Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Silence

The Prophet Elijah after he fled to the desert

Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

When I was a missionary in Tuzla, Bosnia, I spent a great deal of time in the homes of locals, trying to speak to them about Jesus, the Bible, the Church, and other spiritual matters. Without exception, when I first entered a home, there would be either a TV or a radio (and sometimes both) blaring away. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, and after I was given the obligatory cup of Turkish coffee, my host and I would sit down to talk "business." At first, I assumed that they would turn off the TV and/or radio, so that we could hear each other and communicate clearly. Usually, however, this did not happen; the radio or TV would keep right on blaring, even as I was trying to discuss matters of eternal significance. I always found that annoying, and sometimes I even asked the host to turn off the source of noise. They always complied, but they looked at me as if I was a little crazy (many people, including my oldest daughter would agree, but I digress...)

From all these experiences, I learned a lesson: Bosnian people don't like silence! But it's not just Bosnians, is it? We Americans are just as uncomfortable with silence and prone to fill our heads with non-stop noise, aren't we. This even happens in my own home! Often, I come home from work to be greeted by a blaring TV, and sometimes, no one is even watching it.

I believe that the constant noise the the world throws at us is a tyranny (St. Anthony calls it a the "conflict" of "hearing") that we must free ourselves from. If we are serious about growing in Christ, we must free ourselves from the uncomfortableness that we feel toward silence, and embrace it. I am reminded of the following passage in 1 Kings in which Elijah has just fled from the wicked king Ahab and his even more wicked queen Jezebel:

Then [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

It is usually in moments of silence that God speaks to us, in a "still small voice."

Rather than write more on the subject, I am going to quote in full my fellow blogger Steve Robinson's recent post on silence, which I think is outstanding. Enjoy!

I hate horror films [Fr. James' note: Amen!], but that’s another rant.

One of the tricks to horror films is dead silence before someone dies horrifically with an orchestral diminished chord blaring over the panicked screams of the victim.

It’s no wonder we fear silence. If we hear it, something dies.

I work in construction. Job sites often have radios blasting heavy metal, some shock jock with his laughing chick sidekick, hip hop…anything frenetic to spur the pace of a pieceworker’s day or distract from the existential pain of another hour of the rest of one’s life.

I also work in people’s homes, mostly VERY nice homes. Most of them are wired for sound and video in every room. I’ve seen TV’s in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. I once built an entertainment center in a master bedroom that had a centerpiece for a 52” TV (back when that was the biggest available) and nine smaller TV’s surrounding it so the people could watch several channels at once in bed. When I work in someone’s home the people always ask me, “Do you want some music? How about a CD…what do you like? Do you want me to turn on the TV for you?”

“No thanks.”

“Really?... Are you SURE? Its no trouble… here’s the media center, this is how…”

“No, really… thank you anyway.”

“Ohhhh Kayy…but if you want, here it is.”


Then they wander around the house like they are lost, not knowing if they should turn on the TV or stereo anyway. Eventually they find a place to watch TV or play a radio…anything to break the silence. I can literally say, I’ve only had one client in 26 years who said they were glad to finally meet someone who loved quiet as much as they did. Their house was always silent.

I’ve worked with people who cannot endure silence. It has been a rare employee who can work wordlessly, quietly without having to fill the silence with chatter, humming, singing or earphones pounding something into their heads.

Why? If we encounter silence, intuitively we know something will die. Silence is the precursor to encounter. And we are afraid.

Let me say here: No, I’m not a monk-a-bee, I don't stand in my closet full of icons, burning incense and mumbling the Jesus Prayer on a rope the length of jumper cables. Yes, I enjoy music, all kinds. I’ve seen ZZ Top, Cowboy Junkies, Phoenix Symphony, Eric Clapton, Kitaro, Pinchas Zuckerman, Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin, Yoyo Ma…I love chant, James Brown and Hank Williams. I go to NBA basketball games...well, you get the idea. But many years ago, I set my heart to learn to live comfortably without distractions and noise, and I prefer it above even beautiful sound.

What happens in silence? It is a descent into a place where we have no familiar landmarks, no baubles, bright lights and kaleidoscopic fracturing of reality to hold our attention. We walk into a foggy, still, silent landscape and open a creaking gate that leads to a bleak house that has not been tended for years… it is our inner self. And like all horror movies, what is encountered within can only be preceded by silence.

But what lies within? Yes, the demons. Our self created demons, our twisted perceptions, our vain hopes of escaping unharmed, our panicked reactions to reality, our inattention to signs of impending doom, our lusts and passions, like failing flashlights, that give us irrational courage to enter into dark rooms and descend into black basements. The audience hears the silence, but we don’t. If we attend to it, fear grips us because we know something is about to leap on us and drag us screaming into hell.

But there is always something more in the bleak house: Redemption. Within the house always lies the path out, the tools to overcome, an epiphany, a strength within that rises up and conquers the demons and in the end, the silence opens to the daylight, the world now seen as a sign of salvation, the casting down of the powers of darkness…sounds are now a comfort and peace. Silence no longer is foreboding, it is joy.

God waits within, in the bleak house we have neglected, wherein lies all our demons. The path to encountering both is silence. And we must encounter both to break out into the Light.


For another great reflection on the same subject, written by a blogger who calls himself "James the Thickheaded," click here.

1 comment:

Clint said...

I think we are programmed (at least in America and the West) to despise silence.

When we get in our vehicles, we either turn on the radio or cd player (or mp3 player).

I once drove for an hour reciting the Jesus Prayer. It was one of my best hours driving ever. Makes me wonder why I don't do it more often.