John Arnold: Embrace the sound of silence in this busy, noisy world we live in

Before cars, planes, trains or buses were invented, in a more silent era, people still longed ‘to get away from it all’, so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: Embrace the sound of silence in this busy, noisy world we live in

TIME OUT: “I’d light the fire and then, with just the crackling of the flames and the ticking of the clock, I can indulge myself.”

I’VE been to the Abbey in Mount Melleray in Waterford many, many times but never stayed there. Fifty years ago my maternal grandmother and Mrs McSweeney from Fermoy used stay there for a few days. These two women were not related but their late husbands were second cousins.

Mount Melleray had a bigger community of Cistercians back then. I remember as a youngster seeing a seemingly endless procession of black and white clad monks process to the Church. It’s a peaceful place and I love peace and quiet. I know, I know I’m on the go morning noon and night — there’s never a really, really quiet time.

Sometimes in January, just towards the middle of the month there’s a less busy time. The cows aren’t yet calved, the playing fields are idle and the meeting rooms are hushed, if only for a few short weeks. Or maybe for a few days in Lourdes in November or December, when I am with myself alone — sheer bliss.

Everyone knows I love talking and singing and storytelling and tracing families and these all involve company and conversation, none are solitary pursuits. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t shun any of these activities for the world and I’m an incessant radio listener. Yet I love peace and silence.

Last Sunday at Mass in his homily our priest quoted the classic Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel song from 1966 ‘The Sound of Silence’. He was talking about the busy, noisy world we all live in today. We hear of many kinds of pollution and noise pollution is just one of these. With urbanisation and urban sprawl growing and motorways criss crossing the country it’s hard to escape from noise.

Noise is intrusive, it jars the mind and can upset the rhythm of your mind. Nowadays there are so many new fangled ways of trying to get back to basics when it comes to emptying the brain of all thoughts. Yoga, mindfulness and transcendental meditation are all attempts at getting an inner peace. The human brain and mind are just so wonderful, no two are the same — such variety and complexity. The yearning for calm and peace is as old as civilization itself.

Before cars, planes, trains or buses were invented, in a more silent era, people still longed ‘to get away from it all’. There’s a townland in our parish, Desert, in Irish it’s Diseart — the quiet sequestered place. Here in ancient times, maybe twelve or fourteen hundred years ago a monastery and church were established. Those that settled here sought a tranquil place, a place of peace and quiet. You couldn’t say ‘twas ‘far from the madding crowd’ because in those times in ancient Ireland there were no crowds anywhere! Yet even then people sought to be alone, in communion with nature and close to the earth, the bountiful earth which in truth was and is the ‘mother’ of us all.

In his poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ Yeats used the phrase ‘peace comes dropping slow’, a brilliant description of how peace comes to be. It’s not just a matter of turning off the radio and television and hey presto you have silence and peace. Would that it were so! Silence is not just simply the absence of sound, no it’s more than that. The phrase ‘sound of silence’ seems a contradiction but it’s not. In reality silence is a sacred space. Imagine having no thoughts to bother with — to borrow another Simon and Garfunkel phrase ‘I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep’. Then true silence can come and with it peace — if only for a brief period of time.

I often came in from the yard of a wet evening at this busy time of year. If it was one of those rare nights when no Diary Entry beckoned me away again I follow a well patterned routine. I’d light the fire and then with just the crackling of the flames and the ticking of the clock I can indulge myself. The phone taken off the wall, the television dumb and the world at ease with itself. I might get twenty minutes or half an hour, an hour would be like a day’s holiday!

We all need time to unwind and unburden and fill our minds with absolutely nothing. Is that prayer or must prayer be about the contemplation of past, present and future? No two people will have the same answer to that somewhat profound question but this much I know; to me this quiet time is special and sacred.

When I go out across the yard late at night to check on a cow I might hear a fox crying away in the distance or a dog barking across the fields. These sounds of nature and animals do not rupture the sound of silence of a dark, moonless night. They simply highlight the importance of stillness and the awe-full nature of our world;

“Hello darkness, my old friend I’ve come to talk with you again...” was how the songsters put it. Like Yeats they got it spot on.

We tend to fear silence and darkness but now perhaps more than ever before we should embrace them and value them.

For centuries and millennia people have sought tranquillity. In the Bible we are told that Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, to be alone. He fasted there and as the Holy Book states, after the 40 days ‘ he was hungry’, surely the greatest ever Biblical understatement ! Even his cousin John the Baptist had a menu of locusts and wild honey while Jesus fasted. I mention this to illustrate the inner yearning we can have to be alone — not lonely or lonesome simply alone. The search for solitude may seem strange for humans who are sociable beings but it points out to us that matters of the spirit and soul have a meaning to us all in some shape or form.

In our Parish newsletter last weekend Fr Tom Cox told how his departed friend Eamonn had taught him a great lesson. He learned all about life from the River Shannon — not to rush from post to pillar, cramming in experiences, but rather to savour and live each moment, rushing only causes harm.

We can all hear birds singing but few can hear the grass grow, but listen in the silence of a Spring afternoon and you’ll hear it. Nature is powerful. It can be cruel too but we need to respect it and live and love with it rather than trying to mould it in a different direction.

No day passes that I don’t take a deep breath of fresh country air and thank God for the glory which I see all around me.

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence.

That peace and silence and sense of ease and stillness that exists in sacred places like Mount Melleray and Glenstal Abbey are further reminders to us that we live in a truly wonderful world. We should always appreciate it.

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