As I think many of you know, I walk with a friend for an hour or so several mornings a week. An all-around good and useful habit, it provides regular aerobic exercise to keep me healthy; and it also provides a chance for my friend and me to “solve the world’s problems.” Lately, though, we have been noticing the intrusion of one of those problems into our walks themselves. I refer to what I will call “noise pollution”… As much as I enjoy living in center city – and I do enjoy it a great deal – there is no getting away from the fact that ambient noise in the area is almost constant, and at times, distressingly loud. On any given day, one is apt to contend with the roar and rumble of eighteen-wheelers, the rat-a-tat of jack hammers, or the low, metallic bass thud of pile drivers.
These intrusive noises are not, of course, restricted to center city. Perhaps many of you saw the cover story of the March 15 edition of the “New York Times Magazine” entitled “Whisper of the Wild.” The story reported on environmental scientists who literally search to the ends of the earth for “refuges of natural sound.” They report that such places are increasingly difficult to find. As just one illustrative example, the story reported that since 2006, sixty recording devices covering wide swaths of undeveloped land inAlaska“have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent.” Indeed, there is a growing movement among the environmentalists who conduct this kind of research to start a movement for protecting “areas of natural sound” as an “endangered resource.”
The real problem, it seems to me, is that God created us to evolve and adapt SLOWLY; and our biology can’t begin to catch up or keep up with our technology. Hence, most of us in theFirst Worldwear corrective lenses these days, because our “hunter-gatherer” eyes haven’t adapted to extensive use reading printed pages and computer screens. We are also prone to obesity because of ready access to less healthy food (and loads more of it than we need), along with a largely sedentary lifestyle. As to the effects of information overload, visual overstimulation, and omnipresent loud noise on our complex and delicate minds and bodies, the jury is still out. We are only beginning even to ask the questions…
Here is one thing we do know, however. A brief feature about theJesuitRetreatCenterin Wernersville, PA which ran in the Sunday “Times” a couple of months ago has quickly produced a notable uptick in interest and inquiries for both the Jesuit Center and for other retreat centers in the region. Part of what the inquirers are looking for, it appears, is a bit of peace and quiet.
As Phil Fox Rose wrote a couple of years back on the Paulist website “Busted Halo” (which is aimed at youth and young adults): “The paradox with meditation and other forms of silent prayer, and especially with silent retreats, is that even though they are formless and goalless, they achieve something wonderful — something potentially transformative: they create space, physical and mental space, to become more open.” Rose went on to acknowledge, however, that unaccustomed silence can initially be disconcerting and uncomfortable.
As to why this might be so, he cites Fr. Jim Martin’s “Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything”: “We may fear silence because we fear what we might hear from the deepest parts of ourselves. We may be afraid to hear that ‘still small’ voice. What might it say? Might it ask us to change? This is the great power and the great challenge of silence: it can reveal truth. Or more accurately, it takes away our ability to run from Truth.” And of course, it was Jesus himself who promised us that “the truth will set you free.”
Hurrah, then, for the visionary William Penn, who imagined our City of Brotherly Love as a “greene Country Towne” with a terrific system of parks intended to approximate the farm land which he loved. As a result, centuries later even in center city, there are havens like Washington Square and Rittenhouse Square and Fairmount Park where one can find relative quiet and at least partial escape from the grittier, noisier parts of town where “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s [sic] smudge and shares man’s [sic] smell” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, sonnet “God’s Grandeur”).
I quote again from Phil Fox Rose: “Find more opportunities to bring silence into your routine. (Or should I say, to remove noise from your routine.) I have absolutely nothing against technology. I spent half my career writing about it or developing it. I myself have an iPod, iPhone, iPad, cable TV and high-speed internet. This is not about avoiding technology. It’s about choosing how you use it. As Jon M. Sweeney says in his delightful book about monastic life and retreats, ‘Cloister Talks’: ‘It’s not that it’s wrong to live a busy, secular life…, but you’re supposed to have more than that, and the more than that is supposed to eventually take prominence. So I make sure there’s room for the ‘more than that,’ which often involves silence IN BETWEEN things.” This week, seek out some “green”… and live “in between”…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.