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Ways of seeking God

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Conall O Cuinn SJ has been punctuating his rectorship of the Milltown community with some pioneering explorations of approaches to God, looking for the meeting points between Christians, Muslims and Jews, and using film in spiritual direction.

Conall represented Christianity at an interfaith peace conference in Galway on “The role of spiritual leaders in contemporary society”, hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association of Ireland. Other speakers were an Israeli Jewish Rabbi, an Irish Imam, Ibrahim Noonon from Waterford, and former Minister, Eamonn Ó Cuiv, who opened the meeting. Conall showed a clip from the film, Amazing Grace, in which William Wilberforce has an experience of God that calls him to dedicate himself to campaign for the end of slavery. In the same clip William Pitt the Younger, who became the youngest British Prime Minister at the age of 24, invites Wilberforce to become a member of his cabinet in the event that his campaign to become Prime Minister should succeed. The point made: God is at work in the hearts of all men and women, prompting them to exercise leadership to bringing about an end to any kind of slavery and inhuman treatment.

Conall pointed out the fact that in Ireland we welcome refugees by forcing them to live in inhuman conditions and by refusing them permission to work, in other words to refuse them any means of improving their situation. Spiritual leaders, including political leaders, are called to work to end such practices. Incidentally, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association branch of Islam is itself under persecution by other Islamic organizations because it recognizes Israel.

Conall explored the work of the spirit in film, in a day-long workshop with the All-Ireland Guides Association (AISGA) at Milltown Park. Movies have ways of illustrating movement of spirit, often through using the transition from silence to music, and also by focussing on the face of the person being moved. Apparently secular movies offer deep spiritual movements and present traditional themes in original and refreshing ways. Using short clips from popular films such as Shawshank Redemption, and a little known film, As it is in Heaven by Swedish director, Kay Pollak, Conall – all the while drawing parallels with the process of spiritual direction – showed their deeply Christian underpinnings.

A case in point: in the movie The Girl with the Pearl Earring, artist Vermeer watches Gret, the housemaid, as she secretly examines his unfinished painting. “You’re looking at it?” he asks. “The colours are all wrong”, she responds, whereupon Vermeer begins to explain how he is layering colour to give depth. She does not understand. So he brings her to the window and asks, “What colour are the clouds?” She cursorily looks and answers, “white”. Vermeer says nothing, but looks again at the clouds. Gret looks again too. As we watch the play on her face, a music begins in tingling high-register piano notes. As Gret lists out the various newly revealed colours, a joyful smile breaks out on her face, and the music fills out into full and expanding string music. We know that her spirit is expanding and that God is graciously at work in her, without ever the word God being used (most viewers only hear the angelus bell subliminally). Vermeer smiles. ‘Now you understand”, he concludes with satisfaction. For the participants and facilitator, Spirit seemed to be at work in the very exploration.