I was born in the year 1977. A few years after, while I was still a young child, my parents bought a Volkswagen bus of the same vintage. Unlike myself, it came to our family used. And for most of my memory, it was without a middle seat. Originally our VW bus was painted a bright, two-toned orange, but many years, several long scratches, and one large bullet-hole later, we had it re-painted. White. It was a cheap paint job that left our bus looking sort of like a vehicular baptismal garment: unstained and see-through. The scars and blemishes of its life were there for all to see beneath the thin vestment.
On my recent 8-day silent retreat I went for a walk one night after dinner. It was when I arrived at the front of the retreat center that I heard the familiar idling cadence of an old VW engine. Maybe it was because of the mood the retreat had me in, but that low rumble was the closest thing to a vision I’ve ever had. And it wasn’t a vision at all. It was just a simple sound that flooded me with gratitude.
It was the sound I listened for when my parents had to work late and I wanted nothing more than for them to come home. I remember kneeling on our couch, looking out of the living room window with eyes that begged to see VW headlights on the road. It was the sound of that VW motor that announced their arrival long before I could see the lights.
This was the sound of my family driving to the old Christmas tree farm up in San Dimas Canyon. We would spill into that managed forest, pick out the tallest tree we could see, and then spend a good amount of time and frustration pulling a third of it into the rear end of that van. Then we’d drive home with six feet of tree hanging out of the back of our ’77 VW like an evergreen afterburner (No pine tree air-freshener for us, thanks, we’ll just take the real thing and shove it in the back!). And then we’d spend the rest of the afternoon pulling needles out from between the seats. By the end of the day our skin was tacky and raw with the fragrance of pine needles and sap.
This was the bus I drove throughout high school and college. I drove it with old friends and my first girlfriend, to pick-up games, and parties. (Although you don’t really drive a VW bus as much as you cooperate with its own momentum, or its inertia. My favorite VW bumper sticker was a witty Q & A: “0 to 60? Yes.”)
This was the bus with the enormous 4×4-foot sunroof that opened with a hand crank, slowly, like the roof of a baseball park. I’m sure this was a real selling point for the original owner, but for us it was mostly a way for rain to collect in the roof of the van only to pour buckets-worth of water over the front two seats every time you hit the brakes. (We tried opening the sunroof, but this made it impossible to drive faster than 35 mph. It also brought my younger sister to tears once – we had gotten up to speed when a thump of sunroof wind smacked her freshly dipped soft-serve ice-cream off of its cone and made it into a piece of performance art on the textured vinyl of the back bench seat.)
It’s a distinctive sound, that idling VW engine. Those old, air-cooled engines actually breathe, and you can tell the health of the motor, its timing and compression, simply by holding your hand in front of the exhaust pipe… like you’re feeling for a pulse… for a strong consistent beat of breath… puh, puh, puh.
I have to say that the stubborn inefficiencies and minor mechanical failures of that simple machine delivered more moments of insight and soul searching than I can here recount. In a VW bus you learn a lot of patience; you learn about the relativity of time; you learn to sit still and enjoy the ride.
The whole retreat was full of gifts, but this one stands out because of how it was wrapped. It was an acoustic grace. Just like my parents arrival home, I heard it before I saw it. I felt it before I understood it. I stood there in that parking lot for nearly half an hour just listening to the reassuring chortle of that old VW motor.
You can’t hear something that isn’t happening right now. I think this is why our sense of hearing is so closely related to our understanding of the revelation of God. Its spontaneity, its physicality, its temporality, its interiority – acoustic grace is happening only now, just in this moment. Something out there in the world is literally moving something inside of us. Learn to listen and you will inevitably grow closer to God because our acoustic reality is a privileged place of encounter with the divine reality.
It had been too long since I had wanted for something from my childhood. Wanting is a form of loving so, in a sense, it was a redeeming moment that replaced what has been a narrative of nostalgic regret with a kind of joyful affection. What I mean to say is that for a few minutes in a parking lot, in the middle of eight days of silence, the simple sound of that old motor seemed to me like the gift of a lifetime.
It seemed this way, I suppose, because that’s exactly what it was: a moment of memory and acoustic grace. I heard the idling beat of my own life all over again. And it was a great gift.