Hearing, Welcoming, Celebrating Quiet Voices

Mark Gorman

This summer I have been practicing the recorder daily for the first time since elementary school. The recorder is different in almost every respect from the instrument on which I was professionally trained, the pipe organ. While the pipe organ, in some versions, is loud enough to be heard in concert with a full symphony orchestra, the recorder is quiet enough for me to practice in a hotel room without (hopefully!) bothering my neighbors. The recorder is by no means the quietest instrument I have ever played (that distinction belongs to the nose flute—yes, really) or heard live (I once heard a clavichord, a kind of predecessor to the piano, in a recital at a university chapel, and it was almost inaudible), but in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it belonged to a class of musical instruments called instruments bas (low, as in soft, instruments), as opposed to the instruments hauts (high, as in loud, instruments). Although louder and softer instruments still exist, that distinction matters much less than it did five hundred years ago, since even the quietest instruments can become loud through amplification or electrification. In a sense, every musical instrument today is, or can be, an instrument haut. We like loud things.

As it is in our music, so it is, I often think, in our churches. Also in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Christian calendar used to be filled with days for lesser feasts, the instruments bas of their devotional life, but Protestants did away with those, generally leaving us with only the “louder” feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Loud instruments, and loud feasts, are fun and exciting. They get our attention easily, maybe too easily. The instruments bas, on the other hand, require us to quiet ourselves, and our lives, in order even to know they are there in the first place. This does not mean that the “quiet” feasts are inherently more meaningful or deeper than the “loud” feasts, but, ironically, it does mean that it’s much easier for the louder feasts to be fitted into our ordinary lives without too much disruption. I suppose that’s why there’s always an endless supply of Christmas and Easter cards, but there’s never a Feast of the Holy Cross card around when you need one.

Something similar happens in theological studies. Theological education ensures that students have heard the “louder” voices of the Christian tradition, the Cappadocians and the Augustines and Aquinases and Calvins and Barths, but there are many voices that curricula ignore or that students only encounter indirectly through the theological instruments hauts. Sometimes this is for good reason; the rackett (two “t”s), which makes a bassoon-like sound but is about the size of a recorder, had some popularity in the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras, but it was replaced by later developments (so, too, for that matter, was the recorder replaced by the transverse flute) and is now only played by specialists in the music of those eras. Likewise, not every theologian from the past needs a full modern recovery, no matter how many dissertations must be written. The unfortunate thing, however, is that often the instruments hauts simply overwhelm the instruments bas of the Christian tradition.

The truth is, most followers of Jesus are instruments bas, quietly and faithfully going about the life of Christian discipleship in prayer, devotion, service, and worship, without drawing much attention to themselves. Luke tells us Jesus sent seventy of his followers ahead of him, but we only know a few of their names. Acts describes mass baptisms, and we know even fewer of those who were baptized by name. And so on down the ages. Sometimes they are forgotten because, like the rackett, they had their day, and that was sufficient, to the glory of God. We hear them in chorus when we celebrate All Saints. Other times, however, these quieter saints made a real, lasting impact for the sake of the gospel, yet, like the lesser feasts that might have commemorated them, we have tuned them out for the sake of “louder,” more famous examples.

This past Easter season, Thy Kingdom Come, a global effort started by the Church of England to unite churches in prayer every day from Ascension to Pentecost, made the theme of its penultimate day “Silence.” Silence, or quiet, can be helpful for us to hear even the “loud” feasts like Pentecost. But quiet is unconditionally necessary for us to listen to the instruments bas of our faith, and it is also the necessary condition for those quieter voices to have the freedom to speak and be heard. Providentially, attentiveness to the instruments bas is itself a habit that can build up the virtue of quiet and silence in our communities of faith.

Posted Jul 12, 2021

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