Friday, May 13, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (II)

I grew up in a three-bedroomed flat in Ballymun and it was always crowded. I didn't have my own bed until I was a teenager. This environment, I've noticed, has influenced me in two contrasting ways.

One is a stubborn contrarianism, a disposition to assert my own individuality and strive for originality, which I think derives from a fear of being swallowed up in the crowd. This tendency has good and bad aspects. It also gives me an affection for eccentrics and oddballs.

(It would be unfair to pretend that this is entirely a reaction to my family environment. Indeed, there was plenty of eccentricity and originality in my family, and it was prized.)

The other legacy of my rather crowded upbringing is a dislike of silence. I'm used to having activity around me and I like having activity around me. I like having a background

This has made me rather impatient and even disdainful of people who "need" silence. Which might not be a great qualification for somebody working in a library. I must admit I'm rather unsympathetic towards students who ask: "What's the quietest part of the library?". My reply is inevitably: "Get over yourself, you cissy." At least, that's what I feel like saying.

It's also prejudiced me against the whole mania for silence. Of course, "mania" is a loaded word. I'm not suggesting this attitude of mine is fair or rational. But at the same time, I'm rather antagonized whenever I hear someone praising silence and contemplation. They always say this as though it is something incredibly original and even daring (usually accompanied by disparaging remarks about "our 24-hour society" and social media, etc. etc.) But pretty much everybody is on Team Silence, as far as I can tell. Except for me!

Having said all that, I can think of any number of occasions in my own life when I've been thrilled by silence. For instance, when visiting my aunt's farm in Limerick. What I love about the relative silence of the countryside is that you can actually hear distance. Hearing water gurgling in a drain far away is a delicious sensation. Or (to take a more suburban example) listening to shouts and cheers drifting from a playing-field out of sight.

On the whole, though, I'm on Team Noise, Team Activity. I realize that this puts me at odds with the whole Christian tradition, I'm sure I'm in the wrong, and all I'm asking for here is an exemption.

But is contemplation all about silence, anyway?

I have a mind that is always racing. I find it very hard to concentrate during Mass and the rosary. This is one reason I prefer a short Mass, since trying to concentrate during a protracted one is quite tiring.

Silence doesn't make me feel contemplative. It just makes my mind race more.

Having something to keep my mind busy, and thus soothing it, is what "liberates" my contemplative side. Perhaps I am not so strange in this. After all, this seems to be the point (or some of the point) of the repetitive prayers of the rosary, according to some authors. It focuses and steadies the analytic part of the mind, which allows the contemplative part of the mind to work.

I only have time for a quick post now, so I will resume this topic in my next one.


  1. An interesting take. With regard to silence. It is not so much silence that occupies me as noise. Consider the amount of it we have to routinely put up with that up until a short time ago people did not. Take traffic alone: cars, car radios. A woman in Cambridge recently complained to a car owner about it. They all got out of the car and beat her to a pulp. People playing loud radios. People on mobile phones which double as radios. It used to be that traveling on a train you heard almost nothing. I sat on a crowded commuter a while ago and listened to a woman relate the marriage difficulties of a friend in the kind of detail that only priests or lawyers should know about. And in our 24-hour society there is no escaping it. People have become insensitive to it and generally do not realize what they are doing. Which makes me, for one, more annoyed, not less.

    1. It's almost surprising to me that everybody isn't desensitized to it, at this stage! It would have to be really bad noise to bother me. My apartment is directly in front of a busy road and a railway, and I like listening to the trucks and trains in the night. Although I do have to say that people playing music very loud on their car stereos is just obnoxious, and really lowers the tone of whatever place they are passing through.

      I remember reading a biography of Hilaire Belloc which mentioned that he complained about how noisy modern life had become. So this might have been happening for quite a while now.