I don’t notice it until I try to have a conversation with someone in a public space. It seems anywhere I go in public, artificial noise surrounds me. When I’m alone I don’t notice the sounds of multiple TVs and background music (which often intrudes into the foreground), but it becomes annoyingly obvious that a competition for my attention takes place when I’m speaking with another person in public. In my work as a priest, I’m in public places quite often–hospitals, restaurants, and coffee shops, to name a few. Rarely is a television absent in these rooms. If I pull into a gas station in between stops to refuel, all of the sudden I hear a voice out of nowhere giving me news stories of the day. Where’s it coming from? The miniature TV embedded in the fuel pump. Heaven forbid I waste three minutes filling my gas tank in silence.
How did we become surrounded by noise wherever we go? I’m still young enough to remember when movie theaters began advertising surround sound. What about that experience didn’t enthrall us? Once surround sound became common, I hesitated buying a movie ticket that didn’t have the DTS logo attached to the film’s title. And then surround sound became a possibility for home theaters. Soon, we began expecting surround sound on a normal basis. What we may not have noticed is that “surround sound” is not only an acoustic technology, it has become a cultural norm.
When public spaces surround us with constant sound, these organizations assume they are meeting an American “need,” something to distract us from the presence of silence. A great deal of marketing strategy these days recommends that businesses and service providers address human fears, so it seems public spaces have capitulated to our culture’s fear of silence when they create environments of perpetual noise to make their patrons “comfortable.” These artificial noises are meant to deliver us from the experience of waiting. The message from our culture comes through clearly and loudly: waiting is bad for me; quietness must be avoided.
The crowding nature of noise makes it nearly impossible for one to pray. We are surrounded by noise, yet we are desperate for the healing presence of God which prayer and silence bring. Nowhere is this irony more visible than surgery waiting rooms. Families gather in a room where their anxieties–sometimes spoken, mostly unspoken–are palpably present. Here the experience of waiting can be the most difficult. Few rooms within a city speak greater longing for prayer than a surgery waiting room. Yet that sacred space is drowned out by the drivel of talk shows, cartoons, and soap operas. The implicit assumption is that silence and a prayerful atmosphere is neither comforting for adults, nor is it “kid-friendly.” Instead of prayerful quietude, another form of surround sound is introduced, an anesthetic for the anxiety that waiting brings. How can a longing soul hear a true, reviving word from God amid the din of our public spaces?
In today’s Morning Prayer readings, Jeremiah’s voice rings out a lamentation when Israel resisted the voice of God: “they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods” (Jeremiah 44.4-5) In Jesus’ voice, we hear the Lord judging Israel’s shallow spirit: “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17). A human pattern appears in these readings which seems to transcend time: every culture wants to determine a playlist of their own choosing and set the volume at which their songs are played. What is the prayerful response to the reality of cultural noise?
Jeremiah’s phrase “incline your ear” is a prophetic phrase that appears in multiple places throughout the Old Testament. When human beings are called to incline their ear, it implies that our ears have been too long immersed in a world of messages, speech, and songs, where God is not invoked. “[The Word] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1.10). Our world makes room for all manner of sounds–except the Word of God. The call to incline our ears is itself a breakthrough of divine revelation. We hear the Word of God speaking to us, warning us of spiritual hearing loss. “Incline your ear to me” is the command of a Good Shepherd who knows that, without repentance and silence, the droning noise of our world will cause deafness to the Spirit’s voice within. How can I hear the Spirit’s voice?
Anytime a city dweller leaves the world of artificial lights in a metropolitan area, it usually comes as an awesome surprise to see the night sky sparkling with thousands of stars. Over time, eyes become conditioned by artificial lights, thus one’s vision is limited by all that is present and shines in the heavens. But when those same eyes leave the world of urban lights and move into rural spaces, something majestic appears: stars saturate the night sky with created light.
Surely there is a corollary in the world of sound. Leaving behind our sound-saturated world, the world opens and expands in ways we could not have heard before. Silence gives space for the inclination of our ears to the Word of God. Then we discover the grace of God in the midst of our hearing loss, the Word of God Himself is our incline. The sonority of the Scriptures resound the notes of grace, mercy, and wonder deep within the soul and we are lifted from anxiety into peace and worship. That, too, is sound that surrounds us. But these melodies were meant to surround us, to encompass us in a world of psalms, silence, and the whisper of the Holy Spirit. Above the surrounding cacophony without, an entire world of divine soundings is available within, a place where deep speaks unto deep, where the Word of God encounters me in the depths of heart, mind, and soul.