Car Radio Music Video Sreenshot

The Redemption of Silence

Recently I went on a long road trip by myself, which naturally means listening to music for hours and hours on end.  Ironically, while listening to certain albums in a certain order, I made some discoveries on the meaning of silence.  The musical themes of the albums flowed seamlessly into one another, providing thought-provoking meditations that struck deep within my heart.  There were many themes reappearing and referencing each other throughout the musical experience, but the new understanding they granted me about silence were personally the most poignant, and so I felt a strong desire to share those specifically.  But I do want to recommend taking the time to listen to these albums as a meditation and to discover more of their depth on your own!

Movement One – Lent: “Vessel” by Twenty One Pilots

Vessel Album Art
Vessel Album Art

One of Vessel’s main themes is the wandering of a soul dealing with its own brokenness, failures, and fears.  The album’s tone is very Lenten, for it recognizes sin and failure as a stain upon one’s life, a stain that needs to be removed.  Many of the songs remind me of the psalms, which, though they are full of hope, did not have the Fulfillment of the hope present to them.  The lyrics reveal a struggle with simultaneously knowing that there must be healing in the future while still facing troubles in the present moment, and this theme runs through many of the songs on the album.

The soul prior to Christ’s redemption, within this turmoil of heart, cannot find comfort in silence.  There are three significant reflections on silence and what it means for the restless soul in Vessel.  In “Fake You Out,” the soul prays to God with a dual fear: fear of a life without God but also a fear of what might happen if God is let in.

I, I’ll never be, be what you see inside / You say I’m not alone, but I am petrified / You say that you are close, is close the closest star? / You just feel twice as far

I’m so afraid / Of what you have to say / ‘Cause I am quiet now / And silence gives you space

For someone who does not know God, giving Him space through silence would be terrifying.  Who knows what God might demand of him?

“Trees” also presents a negative view of silence, one that focuses on it as an absence.  The soul accuses both himself and God of silence, that is, of hiding from each other, of a broken relationship.

I know where you stand / Silent in the trees / And that’s where I am / Silent in the trees

Why won’t you speak? / Where I happen to be / Silent in the trees / Standing cowardly

It reminds me of the soul crying out to God and asking why He does not reveal himself in flashes of light and in large and loud proclamations.  Silence seems to indicate disconnect, a lacking, and that God is invisible (or worse, unreal).

Car Radio Music Video Sreenshot
Car Radio Music Video Screenshot

But the clearest struggle with silence occurs with the song “Car Radio,” which is placed near the center and the heart of the album.  The lyrics tell a story of someone whose car radio has been stolen, and so he can no longer use music to keep him from thinking about his own hurting heart.  “Sometimes quiet is violent” is the very honest description of how frightening it is to sit and think in a silent space.

I’m forced to deal with what I feel / There is no distraction to mask what is real

I have these thoughts / So often I ought / To replace that slot / With what I once bought / ‘Cause somebody stole / My car radio / And now I just sit in silence

Silence is feared and rejected by the restless soul.  It brings to mind accusations of sin and brokenness in the inner depths of the person, and thus is treated as an evil that needs to be avoided to bring at least some semblance of relief.

But what would happen if the sin and brokenness was healed?

Movement Two – Holy Triduum: “Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad

The need for redemption does not end with the beginning of Fortunate Fall, but this new album rather turns the thought of sin on its head with the first line: “O happy fault, o happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer.”  How can these faults in any way be “happy”?!  This simple phrase summarizes the whole celebration of Holy Triduum.  The paradoxes of the gospel, God made man, blessedness in suffering, and glory in humility, all shine forth most clearly as the Lord of all creation is crucified for the sake of sinners.  Suddenly, the soul realizes that answers to the wages of sin are found only through Christ’s sacrifice.  Fortunate Fall is a meditation of the soul entering into the paradoxes of redemption.  After the beginning lines introducing the theme of “O happy fault,” the second song, “Help My Unbelief,” considers the mystery of healing brought by the Savior:

Strange and sweet collision of justice and mercy / Your burden is light and Your yoke is easy

O happy fault that gained for me the chance to know You, Lord / To touch Your wounded side and know the joy of my reward

Fortunate Fall Album Art
Fortunate Fall Album Art

As the album continues with this contemplation of redemption, it is striking how much more poignant the meditation becomes after having heard the soul’s cry for help from Vessel.  But even more striking is that Fortunate Fall has not removed the theme of brokenness – it has added Christ’s saving power and thus transformed the story of brokenness from a catastrophe into a eucatastrophe (as Tolkien would have called it).

So what does this have to do with silence?  By redeeming the restless soul, Christ simultaneously redeems silence.  In Fortunate Fall, there are two musical interludes, one of which is completely instrumental.  This music has the confidence to leave what you might call “open spaces” for interior contemplation, something with which the soul in Vessel would not have been comfortable as demonstrated by “Car Radio.”  The musical style is obviously more calm and quiet, and illustrates a kind of peace that only Christ can bring.  The soul is no longer afraid of a silence that “gives God space” because it realizes that opening space means that it can be filled with goodness.

But the crowning jewel of Fortunate Fall and the last song of the album, “You Speak,” provides the ultimate answer to Vessel’s wondering how there can be relationship in silence.

You liberate me from my own noise and my own chaos / From the chains of a lesser law You set me free

In the silence of the heart You speak / And it is there that I will know You and You will know me

The silence in Vessel might have been an exterior silence, but there was no interior peace that is the fruit of true silence.  Silence was feared because of “my own noise and my own chaos,” but once the soul allowed itself to be loved and led out of the darkness, Christ transformed and then deepened the silence into a sacred place that is an opening to love.

Alive Again Album Art
Alive Again Album Art

Movement Three – Easter Season: “Alive Again” by Matt Maher

I woke up in darkness, surrounded by silence, o where, where have I gone?

As Alive Again begins, you can almost feel the sun rise on the dark night of the soul.  The album begins as if the soul is waking up, and Christ crashes into the soul’s life with an exuberance that seems startling after the focus on quiet and silence.  In fact, many of the songs on the album are much more loud and energetic than those on Fortunate Fall.  This is not a bad thing.  On the contrary, it is like the bursting open of the flower’s bud after the slow growth from a seed planted underground.  Now, in Easter, the Church sings “Alleluia!” with joyful voices.  When Christ comes into the silence of the redeemed person’s heart, that heart naturally begins to sing out to other people with the message of redemption and goodness.

This album shows a progression from a faith of one person to a faith that is practiced in a community, a Church.  While the first two albums mostly focus on the “I,” the individual, this one includes more mentions of “we” and “us” as the subject of the songs.  “Hold Us Together” especially captures the new understanding of the primacy of community in Christian life

Love will hold us together / Make us a shelter to weather the storm / And I’ll be my brother’s keeper / So the whole world will know that we’re not alone

These songs are the songs of the newly founded Church, of the first Christians.  They have put all of their past fears into the proper perspective and have learned all that matters: Love of God and love of neighbor.  The people of God should not remain totally turned inward on themselves; they should give themselves as gifts in relationship.  This involves action! Speaking! Singing! Loving!

Then Alive Again closes with the song “Garden.”  This is a lovely, quiet song that summarizes the answers to all the questions the soul had in the first two albums.  It pulls the soul back from activism to the “one thing necessary,” the first reason for love and the deepest meaning of life: relationship with the Creator.  In perfect peace and harmony, the soul walks and converses freely with God, an image of original innocence in the Garden of Eden.  It is silence and peace that makes the garden in the heart possible.

Oh, why would I hide / Away from Your face / Where the light of Your love / Illuminates?

Your hand in mine / A steady line / Drawn on my heart / And deep in my mind

And You walk with me / You never leave / You’re making my heart a garden

Silence was once twisted and distorted, for sin warps everything it touches.  But once Christ comes into a person’s heart as Healer, silence becomes a welcome place of refreshment and relationship.

 

Sarah

P.S. If you want a shorter version of these albums in a playlist with the main themes still intact, I’ve made a playlist you can access here.

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Fairy Stories are True

Since I’ve already referenced The Lord of the Rings’ Catholic nature in at least one post and will stoop to any chance to reference it, it’s high time I should address what I take for granted: that just like J.R.R. Tolkien himself called it, The Lord of the Rings is a “fundamentally religious aLOTRnd Catholic work.”  Tolkien was a devout Catholic who did not hesitate to let his faith shine through in his works, especially in The Lord of the Rings.  Both Peter Kreeft and Joseph Pearce have written and lectured extensively on the subject.  I heartily recommend both of them for further reading/research if you are interested in the subject.  However, I wanted to take an approach to Tolkien inspired by a reading of Tolkien’s own essay “On Fairy Stories” and the philosopher Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture.  I learned this approach to Tolkien’s infusion of Catholicism into his works from my Philosophy of Education class at UST.  It was so mind-blowing that I want to share the fruits of my paper that I wrote on the subject on this blog.

Josef Pieper’s ideas on how we know is particularly helpful to form the basis of why Tolkien’s fairy stories can teach us anything at all.  Pieper distinguishes between the forms of knowing ratio and intellectus.  Ratio is linear understanding.  It involves logical, step-by-step processing, in which a result naturally follows from premises.  Intellectus, on the other hand, is the understanding which is the “light-bulb moment.”  Like a flash of lightning, you can understand something that up until that point puzzled you, and understanding becomes as easy as seeing.  Pieper names intellectus as the higher form of understanding, and even goes so far as to call it “superhuman,” because it is more of a gift than something earned.  It is a sudden opening of a clouded vision to the brightness of knowledge.

One of the greatest ways to lead and to be led to intellectus is through art.  Art, in all its forms, not only presents a physical vision to the recipient, but the vision of meaning.  It allows artists to share in their own way their moments of intellectus and thus guide and allow the audience to participate in the insight of the artist.  In a collection of his talks titled “Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio,” Josef Pieper says this of the vision and power of artists to convey truth and reality:

The true artist…is not someone who simply and in any way whatever “sees” things.  So that he can create form and image (not only in bronze and stone but through word and speech as well), he must be endowed with the ability to see in an exceptionally intensive manner…to see in contemplation, moreover, is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality; it certainly perceives more than mere appearances.  Art flowing from contemplation does not so attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is.

TolkienTolkien has this power.  Moreover, he is consciously aware of that power and uses it to reveal the archetypes of the universe as revealed by God and upheld in the Catholic faith.  In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien describes the art of writing fantasy as building up a “secondary world” from the materials of the “primary world” in order to make the things of the primary world clearer: “fairy stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.”  Fantasy’s purpose is to move the reader to the form of knowledge that unveils reality to the mind’s eye: intellectus.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s primary world on which he built his secondary world of middle earth was formed upon the conviction that the Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth.  To leave out the archetypes of this world would not only be to defeat the purpose of a fairy story as he himself understood it, but it would be to produce bad art.

The Lord of the Rings is certainly not allegory nor is it a fable.  It is a fairy story, born from the contemplation of a Catholic artist and presented as an invitation to the contemplation of intellectus.

To see exactly how the archetypes of the world are presented by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, watch either Peter Kreeft: Christian Themes in ‘Lord of the Rings’ or Unlocking the Catholicism of “The Lord of the Rings” | Joseph Pearse

Sarah

For further reading:

“On Fairy Stories,” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Liesure, the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper

Only the Lover Sings, by Josef Pieper

The Irony of Possession

Thank goodness for the internet, through which videos like this can enter my computer.

I thought it was pretty funny that whoever made this was able to use two complete “let it go!”s from the movie dialogue.  Which got me to thinking: even more than the courage of hobbits and the importance of fellowship, Lord of the Rings is all about “letting it go.”

The whole action of the story is directed to the destruction of the Ring,  but so many of the characters are tempted by its magic to keep it.  Some want to use it for the greater good, like Boromir.  Some use it selfishly, like Gollum.  Some just want it for its own sake, like Frodo after he became burdened by its power.  No matter how or why they want it, the burning lust takes control of their reason and makes them mad.  Gollum’s possession of the ring twisted him physically into an animal-like creature, banished to live in the slime and darkness.  Against his better judgement, Frodo would take the ring out just to look at it or stroke it.  In one of the most thematically brilliant scenes in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, Boromir tries to take the ring from as Frodo sternly tells him: “You are not yourself.”  They all lose themselves to the desire.

SoBright18

There are many temptations which can become “rings” in our own lives: money, our jobs, smartphones.  We might trick ourselves into believing these things make us who we are.  They become our “precious,” and we believe we have the right to possess them.  But in reality, we make ourselves slaves to the objects we have decided to love in a disordered way.  When we desire to take something and make it completely ours, in a strange irony it is that thing itself that enslaves our hearts and our minds.  Rather than exerting our own dominance, we suffer the dominance of addiction.  True freedom to use the things of this world comes from “letting them go,” by not allowing anything to dominate our actions and choices.  Saint Augustine, in his work On Free Choice of the Will, talks about how obsessive attachment is like sewing on unnecessary limbs to ourselves, which can only be removed with much suffering:

“Some men make evil use of these things, and others make good use.  And the man who makes evil use clings to them with love and is entangled by them, that is, he becomes subject to those things which ought to be subject to him…Therefore [let him not be] attached to them by love, lest he make them limbs, as it were, of his spirit (which happens if he loves them), and lest they weaken him with pain and wasting when they begin to be cut off from him.  Instead, let him be above temporal things completely.  He must be ready to posses and control them, and even more ready to lose and not possess them.”

The Gospel calls us to be “poor in spirit.”  Let’s let go of the things we know are enslaving us.

Sarah