A few weeks I experienced something that I don’t know what to do with. I wouldn’t call it a miracle. I wouldn’t even call it particularly interesting or notable. It was just something curious that I experienced at church that, against my better judgment, I’ve hoped means something more than it likely does.
I’ve been dealing with Pulsatile Tinnitus for the past several months. It’s a condition that can be caused by one of a number of underlying conditions that cause the ear to ring and for your heartbeat to be audible within one or both of your ears. I have it in my right ear. It gets worse with heavy caffeine consumption, if I’m stressed, or if I sit in the same place too long.
It’s not a debilitating problem, although I am seeking an ENT appointment in the coming weeks to make sure that it’s not caused by something other than run-of-the-mill stress or anxiety, which I suspect is the case. It may just be that my ears need to be cleaned out, as I’ve had tinnitus issues in the past due to wax buildup that required a short cleaning procedure to clear.
Regardless, I was deep in thought at church a few weeks ago when for a fraction of a second my ringing right ear heard something strange, something my left ear didn’t hear, but something my tinny right ear seemed to distinctly hear for a fraction of a second.
I thought I heard church bells, but they weren’t the church bells from the service I was in…
It was only for half a second, faint as though I was hearing a church down the road or far away. I didn’t hear it in my left ear, and even if I did I wouldn’t have been surprised. I was in a church and I was sure there is likely another church within driving distance, maybe.
But is there another church? My church is in the country and fairly isolated. Did my church even have a bell? Did my brain make up the sound for half a second in a moment of distraction? Filling in a moment of cloudiness in my brain with a familiar sound? Was I just hallucinating?
The Protestant in me certainly thinks so. I may be attending an Anglican Church at the moment but the spirit of my denomination has always taught me to approach things with certain level-headedness, weary of the supernatural. Catholics and Orthodox Christians have a way of being somewhat weightless in their mythologies, eager to embrace the supernatural and clearly mythological as an expression of faith.
I understand there is an element of playful trolling involved in these examples but there also isn’t. Insofar as there are Catholics who genuinely believe in fairies, mermaids, and dragons, I find most of this easy to dismiss. This trend of asupernaturalism is very common among the Protestant Sects. Evangelicalism and Calvinism are fairly pragmatic in their approach to supernaturalism: There is a God and Angels but they’re off in heaven and Christ’s miracles happened 2,000 years ago under the direct influence of God. Unless God specifically decides to bring them back, there is no magic in the world. There is prayer, but prayer is not a wish likely to bring about intercession but a resignation to God’s ultimate judgment.
It’s a very deistic attitude at times, one that has inspired the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements within Protestantism, and Charismatic branches of Catholicism for that matter, to more openly embrace supernaturalism, to recreate the longing for the presence of the divine that traditional churches find in the Eucharist and liturgy by attempting to call upon the Holy Spirit to come alive in their presences. This is often rejected by other Protestants as demonic in nature.
For Catholics, this attitude against supernaturalism has long confused them. The Catholic novelist Flannery O’Conner famously wrote in a 1959 letter, “The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant”, and that “the Catholic can’t live with this kind of contradiction”, in regards to the idea that the church can take many forms or that the Eucharist isn’t the body and blood of Christ but a mere ceremony.
As one twitter user put it, “You’re all just atheists aren’t you?”
Different Protestants would likely give different defenses of this tendency. For myself, I value the reconciliation of reason and faith. I believe both must exist in tandem, occupying separate but coequal spaces. It is not that I disbelieve in miracles, but merely that I often don’t trust them. Maybe that is a failure of faith on my part, but most of what I find described as miracles, outside of the Bible, are very political and self-affirming, things that don’t speak to me. Miraculous healings, visions of the Holy Mother, and otherworldly events like the Fatima sightings may be fantastical but what am I supposed to do with them? I can neither see them nor confirm their existence. I can only trust the authority of the church in its judgment that they’re real. And why should I? Most of the time someone tells me he’s talking to Jesus, he needs to be institutionalized.
The Protestant is entirely bound to scripture, to the word of God, inerrant and whole. This tendency brings about the ironic accusation that Protestants are “Bible worshippers”.
These differences very much cut to the core of the contradiction with my recent experiences converting to liturgical Christianity. I chose to attend an Anglican Church of North America parish specifically because it was a middle step—neither Evangelical, Fundamentalist, nor Catholic. I was able to escape the tinny restorationism and modernism of non-denominational Christianity without embracing the fundamentalism of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, the shallow progressivism of mainline Protestantism, or the intellectual submission of Catholicism.
My German heritage inherited me an ancient blood rage I’m not allowed to subvert…
Jokes aside, I am philosophically disinterested in Catholicism as the one true church of Christ, but am happy to approach it ecumenically as a home for my spiritual brethren. I am happy to embrace some of the liturgy, offices, and traditions of the Anglo-Catholics, albeit without the conditions of submission to Rome and abandoning Sola Scriptura.
In short, I’m closer to Catholicism than before yet I remain a Protestant: ever skeptical of the Eucharist, Marianism, the adoration of Saints, Purgatory, and all the stuff Catholics put their adoration in.
This leaves me in a curious place when it comes to something like the bells. I don’t know what I heard, or if I heard anything. The only reason I believe I heard something at all was that the sound echoed a curious note my priest mentioned several weeks before in his Bible Study, that the Anglican Mass was a way of communing with Heaven. When we attend mass, he said, heaven is close by and celebrating with us.
The Mass is supposed to bring Christians closer to Heaven, refresh them, to give them a direct sense of proximity to Heaven. As one Catholic blog puts it, “we are swept up into the heavenly liturgy. There, with myriad angels and saints beyond number, we worship the Father through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus. In the Mass, we are swept up into Heaven!”
This is why the disparate thought came into my head; Did I briefly hear the veil become thinner? Did I hear some small message from God? I have been praying for months for God to manifest himself in my life, to make evident his will and his presence, and to make himself closer to me in his silence. Then suddenly at the height of mass, I heard the smallest possible sound, the easiest thing to doubt in the world, the sound of a bell coming from a wringing ear.
I won’t pretend there was something profound in my experience. It was probably psychosomatic, what Dickens would call “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.” There was likely more gravy than grave about my ringing ear.
Revisiting the church this week for Holy Week, I found my hopes for supernaturalism more quashed. The chapel was built in 1793 for a Presbyterian congregation, it has no church bell, but there are bells on a property. I noticed a small garden ornament outside the back door this past Wednesday before I arrived to do stations of the cross, with a bell on top that rang in the wind. Still, I can’t remember if it was windy the day I heard the bells…
Still, this Easter I can’t help but hope it wasn’t. I can only hope that this small moment was an answer to an abandoned prayer, a rare glimpse beyond the veil, a chance to look through the glass darkly and glimpse even a half-second of the eternal fount. One can only hope that my ringing ears are blessed with one more opportunity to decide if it truly was that if one can dare to believe in such silly things.
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV