. Love is extasis, because it is the going out into the heart of an other; extasis is the central moment in a negative theology when the soul no longer knows either the self or God but is in the same place as, or is united to God.

I begin with a brief exposition of negative theology. I then turn to a discussion of how Porete begins from the perspective of negative theology in The Mirror of Simple Souls and tells a love story with a most unusual ending. Put simply, Porete’s Mirror is the story of the soul becoming what she truly is by falling out of herself, by annihilating herself under the impetus of love. When the soul is liberated from will and reason, when the soul “… has all and has nothing, knows all and knows nothing, wills all and wills nothing …”, she is emptied so that her divine lover has space to be and to love in her. She becomes the river that no longer exists when it flows into the sea. In Porete’s falling into the ocean of the Divine, she is made no thing so that her divine lover can be all. Her self-annihilation, however, is the portal to her deification when she is finally changed into God. The continuous hominification of God and divinization of humanity is the eternal process of Love loving Love’s self.

In the final part of the paper I argue that Porete’s spiritual journey is a departure from the usual way of negation. Negative theology usually practises an aphairesis that begins by taking away from God all that is considered creaturely or it embarks on a purification of one’s God concepts. In the Mirror, Porete’s method focuses on the self rather than on God, and is a relentless stripping the self of all that is creaturely to the extent of self-annihilation. This procedure leaves God to be God and concentrates instead on making the soul an empty dwelling place for Love to take up residence. I close the paper by showing how Porete’s is a radical negative theology taken to the extreme: the soul never knows God even when she becomes God’s residence.

And for those of you who want to listen to the conference presentation, well, here it is:

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Old ruins, living stones, glass, and pottery: County Kilkenny’s medieval ecclesiastical heritage

Co. Kilkenny, specifically the south-eastern end of it, is a hidden gem of Irish medieval history. Forget the Book of Kells, Viking Dublin, and Norman Dublin (well, no don’t), and Temple Bar (yes, do!), get yourself out of the capital and down the country for a real experience of medieval Ireland. Although I saw only a small part of the ancient Kingdom of Ossory, it was a real eye opener. With The Man in tow and The Dawds in the driving seat, we had a truly great exploration.

Picture typical late-Autumn Irish days with large white fluffy clouds occasionally blocking out strong white sunlight and just enough chill in the air to warrant a jacket and let you know that winter was lurking nearby. Well, that was the weather backdrop.

First stop is the ancient village of Gowran with its late thirteenth-century collegiate church. The village is quiet today, but it was a bustling town in its heyday as the seat of the Kings of Ossory. The town can trace its roots back to pre-Christian times (as can the church site), but was, unfortunately (and all-too-familiarly) sacked by the bold Edward the Bruce with his marauding contingent of Scots and Ulstermen in 1316.St Mary's Gowran

The next centuries were, of course, tragic and turbulent, culminating in the siege of the town by Oliver Cromwell in March 1650. The garrison surrendered, a fair number of residents were put to death, the priest was hanged, and the poor old church was left to crumble away. Today, in a nice interlinking of past and present, the local Church of Ireland parish church stands on the site of the ancient chancel: the past and the present linked through ancient stones.

Next we have a living gem: the ancient Duiske Abbey at Graiguenamanagh. Founded as a Cistercian house in 1202-04 on the banks of the Barrow, like all Irish religious foundations it too had a troubled history. The current church is still in use, and displays an intriguing mix of romanesque and gothic elements as well as some superb early medieval floor tiles.


Part of the town today is built on the old monastic site that sweeps unassumingly down to the river. As in Gowran, stones of the medieval religious foundation are the foundations and walls of houses and shops today. You can feel the history of the place with every step. Maybe it was the time of year, but there were few tourists about and we enjoyed having it all to ourselves.

My favourite ruin was Jerpoint near Thomastown, a twelfth-century Cistercian foundation. Jerpoint flourished in medieval times, but by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540 was struggling with seriously diminished numbers. The history of Jerpoint was fraught with ecclesiastical and political wrangles and it was the centre of the thirteenth-century struggle between Irish and Anglo-Norman abbots of Cistercian houses in the land. At one stage, it was subject to Fountains in Yorkshire but that was soon rectified.


The work of local stone sculptors through the centuries can be found in every corner, and the superb cloister (reconstructed in the 1950s) can only but conjure up images of lines of sleepy monks chanting themselves awake in the cold light of many a winter dawn.

Our final ecclesiastical visit, was, in my view, the most spectacular of all: Black Abbey itself. Located in the great medieval city of Kilkenny on the banks of the Nore, this 1225 Dominican foundation had an equally chequered past. Despite the fact that English forces turned it into a courthouse in 1543, and Cromwell’s forces then sacked the abbey in 1650, eight hundred years of tenacious work by the black friars have yielded results because those Dominicans never strayed far away. More than once they built it back up again with the support of the local people, and finally, in 1816, a full two hundred and seventy-three years after the Brits first took possession of it, the abbey was once again open for public worship. On the inside, the massive stained-glass windows dwarf the church, and indeed, just as intended in the Gothic churches of Europe, render the visitor small in body but expanded in spirit through the glow of heavenly light that fills the entire church. I loved all of it.

black abbey2      black abbey

But near Jerpoint, on the Waterford road, stands the Church of St Nicolas on the site of the now disappeared medieval town of Newton (currently Jerpoint Park). I didn’t visit because I didn’t know about it, but wish I had because just guess who is said to be buried there? St Nicholas, aka Santa Claus! Wow! A real coup for Ireland.

St Nicholas himself    St Nicholas

According to local legend – as related by the current Abbot of Glenstal, Mark Patrick Hederman ( – the bones of St Nicholas (fourth century Christian saint and Greek Bishop of Myra) were seized by some fervent Irish-Norman crusader knights and carried back to Kilkenny for burial in his very own church. I loved this story because I now know that parents have not really been telling porkies to their kids over the years. However, I suspect some entrepreneurial retailers would also love it if the children of Ireland knew they could bring their Santa letters to his final resting place instead of having to travel to Lapland or wherever. Can you imagine the boost in Christmas-time tourism for Kilkenny? I imagine this will happen in the not-too-distant future.

But visiting old churches was not our only activity during that trip for the county is known not only for its sporting victories but also for its crafts. Duiske Glass, Jerpoint Glass, Nicholas Mosse pottery — all that and more — was just as much a sight for sore eyes as the ecclesiastical sites were – a bit harder on the pocket though!

I’m going back, maybe not this year, but soon. My appetite was wetted and wants to see more of the hidden gems of this county. I hope some of you might do the same. Thanks to The Dawds for a wonderful trip!

I found these pictures on the Internet; if I need permission to use them, please let me know.

The Lotus


First blooming in the Western Paradise,
The lotus has delighted us for ages.
Its white petals are covered with dew,
its jade green leaves spread out over the pond,
And its pure fragrance perfumes the wind.
Cool and majestic, it raises from the murky water.
The sun sets behind the mountains
But I remain in the darkness, too captivated to leave.


A homecoming

A Homecoming to the Emerald Isle

Back to North Inishowen Saturday late afternoon. Lovely. Quiet supper in McGrory’s and then a great long sleep ready to face a few days of real R and R. But by golly and by gosh: Sunday was a day for the rain gods and those other, more angry ones in charge of blowing wind. Because when it wasn’t raining heavily (mostly sideways) the wind itself had a seriously wet quality to it. Took a wee tour around Malin Head and environs. A wonderful afternoon out normally, but with driving rain and gale force (should that be hyphenated?) winds, it was a super-charged drive. When we finally made it up to the most northerly part of this island, Banba’s Crown, I had to hold on to the car door lest it be taken by the gods of the wind and rain. I also had to ground my own self lest I be blown away over the crown of mother Ireland’s ancient head. Unfortunately, the Banba Cafe van wasn’t there but who could blame them? Only a mad cat would have been out in that stuff. Actually, a good number of intrepid mad cat traveller types were out and about on Malin Head on Sunday – nothing much on the telly maybe. But all in all, it was a great wee afternoon. I bravely descended to the raised beach behind the pier at Malin Head to examine the sometimes semi-precious stones washed up by the strenuous sea but was bent almost double by the damned wind. Disappointment only when we tried to find Willie Bonner’s grave in the rain and wind and didn’t. Rest in peace old sailor. Copious amounts (well two pints) of the black stuff rounded off Sunday and left us tired enough to sleep to the sounds of many banshees wailing around the hostelry for a good part of the night.

Another day dawns and off we were to the nearest town to buy a few necessary wee items for the days that were in it (boots and jackets with hoods attached). Unfortunately, that was the day of the funeral for the mother and father murdered by their son in Carndonagh a number of days previously. A pall of sadness had descended on the whole town and shop staff abandoned their posts to line the route of the funeral cortege to say a final farewell. I didn’t know the family, but when the police escort vehicle slowly descended the hill towards the town with the two hearses behind, I could not stop the tears flowing, thinking of the uselessness of their deaths. The son is in prison but his siblings have to deal with a very difficult situation. We stayed a while longer by the side of the road pondering the fragility of the human condition.

But a bad word must be said about the woman who womanned Donagh Stores in the town on Tuesday of this week. I was, as they say, ‘taken short’, but, having purchased some small items in her fancy shop, when asked, she would not let me use her facilities. I was shocked, to say the least. Thereafter, I barely made it to the nearest shopping mall before a nasty accident occurred. To that prissy woman I say: “Missus: that is the last time I will darken your door; it is also the last time my family and friends will darken your door! May you be eternally ashamed of yourself! And may you live to experience the same to yourself in the not-so-distant-future!” To refuse facilities to a stranger in obvious distress is inexcusable.

That vented, we were off to the Isle of Doagh, the small town of Ballyliffin, the Gap of Mamore, and the larger town of Buncranna. What a day! The sun shone, the wind dropped, the car used so little diesel I couldn’t believe it, and The Man was as happy as the proverbial piggy. We sampled the Famine Village at the Isle of Doagh and found it seriously lacking a good curator with self control; we drove the whole way around the Isle and found the scenery ooh and aahable, and we had a great soup and sarnie combo at Nancy’s Barn in Ballyliffin. Then we took off in the direction of Lenan Head just below Dunaff Head. What a view over the hills of Donegal! Since we had no map, we asked another couple on the pier to pinpoint our position; it took a British Indian to tell us where we were and where we were about to go. We almost got latitude and longitude. Fair play to you man and sorry we did not stop long enough to look at your more detailed map!

Then we did the Gap of Mamore. What a road: single track but tarmac — first gear all the way. And the views? Magic stuff. Google it and then try images. Enjoy!

… ravens of unresting thought

A wonderful poem by one of my favourite Irish poets William Butler Yeats.

This poem was accessed at:


BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Joves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.