Quieting the noise

Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in—
Breathe out—

One of my favorite places in New York City is the campus of the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea.

As I walk down 21st street between 9th and 10th, the sound of the city is slowly muted. I arrive at its private entrance gate, get buzzed in, and enter a space that makes me almost forget I’m in Manhattan.

The brick buildings here are close together and are undeniably academic in feeling. The cultivated lawns are a lush green and the multitude of tall trees and bushes provide a sense of serenity and security. It’s quiet here.

Dear friend,
Thank you for bringing me here tonight.
Thank you for—um—everything.

Living in New York City often means living alongside a lot of noise.

As most subway commuters can attest, a quiet train car is also a rare luxury. Whether it’s that baby who’s just not having it, the person talking a decibel or two above acceptable speaking level, or a street performer who thinks she’s God’s gift to the singer-songwriter category on Spotify, my deep desire for an interruption-free journey to work often goes unfulfilled.

On lunch hour walks, I hope to clear my head when a passing ambulance make me wish I had earplugs. I grimace but keep walking. Next, a taxi driver beeps. I keep walking. He beeps again. Keep walking. Then his beeps merge into a stream of unadulterated anger-beeping that causes me to curse and scurry in the opposite direction.

Even a walk in Central Park does not bring peace. There’s the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet and the dog barking at his friend across the street. There’s the plane jetting across the clear blue sky. Then there’s the endless scroll of thoughts going through my mind of things I forgot to do at work and what I need to do once I get home.

Breathe in—
Breathe out—
In—
Out—

The central feature of the General Theological Seminary is the gorgeous Chapel of the Good Shepherd, which towers over its small campus. I walk towards the massive doors, lit for the early evening dusk.

Inside is beautifully carved wooden structures, alabaster statues, and of course, large stained-glass windows. I sit in one of the pews and stare at the angels chiseled out of the oak wall dividing the chapel in two. There’s six of them in various positions and a heavily embellished cross sits in the center.

I look up at the large beams that arch across the ceiling. They’re heavy and dark and look strong. I wonder if my whole apartment building could fit underneath them, within these walls.

Dear Spirit, are you there?
I pray to hear you…
Help me to listen.

New York City is not a place for quiet people.

Manhattan dwellers are not here to find balance. They’re here to get a leg up. They’re constantly striving to get ahead, get more money, get that promotion. What’s next for you? How are you moving forward? No, you’re not making enough. No, you can’t expect to get paid for that. You need to do X and Y and Z and deal with an asshole boss or two.

City folks my age are not generally interested in settling down in their relationships. It’s all about single and ready to mingle and scrolling apps late at night to find a body to come over for an hour or two. Once something becomes hard, it’s time to throw in the towel; people are here for themselves and to have a good time.

There’s a haze in the culture here (and no, not just the pollution) where you don’t need to know the name of your apartment neighbor of two years. A haze where nothing is good enough, and the act of striving is an end in itself. A haze of impermanency, of progress for progress’ sake. Constant traffic. Constant motion. Constant background noise.

In—
Out—
In——
Out——

It is a Wednesday night. I’m at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for a gathering sponsored by the church I’ve been attending the past six months or so.

Our leader tasked us to sit silently for twenty minutes. In previous weeks, he had tasked participants to take progressively longer moments of silence, and this week’s exercise was the longest.

Twenty minutes can go by so fast when you’re not thinking of it. Twenty minutes can go by so slow when you are.

My mind wanders. I try to focus; I tell myself to pray again.

Dear Lord… what should I be thinking about right now?
What would you like from me in this moment?

I’m wondering if the minds of New Yorkers are mindful.

Are we focused on the here-and-now happening to us in this moment? Are we experiencing what we’re currently experiencing?

In a culture of productivity, we live in the future. Our efforts today are not meant to improve our present lives, but to improve our future ones. We may be dealing with long days and late nights now, but in the future we will live the lives we want at the height of our career with a full savings account. We may be wasting our whole mornings and afternoons in a long line to audition now, but in the future it’ll pay off when we score that big role.

In———

In a culture of perfection, we live in the past. We say, ‘Is what I’m doing today better than what I did the day before?’ We didn’t get everything we deserved in the past, but we hope we get what we want tomorrow. ‘Why did I say that to my coworker earlier?’ ‘I should’ve worked harder on that submission.’ ‘My mother shouldn’t have done that to me.’ ‘If I don’t overcome the past, it will continue to define me until I die.’

Out———

In a culture of desire, we live wanting what we do not have. Our apartments are too small, we need a bigger one. Our boyfriend isn’t hot or wealthy enough, we need a hotter and richer one. ‘I need more money.’ ‘I need more friends.’ We do not realize the worth of our current moment. We do not practice gratitude for what’s been blessed to us.

Dear Father, how can I be—better?
How can I better serve you?
Please—

I think back to the reading provided to us by our Wednesday Night leader. It’s a blog written by Fr Ronald Rolheiser, and in it he talks about Belgian spiritual writer Bieke Vandekerckhove.

Vandekerckhove was diagnosed as a teenager with a terminal illness. She was angry, then hopeless. Eventually, she traveled to a monastery and the wisdom she discovered there changed her life.

Fr Ronald Rolheiser writes about the spiritual importance of silence. He quotes Vandekerckhove:

“Inner noise can be quite exhausting. That’s probably why so many flee to the seduction of exterior background noises. They prefer to have the noise just wash over them. But if you want to grow spiritually, you have to stay inside of the room of your spiritual raging and persevere.”

Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in, breathe out.

“You have to continue to sit silently and honestly in God’s presence until the raging quiets down and your heart gradually becomes cleansed and quieted.”

Breathe in—
Breathe out—

“Silence forces us to take stock of our actual manner of being human. And then we hit a wall, a dead point. No matter what we do, no matter what we try, something in us continues to feel lost and estranged, despite the myriad ways of society to meet our human needs.”

In—
Out—

“Silence confronts us with an unbearable bottomlessness, and there appears no way out. We have no choice but to align ourselves with the religious depth in us.”

As I leave the campus of the General Theological Seminary that night, a cold wind blows my scarf and coat. I walk down the street and the muted sounds of the city are slowly turned full volume.

I take the steps down into the subway, and I pray:

Dear God,
Thank you for the gift of silence.
Thank you for the gift of presence.
Please help me to find moments of silence in my daily life.
Please help me to cultivate presence in my daily life.
Thank you.
Amen.

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