Sunday, September 23, 2007

Big Noises and Little ones

I've been thinking about noise this week, or maybe I should say loud sound.

The background to this is a couple of events. The first was the installation of our new organ. Our old pipe organ has served us well for many years, but it has been failing for quite some time and was in need of major restoration. All of the advice we got about it was that our particular instrument was probably not worth the cost that would be involved, which would have been considerable. And we also had to consider the fact that we didn't have the money for a restoration. But we did have the funds for a digital instrument and after considerable investigation and a trip to Albany to hear an organ installed in a church about the size of ours we made the decision to purchase one.

On Monday of this week the installation began and it was complete by Tuesday and we had our first little "concert". There wasn't any organist, but one of the marvels of this instrument is that a certain number of pieces are programmed into it, so it will play itself if you push the right buttons. After Vespers Br Scott skillfully pushed the right buttons and we sat pretty much enthralled by the sound that is now available to us. There were a number of different effects, of course, as with any good organ. It whispers and croons and offers a whole palate of sounds. But it was the Widor Toccata that enthralled most, with everything at full volume, loud, brassy, full-throated, shaking the floor with sound. It was very exciting. Everyone applauded at the end, even though there was no organist to applaud.

The next day I went to New York City to be part of the celebration of a friend's 70th birthday. The celebration lasted for a good part of the day, but the real feature of it was an evening game at Yankee Stadium. I would not describe myself as a baseball fan. In fact I could be a lot stronger about my feelings than that, but we will let modesty prevail. I was happy to be there to help celebrate, but I expected to be pretty bored, which was my usual experience of baseball while I was growing up and was taken every once in a while to games that the Cincinnati Reds were playing.

I got quite a surprise. It was a real cliff-hanger and one of the most exciting public events I've ever been to. The Yankees were ahead by one run for most of the game, never falling behind and never managing to get any further ahead than that one run. And as the game approached its final innings the tension got greater and greater, and people were more often on their feet and those thousands of fans got more and more expressive. And there was a classic finish - ninth inning, two out, the bases loaded and 3 balls and 2 strikes. Everything depended on the one last pitch - the whole outcome of the game was right there. And they struck the batter out and the Yankees won by one run, and, as they say: "The crowd went wild." They screamed and shouted and made that sound that only ten thousand shouting people can make and it was a moment of pure exhilaration.

And man, it was loud.

On and off over the years I've reflected on the connection we make between important events and loud sounds. I've always been an amateur astronomer and more than once I've stood outside at night and watched the Northern Lights fill the sky with sweeping sheets of colored light or seen a comet streaking across the heavens in the hours before dawn and felt that the whole thing was slightly incongruous - because there wasn't any sound. Shouldn't something that impressive be making a lot of noise? Shouldn't there be something that sounds like Beethoven to accompany that comet on its way? A lot of noise seems to be required to mark important things.

Then I stop and reflect on how often the opposite has been true for me at real turning points in my life. For me some real crucial times have been accompanied by almost no sound at all. People ask me, for instance, about my decision to become a priest. Now if I'm honest about describing it I have to say that it wasn't really a decision. It was more like a shift. It was on New Year's Eve of 1961 and I was trapped at home (which was out in the country) by a sudden storm which dumped a whole lot of snow on Cincinnati. So I couldn't get to the party I was supposed to be at, and my family couldn't get out to the house and I was alone for that New Years. I went out for a walk in the midst of the storm, which I have always loved to do. It was a gentle storm by then, still snowing quite heavily, but no wind; just lots and lots of snow falling - and almost total silence. No traffic, no voices, just quiet. And in the middle of that silence everything shifted and I knew what I was going to do with my life and knew that it involved the priesthood. It could be described as a "decision" I suppose, but my experience of that moment was that the meaning of everything had just changed. I hadn't thought it out, I hadn't considered it carefully, I hadn't made an inventory of everything that needed to be considered - all of that came later. It was just like suddenly standing on completely new ground.

And there was no sound at all, except for the silent sound of everything falling into place.

God so often moves like that. We plan and consider and debate - all quite wonderful and necessary things, of course. And we make a lot of noise to accompany our planning and the joy that comes when our plans go right. This is also quite wonderful. But there is another level to human experience, which is the level of the spirit. Sometimes it erupts into our world in ways that are sudden and unexpected, and sometimes it comes in a slowly developing consciousness. But this eruption is not accompanied by anything loud, and most usually for me has been in silence.

And so it seems only natural that God is sought principally in silence. Monks live their lives so that they will have a good deal of silence each day. This is so that we can be in that place where the spiritual dimension of life has room to speak. Not that extraordinary experiences are ever very common. Most often, if those times of silence have any quality to them at all, it is just one of simple listening - of listening, waiting, longing, and from time to time of knowing that the same listening and attention comes back to us from that space. Mother Theresa used to say, when asked about her prayer, that she listened to God. And when asked what God did at those times she said: "God listens to me." All wrapped in quiet. All in silence.

Which is more important - the exultant celebratory noise, or the quiet attention to the depths beyond our usual experience of this world? Maybe we're not supposed to be comparing things here, but just attending to the different ways in which God reaches out for us and touches different parts of us. Maybe we can give attention to all the moments of our life, the loud and the quiet, and find God reaching out in each one.

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