Korean Justice

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.

One Saturday evening, while watching a live Premier League football match, which was being broadcast on a Cambodian television network, I switched to the KBS channel during the half-time interval.  On it, I discovered a Korean TV drama with English subtitles called “Justice”.  After ten minutes I was hooked and did not return to the football match.  The courts and the media in Cambodia are not independent, so it was interesting to see how a Korean drama deals with corruption of a similar type in a much more democratic and free society.

One recent example of this media-control in Cambodia was in a headline tweeted by The Phnom Penh Post recently.  The words used were “Three Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP activists have been placed in pre-trial detention…” which clearly imply that these men are criminals.  The Phnom Penh Post knows fully that the Supreme Court is not independent and has been used by the Government to suppress the legitimate legal opposition party.  Yet the newspaper simply chooses to ignore this truth and portray innocent men as criminals. So much for truth in the press.

So the Korean drama seems exceptional in many ways. It tells the story of a disillusioned and corrupt lawyer, Lee Tae-kyeong, who works for a rich owner of a building company, Song Woo-yong.  The violent death of his younger brother seven years previously pushed Tae-kyeong into the company of Woo-yong who deliberately sets out to corrupt his “soul”. This friendship turns into bitter animosity.  Meanwhile Tae-kyeong’s former girlfriend, Seo Yeun-ah, has become an incorruptible prosecutor secretly working to solve “cold” murder cases of vulnerable young women.  In a plot to help his powerful business partner, the psychopathic Tak Soo-hoo, of Jung-im Electronics, Woo-yong asks Tae-kyeong to defend the innocent victims of methanol poisoning at the Jung-im factories with a view to abandoning them all later.

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Woo-yong’s network includes powerful judges, media owners and politicians for whom he provides both bribes and high-class call girls.  His power is thus immense.  The opulence of the wealth of the rich elite is stunning but their moral degradation is even more stunning.  Woo-yong is clever at using lust, greed and the desire for “status” as bait to trap the powerful into doing his bidding.  He underlines the consequences of personal choice many times.

However despite the intricacies of this Korean plot, the décor in which the significant conversations take place are large rectangular rooms reminiscent of Greek architecture. While the drama is obviously about Korean society, its import is universal. The question of the corruption of the human soul by passions and by greed is discussed explicitly in the early stages of the drama.  At first the thirst for justice seems more like a thirst for revenge for injured family members.  Gradually the theme of true justice emerges largely due the fearless and honest Seo Yeun-ah.  Is justice possible in this world or does it exist at all?  How will we know? Socrates argued at his trial that one lie or unjust act harms the soul irreparably.

 

The drama could have created scenes of gory violence given the number of murders involved.  It could also have included graphic sex scenes given the number of sexual favours provided by high class call girls to Woo-yong’s business associates. However the drama is coldly sober in all its scenes.  Even the subterranean love relationship between Tae-kyeong and Yeun-ah is never expressed in a physical gesture, not even a kiss or a hug.  This sobriety allows the friendship between them to deepen into a “communion of souls” like Aristotle’s idea about perfect friendship.

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Each of the three main characters is passionately devoted to a family member; a young brother, son or father.  While this attachment seems to cloud calm judgment and allow passions to trouble the soul, in the long run, it is corrected by the truth that emerges in the search for justice.  For much of the drama, the search for justice is so clouded by passions that it appears the new world will only be a hellish new version of the old world.  This is where the drama resembles the Greek drama of Antigone who cannot find a way to respect both her dead brother and the state.

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However the drama allows this tragic world to be suddenly brightened by the simple genuine humanity of the smaller people in the story so that in the end it is the love of the crippled but honest son of Woo-yong, Song Dae-jin and the courage of the traumatised actress Jang Yeong-mi who allow justice to be found and confession and forgiveness to be contemplated.

The figure of Tak Soo-hoo epitomizes in the fashion of the Joker, the possibility of absolute evil or the “no soul” person.  If he is mad, he is human, but if he is not mad, what is he?  This question is also fairly posed but not answered.

There are minor irritations in the drama when each second episode ends on some mystery note to make sure that you want to switch onto the next episode.  There are some minor leads which go nowhere and are never tied up.  However the acting is in all cases superb, as if each person knows their role in what appears as an ordinary Korean soap-opera but is much more a Philosophical drama in the style of Ancient Greece.   The ending is a little bizarre given the extent of evil inflicted and suffered by the participants.  It is not karmic.

 

Kung Raiya, Hong Kong, the Church and Hannah Arendt

The coastal town of Sihanoukville has become a beach and gambling resort for Chinese tourists from the mainland. Many newly constructed buildings are already falling down, uncollected rubbish is piled high in the streets and the town floods because of blocked drains. Chinese workers are everywhere. The Government is allowing massive unsupervised Chinese investment in Cambodia. There is talk of a Chinese naval base at Ream.

The works of Hannah Arendt, the political theorist and philosopher, have furnished insights into  the political situation in Cambodia,  the Catholic Church and  Hong Kong which I will attempt to explain in this blog.   A recent court case in Phnom Penh reveals the truth about the political situation here.  The insights of Hannah Arendt could help to illuminate the issues around this case.  Perhaps her work can also be applied to the political situation of the Catholic Church, of Hong Kong and of Cambodia.

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Kem Ley Commemoration

Here in Cambodia on the 13th of August last, the Court of Appeal refused the bail applications of Mr. Kung Raiya and Mr. Suong Neakpaon.  The two were arrested in July for commemorating the anniversary of the political assassination of Mr. Kem Ley, a peaceful social analyst, on the 10th of July 2016.   Apparently, the former distributed tee-shirts with an image of Kem Ley on them and the latter distributed leaflets at the site of the murder.  Mr. Kem Ley had been shot in broad daylight at a Caltex garage shortly after penning an article outlining the amount of wealth and property amassed by the Prime Minister and his family over the last few years. Continue reading “Kung Raiya, Hong Kong, the Church and Hannah Arendt”

“Unsheltered”

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”. Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

The novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver does not perhaps reach the literary heights of “The Poisonwood Bible” or “The Bean Trees”.  Yet Kingsolver’s latest work still packs a prophetic punch.

Two parallel stories unfold in the same place with over a one hundred year gap between them.  In the modern story, Willa Knox, an endearing and unorthodox grandmother, tries to guide her disparate family through the loss of financial security and middle-class status.  Despite long years of toil at third level teaching and journalism, the family is sinking slowly below the poverty level.  The rabidly conservative great Grand-father is terminally ill and requires constant attention. Willa has two children, her darling son Zeke and her rebel daughter Tig.  Zeke’s wife commits suicide and leaves Willa with a grand-son to take care of.

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Kingsolver’s description of this family, of a happy marriage in an unhappy world, is deft, poignant and profound.  The restoration of the sacred family space that is constantly being invaded by work obligations through computer and smart-phone is Willa’s crowning achievement even while she appears to fail.  The radical ecological position of the rebel daughter, Tig, slowly seems more and more coherent while the compromised capitalist position of the dutiful son Zeke becomes morally bankrupt as time moves on.   Tig’s own transformation into caring mother of her abandoned nephew confirms this moral turn around.

The second story revolves around a progressive school teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, who befriends a scientist, Mary Treat, who is researching plants and animals of the area.  The prose in this second story feels more clunky and labored in comparison to the smooth flow and rich family dialogue of the first story.  Yet the effort to unravel the historical origins of the physical houses being lived in serves to emphasize the failure of the Utopian vision of a new society in Vineland.

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Both stories underline the conviction that all modern families are headed into an ecological “Armageddon” from which there can be no escape and no shelter.

In this sense, “Unsheltered” is a prophetic novel.  After reading it, one is faced with a choice.  One can opt for the radical position of Tig, and refuse all compromise with the capitalist economy of consumption. Or one can opt for the compromise position of Zeke to work for the survival of the fittest. There is no more in-between possible.  Either way ecological disaster is only around the corner.

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Milkman

While I was reading Milkman, I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I had to stop to think. I found that I could not read the novel quickly which struck me as quite unusual. Each minor, seemingly insignificant, incident in the story seemed to me pregnant with deeper meaning (the discovery of the cat’s head on the road home, for example).

Milkman is the most interesting Irish novel that I have read in years.  Three good friends of mine grew up in the troubled heartlands of Belfast.  I also spent some time in a home for young offenders in the early eighties in County Down and as a hospital chaplain in Belfast in the early nineties.  These experiences enabled me to appreciate that Anna Burns has captured a historical “truth” in her novel in a surprisingly similar way to Caroline Brothers in her novel, The Memory Stones, about the military dictatorship in Argentina. Continue reading “Milkman”

Mountain Mindfulness

Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there.

Sgurr Nan Each 

Sgurr Nan Each is not an impressive Munro mountain. It emerges gently on the east side of a ridge joining it to two larger Munros and it nestles humbly behind the high ridge of Sgurr Mor to the North. It is thus not visible from the road that runs from Inverness to Ullapool nor indeed is it visible from any surfaced road anywhere. In fact, the only place that the summit can be clearly seen is from the bank of Loch Fannich to the South. Only midgie lovers hike in to visit Loch Fannich. It ranks a mere 266th among 282 Munros in Scotland.

Yet this mountain now occupies a special place in my heart. On the 18th of July this year, I climbed across from Sgurr nan Cloch Geala to reach Sgurr Nan Each, my 200th Munro. It was fitting that I climbed this last Munro as I was preparing to return to the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia, having completed my sabbatical break.

With a little help from my mountain log, I can remember each and every one of my Scottish Highland mountain hikes; the weather on the day, the steepness of the slopes, the width of the streams, the height of the trees, the strength of the wind, the type of animals or people that I met on the route. In particular, I can remember vivid moments of beauty or challenge that resonated with my spiritual journey.

Spiritual Exercises

These memories are, in fact, similar in power and potency to certain contemplations and meditations that I experienced during the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. My mountain journey seems to run parallel to the journey that I undertook while following the Spiritual Exercises. This year in March, I completed the 30-day retreat for the third time. While I received many graces during the retreat, I also noticed one huge challenge that needed to be faced. Sgurr Nan Each will remain in my memory because while staying for a short while on the summit, I realised that I am now facing down some fierce inner demons in a definitive and decisive way. This is the real challenge.

Four family members have recovered from alcohol and/or drug addiction. I have learnt from them about the addictive power of disordered desiring, thinking and acting. When Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members speak about inner demons, their words carry an authenticity that I have rarely met elsewhere. The 12 steps programme seems to reveal the depth of these previously unnoticed disorders in the soul. It is as if the spontaneous combustion and energy at the heart of the inner psyche is oriented already towards self-centredness rather than other-centredness.

As St Augustine insisted, only an inner gift of grace from the depths can free the soul from its own prison. Outside encounters can provoke a crisis that leads to openness to receive the inner grace. The social welfare people had threatened to take my cousin’s daughter away from her. A mother’s love became her primary motivation for recovery.

Cairngorms and Scottish Highlands 

When I arrived onto the top of Sgurr nan Each, it felt like the end of a journey that began in Ballymun in 1989 when Michael Paul Gallagher gave me a present of a book on the Cairngorms. Presumably he felt that I needed to open my horizons beyond repeated ascents of Irish summits. I remember reading out from the appendix at the back of this book to the other members of my community at dinner. I was keen to explain to them that the list of mountain fatalities in the Cairngorms proved statistically that this mountain range was in fact the most deadly in the whole of Europe, despite the fact that the Dolomites and the Pyrenees were much higher mountains. The key fatal factor proved to be the appalling and unpredictable weather. The wind tended to push people over the edge and then the cold did them in.

So I heard the call. After my theological studies finished in Dublin in 1991, I was allowed a Scottish holiday. Once my companions heard of my plan for this expedition, none could join me on it. I cycled across to Glencoe first for a few days preparatory climbing before crossing the Highlands to Loch Morlich in the heart of the Cairngorms. In Glencoe, the mist was down to the road on the day that I set forth to conquer Bidean Nam Bean. Since the summit was only four hundred feet higher than Carrauntoohil in Kerry, I figured that I was well prepared. This was a foolish assumption. After snaking my way up the steep zig-zag trail through the forest out onto the wind-swept ridge, my rain-soaked map began to disintegrate. I reached the summit cairn shrouded in black mist. Now all I had to do was follow the compass bearing down safely. Bidean Nam Bean had other plans…

Mountain Highs and Lows

While descending down a steep incline which I had persuaded myself was a trail, I found that I had to face the rocks and grass while lowering my boots gingerly down to the next foot-hold. I could see an inviting little lochan about 500 feet below which signalled safety. Suddenly while standing on a grassy ledge, the clumps of grass gave way simultaneously and I was falling a good 10 feet into space. Luckily, a large slab of rock awaited me which smashed into my back and legs and knocked all the wind out of my lungs. I lay there for about 10 minutes wondering how much damage was done. I could move my toes so my spine was intact. My arms and legs seemed okay.

My left ankle hurt but I could leave it strapped inside the boot. I managed to hobble down the mountain and crawl back to the hostel. I had to rest there for three days with no climbing or cycling. Bidean Nam Bean had nearly killed me. About nine days later, I was ready for another big climb, this time in the Cairngorms. Once again the weather was terrible. I hiked across rough terrain for six miles to arrive at the base of the mighty Braeriach. There I found two groups of climbers who had turned back from the ascent as the wind, rain and mist promised only misery and danger. I sort of indicated that I would, of course, soon turn back also.

But I went up into the thickening mist, the thickest that I had ever experienced. Relying on the compass and the watch, I timed each leg so that I would know when to turn to find the narrow ridge up. At the top of the second incline, I had a decision to make. Turn back to safety, or trust the compass and watch in the darkest of mists. Slowly and tentatively I moved out onto the ridge feeling the increased exposure but not seeing any difference. Gradually the mist thinned out and the rain stopped falling. I emerged onto the summit of Braeriach and found the cairn. The wind was dying down. Slowly I edged along the path over the sheer drop into the corrie lake on the North side and found my way down onto the next ridge leading across to Carrauntoohil (they have one also). After a while I stopped to take a rest and to look back up the gentle ridge that I had just descended.

Suddenly, without warning, the mist lifted like a blanket being removed from a bed and the sun came out. Three corrie lakes with three cliffs arranged in a descending sequence stood before me, each one majestic in its own right. The sun caught the snow and ice remaining on the cliffs which shimmered in the sunlight. Ravens squawked in delight. Everything else was silent. There was nobody on the mountain. Then I knew. I really knew. God was there. He was speaking to me like He had spoken to Job; “you puny worm, who are you to climb my mountain in this weather? Now behold what I am showing you. No-one has ever seen these three corrie lakes like this before and no-one will ever see them like this again. This is my gift to you. Enjoy it and be gone”. I stood in awe and wonder at the magnificent craggy architecture and knew that I would never forget it as long as I live. I turned around and jogged down to the Devil’s point and then down from the col into the Lairig Ghru from which it was only a three mile jog to reach the base of Braeriach and then a six-mile trek back to the hostel. I took the train back down to Stranraer and home to Dublin.

The Hammer, the Horse and the Princess

Every three years, I am allowed return to Ireland from the Jesuit Mission in Cambodia. Each time I slip over to Scotland for a mountaineering expedition. I usually climb alone but I have had companions for about 50 of my 200 Munros. These companions only number three; the Hammer, the Horse and the Princess. The Hammer, being local, preferred to camp. So we used to divide the extra equipment and gear in proportion to body weight which meant that his pack was usually twice as heavy as mine. This extra load did not prevent the Hammer from pulling me out from a stream in spate after I slipped on the log crossing it. With a single-handed Highland twist, he managed to pull me right back up onto the log and saved me from a right battering in the storm-filled stream.

On another occasion, I chose an unconventional route of descent off An Liathach (the fortress) in the Torridon Hills. We clambered down a steep gully of large boulders thinking that their size would prevent them from moving. This was a serious miscalculation. The whole road began to move under our feet and we had to dance a jig to prevent our legs being crushed under the rapidly moving boulders. From time to time, we could throw ourselves to the side of the gully onto the steep grass for a rest while the boulders stopped moving. As the Hammer’s weight with pack was considerably heavier than mine, his acceleration on the boulders increased more rapidly and his struggle to prevent himself being crushed had to be more energetic. Fortunately for me, each time we ended up on opposite sides of the gully so that he could only glare murderously across at me. We survived this ordeal.

The Horse is the fastest walker across rough terrain and gradual slopes that you are ever likely to meet. He received his nickname in our scouting days. The only thing that slows him down at all, are steep slopes. So it is important, when planning a route with him, to have a few steep slopes at judicious intervals. Otherwise you spend the whole day in a permanent jog to catch up with him. However for long routes with many Munros in one day, there is no better companion to pull you along. We once climbed up onto Lochnagar in the Cairngorms and then around four other Munros including Cnoc Mor an tSagairt, descending a long track down alongside Loch na Muice. The Princess comes from a far country and loves to take photographs of Highland scenery. So it is wiser to plan walks with her when the forecast is bad. She walks much faster in the mist and rain than in the sunshine.

Once while staying at the remote hostel at Loch Ossian, the old warden invited a mighty stag with enormous antlers to manoeuvre itself inside the hall door and then through the dining room door to receive his supper from the warden’s hands. All of us in the hostel just gazed in amazement. None of us had witnessed such trust between a deer and a human being before. While staying at the same hostel a young German couple invited me to join them for an afternoon swim in the lochan beside the hostel. I duly obliged and politely changed into my shorts. The couple did not change into anything. They just stripped naked and jumped in. The next morning, the blonde bombshell again invited me for a swim so I glanced at the scowling boyfriend. She said; “he not come, he does not want, just you and me”. I told her that, unfortunately, I had just put on my porridge and could not leave the stove while it was cooking.

Perhaps those long hours spent tramping through the wilderness have facilitated a corresponding inner journey away from illusions and delusions to the truth about myself and my disordered desiring. St Ignatius of Loyola set the goal of the Spiritual Exercises as freedom from disordered desires so as to be able to discern well. Maybe I never really understood the meaning of these words until now. He spoke of disordered attachments but the modern word might now be addictions. One could also say that the goal of the AA twelve step program is “emotional sobriety”.

How Things Fall into Place

The practice of Buddhist meditation has a similar goal. Mindfulness is helping many people wake up to their imprisonment and addictions. However, if my mountain journeys mean anything then it is clear that there can be “no gain without pain”. One has to say no to every false idea, emotion and desire. There can be no compromise or surrender. We need to find our truth and live it fully. We have to let go of all our dreams in order to love our mysterious God fully with our whole heart. Only then can things fall into place in our lives.