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.

Even Unto Death

Audrey Assad has recently released a new single, and boy, it is powerful.  When I listened to it for the first time, I just sat in stunned silence, in utter awe of the beauty.  “Even Unto Death” is inspired by modern martyrs, especially the 21 men killed by ISIS in a video released this year.  Since Audrey can explain her own song better than I can, I’d like to first show you her own story.

This song is much more than an anthem of the martyr’s triumph.  It’s much more than a prayer for courage or hope or for even life after death.  It is a love song.  The melody and lyrics depict the soaring of the soul to the Lord not as dead and gone but as the beloved returning to the Lover.  It made me reflect on what it really means to be a Christian martyr.

Usually when people think of martyrdom, they think of death for a belief system, for faith.  While this is certainly an aspect of martyrdom, it’s not the deepest motive of a Christian martyr.  Consider that many of our martyred saints could have outwardly renounced their faith while still “mentally assenting” to all the truths of the faith.  Instead, they decided to witness to the faith out of love for Christ.  They died because they would rather lose their lives than pretend they never knew the One who died for them.

Love is not only the motivation for, but the essential element of true, Christian martyrdom.  Peter Kreeft in his book The God Who Loves You reminds us of Paul’s discourse on love in 1 Corinthians: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)  In his commentary on this verse, Kreeft says: “Even the works of love are no substitute for love itself…You can be a martyr without love: an angry, hateful martyr.  A terrorist suicide bomber is not an apostle of love.”  A Christian martyr has his true merit in the depth of the love that would and did consummate in the gift of the whole self, body and soul.

Audrey Assad’s song has brought out the heart of martyr’s prayer and his powerful witness to love.  With awesome passion and reverence for those martyrs, she has crafted a song that reflects real love, love that suffers but still sings.  I’ve used this song to meditate and pray, hoping that I might be granted the grace to love like a martyr.  I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone looking for substantial music for prayer or contemplation.

You can get the song on itunes or by pledging to support her upcoming album “Inheritance”.  Here’s the Spotify link to enjoy it right now!

Why Silence?

Into Great Silence“Into Great Silence” is a gorgeous documentary on the lives of the Carthusian monks living at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France.  To achieve a more accurate depiction of monastery life, there is no narrator, no background music, and only one interview throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour-long movie.  The viewer sees the monks at prayer and at work in silence, while occasionally a bible verse will be presented as a rhythmic meditation on the call to silence.  The monks live and breathe the presence of God, and their lifestyle exudes an air of holiness.  It is a beautiful documentary of the contemplative life that is held to critical acclaim.  So what did I do when I watched it?

I dozed off.

There is something very irking about silence in my 21st century world, one in which I can listen to music anywhere and anytime, where entertainment is usually loud and on a screen, and I can talk to anyone I want instantly on my phone.  Even in the world of prayer, it’s hard to really be quiet.  Silence seems like such an absence.  How can we learn anything from silence if you can’t hear anything in silence?  It feels like being deaf.  Sometimes the way silence is valued is so mysterious and unfathomable.  It is a particularly troublesome concept for me, for my theology-of-the-body-inundated background recoils at the apparent lack of actions of love of neighbor.  I know in my head that silence must have powerful effects and is a holy way to pray, but it is one of those things that my heart finds difficult to accept.

chartreux.org
chartreux.org

I mentioned to a friend that I had watched “Into Great Silence” and my difficulties with paying attention and understanding its concepts.  She is much wiser than I, and said something that put everything right back into perspective.  She pointed me back to the paradox of it all, that silence really is for relationship, a much deeper relationship than what is built on simple, human words.  Silence doesn’t make sense to the world, but it does on a supernatural level.  When we are quiet, that is when relationship deepens the most, because we allow ourselves to simply BE in His presence.  The Carthusian statutes say this on silence:

Our supreme quest and goal is to find God in solitude and silence.  There, indeed, as man with his friend, do the Lord and his servant often speak together; there is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her Spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human.  (Book 2, Chapter 12)

Silence is indeed beautiful because it is a level of supernatural communion.  But because it is supernatural, it is also very difficult, and may seem pointless or dry.  From what I can tell, only those who practice the way of silence really understand its power.  The Carthusian statutes also admit this:

God has led his servant into solitude to speak to his heart; but he alone who listens in silence hears the whisper of the gentle breeze that reveals the presence of the Lord.  In the early stages of our Carthusian life, we may find silence a toilsome burden; however, if we are faithful, there will gradually be born within us of our silence something that will draw us on to still greater silence.  (Book 2, Chapter 14)

Spending time in silence might very well be like making ourselves deaf, but I think it’s important to remember that it is the deaf that Christ makes to hear.  It is He Who will transform our silence into intimacy.  We need not worry that we are not enough.

In the silence of the heart, You speak

And it is there that I will know You

And You will know me.

Is Pope Francis a Hippie?!

“The world is falling apart and Pope Francis decides to write an encyclical about trees?!  Catholics care about greater things than making sure that every single intellect-less creature is perfectly pampered!  Pope Francis is totes a hippie.”

hearts and rainbows

Okay, let’s be honest.  At least some faithful catholics have thought something along those lines about Laudato Si.  We all know the media blows Pope Francis out of proportion, but maybe catholics do too a bit.  Let’s take a closer look at Laudato Si to see what Pope Francis was trying to get at by choosing such a topic, and what he hopes we can all take away from it.

First of all, the overarching theme of the whole encyclical is care for the environment, but Pope Francis takes a larger sense of the word than usual.  The human environment, according to Pope Francis, includes all of the natural world, but also societies, politics, economics, education, really everything that makes up the world we live in.  So one could say that Laudato Si isn’t really about trees or the natural world because it’s about everything.  But I think that Pope Francis would say that Laudato Si is about everything, and therefore it is all about the natural world.  Nature is not something to disregard as unimportant: “When we speak of the ‘environment,’ what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it.  Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.  We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (paragraph 139)

That being said, Pope Francis does an excellent job balancing what we owe to the environment and what we owe to the human community that breathes and lives and works in this world.  The key to this balance is, quite simply, opening one’s eyes simultaneously to the beauty and goodness of a creation that reflects God’s own goodness and the beauty of a human person whose existence reflects God’s own image.  It’s just looking up, and looking around.  Just to name one example of harm to the environment that needs more attention is the waste of water.  We can get wrapped-up in our singing performance in the shower and forget that the waste of water affects fish, trees, the poor, future generations, you name it.

The encyclical is a wake-up call to just stop and look around us, to see how the world, especially the creation of flora and fauna, is being affected by our carelessness.  We have become so focused on instant gratification that, astonishingly, we have little to no conscience at all about the gift that is all of creation.  In fact, Pope Francis calls our lack of response to care for the environment a sign of ethical failure on the part of humanity: “Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.  Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.” (paragraph 56)

For a visual representation of what is happening:

Us:

Pope Francis:

The encyclical is not a call to look at pretty waterfalls; it’s honestly a call to sacrificial and immediate action.  I wish I had more space to explain fully how earnest and compelling Pope Francis was throughout the entire encyclical, but I can tell you this; he was certainly not hippie-ish throughout any of the document.  Check out this quote:

The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.  If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.  If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.  That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.” (paragraph 95)

Care of the environment is a sacred duty.  Let’s not be stuck in “our own world” because the whole of creation is so much more.

Sarah