22 July 2013

Staying for the Credits: The Problem of Reverence

I absolutely love going to the movie theater alone. To me, there is no pleasure quite like attending a late Saturday morning matinee, free from the gaggling primetime crowds-- just me, the film, and about three other quiet pleasure-seekers, all silently brimming with excitement as we enter our nearly empty sanctuary. I've always been told that I'm a picky movie-goer-I'm one of those people who scowls at animated crowd reactions and insists on staying until all the credits have rolled (usually out of principle to give everyone the credit they deserve, but also secretly to see if this film is the one out of every few dozen that rewards our loyal patience with a brief post-script). Call me a scrooge, but remaining silent for two hours inside a dark theater shouldn't be too much to ask (especially at today's ticket prices). I usually explain my movie-going rituals in terms of the receptivity required in order to fully experience art in any form-it can be difficult to truly observe the drama in front of our eyes if we are preoccupied with instantly responding to it. The film can too easily be replaced by meta-experience, and we miss some of its richness. Not every film is a bastion of moral seriousness or provocative texture, but I always thought it was quite obvious that we go to the theater to engage ourselves with a story-not to listen to ourselves talk. We can't fully take part in the adventure unless we let ourselves sink back into the woodwork and let the drama take center stage.

Ever since I can remember, I have been a staunch defender of this kind of 'reverence' in performance venues. As a little girl, I took piano lessons and inherited a love and appreciation of classical music from my older siblings. About once a year or so, we'd have the momentous opportunity to take a family trip to the orchestra hall, which had its own special kind of decorum, even as a 12-year old. We'd dress up in our Sunday best, solemnly conduct ourselves to our balcony seats, arrive a few minutes early (at my insistence) to meditatively pour over the program and try our best to count the cubes on the house ceiling. Then we'd hush ourselves as the house lights went out, remaining motionless and silent with a special kind of fervor, trying our utmost to swallow coughs and itches before they reached fruition, so as not to ruin the great solemnity of the Gershwin or Beethoven pouring out of the piano on stage (Once, at a collegiate choral concert, I took great delight in the fact that coughing was expressly prohibited in the program. Congested concert-goers were instructed to retreat to the lobby and not return unless they could ensure silence.). In order to get the most out of our experience, I would usually spend the weeks leading up to the concert listening to recordings of the lineup ad nauseum, as a sort of interior preparation for the great performance. I usually insisted on observing a period of semi-silence immediately following each concert, as though mixing the interior echoes of the performance with our audible opinions was a ghastly form of contamination.

Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis

My attitudes towards decorum in the concert hall as a child were strikingly similar to my approach to behavior at Mass. Even as a child, I seemed to think that there were few things worse than entering the church halfway through the penitential rite, and certainly not later. Talking was a violation similar to that in the concert hall. This was probably more out of a yearning for grown-up decorum than any perfect piety on my part, but it set the conditions for a more mature reverence to develop as I grew older.

There is one other place where this code of reverence held sway-the public library, where hushed whispers were the only sounds that penetrated the stronghold of treasure waiting on the shelves. I always felt as if I was entering a wonderful, serious place when I visited our little local branch as a child. It had its own kind of romantic attraction, mostly immune to the juvenile noisiness of school or the playground. In both high school and college, I valued institutional libraries as a peaceful retreat from distractions, levity, and aggressive socializing (much like the chapels), where one could work slowly, seriously, and playfully, with some undisturbed atmosphere of contemplation.

Even as I still treasure these enduring strongholds of quiet and sobriety, I am constantly reminded that they are constantly being thwarted by various generations of people who haven't been educated to practice reverence. Increasingly these quiet sanctuaries have become less solemn. Movie theaters and concert halls are rippled with private chatter and errant ring tones, churches are treated like social halls, and some libraries, even with well-intentioned noise zoning, have become echo chambers for teenagers who have seemingly lost control over their vocal faculties. It's not so much the noise that bothers me as the apparent carelessness.

A less solemn silence (via)
On the [now-not-so] recent Memorial Day holiday, I found myself wondering what exactly we've lost. In true American fashion, we're proud to pay homage to those who have sacrificed themselves according to the duties of their public or military service on just a few days of the year. There are still the memorial services and military ceremonies and moments of silence. But these days remain loudly punctuated by parades, concerts, and barbecues-the true remembrances enacted merely as mechanical rituals. It is good that we have these formal times for memorials, but much like Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, they can, and largely have, eroded into the only occasions when we make attempts at recollection and reverence. I found myself on that day experiencing an almost visceral reaction to some fellow theater-goers with very poor movie watching manners. Before I knew it, my mind was racing with a whole litany of laments regarding humanity's fundamental loss of reverence, all because I was the only one who stayed for the credits. This reaction probably makes me sound tremendously severe and pedantic, but whenever I make the mistake of visiting the movie-theater during peak hours, or when an adult talks like a child all through Mass, I can't help but be reminded that so many of the conflicts, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction of daily life are rooted in an inability to practice reverence.

Reverence, in both the religious and secular sense, is fundamentally a virtue of respect and awe. It is a response of honor, humility and devotion, enacted in response to the recognition of a presence external to ourselves. Reverence is often referred to as piety, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it is impossible to fully understand the foundational importance of reverence unless we acknowledge all that true reverence requires of us. In order to practice reverence, we must practice humility, not imposing ourselves on what surrounds us. We cannot perceive and recognize the object of our reverence without withdrawing ourselves, as humility is necessary for clarity of knowledge. True reverence is also an act of justice, giving honor where it is due. Practicing reverence allows us to see reality clearer, gives us a more accurate vision of our own nature, and saves us from the damages of impulsive action (such as me fatally elbowing the coughing guy in the seat next to me at the movies).

Because reverence requires some degree of 'forgetting ourselves,' cultivating atmospheres of reverence naturally require some form of silence. This accomplishes a few different things:

1) By restraining our communicative faculties and active impulses, we come to recognize that we are not alone, and that we are not the most important in the world's natural and supernatural order. In more clearly recognizing the reality of this order, we are likely to realize that we should be conforming ourselves to something beyond that of our our creation and volition.

2) The restraint of our communicative faculties also frees our other senses to observe more fully, like a blind man's sense of touch and hearing.

3) The lack of noise and distraction frees our minds for contemplation, and allows us to focus on the matters at hand, whether they be reading, watching a performance, listening to a conversation, or prayer.

In sum, reverence (and the facilitating silence) enables our awareness of reality, our place in it, and the proper response to it.

In nearly every worthwhile book I've read, including philosophy, theology, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, there is either an explicit or implicit acknowledgement of the importance of reverence in one form or another. The centrality of humility and self-denial form the meat of Dietrich von Hildebrand's Transformation in Christ; Alasdair MacIntyre defends the essentialness of acknowledged dependence for growth in Dependent Rational Animals; Josef Pieper, Sertillanges, Fr. James Schall, and Chautard all write voluminously about the proper order of contemplation and action; and T.S. Elliot riffs on the image of faces "Distracted from distraction by distraction" (Burnt Norton). In every case, an element of reverence is spoken about as part of and encounter with reality and the true means to fulfillment. And you can't read many works by saints where humility and self-denial are minimal factors. If reverence is so central to life's purpose, then how can we nurture it?

One way to nurture reverence is to create and rehabilitate spaces traditionally associated with reverence or silence, including churches, theaters, and libraries. If nothing else, regularly observing reverend silence in these places helps us form the habit of remembering to 'die to self' in a very small way each time we enter these spaces. In writing this post, I'm not in any way suggesting that we ought to equivocate theaters and libraries with the sacredness of churches and holy sites. But renewing a culture of reverence in our cultural centers may very well facilitate the other virtues necessary for faith. Visits to theaters and libraries often occasion encounters with images and questions of beauty, truth, ugliness, and pain-a heightened sensitivity to what is real and what is ephemeral (it's no coincidence that the liturgy is often referred to as the 'drama of the Mass'). Many a person has called for Christianity to 'redeem the arts' (a task at which we are largely failing), but I'm not convinced that will happen unless we redeem reverence first. How can we expect to captivate with art when we can't even manage to banish chronic distractions in our own churches? An encounter with beauty has no power to move anyone unless they are paying attention.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post! It sounds like I'm very similar to you as far as reverence. There was one movie I watched once that showed deleted scenes (some of which were really good) after the credits. I was greatly rewarded for being the only "reverent" person in the theatre.