Tuesday Writing Conversation: East Meets West — Swami Satyananda and John Main

March 3, 2015

Click below to hear Neil discuss John Main with Ric Petersen

A special new edition of In Stillness Dancing — the journey of John Main is soon to be printed. As a taster here is Chapter 5.

In the spring of 1954, before the end of the Hilary term at Trinity, Douglas Main applied to join the British Colonial Administrative Service (soon to be called Her Majesty’s Oversea Civil Service). Like his previous decision to join the Canons Regular, it seemed a curious choice. For one thing Douglas’s personal politics did not fit with British imperialism even in its twilight years. His friend, Robert Farrell, observed his anti-imperialism and his growing socialistic tendencies at Trinity: ‘We discussed politics a great deal. I would describe Douglas’s position as “left-wing independent” in that he seemed to support the socialist viewpoint.’ If he were not a conservative in domestic politics, he was certainly not an imperialist in foreign affairs. If anything, his Irish roots and his own intellectual formation as well as his independent temperament smacked more of republicanism than imperialism. So why did he apply for the Colonial Service and why Malaya? The questions puzzled Robert Farrell:

I’m not sure, knowing his politics, pacifism, dislike of Colonial and Imperial adventures, admiration of Gandhi, it was at first sight a strange choice. But it was an experi­ence, an adventure—Douglas was very curious about every­thing and I think curiosity had a lot to do with it. However, the most likely reason was that it was a job and Douglas was broke.

Whatever his reasons, Douglas received a ‘probationary appointment to the Colonial Administrative Service as an Administrative Cadet in Malaya’.

After successfully sitting his final examinations in the Michaelmas Term (his legal degree was conferred in absentia in December) Douglas left for England to begin a three-month course of language study in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He found lodgings at the British Council hostel for Commonwealth students in Knightsbridge. While there Douglas became friends with a number of the students from Asia. During the autumn of 1954, Diana Ernaelsteen was also in London studying medicine. She and Douglas saw each other occasion­ally. He invited her to help him choose the tropical gear he would need in Malaya. Later they had dinner at Heathrow airport and Douglas left shortly afterwards to catch his boat for the East.

It was in January 1955 when Douglas sailed for Malaya, a country thought by some to be one of the most beautiful in the world. When he arrived at Port Swettenham on 2 February 1955, the area had been under British influence for nearly 150 years, and under direct British rule since 1874. By the time Douglas first saw the capital, Kuala Lumpur (usually referred to as K.L.), British rule in Malaya was on its last legs. The ultimate cause for their impending withdrawal was the failure of the British to settle Malaya instead of colonizing it. But the immediate occasion for the unravelling of British power in Malaya was a guerilla war mounted by Chinese Malayan communists.

The war broke out in 1948. The Chinese called it ‘the War of the Running Dogs’, their term for those in Malaya who remained loyal to the British. On the other side, the British called it ‘The Emergency’ because British insurance companies would honour policies for an ‘emergency’ but not for a full-scale civil war, which is what the Malayan fighting really amounted to. Thanks to the brilliant leadership, both political and military, of the previous High Commissioner, Sir Gerald Templar (appointed by Winston Churchill at a meeting in Ottawa in January 1952), the Chinese guerillas had virtually lost the war by 1955. Furthermore, the British government had promised Malaya its independence, and a time-table for elections was being worked out.

Although the fighting sometimes crackled in the jungle surrounding Kuala Lumpur, the capital itself escaped the war relatively unscathed. Shortly after his arrival Douglas began his three-year probationary period as an Administrative Cadet. This meant he spent five hours in the morning, begin­ning about 8 o’clock, studying a Chinese language, in his case the Hokkien dialect. (Later he would have followed some local law courses, because had Douglas remained in Malaya he would probably have been named a magistrate). The milieu of the language school itself could scarcely have been more exotic. It was situated in the ancestral temple of the Chan family, a notable example of a Confucian temple built about the end of the nineteenth century. The temple was still used occasionally as a place of worship and Douglas and his fellow students would sometimes begin their daily studies, eyes itching from the pungent odour of burning incense smoking on the altars across the open courtyard. The British administration had made some arrangement with the Chan family to rent the covered verandas and side rooms that surrounded the main altar. It was all rather ornate with brightly tiled roofs, porcelain fish and dragons decorating the eaves, the home of vast numbers of swallows and bats that swooped in and out during the language classes. After the morning tutorials (the classes contained only half a dozen or so pupils), the afternoons were usually spent studying privately.

Occasionally, as a respite from this rigorous language study schedule, Douglas would be assigned a more congenial task, such as helping to prepare for the first democratic voting (scheduled for July 1955) that would lead eventually to an independent Malaya. It was from these activities there emerged the most famous anecdote of Douglas Main’s short tour of duty in Malaya. The electoral officer was explaining voting procedures to a group of natives and Douglas was translating the officer’s message. You natives, explained the official, must continue to live by the rules and regulations of the Empire even after the voting. The electoral official waited for Douglas to translate. Douglas then said in the native language: ‘We bring you greetings from Her Majesty, the Queen, in London. She has asked me to tell you that if you are ever in London you are all invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.’ There was a great cheer. The officer turned to Douglas and said: ‘There you are, Main. I told you if you treated these people firmly, they’d appreciate it.’

Of course, in addition to his other duties and his language studies, there was a pleasant social side to Douglas’s life in Kuala Lumpur. In 1955, despite some sporadic fighting, the capital was beginning to relax after more than six years of tension and fear. As one observer said, in the spring of 1955 it ‘felt as if someone had given the whole city a pep pill’. Undoubtedly Douglas took advantage of some of the pleasures the capital now had to offer. He lived comfortably enough in a small bachelors’ ‘mess’. He and his mates had a servant, either a Malay or Chinese boy, an amah as they were called. There was also a male cook, and an Indian (Tamil) kebun would have looked after the garden.

When Douglas and his friends ate out they had an inter­esting cuisine from which to choose because so many of K.L.’s restaurants, shuttered during ‘the Emergency’, were now reopening. The Coliseum was famous for its out-sized curry puffs served in its mahogany-lined bar and its ‘sizzling’ steaks presented on a red-hot iron plate sitting on a wooden tray on which the steak was cooked in front of the diner draped in a large bib. The diner often washed down the spicier meals with stengahs, a potent Malayan drink and a favourite of the planters and other devotees of the Selangor Club, usually referred to as the ‘Spotted Dog’ because a formidable late-Victorian woman once hitched her pet Dalmatian to her carriage waiting outside.

In some ways the ‘Spotted Dog’ was the centre of European social life in K.L., with its cricket, football, tennis and hockey matches. There were dances and other social affairs. For the more formal occasions Douglas would wear his white ‘sharkskin’ evening jacket with black trousers. It is unlikely he played polo but he certainly frequented the racetrack in K.L. After a swim at nearby Port Dickson there would often be a dinner party, perhaps at the Akers-Joneses, good talk, tasty food and quiet conviviality with friends and colleagues like Robert Bruce who often shared with Douglas ‘long, delightful sessions over food and drink in which we examined the problems of the world’. These were the kind of evenings in K.L. that Douglas relished the most.

There was another side to Malaya that Douglas spoke about little at the time but which he sensed and responded to. It was the side that corresponded to the deep wells of his own Celtic background and also to his continuing search for a spiritual experience that would be real for him. The search for an authentic spirituality, sought with the Canons Regular and at Trinity, continued in Malaya. Douglas’s dissatisfaction with his own spiritual life, in a curious way was mirrored by what the writer, Ronald McKie, describes as the ‘vague uneasiness’ engendered by Malaya which makes:

you feel in this place, among Gods and spirits which have shaped Asia, that at any moment something will happen to you that has never happened before, that you will be influenced by forces over which you have no control. It is a feeling almost indefinable and so illogical that you know it could be true.

Something did happen to Douglas in Malaya that had never happened before and it profoundly influenced the rest of his life. For the first time he encountered an eastern form of spirituality, another way of prayer. More than twenty years later, in his first small book, Christian Meditation: the Gethsemani Talks, Douglas Main described this encounter: ‘I was first introduced to meditation long before I became a monk, when I was serving in the British Colonial Service in Malaya. My teacher was an Indian swami who had a temple just outside Kuala Lumpur.’

Initially, the teacher was more important than the teaching, for his teacher in Malaya was a remarkable man, Swami Satyananda, a slender, gentle figure clad in a white robe. He was born in the city of Ipoh in the northern federated state of Perak on 15 July 1909. He was 45 years old when Douglas Main, just 29, arrived in Malaya. Both the Swami’s parents died when he was a boy of about 10. He was brought up by relatives and educated in a Roman Catholic institution, St Michael’s School where, inspired by the teachings of Jesus and several saints, he considered becoming a Christian. In 1926, aged 17, he joined the Malayan Government Service where he remained until 1936. He then resigned to go to India to become a Hindu monk. He spent several years studying philosophy, comparative religions, Sanskrit, the techniques of Yoga and other eastern disciplines. When the Swami returned from India to Malaya in 1940, he became the principal of a school for boys and another for girls. Three years before, when he was 28, the Swami had begun to follow the intense meditation methods of Raja Yoga on a regular basis morning and evening. Later he came under the influence of several holy men including Swami Abhedananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo.


Swami Satyananda

In 1949 Swami Satyananda founded the ‘Pure Life Society’. This was an attempt to translate religious theory into a prac­tical spirituality. It would remain his life’s work. As one of the Swami’s collaborators put it, ‘ . . . this age lacks God-consciousness . . . the Swami’s basic desire was to . . . restore consciousness of the “Kingdom of God” among his fellow men.’ To further his purpose of making religion practical the Swami purchased a few acres of land along the edge of the secondary jungle on 6th Mile Puchong Road, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Here he eventually built an orphanage, a school and the Temple of the Universal Spirit on the site’s highest point. Adult education classes, a library, a dispensary and a printing press were added later. In 1954 the state government made Swami Satyananda a Justice of the Peace, an unusual honour for a member of a Hindu religious order, almost as unusual as a Benedictine monk being called to the Bar.

Swami Satyananda put great stress on diverse groups living together in harmony in one community. This harmony was realized by the Indian, Malayan and Chinese students who lived in the various institutions of the Pure Life Society. To develop this community life (open to those of any religious background) on a solid basis, the Pure Life Society held regular group meditation classes. Swami Satyananda himself was remarkably practical about meditation. He agrees that images in prayer might be necessary for the beginner, but mental images are only required in the first kindergarten stage. The Swami explains the nature of meditation this way:

Mental worship, together with repetition of the holy name and holy reading is the second stage. Silent contemplation and meditation on God is the third stage. The final stage is becoming one with the Supreme Spirit. . . . This medi­tation [on Peace] reaches the culmination of our spiritual venture. A serene and silent power is born in the soul of man in the depth of meditation. . . . Let us find this place of Peace—the island of spiritual fortifications in the cave of our heart. Let us be filled with the spirit of the Infinite even now.

This was Swami Satyananda: student, civil servant, monk, founder of a community, teacher of meditation, with an honorary law degree, but above all a happy, serene and integrated man. As John Main wrote in The Gethsemani Talks many years later:

… I was deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom. . . . He asked me if I meditated. I told him I tried to and, at his bidding, described briefly what we have come to know as the Ignatian method of meditation. He was silent for a short time and then gently remarked that his own tradition of meditation was quite different. For the swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the universe who dwells in our hearts. . . .

Then the Swami elaborated his teaching by reciting several verses from the Upanishads: ‘He contains all things, all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. And he enfolds the whole universe and, in silence, is loving to all. This is the Spirit that is in my heart. This is Brahman.’ This reading, done with such intensity and devotion, so moved Douglas that he asked the Swami to teach him to meditate his way. The Swami agreed and suggested that he come out to the meditation centre once a week. On his first visit the Swami spoke to Douglas about meditation:

To meditate you must become silent. You must be still. And you must concentrate. In our tradition we know only one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word that we call a mantra. To meditate, what you must do is to choose this word and then repeat it, faithfully, lovingly and continually. That is all there is to meditation. I really have nothing else to tell you. And now we will meditate.

So once a week for about eighteen months Douglas meditated with the Swami for half an hour. The Swami insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening:

And during the time of your meditation there must be in your mind, no thoughts, no words, no imaginations. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound the harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a reson­ance. That resonance then leads us forward to our own wholeness. . . . We begin to experience the deep unity we all possess in our own being. And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation and unity between you and your Creator.

This was the teaching, a way to an authentic interior life, to ‘the cave of the heart’ that Douglas Main had long been seeking, that he first learned from the Swami and incorpor­ated into his own teaching on Christian meditation. In later years Douglas often referred to the Swami, whose death in 1961 at the age of 51, was the result of a car accident. Swami Satyananda’s work of making religion practical and open to all still goes on and, indeed, has expanded in Kuala Lumpur through the efforts of his friends and associates in the Pure Life Society. For his part, Douglas Main never forgot the friendship and openness of this remarkable Hindu monk who accepted him as a Christian disciple and taught him to medi­tate. From this experience there emerged Douglas Main’s openness to Eastern religions and to teaching meditation to ‘all those who come to pray with us’.

Few, if any, of his colleagues in Malaya knew of his association with the Swami. Meanwhile, he continued his studies in the language school. But he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the manner of the British transition and the Malayan society he saw emerging. He spoke about this later to his friend, Robert Farrell:

He felt badly about Malaya because he said: ‘The British had no constructive policy about anything at all, except to hang onto everything as long as possible.’ These were his exact words, as best I can remember them. He wasn’t bitter because he was going to lose his job. … I think he was just generally annoyed because he felt he was taking part in a sham.

Whatever his feelings about British policies in Malaya, the reason Douglas asked to retire from the Oversea Service (on 30 April 1956), was not because he lacked ability. His superior in Malaya, A. W. D. James, later wrote: ‘It was with great regret that I learned of his decision to leave the service. . . . Mr Main had the breadth of mind and depth of insight which are the mark of the best administrator.’ And the Director of the Language School, Robert Bruce, described him this way:

He was exceptional. In that large body he had the gentle­ness of a child. His intelligence was keen, quick and vibrant. He delighted in ideas and readily engaged in argument on the ills of the world. He was not a good student of the Chinese dialect he was assigned to study (Hokkien, I think). I thought he was out of place in the milieu of a brash society—both European and Asian—which was lively but crude compared to the intellectual and spiritual realm which was later to be the home of Douglas Main. He had a good sense of humour and a generous heart.

A part of Douglas Main’s ‘generous heart’ never forgot Malaya, especially the people of Malaya who ‘found love in a flower, beauty in a reed’.

The visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the Vendôme Priory in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

Later on, East meets West again with the visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the newly-established Vendôme Priory, Montreal, in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

John Main: the first English monk since reformation called to the bar.

March 1, 2015

To commemorate the forthcoming new edition of In The Stillness Dancing – the life of Father John Main here is chapter 6. This is a description of the interim period in Douglas (John) Main’s life after being called to the bar, after his return from Malaya to a new career teaching law, and before the future where his ideas would lead to his founding of a new monastery in the New World.

After being called the bar, John Main put his law career on hold and spent a year in Malaya. After this (described in Chapter 5) he returned by boat Malaya to Ireland in the summer of 1956, Douglas consulted with some of his former professors and colleagues at Trinity. They needed another lawyer on the staff and Douglas was urged to apply. He did so and won the position in open competition. During the next four years he taught Administrative, Roman and International Law. He especially admired the order, rationality and precision of Roman law. Generally Douglas was popular with his colleagues and his students. Professor Edward Stuart from the Chemistry Department thought Douglas ‘that rare sort of individual with absolute integrity and probity’. A few students found him too cerebral, too Jesuitical and too ready to argue about the number of angels on the head of a pin. As one of his students, Michael Dixon, put it: ‘Trinity was neither Catholic nor intellectual—Douglas Main was both’.

John Main was called to the bar: the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.

John Main was called to the bar:, the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.

Some knew him at the Laurentian Society, a social club and meeting place for Catholic students. Mary Lodge, a student, remembers Douglas as a gently impressive man, very approachable. He was deeply religious and he radiated a quality of goodness. I trusted him. There was peace and tranquillity in him and a sense of presence. I wonder if some of his friends and colleagues really appreciated the subtleties of spirituality evident in him even during the Trinity years. You don’t forget a man like Douglas Main.

Thirty years later Mary Lodge Jennings had not forgotten him. Nor had others at Trinity. Dermod D. Owen-Flood remembers:

I would describe him as one of the finest, if not the finest legal mind I have ever met. He had studied Thomistic law in Rome, as I recall. I think this gave him a tremendous edge on his legal studies. He was very definitely cut out for the law. Apart from being academically first class, his ability was leavened with great common sense, fairness and social responsibility. I think, had he stayed in the law, he would have gone to the very top. He would have been a superb barrister and an even better judge. I believe that as a lawyer he would have been able to do a tremendous amount of good for the law and for the community as a whole.

One of Douglas’s colleagues on the law faculty, Professor Frank Dowrick, also remembers his flair for the law: ‘He could cope with a heavy work load. And that’s what we gave him. Had he remained with the law, Douglas would have added to Irish legal scholarship. He would have become a national authority on the laws of Ireland.’

Naturally Douglas Main did more than teach law at Trinity. He lived on the campus in a lovely set of Georgian rooms, where his sister, Yvonne, acted as his hostess for small gatherings, often including students from Malaya. Douglas was on Trinity’s wine committee but normally the inimitable ‘Slattery’ (the college’s ‘family’ butler) would pour the appropriate wines. Later when wine was served Douglas would remark, ‘Give it the Slattery twist!’ He enjoyed a drink with old friends. Many years later he would write about the pain of ‘partings’ from friends he loved. On the other hand, he was always happy to meet unexpectedly a companion from the old days. Robert Farrell describes a delightful encounter with Douglas years after they were students together at Trinity:

Years later when he was a lecturer in Trinity, I met him one day on college green. He had a couple of brown paper parcels under his arm, and motioned me to come up to his chambers. He unwrapped his parcels and displayed a bottle of hock and a record of harp music.

We sat with glasses in hand listening to the music. When the last sad notes had died away we talked about some of the people we’d known and the coincidence of our meeting.

He smiled. ‘It was the hand of God’, he said, and held out his hand. . . .

Although he enjoyed old friends, good dining, first-class Irish theatre (he once took a group of relatives from England to see The Playboy of the Western World), and the occasional dance, Douglas invariably began his day at Trinity by attending morning Mass. He does not seem to have talked much about his experience of meditation in Malaya. But according to his own recollections of this period, he continued to meditate:

On my return to Europe to teach Law at Trinity College, Dublin, years before the advent of the Beatles and the discovery of T.M., I found no one who really knew about meditation as I now understand it. I first tried to raise the subject with priest friends but to my surprise my enquiries were mostly received with great suspicion and sometimes even hostility.

As far as I could gather from my conversation these good men practised very faithfully a Jesuit-type of meditation and the best amongst them prepared for their morning mental prayer by systematically going through a list of points for the morning. To me it seemed esoteric and somewhat complicated. . . .

But for me personally there was all the joy and excite­ment of the pilgrimage of my morning and evening medi­tation. All the time there was a growing attraction to medi­tation and the morning and evening times became the real axis on which my day was built.

Douglas was also involved in an effort to make the Catholic presence at Trinity more acceptable, especially to the Catholic authorities. Along with others, he helped write and signed a letter to the Irish Times deprecating the ecclesiastical ban on Catholics attending ‘the Protestant University of Trinity College’. On another project, the attempt to start a new Roman Catholic newspaper in Dublin, he worked with an influential group of business and literary people including his friend, Garret Fitzgerald — then an economic journalist and later the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Douglas emerged as a leading member of the group. When he realized financial and personality difficulties were too serious, he advised the Archbishop, John Charles McQuaide, to withdraw his support. The Archbishop accepted his advice and the paper never began.

In addition to these activities and his lectures in law, Douglas frequently travelled to London ‘to eat his dinners’, preparatory to his being called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, a step that would further his academic career at Trinity. While in London he often stayed with his friend and former Trinity class-mate, John Boland, in his Chelsea flat. Boland, who later became the Public Trustee for England, has almost as many stories involving Douglas as there were visits to his flat.

One of these concerned a wedding to which Douglas had been invited. It was a formal morning wedding followed by a reception, champagne and tidbits. For some reason Douglas and one of his aunts missed out on the food. Famished, they repaired to Derry and Thoms, a fashionable store in Kensington High Street. Douglas was wearing a morning suit in full fig, swallow-tailed coat and striped pants. After being seated in the restaurant, they realized they had forgotten a newly purchased book two floors below. Undaunted, Douglas sailed across the restaurant, his swallow-tailed coat billowing behind him. Just as he reached the lift to return, book in hand, a harried looking woman with two children, thinking he was the floor manager, asked, ‘Do you sell children’s shoes?’ To the astonishment of everyone in earshot, Douglas smoothly replied: ‘Yes madam, we do. But they’re not very good.’ As the doors of the lift closed he suggested, ‘If I were you I should go elsewhere!’

Naturally, while in London ‘to eat his dinners’, Douglas saw other friends including Diana Ernaelsteen to whom he had written while in Malaya and from Dublin. By this time, 1957, Diana was 22 (nine years younger than Douglas), had successfully completed several years of her medical studies and was engaged to a young man from Welwyn Garden City, Geoffrey Searle. Still, she and Douglas shared at least two interests, a penchant for long walks (fortunately Diana was tall, almost as tall as Douglas, and lithe) and a desire to make this world a better place in which to live.

John's childhood friend Diana Ernaelsteen in 1958 aged 23

John’s childhood friend Diana Ernaelsteen in 1958 aged 23

So the law professor and the doctor-in-residence would walk half way round London discussing everything from the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on birth control (although she was from a Catholic background, Douglas took a stricter position on contraception than Diana did) to James Joyce and Ulysses (Diana thought Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory a lot easier to read). One of their frequent conversations was on the nature of socialism: how did socialism relate to a better world? On a walk to Golders Green Hippodrome to see Stravinsky’s ballet ‘The Firebird’, Douglas raised the question of a community of people living together as one possible form of a more loving kind of society. Diana wondered how she would fit into that scheme.

In London, in the late April of 1957, the sun was shining brightly and daffodils sprinkled the parks. Douglas had invited Diana to luncheon at the restaurant, L’Écu de France and was waiting for her there with two of his close friends from Malaya, David and Jane Akers-Jones (with whom he had often spoken in Kuala Lumpur about Diana, whom he affectionately called his ‘Dutch Vet’). Two Buddhist monks, also friends of Douglas’s completed the luncheon party. Diana had to leave early to return to her medical courses. Douglas was a little dismayed. She agreed to meet him the next day.

This luncheon at L’Ecu de France began the most intense emotional period in the relationship between Douglas and Diana. They had now known each other since the early days of the war. They met the next day and Douglas remarked casually that one of his friends thought they should marry. Without making any commitment, Diana replied the sugges­tion was not such a bad idea. During the next few days, while Diana skipped classes, Douglas met her at the hospital and they visited the places they enjoyed, such as the Tate Gallery. They talked about furnishing a home together and Diana pointed to a picture for their dining room. They started walking in the sunshine from Pimlico to King’s Cross scarcely noting the distance. Along their route Douglas noticed the little French Church off Leicester Square. He suggested to Diana they go in to give thanks for the happiness they were sharing. They knelt together in the fresh spring light. Suddenly, without any warning, Diana experienced the over­whelming feeling that their relationship was doomed. Perhaps Douglas shared the feeling. Neither spoke of it to the other. They left the soft light of the silent church and hurried down the steps into the bustle and sunshine of Leicester Square. Douglas had to return to his lectures at Trinity, Diana to her medical studies. They parted at King’s Cross Station. It was a difficult parting. There was so much left unsaid, so much longing.

For a short time the feelings of ‘doom’ were suppressed and events moved swiftly. Diana told her parents she was in love with Douglas. She broke her engagement to the young man in Welwyn Garden City. In Dublin, Douglas told his mother, Eileen, then the rest of his family, that he was engaged to Diana and hoped to marry her. Most of Douglas’s family did not take the news of his engagement seriously. Most of Diana’s family did. They tried to influence her to break off with Douglas: he would want a large family like his own parents; what would that do to her medical career? how would she manage financially? was she not being unfair to her former fiance? Douglas had only loved her for a short time. He would get over her quickly. He could manage without her. Diana was susceptible to this family bombardment, especially the view that Douglas could get on without her: ‘this last was true and I knew it. I believed he could get over it and that he would find happiness with a nice Catholic girl. I believed I could get over it too, like the books say. But you don’t and we didn’t.’

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Douglas was writing regularly to Diana. He told her that she would ‘adore’ Dublin and she could finish her medical studies there. (Diana was not so certain. A medical colleague of hers had a difficult time switching from London to Dublin). Douglas also reiterated his position that only natural birth control was compatible with a Catholic marriage. This was a discussion that Diana and Douglas had gone over many times. It was the traditional Catholic position on birth control but it was a position that Diana found increasingly untenable, partly influenced by her parents, who favoured small families (Diana was an only child). But quite apart from the moral issue, the practical problem of starting a medical practice and a family at the same time was not an easy one to resolve.

It is possible these problems and others, such as the attitude of both families, could have been worked out, even though Douglas remained in Dublin and Diana did not even have his telephone number. He exacerbated the difficulties when he suggested they write each other less frequently because their work would suffer. But there was another problem at a deeper level that Diana had sensed in the French Church off Leicester Square and that Douglas had wrestled with for a longer time. How does human love—strong and pure as this love was—withstand divine love? This was the problem, grasped by Diana as well as Douglas, that underlay all the others.

For several weeks Diana (trying to study medicine in London) and Douglas (attempting to teach law in Dublin) struggled with an anguish that was splitting their hearts. But the struggle could not last. In the end it was Diana’s father, Harry, whom she loved dearly, who urged his ‘darling daughter’ to make a quick and firm decision about her life:

It seems so strange for all this upset when we should be the happiest of folks, yet I suppose it seems a difficult task for you to choose your life’s partner. Unfortunately, Diana, we cannot get everything and no one is perfect.

Your dear Mummy and I only wish you every happiness and whatever your choice we have no say in the matter except if you consult us.

There is nothing against Douglas and although you may have committed yourself one way or the other, for God’s sake, darling, make up your mind once and for all.

A few days later Diana wrote to Douglas she had made her decision. She had become re-engaged. Douglas then wrote a note to Diana’s mother, Ivy:

I have heard today from Diana that she is re-engaged . . . so I trust that she has now resolved the difficulty in which I placed her.

You and Harry must have been very concerned that Diana had so worrying a decision to make and I must tell you that I am very sorry that I was the occasion of your worry on her behalf. For a few rather delirious days I thought that there was some chance that I might make Diana a good husband. But she has decided otherwise, and I am sure you will understand me when I say that her happiness is my greatest concern.

This note that assumes so much and says so little was like Douglas himself, proper, private, guarded. Except for the words ‘a few rather delirious days’ of happiness when he thought his future might have been shared with the woman he loved, there is scarcely a hint in this rather formal note of the struggle that had engaged Douglas and Diana too. A few months later Diana was married in the French Church off Leicester Square where she first realized that Douglas belonged to God. In some sense it was her final good-bye. Both Diana and Douglas had shared the searing experience of a human love subsumed into the divine.

A few months after Diana’s marriage, another event occurred that changed the course of Douglas Main’s life. His 11-year-old nephew, David, the only son of his widowed sister, Yvonne, died suddenly from an inoperable brain tumour. Douglas was close to David as, indeed, he was to the many children of his own family and their friends, David died on 8 September 1958, the morning he was to start back to school. Douglas went to David’s school with his mother Yvonne to explain to David’s class-mates that he would not be joining them. Douglas then helped his sister make all the arrange­ments for David’s funeral.

The boy’s death affected him profoundly. Later he wrote:

The death of this child had an enormous effect on me and brought me face to face with the questions of life and death and the whole purpose of existence. As I reviewed my life at this time I was forcibly struck by the fact that the most important thing in my entire existence was my daily meditation. I decided, therefore, to structure my life on my meditation and sought to do so by becoming a monk.

So in the space of a few months, much to the surprise and disappointment of his colleagues in Dublin, Douglas resigned from a promising law career at Trinity College and was accepted, for September 1959, into the Order of St Benedict at Ealing Abbey in London. In one sense the search was over; but the pilgrimage had just begun.

Click below to hear ‘Best of McKenty’

Tuesday Writing Conversation: John Main

February 24, 2015

From the forthcoming new edition of In The Stillness Dancing – The Journey of John Main this is chapter 3.

3. Special Communications Unit No. 4

During his school years Douglas Main did well in English and he liked writing. So it was natural that he should apply for a position on the Hornsey Journal, a suburban newspaper, located in the area where the Main family lived in north London. He was accepted and began his journalistic career in July 1942. In his wallet was a journalistic pass number, 23. Unfortunately, his duties were not very significant. The reason was not lack of enthusiasm on his part, but that the war had reduced the paper’s impact. For security reasons, the Hornsey Journal had no mast-head, and for the same reasons there were no signed stories or by-lines.

Still, Douglas managed to keep busy. As a junior reporter he covered the local courts, council meetings and social events. If the occasion called for it, he was not above a little journalistic licence. Clearly, the wedding of his older sister, Kitty, in August 1942, called for it. Douglas described the wedding lavishly, listed the bridal gifts, then added half as many again for good measure. He was also generous in other ways. With his first week’s pay from the Journal, Douglas bought his friend, Diana Ernaelsteen, a second-hand bicycle. She describes the scene, ‘I could see Douglas wheeling the bicycle up the road. It was in good condition. I was eight years old and Douglas promptly taught me to ride it over the week-end.’ Besides the Ernaelsteens, one other stop for Douglas was the local church, St Peter-in-Chains, Stroud Green. Douglas was checking on church news for his paper but he often stayed to chat with the pastor, Canon Aloysius Smith. The parish was staffed by the Canons Regular of the Lateran, a group that would later affect Douglas’ longer journey.

Besides his work at the Hornsey Journal, Douglas was also involved with his family on the war’s home front. The danger to their home life at 108 Muswell Hill Road was real enough. All the windows had been blown in by bombs dropping nearby. The church just up the hill had been set on fire by German bombers. Eileen Main was in charge of the red alarm-box located in their home. Their father, David, was a fire warden. Douglas and his sisters were all fire-watchers. During severe raids, Eileen would shepherd everyone onto mattresses under the heavy dining-room table.

Presently the war became more demanding for Douglas. Call-ups were becoming more numerous, so in the spring of 1943 he left the Hornsey Journal and took a course as a wireless operator. Then on 13 December 1943, he enlisted at Barnet, Hertfordshire, not far from his home, in the Royal Corps of Signals. He was then nearly 18 years old, and his russet- coloured ‘Soldier’s Service and Pay Book’ described him as 6 feet, l3/4 inches tall, weighing 145 lbs, with blue eyes and light brown hair. He wrote down his trade as a ‘student journalist’.

Douglas (John Main) in 1949 with his niece Anne-Marie Stanley

Douglas (John Main) in 1949 with his niece Anne-Marie Stanley

At this time, Douglas’s knowledge of the Morse code (some of it learned from his father, David) and the wireless course he had taken gave him a leg up in the Royal Signals. He was sent almost immediately to a training station in Kent. There he spent most of 1944 with his unit (Special Communications Unit Number 3) perfecting the sensitive skills required to recognize and retrieve enemy signals. He was never far from home and his family. That summer David Main had rented a house in Sussex. As the holiday time approached David sent his son a telegram. It read: ‘Tell your C.O. to let you home for the week-end for a family gathering or you will be our missing link. Your Daddy.’ The sergeant read the tele­gram to the troops in a booming voice, stressing the words, ‘Your Daddy’. Douglas William Victor Main of the Royal Signals was not amused.

In the autumn of 1944 another group (Special Communi­cations Unit Number 4) was formed for more specialized intelligence work overseas. The unit embarked for the Euro­pean theatre of war in mid-January 1945. S.C.U.4 was a mobile communications unit that included several ambulances containing wireless equipment for both receiving and sending messages. The unit proceeded overseas by landing craft to the port of Ostend. They then moved on to establish a listening base near Brussels.

The intelligence work itself was demanding but not specially dangerous (except for the occasional buzz-bomb). Primarily Douglas and the other ‘special enlistment’ were searching for hostile signals, especially the signals of enemy agents, some of whom were left behind the lines of the rapid Allied advance toward the Rhine. The knack was to pluck the correct signal out of the air, often cluttered with hundreds of signals criss-crossing like tracer bullets. Douglas would sit at a bank of receivers, one to monitor the sender, the other the receptor of enemy signals. (To confuse matters further the signals sometimes emanated from friendly agents.

Of course, there was help to penetrate the confusion. Normally Douglas and his fellow operators would receive a schedule of the special frequencies to monitor on a given day. But if they had no assigned frequencies, they searched for specified enemy signals. This demanded acute attention. Sometimes the listener-operator would recognize the appropriate signal by the manner in which the enemy operator pounded the keys. A secondary task involved locating enemy transmissions by D/F (directional finding). Bearings would be taken on the enemy transmitter from two or more intercept stations. Then the transmitter could often be located, at least in a general area, and its subsequent movements traced. Sometimes the Germans alone had as many as 4,000 messages in the air daily. These were normally transmitted in a variety of codes and ciphers, the most well-known being the complex Enigma, first broken, unknown to the Germans, in 1940. The undeciphered messages, whether from Enigma or other enemy ciphers and codes, usually ended up in a place called Bletchley Park. Located about 50 miles from London, Bletchley Park became the nerve centre for receiving, deciphering, re-encoding and disseminating information from the enemy intelligence system to Allied commanders in every theatre of the war. This information was one of the decisive factors in the eventual victory.

In spite of the pressure of their intelligence work, Douglas and his friends, especially Harry Spendiff and Tudor Jones, had their moments of leisure. Harry Spendiff was an older man. He had enlisted as a policeman from Newcastle-on- Tyne. He liked Douglas and, to some extent, took him under his wing: ‘Doug was a hell of a nice fellow, bright, out of the ordinary and definitely officer class.’ Douglas also spent a lot of time with Tudor Jones, a shy and retiring soldier from Wales. Jones taught Douglas how to swim and dive and, at Douglas’s insistence, they visited almost every church they passed so that Douglas could take a picture. Occasionally they spent a short leave in Brussels or dropped into a bar in Assche for a drink and a visit with a friendly young woman bar-tender. They also got to know and like a hair-dresser of English background in Assche to whom they took cigarettes. Tudor Jones remembers Douglas telling her he would like to become a priest.

Whatever the future held, Douglas did not like army life. He saw the war as something to be endured. He obeyed military discipline because he realized that was the way to endure it with the least inconvenience. He certainly did not relish army food, he did not appreciate the rigmarole of mili­tary regulations and he did not like some of his officers (Harry Spendiff characterized one of them as ‘a real bastard’). Still, Douglas made some good friends in the army, many of whom he tried to stay in contact with after the war. And he had fun writing poems for his mates. These lines describe the reaction of the unit’s brass on hearing Europe had been invaded on D-Day:

Our Colonel one morning, his headquarters in Bucks,
Had heard talk of invasion, amphibious ducks,
His game of golf was near its end,
Invasion! he thought, ‘For my majors I’ll send. . . . ‘Immediate action!’ the Colonel decreed,
Three months later the idea gathered speed.

When Douglas’s unit, S.C.U.4, arrived in Belgium on 19 January 1945, the Germans’ last major attack, the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ had failed. Then the massive Allied sweeps across the Rhine into Germany began. After crossing the Rhine in late March, Field Marshal Montgomery (to whose Second Army S.C.U.4 was attached), proceeded to mop up enemy forces in north-west Germany. The Germans surrendered to Montgomery on 4 May. About the middle of June, Special Communications Unit 4 was ordered to follow the Allied advance into Germany. Henceforth they were based at Bad- Zalsuflen, a spa not far from Montgomery’s headquarters between Hanover and Osnabruck. Two months later Douglas managed a short leave to England to celebrate VJ-Day and the wedding of his sister, Yvonne.

When Douglas returned home from Germany to be discharged from the army in the summer of 1946, he had served two years and 285 days in England, Belgium and Germany. He received this testimonial, extant in the Public Records Office:

Military conduct exemplary. This N.C.O. has been with the unit since enlistment. He has always carried out his duties in a highly intelligent manner and is a popular member of the unit. He is honest and can be trusted in any position.

Until his death Douglas kept a small red address book with the names of most of the men in S.C.U.4. Some of them, such as Harry Spendiff who returned to his police job in Newcastle- on-Tyne and Tudor Jones who went back to Wales to join a small business, he never forgot.

Nor did he ever forget the fascinating intricacies of his work in intelligence. The intense search for the right signal and the appropriate frequency, the discipline required to ignore or discard all irrelevant distractions in the search for the assigned objective, required attention, stillness and concen­tration. This search demanded patience and, in the face of failure, perseverance. This experience provided Douglas Main with his most striking images for describing the inner search. This is how he drew from his experience in S.C.U.4 to portray an aspect of meditation:

In a previous incarnation … I served in the Counter Intelligence Service and one of the jobs that I had to do was to locate radio stations operated by the enemy. And so we would tune in our receivers to them, but the enemy were very clever and if they were operating that day on a frequency of ninety metres, at eighty-nine metres they would send out a jamming wave, a jamming signal, and at ninety-one they would send out another. So, in order to tune in exactly on their station you had to have an extremely fine tuning on your own radio. But we liked to think that we were just as clever as the enemy and so, when we found out the frequencies that they were broadcasting on, we took quartz crystals and then we would plug in the crystal to our receiver. Our receiver would then pick up their signal absolutely spot on, and none of the jamming devices interfered with it.

He went on to describe how the meditator, like the signaller, required a clear frequency so as to be ‘absolutely spot on’. But he was only to realize the full significance of these wartime experiences in another time and another place.

For the rest of the summer of 1946, Douglas, now for all practical purposes discharged from the army, helped his parents move from London to Belfast where David Main had been transferred by Western Union. Then Douglas enjoyed a trip through southern Ireland visiting the family and friends he had missed during the War.

Neil interviewed about John Main

February 21, 2015

Ric Peterson talks to Neil McKenty about John Main

The visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the Vendôme Priory in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

The visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the Vendôme Priory in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

Journalist, soldier, barrister and Benedictine monk, John Main’s spiritual odyssey was a deep seated quest for an authentic life of prayer. The door finally opened when he met an Indian swami who taught him to meditate using a mantra, only to close again when he entered the Benedictine noviciate and adopted a more traditional form of prayer.
Long after ordination in 1963, John Main discovered that the form of prayer advocated by the swami already existed within the mainstream of Western Christianity but had fallen into disuse. From then on, he was to devote his life to restoring this form of christian meditation to its rightful place within the Church. His work began with the foundation of a meditation centre at Ealing Abbey in London and led, some years later, to the foundation of the Benedictine Priory of Montreal and the establishment of a worldwide spiritual family linked through the daily practice of meditation.
Neil McKenty paints an attractive portrait of this compelling Irish monk whose teaching and writing on meditation were to transform the lives of thousands of men and women.

Cover of the new edition



Coming soon: new edition from McKenty Books, special pre-order price $15 for one copy, $20 for two copies. To order send an email to linesarestillblazing [at] gmail.com.

7. “The Zaniest Show I Ever Did”

No one in talk radio knows for certain what will resonate with listeners. Or why. To Neil’s consternation and surprise, one of his most popular “Exchange” programs was “Driving With your Mate.” These are his crib notes for the program, which elicited comments from callers for two months running.

Did you ever get lost, really lost? How did you get unlost?

Why are male drivers reluctant to ask directions?

Are men better than women at driving? I know my own wife, Catharine, gives up as a map reader and as a navigator at least once on every trip we take.

Do you think men change personalities when they get behind the wheel?

I do most of the driving in my family. I consider myself a good driver, and I am uncomfortable with someone else behind the wheel. I wonder why that is? I don’t like driving with drivers I don’t know. It makes me nervous. I feel more comfortable behind the wheel than sitting in the passenger seat.

There is something darn funny about how a car affects people. Why do we always pack so much luggage? Going, let’s say, to Las Cruces we have enough luggage in the trunk to go on a cruise around the world on the Queen Mary. Why do we need so much luggage?

Catharine’s reply:

The darling man was directionally challenged, Known to go through the occasional stop sign or red light unless the navigator, me, could stop him. Never a dull moment! The luggage, on the other hand, was mostly mine, and never ceased to amaze him. Can you believe we made it?

Click below to listen to Driving with your mate.

Radio waves

February 20, 2015

Now available: McKenty Live! The lines are blazing as an ebook.

Andy Williams The Impossible Dream

Catharine writes:

When I listen to Andy Williams singing this song I think of Neil and his heroic battle against the dark forces of bi-polar depression. So many people I have talked to lately find themselves in a similar situation, it was an enormous privilege for me to share in this battle with Neil.

Click below to listen to episodes of Exchange. For more radio click here.

Laurels and lemons

Kitchen tips and household hints


Pancake Tuesday Writing Conversation: Maple Syrup to the Impossible Dream

February 17, 2015

Pancake Tuesday in the UK – with Canadian maple syrup from Sainsbury’s!

From the Impossible Dream as sung by Andy Williams

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest, to follow that star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right without question or cause
To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star


Catharine writes:

Have you had an impossible dream? Did you follow it? Could you still follow it? Did your parents encourage you?

Never will I forget my first letter written from far out at sea by Robin Lee Graham, the youngest sailor (aged 16) ever to sail around the world. He sailed out from LA harbour in a 25 foot sailboat, with his 2 cats, some tinned food, and his homework on board.

His letter to me, saying his mast had just fallen overboard but finally been hauled back in, was published in PACE magazine, where the senior editor, Derek Gill, later helped Robin Lee write a book Dove. This book went on to sell over a million copies, inspiring countless young people to get off drugs and draw their own maps (as Neil suggests).

The book was made into the movie Dove with Gregory Peck.

Now, Neil’s story is helping to inspire people to follow their own authentic journey – I love Steve’s description of Neil as multi-faceted (click here) as indeed he was.

I thank all those who are encouraging me to make my journey possible to continue to share the stories that inspire me.

I am excited that McKenty Live! The Lines are Still Blazing is now available as an ebook, at a discounted price of $9.95

McKenty Books Selection: McKenty Live! The Lines Are Still Blazing

February 15, 2015

Extract from the new book:

My love affair with radio

When I was growing up in ‘the dirty thirties’, the depression years; in the lovely tourist village of Hastings nestled in the picturesque valley of the Trent River, we didn’t have a radio in our home. Most of our neighbours had one. But we didn’t. And it bothered me.

I’m not sure why we didn’t have a radio and so missed out (my brother, Stafford, and I) on a lot of programs our friends listened to and talked about. Certainly, it wasn’t because my father Arther McKenty (also known as ‘A.J.’) couldn’t afford one. Although I was continually worried we were about to plunge into poverty (as I have explained at greater length in my memoir, THE INSIDE STORY, published in 1997) , the fact was my father was a reasonably prosperous hardware man and tinsmith. He was careful with the family budget but he certainly could have bought us a radio with lots of black ink to spare.

Why didn’t he? Why were we made to feel different because we didn’t have a radio? I think the reason had something to do with our religious background and especially my father’s attitude to some elements of his religion. We were staunch Irish Catholics living in a strong Protestant (not to say loyal Orange) Community- Liberal in many ways, including politics (my father invariably supported Mackenzie King and since King’s Liberals almost always won, my father seldom lost his vote). Neverthless my dad had developed a puritanical, almost a Jansenist virus, in some of his religious attitudes. Dancing and films were, depending on the circumstances, suspect (although my parents often enjoyed both). So was the radio because radio introduced into the house, in my father’s view, a non spiritual, materialistic, even anti-religious atmosphere that dad considered dangerous at least for my brother, Stafford and me.

There is some evidence that this is not just speculation on my part because the event that changed my dad’s position was the fact that radio began to carry some religious programs, strongly Roman Catholic to boot. Who can forget the impact that the famous radio orator, Monsignor Fulton Sheen from New York, made on the airways in the thirties? Or at the very least, what Irish Catholic can forget? (Some years later Monsignor Sheen transferred his formidable oratorical talents to television where he quickly became so popular that he dethroned Milton Berle, till then the king of television).

In any event, we have Monsignor Sheen to thank for introducing our very own radio into our house. And I can still remember the hair standing on the back of my head as I heard his mellifulous voice reverberating around our modest livina room. Mind you, our radio- listening was still severely rationed. But now as Christmas approached we did not have to sneak over to our neighbours, the Cruickshanks, where we would listen to the Timothy Eaton holiday programs leading up to the big Santa Claus parade.

And soon there was another program that if my father had his way, we never missed. Wouldn’t you know this was another clergyman, known as ‘the radio priest’. Father Charles Coughlin, quite another cup of tea, I might add, than Fulton Sheen. Charles Coughlin was born in Hamilton, taught as a priest at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and eventually fetched up at the Shrine of the Little Flower, in Royal Oak, Michigan, not far from Detroit. He had a voice like an organ, soothing, rich, mesmerizing and he played your emotions the way a maestro conducts an orchestra. And he was a maestro, no doubt about it.        And every Sunday afternoon about four o’clock my dad and the rest of us turned on the radio expectantly waiting the oritund velvet tones of Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest.

The trouble was not Father Coughlin; the trouble, though I am sure I did not realize it then, was his message. Father Coughlin’s world view was straightforward enough. By and large our planet was run by a small clique of men (I’m sure there were no women in the group) whom Coughlin called international bankers, most of whom were Jews and some of them communists at that. If we could only smash the international bankers, their Jewish lackies and their communist fellow-travellers, the kingdom of peace, justice and Jesus Christ would begin to emerge on this earth.

If those remarkable Catholics – Mussolini, Hitler and Francisco Franco – could help us smash the dirty little Jewish conspiracy to run the world – well, that was fine with Father Coughlin. (He had started out as a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt but eventually bitterly split with him) . It would not be totally unfair to put Coughlin, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the fiery southern Baptist Minister, R.K. Smith and the famous flyer, Charles Lindbergh in the same boat when it came to naivity about the nature of fascism. Because when you stripped away all the religious veneer from Coughlin’s phillippics what you discovered was a small-bore fascist, a bigot and a full-fledged anti-Semitic.

I have no doubt mv father agreed with most of Coughlin’s diatribes. Mv father was a fair man and he was not a bigot. But he believed the bia shots of this world walked all over the little guy and there was damned little justice for anybody who lacked a fat bank balance. It was this element of Coughlin’s brew that clicked into mv dad’s own experience of life. If Coughlin was for the under-dog, whatever that means, that was alright with my dad.

It was not alright with an increasing number of Americans from President Roosevelt on down. And, when the second world war began, the powers that be, in Washington and the Vatican, began to turn the screws on the radio priest. Eventually, the Archbishop of Detroit managed to force Coughlin off the air, to silence him, as the phrase was in those days. To his credit, Father Coughlin remained as the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower and obediently kept his mouth shut to the obvious relief of his superiors, the President and all right-thinking people of whom my father, on some of these issues, was not one.


This is a collection of colourful stories and articles, by and about Neil, highlighting his radio talk-show and his writing ability. Includes some unpublished pieces and Aislin cartoons.

Royalties from the sale of the book will go to create
The Neil McKenty Scholarship in Journalism at Dawson College

For more information click here.

New Year’s Eve, 1952 at the Laurentian Lodge Club

February 12, 2015

It was New Year’s Eve, 1952, at the Laurentian Lodge Club in the foothills of the Laurentian mountains. The members, out of their snowy ski togs and dressed to the nines, were sipping their pre-dinner drinks in the comfortable lounge, beside the Christmas tree and the blazing fieldstone fireplace. There was an air of anticipation. Word had gone round that a special announcement, somehow related to the club, was presently to be made by Buckingham Palace.

The fieldstone fireplace

The fieldstone fireplace

A young man, sporting a McGill blazer, walked over to the floor-model Marconi radio and turned the dials, so high the little children of the Club members had to stretch to reach them. There was a crackle of static before the news came on. The members crowded close to hear. One of them was smoking his pipe, a tall man in a grey herringbone suit over a red vest, a Princeton pin in his lapel.

Then the announcer read the item from Buckingham Palace with the prominent names on the Queen’s Honours List for the New Year, 1953. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, had bestowed the Order of Merit, the highest civilian decoration in the British Empire, on Montreal’s renowned neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield.

There were cheers, toasts and congratulations all around. Only one Canadian, the country’s longest serving Prime Minister, the Right Honourable MacKenzie King, had ever received the O.M., which could be held by no more than twenty-four people at a single time.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, joined the Shawbridge Club in 1930.  (Penfield Archives, Osler Library, McGill University)

Dr. Wilder Penfield, founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, joined the Shawbridge Club in 1930. (Penfield Archives, Osler Library, McGill University)

Dr. Penfield and his family had been members of the Shawbridge Club since 1930. Now he was sixty-one, a trim balding man with the square shoulders of the athlete he had been at Princeton University, just over six feet tall, with an expression and smile that resemble President Eisenhower’s. He was an imposing but not intimidating figure, at least not at the Club where he was sometimes referred to as “the gentle giant”.

A keen skier himself, Dr. Penfield was often among the first to hear the early morning call, “Who’s for skiing this morning? Get a move on. All out.” It was a man’s voice, “clear and high,” he remembered, “like the voice of a yodeller at the start of his yodel.” The voice belonged to the most famous skier of them all, Hermann “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, who had been a member of the Shawbridge Club since its beginning in 1923.

Many a morning, the “Jackrabbit” skied over to the Club from his little house nearby, rousted up a group, clomped to the front door in sight of the Big Hill, snapped on his skis and, at the head of his chattering retinue, thin and craggy as a pine tree, swooshed through the powdery snow towards the heart of the mountains.

"This strong, wiry man with the profile of an eagle, Johannsen, is the Pied Piper, one might say, of the the ski hills. He called in his clear, high voice and the young and the strong came flocking after him to discover the cold, white beauty of the North." Wilder Penfield (CPR collection)

“This strong, wiry man with the profile of an eagle, Johannsen, is the Pied Piper, one might say, of the the ski hills. He called in his clear, high voice and the young and the strong came flocking after him to discover the cold, white beauty of the North.” Wilder Penfield (CPR collection)

Extracted from Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club, for more information on the title and where you can get a copy click here. To find out more about the Laurentian Lodge Club, click here.

Amid the soft rolling foothills

February 11, 2015

Neil wrote this about an evening at the Laurentian Lodge Club.

It was my birthday, New Year’s Eve 1994, about six months after my depression had lifted for good and the happiest summer of my life. Catharine and I had spent the afternoon cross-country skiing and were relaxed before supper in the lounge of the Laurentian Lodge Club at Prévost, amid the soft rolling foothills.


The Laurentian Lodge Club in Prévost/Shawbridge. Click on the picture for more information about this venerable club.

Outside the frosted windows, the moonlight was glittering on the fresh snowfall; inside, a roaring fire flamed up the chimney of the large stone fireplace. A splendid dinner was prepared by our talented chef, André. I was presented with a birthday cake and a rousing chorus of three score years and ten. I don’t remember feeling happier. I felt connected in a way I had never felt connected before to these people who were my friends. I laughed, and it was a genuine laugh. In some measure I had become real. I was comfortable in my own skin. As I sat there in the dancing light of the fireplace and happy sounds of singing, I thought of all the people including my family and the Jesuits and my friends who had helped me on this journey. I thought of how God does indeed write straight with crooked lines. And then I thought, with Catharine smiling beside me, the best is yet to be.


The above is an extract from McKenty Live! The Lines Are Still Blazing – click on the cover below to find out more about this newly-published book.


Tuesday Writing Conversation: What’s your own experience of writing?

February 10, 2015

What’s your own experience of writing?

The writing conversation was started by a question from a 15 year old student from Northern Ireland. She asked a great question: ‘What I want to know is – how do you get what is in your head down on paper?’

Today’s writing conversation entry below was inspired by a conversation I overheard among the servers in the dining room.

Some months ago, I watched a group of young people, mostly students, standing around and discussing animatedly. Suddenly I heard one of them say in a loud voice “Creativity has no limits!” How interesting I thought. Is this true for most of us? Do we limit ourselves unintentionally? Do we allow circumstances to dictate some limits? Is there a life force of creativity available that we don’t always tap into?

Have you experienced moments that surprised you? Are there particular circumstances, good or bad, that effect your creativity?

What mode of expression appeals to you? Art, music, writing, or snowboarding. I was fascinated to see the individuality shown by the snowboarders at the last winter Olympics. Are there new forms of creativity emerging?

I was also amazed to see the variety of books on display as I walked through Barnes and Noble. And stunned to see the variety of options offered to me as I scrolled through their Nook reader. With all the possbilities, simple focus is one important element of creativity that I am going to have to pay attention to. Having a pen in my hand as I write is a help to me but surely not to others.

What helps you focus on creative work?

Catharine McKenty


On another note:

The place that made us fall for the laurentions now has a new website: laurentianlodgeclub.com


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