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

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’

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