Tuesday, March 30

just quiet

"collaborative silence is a lost art," said the reverend, softly — the crowd chuckled, politely.

thusly began a contemplative service for the church which hosts 110 singers for our weekly rehearsals — a musical gift of thanks. the provided bulletin informed us that it would be a service of readings, silence and music. that we should refrain from conversation and applause once the music had begun. that all cell phones should be turned off (not just silenced), and that after each reading, a bell would ring to mark the beginning and conclusion of five minutes of silence.

silence? silence.

most weekends around our household are pretty well booked solid. that's neither boast nor complaint, merely a statement of fact. most weekends involve rejuvenating time spent catching up with friends, cooking, or gardening. most sunday evenings, I survey the weekend and wonder at the things that can be accomplished in a 48 hour period. it's a rare weekend that the calendar is totally open. I was struck by the simple irony that without this scheduled obligation, I'd probably be too busy uploading video of our idiot cat to facebook, or gabbing with pals ... or gabbing with pals on facebook. I resented the obligation just a little. I could instead be planting beans, or pulling weeds, or doing a load of laundry. is silence that important? but it was on my calendar, so I went, though a nap tempted me as I peered under the couch, wondering where my shoes had been left.

"gather up
in the arms of your pity
the sick, the depraved
the desperate, the tired,
all the scum of our weary city
gather up in the arms of your pity
gather up
in the arms of your love
those who expect
no love from above"
~john musto
and then the bell rang. I fought the impulse to reach for my cell phone. silence, you say? silence. but what does one do, without something to listen to — or say? no response. five minutes is such a long time, when you're accustomed to near-constant outside stimulus. when you're just a little bit type-a. to the untrained mind, it's an eternity to be left alone — alone with just your own thoughts and a few carefully selected, meditative words.


requiem aeternam dona eis, domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, te decet hymnus, deus in sion, et tibi reddetur votum in jerusalem; exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis caro veniet.
requiem aeternam dona eis, domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison.

{grant them eternal rest, lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. you are praised, god, in zion, and homage will be paid to you in jerusalem. hear my prayer, to you all flesh will come. grant them eternal rest, lord, and let perpetual light shine on them.

lord, have mercy on us. christ, have mercy on us. lord, have mercy on us.}

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
~david foster wallace, from his 2005 commencement address at kenyon college

and the bell rang again. and I took a deep breath. five minutes? I reread the text before me, and wondered in the word "freedom," and the concept of consciousness. zen practice is focused on mastery of presence — being connected fully to the immediate moment, and the wood chopping or water carrying (or motorcycle maintenance) at hand. what about it is so challenging as to require a lifetime of study? a hum fills the atmosphere as the air-conditioner kicks in, and I notice there's less fidgeting and throat-clearing among the crowd (maybe this quiet thing isn't so hard after all!). reading the words again, I focused again on the concept of consciousness, and tears welled up in my eyes, considering man's innate ability to unconsciously adapt, for good or ill. we become our impatient surroundings so easily — it's both a biological advantage and tragic human frailty. I watched the light play along the walls, a merle reflected from passing cars, and before I was able to compose myself again, the bell rang.


mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in fun'ral fires burning
each flame to your myst'ry returning
in the dark night of the soul
your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
o mother mary find us where we've fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place
in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, mary
~ eliza gilkyson (hear the song here ... or here)

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

~ Hebrews 4:12-16

the bell rang, and this time a comfortable silence fell upon the congregants almost immediately. I noticed it was a little easier not reaching for my iphone; that breathing was simpler. I noted the subtle perfume of a woman nearby — not in an obnoxious, sneezing way. not overpowering — in fact it had only just danced into my consciousness at all: a hint of jasmine and ginger. scraps of music and phrases resonated in my ears and I was moved to tears more than once — but not necessarily tears of grief. emotion overwhelmed me — gratitude, love, fear, happiness — and maybe a little sadness, too. it wasn't so much that I was apprehended by all the things constant movement suppressed, but that in unhitching from the runaway horse, so to speak, I might moor to more meaningful things. I vowed to make more time for reflection. and then the bell rang again.


come, thou fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
while the hope of endless glory
fills my heart with joy and love,
teach me ever to adore thee;
may I still thy goodness prove.

here I raise my ebenezer,
hither by thy help I’ve come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of god;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be;
let that grace now like a fetter
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, lord, I feel it;
prone to leave the god I love.
here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
~robert robinson

and then, just as I prepared to settle into the quiet once more, it was past. we were excused to go.

descending the steps back into the warm evening sun, it made me a little bit sad restoring power to my phone.


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