Commemoration of Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Syle, priests
1 Thessalonians 1:3-4
I wonder what a world of silence is like. As I have a constant tinnitus, even when things are very, very quiet, it’s never total silence. I used to sit in a very quiet church back home but even when I was totally alone there was always a ringing in my ears that I thought was a church-y sound. Normally my world was so filled with sound that I didn’t hear the ringing until I was in that quiet place. Now that I’m older the tinnitus is a thing I can’t total forget about, something not really pleasant but something I can ignore for the most part. But I still wonder what complete silence is like. I wonder, if I lose my hearing, will the tinnitus still be there? Or would I finally know what it is like to be profoundly deaf?
I often wondered what would be worse, losing my eyesight or my hearing. The older I get, the closer I get to finding out about one or the other, not as a certainty but as a possibility. I think I would hate to lose my hearing most because there is so much music I want to hear and so many sounds I cherish like the chirp of birds or the cooing of doves, the lap of waves on a beach or the sound of a friend’s voice. Of course, I would have the memory of the sounds and the music, but it isn’t quite the same as hearing it, is it?
The two men commemorated today had one thing in common – working with the deaf who have been an under-served group in church life. Gallaudet had a deaf mother and a father who was involved in education for the deaf, a calling Gallaudet himself undertook when he founded the university that bears his name in Washington DC. Syle lost his hearing at a young age but studied with Gallaudet and, like Gallaudet, became a priest. Syle was the first deaf American to be ordained to the priesthood and founded a church dedicated to serving the deaf community and whose services were conducted primarily in sign language.
In the Bible, deafness was seen as a punishment from God for something done by either the person themselves or perhaps their parents. It was a curse from God and, without doubt, a curse to those who were deaf. Often the deafness was accompanied by an inability to speak or to speak clearly, a double dis-ability. That was the case of the man in the gospel reading today. Fortunately for that man, he had friends who took him to Jesus.
Gallaudet and Syle weren’t Jesus but they worked for Jesus to help the children of God that others might have ignored. Even though deafness is a rather invisible dis-ability, it still can be a barrier. Gallaudet and Syle were, in a sense, ground-breakers. Today it isn’t uncommon to have churches who, along with the traditional music, prayers and sermons, have interpreters using American Sign Language to bring the deaf into the worshipping community.
Watching the interpreter is for me like watching a dance, a graceful (and grace-full) dance. It is like seeing a foreign language spoken since ASL has its own syntax and vocabulary that usually is incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with it. Still, it brings congregations together and doesn’t marginalize those who don’t or can’t participate because of hearing issues.
Part of the mission Jesus set for us was to reach out to those in need of any kind, including those who might need to feel a part of a faith community but who aren’t proficient lip-readers or for whom reading written words or symbols are the only way of doing so. In a way, I think it fits perfectly with Episcopal worship. We stand, sit, kneel, make the sign of the cross, reverence the processional cross and the altar, and move to the altar rail for the Eucharist. We involve our whole bodies into the service through these actions. Adding the element of people signing the hymns and prayers are another way of bringing the whole body to worship. It’s another way of glorifying God not just through the physical act of the signs but as a reminder that people are differently-abled but still children of God and equal in God’s sight. That means they should be equal in ours as well, right along with all the others who are somehow different, whether through gender, race, religious belief (or no religious belief), orientation, economic status, mental status, or any other thing that we can come up with that conceivably might separate “us” from “them.” We are all “them” and we are all “us.”.
Through witnesses like Gallaudet and Syle we learn that different doesn’t mean less, it just means different. It would be good to focus on what people CAN do instead of what they can’t. Maybe that’s a lesson to learn today or at least try to do. How can I, or we, see others as fellow children of God instead of someone dis-abled, strange, or even suspicious? Like ASL, lip reading, speaking Spanish or obeying the teachings of Jesus, it requires the same thing that gets a person to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice.
There are worse things than complete silence. God can speak and, very possibly, do so even more clearly through silence than through all the words, sounds, and symbols the world can offer. Maybe it is those of us who have our hearing who have the harder time hearing God.