Wednesday, March 2, 2016
There is a certain appropriateness to Super Tuesday falling mid-way through the Lenten season – an illustration of the attention-grabbing demands and distractions of the world around us in a time traditionally dedicated to spiritual reflection.
If Lent encourages silence and solitude, presidential campaigns are about messaging, marketing, and mobilizing – all necessarily noisy endeavors, and this campaign perhaps noisier than most. As such, the Lenten invitation to reflection is easily drowned out amidst the din.
But our need for silence and reflection may well exceed our felt need; mystics and poets have long pointed to a connection between noise and inward chaos, even suggesting that noise is hell on earth – or Hell itself. In Paradise Lost, John Milton named the capital of Hell “Pandemonium;” Dante’s pilgrim knows he has entered the Inferno in part by the noise. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s demon-bureaucrat Screwtape declares: “Music and Silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell… no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end….”
Where C. S. Lewis portrayed noise as deafening our ear to conscience and self-knowledge, a current poet, Christian Wiman, observed that it often numbs us to others’ pain and quickens us to brutality. He noted: “How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us: the din is too great to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name. Thus an offhand remark, which leaves us as easily as a breath and which we think no more of than a breath, cuts a friend to the quick. And thus a whole country can be organized toward some collective insanity because there is no space for individuals to think.”
Amidst our noisy world, Lent offers us a galling grace: the chance to be still and know ourselves – the faults, frailties, and failures that reveal themselves with humiliating vividness once our minds are quieted and distractions silenced. And in recognizing our brokenness, we discern He who heals. In showing the futility of our own sense of grandeur, we see more clearly He who provides what we need.
Against the noisiness and chaos of our lives in general, and perhaps this election season in particular, Lenten reflection may be a bane to our sense of self-importance, but a balm to what ails us most.