Written by Michael Fones
Tuesday, 16 March 2010 12:02
On Friday evening, after the first session of the retreat I gave outside Halifax, NS, as I was walking back to my cabin, I had to pause. The retreat center is about 45 minutes outside Halifax on a large plot of heavily forested land on one of the many small lakes that are the result of the heavy scouring of the land during the last ice age some ten millennia ago. Because of its isolation, light pollution is hardly an issue. Even Halifax, where half the population of the Province lives, is not much more than a small city.
Like the day that had preceded it, the night sky was absolutely clear, and the stars overhead sparkled and glimmered with a ferocity that I’m not accustomed to, having lived in more densely populated areas all my life. The woods around me were only discernible as a ochre shadow, a jagged tear marking the edge of a star-strewn fabric.
And then I noticed something that absolutely startled me. It wasn’t quiet.
It was silent.
I threw all my attention at that absence, waiting to pick up something – some sigh of the wind in the pines, or the call of a night bird or insect.
But there was nothing. It was thrilling; like a void that had swallowed my young companions, the memory of sound, even time itself. I had to shift my weight and hear the report of pebble on pebble to reassure myself that I had not gone inexplicably deaf.
Of course, the awareness of that kind of silence changes your definition of “quiet.” This morning at the Dominican house in Tempe, AZ, as I sat before the Lord in the chapel, I was mildly annoyed at just how loud the quiet was.
The chapel clock tick-tocked loudly, then the furnace rumbled to life, it’s motor a triplet cadence thrumming in perfect synchronicity with the clock’s duplet. The forced air moving through the vent in the small room was a noisy, ten-minute long exhalation that died long after the thermostat hit a chilly (for Phoenix) 69 degrees. Occasionally the window would add it’s own shiver of sound as it vibrated in sympathy with the furnace. So loud was the quiet that I hardly heard the occasional snippet of song from the morning’s early birds.
At the end of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the author of those letters proposes a toast to the minions of hell, looking forward to the day when all of earth is bathed in noise. I sometimes feel as though they’ve succeeded, particularly when I am in airport terminals. There, CNN’s talking heads, mood music meant to calm, and the chatter of innumerable monologues from cell-phone users form a background punctuated by announcements for flight arrivals, departures, gate changes and recorded voices reminding me that we are (still) at a level orange terrorist threat alert. But it’s not that different everywhere I go: the grocery store, downtown, a restaurant.
An empty church can be a refuge, but even there it is not silent, unless it’s located in the country, with thick insulating walls and a distance from the road that took you to it.
Just as we grow hungry every few hours for food, our souls and minds hunger for quiet, and, I now believe, true silence. Just as the grandeur of a vast landscape reminds us of our smallness and the insignificance of our problems, so, too, the vast sonic landscape painted by silence. In that silence, God speaks to our hearts. The saints and mystics of every religious tradition have all discovered that.
But such silence is a scalpel. Using it God would excise the trivialities that occupy us and feed our never-sated anxieties. Silence, when sought and endured, lances the ego grown festering from a glut of information and opinions carried like concealed weapons. Silence – especially our own – is a garden that must be carefully tended if we should ever hope for wisdom to grow.