For while peaceful silence enwrapped all things, Thine all-powerful word leaped from heaven, down from the royal throne... —Traditional antiphon for Christmas
Sometimes, in the midst of a 24-hour silent retreat, it’s as if I can “hear” the silence. No longer the absence of noise, the silence—especially when it’s with a group of people sharing it—begins to feel full, pregnant, on the verge of disclosing something important.
The haunting cry of a bird rises and falls, as if out of a vast silent music or one hears footsteps coming down the hall that would be missed in the midst of chatter. And inwardly, the hidden and layers of heart and soul are more likely to surface.
An avalanche of sound
Our culture has been in full flight from such silences for two or three generations now. Most pre-industial folk lived without the onslaught of constant sound. They regularly walked beaten paths to wells without bluetooth receivers in their ears; weeded crop fields without I-pods shooting music straight into their brains; spent evening after evening on the porch listening to the insect and animal sounds of the unfolding night or by the winter fire without the benefit of radio or TV.
There was more space to hear their own inner music, more time to savor the sounds of the natural world, more chances to “ponder in their heart,” like Mary, important events, meanings, hopes and dreams. More time to listen to the soul.
A good friend and colleague, who spent fourteen years training to be a Jesuit before he decided to leave the order told me recently how important the long hours of communal and solitary silence had been for his formation as a young man. “I became really aware of my inner life for the first time; my moods, my deeper ponderings.” The pre-Vatican II Jesuits “got a lot wrong, but they got the Silence right.”
The gifts of silence
Silence can startle us into awe, an awe the fear of silence keeps at bay. The college-age daughter of another friend spent months as a volunteer way out in the vast savannas of Africa. A decade ago, the remote countryside was free of our kind of noise, beyond all media, mostly beyond air lanes. The vastness of the sky, the spaciousness of the land, but most of all the silence at first intimidated her, and then drew her into its power. She found it, quite precisely, awesome. It touched the hard-wired chords in us that psychologists call the numinous, the sense of sacredness. The silence became both background and constant companion.
In the overwhelming presence of nature’s basal background silence, she found that primal human sense of being both utterly dwarfed by the vast aliveness of the world and also somewhat safely-slotted into her proper species-niche. Her busy little human mind slowed down, and her thoughts emerged from an inner silence just like the call of a bird arising.
So, I ask, is this naturally-arising sense of the numinous, of the presence of that which makes the heart expand in awe and wonder—of God—eclipsed by our cluttered chatter-clatter-crash-bang silence-free way of life? Music is good; conversation great; cinema enriching. But, without silence, do these pull a veil in our brains our deeper responses to the beauty of the natural world, and filter out the deeper voices of the soul?
And if divinity wished to speak, how could we possibly hear the Voice amidst the din?
This is the third in an Advent series exploring some of the cultural, non-theological reasons for the eclipse of the experience of God for so many in 'advanced' societies.
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