Tuesday, June 2, 2009

4-29-2007: 4th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 13:14,43-52/Psalm 100/Revelation 7:9,14-17/John 10:27-30
The Church designates today, Good Shepherd Sunday, as World Day of Prayer for Vocations. For the past few decades we have been told that the Church is experiencing a vocation crisis. Although this is far from true in the emerging churches of Africa and Asia, there has been a significant decline in the number of priests and Religious in the West. Some would argue God has stopped calling young people to follow him in what these critics believe is an outmoded vocation grown obsolete in its exclusivity. Others feel the problem has more to do with us – we’re just not listening.

Discovering Jesus as Good Shepherd, according to the gospel, has a lot to do with voice recognition (My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they know me). This phenomenon of hearing disembodied voices, long relegated to the study of abnormal psychology, has recently been reexamined by evolutionary biologists trying to explain religious phenomena as having a biological basis. Not that I fully understand the neuroscience of it all, but what I think these scientists are saying is this: Before a certain point in human evolution – and some would definitively mark that date by the invention of writing – a synapse (so to speak) was bridged between the two hemispheres of the brain. Disembodied voices that were once experienced as external to the person were now heard as originating interiorly. Voices once attributed to the gods were finally recognized as coming from within. It was (to use a crude analogy) like the first time you heard your own voice being played back on a tape recorder – it took some time till you realized it was you that you were hearing.

In G.B. Shaw’s St. Joan he has the English judge berating the Maid of Orleans for insisting the voices she heard told her to lead the French army against the English. “Don’t you realize,” he tells the illiterate Joan, “these voices come from your imagination?” And Shaw, realizing what he was doing or not (good art seldom does) – has framed the whole modern dynamic of vocation in Joan’s simple response: “Of course.” Of course the voices come from her imagination – but does that make them any less real?

Philip Gröning’s recent documentary Into Great Silence has become a phenomenal and unexpected success in parts of once-Christian Europe (it’s still playing at the Film Forum here in New York). The filmmaker spent six months living and filming the life of Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps - according to many, the most austere monastery in the western world. The monks’ lives are enfolded in the day-to-day drudgeries of life. There are no displays of joyous ecstasy, no instant discoveries of the divine. Whatever temptations the monks may experience, whatever doubts felt, questions thought – all that doesn’t seem important. It is the silence to which the audiences, inexplicably, are drawn.

Monastic silence (one might say, a science of silence) has touched a longing in an agnostic and materialistic West suffering from technology overload. In our world of discordant noise, the sound of silence yearns for a hearing. Perhaps in our evolutionary history silence will do for us moderns what the invention of writing did for our ancestors – create a new paradigm, open up a new frontier where the young in their innate curiosity and desire for adventure will flock to explore. Science has helped us understand that disembodied voices are indeed heard in imagination and may, at first, seem to be only our own. But silence can help us discern in those very same voices that faint trace of a foreign accent, the occasional change of word order, a distinctly misplaced marker for stress – hints of origins not completely rooted in our subjective experience but coming from places wholly unfamiliar. Are you listening – are you up for the adventure?

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