Recently, the town of Cremona, Italy attempted to go silent for weeks, just so they could get the perfect recording of a violin. Well, not just any violin. A Stradivarius and some others. Cremona was home to the studio of one of the worlds most famous and talented instrument makers, Antonio Stradivari, who worked in the 17th and 18th centuries. As some of these instruments age, their irreplaceable sound might be lost forever. So, a team of musicians and recording professionals attempted to capture their beauty perfectly. But that required absolute silence in this Italian city. The New York Times published a story recently about the painstaking measures to keep this town quiet, including blocks of closed roads and requested silence from citizens for weeks as the recording took place.

To keep a city silent so that beautiful music can be expressed and recorded. How impossible that seems! And how beautiful.

You might not live in a bustling or noisy city, but quieting the noise of our lives is no less a challenge. It is not always literal noise. We have competing priorities asking for our attention: meetings, playdates, and taxes to pay. We have messages from all over telling us what to pay attention to and who we should be. It might be coming from our phones, from the television, billboards, friends, family, or religion. Many of them are good and worthy messages. Many not. But in the midst of them all, how do you quiet the city and hear what is most important?

Last week, I wrote about how the act of attention changes how our brains work. Our habitual patterns of actions and thoughts create pathways between areas of our brain that make future connections easier. It’s like laying direct train tracks from one thought to another. One action becomes connected to a thought of shame. Another habitually follows boredom. The more we do or think those things, the deeper the rut, the more track that is set down. Through focused attention, or through mere habit, a substance called myelin covers those connections between neurons and makes the connection even faster. The steam engine is now a bullet train. Our deepest, practice, attention, and thoughts shape the way we experience the world. In effect, we become what we worship.

Focusing on the right things becomes a challenge when life is full of noise. So, how do you make it stop? What do you do that’s a small version of the Cremona story? Do you have a routine, a regular practice, place or ritual that helps quiet the many voices so that something else can be heard?

In my life, this is a work in progress.

In my office at church, when I’m trying to listen deeply and produce meaningful work, I often hide for the day and write in a children’s classroom far away from the hustle of the everyday office work.

When things are really swirling around in my head, I head to out to one of the few little retreats I have designated for myself around town (the locations of which remain classified).

At home, I get up before the noise of the small city that is my house is in full effect. This means that my pattern each day is to get up at 5:30, meditate and pray, drink coffee while I read and write, before the city starts to rumble. I hear things in those moments that I can’t hear anywhere else.

What about you? What are the practices you use to make the noise of life stop for a minute? Where are your retreats (inner or external) that open space for you to pay attention to what matters most?

When the sounds of the city are stilled, what are you waiting to hear?

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

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