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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Riding the Carousel

We go around the circle of birth, childhood, adulthood and elderhood almost like we are on a carousel. Someone once said 'stop the world --I want to get off!' But we stay on the merry-go-round, gripping the horn of the horse's saddle, bobbing up and down with the hypnotic music. Is there a legitimate place, or time, to get off? Can we let go for a while? 

Great thinkers throughout history --Augustine, Gregory, Aquinas, Luther, Knox, Wesley, Lewis --have all gotten off at critical points, in order to think, meditate, write, pray, and commune with God. 

It hasn't been that long since the West was a quieter place. But the Industrial Revolution, the Transportation Age, and now the age of the computer have combined to speed up our consciousness remarkably. We need a break. 

It was Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest and professor at Harvard, who for a time left his 'important' jobs and took up existence in a community of people who were mentally challenged. His writings from this period and after (he died in 1996) reflect on the profound effect of his 'exile' into simplicity. He wrote a little meditation, "The Fear of Silence" which includes these timely remarks:

"...There are two silences; one is frightening and the other is peaceful. For many, silence is threatening. They don't know what to do with it. If they leave the noise of the city behind and come upon a place where no cars are roaring, no ships are tooting, no trains rumbling, where there is no hum of radio or television, where no records or tapes are playing, they feel their entire body gripped by an intense unrest. They feel like a fish which has been set on dry land. They have lost their bearings. There are some students who cannot study without a solid wall of music surrounding them. If they are forced to sit in a room without that constant flow of sound, they grow very nervous. "

If I am reading him correctly, there is a correlation between fear and noise. Maybe, for some of us, the din of modernity as we know it is an opiate, a drug that draws us in as we struggle with life. And, in the same way, silence is a sobering, a prodding of our inner selves, almost forcing us to engage our inner thoughts for a change. Silence, then, is a kind of forced reality, an interruption that nudges our souls.   

Over the last several years I have learned something: I occasionally need to get off the carousel and take a retreat from life. My wife will tell you there are times when I have to go on a bicycle ride just to clear my cranium, to think clearly. In the times of greatest stress, potential anxiety, and assault from the noise, I have taken time off. I go to the beach for a few days. I kick off my shoes, walk on the sand, photograph birds and other creatures, change my routine. 

Has it helped? Well, yes it has, when I turned off the world sufficiently to really get away. Turning it off, really letting go of the cell phone/computer/television/traffic/radio/muck-muck existence that I abide in --turning all this off is the difficulty. As Nouwen adds,

"Thus, for many of us, silence has become a real disturbance. There was a time when silence was normal and a lot of racket disturbed us. But today, noise is the normal fare, and silence, strange as it may seem, has become the real disturbance. It is not hard to understand, therefore, that people who experience silence in this way will have difficulty with prayer." 
Please do not translate the above remarks as a condemnation of all the wonders of the modern age --legitimate things making our lives efficient and comfortable. I fully partake of the wonders of modern life. Neither should these words be construed as prescribing a certain kind of retreat for anyone. Retreat can happen anywhere, anytime. 

When you leave the world behind you and reach inward honestly, you may discover a refreshing acceptance of the very noise that you left behind. Indeed, it may happen subtly at first, but regular periods of retreat (once every week, once a month, or less often) will have several positive effects, including
  • renewed energy for your work
  • refreshing mental outlook
  • greater creative drive
  • spiritual growth
 As a musician, all these things are vitally important. They apply across vocational lines as well. If you are aware of the need for time off, a respite from the carousel, I highly recommend a personal retreat. 

In Orlando there are two places that specialize in spiritual retreat: San Pedro and Canterbury retreat centers. Both host personal retreats for individuals in the ministry and all other vocations. You may also find a park, or a lakeside picnic area, or even a motorcycle ride, as potential places of brief but quite effective personal retreat. Enjoy the time off, and get ready for a burst of creative energy when you return. You may even get back on the carousel and find it more tolerable.

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