A cork-lined room—that was Marcel Proust’s way of coping with the street noises of early 20th century Paris while he was writing his classic, Remembrance of Things Past. But what about present-day New York City? The City Council issued a report late last year warning that subways are so noisy they can actually damage one’s hearing. I put my fingers over my ears often enough in subway stations to know the truth of the council’s finding on this point. And if further proof were needed, I have only to catch sight of some of the subway train conductors who wear noise-reducing ear mufflers as their trains enter and leave the stations.
My rectory bedroom in lower Manhattan faces Second Avenue, one of those nonstop, heavy-traffic avenues that have helped give New York its name as the City That Never Sleeps. Over the years, I have grown accustomed to the screeching of brakes and rumbling of trucks during what otherwise might be quiet hours. You learn to wake up, turn over and go back to sleep.
Recently, though, the proliferation of new bars on both sides of Second Avenue has produced more difficult challenges, when the voices of early morning revelers leaving these establishments reverberate along this concrete and brick canyon, with assorted alcohol-enhanced screams, shouts and imprecations. “By the time they’re finally gone,” the pastor commented wearily one Sunday morning, after an unusually active bar night, “it’s almost time to get up.”
There are some partial remedies. Even a simple electric fan can help block out some noises with its white sound. But nothing can protect you from the noise of a car alarm. It cuts to the very vitals of the human organism. You can only lie abed in desperate hope that the owner too hears the piercing sound and will return to the offending vehicle. Otherwise, little relief can be expected unless one is willing to find another place to finish out the night. In the Bronx, infuriated neighbors have been known to smash the windshields of offending cars.
Pockets of quiet space do exist, though, with libraries high on the list of places that still remain relatively free of noise pollution. Just to stop by one on my way home can serve as a balm after the cacophony of horn-blowing by which drivers, especially taxi drivers, express their pent-up emotions. Churches too serve as refuges, with some leaving their doors unlocked during the day. At almost any time of the day, at least a few people can be seen in them, absorbing the peaceful quiet.
Parks also offer a haven, at least in the early morning—not just the big ones, like Central Park, but the small ones you can discover in almost any part of Manhattan. One I especially like, Paley Park on East 53rd Street, has a waterfall at the far end, with a scattering of metal chairs that invite the passerby to sit and be refreshed by the healing sound of the water cascading down to the pool below.
Spiritual writers and others down through the centuries have often commented on silence—or its lack. Meister Eckhart, for example, wrote: “Nothing in creation is so like God as silence.” Its absence, in contrast, can be excruciating for prayerful people. During his incarceration in a federal prison, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., commented on the relentless clanging and screaming that surrounded him. “The hardest thing...is the noise,” he wrote in Lights on in the House of the Dead. “One seems awash in it.”
But it can be helpful to recall Elijah’s experience at the mouth of the cave. Over the thundering of cataclysmic happenings, he heard the “still, small voice” of the God who was trying to guide him back into his appointed path (1Kgs 19:12). So over the noise-filled racket of our own daily lives, if we’re listening carefully enough, it might just be possible to hear that faint interior voice—one that is trying to guide us too—along the varied paths that keep us moving toward the same God who has plans for everyone.