Listening with the Ear of the Heart

September 25, 2017
MDiv candidate Tim Gallati
MDiv candidate Tim Gallati. Handout photo.

MDiv candidate Tim Gallati is studying experiences of “silence” in nature and contemplative practice with applications in virtual and augmented realities. His research focuses on accounts of listening to “silence” in sound art, poetry, and Catholic monastic theology. Gallati’s field work led him this summer to long-term residences at two Trappist monasteries.

Gallati will explore the nature of monastic silence in the Trappist tradition and its relationship to listening, as encountered in sound recordings (see below for an audio sample), during a presentation on Tuesday, September 26. The event, “The Ear of the Heart: Silence, Listening, and the Monastery,” will take place at 5:15 pm, in the Common Room of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

Below, Gallati discusses monastic silence, his research, and his passion for studying the intersection of technology and spirituality.

HDS: What is monastic listening? How is monastic listening different from meditation or silence practiced in other faith traditions?

Tim Gallati: It really goes back to the foundational texts for Christian Monastic practice. The Rule of Saint Benedict, in the prologue, begins with the word “listen,” and depending on the translation it entreats us to “listen with the ear of the heart.” One of the main themes in the Rule is silence and how that’s kept. So we begin with this idea of listening with the ear of the heart that puts you in the posture or position to listen more deeply in this communal silence. The monastery becomes a place that is focused on this communal project to listen more deeply. That in turn leads into the interior thresholds of the spiritual life.

The communities that I’m most interested in are Cistercian communities, in the Roman Catholic tradition. They have a strong history with silence. The Cistercians have in their constitution several points that are built in specifically about silence. It’s not just about the external observance; it’s really about why it’s important for the community as a spiritual practice.

HDS: Where does the phrase “With the ear of the heart” come from and what does it mean to listen in that way?

TG: It comes from the Rule of Saint Benedict in the very first sentence in the prologue. So you open up this rule and that’s what it starts with. There’s many contexts to it, but for me it’s really just a posture: how do we approach this way of life? What it begins with is this sort of openness symbolized by the heart, as opposed to a more material reading solely concerned with day-to-day regulations. It’s actually begging something more of you. This is a call to a way of life.

Silence is something that is understood in many ways and many contexts, but this has a particular accent to it that immediately establishes a relationship between listening and the spiritual life, and where silence comes in to support that. Silence is essentially a doorway into these deeper dimensions of the spiritual life and, in the end, an infused experience.

HDS: How would you describe our modern experience with noise and why is there an effort to reshape that?

TG: We tend to background a lot of the sound and high volume activity that occurs around us. We might mistake that for coping or getting used to it. But you never really get used to it. Your body still has to process it. You don’t just hear with your ears. You hear with your whole body. We know this from walking by, say, a church organ and you feel that deep resonance in your bones, or a pounding jackhammer on a construction site. We really feel it. We’re almost like flesh and bone tuning forks.

The problem of noise becomes one of perception and awareness. It’s very hard to listen to some of these things. But if we open ourselves up to these practices in silence, which tune us into the minute grains of nuance that occur all around us, it gives us a taste for listening, and we can bring that listening into our urban soundscapes and be able to get a better sensibility and recognition and relationship with our environment. Potentially it can become a different experience than just “noise.”


HDS: What new technologies are attempting to change someone’s experience in relation to noise?

TG: Silence, when it comes up, is usually in relation to something. It’s usually in relation to the problem of “too many”:  too much volume, too many people, too fast, all of these things.  They are thought of as different kinds of noise in relation to silence.

One example of technology responding to noise is an app called Space by Dopamine Labs. It’s designed around a simple principle. A behavioral neuroscientist recognized the addictive nature that arises from the rewards we get by launching apps on our smart phones. So he built Space, which attaches to any app (Facebook, Twitter, or any you like). After you tap the app (ex. Facebook), but before Facebook launches, Space invites you to take a breath, in the duration marked by an expanding circle in space, and it allows you to adjust how long that moment will be. Once that’s complete, Facebook launches.

My experience of this is when you remove that instant gratification it eliminates that traditional behavior response I have with these phones. So now my experience with Facebook is quite different. I find myself not going to the notifications as quickly. All of those things I get distracted satisfactions from, I just don’t have the same impulse toward them anymore.

Another app is Noise Source. It’s a brand new project that measures sound levels in your environment using the sensors on your phone, and the data collected is open source. This gets interesting when you leverage this data on different platforms. So for instance, there are websites that help students find the right place to study. Let’s say I want to go to a place where it’s quiet, where I can eat, and where I can do individual study. This kind of real-time sound data can assist students in finding quiet places and act as a kind of way-finding guide. It’s a way to seek out a little more space for quiet in your life.

Of course, there’s the public health side as well.  The World Health Organization has recognized the health impacts of noise pollution to be a growing concern. There’s been a lot of work in public health studies that links noise pollution to cardiovascular disease and other health issues. A movie we’re screening at HDS on Wednesday, September 27, “In Pursuit of Silence,” will touch on this topic.

HDS: You previously helped organize an event at HDS on virtual reality and spirituality. Now you’re examining technology’s utilization of silent reflection. What makes you passionate about exploring the connection between technology and spirituality?

TG: There are two central questions that keep me excited. One is what kind of world are we building? Technology is the centerpiece of that discussion. I like being able to take a step back and look at the roots of these technologies and ask what are we building into them and how do they affect us. One of those manifestations is noise.

The other question is how do we prepare ourselves for something like silence? How do we walk into that? And part of that needs to be built into our technology. There’s a lot of room here for bringing our humanity into it.

—by Michael Naughton