I get lost in my deafness. It’s like a possession, though gently taken. It belongs to me and I to it, and I often feel that it gives me an invisible shield of privacy. It insulates me from the world. Where it takes me: some world between speech and silence, a place where while time and space cohere, sound does not. Speech is not speech here. Words unwatched as they emerge from the lips sound more like moans, like the low howls of ghosts in a childhood forest, a lost world. Among the non-hearing, I move through their own sonic world so smoothly you could suppose it was strongly attached to the spoken one. But the bond is loose, loose, loose, often just about to break. It is a mitosis always about to occur. Because it no longer works for me, I have moved from speech.
For the spoken world, sound is full of itself. Just as a fingertip tells its owner the stove is hot, the ear reports the word just said. It’s a world that fits together neatly along the jigsaw cuts of each of the five senses. I know. I remember how it used to work. How effortlessly. And yet, I missed a lot when I could hear well. Not to say that I don’t miss a lot now. But there are unspoken things I used to miss and which now guide me through my interactions with people and with my world at large. They are the other voices people use in communication, the little doors under which their anxieties slip, the speed of their words, the minnow-like dartings of their eyes. And it all brings me back to the question of what talk really is, what listening really is, what does it mean to hear?
Return to the dome at St. Pauls Cathedral in London. Lean forward to the brilliance of the marble floor below, look up and see Sir Peter Thornhill’s glass mosaic scenes of Creation. Sit still, raise your eyes slightly and you can see, between the arches of the inner dome, mosaics of prophets and saints as they sit at their desks either engaging or trying to escape from the task of writing down the word of God. Each man takes a varying degree of dislike to the process. John is most disciplined, there with his lion, as angels hold open his book. Not so willing, Isaiah looks about to haul off, punch the angel holding the pen, and ditch the job altogether. Jeremiah must be held down while one angel forces the pen into his closed fist and implores him to take the divine dictation, which he does. It’s a scene of violence and trepidation, furor and resistance.
The whispers of the Whispering Gallery, the mosaics suggest, might not be the kind of whispers we long to hear, despite our pleas to hear God’s voice. But the name of the gallery only partly refers to the images overhead. On the less celestial plane, the Whispering Gallery is a bit of a sonic playpen. Given the dome’s ellipsoidal shape, a person’s whispers will echo into the ears of the person seated diametrically across from them, in a few second’s delay. The playfulness of sound is made present, current, even palpable. Overhead, it is toyed with by the artist in, to use a term from audiology, profound, the last stop on the audiogram, signifying total deafness, ways.
At some point, the prophets had to let go of the language they normally listened to, thought in, lived through, the language within their own heads. They had to abandon the known to receive the unknown language of God. No wonder they look a little scared. Their faces convey a sense of living in a perpetual state of wonder, wondering if what they heard is what was said, if what was said could possibly be true, if they could possibly do anything to avert a dawning tragedy, change the path of man. And also their faces, in so many shards of glass, convey what weight it is to be able to hear in any sense of the word, what great responsibility it is to be the receiver of any kind of speech, what an honor it is to listen. It is this listening that intrigues me.
It is why when I went to London shortly after my sensorineural deafness diagnosis, I returned to the dome four times in a week to see them, study them, intermittently turning my hearing aid-filled head to the wall to hear the echoes of whispers of the tourists across from me, who, I learned, would talk if I asked them to. Sitting that way, poised to hear, my fingertips filled the imprints of centuries of fingertips pressed and wearing into stone much in the same way that the right kind of ear can bore into, and borrow from, the silence. Listening.
Throughout the texts of the Bible, references to hearing loss suggest we are all living on the edge of God’s language, and countless references to unheard prayers suggest that God lives on the edge of ours. Deafness is as much a spiritual condition as it is an aural one, and overcoming it seems to be the key to our salvation, as well as God’s only hope for satisfaction with His creation. In Hebrews 5:11, the language of hearing loss is used to suggest that communion with Yahweh is quite similar to being in an audiometer: “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing.” It would seem that the one “of whom we have many things to say” is having trouble getting through to us because our hearing stinks. And yet what’s so wonderful in this passage is that the words themselves can’t be formed with the knowledge that they won’t be heard. It’s an auditory stalemate. In Hebrews 4:2: “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn't profit them, because it wasn't mixed with faith by those who heard.” The ability to hear is insufficient for knowledge of God. For it isn’t merely what we can hear that matters but how we hear it. If we do not listen “with faith” we may as well be deaf.
“Hold the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” In the audiometer, my audiologist says things which I must repeat. He gauges my hearing ability by how many words I repeat correctly. This passage from 2 Timothy 1:13 reminds me of being in the glass dark booth. And more intriguing certainly, “sound words” here seem to hold special weight. Are there unsound words? Are these words that are not safe or are these words that make no sound? Is it suggested that God’s words are the only sound words, all else is phantom speech?
Isaiah writes in 49:1, “Listen, islands, to me; and listen, you peoples, from far: Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother has he made mention of my name.” Listening is the means to receiving gossip prophecy as it is passed from prophet to people, and the “islands” ought to listen to be connected. Through listening, we form union. Ephesians 4:21 begins “if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him.” Hearing is a means of receiving instruction, “if indeed" we can hear at all. Deafness or Hardness of Hearing is hinted at by “if indeed.” Perhaps you heard something, but are you sure of what you heard?
Hearing is, again, not enough in Mark 4:24: “He said to them, "Take heed what you hear. With whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you, and more will be given to you who hear.” Hearing, it seems, is here an act of willingness, something beyond chance sense, otherwise all would hear. Hearing loss is diagnosed for all humanity by audiologist Matthew in 13:15: “for this people's heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes.” This suggests to me that whereas I think that my sense of hearing has abandoned me, perhaps we have, to fall upon idiom, abandoned our senses. And perhaps it isn’t merely idiom, metaphorical. Perhaps what we perceive as our literal senses are our metaphorical ones, particularly given that what we hunger for most is a direct experience with the sacred. Matthew offers hope for our move into the metaphorical (a word that lovingly longs to be mistyped as metamorphical) senses: “or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and should turn again; and I would heal them.” The metaphorical senses are those that we use to perceive the Divine, or tragically fail to, as in Deuteronomy 30:17 they are cut off: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but shall be drawn away. . .” They allow us hunger: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, In the hiding places of the mountainside, Let me see your face. Let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely (Song of Solomon 2:14).” They allow us joy, “Those on the rock are they who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; but these have no root, who believe for a while, then fall away in time of temptation (Luke 8:13).” And unused, they render us downright evil as in Jeremiah 13:10, “This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who walk in the stubbornness of their heart. . . .” Yet, it seems that God, Himself, has selective hearing. He hears his servants in Exodus 22:27, “for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What would he sleep in? It will happen, when he cries to me, that I will hear, for I am gracious.” And yet in Psalm 64:1, “For the Chief Musician” it would seem that God must be called to, does not automatically “hear” unless summoned. This is how it is for the hard-of-hearing. Touch us on the shoulder and we will give your attention, but just start muttering about something near us and we will ignore you. My friend, David, has promised me a t-shirt that read “I’m not a bitch. I just can’t hear you.” But that other poet we know as David calls out, taps God’s metaphorical shoulder, “Hear my voice, God, in my complaint. Preserve my life from fear of the enemy.” At times, it would seem God is altogether profoundly deaf, “And ye returned and wept before Jehovah, but Jehovah would not listen to your voice, nor give ear unto you (Deuteronomy 1:45).
Viewed this way, the Bible is a story of living with hearing loss, only both parties of the relationship suffer it, and the relationship is in dire need of some other language to carry it through on. At the very least, our metaphorical ears need our permission to open, "Today if you will hear his voice, don't harden your hearts (Hebrews 4:7).” Also, they require reminders to “hear this (Isaiah 48:1),” as though we forget at any time to listen intently. And ultimately, metaphorical listening must be a communal act as in Isaiah 48:1: “Come near, you nations, to hear! Listen, you peoples. Let the earth and all it contains hear; the world, and everything that comes from it.” And we must “come near. . . to hear,” just as the speech-deaf must approach the speaker, be close enough to make words of the sound.
In my heart and mind I have fused the whispers of the wall to the whispers of the mosaic, the words of God that make the prophets want to run, take a nap, do anything but listen. It is a sanctuary of sound, for whatever reason, and being so, it is one of my sacred places. But in a world of whispers, even our sacred places are laden with difficulties. I’ve recently learned that the speaker and listener in a Whispering Gallery--for the one in St. Paul’s is only one of several, the Taj Mahal has another, and there’s even one in Grand Central Station in New York--must be diametrically across from one another in order for one’s whispers to echo across the ellipse. One inch further along the circumference from a diameter, and the beloved’s words will disappear into the stone. And the lover will wait at first, then wonder, if anything was spoken at all.