Quiet-List 1997

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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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - (start of essay) - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    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 
spiritual writer. 

Full Text:  COPYRIGHT 1996 America Press Inc.
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