Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A radiant indifference to words

From "Personal History: Altered State -- Pennsylvania, blackness, and the art of being foreign" by Andrea Lee in the June 30, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. The author is describing her experience as a fifth-grade student at Lansdowne Friends School when she and her classmates were called on to recite Psalm 19 at Thursday morning meeting for worship to the elders of the meeting and the rest of the school:

For a long time, things go without a hitch, but on the morning of Psalm 19 our class fails. First, the short, deep-voiced boy who is our bellwether stumbles over his verse and, purple-faced, shudders to a halt. And I, with gold ready to pour from my lips*, simply freeze. At Teacher's frenzied prompting, we burst into the chorus, about errors and secret faults.** But the words are a tripwire: somebody's helpless giggle becomes a rout. We double over, choking with uncontrollable laughter.

The beams of the meetinghouse ring with the echo of our debacle, and we wither under the sidelong smirks of the sixth grade. Still, after a minute, a curious transformation occurs. One by one, we are able to look up at the faces of the elders, which are not severe and condemning, nor yet smiling with the kind of amused indulgence with which grownups greet endearing childish mishaps. Nor do they display any desire to make this a character-building experience. Those old faces are simply present: alert; regarding us and the rest of the hall with a boundless, patient comprehension that raises us to their own dignified level. We let the silence flow back. And, gradually, something becomes clear: a kind of radiant indifference to words, mistaken or correct. What the elders, the Friends, pass on to us this morning is an inkling of how strong silence is. Essential; eternal. But common, in the best sense. Always there, if we can only listen for it. Inside or outside meeting.

* v 9-10: The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

** v 12Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.


Jeanne said...

Wow, thanks for posting this. I hadn't gotten around to reading that article, but now I'm going to.

I also posted something from the New Yorker on my blog today...


Linda said...

This is gorgeous. I don't ever read the New Yorker, but I'm going to track this issue down.