Wednesday, June 29, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (III)

I have come to the conclusion that, for me, contemplation (or contemplativeness) is as much about repetition, or perhaps "revisiting", then it is about silence or slowness or simplicity. My mind is always racing and I like to have activity around me. Seeking out silence and seclusion and all those other "s"'s only seems to make my mind even more restless. (Sometimes I envisage my mind like a table-tennis rally, or a ping-pong rally as our American friends say. Sometimes I envisage it as a microwave full of popping popcorn.)


This is the strange contradiction I've noticed in my own life: although I'm the further thing from a contemplative in terms of behaviour, the happiest moments of my life have almost all been contemplative moments. I can understand why so many philosophers believe contemplation to have been the highest good, or at least the highest happiness.

What is contemplation? I suppose there could be any number of definitions, but one that it occurs to me is that it's enjoying things rather doing anything with them. Although it might well be simultaneous with doing things, as I contend here.

There are any number of contemplative moments I could draw on, throughout my life. They usually come out of nowhere.

Here's one example, one I've mentioned on this blog. It was during my fourth or fifth year in secondary school, when I would have been about sixteen. It was a free class, or a study class as teachers prefer to call them. I was sitting in the study hall in my secondary class, which was the hallway and centre of the whole school. A quiet had descended on the school, the day's classes were almost done. There were very few people in the hall.

I was studying my history book, and suddenly I became aware of history as a continuous stream. Until then, I suppose, I had thought of history as a stage, with changes of scenery and dress between scenes. Of course, I knew that time was one long stream, but it had never really struck me so powerfully before.

There was a sort of balcony corridor running above one side of the study hall, and there was some kind of wrought iron screen along one stretch of it-- or perhaps it was a gate. In any case, I found myself looking at the patterns in the wrought iron, and thinking of the patterns of history, underlying day-to-day life. I felt a powerful sense of the sublime.

Another memory is the day after the Republic of Ireland soccer team's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland, in 1993, a game in which the Republic just squeezed into the World Cup Finals with a late and spectacular goal. To a teenage boy at the height of the Jack Charlton era, this was a big, big deal.

My memory is of sitting in the kitchen in our flat, reading the coverage of the match in next day's Irish Press with my brother and cousin. We were swapping pages of the paper back and forth. After the high drama of the previous evening, the sense of calm and quiet celebration was delicious. Contemplative moments, in my experience, are often "in betweeny" moments.

More to come...I haven't really expanded on the role of repetition in my experience of contemplation, which was my goal when I started writing. It will have to come in the next post...

Monday, June 20, 2022

Cornish Yarg

Cornish Yarg is a semi-hard cow's milk cheese made in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Before being left to mature, the cheese is wrapped in nettle leaves to form an edible, though mouldy, rind. The texture varies from creamy and soft immediately under the nettle coating to a Caerphilly cheese-like crumbly texture in the middle

Although made according to an historic method, Cornish Yarg is actually the product of the British cheesemaking renaissance in the 1980s while its roots are inspired by traditional British Territorial cheeses. The original recipe is thought to date back to the 13th century. (From Wikipedia.)

Although I'm almost forty-five
(A good long time to be alive)
I don't think I shall ever thrive
Till I have tasted Cornish Yarg.

Enough of cheddar, feta, brie,
And all such tired fromagerie.
The only real cheese for me
Is Britain's finest, Cornish Yarg.

Although I've never tasted it
I somehow know, surpassing wit,
I need to munch that tasty Brit
That cheese of cheeses, Cornish Yarg.

Before King Henry chopped a head
It flavoured Anglo-Saxon bread.
The Frenchies ran away in dread
From yeomen fed on Cornish Yarg.

Then in the eighties, (which is when
The British made cheese great again)
It sailed back into common ken
That lordly vittle, Cornish Yarg.

It's made with nettles and with mould
A cheese for spirits brave and bold.
It fed the Merry Men of old
Without a doubt, this Cornish Yarg.

I know not when, I know not how,
But (if the grace of God allow)
Between my final hour and now
I shall partake of Cornish Yarg.

The Unspeakable, Unthinkable Horror of an AC/DC T-shirt at Mass

Over the weekend I was really irritated at this video from Brian Holdsworth, the Canadian Catholic YouTuber. He complains about a member of the congregation, one of the people who brought the gifts to the altar, wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. (He backtracked a bit in the comments, but not very convincingly.)

Before I launch into my rant, let me concede that I don't think it's a good thing to wear a heavy metal t-shirt to Mass. I've never worn a t-shirt to Mass myself, as far as I can remember.

I go to Mass wearing work clothes. There was a time I used to attend Sunday Mass in a suit and tie. Right now that's not very practicable for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that wearing a suit every week is going to wear it down.

Enough about that. What really upsets me about the video is the sheer negativity it reflects-- not only on its own, but in a pattern with so many videos by so many other YouTubers, bloggers, and professional Catholics. It's become endemic among the Catholic commentariat.

It almost seems as though many people go to Mass primed to be offended by something that somebody else doesn't or doesn't do. If they can find one person wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, or doing something else they can gripe about, they fixate on that.

It really seems a way of taking the liturgy, which should be joyous as well as solemn, and weighing it down with angst, sourness and bitterness. Isn't this what Satan does-- taking something good and poisoning it?

I completely sympathise with what Pope Francis said recently: "It’s not possible to worship God while making the liturgy a battleground for issues that are not essential, indeed, outdated issues, and to take sides starting with the liturgy, with ideologies that divide the Church."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Happy Corpus Christi!

"To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood. The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a “mystery of light”. Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “their eyes were opened and they recognized him”

 St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Monday, June 13, 2022

Growing Up in Ballymun (II)

Another thing that was notable about growing up in Ballymun-- at least, growing up in the Ballymun flats-- was the central heating. The residents had no control over the central heating. The Corporation would turn it off in summer and turn it on in winter, no matter how hot or cold it was. This must have been a fairly well-known feature of Ballymun life, as I remember Joseph O'Connor (Sinéad O'Connor's brother) making a passing reference to it in a humorous newspaper article.

As it worked out, we were far more often overheated than we were cold. People would very often comment on the heat when they visited the flat: "It's like walking into a sauna!", they would exclaim. I became, for some reason, quite irritable and defensive about all this. I was very much a homebody and, at least until my mid-teens, I didn't go out much. I can even remember my father worrying that I would suffer from unnaturally thinned blood because I so seldom left the flat and I spent so long in the oppressive heat.

On the other hand, we had hot water whenever we wanted it, which is the exception rather than the rule in Ireland (as this famous Des Bishop sketch celebrates). I spent hours and hours and hours in the bath. I love being in water, and more than anything else I liked listening to the tapping and whistling in the water pipes.

If the central heating was a drawback, the view was definitely a blessing. From our sitting room window, we could see all of Dublin city centre, and indeed all the way to the Wicklow (or Dublin) Mountains. We could see Dublin Bay, and the red-and-white striped Poolbeg power station chimneys. (Although we had our own red-and-white striped chimney in Ballymun.) This view was impressive enough in the day-time, but it became magical at night; a forest of street-lights and other lights, appearing to twinkle the further away you looked and the closer together they seemed. As with the heat, visitors always commented on the view.

We had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom (with a bath) a living room, an L-shaped hallway, and a balcony. I didn't have my own bed until my teens. On the other hand, we had a telephone, which many of our neighbours lacked. They would visit us to make calls, often leaving some money to pay for it. It's a strange thought, now that children are issued with mobile phones upon exiting the womb. We got out first home computer in 1994 (which led me to start seriously writing poetry).

Remarkably, I can remember my mother washing clothes in the bath-tub well into the eighties. Our television was black and white for much (maybe all) of the eighties. My father would watch snooker on it. He said you learned to distinguish the colours of the balls pretty easily.

We only ever used the balcony for storage. I always felt nervous there, anyway, imagining falling over the balcony wall and plunging to my death. I've been afraid of heights my entire life, so this isn't surprising. We shared a landing with four other apartments and there were two balconies on each landing. Sometimes, when I was lying in bed at night, the thought of that seven-storey drop would suddenly frighten me and I would resolve to creep past the balcony opening with my back against the far wall, in future. Of course, I never did. Some kids actually hung off these balconies for fun, a dare which seems utterly incomprehensible to me.

The windows in the flat were unusual in that they slid up and down rather than opening outwards. I was warned innumerable times of the dangers of sticking my head out the window, and told cautionary tales about the raised window panes coming down on peoples' heads like a guillotine. There were three panes and you could push the middle one up, or the top one down. Sometimes, when the top one had been pulled down a bit, one of the many cats we owned down the years would perch precariously on the top of the pane itself. As far as I can remember, we always managed to get it down safely.

More to come...

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Two Interesting Links

Here is an excellent article by Greg Daly in which he lists quite a few instances of Pope emeritus Benedict endorsing the papacy of our current Holy Father, Francis.

The article is two years old, but I've only become aware of it now.

And, given that yesterday was Pentecost, here is a collection of links to St. John Paul II's catechesis on the Holy Spirit, given in his Wednesday audiences between April 1989 and July 1991.

I'd never come across this blog, which is called Totus2us, and which has a UK internet suffix. It looks good, and I look forward to exploring it further.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Growing Up in Ballymun (I)

At the suggestion of someone who commented on a previous post, I'm going to write a series of autobiographical sketches of various places and environments I've known through my life.

I've noticed a funny phenomenon in this regard. Whenever I try to describe any particular environment I've known-- be it a school, an area, or a workplace-- it doesn't seen all that remarkable or interesting. But once I see it through the lens of my own experience, it suddenly becomes (I believe) much more so.

And I don't think this is just because I'm particularly interested in myself. I think this phenomenon holds true no matter who the narrator is. A potted history of a school is almost the driest reading imaginable. But a first-hand account of school life (like that of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy) is nearly always gripping. Everything achieves a certain grandeur when it's magnified on the cinema screen of personal experience.

I will begin, then, with my upbringing in Ballymun, the suburb of Dublin.

Saying that I "grew up" in Ballymun is a huge understatement. I've spent the vast majority of my life in Ballymun. It's only in the last few years that I've moved out, apart from brief interludes lodging in other places (and, for much of those interludes, I was spending a lot of time in the family home anyway). All of my childhood, teens, twenties and thirties were spent in Ballymun. I'll never spend as much time anywhere else, most likely.

Ballymun was originally a "satellite town" (the very term now seems quaint), built in the mid-sixties, designed to relocate working-class families who were living in dilapidated and often hazardous tenements in the inner city. The architecture was Scandinavian and brutalist; fourteen-storey concrete towers, seven-storey and four-storey concrete "flats", and conventionally drab houses. There was lots of green space, fields and hills. Before it became a satellite town, it had been agricultural country with very little history (although the church St. Pappin's, which is now a nursing home, is one of the few Irish churches built during the Great Famine, and has its own ghost story).

Ballymun was built four miles from Dublin Airport. My father believed that it was intentionally put there so that visitors flying in to Ireland would see it as they landed. At this time Ballymun was seen as a model community, the way of the future.

I don't want to dwell on the political aspects of Ballymun. Irish readers will know how, over decades, the buildings deteriorated, many of the promised public amenities were not built, and vandalism, crime and drugs proliferated, until the towers and flats were knocked down in the late nineties. It's hardly a unique story. In fact, the horror author Clive Barker described a similar (fictional) high-rise estate in Liverpool, in the brilliant opening line of his short story "The Forbidden": "Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was only visible from the air." That would be a bit of an exaggeration in Ballymun's case.

My brother Turlough wrote and directed a whole film on this subject, which does concentrate more on the political aspects, but which also serves as a wonderful archival record.

The "bad days" in Ballymun came, as far as I can tell, in the eighties, when I was growing up. The early days were much better. Photographs from the sixties and seventies show a much cleaner environment, smiling faces, a general air of vibrancy and respectability. You can actually see the grime and social alienation in photographs from the eighties and nineties. I don't think this is all down to the bleaching properties of black-and-white photography.

Of course, I believe much of the deterioration had to do with the declining influence of the Catholic Church, family values, and all those good things. But, as I say, I don't really want to get into that discussion.

The problem in writing about Ballymun is trying to capture all the little details that are likely to elude me. For instance, on Facebook today, I found myself mentioning the "lollipop" beacon light that protruded from the roof of each of the seven towers, on top of a candy-striped rod. This glowed orangey-red at night. I often lay in bed looking at it, taking comfort in its permanence and otherworldly glow. This detail would have slipped my mind if I hadn't mentioned it on Facebook, I'm sure.

There were the "vans", which were van trailers converted into shops. These are described as "travelling" on Wikipedia, but I don't actually remember them ever moving. Indeed, I seem to remember that they were often propped up on concrete blocks. They sold basic household groceries, as well as cigarettes and sweets. Kids would hang around outside them pestering passing adults for "tempence for a chocolate bar". I used to think they were unique to Ballymun, but I've subsequently learned that they existed in other parts of Dublin.

There is much more to say about Ballymun, and my experience of Ballymun. I will return to this topic soon.