The Heelers Diaries

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Location: Kilcullen (Phone 087 7790766), County Kildare, Ireland

Friday, November 06, 2015

book review

(with Constant Weader)



This month: 'Labyrinth Through The Elephant Grass,' by Jo Wardhaugh Doyle. Published by Georgian Rose Press.

Jo Wardhaugh Doyle's autobiographical book brings us the highly personalised story of an Edinburgh girl, daughter of a famous footballer, a sportswoman in her own right, who grows up to be a nurse, then a missionary in Africa, becomes a nun, witnesses the horrors of civil war in Uganda, soviet communism in Ethiopia, societal breakdown in Kenya, suffers what appears to be some sort of breakdown herself, enters a recovery programme, before fetching up in Ireland, falling in love, and marrying an Irish man.
It is, as it sounds, an interesting story at many levels, not least because after all her struggles, she and the Irishman she married are living just outside my home town of Kilcullen.
But I don't use that cliche beloved of book reviewers and call it a rollercoaster read. It is deeper than that. It is Ms Wardhaugh Doyle's own telling of her own story. Trivial. Explicit. Profound.
At times it reads like an expiation as much as a biography.
Curiously, I wouldn't say it is well written. I would say it is truly written. And that is more important.
There are accounts of the African situation here that bring to mind the phrase "heart of darkness." Her hands on view of the continent is far more incisive than anything I have found in Europe, Britain, Ireland and America's left wing pseudo liberal newspaper and television coverage of the last fifty years of almost continuous warfare across Africa.
Take this paragraph about her time in Uganda in the early 1980's after the ouster of psychopathic dictator Idi Amin. Ms Wardhaugh Doyle and other nursing staff along with a local Bishop had been summoned for a meeting with the new President Milton Obote. Her description tells us more about the real politik of Africa than most of what passes for journalism in Western Europe.
She writes:
"Obote came into the room and sat at the head of the room. He was a very dark man and had eyes that were hard to look at. I didn't want to look at them and I had an awful sense of evil in his presence. He overtly threatened us all saying if we complained again we could all disappear like Father Martin has. We all knew that a local priest had disappeared and we presumed taken by the soldiers. I thought "That's fine, I won't open my mouth again, just let me go." However just as I was thinking that to myself the Bishop spoke up and started to argue with Obote about his unruly soldiers. I was proud yet terrified of what the Bishop was doing. Obote just ended it and warned us all."
During some of the most vicious violence that she experienced in Uganda, Ms Wardhaugh Doyle was horrified to see the BBC reporting Ugandan elections as free and fair and largely peaceful. At the same time the BBC was devoting copious hours, indeed days, of coverage to the death of singer John Lennon.
I was intrigued by Ms Wardhaugh Doyle's insight into the behaviour of the BBC and other media groups in setting the agendas of public awareness.
For her though, the experience of witnessing murders in Uganda while the BBC was shedding crocodile tears for John Lennon, became a source of deep emotional pain.
Her work would carry her on to Ethiopia, a soviet dictatorship where she witnessed whole villages being told arbitrarily by their communist government that they would have to move to another location miles away and leave their crops and land behind them, starting immediately.
Her honest simple comment on this abomination: "No wonder there was famine."
Funny that the great heroes of famine relief Bob Geldoff and Bono Vox never got round to mentioning there might be causes of famine in Ethiopia other than the excesses of the white man.
I find it funny anyway.
The astonishing debasement of whole nations by communists in Africa is evoked by Ms Wardhaugh Doyle without hand wringing or prudishness or without any of my sideswipes at Mr Geldoff or Bono. She is not of my political stripe I'm sure. And she doesn't tell us what to think. She tells us what she saw.
She gives us an even more soul searing account of life in Kenya. Let me digress to give my own views for a moment. To me Africa looks like a land experiencing the apocalypse. I have made my judgement from afar based on a knowledge of the wars and communisms, Islamisms and fascisms, that have riven the continent during my whole life time. But Ms Wardhaugh Doyle gives us a more intimate view of the apocalypse. She shows us the apocalypse of children. This was more shocking to me than anything in the grand theatre of African destruction which I have contemplated for three decades.
She tells how she entered the lives of the children who live in this heart of darkness, sought to give them love and guidance, attempting to create something good amid the desolation and despair.
In the slums of Nairobi she began working with boys whose daily activities include drug taking, rape and murder. We see her establishing social programmes to allow the children to speak about the horrors they have experienced. She seeks to help them to learn a trade, to play football, to hope for a better life.
Then she tells us: "Slowly, and one by one most of the boys died."
What a chilling sentence.
It wasn't entirely clear to me why they all died. She had mentioned diseases, and drug use, and the ever present violence.
Whatever it was, one by one, they died.
Debauched children, raping to numb their own pain, dead before they're twenty.
That's an apocalypse.
More than the armies ravaging the continent, that's the apocalypse.
For Ms Wardhaugh Doyle herself, the spiritual toll was becoming unbearable.
Her story now leaves Africa and unrolls across the Atlantic in the metropolitan modernity of the United States.
She seeks healing through Renewal programmes and embarks on an emotional journey of self discovery which seemed a bit too new age-ish for my liking.
Nonetheless her meditations on suffering bear the hall marks of wisdom.
I was particularly struck by her account of a dream she had at a lowpoint during her therapy when her famous footballer father who had died years before, visited her. She writes:
"I had a dream last night that my dad came to me and talked with me. He asked me if I remembered the time I burnt my leg at school and he put on peroxide to the wound and I fainted. He said 'the pain was awful but were you frightened?' I said, 'NO.' 'Why?' he said and I replied, 'Because I always trusted you, even in pain.' 'Well,' he said, 'Jo, trust in God still, as you trusted in me.' "
Well folks.
This reviewer doesn't believe that healing comes from new age therapy or shamanism even if they are under the aegis of the Franciscan order.
But I do believe in that dream.
Ms Wardhaugh Doyle presents many other fascinating insights regarding healing on the journey through suffering that every human being must somehow face.
She also describes a most dramatic encounter with evil in another dream.
I pretty much think this is for real too whatever quibbles I have about some of her conclusions.
Her story has the ring of truth, even if at times, I felt as with any biography, that there is much she is not telling us.
Most beautifully, she evokes through her own experience the notion of a spirtuality of trauma.
And she puts her own suffering to good use, turning darkness into light by the grace of God, by advocating strongly on behalf of others engaged in missionary work that there should be an awareness by those of us in church and society caring for and organising missionary efforts, of what our missionaries are going to face and of the needs and vulnerabilities and indeed traumas that will arise after they have faced it.
Some of her ideas seemed a tad overpowering to me and a little bit off beam from the theological point of view.
In particular I found myself quibbling with her use of the word hell.
For instance she writes:
"I do know that traumatic wounds need to be healed by someone who knows 'Hell.' That is why I feel that we have not faced the challenge offered to us as Christian people to go to hell, to become the wounded healers that the world is groaning for. "
And again she says:
"We are called to change, not in order to survive but to reflect the fullness of life. We are called to be resurrected light bringers, we do that by descending into hell, sitting in the darkness and rising to new life, and a new missionary era."
And finally she argues:
"Powerlessness in God's case led to life and light. First of all though, His son had to die and go to hell. This too is where we are are called to go if our suffering is to be redeemed."
Hmmm.
I agreed with everything in the above sentences except the mention of hell each time.
She seems to have based her ideas in part on an old form of the Creed which stated that Jesus descended into hell between his death and resurrection.
The Church doesn't really stand over that notion. The modern translation states simply that Jesus: "descended to the dead." One of the church fathers writing about 1500 years ago noted that after his death "Jesus preached to the spirits in prison." It might have been purgatory. My understanding is that the church is not absolutely sure where our Lord was between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
I think that Ms Wardhaugh Doyle correctly describes the redemptive power of suffering but that she is incorrect when she suggests that in any actual or mystical sense we must go to hell to be a part of this.
Yes, the Christian teaching is that we must die to self in order to be resurrected.
Yes, there is the notion that the tiny seed must be planted in the blackness of the earth in order to grow into a great tree.
Yes, there is the mystical truth that each of us must take up our cross and follow Jesus to Calvary.
But my personal opinion is that the idea, we must go to "hell" in order to be saved, is more new age, than Christian.
Perhaps I have misunderstood the author on this point.
Jo Wardhaugh Doyle's book Labyrinth Through The Elephant Grass is as I have said a personal telling of her own story.
It commands a personal response.
This has been mine.
What will yours be!!!

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