A friend of mine was party to a conversation among several folks committed to the spiritual life. I wasn’t there, so I have no idea who these folks are, except for my friend who told the tale. Apparently, the subject of silence came up. Everyone agreed that silence was essential to living a contemplative life. But then, something interesting happened. One person said, “I just don’t turn on my television any more.” Another chimed in, “That’s right. My grandson gave me an MP3 player and I’ve never even used it.” More such comments followed. No TV, no stereo, no MP3, no computer, no nothing. Just… silence.
My friend said she reached the point where she was about to scream.
Sure, the thought of people engaged in contemplative spirituality trying to one-up each other (“I live a more silent life than you do!”) is amusing enough. But I think what really got my friend’s proverbial goat was the fact that everyone was focusing on the externality of silence. It was as if contemplation could be simply measured by the average decibel level in one’s environment. The fewer noisemakers, the more spiritually advanced we are.
Now, I cannot fully fault my friend’s friends, not only because I wasn’t there but also because it seems to me that this is an all-too-human foible. We continually confuse the interior state of our souls with the external realities in our lives. We assume that impoverished people are naturally more holy than wealthy people, when in fact it is possible that someone could be homeless and imprisoned in their passions and addictions, while another person with a vast fortune at their disposal is quietly and humbly trying to help others and live a life wholly ordered to love. Catholicism teaches that a person having committed a serious sin must seek sacramental reconciliation before participating in the eucharistic feast, but this way of thinking excludes from Communion the person who is truly sorry for their sins but for whatever reason is not able (or, simply, feels too ashamed) to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation, while it enables the one who is capable of pretending to be sorry (without true repentance) to go through the motions and avoid any true interior conversion. We can pass judgment on such a person all we want, but the other, truly sorry, person remains unfed.
And so it is with the disciplines of the contemplative life. Does turning off the electronic gadgets in our lives help to foster silence? I believe so. But we do well to remember that exterior silence is valuable only insofar as it serves interior silence. In other words, the true measure of our spiritual growth is the attention we pay to simply allowing inner silence to flourish — regardless of how noisy our environment may be. Spending time in a quiet room while passively entertaining the chatter of the mind is not any more contemplative than listening to rock and roll. Meanwhile, if beautiful music, or an interesting film, or some other “noisy” activity can help us to grow in grace and in appreciation of the beauty of life, such activities can complement contemplation beautifully. For that matter, there’s no reason why contemplatives cannot dance. Indeed, to paraphrase Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your contemplation!”