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The value of silence

One of my pet peeves is that there are very few public places--except maybe a library--where there is not an electronic device putting out a cacophony of images and sounds (the latter of which is often confused with what I once knew as "music"). Whether it's the grocery store, the doctor's office, or even the gym, there's an endless stream of stuff impinging upon your eyes and ears.

So, I was delighted to come across this piece, "Silence, Please," authored by Susan Hill. Here are some excerpts:

We have betrayed several generations of children in many ways — by giving the teaching of skills priority over that of knowledge, by making exams easier out of a false egalitarianism, by letting them choose their own morality from a soup of political correctness, by over-emphasising the importance of the computer as if it were anything more than a useful tool, and of the internet as if it were more content-rich than books. But we have also betrayed them by confiscating their silence and failing to reveal the richness that may be found within the context of "a great quiet".

It is fatally easy, as one grows older, to slip into the habit of grumbling that nothing is what it was and lamenting the inferiority of what is. We live in a noisy world but we have a remarkable facility for blotting out sounds that have no meaning for us at any given moment. We are a remarkably adaptable species. Trains have never been quiet places yet many people read books, and not just the literary equivalent of fast food, on them and many do scholarly and other work requiring considerable concentration. A high-flying friend who went through an academic career achieving "A" grades and starred firsts was never able to study without a background of pop music. Traffic, aeroplanes, iPods, muzak, TV, radio, constant chatter, barking dogs, heavy machinery — we no longer hear them. Yet when we arrive in a place of profound quiet, we "come to" and find something of ourselves that we did not realise we had lost, an attentiveness, a renewed awareness of our own innermost thoughts and sensations, as well as a great calm.

But so difficult has it become to find such oases of silence, that many children never experience it. In adapting to constant noise, we seem to have become afraid of silence. Why? Are we afraid of what we will discover when we come face to face with ourselves there? Perhaps there will be nothing but a great void, nothing within us, and nothing outside of us either. Terrifying. Let's drown our fears out with some noise, quickly.

The critic Philip Hensher complained recently about the background music to an exhibition, saying that museums were far better silent. Libraries always were relatively so, and certainly most academic reference ones still are, but muzak has been creeping into public lending libraries lately, because the management has decided that silence is elitist and off-putting — despite numerous voices raised to the contrary....

Silence is a rich and fertile soil in which many things grow and flourish, not least an awareness of everything outside oneself and apart from oneself, as well, paradoxically, as everything within. The Bible is full of people gaining understanding and wisdom and being given important messages, when they go into silent places, to pray or simply to rest in the presence of God. Prophets and saints went into deserts and up mountains. Jesus felt the need to get away from the crowds that followed him and pressed in on him, to be alone to pray and be refreshed, gather himself together again in silence and solitude. We call it recharging our batteries.

Our children are too rarely given that opportunity or taught that the contrast between noise and quietness, like the parallel one between being in company and being alone, is vital to the growth and maturity of the individual. Silence is a place, a quality but its value increases when it is entered into as a place of contrast. We enjoy the light so much because the darkness exists. Silence is all the richer when experienced after we have been in noisy places. Solitude is enjoyable as a contrast to company. A friend teaches in a primary school and her class raised money by having a sponsored silence. Not only did they do well financially — she told me that they enjoyed the novelty of being quiet so much they asked if they could have a "silent time" more often, so she has set aside half an hour for it every Friday afternoon. It has had a magical effect on the behaviour of some hyperactive seven year olds, and when asked to draw or write a description of what the silence means to them, what they feel or think or imagine or hear or see when they are inside their silent space, she told me that the results are the best of any she has had from them. They have focused and concentrated, and gone down into their own minds and hearts, to become aware of all kinds of subtleties and minute details of the world around them, as well as within themselves, in the stillness and quietness.


Now, find a quiet place and read the whole thing here.

Comments (52)

Libraries with muzak???!!! Thank goodness this horror has not yet come to my corner of the world. What a nightmare. I'm looking very much forward to reading the whole thing.

I would think that there would be scientific data on questions like concentration, memory, comprehension, etc., of difficult material (just for example) with and without background noise. Also perhaps studies related to children's behavior. I believe (if I'm not mistaken) that children with certain disorders such as ADHD and/or autism find a quiet atmosphere helpful, and I think this should be enlightening even for those of us without those disorders--i.e., that we are stressing our mental systems. I know that when I worked an office job I found it almost physically painful to have the radio on all day.

Also--yet another argument for home schooling. One can give one's children silence.

One can give one's children silence.

[heh] Not if you have to keep yelling at them to shut up!

On a related note, Eric Scheske penned a nice piece a few years back for the New Pantagruel identifying noise as The Eighth Capital Sin.

Thanks for linking to this, Frank. I am always on the lookout for articles that I can use in class to draw my students' attention to the need to think about the technological world they live in and not just live in it as if they had no choices. This will definitely be one of the ones they read this coming year.

Back in the 70s, when I was a college undergrad, the big "boom boxes" came into vogue; everyone was walking around campus carrying one with earphones. I remember even then wondering what Susan Hill asks in this article: what are they so afraid of? what is wrong with people who can't walk from the library across the street to the humanities building without noise? are they so afraid of themselves or so lacking in imagination and thoughtfulness that they can't stand even the "silence" of a college campus during class break for five minutes? Today it is worse with newer and easier-to-indulge technologies that rip away any need to be alone with one's mind and heart . . .

Has anyone here seen the film she mentions? It sounds intriguing.

Another good article link from Mr. Nicoloso -- thanks!

For a great treatment of silence loaded with insight, Max Picard's The World of Silence is hard to match;

"Where formerly an idea was covered by the silence, now a thousand associations speed along to it and bury it.

In this world of today in which everything is reckoned in terms of immediate profit, there is no place for silence. Silence was expelled because it was unproductive, because it merely existed and seemed to have no purpose.

Almost the only kind of silence that there is today is due to the loss of the faculty of speech. It is purely negative: the absence of speech. It is merely like a technical hitch in the continuous flow of noise."

http://www.hermitary.com/bookreviews/picard.html

Indispensible tool.

I'll let you Google "portable cell phone jammer" yourself.

I wouldn't mind a little more silence during Mass at times. Seems like there is a need to fill every moment with some sort of noise - a few minutes of silence for reflection after receiving (and even before!) would be greatly welcomed, at least by me.

Seems like there is a need to fill every moment with some sort of noise

We moderns dread silence and the communion it can lead to, so we subject everything, even the Liturgy, to the cruel measurements of utility and constant bombardment of noise, busyness and sensory overload.

Ratzinger has been railing against religious entertainment for a long time and is taking steps to rescue the Mass from modern escapism and incessant, banal clutter. But, we have to reawaken the desire for silence within our own souls and make it a daily event before such efforts can take effect.

Satan, doesn't like it, but he will let us go to Mass and pray all we want. But 15 minutes alone and in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or in quiet, solitary reflection? No way. He has the TV, radio, internet, Ipod, phone and demands of the Golden Calf to keep us numbingly preoccupied during our frenetic flight from God.

Ratzinger has been railing against religious entertainment for a long time and is taking steps to rescue the Mass from modern escapism and incessant, banal clutter.

Too bad that such attempts are deplorably futile, especially given the apathy amongst the typical parishoners, the symphony of cellphone ringtones that certain attendees at Mass shamelessly and even deliberately let play, and the tragic treatment of the Eucharist and even Mass itself (not to mention, their very Catholicism) as nothing other than a consumer product for that quick "pick me up" that most moderns utilize to their heart's content in order to feel good about themselves rather than focussing primarily about what Christianity and God is all about.

Truly a sad state.

No wonder silence is avoided; it would only cause such people to reflect how utterly pathetic their 'christianity' is in comparison to our early Christian brothers and sisters who held to more genuine values and an authentic Christianity.

God help us.

I wonder, ought we to consider blog posting noise?

I think there are analogous concerns for all kinds of media; a relevant difference is the ease of protecting ourselves from such things. It's easier to keep off the blogs than to control the neighbor's audio equipment.

It's easier to keep off the blogs than to control the neighbor's audio equipment.

Its easier to shut down the sounds generated by others, than it is to resist the many distractions we rely on.

I wonder, ought we to consider blog posting noise?


Absolutely. Can't consider it a contemplative activityy.

No, I'm with Albert. When I go to the dentist's office and have to wait for an hour for my appointment, I _cannot_ shut off the muzak. I must listen to it, lyrics and all. It's terrible. It makes it impossible to think. If I want visual "silence," I can, right now, walk away from this computer and sit on my back porch and watch the birds. I do it a lot. Sometimes I read a book, sometimes not. The two are not even remotely the same.

Our dentist now has tv in the waiting room, which I can only silence if no one else is listening, and there's no place to sit where you can *not* see it, also. It's terribly hard to read against it! And now they have tvs in the actual patient rooms -- I have to beg for it to be turned off, and often they only turn it way down, not really off, so it's still *there* . . . Very, very frustrating!

Silence is not the mere absence of noise, is it?

While we're assaulted by sound every day, the most egregious kind is of our own creation. In fact the intrusions that occur at the dentist, on the train, or walking down the street wouldn't be so unsettling if we experienced more silent moments on our own.

In fact the intrusions that occur at the dentist, on the train, or walking down the street wouldn't be so unsettling if we experienced more silent moments on our own.

No. In fact, people who have to put up with more of that probably are more inured to it than someone like me who is fortunate enough to have lots of privacy and peace.

Lydia,

While you may have a point there (obviously), wasn't what you just mentioned concerning how such people are perhaps more inured to such things was something that our illustrious Kevin alluded to earlier in his comment: "Its easier to shut down the sounds generated by others, than it is to resist the many distractions we rely on."

Unless, of course, Kevin was simply being deliberately obtuse for some feigned reason, as could easily be the case given certain historical precedence.

In fact, people who have to put up with more of that probably are more inured to it than someone like me who is fortunate enough to have lots of privacy and peace.

I think one of the many, incalculable benefits of silence is it insulates one against modernity's attacks on the interior life. The outside can be jarring, no doubt, but it is easily overcome when one is a state of communion. In fact, I find lots of energy and most remarkably - time when I actively enter silence. Of course the converse is also true; fatigue, distraction and feeling squeezed for time mean I've avoided silence.

Now, now Ari, my obtuseness is never by design.

Kevin:

To be clear, when you speak of 'silence' do you actually mean actual silence or silence of the eastern philosophy kind (i.e., that which tends to 'inner peace')?

In any event, I suggest you read up on Thomas Merton for your reflections.

Ari, No, I don't mean silence of the eastern philosophy kind , but as it has been understood in all its many varied forms for close to almost 2000 years here in the West.

By the way, Merton claimed Picards The World Of Silence was an enormous influence on his life.

I suspected as well a Mertonian influence in your own comments; nonetheless, thanks for the info.

Although, I believe even Peter Kreeft himself somehow drew a parallel between how we in the West understand such a concept in comparison with how the East conceives it to be; somehow, someway, he had found some sort of identical pattern in the two to the point of being equal in comparison.

Still, though the overall force of his thoughts on the matter leaves me unconvinced; there nevertheless is food for thought there, if you care to indulge yourself in what he has to say about East vs. West concerning this.

Well, I'm a plain man, I am, and I can't achieve any sort of "inner silence" when I'm being jarred by a girl screaming, "I get so emotional, baby," over my head in the check-out lane. I've tried it, and I can't. It may be a fault in me, but I believe that silence of the plain, ordinary, garden-variety kind--yep, plain old absence of noise--is helpful to contemplation and clear thought.

The silence of nature is a conflicting silence from the human point of view. It is a blessed silence because it gives man an intuitive feeling of the great silence that was before the world and out of which everything arose. And it is oppressive at the same time because it puts man back into the state in which the word might be taken away from him again into that original silence.
Max Picard

Noise is generated out of fear so it should not be a surprise that our culture is an exceptionally loud one.

I believe that silence of the plain, ordinary, garden-variety kind--yep, plain old absence of noise--is helpful to contemplation and clear thought.

Of course it is helpful and good and hard enough to find, but there is much more to it, which is why we avidly seek it in our saner moments and run from it all too frequently.

I must be weird, then, because I seek silence all the more avidly when I'm in my less sane moments--grumpy, unhappy, nasty, or irrational. Noise is even more irritating then. Whereas if I'm feeling great, I might just crank the radio.

I must be weird, then, because I seek silence all the more avidly when I'm in my less sane moments--grumpy, unhappy, nasty, or irrational. Noise is even more irritating then. Whereas if I'm feeling great, I might just crank the radio.

The last refuge of the Tyrant is often the Sacred.

That is, we only crave for such things only when we are in need of them the most.

This is practically the only time when we find them necessary and ultimately desire these.

Silence seems to accompany holiness, and I think that is a good enough reason to be discussing it. But I've seen a confused thinking whereby silence in itself becomes the source of the holiness. In this perversion silence is an entity and a force of itself. This is fundamentally the Buddhist conception, that silence is indeed a pulling force into which one can peacefully lose oneself. This may be healthy at first, since the first things to go are usually the distractions, but heaven forbid it goes farther than that. One should never seek to lose one's self in the silence. But for the Buddhist this is the point. Incarnation is the sin.

In the Christian understanding, silence is healthy and beautiful because it is not empty. In reflective silence the individual stands directly before God. While it may be perfectly true that the youngster rolling down the sidewalk with his headphones on is before God, and so are the rest of us all of the time; silence brings the physical world into alignment with the spiritual fact.

I think the material for healthy reflection is three-fold: 1) physical silence, 2) God's presence, and 3) willful reflection by the individual. Of these, the first is only helpful and not necessary, and the second is the only one that always avails itself.

Brett:

You've adequately put into words exactly why I find Kreeft's attempts at equivalence between Eastern and Western's conception concerning the matter unconvincing; although, I would hardly employ the rather strong term "perverse" to describe his thoughts on the matter.

I think there is much spiritual literature on the matter that would profoundly elaborate on the virtue of silence.

Although, while physical silence may indeed be conducive to spiritual reflection; it isn't exactly a mandatory must most especially in times of trying adversities and persecutions where some of the most heroic saints of Christendom often were surrounded by the anguished cries, indeed, the very screams of the suffering and, yet, in the midst of all that were able to persevere and find a certain silence that would surpass even physical silence itself and, furthermore, is a sign of that grace and peace that could only come form God Himself.

Silence seems to accompany holiness

No, silence is essential to communion. Silence is not an option, but the necessary portal to a active prayer life one must pass through for holiness.

But I've seen a confused thinking whereby silence in itself becomes the source of the holiness. In this perversion silence is an entity and a force of itself.

Silence is the language of lovers. Without it one never really listens, sees or feels as lovers do.

And as Picard states above, the silence of nature is holy, as it was a condition of creation and allows us to truly feel life's first sacred movements. We enter into silence not to escape, but to find our true selves through the experience of God.

silence brings the physical world into alignment with the spiritual fact.

And without this alignment can we truly experience God?

If we don't meet Him regularly in the silence, we will not be able to practice His Presence in the maelestrom of modern life. This insight goes back at least 2000 years and is why project to recovering the sacramental understanding of life includes silent prayer as an essential ingredient. All attempts at a Reform of the Reform of the Liturgy call for restoring the necessary time and space for silence.

Outer turbulence is an expression of inner turmoil and one surmounts the latter by meeting God on his turf; silence.

some of the most heroic saints of Christendom often were surrounded by the anguished cries, indeed, the very screams of the suffering and, yet, in the midst of all that were able to persevere and find a certain silence that would surpass even physical silence itself

Indeed, and do these cries not surround us even as we speak?

I would be curious what the rest of you would think about the notion that silence can be dangerous. There is a certain sort of spiritual illness that grows in the dark and feeds on loneliness. In these cases distraction can be a remedy, and even poor company can sometimes dispel despair. Chesterton wrote about the intellectual maniac in terms similar to this, what about the despondent?

It should go without saying that our society isn't in danger of too little noise. But I think it is interesting to note that it is only a very rare and special man that is called, as St. Anthony was called, to absolute loneliness and silence. Company seems a necessity even, and sometimes especially, in important things. In an indirect way, I think this speaks to the fact that the Church and the individual are both required for communion with God.

Kevin,

Concerning the essential/unessential disagreement you raise at the start, I don't really think there's one. I would say that for everyone short of the saint some amount of silence is indeed necessary. for initiates it is most important, with it decreasing in "necessity" as one approaches sainthood--hence the scandal that the one mass the laity go to a week is never silent. That silence stops being "necessary" in the strict sense for the saint isn't because the saint ceases to reflect as he does in silence, but it is because he is capable of carrying his peace with him, because the saint is always reflectively before God.

But this is a very pedantic point. I was trying to draw attention to the fundamental difference between a silence in which one can hear God and a silence in which one hears Nothing. The virtue of the gentle breeze was that God spoke through it. Other than that, as blessed as some romantics may find the breeze to be, it is not virtuous in and of itself.

Other than that point, I'm sure you were just using my comments as a springboard. In that case, I am always happy to be of some small use here.

Not meaning to ignore all that is being said here, but I want to recommend a little and largely unknown novella by, of all people, Agatha Christie, writing under a pen-name. It's called _Absent in the Spring_. A rather shallow and domineering woman gets stranded in the Middle East at a rest house by a train station, because the tracks are washed out. She is in no danger, but there is no one who speaks much English, and she is more or less alone for about two days. This forces her to reflect on her true relations with others, something she is anxious not to do. It's quite good, with a small "twist" ending that is actually quite predictable. Rather like a good short story.

I was trying to draw attention to the fundamental difference between a silence in which one can hear God and a silence in which one hears Nothing.

Brett, if one hears Nothing they are in what I would assume to be a perilous spiritual state. I find it hard in silence to shut down all the inner noise; old home-run calls by Vin Scully, the urgency of a client's voice, or the not so innocent recall of whispers from the past can all overwhelm the silence. And then there is the temptation to doze off - “Could you not watch with me one hour?”

Silence is a great gift, but one we moderns saturated in the Gnostic discount with Creation flee from. Here are some quotes you might find helpful;

"Every solitary hour that is truly such contains a challenge,..That is why there is so little real solitude…Although we pretend to long for it, we avoid it and start up a noise within ourselves."
Hans Urs von Balthasar


What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.
St John of the Cross

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature-trees, flowers, grass-grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.
Mother Teresa


Leisure is a form of silence, not noiselessness. It is the silence of contemplation such as occurs when we let our minds rest on a rosebud, a child at play, a Divine mystery, or a waterfall.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

Another fine book which addresses this and other related issues is Dale Allison's recent "The Luminous Dusk," which was entitled "The Silence of Angels" when it was originally published in 1995. Here's the description from Eighth Day Books:


The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places

by Dale C. Allison, Jr.

Published: 2006
178p, Paper

When we consider Homo sapiens in his environment, there are certain constants and certain variables to be considered. The variables mostly have to do with his environment, and the modern world has confronted him with changes in the conditions of that environment so radical as to defy comparison with those of any other age. The constants (for those of us who are not materialists) are the realities of his kinship with the beasts and his ineradicable desire for transcendence, for participation in divine life. Unless we are Gnostics, we must admit the inevitability of the impact of environment on human nature, and therefore ponder our own remarkable age. The nine essays contained in this book provoke us to do just that. Allison, a biblical scholar with interests ranging from science and literature to popular culture, asks us to take note of uniquely modern conditions so pervasive as to be invisible: the separation of most of us from the natural world, the absence of silence, the availability of artificial light, the attention to celebrity rather than heroism or sanctity, the multiplication of distraction, the impoverishment of the imagination. In prose elegant yet precise, and the use of ancient and modern sources astonishing in breadth, we are unrelentingly called to pay attention, to wonder, and finally to choose between an existence of numb mediocrity or divine ascent.


Wow, that sounds like a good one - thanks for sending it!

Wow, that sounds like a good one - thanks for sending it!

Isn't Dale C. Allison, Jr. the same guy who worked with the notorious 'Jesus Seminar' cult leader, John Dominic Crossan?

Isn't Dale C. Allison, Jr. the same guy who worked with the notorious 'Jesus Seminar' cult leader, John Dominic Crossan?

I don't know. Allison sounds like he is offering a needed corrective to de-natured Christians who have lost their sense of wonder, while Crossan always catered to a suburbanized form of faith that likes entertaining liturgies and a nice guy Jesus that won't embarrass them at social gatherings, or reprimand them at the Mall.

Yeah, same guy. Allison may have worked with Crossan, but I've heard him speak, and I've read some of his work besides this book, and he does not strike me at all as a 'Jesus Seminar' type. I wouldn't say he's a conservative, but he's far more moderate than Crossan, Borg, et al.

This book, in any case, doesn't have as much to do with his NT scholarship, as it does with culture, history, and theology. It's a gem, really.

Rob G:

Appreciate the info.

Hope you understand my being leery of anything (or anyone, for that matter) having to do with the infamous Crossan. Even so, I guess I shouldn't judge the man by the company he keeps but by his work.

I'll skim through it given the chance at the local bookstore -- albeit, with eyes wide open.

Lemme put it to you this way, Ari. I know at least a half-dozen folks who've read it, all of them with at least a fair degree of theological/literary training, and all of them robustly conservative both theologically and socio-politically, and they all really liked it. One guy bought several copies to give as gifts.

The only person I know personally that read it and didn't like it was a curmudgeonly Evangelical Episcopalian, who, frankly, didn't like much of anything and hadn't, by his own admission, read a work of literature or poetry in 20 years.

I am reading Picard right now, albeit slowly, as I haven't much silence at this time in which to pause and think as one needs to with it. It's challenging and, in many ways, comforting. The Allison book sounds exquisite, and is now on my to-purchase-soon list. Thanks for bringing it up, Rob.

You're welcome, Beth. Allison's book strikes me as what a collaboration between Wendell Berry and Anthony Esolen might sound like, if that's any help. (BTW, wouldn't THAT be a fantastic book!)

"a collaboration between Wendell Berry and Anthony Esolen": Oh, my goodness. I can hardly contain myself on that idea! Perhaps i shall try to get Tony to buy into it! :)

I'm assuming you know him? Go for it, Beth! I know him too, although not well -- we met through a mutual friend.

Well, I haven't yet "met" Tony, Rob -- but he has been remarkably gracious in creating a "cyber-friendship" (answering questions, praying for my family) since I wrote a couple of reviews for TS, and I feel like I know him. He will be coming, I'm reasonably sure, to Bryan College next spring to speak in our chapel and do some classes and workshops for us. I am very much looking forward to it, as you can imagine! (Our chapel folk are still negotiating dates, but we're pretty sure it will work out.)

BTW, Beth, are you the same person that posts as 'Beth from TN' over at Mere Comments?

I've met him twice -- the second time I had the chance to talk with him for about an hour and a half. He's a remarkably nice guy -- very down to earth.

Yes, I am. I try not to use my full name often on the web for a little bit of security. Not sure it matters that much when I *do* use it some places . . . :)

He seems to be very kind, indeed. I think our students will really, really appreciate him as well as be challenged by him. He plans to bring Davey with him and stay in one of the dorms -- a great opportunity for the guys!

Very good, Beth, on both counts...

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