It is the feast of St Vincent de Paul. In Ireland St Vincent De Paul is best remembered by giving his name to the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which for those unfamiliar with it is a lay organisation working for social justice. In modern Ireland the need for the “V de P” is as great as ever.
The thoughts for September 27th lead into a consideration of St Vincent de Paul, the Jansenist heresy (which, when one reads about it, sounds with its emphasis on sin and damnation something close to an unfortunate strain in Irish Catholicism over the years) and the state of the Church in France 350 years ago and parallels with today:
Fr Doyle isn’t the only great spiritual hero who felt he had much lukewarmness to account for. Today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, seems to have had very mixed motives during his early years. The desire to secure a prestigious ecclesiastical benefice and live in comfort seems to have been foremost in his mind when he was ordained a priest in his very early 20’s. In fact, he even had recourse to the courts to vindicate what he saw as his rights in the Church, and, so keen was he to protect his rights that he even chased a man who owed him money to Marseilles. It was on this expedition that he was kidnapped by Turkish pirates and sold as a slave. It is this experience, plus the importance of friendships like those with St Francis de Sales and Pierre de Berulle that gradually brought about his conversion.
There are other important similarities between St Vincent and Fr Doyle. Both were renowned for their charity. In Fr Doyle’s case this started very early in life – as a child he would take food from his family home and give it to the poor around Dalkey, his native village. He kept this habit all his life, often giving away his food and gifts to soldiers in the trenches.
Pentz highlights a poem by F T Prince inspired by this aphorism:
Stand at the grave’s head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.
And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.
F. T. Prince (1912-2003), Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).
Pentz remarks on Prince’s twist on Hardy’ “prosaic”, changed to “common.” Perhaps for metrical or musical reasons? Hardy’s observation captures exactly a feeling I have long had, as some of my graveyard focusedposts might suggest.
In the summer of 1999 I visited the World Trade Center, going up the elevator to Windows on The World. I often wondered if the jovial elevator operator was on duty that Tuesday morning two years later.
September 11th (I feel more comfortable referring to it by that name than 9/11, but that’s just me) is here again, a date that is seared on the memory of so many. I know there have been worse disasters, and worse things perpetrated before and perhaps since, but some of the visceral impact of that day was this was a familiar place, a place I could easily visualise.
Even in a city of skyscrapers, the Tribute in Light is colossal: twin columns of blue-white light shining four miles high into the bruised orange-black bowl of the night sky. With clear weather in New York City, the beams are crisply visible from 60 miles away. Illuminated every September 11 since 2002, the Tribute is an iconic and emotional memorial to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a symbol of New York City’s unbreakable spirit. It is a beacon in more ways than one. Birds are drawn to the lights, at times by the thousands. On September 11th, 2017, I was drawn to the lights by the birds.
At sunset, I join a small gathering of people on top of a six-story parking garage near Wall Street. At the entrance to the upper deck, I pass the event production staff supervising the display, conferring over a bevy of laptops and switchboards. To the eastern side of the roof, rescue workers and families of the victims of 9/11 congregate near a long white tent over a dinner buffet. Opposite, to the west, New York City Audubon staff and volunteers gather. Dominating the roof are the spotlights: 88 in total, separated into two square arrays to the north and south, twenty parking spaces apart. As lighting technicians check their snaking cables, the beams wink with dust motes and the looping flight of insects. There are few vertical light installations in North America of the magnitude of the Tribute. Only the Luxor Sky Beam in Las Vegas, Nevada, compares. I crane my head back, looking for birds, but quickly drop my gaze, dizzy. From afar, the Tribute is a powerful spectacle. Standing below the beams, it’s staggering.
The writer goes on to spend the night on September 11th 2017 with the local Audubon Society members who have access to the site. A protocol has been developed to minimise the disruption to migration:
NYC Audubon started communication with city officials in 2002 and negotiated access to the site, a distinction already granted to the families of those lost in the terrorist attacks. But it was not until 2005 that a partnership arose, with the production team agreeing to turn off lights if need be. In 2007, NYC Audubon proposed the official protocol: If one or more birds crashes to the ground, dead; if the birds appear to be trapped (flying low in the beams and calling); or, if 1,000 birds are in the beams for more than a 20-minute period; then the lights are shut off for 20 minutes, to allow them to fly on.
“It needed to be a big number because we’re asking a lot,” Elbin says, “I can hear our members screaming at me, ‘They’re not asking enough!’ But this is a number that satisfies everyone that doesn’t necessarily care about birds.”
Elbin identifies 2010 as the year that “really drove home the issue” to everyone involved. That year, poor weather leading up to September 11 held up migration. With clear weather the night of the Tribute, birds came early and in huge numbers. Elbin was at a family reunion when she received a phone call from John Rowden, then the director of community conservation for NYC Audubon.
“John called and said, ‘It’s crazy, Susan,’” Elbin recalls. “He said, ‘Birds are so low I can see them directly.’”
That night, NYC Audubon found their first fatality: a Pine Warbler, dead on the street below the parking garage.
The article goes on to discuss the scientific potential of this extraordinary memorial, in the context of an increasingly light polluted world:
To live in New York City—and, increasingly, to live on our planet in the places where most humans live—is to live in light, day and night. Over three-quarters of the world’s human population and all but 1 percent of Europeans and North Americans sleep under the luminous fog of artificial light, most of which is inefficiently used, improperly shielded, overly bright, and often unnecessary. What a loss of stars will mean for human health and culture is still unfolding, but it is increasingly obvious that it is detrimental to the nightlife, sex life, and migratory journeys of amphibians, fish, insects, and especially birds. Birds now navigate a new and deeply confusing world, the guidance of the sunrise, sunset, moon, and stars replaced by a nocturnal landscape dominated by electric light.
“It is very important to understand that apophatic theology, unlike agnosticism, is a particular way of “knowing through nonknowing.” It is the divine darkness conceived as a positive experience of God as the Existing One. Radical metanoia, the turning of the intellect up-side-down, the apophatic way limits nothing, for it goes beyond every limit toward the fullness of mystical union. Contemplation is therefore placed beyond discourse. The suspension of all cognitive, cataphatic activity culminates in hesychia, that is, the silent inner concentration, the gathering together of one’s inner forces where “peace goes beyond all peace“
The literal translation of the words “pray always” is “come to rest.” The Greek word for rest is hesychia, and hesychasm is the term which refers to the spirituality of the desert. A hesychast is a man or a woman who seeks solitude and silence as the ways to unceasing prayer. The prayer of the hesychasts is a prayer of rest. This rest, however, has little to do with the absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle. Abba Anthony even says to a fellow monk that it belongs “to the great work of a man . . . to expect temptations to his last breath.” Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy. Mother Theodora, one of the Desert Mothers, makes this very clear: “. . . you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accidie [sense of boredom], faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all the members. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away
These examples of silence in preaching, counseling, and organizing are meant to illustrate how silence can help to determine the practical shape of our ministry. But let us not be too literal about silence.
After all, silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth. Abba Poemen said: “A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent.”9 Silence is primarily a quality of the heart that leads to ever-growing charity.
Once a visitor said to a hermit, “Sorry for making you break your rule.” But the monk answered, “My rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality towards those who come to see me and send them home in peace.”10
Charity, not silence, is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry. About this all the Desert Fathers are unanimous.
Today is St Cuthbert’s Day. I must admit he wasn’t a saint I’d heard of before coming across Chris Watson’s work.
Watson has had an interesting and highly varied career. Formerly a member of the post punk group Cabaret Voltaire, he turned to recording the natural world. Many of the bird songs on the RSPB website are recorded by him. He also has created soundscape recordings. Like Gordon Hempton his work both documents vulnerable soundscapes and draws our attention to what we are losing.
Celebrating the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels at Durham Cathedral, Chris Watson has researched the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by St Cuthbert in 700 A.D. ‘The Sounds of Lindisfarne and the Gospels’ manifests a remarkable tapestry of location recordings made on and around the small island off the Northumbrian coast – a place of pilgrimage for Christians and familiar to busloads of schoolkids across the North East – where Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne wrote and illustrated the titular Gospels during the late 7th C. and early 8th C. Each part reflects a particular season – ‘Winter’ is defined by cold, hard, constant North Sea winds and the sound of migratory flocks; ‘Lechten’ by busy bird calls and a strange unidentified, almost human-like woop and sploshing waters; ‘Sumor’ is a panorama of crickets, deep moos, bees, and cuckoos surrounded by water; ‘Haefest’ again by cornucopia of bird calls, and swooshing, almost industrial/industrious textures. You’ll have to use your imagination, but we’d reckon he’s vividly succeeded his aim to “reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity”. It’s a blissful, evocative, thought-provoking listen – so typical of Watson at his very best