In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings I listened to the radio a lot more than I usually do, and I learned something. Not about the bombing, since there was little that was known for the first few days. I learned how our widespread mass-media educate us away from silence.
Think about it: The most feared thing in radio or tv is “dead air” — time in which there’s no sound (voice or music). Every second has to be filled: and in those first few days when there was nothing of substance to report, speakers on the radio went on and on with speculation, irrelevant commentary, guessing, and repeating what they or someone else had just said. Anything to “fill” the time. I don’t blame them: It’s the structure of the medium that silence is impossible, even when there’s nothing to say.
And then I thought of the telephone: Another technology that’s entered human experience quite recently, and which also educates us away from silence. When we’re on the phone, there’s pressure to speak or listen — and pressure against being silent. (I wonder, sometimes, how people were first taught that a ringing phone had to be picked up, even if it interrupted something else. I still wonder why people feel it’s proper to interrupt an in-person conversation or activity to answer a phone. Thus do our media subtly shape us…)
Consider, too, doctors’ waiting rooms: If anyplace might be a location for contemplation of human frailness and even mortality, that should be the place. Yet media distraction rules, with a tv that’s usually impossible to avoid. The media environment is training us toward superficiality and away from any encounter with profound, deep, complex, or subtle ideas. To be effective disciples (or even decent human beings), we need to resist.
But willpower alone won’t help us. We need training in silent attention, and — tragically, in my view — most churches have failed terribly in this. Sometimes it seems as if we’ve chosen to compete with the culture around us in getting people’s attention — which is a battle we’re sure to lose, and have been losing for at least the past century. Religion-as-entertainment hasn’t worked; churches that try it may need a big “front door” for all the people who stop by, but they’ve found they also need a big “back door” for the people who then walk out again, their deeper spiritual needs unsatisfied. The multiplex does entertainment better…
The renewal of the liturgy since Vatican Council II hasn’t helped in this regard. (In other ways it’s been wonderful, but we made a lot of mistakes along the way. And making worship too busy and noisy was one of them.) We seem, unwittingly, to have divided the people at liturgy into two groups: the active (ministers), and the passive (everybody without a special role). This is just wrong. Being without a “special role” (in other words, being busy) is no less active participation, and may make for better prayer. (Personal note: When I’m on vacation, I always choose to sit in the assembly for Mass.) There is a nobility to serving (ushers, servers, readers, EMHCs, deacons, presiders), but the point is to serve the prayer of the assembly as a whole. Those without a particular job (i.e., most people) serve in their own, equally valuable way: attentive listening to the spoken prayer and readings, singing, vocal responses, posture, processions… (Side note about service: presenting the gifts is likewise a service, not a mark of specialness. It doesn’t matter who does it; what matters is that the ritual gesture is performed as part of our shared prayer. But making a fuss about who does it displays exactly the false and damaging split I’m talking about, as if “doing stuff” is more valuable than “sitting there.”)
Use this week to look around with this in mind: What are the largely-unnoticed forces in everyday living that push you away from silence? Is it the always-on tv or radio at home? An instinctive reach for the cellphone whenever it rings, no matter what else you’re doing? The omnipresent music or tv in stores, restaurants, waiting-rooms? The first step to battling a contagion is noticing that it’s there and that we’re likely to be infected if we don’t take precautions.
Until next week, peace.