I woke up the other night to a fierce thunderstorm and the sound of rain tapping on the aluminum-wrapped windowsill, and I smiled as I rolled over. As I drifted off to sleep, I remember thinking in the back of my overtired brain that it was not so long ago that the same tap-tapping—a byproduct of our new-and-improved windows—made me crazy, so crazy we had to hang a towel over the sill and close the window on it to muffle it. But, over time, the sound became familiar and comforting rather than strange and infuriating.
If you’ve ever purchased a new set of wind chimes or a clock with an extra loud tick-tock, you probably know what I mean. The first few nights can feel a bit like torture as the rhythmic noise beats against the silence. On one of the first nights in our rental house in Austin, Texas, years ago, I asked Dennis to get on a ladder at 1 a.m. to take down my beautiful new chimes because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Not long after, however, I reached a point where I didn’t even notice the chimes ringing unless a Texas storm blew through.
It’s interesting how we get used to things—sounds, sights, people, places—over time. What starts out as unusual or annoying, charming or exotic becomes commonplace and, in some ways, invisible. And we often don’t notice those things again until they’re gone, and suddenly the void seems gaping or the silence deafening.
I was in a store recently, wheeling my cart between women’s clothing and housewares, when another shopper sneezed. I turned and said, “God bless you,” without really thinking much of it. Another shopper had the same idea, so it came out in stereo. The woman who had sneezed stopped what she was doing, and looked somewhat dazed as she stood there blinking for a second or two—as if to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then she said, “Oh, my goodness. I live alone now. My husband died. I’m not used to hearing anyone respond to me anymore. Thank you.” And she walked away smiling.
Her reaction has stayed with me. How many times had her husband said, “God bless you” or “Thank you” or “I love you” over the years? So many that it probably seemed insignificant after a while. Maybe she didn’t even notice he was saying it. Until he wasn’t.
Since that experience in the store, I’ve been trying to notice those sounds that drift into my day intentionally or by accident, things that might go otherwise unnoticed, and I’ve come to one conclusion: The only way to be tuned into the world around us in a meaningful way is to tune out the noise on a regular basis. Silence sharpens our spiritual hearing. When we shut out the noise and listen, we return to a place of heightened awareness.
As we know from Scripture, Jesus would retreat into the desert now and then. Those desert experiences didn’t just give him a few moments of peace and prayer, they prepared him for the chaotic and challenging things that would come his way when he returned to the “real” world. We need to do the same, even if our desert is nothing more than a chair in the corner of a bedroom or, in my case, a pillow on the floor of my basement office, where I keep my personal sacred space.
When we first start sitting in silent prayer, we may simply become more aware of the actual voices and noises around us, but with practice we’ll begin to hear the still small voice of the Spirit, the whisper trying to rise above the din of the world. If we retreat into silence for even a few minutes each day, we will be more likely to hear the Spirit speaking to our hearts, and we will—like the woman shopping alongside me in Marshalls—stand back in awe and gratitude for the unexpected response.
This Life Lines column first appeared in the Sept. 1, 2016, issue of Catholic New York.