In the Silence We Hear, in the Stillness We See

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

“My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.” 
Psalm 131 (Common English Bible)

Since it began earlier this year, the global COVID-19 quarantine has had some truly remarkable effects on nature and the environment. Earlier this month an international team of scientists announced that the sudden halting of, among other things, factory production and car usage has resulted in global carbon emissions dropping by 17%. All around the world this reduction has revealed itself in shocking, unexpected ways. The perennially smog-drenched skies of Los Angeles are clean and blue for the first time in many people’s memories. The sediments traditionally churned up by Venetian boats have settled so completely that animal and plant life have returned to the city’s formerly mud-choked waterways. In Delhi—the most polluted city on earth—pollution has dropped so drastically that residents can now see the stars at night. I’ve personally experienced the effect this quarantine has had on New York City: for the first time since moving to Brooklyn almost three years ago I can actually smell the salt water of the Atlantic ocean.
Writer Julio Vincent Gambuto has described this period as the “Great Pause,” and indeed it seems as if the entire world is holding its breath. But it’s not just the environment that’s paused, it’s life itself for billions of people. Jobs have been lost, leaving countless families in financial limbo. Close-knit communities have been disrupted as people have been forced to abandon public gatherings. Parents have been stressed as schools have closed, forcing them to provide 24/7 childcare even while working. Marriages have been strained and tested as some couples have been separated by hospitalizations and others cloistered together in tiny living spaces for months on end. And for those self-isolating in quarantine, the days themselves have become a blur, the days running into weeks, the weeks running into months. Is it Monday, Wednesday, or Saturday? March, April, or May? What does it matter when they all seem the same?
Yet this pause need not be a negative one. In a recent sermon, Rabbi David Edleson of Temple Sinai in South Burlington, Vermont explained thusly: “I think it is very tough for many if not most of us just to sit still, just to BE home, to be present and to be content. This is a spiritual opportunity for growth. For stopping the focus on what we can’t do, and finding ways to be more content doing nothing, or doing simple things with those with us.” Indeed, the need for peace, silence, and nothingness is baked into the very DNA of the Abrahamic faiths whose God rested on the seventh day of creation. Our scriptures are all filled with visions of quiet and calm, of sabbath rests and high holy days, of fasting and contemplation. When Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he rebuked the very winds with the word “peace.” Perhaps this “Great Pause” isn’t a curse but an opportunity to draw closer to God.
Psalm 131, one of the shortest psalms in the bible, provides one of the most striking visions of finding contentment in times of stillness and quiet. One of the fifteen Songs of Ascent—psalms believed to be sung by worshippers traveling to Jerusalem during pilgrim festivals—it celebrates calming oneself as an act of surrendering one’s pride before God, and with it one’s anxieties about the present and future. This ego-destruction frees us from the illusion that we can control our destinies, and that we are therefore responsible for the unexpected catastrophes and uncontrollable set-backs in our lives (a delusion common in America’s up-by-the-bootstraps culture). By submitting ourselves to the stillness of God, we release ourselves from psychological self-bondage. In this way we find a contentment in peace that is healing, not distressing as we rest in a pause that is holy, not destructive.


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