Often I feel like that famous contemplative, Charlie Brown. My favorite Charlie Brown story is about the time he and Lucy were sailing on a cruse ship. Lucy, great philosopher that she is, said, “You know, Charlie Brown, life is like a cruise ship. Some people take their deck chairs to the back of the ship to see where they have been. And some people take their deck chairs to the front of the ship to see where they are going. What kind of person are you, Charlie Brown?” He pauses reflectively, and then says, “I’m the kind of person who can’t get my deck chair open.” In the contemplative life, I’m still trying to open my deck chair.
Somehow, as a young woman with a husband, two children, a station wagon, a dog, a demanding career, a busy social life, and endless church activities, I stumbled headlong upon a contemplative path. It was very disconcerting.
I embarked on my immense journey, quite timidly, hip-deep in American life. I began to read the contemplative literature, moving through volumes of Western spiritual classics, finding particular heroes in Saint Teresa, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and most especially, Thomas Merton, whose work became a wise and provocative mentor.
I began to meditate and to make regular monastic retreats. My friends could not imagine what insanity had gotten into me. “Whatever are you doing, going to those places?” a friend asked with unveiled concern in her voice.
“I can’t help it,” I told her. “After all, my middle name is Monk.” I suppose this was my way of avoiding a real answer.
The truth is that there is a “monk” who lives in me, an archetypal monk whom I must honor and allow to be. This monk craves the depths of solitude and silence and has, at times, a searing passion for God and an almost raging empathy for creation. She is the part of me that wants to come out in cataphatic celebration – dancing, writing, and painting my spiritual journey. She is also the part of me that wants to enter the apophatic darkness of no-thing. I love the monk who lives in me very much.
Mostly she exists in the midst of an incredible interweaving of noise and music that flows through my life. I am referring to music as a metaphor for the realm of Divine presence, and to noise as a metaphor for the realm of Divine absence, or to be precise, the place where we are not in touch with the experience of God’s presence. For a long time, I moved between the spiritual poles of presence and absence.
To play with the metaphor a bit more, we are apt to begin the contemplative journey by seeking out spaces where Divine music is more readily accessible and by avoiding the world of noise, which we think of as the mere influx of meaningless material. Eventually, though, we face a significant question: Can we perceive God in the raucous noise of living, just as we perceive God in the beautiful music of interior spiritual experience? Can we meet God in the dog-barking and traffic horns and whining children and the infernal drone of the television?
Let me tell you a story. It is one of my earliest memories.
When I was four, a sound slipped into my bedroom and woke me up. It was a persistent sound of scratching on my window screen. It was an awful sound, really. Loud and grating, and given the darkness and shadowy images moving across the curtains, I suppose I could have become afraid. But I wasn’t. I was struck only with curiosity, with a kind of wonder about this noise in the darkness. I remember lying in bed imagining increasingly magical explanations for it, unaware that I was about to engage a mystery that would in some way linger with me the rest of my life.
Armed with an array of vivid possibilities, I crept out of bed and made my way through the house to my parents’ bed. I shook my mother’s shoulder. “Mama, there is an angel scratching against my window.”
I waited to hear what she would say. My mother did not say, “Don’t be silly. That violates the rational abstraction of the traditional worldview!” She did not say, “The scratching on your window is only the wind dragging an old branch across the screen. It’s nothing. Go back to bed.”
Instead, even groggy with sleep, she knew that the ability to let go and listen creatively to the world as a mythic and sacred place, that the power to listen to the humdrum and the family and hear the sacred possibility of music inside it is a tender, fragile thing, easily lost. So rather than douse my first foray into holy imaginings, she put her blessing on it. She said, “An angel? Wonderful. Say hello for me.”
That small, whimsical fragment of my childhood was the beginning of an awareness that has shaped much of my life since: Common noises are not always what they appear to be. They can also be the eloquence of God. It is all in the richness of listening. If we develop our deeper metaphysical ears, we may hear the music of divinity in uncommon places.
I’ve known a great deal of noise in my life, but I have also spent much time trying to tune my inner ear – the cochlea of my soul – to hear the Divine in the thick of my days, in the quarrel with my husband, the conversation with my teenage son, my daughter’s shrill-giggling slumber parties, the death of my beloved spaniel, the wilting geranium in my kitchen – these scratchings upon my window.
There is an integration in the contemplative journey when dualities collapse, when the noise and the music become one sound.
The young man had lost his job and didn’t know which way to turn. He went to see an old preacher and paced about the preacher’s study, ranting about his problem. Clenching his fist, he shouted, “I’ve begged God to say something to help me. Tell me, preacher, why doesn’t God answer?”
The old preacher, who sat across the room, spoke something in reply – something so hushed it was indistinguishable. The young man stepped across the room. “What did you say?” he asked.
The preacher repeated himself, but again in a tone as soft, barely audible. So the young man moved closer until he was leaning on the preacher’s chair. “Sorry, he said. “I still didn’t hear you.”
When their heads bent together the old preacher spoke once more. “God sometimes speaks in whispers, so we will move closer to hear.”
This time the young man heard.
Sitting on the Carolina shore, I cupped a small conch to my ear. Listening for the sound buried inside, I heard a faint, haunting echo that sounded like the whispering voice of the ocean. There is a scripture reference to the “still, small voice” of God – a lovely term that suggests the spark of God within. It is heard the same way as the sound in the conch shell. By cupping my ear to the ground of Being.
One evening as I sat in the rocker, working on a piece of needlepoint, I got one of those feelings of being watched. Looking up, I saw my five-year-old son staring at me from the doorway. He wandered over and crawled into my lap.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “I just want to be with you.”
He laid his head on my arm, content to be near me, to curl up in my circle of lamplight and be in my presence.
The most beautiful prayer is to sit with God that way. To pray, not because I want something, not because I’m in trouble again, but because I simple want to be close.
As I sat in my den with the television droning in the background, I read about an autistic child who could not speak. She communicated within her silent world by writing on her computer screen. When a network news correspondent came to interview her and asked her what it was like to live with such silence, she wrote, “I hear God’s finest whispers.”
Surprised, the correspondent responded. “And what does God say?”
The girl typed on her keyboard, “He says he loves me too.”
There is an extraordinary need in our lives for silence. The constant noise and chatter, internal and external, causes us to lose touch with the center of our being. When that happens, we become caught in all kinds of unimportant things. We suffer from this noise. Many of us even cling to this pollution of noise because it drowns out painful hungers inside. There is an old contemplative saying: “If you cannot improve the silence, do not speak.