Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Road to Silence by By Seán Dunne

I came to this book via a series of correspondence with my blog mate Fionnchu and some correspondence with the New York-based poet and Zen teacher Ben Howard who mentioned it in an essay on Buddhist themes in recent Irish poetry.
Seán Dunne was a poet and journalist who was born In Waterford and lived in Cork but died before he was 40 in 1995, the year after The Road to Silence was published.
It is subtitled an Irish spiritual odyssey and explores Dunne’s sense of being left in a spiritual vacuum after he abandoned the Catholicism of his childhood.
The same theme was explored by journalist John Waters in his book Lapsed Agnostic and interestingly enough on the RTE news last night there was an item about an upturn in the numbers of people visiting pilgrimage site such as Lough Derg in the wake of the economic crisis.
Dunne takes on quite a personal journey and he doesn’t try to offer any answers or try to persuade us that we should start believing in God, or anything else for that matter but he did seem to have found a place within himself where he could retreat to.
Much of the book details his experience at Mount Melleray in Co Wexford where he initially went to research a news feature he was writing but found himself returning to in subsequent years.
While Dunne continued to reject institutionalised Catholicism, the life of the monks, their routine and introspection appealed to him and while they were once seen as one of the pillars of Catholic society in Ireland the secularism of the last 50 years has for Dunne now turned them into an almost fringe group whose members are able to gain insights in to the human psyche that are denied to the rest of us so-called individualists who are participating in all the sensual offerings of our consumer society.
“The spirit of monasticism is utterly unlike most of what seems to drive the everyday world. Like certain writers, the monks live at an angle to that world, but are not contemptuous of it.” P53
He challenges the perception that those who choose to live a life as contemplative monks or nuns are escapists who have chosen an easy way out to avoid having to deal with the complexities of modern life.
“… the monastic life not an escape from life but a deep confrontation with it. Applying this to myself, I saw that I was refusing to allow such a confrontation to take place within my own life. There is something bare about the life of a monk. All the props and scaffolding have been removed… monks do not dodge the world but face it at its very centre which lies at the core of each person’s life… it is a difficult life in which one faces one’s own particular demons head-on.” P61
“… the monk’s life demands physical and mental fitness and it is not for escapists… monasteries are poor escape hatches for eventually one is forced to meet one’s self in darkness and silence, and that can be an unpleasant experience.” P77
Dunne quotes the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton who in a speech just a few weeks before he died said: “In speaking for monks I am really speaking for a very strange kind of person, a marginal person, because the monk in the modern world is no longer an established person with an established place in society… Thus I find myself representing perhaps the hippies among you, poets, people of this kind who are seeking all sorts of ways and have no established status whatever… are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being.” P76
During one of his visits to Mount Melleray Dunne recounts the difficulties he faces in adapting to the monk’s life for even just a short period of time.
“The guesthouse had no television or radio. There seemed little to do except go to bed, yet I felt eager for distraction. I began to wonder exactly what I was doing in such a place. I was unable to sleep and lay awake listening to the fountain, bemused at myself for the absurdity of my attraction towards silence and my inability to practise it. I wanted to be distracted from the questions that rose in me like troublesome yeast.” P57
Dunne seems to fit in to the sort of peipheral, slightly mystical group of writers who I keep coming across and who chose to live at the fringes of society and there were passages that reminded me of Manchán Magan’s life as a hermit, described in the opening chapters of ‘A Journey Through India’ and John Moriarty, who constantly refers to the duality of modern day Ireland.
In a Morairtyesque sentence Dunne writes: “I have always been affected by landscape but here I was affected in a particularly intense way. I understood what the of Celtic monks meant when they spoke of two landscapes, one physical with rocks and mountains; the other sacred and intensely connected with spirituality.” P46
And again towards the end of the book when he compares himself to the Japanese poet Basho “…whose works are a mixture of prose and poems as he recounts his journeys across Japan. Basho’s solitude and work became one. He lived as a hermit in a small house on the edge of Tokyo in 1693. I connected this house with an imaginary ninth-century cell or hut inhabited by an Irish monk on the coast. In the shattered abbey at Timoleague in Co Cork, I walked among the walls and thought of Basho visiting a ruined Japanese temple. I felt again that monastic connection between temperaments from different cultures, between the ruined shrine in Japan and the ruined abbey in Co Cork and between them both an Melleray.” P77
Dunne comes to the conclusion that “there is a monk in everyone: solitary, silent, faced with questions of belief and eternity”.
You can read Fionnchu’s review of The Road to Silence here and visit Ben Howard’s Zen meditations here.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Tony, thanks for triangulating your own review with mine and Ben Howard's comments that started us both reading it simultaneously. The citations you provide of Dunne on Merton and monasticism show well the poet's struggle, and your characterization of the fringe element that made monasticism now a radical choice highlights the surprises that Dunne came, honestly and gradually, to encounter on his own short journey through life. Like Merton, he left this world too soon by our standards.