Enjoy the Silence

Returning to the routine after an extended absence is always somewhat jarring.  And as I sat in mass this morning before my first day back to what is my current level of normal, my mind was racing through the million and one things that are on my agenda, all of which need my attention.  This is one of those blood-draining-away sort of sensations, like when you see someone is about to go sailing through the intersection and just miss hitting you.  As a result it was difficult to focus on what was going on in front of me, though I was trying my best to keep my mind on where I was and what I was doing.

And then my phone rang during the Consecration.

Now, if you have ever had your phone ring during church, you know what a horrible feeling that is, but for Catholics in particular to have your phone ring during the Consecration is without a doubt the absolute worst time it could possibly happen.  Fortunately, even in such a moment there are good lessons to be learned. The first is to make sure I turn my phone completely off when entering a church, not simply mute it. The second lesson is a related one, which I want to explore a little bit, and that is the fact that sometimes you just need to turn off the world.

We are living surrounded by noise which we voluntarily bring into our lives by turning on the phone, the television, the computer, the iPod, and so on, and we forget how good it is to be silent.  It is so often that in silence, man has sat back and planned magnificent buildings, worked out complex scientific theories, or composed beautiful poetry.  He has used silence to reflect on his relationship with God and with his neighbor, and to detach himself from the world so that he can rest.  However silence is now something we avoid at any cost.

We are so constantly bombarding ourselves and others with noise, no wonder we all seem to be on such short fuses.  If you did nothing but drink caffeine all day long, you would become jittery and unable to sleep; that lack of sleep would eventually take its toll on your mental and physical health.  Yet isn’t that what we are doing by being awash in meaningless stimuli so much of the time? And what is the end result of this, what is the benefit of it?

Well, let us look at the evidence of this brave new world we have created.  For one thing, we shout at each other (or worse) through closed car windows as we break the speed limits and change lanes without signalling.  We laugh at and mock emotionally unbalanced people who choose to humiliate themselves on television for our entertainment.

We dress like beggars and prostitutes to “express” ourselves, and we will not quarter any criticism of our appearance.  It used to be said that we would call each other names on social media which we would never say in person, but sadly I think that reticence is disappearing, based on what I heard in the supermarket just the other day.  We are no longer concerned about being considered vile, crude, or ill-mannered by others, thanks to all of the messages we receive telling us that they are okay just the way we are.

Quite frankly, one of the reasons why we have seen such a rapid growth of atheism and such a correlated, rapid decline in basic public decency, is that we have forgotten how to be quiet.  For God is in the quiet, and we do not care to hear what He has to say.  All of this over-stimulation is a way of covering up that uncomfortable silence, and what we might not like to hear when we are alone with ourselves, and with Him.  So we are told to turn up the volume, put on the earbuds, and get those eyes on the screen with all of its flashing, true-to-life high-definition colors, and forget about the fact that you are mortal, and that one day you are going to die, no matter how hard you try to escape from or forget that fact.

The consequences of our embrace of noisiness are to be found in all of our endeavors, from social media and entertainment to politics and business – for there is no more joy and love, only mockery and lust.  We are no longer building beautiful buildings, or writing beautiful music, or making beautiful films.   All the signs are that our civilization is dying, and yet we roll our merry way along worrying about how many apps our cell phone has, rather than worrying why it is we have not read a serious work of literature in over a decade.

Therefore gentle reader, remember as this New Year begins that stepping away from the computer, the phone, and the television for even brief periods of time each day will be of far greater benefit to you in the long run, than avoiding finding yourself in silence, for fear of what you might hear there.  By no means am I suggesting that everything electronic is bad.  I would hardly be blogging or podcasting otherwise!  But I would suggest that you make judicious use of what has not yet been fried in your brain to step away from devices, even if only for a little window of time each day.

There are plenty of practical ways to implement this.  Turn off the television during dinner, for example, or get up a bit earlier without turning on the phone or the radio.  Shut down the computer an hour earlier than when you normally go to bed, by saying good night and meaning it.  And above all, enjoy the silence – don’t be afraid of it.


No Room at the Bank

This morning while making my way into the office I had a lot on my mind: meetings and deadlines for this last week of work before going on Christmas vacation, things that need to be completed at home before my departure, and some last events and appointments I need to attend to as well.  At this time of year many of us are completely overwhelmed with all sorts of matters that require our attention, wondering where we are going to find the time and resources to address all of them.  One of the things which helps us – or me, at least – to keep things in perspective is the fact that there are decorations all around, to remind us that this is meant to be a joyous time of year, whatever else it brings.

As you make your way through the area of Lawyer Gulch, otherwise known as the K Street Corridor of downtown Washington, there are many of these reminders on display.  The exteriors and lobby areas of the offices, hotels, shops, and other businesses are festooned with Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, and so on, that are a joy to the eyes.  Even as you think about how you are going to squeeze in so many things which need to happen in a very limited time, you have a mental reminder that there is something to look forward to beyond simply having a few days off.

And then I passed by a brand-new office building containing a branch of a major American bank.  Like many “green” buildings, the lobby of the building was white, cold, and sterile, a soulless place looking something like a Stanley Kubrick film set.  While the lobby of the adjoining building was festooned with garlands, paper snowflakes, and the like, this building not only looked as though it was the reception area for the lair of a Bond villain, it had no indication whatsoever that it is Christmastime.

Similarly, the bank which occupies part of this building had no decorations whatsoever.   I actually stopped to look closely for several minutes, since in keeping with the space-age theme the space is open-concept, and allows you to see through from one end to the other.  There was not one sign of anything joyous or festive, not even a potted poinsettia or a Christmas card on a desk.

No doubt those who own and run these businesses have their reasons for behaving in this fashion, and perhaps there are those among my readers who will say that this is more appropriate than decorating with artificial snowmen and mistletoe.  To me, however, what this lack of adornment signifies is cowardice.  For the vast majority of Americans do celebrate Christmas, whether they do so because they are Christians, or because they simply enjoy the traditions as a part of our cultural heritage.  The absence of such decorations smacks not of tolerance, but rather of a vociferous minority which becomes offended if you so much as whistle “Joy to the World” on a city bus.

Truth be told we do not need, strictly speaking, the presence of Christmas trees in order to celebrate Christmas, any more than we need a turkey to give thanks at Thanksgiving or fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.  They are traditions, and insofar as they are secondary to the primary message while still supporting it, they are good things.  However when their absence is intentional, it makes us question not only that intent, but also whether we have been so focused on our own materialism that we have forgotten to stand up for our faith.

Before you get completely worn down then, gentle reader, with bills, social obligations, and physical exhaustion, I would ask those of you who are Christians to appreciate such decorations as you come across them, and to thank those who have put them on display.  They are a visual reminder for us that all of this “stuff” which we argue about – fiscal cliff diving, the latest epistolae pomum, who will be America’s next top tart – is simply that: stuff.  It ultimately means nothing.

What *does* mean something is the Incarnation: God humbling Himself to come in the form of one of us, to be born in a place where there was no room for Him.  It is rather ironic then, to see that there is still no room for Him in certain places, including places where once He was previously welcomed, or at least acknowledged.  All the more important then, to take the time to thank those who are still celebrating His coming.

NativityDetail of “The Adoration of the Christ Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst (c. 1620-1622)
The Uffizi, Florence

Ho, Ho, Ho-sanna!

The results of a new survey by the Bible Society (U.K.) on what Britons know about Christmas were published in The Telegraph this morning, and they give us some rather surprising results.  For example, of the 1,000 adults and 1,000 children surveyed only 26% of the respondents knew that the Virgin Mary was betrothed, but not yet married, to St. Joseph at the time she became pregnant.  Now the fact that in this survey 37 people responded that Father Christmas – aka Santa Claus – was the first to drop by Bethlehem to see the Baby Jesus made me raise an arched eyebrow.  No matter how ignorant contemporary society may be, this seems to me to be one of those leg-pulling results, where those being surveyed decide to give bizarre answers for the sake of annoying the pollster.

In a weird way however, the mistake of believing Santa Claus dropped by the manger on Christmas Eve offers an opportunity for conversation with those who perhaps think that Christmas is just for kids, or is nothing more than a commercial scam, or that Jesus Himself never existed, and so on.  For Santa Claus, of course, is a secularized version of St. Nicholas, the great 4th century bishop and champion of Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea.  Personally, I have always liked the image of Santa kneeling by the manger, for it puts him into perspective: God is God, and we are not, even when He comes to be born in such a humble fashion.

That being said, the results of the survey which mistakenly place St. Nicholas in Bethlehem do bring home to us the fact that in Britain, a significant percentage of the population is simply no longer Christian, but rather some sort of melange of Christianity, Gnosticism  and bad Christmas movies.  This is why there is such an urgent need for re-evangelization both in Europe and in this country, since unfortunately I suspect that such a survey if conducted in America would probably turn up somewhat similar results.  There is also a need for an overall attitude shift toward one of looking for opportunities to ask questions and not be afraid of addressing the answers.

In assuming that we live in a society which is overwhelmingly Christian, many of us are probably guilty of a kind of laziness which has allowed all sorts of anti-Christian nonsense to be given attention which it does not deserve, particularly at this time of year.  It is the same kind of laziness which over the past century has allowed all kinds of ideological pigs – Margaret Sanger, for example – to escape from their intellectual mud puddles and wreak havoc all over the place.  So-called elites champion the cause of an ideological minority, with the blessing of the media, and thereby convince us that in fact, they are the new majority, the new orthodoxy.  And gradually, regrettably, over time we come to believe it, through some combination of a sense of inevitability, ignorance, and pessimism.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way, but it does require that you stand up for what you profess to believe.  Consider being brave enough to ask your next-door neighbor, the lady you always see in the supermarket, and so on, if they are celebrating Christmas this year, and if they are, why they are doing so in the first place.  And while perhaps their answers may disturb you, if they are anything like those in this new survey, then congratulations!  You have just found yourself an opportunity to try to counteract what has been happening to Western Christianity over the past several decades.

Much as St. Nicholas himself fought against the overwhelming popularity of Arianism in his day in order to champion the Divinity of Christ, take advantage of the opportunity of contemporary ignorance to help bring Christmas back to what it actually means.  You do not have to give the devil his due.  For despite all the bad catechesis, secular materialism, atheist chic, and so on, you can witness to your faith where you are right now, as we enter this final full week of Advent.  It just takes a bit of courage and love, which none of these dark forces can take away, to take that one-on-one step of sharing with someone else.