A friend of mine, […], put me on to your website and I like it. I'm interested in the way you handle deep questions that people send you. I thought straight away about a very good friend of mine who gets deep into things but he gets stuck and it makes him very miserable. He ties himself up in knots about whether we’re free or just cogs in a wheel, and about religion and God and everything. Behind it he’s a simple guy, there isn't a crooked bone in his body, but he torments himself. Some of our friends only mock and tease him. After a year of lockdown he’s probably worse now than ever. I'd love to be able to help him. Have you any suggestions? Donal
You are helping him already by not mocking him as the others do. And your appreciation of him as a person is bound to come across to him through the cloud of speculation that he lives in. If there is an anxiety issue there, you might recommend counselling – but you would need to be very diplomatic of course! I don’t know if you are aware that we have a counselling service here in the Priory, right beside the Retreat Centre. If you think a bit of counselling would help him, why not suggest it? He lives nearby, so travelling wouldn’t be a problem.
Short of that, what could you do? If you don’t want get dragged into his intellectual whirlpool you have to stand outside somehow. But you can do that while still being fully present to him as a friend. That's not an easy perch to stay on, but I think it’s the only one. You can tease him in a nicer way than the others do! You can tease him in a way that doesn't dismiss him, but engages with him instead. One way to do that is to tell him a story. Jesus hauled people back to reality by telling them parables. They wanted to know his definition of ‘neighbour’ (it was a disputed question). He replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho….” So here is your chance to be a saviour!
Here’s a story you might tell your friend. In a country far far away, there was a poor family whose eldest son was in college, the first of his family to get a higher education. When he returned for a holiday at the end of the first semester, he noticed that his father was somewhat in awe of him. He enjoyed this, it was new to him. At table one day he began to speak to his parents about mathematics, a subject they had no knowledge of. There was a bowl on the table containing two oranges. “How many oranges are in that bowl?” he asked them. “Two.” “Well, I can prove to you by mathematics that there are three!” he said. As they waited in wonder, he picked up one orange and asked, “How many oranges have I in my hand?” “One,” they said. Then he picked up the other orange and said, “Now how many do I have?” “Two.” “Well,” he said, “one plus two is three!” The father was dumbstruck, thinking possibly that money could be made with this trick. “It’s time to eat!” said his mother. “I’ll eat one of the oranges, your father will eat the second, and you can have the third.”
Your friend in all his innocence is trying to eat that third orange. You could use that phrase as a way of flagging him down when he begins to get airborne. “Jimmy, you’re trying to eat the third orange again!” Then insist that he pay attention to the practical implications of what he is thinking. Practical means boots on the ground. What practical difference, for example, does the existence of God make? Keep pulling the argument onto the ground. When people get entangled in abstractions they are left in the end with empty hands. You are not dismissing him or his ideas, as the others do. You are challenging him to make his thinking real and concrete.
Best of luck, Donal!