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A Theologian's Essay on Noise
I came across the following essay while doing a keyword search at
my library. While the writer is both a theologian and a monk, there
is much here which pertains to all of us, and much which is profoundly
quotable, such as:
"There is a close connection between tranquility and sanity..."
"More people die from noisy and nugatory existence than from any
other disease known to mankind."
"There is no wisdom without peace."
"Silence is not negation. It is absorption."
The writing is also quite good. In this one short essay I came
across several words I had never seen before like "scabrous",
"febrile", "nugatory", "stentorian" and "gravid", all used impeccably.
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Source: America, Dec 7, 1996 v175 n18 p22(2).
Title: A cure for noise. (Faith In Focus) (Column)
Author: William McNamara
Abstract: A monastery retreat theologian laments the spiritual
deterioration that surely results from the noise pollution of modern
urban life. The spiritual tradition of silence, and its psychological
benefits, are analyzed.
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DO YOU SUFFER culture shock when you come out of the woods of Nova
Scotia as you do occasionally to lecture or to visit your communities
in Colorado and Ireland?" Many of the people I meet ask that
question. It's something I think about a lot. Scabrous culture is
something that can be conveyed to anyone, however inaccessible, who
reads. So when I fly from Yarmouth to Boston I'm prepared for the
worst; for the best too, since Boston is one of the great cultural
centers of the Western world. What I am never ready for, however, is
the percussive pollutant, worse than anything I see or smell: noise.
It is noxious and nerve-wracking. It increases by the year and injures
the ear. In Nova Scotia I hear loons and other birds singing. But
in the city I am savaged by an eternal din. There is the dull roar of
traffic all around, the drone of planes overhead. There is the
clatter of construction. Everywhere there is muzak and newzak, sirens
wailing, lights buzzing, transformers humming, air conditioners
whirring. Yes, even in the monastery I'm defeated by the ubiquitous
lawn mower in summer or the snowplow in winter. Far worse than all
these sources of noise, though, is the feckless and febrile verbosity
of human beings--verbal pollution. Most of it is twaddle and reaches
a feverish and virulent pitch in a crowd. More people die from noisy
and nugatory existence than from any other disease known to mankind.
Signs commanding "No Noise" should be as prevalent as "No Littering"
and "No Smoking. "
In a society as loud as ours, one out of ten people suffers
hearing loss and high blood pressure. One out of three, in a lucid
moment, discerns and then represses a loss of soul. That's what Henry
David Thoreau lamented when he said: "Most men live lives of quiet
desperation." The cause is stentorian, the effect is stupefying.
There is a close connection between tranquility and sanity, silence
and sanctity. When and where a sense of the sacred is lost, noise
takes over. Vulgarity clashes with serenity; and wonder, the basis of
wisdom, languishes. Schools, created for a sacred and worshipful kind
of silence--skole means leisure--have become frantic and frenzied.
The curriculum is a Gadarene rush into the sea, a self-destructive
pursuit of power, profit and pleasure. Without periods of silent
reflection between classes, students suffer egregiously from
retroactive inhibition. In the hurried succession of classes, one
subject erases the memory traces of the other. The whole process is
ruthless, doing violence to persons naturally contemplative. What can
we expect when even the churches are noisy? Bishop William Temple's
lament makes sense: "Poor little talkative Christianity!" Are the
temples any better? Back porches and bedrooms might be more conducive
to awe, reverence and wonder. To sit mindfully in a quiet place until
stillness suffuses our whole being may provide the healing and
holiness we so desperately need. What other defense do we have
against the assault on our senses? Noise erodes the quality of life.
Not simply a side effect, it is a problem in its own right. Monks
should be offering people long, lifesaving, noise-free intervals (if
not days and weeks). That is why all our Spiritual Life Institute
monasteries are in a wilderness or the closest thing to it. There is
as great a need for wilderness retreats as forhospitals. For the
same reason there is a greater need for silent contemplatives than
for loquacious activists.
THE WRITER Marius Grout, a French Quaker who in 1943 won the
Goncourt prize for his contribution to literature, made a singularly
significant statement: "I believe in the influence of silent and
radiant human beings; but I say to myself such people are rare. They
nevertheless give savor to the world. Nothing will be lost so long as
such people continue to exist." Shades of St. Thomas Aquinas! We all
talk too much. Careless, shopworn words signify a barren culture, a
shallow person. Violent and vulgar words so pollute the human climate
that civilization, education, spirituality and high moral endeavor
become impossible. When the language is obscene and acerbic, there
can be no purity and no peace. When we take God's name in vain, we
estrange ourselves from God and one another. The greatest human
person who ever lived was Mary, the Mother of God--a woman wrapped in
silence. The Book of Wisdom in the Jewish Bible tells us that when
all things were in quiet silence, the almighty Word leapt down out of
heaven. St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Carmelite mystic, says
almost the same thing: From all eternity God speaks one Word,
reaching its fullness in Christ. Nothing remains to be said.
THE VALUE OF ALL SPEECH needs to be measured by that Word. Then
there will be clarity, communion and glory when all human tongues will
have reentered the translucent immediacy of the primal, lost speech
shared by God with Adam and Eve. God said to the prophet David: "Be
still and know that Iam God." A brilliant point was made by the
third-century oriental seer, Lao-Tzu: "He who knows does not speak; he
who speaks does not know." Authentic words, gravid with meaning, are
the fruit of contemplation. Skip contemplation, cultivate
uncontemplative friends and you will culpably suffer an appalling din
of thoughtless speech.
If we meet without love--an I-It relationship instead of
I-Thou--we are compelled to talk feverishly because we are afraid of
what silence might reveal. Verbose approaches to God suffer from the
same banality. There is no wisdom without peace. We can never do
much wrong if we sheath our tongue-sword in the scabbard of silence.
Sit stone-still with the Marys--his mother and his friend--and listen
to him alone. Take a long loving look at the real--the tree, the dog,
the spouse, the friend. This is contemplation, the matrix of speech.
Silence is not negation. It is absorption. Ravished by being, finite
and infinite, and aware of the ineffable in our ordinary way of life,
we shut up and wisdom pours down. It all depends on the quality of
our silence. Both Scripture and the Carmelite Rule attest to this
root experience: "In silence and in hope will your strength be."
WILLIAM McNAMARA, O.C.D., is leader of the Spiritual Life Institute
monasteries in Nova Scotia, Colorado and Ireland and a well-known
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 America Press Inc.
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