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Desiring Silence

July 19, 2016 — 12 Comments

coptic quietDo you enjoy noise, or do your mind and soul long for moments of silence? If you appreciate escaping the cacophony of sounds that weigh against you, you’re in good company. The Inklings were men who respected the value of silence.

I attended a funeral for a former parishioner today. The fact that I did not conduct the service allowed me to sit beside my wife who shared my sincere fondness for the saint we were bidding farewell.

The service was comforting, being resurrection-focused as such matters ought to be. Despite our singing three hymns during its course, it was also quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and peaceful like a deep brook that rushes along in relative silence, compared to its chattering companions that dance across the rocks in a shallow creek.

Joe was a humble man, though he was one of the rare breed who truly deserve the accolade of being part of the “greatest generation.” Though he never bragged about it, he served throughout the Second World War, and survived D-Day while landing in just the second wave at Omaha Beach.

It was a service that befitted a humble ninety-two-year-old man who faithfully ushered at his church up until his death. A man who had spent most of his life in activities serving others, and who kept his marital vows to his now widowed bride for seventy years.

Reflecting on that quality this afternoon, I recalled how silence was appreciated by the Inklings. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought on many occasions. One of the best known comes from The Weight of Glory.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

Lewis’ opinion of noise went beyond disdain. He even included a description in The Screwtape Letters of how noise itself could serve malevolent purposes.

My dear Wormwood: Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father [Lucifer] entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.

We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The world has only gotten noisier since Lewis wrote those words. And silence is in ever-shorter supply. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I appreciate living in the forest, where even the tentacles of cable television do not reach. Their absence contributes to an involuntary amplification of the silence that resides around our home.

Tolkien Shared Lewis’ Opinion

Since I’ve been reading some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s correspondence recently, the following excerpt came to my mind.

Like many thinkers, and nearly all writers, Tolkien found noise distracting. In a 1964 letter, he wrote the following description of the sounds that assaulted him in his neighborhood. (The last sentence is particularly delightful.)

Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m.

In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group.

What a vivid description. But one would expect nothing less from the creator of Middle Earth.

The same year as the Allied attack on Normandy, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was in South Africa earning his wings with the Royal Air Force. A veteran of the First World War, the concerned father knew all too well what might lie ahead. In 1944 he wrote the following:

I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination, other than a series of quiet inns. One of the too long delayed delights we must promise ourselves, when it pleases God to release us and reunite us, is just such a perambulation, together, preferably in mountainous country, not too far from the sea, where the scars of war, felled woods and bulldozed fields, are not too plain to see.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was also a veteran of the “war to end all wars.” The Inklings, like all Europeans of their generation, were acutely acquainted with warfare and its costs. Still, because of their wisdom and faith, Tolkien and Lewis were confident the Allies would prevail. They trusted that the blessed silence of peace would ultimately triumph over war’s cries.

In that light, we continue reading from Tolkien’s letter to Christopher. Immediately after his suggestion to Christopher that the two of them take a walking tour, Tolkien describes the plans the Inklings had already established to celebrate the eventual end of the war.

The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it entirely in beer and talk, without reference to any clock!

I don’t recall reading about their intentions before, but it has made me curious as to whether or not these dreams were ever realized. If they were, I am certain that the absence of other guests, and the removal of all clocks, would have made for a calm, quiet and renewing week indeed.

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The image above comes from an eighth century Coptic fresco.

A more modern image of silence, although originating all the way back in 1965, would be the “cone of silence,” which will be familiar to fans of the series Get Smart. For reflections on that theme, you might want to check out the this article.

If you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned cone, take two minutes to rectify that shortcoming by watching this video.

Beware of British Cows

January 26, 2016 — 14 Comments

cowMad Cow Disease is no laughing matter. Because my family and I resided in the United Kingdom during the early nineties, we have never been eligible to donate blood back home in the States.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy is a truly terrible, and always fatal, affliction. In a grotesque abuse of these docile herbivores, it turns out that the disease was introduced to cattle via mixing contaminated bone and tissue from sheep into their feed. (Whoever came up with that idea should be in prison.)

I seldom think about the possibility of this disease lying dormant in my body’s cells, and each year the likelihood of that being true diminishes. Frankly, since I’ve never heard of any of the Americans stationed there during that period contracting the disease, I consider it nearly certain that it is not present.

Still, just when I’ve finally accepted the notion that British cows are not a threat to me, I come face to face with the fact that they actually are.

Recently, an official report in the United Kingdom revealed that during the past fifteen years, cattle are responsible for the deaths of seventy-four people. Seventy-four!

That means they kill more Brits than sharks! And I doubt that most of those victims were taunting the cattle like the foolish young woman pictured above.

If you’ve never spent much time around cows, you may not realize how large and heavy they are. They can trample or crush people accidentally, and since they are not aggressive by nature, I assume that most of the deaths they are responsible for are just that, accidents.

Best, I suppose, to avoid farms, unless you crave a life of adrenalin-fueled risk on the edge of disaster.

C.S. Lewis reveals how deceptively innocent cattle can appear. In a letter written to a close friend in 1916, he described the calm pastoral setting for his life.

In fact, taking all things round, the world is smiling for me quite pleasantly just at present. The country round here is looking absolutely lovely: not with the stern beauty we like of course: but still, the sunny fields full of buttercups and nice clean cows, the great century old shady trees, and the quaint steeples and tiled roofs of the villages peeping up in their little valleys–all these are nice too, in their humble way.

Lewis should have been more cautious. It seems to me the cleanliness of the cows was a clear evidence they may have been up to no good.

In 1925 Lewis wrote to his father that the deer at Magdalen College were taking the place of the cattle he had left at home.

My external surroundings are beautiful beyond expectation and beyond hope. . . . My big sitting room looks north and from it I see nothing, not even a gable or spire, to remind me that I am in a town. I look down on a stretch of level grass which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured with autumn red. Over this stray the deer.

They are erratic in their habits. Some mornings when I look out there will be half a dozen chewing the cud just underneath me, and on others there will be none in sight–or one little stag (not much bigger than a calf and looking too slender for the weight of its own antlers) standing still and sending through the fog that queer little bark or hoot which is these beasts’ ‘moo.’ It is a sound that will soon be as familiar to me as the cough of the cows in the field at home, for I hear it day and night.

Lewis obviously possessed a fondness for the cattle that framed his youthful memories. Likewise the deer that meandered through college grounds without fear for their safety.

Having an uncle who was a farmer, I enjoyed some small exposure to gentle, albeit not quite “clean,” cows when a boy. Today I enjoy many a day when deer leisurely cross in front of my study window to munch on some of the thick grass that we planted more for their benefit than our own.

Obviously, I do not hold bovine diseases against the poor cattle. And, at least for the present, I choose to believe that cattle (unlike cats) do not harbor any plans for world domination.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’m foolish enough to trust them where I haven’t already planned a potential escape route . . . especially when I’m in the U.K.

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Check out this post for another entertaining C.S. Lewis observation about cows!

I’m informed by my lovely wife that “clean cows” are dairy cows that need to be kept clean for hygiene reasons. Makes sense to me, but I still think that it’s an odd adjective to associate with cattle.