Keeping Silent

The world is noisier than ever – at least on our street. New York’s one of those places that would be really, truly great if they ever finished it. The building next door is undergoing construction, which means pieces of its former insides are being ground up and compacted into garbage dump-trucks outside our windows.

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Many people see noise as a good thing signaling progress, energy, and excitement. “Make a joyful noise,” they cry. Others prefer the caution: “The Lord is in his temple; let all the earth keep silent before him.” Noise for seekers of stillness is a serious form of pollution that is annoying and unhealthy. It drains their joy and destroys peace and harmony.

In the scrimmage between the noisemakers and the silence-seekers, the former seem to be carrying the day. Venture outside, and you are likely to be assaulted by the sounds of car alarms, lawn mowers, air conditioners, boom boxes, and emergency vehicles.

Public spaces are no quieter. Moviegoers are now subjected to radio broadcasts and advertising before the film begins. Airport waiting rooms are filled with the sounds blaring from TV monitors. Music, punctuated by loud-speaker announcements, fills elevators, offices, stores, and malls. Designers actually use materials to increase the sound level in restaurants, knowing that when people hear noise, they think the place is busy, popular, and, therefore, good.

As if the machine noise weren’t bad enough, lovers of quiet must now suffer through people talking loudly into cell phones on the street, in restaurants, on the train, or at the beach. We often hear people in crowded theaters say into their phones, “Stand up so I can see where you are sitting.” Perhaps this is better than yelling out for a companion, but you have to wonder how anybody arranged to meet someone before the advent of wireless technology.

Increasingly, we find we can’t do much about the incivility of many noisemakers, whether they are night revelers lining up outside a club or people driving around with their windows down and their radios on full blast. But we can take small steps to subvert the culture’s acceptance of loud as the preferred sound level.

We love the practice suggested by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God.” Two distinct periods of silence a day are a good start.

We also can practice what we preach by keeping our sound systems at a moderate level, refraining from impatient horn honking in traffic, and respecting silence in houses of worship, libraries, and theaters.

For us, this also means that we do not use the radio or television as background noise for other activities. We don’t switch on the TV with the lights at night nor assume that dishes can’t be washed and clothes folded without a radio accompaniment.

When unwanted sounds intrude upon our devotions, we incorporate them into our prayers. For example, when loud, angry or distressed voices break your quiet, you might take the people to God in prayer, holding them in your consciousness with love. When a barking dog or chirping birds distract you while you are praying, use their presence as a reminder to thank God for the beauty and the diversity of the Creation. When a screaming child disturbs the nap you planned to take on an airplane, thank God for the sheer aliveness of the little ones.

When a siren breaks through your meditation in a park, switch to intercessory prayer and ask God to be with those in trouble and with those going to help. And when at prayer you find that deep place of nurturing silence within you, know that it, too, is a sign of God’s abiding love.

Here’s a gallery of quotes about silence. It’s a lovely focus for your reflections on the spiritual value of keeping silent.


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