The Chattahoochee River flows south 430 miles, from its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains to Florida’s Lake Seminole, passing on its way near the extreme northwestern edge of Atlanta, Georgia. For nearly a week, recently, I sat looking over the river, fondly nicknamed the Hooch by Georgians, from the porch of Ignatius House, a beautiful Jesuit retreat center just outside the city. I had gone there to pray, read and write in silence. The Jesuit order, founded in the sixteenth century by Ignatius of Loyola, stresses contemplative silence as an indispensable discipline for hearing God’s presence in one’s life. In this retreat house, guests are encouraged to put away their cell phones and to remember that the words “silent” and “listen” share, not so coincidentally, the same letters.
Nestled in the quiet generosity of the Catholic retreat tradition, I did not fail to notice how I, a religious Jew all my life and a rabbi of many years, had again chosen to find silence among adherents of this rather different daughter religion. Their religious symbols, so far from my personal faith and often painful reminders of Christianity’s persecution of Jews in the past, were prominent in all places on the center’s grounds. But as has so often been the case at other Catholic retreat settings, I felt entirely at home with the God of Israel, my God. This does not surprise me. Since the convening of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s and Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the sovereign Jewish State of Israel, Jewish-Catholic dialogue has come a very long way. Our willingness to learn from each other and about ourselves by sharing our commonalities and differences has only grown. This is partly because that willingness has flourished in the fertile petri dishes of American pluralism and our shared concerns about social justice on the American street. I was an early beneficiary of this culture of interfaith dialogue and understanding, perhaps from the age of 8 or 9. My Jewishly committed and progressive parents raised me and my siblings in a religiously committed home and in a Jewish day school, while also teaching us to celebrate and respect people different from ourselves. I would walk with my father through the halls of the Catholic nursing home where he worked, meeting the suffering Jesus on his cross, kind nuns in their habits, and very old residents like my grandfather, wherever we turned. Like a good writer, my parents never had to tell me to value the diverse tapestry of human experience while also feeling comfortable in my Jewish skin; they simply showed me that balance by living it.
But there was another reason I felt so at home. Though contemporary Judaism has also come a long way in cultivating its distinctive traditions of silent contemplation, some of them ancient, Jewish spiritual life is a mostly noisy, verbal affair of communal prayer, home rituals, and a profusion of verbal exchanges and arguments about the Torah. I participate in and preside over all of this enthusiastically. Its rhythms are my rhythms entirely. However, to remain sane, a spiritual leader must temporarily retreat from all the sound and fury in order to sit alone and speak with God, if he or she wants to continue to sit and listen well to others. That is why I felt so blessed to sit with the Jesuits by the Hooch.
I wanted to speak to God near the edge of the river. I tried to listen for the sounds of God’s voice in the luscious cacophony of multiple bird songs filling the silent trees before dawn. I am particularly fond of bird song meditation. I quiet my mind and sharpen my awareness by teasing apart the different morning bird calls, each repetitive melody a distinct pattern, a unique, instinctive yearning of its winged vocalist.
Reflecting on her own religious experiences during a riverside retreat, the essayist Annie Dillard wrote that she went down to the river to cool her eyes, but everywhere she looked she saw fire. On the first morning, I went down to the river to soothe my ears, hoping that everywhere I listened I would hear a performance of “The Lark Ascending.” I should not have been so hopeful. Unless they are remote cabins in the woods, even the best retreat centers often fight for space and air rights with the encroachments of human endeavor and overreach such as the endless thrum of not-too-distant traffic. No more than a half mile north of the center, connecting the neighborhoods on both banks of the Hooch, is a high-speed road which gets busy in the morning with commuters. Distant enough but loud enough, the cars traversing the road punctuated the melodic lines of the birds to which I listened, intruding on those songs with what at first sounded like waves breaking on the sea shore. Had they been actual waves, they would have added to the joyous music lifting me up; but they were not waves, they were speeding cars that reminded me of everything I was trying to put aside for a few days.
In a fine contemplative place hosted by such gracious people, I was not about to succumb to the mindless, noisy whirr. Too much called to me on retreat and too much screeched to me from home and in the world for me to waste my time being angered by the distraction of speeding cars and trucks. But how to reframe the intermittent automotive din so that it would be part of the music, instead of its nemesis? Opening my siddur for morning prayer, I drifted toward psalm 148, an ancient Jewish choral masterpiece:
Praise the Lord from the earth;
Sea monsters and all the deep seas;
Fire and hail,
Snow and mist,
Storm winds that obey God’s word;
Mountains and all hills,
Fruit trees and all cedars;
Wild animals and all cattle,
Creeping things and winged birds,
Kings of the earth and all nations,
Princes and all judges on earth;
Youths and maidens, old and young.
The psalmist pointed out my answer in the pied beauty of paired oppositions all around me. The birdsongs would ascend with the horns’ blaring; the wind over the river would whistle in a concerto with the hums of ignition; nature would stroll as nearby humanity sprinted; inward silence would dance, howbeit uncomfortably, with bustling outward industry; being would coexist with becoming, life’s real world tune.
It was all praise.