If we are to hear the silent music beneath the noisy traffic of our thinking, we need to lern how to leave the mind and focus on the senses. The distractions of modern life prevent us picking up the rhythm of grace.
At a Metro station in Washington DC a man started to play the violin. It was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that rush hour it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station.
After three minutes, a middle-aged man stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip – tossed in the box by a woman without slowing her stride. A few minutes later somone leaned against the wall to listen, but after looking at his watch began to walk quickly on his way.
The one who paid most attention was a three-year-old boy. His mother hurried him along but the child stopped in front of the violinist. Reluctantly the boy was dragged away, looking back all the time.
During the 45 minutes that the musician played, only six people stopped and stayed for a while. He collected 32 dollars. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one applauded him or showed any sign of recognition.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s finest musicians. He had played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.
The event was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and the priorities of people. The inherent questions were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognise talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions to be drawn from this bit of research might be put in another question. If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we mission in the courses of our normal day? Do we forget that our senses are “the threshold of our soul”? “Listen, my child” St Benedict wrote at the beginning of his Rule, “with the ear of your heart.”
Another railway station; another musician; another busy mother and small son. This time in Leeds where a wintry wind was wailing down the empty platform. Linda suddenly realised that Iain had let go of her arm. In panic she retraced her steps. And there he was, hunkered down in rapt attention, listening to a scruffy, broken-down old man playing a lonely mouth organ in the cold rain.
Iain was offering the last 10p of his pocket money to his new hero, oblivious to the man’s appearance. “How lucky he is”, he said to his Mum, his eyes shining, “to be able to play such beautiful music.” Unlike people in Washington, Iain was listening with the ear of his heart.
Awareness is always about presence. But how often are we present to ourselves and to our environment in a distracted world where electronic multi-tasking rules, even while we’re having a meal with a friend? From both within and without, that inner sacred place is continually invaded. Without this grace of space there will be no stillness for catching the cadences of the unfinished symphony beneath the surface of what happens.
One Celtic evening, the mythical Fionn MacChumhail and his warriors were having a discussion about the finest sound in the world. His son Oisin extolled the ring of spear on shield in the din of battle. Another went on about the fearful cries of the stags and the haying of the hounds in the rising blood lust just before the kill.
Yet another spoke of the song of his beloved as she played the harp to soothe her hero after a day of blood and gore. The wise warriors nodded their approval. “And you, Fionn”, they then asked, “what do you say is the finest sound in the world?” The mighty hero paused. “The music of what happens,” he said.
We need to learn how to leave the mind and come to the senses so as to hear the silent music beneath the noisy traffic of our thinking, to catch the divine harmony in everything human. Close to our soul, we are called to become like human tuning forks catching the rhythm of grace.
The funeral memorial card of John Moriarty, the Kerry mystic, carried one of his reflections. “Clear mornings bring the mountains to my doorstep. Calm nights give the rivers their say. Some evenings the wind puts its hand on my shoulders. I stop thinking. I leave what I’m doing and I go the soul’s way.”
Along the soul’s way we find the only places of encounter between our spirit and the Spirit of all life, between our emptiness and the universal flow of energy. It is along the soul’s way that we hear and create the unique music that only we can hear and create. It is here that we come home to the God of harmony already within our hearts. “God is always at home,” Meister Eckhart insisted, “it is we who take a walk.”
If the present moment is the only place we can meet the incarnate God, will we be at home when God comes in disguise to find us? Are we always too distracted, seduced by other transitory attractions, to gaze at and recognise the mother of all beauty – and to hear the music she is always making for us? There is something both funny and lovely about a verse in John Ashbery’s “At North Farm”:
Somewhere someone is travelling furiously towards you,
At incredible speed, travelling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents,
Through narrow passes,
But will he know where to find you
Recognise you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
It is as though a secret smile, a whispered assurance, a small melody lies hidden, like an impatient epiphany, in everything we encounter in the course of each day. Everything wants to draw us into the harmony of life. Everything is waiting to encourage and support us as we struggle, mostly out of tune, to get the timing right. Our monkey-minds miss the magic and the music of the moment.
There’s a Joshua Bell playing somewhere always, in the most unlikely places. But we need to be aware. To stop running. To be here. In “Now I Become Myself”, May Sarton writes of the time it takes to be present to one’s true harmony after years of distraction, of panic, of waring “other people’s faces”.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
Daniel O’Leary, a priest of the Leeds Diocese, passed away on the 21st January 2019