It’s very early; the window’s open. I can hear birdsong, the muffled thud and whir of a boiler beginning to heat water for morning baths, and behind it all, the sibilance of a breeze in the beeches. It’s quiet, but it’s not silent.
I’m thinking about how a return to normal life will sound; the sound of our daily life, its pitch and intensity. I hardly listen to the radio these days. Or watch the news on TV. They call it a news ‘cycle,’ but it isn’t a cycle, it’s a crescendo. Living in a houseful of teenagers, I’ve learned to search for silence where and when I can.
But I’m not actually talking about ambient sound. I’m talking about trying to find silence in our lives, actively boring down to the silence-filled aquifers between the strata of our lives. It’s a case, partly, of weaning ourselves off a diet of permanent distraction. But it’s more than that. Silence is not the absence of noise, it’s not emptiness, but is itself a fullness, a presence. To think of silence as mere absence is to fall for a trick we’ve played on ourselves.
In his posthumously published book, Judge for Yourselves! Kierkegaard writes of a political and theological imperative:
Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today.
He is echoing the prophet Habbakuk’s order ‘Let all the earth keep silence before Him.’ (Hab 2:20) A message we rarely hear these days. It’s a great shame, I think, and indicative, that the following verse from the ever popular Dear Lord and Father of mankind is often omitted from modern hymnals:
With that deep hush subduing allfrom Dear Lord and Father of mankind by John Greenleaf Whittier
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
In this hymn, God’s presence in the world is felt as a deep, subduing hush, as noiseless, as whisper. And it’s our words and works, filling the silence, that absently drown out God. We’ve forgotten how to be quiet. In one of his Christmas sermons, the Cistercian abbot, Guerric of Igny (c.1070-1157) invites us ‘to hear the loving and mysterious silence of the Eternal Word speaking to us.’ It doesn’t sound like office party season and Jingle Bells, does it?
Silence speaks to us:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;Psalm 19:1-4
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
I’ve probably quoted these verses before but I love them so much. Full of discourse: telling, proclaiming, declaring, pouring forth speech. And yet: no speech, no words, no voice heard. The paradox is profound. As Guerric writes of a silent Word, so the Psalmist refers to silence as speech, both recognising that we’re running up against the very limits of language, where speech breaks down, where discourse dissolves. But the silence abides, like God.
Like God, silence is limitless. Sounds come and go; silence stays. And like God, it is utterly simple: it does not increase or decrease, it cannot be divided. Silence lies behind all sound; sound emerges from silence and returns to it. So silence is the opposite of absence; it is that in virtue of which every sound is able to be present. And silence is ineffable: to speak about silence is to deny it, to obliterate it. It does not depend on anything else; it is underived.
And like God too, silence often goes unrecognised or unheeded, even actively extirpated and vilified. The crucifixion was noisy. Silence is weak, useless, defeated. We have a right to remain silent, but we think it guiltily ‘speaks volumes’ nonetheless. There is no profit or utility in silence; you can’t exploit it. Silence becomes a political gesture in a world built on noise:
Having set myself sometimes to consider the various activities of mankind, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, rash and even wicked undertakings, etc., I have often said that all men’s unhappiness is due to the single fact that they cannot stay quietly in a room.Pascal, Pensées, 139
I once borrowed The World of Silence by Max Picard (1888-1965) from a library in London. Years later, I came across a copy in a second hand bookshop and bought it immediately. First published in 1948, it’s almost completely forgotten now, and very hard to find, but it’s full of wisdom and I highly recommend it. Picard says this:
There is more help and healing in silence than in all the “useful things”. Purposeless, unexploitable, silence suddenly appears at the side of the all-too-purposeful, and frightens us by its very purposelessness.Max Picard, The World of Silence, 19
He describes silence as ‘holy uselessness’. The frightening silence behind the birdsong, the boiler, and the breeze in the beeches is holy and healing in its very uselessness. I can put it to no use; rather, it puts me to use. And that use is prayer.
In prayer, the silence of early morning, the relative silence of my study is absorbed in the absolute silence of God. My silence rests in His silence.
For God alone my soul waits in silence;Psalm 62:1
from him comes my salvation.
God bless you all,
As the Psalmist recognises so brilliantly, it’s impossible to talk or sing about silence without effacing the silence itself. 4’33” is a musical composition from 1952 by American composer John Cage (1912-1992). On numerous occasions, Cage described 4’33” as his most important work.
[Before praying, pause, breathe. Close the lid of the world. Feel the heft of the silence.]
breath of our breath, noiseless blessing:
in the rush, stillness,
in the noise, hush,
in trouble, peace,
all in your Word,
our Lord Jesus Christ,