Let’s pluck another melody on the theme of “Not Fitting In” and how the saint must necessarily contradict his or her own generation. This time, let’s wade into strange waters: the topic of silence.
There are, no doubt, a few flaming arrows ready to be twangged into this post (and this topic in general) with accusations of ‘you just sound like an old man!’ If this post sounds old-man like, then hopefully it is because it speaks wisdom, not stiff, crotchety cane-waging at ‘these mangy kids!’ Regardless, isn’t it best not to be concerned with sounding a certain way and to just to speak what one recognizes as good and true? With that, let’s march onward…
Newsflash: we live in a noisy culture (for the eyes and ears). We live surrounded by man-made inventions, which add a lot of clutter and debris. Our culture isn’t one with a lot of natural sounds, but it trembles with flat-out chaos. Think about this: the average person in an average day sees 5,000 advertisements! On top of these ‘background images,’ mindless ‘background music’ is omnipresent. Cars, TV, iPods, iPads, iPhones, the Internet, etc. all fill our eyes and ears with stimulating, attention-seeking stuff intended to hook and reel us in. And the suppliers and purveyors of this noise are always looking for something catchier, more stimulating, sticky, seductive and jarring. All of this hems us into a constant buzzing swarm of white-noise in which there is no rest and (ironically) no hearing. There is a tragedy in all of this that one can sense in a poignant sentence from Tolkien:
The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. (Preface to The Lord of the Rings)
And for this reason, the famous philosopher Soren Kirekegaard once remarked (in 1846):
If I were a doctor, if I were allowed to prescribe one remedy for the modern man, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world it would be chocked to death with noise. It would not be heard because there is no silence. (The Present Age)
There is nothing wrong at all with sound; but the ceaseless clanking around us has morphed into something different: it is a coercive, ruling, dictatorial clutter that lays hold of us. And worst of all, we buy into it. We think we always need to have some kind of noise around us. The TV, the computer, the headphones, the speakers – something has to be on at all times to save us from the mute void that lies on the other side! We become bloated and heavy – mindlessly, yet anxiously, clinging to something to fill our heads. The danger is that we become deaf to hearing anything…
Did not Konrad Weiss aptly remark that it is precisely in the midst of an age of loudness that an unbounded muteness can reign? (Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings)
So if our generation is one of a deafening, chocking noise, then perhaps we need to contradict it; perhaps we need some space for silence.
Think of a young Fr. Karol Wojtyla. In order to form youth and young adults of his (also rather noisy) time, he withdrew from the normal man-made banging and crunching that filled the everyday air and plunged into the surrounding mountains, forests and rivers. Why? Because there he knew his pupils would be free to hear. Removed from the furnace of a hundred competing sounds and voices, these kids wouldn’t be yanked every-which-way. In essence, only free, unoccupied ears could receive the truth he wanted to awaken in them.
Again, it is not soundlessness that is being lauded here. The Polish mountains, forests and rivers are hardly places devoid of all sound. Such a malignant, artificial absence of words and sounds is not the remedy we need. What we need is a listening silence: a silence given over to the possibility of hearing something, the possibility of a purer perception of reality. Such a silence comes to us like a fresh breeze because it is the delightful posture of one who receives a gift, of one who opens a treasure. Listen to the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the German Shakespeare):
There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure [or gift] properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides. (1803)
Josef Pieper commented on these countercultural habits of Goethe:
This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. (The Silence of Goethe, pg. 26)
So it is clear that he saw himself like this: “a magic oyster washed over by strange waves”; as one who has learned that “we and our ilk prosper only in stillness”; as “the hermit who, though in this cell, still hears the raging of the sea.” (The Silence of Goethe, pg. 7)
Someone might object here, “This all seems a little esoteric and odd.” That’s a fair complaint. Indeed, what is the point of this stillness, this listening silence? The answer has been hinted at, but we can trumpet it aloud now: because (mysteriously and miraculously enough), the world and we human beings are so constituted that if we just listen into the depths of things, we will hear something. That should make our hair stand on-end! Reality reveals itself to us! The truth, goodness and beauty of everything around us give themselves to us. And, if we receive this gift, we find that we absolutely love it – we cannot get enough of it. (Test it: go for a walk in the woods and just listen.)
In the end this is because the world (indeed all of reality) is not some blank, lifeless material for us to manipulate, but it is something alive (even Someone alive!) that allures and beckons to us, “Come and see.” It presents itself to us for loving union. Again, Pieper:
…we have to ask is there not in silence – listening silence – necessarily a shred of hope? For who could listen in silence to the language of things if he did not expect something to come of such awareness of the truth? (The Silence of Goethe, pg. 29)
For this reason we can sing with David:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; / 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. (Psalm 19:1-4)
As always, inherent in all of this is a conception and understanding of the question, ‘Who is man?’ Are we orphans left alone to noisily grab and toil to fill our own bellies? Or are instead children of the King; called to open our hands, hearts and ears in His royal Courts to receive “abundant life?”
If we are indeed children of the King, then let’s act like it and check out from this world’s horror hotel of anxious noise-gobbling. Our peers would benefit from seeing this freedom in us. Let us make room – not for a mute, soundless void – but for a listening silence aimed at receiving what Creation mysteriously gives to us. If we still ourselves and listen, “…how much more will [our] Father who is in heaven give good things” to we who present ourselves to Him? In cultivating this kind of silence we find an unexpected love, joy and peace awaiting us because we discover more deeply who we are: children resting in the bosom of our Father and Creator.