Return to Sermons
The Silence of the Stars
When Laurens van der Post one night
In the Kalihari Desert told the Bushmen
He couldn’t hear the stars
Singing, they didn’t believe him. They looked at him,
Half-smiling. They examined his face
To see whether he was joking
Or deceiving them. Then two of those small men
Who plant nothing, who have almost
Nothing to hunt, who live
On almost nothing, and with no one
But themselves, led him away
From the crackling thorn-scrub fire
And stood with him under the night sky
And listened. One of them whispered,
Do you not hear them now?
And van der Post listened, not wanting
To disbelieve, but had to answer,
No. They walked him slowly
Like a sick man to the small dim
Circle of firelight and told him
They were terribly sorry,
And he felt even sorrier
For himself and blamed his ancestors
For their strange loss of hearing,
Which was his loss now. On some clear nights
When nearby houses have turned off their visions,
When the traffic dwindles, when through streets
Are between sirens and the jets overhead
Are between crossings, when the wind
Is hanging fire in the fir trees,
And the long-eared owl in the neighboring grove
Between calls is regarding his own darkness,
I look at the stars again as I first did
To school myself in the names of constellations
And remember my first sense of their terrible distance,
I can still hear what I thought
At the edge of silence where the inside jokes
Of my heartbeat, my arterial traffic,
The C above high C of my inner ear, myself
Tunelessly humming, but now I know what they are:
My fair share of the music of the spheres
And clusters of ripening stars,
Of the songs from the throats of the old gods
Still tending even tone-deaf creatures
Through their exiles in the desert.
~ David Wagoner ~
A few years ago a friend of my daughter who writes and plays music described his musical process as building a “noise sculpture”. I thought that was a wonderful metaphor. Sculpture of course is a visual art, an art that exists in three dimensions: height, width and depth; application of this to sound was interesting. That got me to thinking about all human senses as having a three dimensional quality to them.
Some time ago I had a conversation with a friend who is a professional photographer. He pointed out that the world exists as a four dimensional thing, the fourth dimension being time. He said out that a photograph is a two dimensional capturing of a four dimensional world. Photographers often attempt to make it seem as if their photographs are three dimensional.
We know intellectually that the world has a fourth dimension, that being time; but it is very hard to perceive that in a given moment. Yet astrophysicists and cosmologists deal with the fourth dimension all the time. Of course, they also conceive of twenty or more dimensions when discussing String Theory and other options.
Sometimes the day after I read things about either quantum mechanics or astrophysics I find myself asking whether I actually read that or only dreamed it.
A “movie”–that is, a motion picture–is a kind of three dimensional representation of the world with height, width and time, but usually not depth.
So now, let me go back to the sense of hearing and the metaphor of noise sculpture. If some of us see in three dimensions, but some of us see in only two dimensions, is it possible that—metaphorically at least–some of us hear in three dimensions and some in only two. It makes sense to me that that could be. I believe that is the case. I love music; I like Doo-Wop, classic ‘60’s rock, baroque, renaissance and medieval; so I enjoy music greatly. And I believe that I am a person who hears in only two dimensions. I do think that when I hear music I hear the equivalent of height and width, but not depth. I believe that what I hear is a flat amalgam of all of the sounds in a musical piece, not the texture, the depth that other people hear. I believe that what I hear is a single sound, not complexity. I cannot prove that, but I believe it to be true from conversations I have heard among others. Listen to this comment, one I overheard years ago “what really makes that song is that saxophone coming up from underneath”. In listening to the song the person was speaking about, I just heard a saxophone getting louder, as if it were expanding its part of the flat surface. I did not hear anything “coming up from underneath”. And that is the kind of expression on the part of other people that causes me to believe that I am missing something. Now, I happen to enjoy music: just as I enjoy a good movie or television program even though they are in 2-D. And I believe that I only hear in two dimensions.
Now I know I have hearing loss in the mid range tones, and that I frustrate my daughter by asking her to repeat things that she has said; and whether that is just a volume issue or is part of the loss of texture, I do not know. I will say that I am not sure I ever had three dimensional hearing, so recent loss would not explain that fact.
So, what makes me so sure that I am missing something is other people’s descriptions of music, descriptions that I cannot relate to.
The next thought I had was: Does this apply to spirituality? What if some of us have four-dimensional spirituality, some of us have three-dimensional spirituality, and some of us are burdened with only two-dimensional spirituality or, even are spiritually deaf or blind? How would I know whether I am among the more spiritually limited?
You know, I wear glasses. And I will probably need a technological boost to my hearing within the next few years, may already need it and just be resisting it. Do I also need the equivalent of spiritual glasses or a spiritual hearing aid? And again, how would I know?
Well, I know that I have both visual and auditory loss because doctors have tested my sight and hearing and found them to be below normal. What machines are there for testing spiritual acuity? I can’t think of one. But, a machine is not the only means to know that I don’t see or hear as well as others. I know from my own experience that I do not see or hear as well as I used to. I cannot read the size print that I used to and it has become more difficult to hear people when I speak on the phone.
But that only compares me to me; I can tell that my hearing and my vision are not what they once were. So, if my spiritual perception has dropped, I can tell that by detecting changes within me. I can tell when my spirituality is not what it once was.
But what if my spiritual level has not changed, but just was never very good, how would I know that?
Well, as with my vision and hearing, I could compare myself to others. Do I see the things in the distance that they do, do I hear the sounds they do? But how does that translate into spiritual ability. Do I ask myself whether I perceive the God or Goddess that other people do; whether I perceive the angels or the spirits that they do? Whether I perceive the voice within that they do?
Aren’t there people who see or hear things that are not real? Yes, so I need to compare myself to some standard of–dare one say–“normalcy”. Now that’s a problem because that would mean that I have just said that my spirituality is to be judged by the group norm when I am part of a religious movement that believes that only I can judge my spirituality and that the personal search for truth and meaning is important.
And, which “normal” do I use: the local community normal, the national normal, or the world normal? The Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu or the Buddhist normal?
I don’t think I personally can use any of those, and besides, there are too many to choose from. And yet, I cannot think of another standard to apply when comparing myself to others.
Let me pause here to define the word “spirituality”.
I begin with that impulse in the human being that seeks connection beyond itself, connection to something greater whether that is God, humanity, or life or the Cosmos, the all.
So, did I just say that anyone who feels self-sufficient is spiritually impaired? That doesn’t feel right.
I would say that spirituality is an ability to either connect with something greater than self or to appreciate and maybe even feel a sense of awe about things outside of one’s self: Art, life, the interconnectedness of the world, the interconnectedness of the universe, the majesty of the Cosmos or the majesty of God or any other divine power.
I also believe that spirituality has to do with wholeness within; that in those moments when I feel truly and wholly connected within myself, that is a moment of spirituality.
This is a level of spirituality that lies below dogma and theology. It has nothing to do with the particularity of religion or of creed. It has to do with a sense of peace or awe or hope and strength within. It applies to Christian and Hindu and Humanist equally.
And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether my spirituality is as fully developed as anyone else’s. Just as I can still appreciate music with only a two dimensional sense of it, or can appreciate the world and life even if I am totally deaf or blind, so I can be spiritual even if I have that on only a one- or two-dimensional level. And I can strive to cultivate a better understanding of it, a better sense of it, a better experience of it even if that is more limited than another person’s.
May we each seek to grow to the fullness of our own spiritual abilities; may we have no envy for the ability of others and no snobbish disdain for the seeming inability of others. May we each in our own way come to appreciate life, the world and all that is. May I be content to enjoy whatever moments of wholeness within or connection to what is without that I may find. May this bring peace and comfort to my heart. And may I have faith that:
the songs from the throats of the of the old godsstill tend even tone-deaf creatures
through their exiles in the desert.
So let it be.