I recently returned home from an eight-day silent retreat at the Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, MA, and I am finding that this time away has afforded me a unique perspective on the “real” world. As you might imagine, the world sounds pretty different after a week of silence.
My first impression upon reentry was that the world sounds loud. On retreat, the loudest sound my ears endured was the crashing of the ocean waves against the massive boulders that line the Gloucester shoreline. On my return trip I was immediately beset by a cacophony of car horns, bells, conversations, music, and screeching train wheels. Even in the relative quietude of my own home, I am finding that I am yet to reacquire my taste for previously unobjectionable noises. Normally a music junkie, I’ve tried once to listen to music while working, but turned it off after only a few minutes. I just didn’t need it. At least for the moment, I’m still finding so much richness in the silence that added background noise just seems like overkill.
I expected the noise. What has surprised me, however, is that the world seems not to be saying anything new since I left. World leaders are still denouncing Russian encroachment in Ukraine. Threatening rhetoric is still issuing forth from the Korean peninsula. The talking heads on CNN are shouting indignantly about yet another White House scandal. It all sounds terribly familiar.
The banality of this worldly clamor is all the more pronounced in contrast with the soul-stirring changes I experienced in the midst of silence this past week. To some the comparison might seem completely backward. Contrasting the unhurried pace of my days—slow walks, leisurely reading, hours spent motionless in prayer—with the frantic pace of a world at work and at war, an outside observer might conclude that nothing of any significance occurred during these days in Gloucester. However, as often proves the case, a superficial glance fails to recognize when and where the real change is occurring. The most momentous revolutions—the Indian Independence Movement, the American Civil Rights Movement, etc.—begin not with a rousing public speech or a gunshot; they begin from the stirrings of the human heart. Indeed, no lasting change is achieved in this world unless preceded by a change of heart. Such was the sort of revolution that transpired in my own heart during those eight days of silence.
Held up to this standard of transformation, it is striking to me how little the world has changed in a week in spite of its furor of activity. Having spent the week exalting in the highs and lows of the thrilling symphony that is the interplay between the soul and God, it has been a little dispiriting to return to the world’s stage and hear it holding out the same, tired note as when I left. Having experienced a fuller range of human possibility—from the nadir of personal and social sin to the peak of unfathomable love—it seems more apparent to me than ever that, as far as our day-to-day living goes, most of us limit ourselves to a rather narrow segment of that range.
In a sense, we as the human community enact on a larger scale the drama that was Ludwig van Beethoven’s personal struggle. Beethoven’s immense musical capabilities are well known. He performed his first public concert when he was only seven years old and by early adulthood had garnered a reputation as the successor to the recently deceased Mozart. Sadly, he began experiencing difficulty hearing when he was 26 years old, a worsening condition that eventually left him completely deaf. One can hear the deterioration of Beethoven’s hearing reflected in the music from different stages of his career. During the so called “Middle Period,” during which time his hearing problem was becoming more acute, Beethoven’s compositions (e.g., the Moonlight Sonata) were characterized by fewer high notes and more low notes, which he could hear more easily. It was only later in his career when his hearing had dissipated completely that he again began to make use of the full range of musical notes.
I wonder if we don’t limit ourselves to the low notes in our daily lives—in politics and business and personal interactions. Could it be that we have grown disillusioned in our efforts to hit the high notes in life? We start out idealistic, but gradually temper our expectations when we sense that the high notes we play fail to resonate in the world around us. We settle for the lower notes—military-driven foreign policy, partisan politics, winner-take-all economics—that the world seems better able to abide.
It wasn’t until Beethoven had lost the ability to hear his music that he restored the high notes to his compositions. We would do well to learn from his story and play our lives in the full range of musical notes, even if it’s hard to make out the high notes sometimes. Consider the example of Mother Teresa. For the last 50 years of her life, she heard none of the spiritual high notes that initially inspired her to enter into a life of service to God and her fellow human beings. Yet there are few people today who do not recognize the startling beauty of the composition that is her life’s work.
Often it is the moments of stillness and silence in which we are best able to recognize the beautiful potential of life in this world. Still, we cannot live our lives in silence. God calls us all to play our part in life’s great symphony. We deprive the world and we deprive ourselves if we make less than full use of the gifts God has given us. The world needs to hear our song—the high notes along with the lows.