Monday, February 15, 2010

Noise in the Camp

Burying more than the Alleluia
            I happened on some pictures in a blog I follow of a funny little ritual for choir boys where they, in full choir dress, solemnly “bury” the Alleluia for Lent. The catechetical possibilities are indeed boundless, but I think it should be limited to use with committed liturgical choirs and perhaps only with those made up of boys.
            In any case, this little idea and a few chance exchanges have contributed to a brooding reflection on noise, silence and encountering the Living God on this the noisiest day of the year in St. Clair, Trinidad’s Carnival Monday. This day is legend for noise in the early hours, but in recent years this noise has been magnified to the umpteenth thanks to the employ of man-size boom-boxes on flatbed trucks, which produce enough basso to rattle windows and doors, and bring down the plaster from the cracks in your ceiling. How folks ride those trucks all day and how Carnival revelers “chip” down the street for hours enveloped in those sound waves are questions which remain without an adequate response. These questions and more get tucked away on Ash Wednesday and are only brought forth a lunar year later, when J’Ouvert once again mercilessly rousts the residents of St. Clair out of bed at well before 5:00 a.m.
            Sitting outside after lunch and hearing the roar of Carnival off in the distance, Moses, of all people, came to my mind.
            “When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp.’ But he said, ‘It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.’ And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the food of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.” (Exodus 32:17-20)
            I do not wish to express a judgment about a good old “catholic” custom like Carnival, but only reflect upon the noise, like unto the noise in the camp which was far from the focus solely upon the Living God which Moses and his servant Joshua had enjoyed during the 40 days and 40 nights they had spent alone with Him on Mt. Sinai.
             In a sense, the Carnival “mas” (for masquerade) camp is like Israel’s camp at the foot of Mt. Sinai, without Moses and before the giving of the meeting tent. A distracted people filled the silent desert with “noise”. I think that simpler times, without boom-boxes, might have found the Carnival mas seductive and perhaps filled certain hearts with a wish to prolong that moment of gaiety. Today with all the amplified sound, one might say it has become a frightening endurance test, for which people walk and jog and do aerobic exercises and take vitamins from Christmas on to get themselves into shape, so as not to fail on this day of days. Veterans will warn that the exhaustion of these two days in close quarters with all sorts of strangers from far and wide will bring the risk of post-Carnival colds and flu. But my only concern is the booming base and the ever present noise, rattling windows as it passes by, filling the air in any case with an undifferentiated roar.
            You see, J’Ouvert parades before the general public an experience which not everyone knows. It is the experience of youth with ear buds in and the volume turned up; it is the experience in Germany, as I remember, that has youth on the way home from nights of partying and dancing as their parents and grandparents are rising of a Sunday to walk to church. J’Ouvert flaunts for less than 18 hours what cannot but rob the world’s youth of the New Moses and the Meeting Tent. What to do? If you are a serious choir boy, you can bury the alleluia, but for the rest of us we can eagerly accept the ashes on our forehead. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”! Symbols and sacramentals do indeed have their worth.
            As the “Red Ants” come “home” to Jackson Square after a whole day of chipping around town and my whole office shakes with the incessant thump-thump too deep for any musical scale, my arms reach out to Wednesday and the “burial” of Carnival for another year. Pray that many young people will abstain from noise this Lent and with Moses, Joshua and Elijah before them have a mountain top experience, far from the maddening crowd!

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