Be not among those who hardly notice
The Morning Call, August 29, 2015
Friday, January 12, 2007, the morning rush hour in Washington DC.
A white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T and a Washington Nationals cap stood against a wall at the L’Enfant Plaza station. He removed a violin from a case, swiveled the open case toward the foot traffic … and began to play six classical pieces for 43 minutes.
The social experiment was sponsored by the Washington Post: If a world-famous musician played some of history’s most beautiful music in a DC metro station, would people stop to listen?
Hardly anyone noticed. Twenty-seven people stopped to listen. One thousand and seventy walked on by.
Hardly anyone noticed when Joshua Bell played some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.
Journalist Gene Weingarten received a Pulitzer for his feature story about this non-event. (I have drawn some of my description from his story.)
The 2007 stunt raised questions about beauty and society's perception of it.
Some $32 were dropped in the case that ordinarily held a $3 million fiddle.
Hardly anyone noticed.
Readers who have received emails from me may have noticed my signature line – running for some 25 years: Be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible; be in love; if necessary, change.
The first phrase, Be attentive, is about noticing. It’s about being attentive to all of our senses, to what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Being attentive to our experience, to our imagination, to the voices and hearts of those around us.
Be not among those who hardly notice.
Last year, Joshua Bell gave it another try. This one was advertised by the Post: 12:30 p.m., Sept. 30. He dressed in his black shirt and trousers concert attire for his scheduled 30 minutes of Mendelssohn and Bach in the main hall of Union Station. The area was crowded. People not only stopped to listen; they came to listen.
A friend of mine, onetime journalist for the New York Times and the Washington Post who now helps Episcopal dioceses and agencies improve their communication, said that reflecting on these two events had him thinking about grace.
We don’t deserve grace, to be sure, Jim Naughton acknowledged, but what we need to reckon with is the fact that we don’t recognize it.
“It wears the wrong clothes … shows up in the wrong places … at the wrong times. It comes in the guise of people we generally avoid. We hardly notice. We fail to see it for what it is.
“We take the word of others – experts, advance teams – for what grace is and what it isn’t, when we must pay attention and when we can walk on by.
“Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to recognize and respond to grace when we see it or hear it. Or perhaps life is constructed in such a way that grace needs references and a spot on our calendar before we can give it its due.
“Henry James once urged readers: ‘Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’
“This,” my friend said, “is among the few spiritual disciplines that still make sense to me.”
Let us pray: Guide us, gracious God. May we be attentive to our experience, to the voices and hearts of those around us;insightful in our interpretation of what we have been attentive to;reasonable in our judgments; responsible in our decisions;and always open to inner conversion, to transformation in your truth and your love.
Be one on whom nothing is lost. Especially grace. Be not among those who hardly notice. Be attentive.
[Canon Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org, an Episcopal priest, retired since 2010, served on the bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]