I like silence. We are friends. This is one of the reasons why I stay up late sometimes. I love the silence that descends upon both house and street when most people are sleeping. A week or so ago, I found myself out on the lawn in the earliest hours of the morning just listening to the stillness. For a brief moment, I could hear no sound at all. Instead, I became much more deeply aware of the cool grass beneath my bare feet and of the soft movement of the leaves on the trees. It was almost as if my being expanded to fill the space. Then an owl called. Then there was the sound of a car on the town’s bypass. The silence was broken.
The best nights, of course, are those (rare ones in Somerset) when it is snowing. Again, there have been nights when, unable to sleep for excitement, I have been out in the garden at 3 am watching the snow fall; each flake gently kissing the earth as it wraps the world in silence. They have reminded me of these words from John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn:
‘As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down’
I like silence. In silence, I can think without distraction. Or I can just be. In silence, if I stop to listen, I become aware of the depths of the Presence that I call God. This is not to say that God is not also found in the hub-bub of people existence. It’s simply to say that, in the silence, I can plumb depths that cannot be plumbed in the midst of distractions. It’s like the difference between paddling on the edges of a vast ocean and suddenly becoming aware that it stretches for miles and miles in length, breadth and depth and holds far more than I am able to fully comprehend.
I like silence. That is, I like a certain kind of silence. However, some kinds of silence are not so easy to deal with. There is the silence of absence, for example; a silence that aches with the memory of those who are no longer with us. Then there is the silence of hostility; a silence of words too full of anger, hatred or dismissal to be spoken. There is the silence of fear; a silence of memories we’d rather forget or nightmares we’d rather not face. There is the silence of agitation; a silence that wants to be doing rather than being. Finally, there is the silence of subjection or limitation; a silence that is imposed rather than chosen.
There is a sense in which none of these are true silence. The voices may not be audible, but they are still there. I remember some comments that were made the first time I experienced silence as part of a group retreat. We were students. Several of us had never had the opportunity to share in an extended prayerful silence before, including the speaker. He said that people had often said of him that he was a quiet person. He said that what they didn’t know was just how much ‘noise’ was going on in his head. He said that, even in the silence, he had found it extremely difficult to shut that noise up.
All this creates a paradox. When the silence becomes uncomfortable, the temptation is to avoid it; to fill it with more noise, whether audible or not. The noise of Facebook, for example, with its pictures, news, events, ideas, games, cartoons, comments, appeals… Yet, for me, silence remains necessary. I need to be able to hear the voices in the night of my soul, even if I might prefer to block them out. If I do not allow myself sufficient quiet to hear and respond to them, then the noise in my head becomes overwhelming.
In the outer world, I cannot live without silence. It’s part of the way I’m made. This is why I rarely turn on the TV or radio and why I don’t like cities. I find the noise too overwhelming. Sometimes, too, I have stayed away from Facebook or unfollowed certain friends for a while. I’ve needed to cut the noise down. Yet it’s this latter kind of noise that I find the hardest to put the boundaries on – the noise that invades without a sound being heard. My restless mind is inclined to chase one thought after another in endless spirals, frequently oblivious to the need for true silence… until it leaps out unbidden and captures me again with its depth and beauty.
I like silence. Silence is my friend. But sometimes I think we could do with getting better acquainted.