Greg Watts meets the monk with a martial arts habit, who teaches East London children the genteel art of street fighting.
If you look at the liturgy, it's replete with gestures. Ritual is prayer with the body. That's why I say karate is as beautiful as ballroom dancing or figure skating. There's no difference between karate and lighting a candle."
You might expect such a comment from some New Age guru, but not from a Catholic priest. Father Seamus Mulholland, it has to be said, is not your run-of-the-mill priest, as the pupils at his karate club in West Beckton, East London, will tell you.
Stocky, with close-cropped ginger hair, a square don't-mess-with-me kind of face and a stud in his ear, Father Seamus - "Kyoshi Seamus" - is one of Europe's top five experts in shotokan karate. He is also a Franciscan, a biblical scholar and a university chaplain.
It was as a teenager during the troubles back home in Belfast that he first caught the karate bug. He learnt fast, graduated to seventh dan and went on to win a host of titles, including the British championship three times and, in 1994, the European Kumite and Kata championships in Paris.
But isn't karate an odd activity for a priest, especially a Franciscan?
"I set up the club to keep kids off the street. I've had a lot of encouragement from the provincial and the friars. We don't teach the children to fight. It sends the wrong signals and teaches an aggressiveness that kids shouldn't have. This is about how you give a sense of hope in a world that lives without it. When the kids get their first belt there's a real sense of achievement," he replies, adding that he always teaches his students that the best self-defence technique is to run away. But if they have to defend themselves, then they should always give their opponent an escape route and always show mercy.
He teaches spirituality "with a small s", he emphasises. "In karate there's an innate grasp of others who are there to help us. We have the Communion of Saints in the Church. Martial arts ask for the help of the old masters. Someone who doesn't believe in God or has no religion at all can have a profound sense of the spiritual in martial arts."
Clad not in a brown habit but in a white karate suit tied with a black belt, Fr Seamus begins to put 12-year-old Dawn Satchell and her 14-year-old brother David through their paces.
"Look! Pause! Move!" he commands. "It's no good moving if you don't know where you are going." He then chastises Dawn: "Don't fix your hair. Don't hit him yet. Wait until he starts to fall."
Other children, some as young as five, dressed in white suits knotted with an array of different coloured belts - yellow, blue, green - sit around the hall, watching attentively as Fr Seamus demonstrates the techniques. The parents look on proudly. There are no mats because, as he says, "There are no mats on the street."
As the one-and-a-half hour session draws to a close, all the children take to the floor, legs spread out, arms outstretched and begin to grunt.
"Moktsu," (meditate) intones Fr Seamus, and the children, along with the instructors, all kneel back and close their eyes. Fr Seamus invites them to think about what they have learnt.
After a while, he barks, "Yanne" (finish), and the children all bow to the floor, the traditional Japanese way of honouring the gods of various shrines, and then leave obediently as their names are called out.
It is now the turn of the adults. Chopping the air with his outstretched hands, Fr Seamus demonstrates a move to three men, all black belts. "Stay focused. Concentrate!" he orders, illustrating the correct technique. "Punch! Breathe in. Breathe in. Right, start to punch."
He goes through the move in slow motion and then suddenly explodes with a flurry, "Yaagh!"
"What are you doing? Did he ask for first aid? Did he ask for an ambulance?" he bellows at a man who is extending a hand to a fellow student writhing on the floor. Dazed, the man gets up, clutching his jaw, and nods respectfully to Fr Seamus before resuming his stance.
David Satchell, the father of Dawn and David, believes that karate teaches the children discipline and respect. Three of his other four children, aged six, seven and eight, are also members of the club.
"You can rest a bit easy knowing that they can defend themselves, but it's not about making them bullies at school," he says. He admits that he was surprised when he discovered a priest was running the club. "It's just as well he doesn't dish out the punishment after confession," he quips.
Juliette Littlewood, a 24-year-old primary school teacher, has been a student of Fr Seamus' since she was 14. A former British female karate champion and now an instructor at the club, she says shotokan karate is not about teaching violence.
"We teach children to use their verbal skills. We try and give them more self respect and teach them to respect others." Speaking of his own spiritual journey, Fr Seamus explains that he became a Franciscan almost by accident. Before joining the order in 1979, he had been a nightclub bouncer and a bodyguard to celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.
"I had everything that should have brought happiness. But it didn't. I left the life of glitz and glamour behind me when I was drawn by the life of St Francis, who proclaims a universal brotherhood," he says.
Apart from karate, Fr Seamus is also one of Britain's leading exponents of the samurai sword. "Samurai sword is pure art," he enthuses. "There's nothing like having a three-foot sword in your hand to concentrate the mind. But I'm not a priest who happens to be a martial artist or a martial artist who happens to be a priest. This is my life."
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000
Source Citation:Watts, Greg. "Father to the karate kids; Faith." The Times (London, England) (August 19, 2000): 19. Academic OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 25 Aug. 2009
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