Things that enter by way of Silence

When I was a child I wondered whether my head could fill up to the point where nothing more could fit in. Would something have to make way for the new stuff or could I keep cramming more and more into my brain indefinitely? Undoubtedly I would forget things but were they lost, never to be found again?

When I became an adult, experience answered that question. Experience born from trauma. Some memories stay stuck forever. It’s usually the bad ones that hang around, the ones that strip confidence and haunt dreams. I’d hoped that I’d buried mine so deep that they would never resurface but these are the things that enter by way of silence.

I tried my utmost to banish these thoughts by blocking their way with endless Talk Radio. If I listened hard to dull conversation I could sleep without worry but if I didn’t engage my brain my brain would engage me and sleep would be fitful at best.

My preoccupation with worrisome recalls was such that peace could elude me even in daylight. They bled inside of me, cursing me, causing me to regret and feel pangs of guilt. The very essence of me ebbed away.

But older now, I am once again reconciled with my thoughts and I have learnt to welcome and embrace the silence. To regard it as friend, not foe. In his seminal work Anam Cara, John O’Donoghue wrote:

“It is not doing the stressful things that creates stress but allowing hardly any time for silence so that our minds can recharge. If we live an extroverted life with no time to ourselves, we always pay a price. The voice inside us that brings wisdom rarely shouts…. I’m reminded of Pascal’s famous remark that most of our problems come from not being able to sit in a room and be still.”

Judging Well

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I’ve been a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for almost fifteen years. Recently at our local Meeting (for Worship) I was asked to give a short talk on Discernment. This is it…

There are several definitions that you can call on: the ability to decide between truth and error, the ability to choose between right and wrong and the one I like best: the ability to judge well. In the New Testament there is a passage in John’s Gospel which says “do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see they are from God”.

If I’m away from work and home for just a week I usually come back to a mountain of emails, voicemails and text messages. Magazines and letters will be building like castles on the desk, lying in wait. But that’s just what’s visible. It’s the invisible or the unspoken that I try to find. Discovering that which matters most to my family, my team or indeed anyone in my life is what’s really important.

Every day I make judgement calls. Every day, every hour and every minute. I think we all do. We decide whether or not we like someone, whether they are honest or not, whether they are good or bad. Often we base this on very little information. We add meaning, we make assumptions and then adopt beliefs about how the world works. He’s a Traveller. All Travellers are thieves. He’s a priest. All priests are all locked in by dogma. She’s overweight. Couldn’t she help herself? There’s a name for this thought process. It is called the Ladder of Inference. So then how should we discern?

One of my best friends was Moira Gillespie. Moira sadly died a few years ago. Had you visited her home you might have seen a small prism hanging by a thread in front of a large bay window in her living room. When the sun shone through, it split the light into an array of beautiful colours. I often think of that little prism as a metaphor for what happens at our Meeting. When I think of it I imagine it working in reverse, where all the colours come together to focus on what matters most: the white light, or the light of the Spirit, that still small voice that is such an important part of all of our lives.

Even Quakers sometimes forget exactly how ’small’ that voice can be. To really discern the truth you have to listen well because in the midst of all the hustle and bustle it can be hard to hear. To quote from John O’Donoghue: The voice inside us that brings wisdom rarely shouts.

So it helps hugely that we have this time and space on a Sunday together where we can see the full spectrum of colours in all their diversity shine through the prism that is our Meeting for Worship and allow the light of the Spirit to be made visible. In that way we discern the truth and judge well.

A Bolt of Lightning

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I expected fireworks this weekend but not drama. You didn’t only move the furniture about; you came through locked doors, smashed windows and walls, and practically levelled the house down the way. And yes, I got the message: no sex before marriage.

In my defence I did ask if you accepted condoms these days and there was no response. I text, sent several emails and even left you a message on that antiquated voice recorder of yours. I know time doesn’t have the same meaning for you but come on, that machine is like something Moses would have used. Whatever happened to the old ways? One word from you and Gabriel would have been here in an instant. Frankly I have to wonder whether you being ‘all knowing’ was ever the case. In truth there are seven billion of us down here now. How you honestly expect to manage all of us individually is beyond me. I had ten in my team last year and there were times when I’d tear my hair out just trying to deal with the day to day. Performance reviews were a nightmare.

Far be it from me to tell you what to do but I have to ask: do you ever delegate? Is that what this is all about? Or is it that you don’t want anyone bar you having a direct relationship so you set up a bunch of rules to try and limit our numbers? How did you ever think that would work? You must know it’s all we ever think about. Take Julie for instance. Before you started throwing all your weight around, making all that noise, flinging lightning bolts back and forth, me and Julie were getting on well. I was drowning in her eyes and every time I stroked her hair I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Fair enough, I accept that’s probably the wrong sort of metaphor to use in your company but that’s exactly my point. You put the two of us together, you get me all excited, I play my part and get her to come camping with me and just when sparks begin to fly you start behaving like a spoilt child. I wouldn’t have minded a little rumble in the distance or a flash of two on the horizon. That I could have coped with but as soon as you hit the derelict building at the end of the beach it was game over. I have to hand it to you, it was impressive and of course you knew exactly what would happen. What am I saying, of course you knew. When that last bolt hit I didn’t stand a chance. Your climax trumped anything on offer from me. Julie was up and running leaving me with nothing but a memory of what might have been. So look let me say it this way. If you have a plan just tell me.

You know that story about the two sets of footprints on the beach which turn into one and people think it’s because you left but of course you didn’t because you were carrying the other guy. Well I’m not looking to be carried but it would be nice if you could be a little clearer about where I’m headed. In the absence of a sign I’m taking it that you’re leaving it up to me and if that’s the case it would be wonderful if you could just let me get on with it. The way you’re acting right now anyone would think you want me to join the Seminary…ah Christ!

Revolver

Revolver

The boy smiled as he pushed the ticket through to the crinkled hand. It wasn’t often you’d see an man of his age on the Ferris wheel. It was a slow night. This was only his third customer.

The pair ahead of him were well oiled. She giggled while he groped. He had thought of leaving them stranded at the top all night but they weren’t worth his job so he let them out after just two turns. The sickly mess left behind suggested not everything went to plan.

‘We’re closing in 10 minutes’

‘How many turns will I get?’

‘I’ll keep her going unless someone else comes and stop it in 10 minutes if not’.

With a gentle nod his third customer stepped into the pod and sat hunched on the wooden bench.

Slowly she turned.

‘Come here Jack, we having a celebration, Joyce has the champagne’.

One by one his co workers funnelled to the open area where he sat. Fionnuala motioned to the gathering for hush.

‘Jack, it’s been 21 years since you joined us in US IT. Employee number two and dare I say you don’t look a day over 19′. A cruel snort broke the silence.

‘We’d like to mark this occasion with a toast. To Jack!’

As they raised their glasses he stood tall, shook his head and walked. Taking care not to run, he strode the corridor, down the metal staircase and through the double swing doors at reception for the very last time. Just two years ago he had welcomed her into the company. He told everyone how good she would be.

‘Better networked in the US than anyone he knew’, he said. ‘That could only be good for a small office like Dublin. Now we’d get noticed, now they’d see how good we are, despite the recession’.

In the beginning he was naive. It took time to see that she was simply sent to do a job and she was doing it with relish. One after the other she pushed them out. First it was Joe. He made it too easy for her by not coming to meetings. Then Victor. She found a willing ally in Joyce who never liked his forward remarks. A word with HR and he was never seen again. Greg was more stubborn. It took her six months but a less than diligent approach to filing expenses eventually netted him.

So he, Jack McCarthy, was being extra careful, determined not to give any cause. Everything he did was better than good. It was just a game. He was the mouse and his job was to outwit the cat at every turn. Overtime he grew to like the game and found himself warming to her ways. So maybe it wasn’t all that surprising that he was the last to notice the change in her. The tight dress a little too tight, the perfume applied more liberally than before and that girlish playfulness that a unwitting male will always notice too late.

‘Jack, could you help me understand this email?’

He moved to her side of the desk, too close. Bending low to read the screen he brushed her leg. As he turned she held his gaze and in that moment her eyes reflected his future. They’d never believe him over her. He knew he had lost. She knew it too.

He walked on, more measured now, down by the tunnel, under the bridge and along to the Point where teenagers queued for some act that he’d never seen or heard of. For years he had ignored the wheel guarded by the iron clad bunnies but not today. It seemed fitting that he was here, sitting alone in an iconic symbol to the futility of it all. Turning slowly he thought of the last few days of his career. It would end soon and someone else would get on. His mobile rang. Seeing it was her he let it go.

Both Quick and Silent

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They say when water fills the lungs the end is both quick and silent
And yet I saw you struggle as the waves embraced.
My heart foundered when you slipped below.
I never doubted your love, but I fancy you doubted mine.

Alone at night beneath the linen sheets I caress your lingering impression
until the dark was once more bested by your ghostly return.
‘I did not doubt’ you whisper, ‘the water cleansed my soul
and it was both quick and silent’.

Brotherly Love

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As Keara infiltrated the kitchen she called upon each of her fourteen years to support her now. Standing alone in her figure hugging dress, soaring stilettos and darkened eyes she waited. It didn’t take long. Peering above the rim of his glasses, past the ageing sellotape that bound them together, Michael, the eldest in the brood, slowly shook his head.

“That just won’t do”, he commented.

Tight lipped she ignored him.

Stephen, next in line, twisted round to look for himself and tut tutted as big brothers occasionally do. From a very young age Stephen always measured his response. Why use two words when one was enough? For that matter why use words at all when others could speak for you? The child in the middle often gets squeezed out and has to fight harder for his space. If he chooses not to he can become so chilled that freezing is a real possibility.

Now at this point you might think that I, as their father, should have intervened, but time, if it’s taught me anything, taught me that learning to be a good father is not for wimps. It takes lots of patience, a decent amount of bottle and a fair degree of luck.

Keara blew out hard.

Sean, ever the diplomat, just smiled and went on eating, waiting for the next move. The youngest male in the pride knew there was nothing more for him to add. Of course Sean could at any time simply choose to work the room in his own inimitable way. One of a rare breed of enlightened youngsters that could dazzle an audience by cracking a cipher with his eyes closed but unlike most Sean did humility. She knew that too.

Suspecting that I might not have to police her any longer I said nothing. When panning for gold the ancient Chinese used blankets to filter the sand and gravel catching the precious metal in the weave of the fabric. When a daughter’s moves are filtered by three sons there is no need for further sifting.

This was the occasion of Keara’s first trip to Wes. The ultimate teenage disco has a fearsome reputation. At closing time anxious fathers pack the street outside, double and treble parking. Car horns and raised voices threaten every emerging male with a look that says ‘not my daughter’. Here you’ll see the highest of high heels and the least generous of dresses. It’s where boys come of age as the girls teach them how.

“You’re not going out like that”, continued Michael.

Did you ever pick sides in the nurture verses nature debate? I think it depends on whether you are judging boys or girls? For instance, Michael’s declaration was definitely nurtured and came straight from the book of wisdom that all fathers and caring older brothers subscribe to. I think so anyhow. A bit ironic that it came from Michael, given that he had left a trail of broken hearts in his wake as he passed through college. No doubt though he was remembering his own Wes odyssey. He never asked to go a second time and I never asked why, preferring to leave the question aside until some later time, down the road, when father and son were of an age to go for a pint together and share such matters.

“You’re not my father”

Now that was definitely nature. It was accompanied by raised eyebrows and a pause aimed in my direction which much to her disgust didn’t elicit a response.

At this point, knowing that she’d remember that he never went when it was his turn, Stephen opted for discretion and joined the growing band of mutes. Anyhow, the professor had said enough. Sean smiled on, occasionally swallowing hard, trying to choke back the laughter.

Just then it happened. A higher authority arrived. The cavalry appearing in the form of my wife charged through the atmosphere brim full of duty and sense.

“What do you think of your daughter?” she asked, ordering an answer.

At times like this I begin to wonder why the world is so imbalanced. It surely can’t be right that there is an almost equal number of men and women on the planet. While men purport to be the stronger of the species, any self-respecting male who is honest with himself knows that women win most of the battles. Ten to one sounds a bit more reasonable.

Accepting that the tide has turned I cave in.

“Lovely”, I lie.

Adam’s No Saint!

Being called Adam can be a burden at times. By simply taking a bite out of an apple the original holder put a stain on all mankind and ruined the name for future generations. Although I must admit I do feel a certain sympathy for my namesake. After all, despite the idyllic surroundings, can anyone blame him for not wanting to upset the only woman on the planet?

The story of how I came to be called Adam has less to do with the Book of Genesis and more to do with the modern phenomenon where young couples name their offspring after well known personalities. Back in the late 50’s rock and roll was on the verge of becoming mainstream and my mother was infatuated with one of the upcoming stars in the music industry: Adam Faith. Family history doesn’t record what my father thought of the name but I suspect that even if he had disapproved he knew well that this was one battle he could never win. However, on the day of my baptism, the priest saw it differently.

Father Darcy from Ballinrobe and recently promoted to Parish Priest in a Dublin suburb, was traditional in both dress and character. He wore a cassock and collar, black horn rimmed glasses and a rustic appearance that left no one in any doubt of his rural upbringing. Like many clerics of his time he demanded respect for both the church and the law, canon law. Legend has it, at the very moment friends and family gathered around the baptismal font, he baulked at the suggestion that the child would be called Adam and flatly refused to proceed with the ceremony.

‘Adam’s no saint . It must be a saint’s name’, he said.

Years later I was told by a family friend that even my whimpering halted as the silence reverberated around the church and the congregation waited for my parents next move. All eyes turned towards my Mother. She ran the home, a growing family and managed any crisis going. She was small and tough and it was natural that she would answer, but she didn’t. By contrast Dad was quite shy and tall and thin, so much so that you’d wonder how he stood firm against your average breeze. Taking on the church was unimaginable and yet that’s exactly what he did.

‘The boy’s name is Adam’, he said.

This was pre Vatican II and long before the authority of the church was ever open for debate. In the late 50’s the banks, the politicians, the justice system and especially the church were the foundation on which the whole state was built. To dare to question was undeniably brave. Thankfully a voice from the wilderness saved the family from certain excommunication.

‘Give him a second name’, said the voice.

The suggestion seemed acceptable to both priest and parents providing, of course, it was a saint’s name. Being the land of saints and scholars one could be forgiven for thinking that finding a saints name shouldn’t be all that difficult. That’s where you’d be mistaken. Although I suspect Father Darcy could have reeled off any amount of names he refused to be drawn. In fairness, at this juncture, he was probably prepared to be damned than come to the aid of my parents. This was proving to be a problem because as the tension rose Mum and Dad could hardly remember their own names let alone chose a second one for me.

Again the mystery voice spoke up.

‘It’s St Benedict’s Day…call the child Benedict’

With that simple statement I was cursed for ever more. Had I been able to leg it out of there or even voice an objection I suspect I would. It’s kind of nice to be called Adam after a rock star but Benny, good Lord, how could they let that happen?