I suppose this is a sequel of sorts to my post about fostering silence in our busy lives, prompted by a response from one “Mugger Malcolmridge.” Here’s Mugger’s comment in full, “Richard, I’m very much in agreement with you regarding the value of silence. But why listen to NPR?”
As they used to say on Monty Python, “It’s a fair cop.”
Alright, I admit it: I listen to NPR — lots of it. Diane Rehm, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Car Talk on the weekends. I also listen to Rush Limbaugh from time to time. And the audio from the PBS NewsHour on WSND in the evenings.
Plus, I read the Wall Street Journal daily. And the South Bend Tribune on the weekends. And The Economist. And The Utne Reader when I can get it. And The Week.
That’s a lot, I know. But then, I’m not a monk. I’m a dad. With a job. I have kids to raise. I vote.
“Mugger” was right to challenge somebody who urges silence and detachment from worldly media noise while quoting stories from NPR and major newspapers. And I’m grateful, of course, that he took the trouble to make any kind of response to my post, positive or negative. (Thanks, Mugger, btw).
But I feel compelled to defend myself: The call to silence and detachment for those of us in the world is a relative one.
Recently, a friend reminded me of a familiar saying attributed to Karl Barth:
Pray with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.
Profound, yes, but apparently Barth never actually said those exact words. What he did say, though, was more subtle, and even more profound.
Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.
That’s a quotation lifted from a 1963 interview in Time, and here’s some more:
A theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash.
Barth was suggesting that Christians not only pray with both Bible and newspaper in hand, but also to do theology that way, yet always with an eye toward the Bible first. We need to know and understand the world we inhabit and hope to minister to, true enough. Nevertheless, that knowledge and understanding must be framed and informed by our knowledge and understanding of Divine Revelation.
This is something the Carthusians have always known and practiced, and why I imagine St. Thomas More so readily adopted their spirituality to his busy secular life. On the one hand, the Carthusians are bound by their charism and their Statutes to cut themselves off from things like NPR:
[G]reat abnegation is required, especially of the natural curiosity that men feel about human affairs.
We should not allow our minds to wander through the world in search of news and gossip; on the contrary, our part is to remain hidden in the shelter of the Lord’s presence. We should therefore avoid all secular books or periodicals that could disturb our interior silence.
That’s all well and good, of course, and certainly understandable given their cloistered and rigorously detached vocation. Nevertheless, the Cathusian Statutes continue:
The heart, however, is not narrowed but enlarged by intimacy with God, so that it is able to embrace in him the hopes and difficulties of the world, and the great causes of the Church, of which it is fitting that monks should have some knowledge.
If it’s true that even Carthusian monks should have some knowledge of the world, how much more so those of us who actually live and function in it. And, if I may be so bold, this is especially true for those of us blessed with children who require guidance and instruction and familiarization regarding the world they themselves will have to inhabit and navigate.
Still, and in deference to Mr. Malcolmridge, it’s true that we Catholics, lay and religious alike, have to be cautious with regards to the degree to which we sully our souls with the things of the world. Here, too, the Carthusians guide our way forward:
Nevertheless our concern for the welfare of men, if it is true, should express itself, not by the satisfying of our curiosity, but by our remaining closely united to Christ. Let each one, therefore, listen to the Spirit within him, and determine what he can admit into his mind without harm to interior converse with God.
No doubt, I listen to my radio more than I need to, and I could probably skip the newspaper from time to time in favor of more time in prayer. In silence.
All true. But it’s a matter of balance, and not complete abstinence. Even the Carthusians, in their solitude, know what’s going on in the world. We do well to follow their example.