At times the singing voice of Mananaan Mac Lir rises above the din of the sea to reach my ears in a symphony of longing and serenity.
At other times, the din of silence drowns his voice out. Sometimes, the noise of my thoughts chasing and bleeding into one another destroy all sounds, and strain as I might, I cannot hear the singing.
It was a lesson that was hard to learn, and not one that was finished in one sitting. No, this lesson repeated itself time and time again. I think for the first million times I didn’t even bother to pay any attention, and even after I did, it repeated itself time and time again. I still forget and it still repeats itself. I have given up all dreams of diplomas for this lesson. It is an ongoing lesson that I will always get new opportunities to practice. I always have to start where I am. We all have to start where we are.
It was a shocking thing to be sitting there on the hill with Fionn. It wasn’t shocking to be sitting with the great hero on the hill, still breathless from the hunt, but shocking to experience the discomfort at the revelation in the answer he gave to the question – the answer I had heard a million times, and in that answer was all I ever needed to know about this lesson. It isn’t shocking to be, as some have told, a druid questioning Fionn. It is shocking to feel the amazement of being a druid questioning Fionn and receiving the answer.
His answer is even more shocking for me as a mere mortal, shocking in my humanness to be sitting here in the warmth of the hearth in a comfortable living room, far away from the hill after the chase, far away from being a druid. It is a shocking thing to consider the answer, as simple as it is. In its simplicity are the universes, inner, outer, and other.
Whether asked by a druid or by Fionn himself of his men, the question was:
what is the sweetest music of the world?
The belling of a stag. The baying of hounds. The whispered words of a lover. The song of a lark. Laughter.
For Osgar, it is the clash of a sword.
For Oisin, the calling of the cuckoo.
Wonderful sounds all, and to be sure, Oisin spoke true when he told Patrick that all of those sounds are better than the church bells or a cleric bleating like a goat. And to be sure, Oisin was right when he told Patrick that Fionn knew better than the church that:
the sweetest music in the world is the music of what happens.
At times, I remember Fionn’s answer and it is all I need but at other times I have to repeat his answer to myself over and over again to remember the wisdom in the lesson. There are times, in my human forgetfulness that I have to repeat the mantra of Fionn:
The music of what happens.
The music of what happens.
The music of what happens.
Walking through the woods. The music of what happens. Going to work. The music of what happens. At dinner. The music of what happens.
Maelduin giving in to the whims of the wind and embarking on his immram.
Bran, completely out of character, leaving his house and walking out into the fields. The silver branch singing the music of what happens.
It is… all of them and all of us, eventually, giving in to the mantra of Fionn, to the music of what happens.
Think about it. What an incredibly tremendous statement. The music of what happens.
Firstly, what is needed for us to hear the music of what happens? No, not our sense of hearing, at least not on a purely physical level.
Listening to the music of what happens invites us to be alive. Invites us to witness the unfolding of time. Invites us to step out of our ordinary and petty not-quite-humanness for a moment and become a part of the song. It invites us to consider which instrument we shall play in the music, the symphony, of what happens.
Think about it. The tree growing outside. Slowly, it is a part of this song. Somewhere out there – is a star being born? Is a star dying out? Where is the wind right now? The sun? The moon? Your best friend? Think back to someone you have not seen for some time. What instrument are they playing in the song?
Maybe Oisin wasn’t right after all. Or maybe he was right, at least as far as he took it. If we are to listen to the music of what happens though, we have to listen to the music of what happens. Is a church bell excluded from this? Is a bleating cleric? Is anything outside of the music of what happens?
I remember I moved house once, and was not very happy about it. The new house was nice, and as the weather grew cold and the days shortened, I enjoyed the fireplace. It was because of the fireplace, my life, or at least my habits changed. Before, when I got up in the morning, it was stumble around and get coffee and a smoke. With the fireplace, it was stumble around and get firewood and coax the embers of warmth back to dancing life.
Aside from the fireplace though, and the flock of sheep close by where my sheep dog could stretch her legs and be what she is supposed to be, there wasn’t much to like about the place. For one, I was way too close to a major airport and all of the attending miseries of industrialization. Even in the fields and woods which are not all that far off, there is no escaping the sights and sounds of a culture gone terribly and desperately wrong.
So, what is the difference between the church bells that Oisin badmouthed, and the airport? Not much really. He didn’t want to hear the bells, and I don’t want to hear the planes. And yet, they are all a part of the music of what happens. Even my industrial discontent is a part of that symphony.
So what is the music of what happens? If a car passes by outside, is the sound of its passing the only sound that goes into the music of what happens? Is the crackling of the fire the only part of the fire that is singing? When Bran heard the music of the silver branch, was the music of the silver branch the only thing that was a part of the music of what happens?
If we are to hear the music of what happens, we have to listen to all sections of the symphony, even the parts that we don’t like. In searching for a more than ordinary sense of hearing, we are learning of a different way of being in the world. So maybe Oisin should have finished his sentence. The church bells must certainly be a part of the music of what happens, the bells, and even Oisin’s own reaction are a part of the music. If we want to hear it, we have to listen. To everything.
Only by listening can we choose which instrument we should play. Otherwise we play whatever instrument is pushed into our hands. Only by listening can we learn to play the instrument that is ours to play. Otherwise we only add dissonance and not harmony to the music of what happens. Only by listening do we discover the beauty of longing and of becoming. Otherwise we experience only sadness.
Next time you are in the forest, listen. The music of what happens.
I think you will find the same that I sometimes find – that the music of what happens is an extravagant unity. An inclusive unity which, by its very nature, does not exclude diversity.
Next time you are in the forest, walk not through it, but with it; not as a spectator, but as a participant.
Next time I am in the city, I will not walk through it, but with it; not as an unwilling spectator, but as an active participant.
Next time I am in the woods, I will walk with it knowing that even though the full forest will never truly be within my reach, it is not only me and trees and roots and bark and leaves. Next time I will remember what I now know – that the full forest is only a part of the full music of what happens.
And then, next time I am in the city, I will walk with it and try to remember that even though the full city will never truly be within my reach, it too is a part of the whole music of what happens.
Next time I hear a church bell or a bleating cleric…
Next time I hear the baying of a hound or the whisper of a lover, I will know that it is a part of… I will know that the full whisper and baying and goat and bell are all never fully within reach, but a part of the music of what happens nonetheless.
Just trying to listen, just trying to reach for the full song… The music of what happens. What an incredibly tremendous statement Fionn gave to us.