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Being Buddhist about Catholicism

Living

MAYO BOUND Michael Harding is bringing his new show ‘On Tuesdays I’m a Buddhist’ to Westport and Ballina this weekend. He is pictured at Lough Allen in Co Leitrim, where he lives. Pic: Brian Farrell

Interview

Áine Ryan

IT is easy to conclude that 18th-century American luminary Benjamin Franklin’s famous quotation, ‘Lighthouses are more helpful than churches’, would be a subject embraced by memoirist, Michael Harding. After all, he carried a religious icon – a gift from his ‘beloved’ – all the way out to Skellig Michael with the intention of throwing it into the sea. Whether he planned to do it from the precipitous vantage of the lighthouse is a moot point where this archipelago is concerned, since just about everything about these rocky outposts is dramatic – ask Luke Skywalker of Star Wars fame.
Ultimately, Michael Harding’s deeply ingrained Catholicism and inner Buddhist, stopped this symbolic exorcism. One imagines, that in the moment, he realised such gestures were nothing more than gestures.
Time for some psychotherapy again, perhaps?   
“Religion is about standing in a boat and looking at the moon. Therapy is about asking how you feel in the boat. Both are really valuable,” Harding explains to The Mayo News.
Fans of Michael Harding will already know that his fourth memoir, ‘On Tuesdays I’m a Buddhist’, follows a pattern that is also explored with much ironic and self-deprecating humour and insights in his three earlier memoirs, ‘Staring at Lakes’, ‘Hanging with the Elephant’ and ‘Talking to Strangers’.
Even though he is recovering from a heart attack that he had before Christmas, the Cavan native, Leitrim resident and former priest is back on the road, and he has two shows in Co Mayo this weekend: Town Hall Theatre, Westport, this Friday evening, and Ballina Arts Centre on the next night, Saturday.   
“The show is really the book, ‘On Tuesdays I’m a Buddhist’, which is about reflections on psychotherapy and religion and tracks the story of how I really benefitted hugely from therapy a few years ago, but in the end found myself being drawn back to religion, because of its mythic, poetic quality,” he explains.  
He says this latest book is his ‘ongoing attempt to find myth and storytelling in the art of memoir’.
“Remembering is an amazing thing. As Gabriel Garcia Márquez said: ‘We relish life more in the remembering of it than in the living of it.’ If you forgot the ring on your wedding day, you wouldn’t be happy. It would be a moment of intense stress. But ten years later you might laugh your head off remembering the moment.”
The stage is as comfortable a milieu as the page for Michael Harding, who is also a successful and ground-breaking playwright. His 1990s play, ‘The Misogynist’, caused much controversy, but it has ultimately proven to be ahead of its time. Moreover, he is also an experienced actor, and he relishes the intimacy and intensity of the stage.
“I’m absorbed with the art of memoir and I’m also trying to find a way into storytelling as it was in the ancient days of the seanachaí. I think it was shamanic, in that the story brought to the surface what was in the unconscious of the audience. In the same way I use stories about my own neurosis, anxiety, depression to form mythic moments around which the audience can collect and relate with.
“And, of course, I’m fascinated with the collective wisdom of various traditions, both Buddhist and Christian. I think the day of organised religion is over, and the day of truth being something substantial and absolute is over,” he tells The Mayo News.
To this hopeful conclusion, Harding adds: “We live more fluidly now. The good thing is kindness and love are more to the surface than they ever were, as grounds for living a happy life.”
 
Shows
In his inimitable way, Michael Harding challenges us with deep questions about the meaning of life and love. He will present his unique show through readings from his latest memoir, ‘On Tuesdays I’m a Buddhist’, alongside his tales and yarns, in Westport Town Hall Theatre on Friday, February 15, at 8pm and in Ballina Arts Centre on Saturday, February 16, at 8pm.

For tickets to the Westport show (€20/€18), contact 098 28459 or visit www.westporttheatre.com; for tickets to the Ballina show (also €20/€18), contact 096 73593 or visit www.ballinaartscentre.com.