Seeking Silence

Photo by Artur Nasyrov on Unsplash

A friend of mine sent along a newsletter written by Tish Harrison Warren, published in The New York Times. The article is titled “How Silence Became a Luxury Product.” The article is behind a paywall. If you subscribe to paper, you can read it in full. Here’s a section that caught my eye:

In his book “The World Outside Your Head,” Matthew Crawford advocates for what he calls an “attentional commons.” We as a society hold certain resources in common, like air and water. These vital resources are available to everyone as part of the common good. Crawford says that the “absence of noise” — auditory silence but also freedom from things like advertisements that intrude on our attention — should be seen as just such a resource. He writes, “As clean air makes respiration possible, silence, in this broader sense, is what makes it possible to think.” He argues that we all need access to quiet, undistracting spaces.

Crawford brings up the pricey quietude of the business class lounge at Charles De Gaulle Airport. I have only been in an exclusive airport lounge once (a friend got me in), but the sheer decadence of silence there — with its soundproof doors and walls — compared to the beeping, dinging, blaring in the rest of the airport was both delicious and disturbing. The silence was worth every penny, but why did only those who could pay those many pennies (or have friends who could) deserve it?

On weekdays in cities, churches sometimes keep their doors unlocked to provide a literal sanctuary from noise. This is an unsung kindness to the public, and every church who can do this, should. Still, not many can and this practice is more difficult now due to Covid precautions. As churches in urban areas close and are remade into trendy condos or restaurant space, we don’t just lose a worshiping congregation. We lose one more silent space.

It all leaves us asking, where can we go to find silence? There is an increasing need to preserve and protect publicly accessible silent spaces.

Where do you go to find silence?

“In All Directions, There Was Only Silence and Emptiness”

Photo by David Morris on Unsplash

I recently finished Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove [affiliate link], a novel I heartily recommend. I didn’t want it to end. Augustus McCrae, a philosopher, warrior, Texas Ranger and restless romantic, is now one of my favorite characters in literature. Here is a passage I enjoyed, an invitation to silence:

That night Augustus stopped to rest his horse, making a cold camp on a little bluff and eating some jerky he had brought along. He was in the scrubby post-oak country near the Brazos and from his bluff he could see far across the moonlit valleys.

It struck him that he had forgotten emptiness such as existed in the country that stretched around him. After all, for years he had lived within the sound of the piano from the Dry Bean, the sound of the church bell in the little Lonesome Dove church, the sound of Bol whacking the dinner bell. He even slept within the sound of Pea Eye’s snoring, which was as regular as the ticking of a clock.

But here there was no sound, not any. The coyotes were silent, the crickets, the locusts, the owls. There was only the sound of his own horse grazing. From him to the stars, in all directions, there was only silence and emptiness. Not the talk of men over their cards, nothing. Though he had ridden hard he felt strangely rested, just from the silence.

I read this passage not long after being on a silent retreat, but even there I could hear the sounds of a nearby highway, ongoing construction, the comings and goings of families, children playing soccer, the hum of electricity, the blowing of an air conditioner, the creaking of doorways, the flushing of toilets.

But at least for a moment, through the reading of a novel, I could imagine a deeper silence, and long for it.

The Need for Silence

So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.

– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98

The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.

In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.

In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.

The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.

The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.

And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.

God call us to both.