Friday, May 1, 2009

Seán Dunne's "The Road to Silence": Book Review

The late poet Seán Dunne wrote this memoir of his ambivalence with Irish Catholicism in 1994, the year before his unexpected death at 39. As he was but five years older than me, I confess much identification with his struggles to recognize the spiritual quest that persists within one agnostically matured. He's very fair about the complex legacy of the Church for the Irish, the impact that the void within can leave that neither Marxism nor atheism can assuage, and the challenge of separating one's search for meaning-- perhaps within a Catholic framework-- from one's often absent, or departed, belief in its doctrines.

Reading his difficulties, they mirrored my own; so did his readings: Simone Weil, Francis Stuart, Wittgenstein, Carthusians, Fiona MacCarthy's biography of Eric Gill, his counterpart the London-Welsh poet-artist David Jones, and Thomas Merton. Dunne to his credit didn't favor the monk's earlier, more "triumphalist" writings; he first heard of Zen by way of Merton, as I suppose many of us brought up Catholic have. Intriguingly, he finds himself wandering closer to not the need for surety, but for silence, "the opposite of the sociological clamour." (54) Such a meeting may have dangers: "too much talk can be a form of evasion. Eloquence can hide more than it reveals. In such instances, silence is an unwanted form of confrontation." (55) He will eventually learn from the Rule of Benedict its first word, the command to "listen."

He turns from a 1970s student immersion with Marxists, who leave within for him only a void that all their theories cannot fill, and for a time sits silently at local Quaker services. Not as an adherent, but as an "attender." I've felt a similar admiration for these Protestants, whereas their more numerous factions, from my jaundiced if post-Vatican II upbringing, unreasonably leave me suspicious of the prejudices of their forebears against my own insular close-minded lot! The Society of Friends earned a sterling record early on among even such Catholics for their generosity during the Famine, and their pacifist conviction and moral courage do seem an acceptable exception to the historical and/or stereotypical rule! Their cousins, the Mennonites, similarly impressed Layne and me when we visited Canada.

At the Trappist monastery of Mount Mellaray, this aspiring journalist found himself going beyond the usual story when he returned to stay in what was a once barren landscape. Restless and edgy, he has a temperament that's long sought solace, that conveys "systems of thought that gave structure and sense to life." (21) Marxism satisfies the intellect but starves the soul; Humanism beckons, but can it alone fill the emptiness left by the ebbing of a childhood faith? His young self learned never to draw beyond clumsy figures and shapes; as a mature man, he sees that his inability to sketch nuanced, believable portrayals has its analogy in a faith that we keep the rest of our lives still locked "within a child's framework, lacking any trace of adult intellect." (19-20) He pushes aside his cradle Catholicism. But, what can replace it in a modern person's desperation to still place the need for guidance foremost, even after the explanations of religious dogma have been discarded?

At Melleray, these questions still raging for years, in 1984 he enters the once lunar atmosphere filled by a now nourishing ambiance, to understand, with maturity, what a thirty-year-old can learn from the monastically enriched landscape. "A rose does not preach. It simply spreads its fragrance"-- the guestmaster's words. Guests make the bed for the next visitor. No invoices; a guest pays anonymously in an envelope what he can, or thinks he should.

Earlier Dunne cites the myth that "monks sleep in their coffins" in the passage from Joyce's "The Dead" when Mrs Malins tells of her son's impending visit to Melleray; oddly, Dunne does not include the musings that precede this urban legend:
The table then spoke of Mount Melleray, how bracing the air was down there, how hospitable the monks were and how they never asked for a penny-piece from their guests.

"And do you mean to say," asked Mr. Browne incredulously, "that a chap can go down there and put up there as if it were a hotel and live on the fat of the land and then come away without paying anything?"

"O, most people give some donation to the monastery when they leave." said Mary Jane.

"I wish we had an institution like that in our Church," said Mr. Browne candidly.

Beyond such facile relegations of the spiritual quest by contemporaries (a century ago as now) as if but papal priestcraft, Dunne seeks a deeper meaning. Patiently, he comes into Melleray with his agnosticism sharpened. He does not try to mold what he sees into what he thinks he should see. He waits, and listens there to himself.

"At its deepest, it was far from my old arguments. It transcended my conflict with the institutional church. It was rooted in prayer and silence rather than in rules and strictures. Oddly, I had little trouble with the idea of prayer and a great deal of trouble with the intellectual idea of God. I still felt that in quiet prayer some resonant communication took place. As time went on, it moved beyond words and ended in the heart of silence." (47)

Those of his profession can resemble his hosts: "Like certain writers, the monks live at an angle to that world, but are not contemptuous of it." (53) As he stays there, he finds himself as a nervous man now unsettled: "my clichés of opposition were crumbling. At its mildest, this was uncomfortable since the aggressive mental framework of years was falling apart." (57) He recalls Simone Weil's differentiation between the Church as a "social structure" and its sacral core. This guides him into an agnostic's acceptance of the sacramentality, the change that the holy can exert upon the natural and the human realms both. "Ordinary time," as the Church calls the calendar most times, fuses the mundane with the mystical, and in the monastery this can be sensed with greater force and power.

Life is confronted rather than evaded under the strictures of silence and routine. Romantic illusions wither fast under the scrutiny of bare truth. Dunne cites Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful (also reviewed by me) "A Time to Keep Silence," that monasticism is only useless if one rejects the efficacy of prayer.

As with the Irish language, so with its Catholicism; Dunne compares their "extraordinary force that had been revived with enthusiasm and then murdered by narrow-mindedness as it became allied with negative forces." (63-64) Now, poets resurrected the savvy, the sapience, the sap within Irish, and Dunne urges the same rediscovery of the energy latent within Catholicism. He has found "quiet in myself. It was a long way from my anger with sermons on Sunday or my innumerable arguments with Catholicism." (64) Yet, I wondered as I read, such a retreat experience resembles the excited contentment of one when on vacation, or first in love: a feeling that one thinks finally, this time, will truly outlast monotony and habit.

Dunne returns to Melleray each year, but cannot give over to practice as a Catholic. His search continues. Working in Paris on a book set there, he finds the church of St. Gervais, in the old Jewish quarter behind Notre-Dame of the Marais. He attends a ceremony there. "One of the more exciting moments in making a poem occurs when dozens of words are hurled away and the correct one is suddenly found." (68) That resembled his experience at this church.

The church is run by an urban order founded in 1975 by a French hermit back from the Sahara, "Les Fraternités Monastiques de Jerusalem;" a spin-off of the Desert Fathers who return to rather than flee the city as the first monks had. They combine Byzantine and Judaic elements into the Roman mass. In such a community, Dunne learns that liturgical and monastic spaces can merge with social ones to revive a city. "The best of them begin in an interior space that has been shaped by silence and prayer." (69)

He learns to carry about his silent space within him as he lives in the heart of Paris. Contemplation marries activity: perhaps now he learns the lesson that Benedict's Rule sought to inculcate; the difference is that Dunne stays in the metropolis that Benedict and Anthony, Bruno and Bernard, deRance and Charles de Foucauld all had to flee for their own calling. His encounter "would remain in my memory with the force of an icon in a quiet room."

This brief, eighty-page, memoir carries with it considerable weight. As a poet working in prose, Dunne captures the simplicity of a complex subject accurately.He notes that as with politics, religion carries the deadness of jargon and the fervor of evangelists. Both weary him. He tires too of the countercultural cant that pushes religion into as a category as "predictable and dated as the agenda to which it is opposed." (70-71) Such a neurosis, Dunne reflects, opens when "childish involvement" breaks with "adult resentment": his gap was only closed after his visit to Melleray.

His temperament, like mine, cannot be long rule-driven. Dunne keeps his distance from practice, but he understands finally his interior experience that defies the "occasional absurdities of the church as a social entity," and in the Church he finds both dullness on its exterior at present and an appealing "mystery and love" that endure within its deeper core. He later visits the Dzogchen Beara Tibetan center in West Cork. "I drew a lot from the Buddhist idea of constant change and impermanence and saw the relevance of such a belief to the the changes in my own temperament and search." (71)

He likes factions that counter the norm. Contemplatives disdain money or status. They reduce the noise we live in daily. They may be more faithful to Marx's appeal to join the intellect's work with that of the body's demands. They try to step outside time. They make silence tactile. Their quiet does not create barriers or display disdain. "Monastic silence is closer to the quiet of lovers." (74)

Monks follow an ancient craft few men can master. Monotony wears most down. Yet, many on the outside of the cloister persist in an irrational attraction towards such a discipline. Their marginality, perhaps, keeps them iconically appealing, in a way that Merton near his death in '68 compared with hippies: "we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being." (qtd. 76)

Dunne reflects how monks rise when day has not yet come; the hour when many people die. "The eternal silence of those infinite spaces" around and above us, as he recalls from Pascal, terrifies us. A few take on this space and force themselves to live within what the rest of us shout over or shut out. Perhaps those whom the world demeans find a better rhythm for the spirit within us all. [Review posted in edited form to Amazon US 5/1/09.]

P.S. I note that as he concludes in this short memoir, Dunne discusses the writings of 17 c. Matsuo Basho, who wandered across Japan. The poet compares Basho's residence bought in 1693 on Tokyo's edge with an imaginary cell at Timoleague's ruined abbey in Co. Cork-- a region that Dunne knew well in his verse and literary anthologies. He praises the "miracle of small, ordinary tasks and things" seen by Basho. Two pilgrims, separated over centuries and islands. Now, perhaps their journeys are extended between other pages, fifteen years after Dunne's account. The Horslips percussionist-poet-lyricist and himself journalist (and d.j.) Éamon Carr last year published "The Origami Crow," connecting his World Cup coverage in Japan 2002 with this poet's musings-- some say Basho invented haiku.

P.P.S. Having meant to read Dunne's account years ago and then having forgotten due to its scarcity in the U.S. (New Island Press, Dublin, 7 euro), I thank Professor Ben Howard for reminding me of the Dzogchen Beara passage. He discusses Basho in relation to Michael Longley and Ciaran Carson; his 2005 "An Sionnach" essay on recent Irish poets' Buddhist themes begins by citing Dunne's visit. That reflection may mesh well, one turn deserving another, with Mr. Carr's soccer quest that takes the Dublin-based sportswriter to a transformed yet perhaps resonant Basho-land.


Tony Bailie said...

I got his book on Thursday but have only read chapter one so far. Not so much synchronisity this time as a following on from earlier posts on your blog and correspondence with yourself. After you forwarded his email I also got in touch with Ben and he kindly emailed me copies of his essay which appeared in An Sionnach and his Longley review. I too was struck by his reference to Sean Dunne and thought this book was something I should read and your review has confirmed that for me. Will let you know my thoughts in due course. Ben is due in Ireland next month to launch his new collection so I hope to get to that or else meet if he comes to Belfast.

Miss Templeton said...

I am here, Mr. Murphy, about to read your blog. Thank you for the prompt, as this sort of thing is the true antidote to FB status updates and Twitter tweets and the 2.0 inanity of all that.

(Although I have also just enjoyed a jack-Mormon book-by-book deconstruction of the Twilight phenom which saved me the time of reading the actual books themselves...)

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I'm glad you're reading Dunne's book, and I look forward to your own review. Miss T., note the first postscript here, and I enjoyed the "Twilight" synopsis that saved me the trouble of reading that dreadful bestseller!

AM said...

Fionnchú - will try to get this. Noticed you had recommended it on the PQ. Amazon were out of it when I checked