Friday, April 13, 2007
THE WHISPERING GALLERY
At the top of the dome at St. Pauls Cathedral in London, in an area called the Whispering Gallery, aged benches curve the dome’s circumference. Lean forward and you can see the brilliance of the marble floor below, look up and see Sir Peter Thornhill’s glass mosaic scenes of Creation. Sit still, raise your eyes slightly and you can see, between the arches of the inner dome, mosaics of prophets and saints as they sit at their desks either engaging or trying to escape from the task of writing down the word of God. Each man takes a varying degree of dislike to the process. John is most disciplined, there with his lion, as angels hold open his book. Not so willing, Isaiah looks about to haul off, punch the angel holding the pen, and ditch the job altogether. Jeremiah must be held down while one angel forces the pen into his closed fist and implores him to take the divine dictation, which he does. It’s a scene of violence and trepidation, furor and resistance. The whispers of the Whispering Gallery, the mosaics suggest, might not be the kind of whispers we long to hear, despite our pleas to hear God’s voice.
There is that edge where the soul starves for its free expression in a material form, a desire to be made manifest. Yet in order to achieve expression in physical form it requires a language whose limits must by definition expand to hold such a wild and unformulated thing. Those prophets around the dome weren’t afraid of God; had they been, they would have seized the pen like good little prophets. It’s God’s voice that’s got them wanting to run. The thoughts of God are simply too big for our mere words. And the soul longs to always be talking back, communicating, communing. The soul longs to break free of its skin and soar in ecstasy, a state which defies the hard skin of language altogether. At this place, the state of trying to get the spirit world to listen, or At’woo, as the Tlingit call it, language changes shape. Metastasis. Metaphor steps in to help us do what Plato’s speaker’s soul, “poor thing,” can not. At the edge, the systems of language break open to reveal technical leverage for reaching beyond. But if we can achieve a new system of language to phrase such expression, wouldn’t it then follow we’d need new ears to hear the response? And this presents a whole new set of problems in the world of ears.
At some point, the prophets had let go of the language they normally listened to, thought in, lived through, the language within their own heads. They had to abandon the known to receive the unknown language of God. No wonder they look a little scared. Their faces convey a sense of living in a perpetual state of wonder, wondering if what they heard is what was said, if what was said could possibly be true, if they could possibly do anything to avert a dawning tragedy, change the path of man. And also their faces, in so many shards of glass, convey what weight it is to be able to hear in any sense of the word, what great responsibility it is to be the receiver of any kind of speech, what an honor it is to listen.
Throughout the texts of the Bible, countless references to hearing loss suggest we are all living on the edge of God’s language, and countless references to unheard prayers suggest that God lives on the edge of ours. Deafness is as much a spiritual condition as it is an aural one, and overcoming it seems to be the key to our salvation, as well as God’s only hope for satisfaction with His creation. In Hebrews 5:11, the language of hearing loss is used to suggest that communion with Yahweh is quite similar to being in an audiometer: “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.” It would seem that the one “of whom we have many things to say” is having trouble getting through to us because our hearing stinks. And yet what’s so wonderful in this passage is that the words themselves can’t be formed with the knowledge that they won’t be heard. It’s an auditory stalemate. In Hebrews 4:2: “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn't profit them, because it wasn't mixed with faith by those who heard. “ The ability to hear is insufficient for knowledge of God. For it isn’t merely what we can hear that matters but how we hear it. If we do not listen “with faith” we may as well be deaf.
“Hold the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” In the audiometer, my audiologist says things which I must repeat. He gauges my hearing ability by how many words I repeat correctly. This passage from 2 Timothy 1:13 reminds me of being in glass dark booth. And more intriguing certainly, “sound words” here seem to hold special weight. Are there unsound words? Are these words that are not safe or are these words that make no sound? Is it suggested that God’s words are the only sound words, all else is phantom speech?
Isaiah writes in 49:1, “Listen, islands, to me; and listen, you peoples, from far: Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother has he made mention of my name.” Listening is the means to receiving gossip prophecy as it is passed from prophet to people, and the “islands” ought to listen to be connected. Through listening, we form union. Ephesians 4:21 begins “if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him.” Hearing is a means of receiving instruction, “if indeed" we can hear at all. Deafness or Hardness of Hearing is hinted at by “if indeed.” Perhaps you heard something but are you sure of what you heard?
Hearing is, again, not enough in Mark 4:24: “He said to them, "Take heed what you hear. With whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you, and more will be given to you who hear.” Hearing, it seems, is here an act of willingness, something beyond chance sense, otherwise all would hear. Hearing loss is diagnosed for all humanity by audiologist Matthew in 13:15: “for this people's heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes.” This suggests to me that whereas I think that my sense of hearing has abandoned me, perhaps we have, to fall upon idiom, abandoned our senses. And perhaps it isn’t merely idiom, metaphorical. Perhaps what we perceive as our literal senses are our metaphorical ones, particularly given that what we hunger for most is a direct experience with the sacred. Matthew offers hope for our move into the metaphorical (a word that lovingly longs to be mistyped as metamorphical) senses: “or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and should turn again; and I would heal them.” The metaphorical senses are those that we use to perceive the Divine, or tragically fail to, as in Deutoronomy 30:17 they are cut off: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but shall be drawn away. . . “ They allow us hunger: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, In the hiding places of the mountainside, Let me see your face. Let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. (Song of Solomon 2:14)” They allow us joy, “Those on the rock are they who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; but these have no root, who believe for a while, then fall away in time of temptation. (Luke 8:13) And unused, they render us downright evil as in Jeremiah 13:10, “This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who walk in the stubbornness of their heart. . . .” Yet, it seems that God, Himself, has selective hearing. He hears his servants in Exodus 22:27, “for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What would he sleep in? It will happen, when he cries to me, that I will hear, for I am gracious.” And yet in Psalm 64:1, “For the Chief Musician” it would seem that God must be called to, does not automatically “hear” unless summoned. This is how it is for the hard-of-hearing. Touch us on the shoulder and we will give your attention, but just start muttering about something near us and we will ignore you. My friend David has promised me a t-shirt that read “I’m not a bitch. I just can’t hear you.” But that other poet David calls out, taps God’s metaphorical shoulder, “Hear my voice, God, in my complaint. Preserve my life from fear of the enemy.” At times, it would seem God is altogether profoundly deaf, “And ye returned and wept before Jehovah, but Jehovah would not listen to your voice, nor give ear unto you (Deutoronomy 1:45).
Viewed this way, the Bible is a story of living with hearing loss, only both parties of the relationship suffer it, and the relationship is in dire need of some other language to carry it through on. At the very least, our metaphorical ears need our permission to open,
"Today if you will hear his voice, don't harden your hearts (Hebrews 4:7).” Also, they require reminders to “hear this (Isaiah 48:1),” as though we forget at any time to listen intently. And ultimately, metaphorical listening must be a communal act as in Isaiah 48:1: “Come near, you nations, to hear! Listen, you peoples. Let the earth and all it contains hear; the world, and everything that comes from it.” And we must “come near. . . to hear,” just as the speech-deaf must approach the speaker, be close enough to make words of the sound.