What is the soundtrack of your soul?
To put it another way: If Faith comes by hearing, then what proportion of our interior playlist consists of God tracks?
Hearing is a gift from God. Through it we can enjoy the sounds of nature such as bird song, wind in the leaves, and rippling water. We can experience the sublime melodies of brilliant composers and the teaching stanzas of sacred Church music. We can take in the piercing language of the Psalms and the foundational teaching of the Gospels at Mass, and receive useful homiletic instruction.
But like all of God’s gifts, hearing can be misused or “wrongly ordered” as theologians would put it. We can disregard prudent limits and by so doing damage our ears physically and/or take in that which does not honor God: unhealthy advice, blasphemous or immodest music, words of hurt and not love.
Ours is a noisy age. Businesses and offices without music or television are a rarity. Workers in outdoor settings will often play music and mechanical implements of all sorts can emit harmful noise. I recall a time when, finishing a hike on my birthday, I encountered a young mother starting on the trail with her two young children and carrying a portable music player blasting out some tunes. Parents should first of all protect the hearing of their children. Hearing damage and loss is usually cumulative and non-reversible. I write from hard experience. Recently I’ve been to the audiologist and she confirmed that my perception of struggling to hear certain things is real. On top of that, I have tinnitus—a constant ringing in my ears—and that makes silent contemplation impossible. I can never just watch the birds in the backyard without that ringing sound or simply sit in silence.
Physical damage to hearing is bad enough, but there are mental and emotional effects to consider too. Psychiatrist and anthropologist Dr. Nina Pierpont, in her 2009 book Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment, lays out evidence that the low frequency sounds from wind turbines are linked to symptoms such as “migraine, motion sickness, vertigo, noise and visual and gastrointestinal sensitivity, and anxiety” (1). In short, noise can cause damage to our bodies and disrupt everyday activities. What about the claim that noise hurts the soul?
Sacred Scripture provides many examples related to hearing, especially admonitions to heed God’s voice to avoid disaster. Moses warned the Israelites about their proper relationship with God. “Listen, O Israel, to the statutes and laws which I proclaim in your hearing today. Learn them and be careful to observe them” (Deuteronomy 5:1, NEB). Instead they disobeyed, time and time again. In the years before the Babylonian captivity, Israel went its own way. “The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no heed” (2 Chronicles 33:10). In the New Testament, most people ignored the teaching of Jesus. Nonetheless, the Apostles continued the mission and passed on the word of God. As St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “You heard my teaching in the presence of many witnesses; put that teaching into the charge of men you can trust, such men as will be competent to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). He later warns his spiritual son to “[a]void empty and worldly chatter; those who indulge in it will stray further and further into endless courses, and the infection of their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:16-17). Not only will the chatterers spread their false and vain teaching, but they will have willing listeners who reject the good for the bad: “For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears. They will stop their ears to the truth and turn to mythology” (2 Timothy 4: 4-5).
Our sound-saturated world offers many opportunities to “follow [our] own fancy” by listening to what is not good for us. The number of shows, songs, videos, broadcasts, talks, and podcasts has multiplied to immense numbers, and while good content is certainly available, the volume of mediocre or just plain bad material surpasses the good by a great margin. Although (as many parents and spouses will attest to) those we love often seemingly don’t listen to us, humans can actually remember what they hear. Then consider this statement from Father John Zuhlsdorf: “The Enemy demons cannot read our minds, but they have access to our memories. Moreover, they remember what we have forgotten. The Enemy can throw obstacles in our path of spiritual growth through keeping us distracted by our memories…. of past accidents, of injuries and of our own sins.” Consider how many songs, conversations, lectures, shows, etc. you may have heard in your lifetime, and think about how the enemy might use that material against you. For me pop music is a stumbling block. I have a jukebox in my head which interferes with prayer, participation at Mass, contemplation, etc. Might it be said we live in an era of aural gluttony?
So is there a way to de-tox from this overload? While there may be damage done, it is never too late to stop taking in audible garbage. In the same way some people fast from their phones and computers, it is possible to keep away from that which tickles our ears. My parish has days of recollection two or three times a year in which we experience a silent mini-retreat (about seven hours in total) with only prayer and spiritual conferences from priests to listen to. Or, if you are a music lover, make the decision to listen to edifying sacred or secular music. There are good Catholic guides to help you turn off the noise and embrace silence. Two come immediately to mind. The documentary “Into Great Silence” is a seeming paradox—a film about a profoundly quiet life, in this case the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse. It left me yearning for a quieter place to live. There is also the 2017 book by Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. “Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing,” writes Cardinal Sarah. “Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet” (56). Or, as Catherine Doherty sums up in her 1982 book Molchanie: Experiencing the Silence of God: “Silence is the highest form of communication” (1).
If the mythical time machine were available for a spin, I’d go back and make sure a younger me wore ear protection at work and play and drastically curtailed listening to rock music. However, the machine is nowhere to be seen and hearing aids are likely in my future. If I as a man over sixty can give any worthwhile advice, it is this: protect your ears, protect your mind, and you will make a good start on protecting your soul. That way each of us can respond when God calls: “Speak, LORD; thy servant hears thee” (1 Samuel 3:9).