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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 4, 2006

Noise may drown out prayers

By the Rev. Halbert Weidner

I got a surprise one day reading the advice of an Indian holy man responding to a question from a follower: "When I was on retreat with you in a quiet setting by the river, I could pray, but here, back in the city, I have a terrible time because of the noise. What can I do?"

I thought the holy man would say, "Buck up. Get yourself together. It doesn't matter where you are. You should not let the noise bother you if you are serious about spirituality."

But that was not the response.

The holy teacher was sympathetic and understanding. Noise indeed hurts us and cannot simply be ignored. A strong will cannot overcome an assault that is, in fact, physical. Our nervous systems were not designed to withstand constant noise that by its nature provokes our bodies into producing chemicals made for fight or flight.

So what of us all, spiritual seekers or just plain humans trying to live in an environment tougher on us than is good for us? There are a lot of questions about noise levels. When I worked at a spirituality center there was a huge noisy project going on and much hoe-ramming and even blasting into solid volcanic rock. We had to shout at each other over a table at lunch, conferences had to be moved outside and down a hill, and earplugs were standard equipment for desk work.

Appeals did little. The health department and the construction company seemed to have other ideas about what human beings could endure. They thought we should have been comforted that the work went on only six days a week.

The health department did say that a worker could stand in front of the hoe rammer with a plywood board to "lessen" the sound. We were horrified that a worker would be exposed to such noise on our account and we turned the offer down.

When I became a pastor of a church on the ever-expanding Kalaniana'ole Highway, there was a question about air conditioning. It had been rejected as un-Hawaiian by many parishioners so those people who wanted it cooler had to tough it out. The last expansion of the highway brought a six-lane road practically into the sanctuary, so we had to give in and seal off the church with huge air conditioners. The majority say that we pay more for electricity but we can pray more, too.

Nowadays I see on portable CD players warnings about the noise level of the music and safeguards installed on the little machines so that it takes an effort to adjust the sound to eardrum-blasting pleasure.

The world is too much with us and too noisy about it on top of that. There is one consolation. In the future there are likely to be more deaf people who got that way from noise exposure. They will know silence, at least externally, and perhaps discover an interior silence that once helped our ancestors become human.

Halbert Weidner, a Roman Catholic priest, is pastor of Holy Trinity Church.