Tantalus in Cold Storage | Clongowes Wood College

Posted: 23rd September 2020

man dressed in a cloak

There are many cautionary tales abounding from classical times – as relationships among the gods [way-up-there!] worked out in their lives in a very human way – and also in human and divine interaction. The lives of the gods mirrored those of humans – or was it vice versa?! – for all the panoply of the virtues and the vices which are part of our daily lives was part of theirs too – way up there in the heavens. In recent days I have come to consider an interesting character who has given his name to a special word in English – tantalize ……..

Perhaps I should tell you about my refound friend ……. Tantalus was a Greek mythological figure – most famous for his eternal punishment in Tartarus. He had both a hidden, divine parent – and a mortal one! However – in spite of this advantage – he fell by the wayside – abusing his welcome at the table of Zeus, the supreme god. When caught, he was duly sanctioned – and his punishment was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit – the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp – and, whenever he bent down to drink – the water receded before he could drink any.

All of which has given us the English word tantalize – which, according to the Oxford definition means: Torment, tease someone with hopes that seem continually on the point of fulfilment or with object almost within his grasp.

But what, you may ask, has this got to do with life in Clongowes ?!

I suppose that it is a question of definition or categorization …….. at least it was for me – when I realized that – just before before the return of the troops in late August – I was placed squarely in the media’s oft-mentioned group of the elderly and vulnerable !

To say the least – it was a real shock-to-the-system for me – at the same time reminding me to be grateful to God that I am still alive-and-kicking !

Followers of the Lord are called to live as being in but not of the world. While I hope that He will still consider me a faithful follower [even if struggling to keep apace with what that means!] – as regards the School, I feel the converse ……….  being of but not in the world of the Convicti !

Little wonder then that I got to thinking of good old Tantalus – as I was put into cold storage  in the Castle – which had now become  a sort of fortress to be held by our quintet of defenders in splendid isolation ! It is in this throw-back to the 15th century that I now reside – pro tem.covid-19 – with occasional forays into the world of noise and laughter – of challenge and success – of thrills and spills and getting-up-again  …… and, above all, of the craic of school life !

It has set me to reflecting (i) on how blessed I am by the Lord to be still around –  (ii) on how, from a distance, one gets a more objective view of life – and (iii) how no one is indispensable !

Like everyone else, I am living in hope that our uninvited guest covid-19 will soon leave us alone – and feel that we all have our role to play in bringing this about. In this I find myself sharing the thoughts and feelings of Students, Staff and Parents – as I experience something of how they feel in these strange and challenging times.

I am amazed at the resilience of the Students – restricted [like myself] in so many ways – and yet as energetic and enthusiastic for life as ever – with the ever-present danger of over-exuberance causing a hiccup or two! While somewhat removed from life-in-the-trenches – I can empathize with Teachers and Staff in concern for everyone’s health [like myself] – yet accepting the fact that we are in control of our own destiny in so far as we can enter into the spirit of observance of the guidelines by the medical experts. I can also feel for Parents coping with curtailed access to the school [like myself!] and their sons – as well as worrying about their welfare.

With these three groups we Castle dwellers stand shoulder-to-shoulder – and it makes  the “sacrifice” asked of each of us very minimal given the goal of what we trying to achieve – and by comparison with what so many people all over the world are required to do. In theory [dare I go as far as to say in fact?!] a boarding school environment should be [is?!] much safer than a day school – where there is so much more outside sharing and mixing. With our bubbles-within-the-boarding-bubble we have an almost family-type model – a precious advantage of being-in-this-together !

In the past month I have come to appreciate all the more my limited involvement in activities down in the school ………. happy to have been able to commission this year’s Eucharistic Ministers – continue as Moderator of the Academy – play a discreet role in preparing Kairos – and celebrate Mass on Sunday [for only one year – because social distancing prevents the whole school from gathering together.] I also celebrate an evening Mass each weekday for each of the other years [but plans are afoot to beam the Sunday Mass to pods within the school – and also to Parents and the wider outside world!] Yesterday we had what I think was a “first” in celebrating the Opening Mass for the Academic Year at the HL Pavilion – with Students and Staff standing round – a perfect start to a most enjoyable Sports Day – of which I had a grandstand view from my Castle eerie !

In recounting his own somewhat unexpected path towards God in his autobiography – St Ignatius tells how God treated him just like a schoolmaster treats a child He is teaching.  Appreciation of what one has doesn’t always come easily to a child – and, in my Castle cell – I have come [childlike] to realize how I too often take for granted God’s gift to me of life in our Colleges – and the gift of young people who continue to keep me from being too elderly and invulnerable too soon !

It is again the hundredfold promised by Jesus – with the cautionary reminder that He also said: To whom much has been given – much will be expected! This should always keep me on-my-toes to measure up! – and my hope is that – with so much leeway to make up – He will leave me around for a while longer to lessen the deficit !

The theme for our Opening Mass was The grateful person is a happy person.  I chose it earlier this week when thinking of what a Vietnamese Bishop who spent 13 years in a Communist prison [9 in solitary confinement] was able to say about his time in prison: If I keep my eyes open and my spirit alert – I will live in continual thanksgiving …. thank You, Lord, for having chosen me -for the mission I have received – for so many who sustain me …… for the people who place obstacles on my path and cause me trouble ……. how can I  repay you, Lord ? In the light of the obstacles of all the restrictions of covid – I invited everyone to listen to St Paul in our first reading: I thank God for you every time I think of you – and every time I pray for you – I pray with joy. I pray that your love will keep growing more and more – together with true knowledge and perfect judgment – so that you will be able to choose what is best …… 

What better way to start the 207th year of Clongowes than to pray that this generation may have lives filled with all the good qualities which only Jesus Christ can produce – so that our Students may truly become [in the words of the Gospel of our Mass] salt for our earth and light for our world – grateful and happy ……… and truly become men-for-others – A. M. D. G. ……… for the Greater Glory of God !


Fr Michael Sheil SJ



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