white noise

After a very hectic day at work, I had to stop in at the mall for a couple of errands before heading home. The family would have to fend for themselves for dinner, and there was a good chance that once I got home, I would collapse into the sofa dramatically, a show of my exhaustion. This kind of busy-ness makes me crazy. The “perfect” imagined scenario of the evening of a working mother – to arrive home to a lovely home-cooked meal, the family waiting for me, a glass of wine, and candles on the table – is something that occurs once in a blue moon. The real scenario – a fiesta chicken salad, a diet Coke, and a busy food court under construction (“Excuse Our Dust!”) – is less glamorous and much less desirable.

My mind begins to wander, as I sit alone at the round table in the food court. I am surrounded by people. There is a family nearby with two children – an older child in a wheelchair and an infant in a stroller. The infant cries. The older child stares into space. The parents talk.

There is a group of teenagers making a lot of noise at another table. Taco Bell wrappers fall to the floor. Cell phone keyboards get overworked.

There is a businessman, intently reading something on his iphone screen. He eats mindlessly, seemingly oblivious to all of the activity around him.

There are several workers with various cleaning accoutrements – the woman with the broom, the guy with the sanitizing spray and towel, the person with the rubber gloves picking up Taco Bell wrappers from the floor. They circle the space constantly, to provide a more desirable dining experience to the food court patrons.

I am surrounded by people.  As I sit and listen to the voices around me, I become acutely aware of a level of white noise that somehow drowns out all of the individual stories of each person in my line of sight. We are all part of this humanity that we call life. And it is grace.

As this awareness grows within me, I think of other times where white noise brings me closer to God. Like sitting in an airport, watching all of the people around me, wondering about each of their stories, the mass of humanity where people are coming and going or coming back to find their chairs inhabited by someone new. The person talking on a phone, or the parent chasing the toddler around the terminal, or the worker pushing the elderly woman in the wheelchair. The woman who never looks up from the book she is reading. People having conversations with strangers they will never see again.

This is a river of life.

We have a lovely walking trail near our house that runs next to the Brandywine River. When I walk the dog on the trail, the white noise of the river provides a soothing backdrop to the other sounds of nature. I can change my awareness as I walk along; in much the same way that each of us changes the awareness of our focus when we are sitting in a food court or an airport terminal. I can focus on the sunlight streaming through the trees, or the smell of the pine trees, or the stones on the bank, and at the same time, clear my mind as the river rushes along.

In the same way, I can delight in the infant’s cry, or the toddler’s tentative cadence, or the elderly woman’s gentle hands, and at the same time, clear my mind as the river of life rushes along.

I invite you to do the same.

A Blessing for the Senses

May your body be blessed.
May you realize that your body is a faithful and beautiful friend of your soul.
And may you be peaceful and joyful and recognize that your senses are sacred thresholds.
May you realize that holiness is mindful, gazing, feeling, hearing, and touching.
May your senses gather you and bring you home.
May your senses always enable you to celebrate the universe and the mystery and possibilities in your presence here.
May the Eros of the Earth bless you.

-John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara

noise

Have you ever de-planed at an airport in a foreign country and noticed that practically everyone around you is speaking something other than English? It’s mildly disconcerting. The first time I experienced this in an unfamiliar place, it felt as though everyone was shouting. I noticed every beautiful, strange sound and intonation. When I consider it now, I realize that it is disconcerting because hearing the foreign language makes it very clear that I out of my comfort zone.

As time passes, though, the language starts to fade into the background. And yet, it becomes integral to the experience of being there. What I mean is, to a traveler, Istanbul wouldn’t be Istanbul without the sounds that are heard as people communicate with each other. And somehow, as the days pass, the novelty wears off.

Many times, when I sit down during my morning prayer time, my mind works in a similar way. At first, the distractions in my mind seem like shouting; the things I focus on are the concerns I have for the day-to-day. How will my daughter pull that chemistry grade up? What will we have for dinner tonight? What about that difficulty I’m having at work? When will my mom get to the doctor? How am I ever going to find time to exercise?

While all of these things are relatively minor in the grand scheme of life, in the minutes that I have found to devote to silent prayer on a daily basis, they become so “important,” not because they really are, but because in the silence, all of the emotions, concerns, and problem-solving get louder and louder until I can’t seem to focus on my reason for prayer, which is to love God and to allow God to love me.

Recently, I heard a talk by Paul Coutihno, a Jesuit priest and highly dynamic and wonderful speaker. At the end of his talk, as everyone was standing up to leave the auditorium, he added a final request: for one hour a week, instead of prayers of petition, or thanksgiving, or praise, simply let God love you. Do not “do” anything but accept God’s love.

In some way this means ignoring all of the other concerns that sometimes take over our prayer.

To me, this is nearly impossible. My mind never seems to slow down, never seems to be able to find a quiet silence, never seems to understand when I try to put all of the other concerns aside. It’s like standing in foreign airport listening to all of the new sounds. The voices cannot be silenced at that moment.

The only success I have found at this is when I give up trying to control my thoughts, and instead ask God for the grace to quiet them. My earthly success comes when I am not in control at all. This is out of my comfort zone! It is during this time, sometimes not more than a minute or two, that I am able to accept God’s love without distraction.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. –Psalm 62:5