“Silence is the door-keeper of the interior life” – Josemaria Escriva
Before we begin, I ask you to take a minute to silence your smartphone. If you’re listening to the latest country hit, at least turn it down, if not off. Let things be still around you while you sit and read.
I’d like to briefly reflect with you on silence. If we aim to build something worthwhile here on earth, should we not begin so? Silence is the cornerstone, the foundation upon which we can build good thought. It’s in silence that we first learn how to still our hearts so as to better engage in conversation with God.
Rest vs. Motion
While reading Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, I was recently struck by the comparison, in his opening book, between rest and motion. The city, he claims, can only be truly built in times of rest.
It is in rest that we begin to flourish, for we are no longer concerned about our basic needs. Instead, we have time for leisure, time to exercise our minds even as we rest physically. Although in motion the city can rise to great heights, it is only in rest that the foundation can be built.
It stands to reason – one can’t really build something permanent if things are constantly shifting. Imagine trying to build a house on a piece of land that won’t keep still. We might instead try to build something temporary, but nothing really, truly lasting would be able to stand on such ground.
Just as with the city, so too with our personal lives. We’re battered by noise and motion galore. Imagine just a single day in the city: Whether you drive, take public transit, or are one of the lucky few who walk, you’re pummeled from start to finish by noise! Advertising, billboards, other commuters, the list goes on and on.
We plug in, hoping to shut some of the noise out, to perhaps distance ourselves a bit from it all. Ironic, right? We hope to escape from a noisy city by drowning ourselves in more noise. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Guinean prelate of the Catholic Church, often refers to this as “the dictatorship of noise.” Noise is something that rules us, just like a dictator, without care for our actual needs.
The Dictatorship of Noise
When we hear the word “dictator,” we think of someone who has absolute authority or power, like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, or Pinochet. It’s not a nice association: Each of these men ruled ruthlessly, without care for those underneath them. A dictator has a vision of how they think the world should be, and they must use their power, their strength of will, to achieve it. Their word literally was law.
Noise wants to impose this type of “dictatorship,” or total rule, on our lives. It isn’t content with allowing us to be still – we might begin to crave the stillness too much. Instead, noise creeps in on every moment of our lives, from work to church. There’s constant movement, our senses bombarded every which way by signs, lights, and sounds.
Noise wants complete control over every waking moment of our lives, from when we flip over in the morning to look at our phone in bed, to when we browse Facebook long after the lights have gone out. In our commutes, we turn on the radio. In our homes, we turn on the TV for “background noise.” Such constant noise has an effect on us – we’re less able to focus on anything, less able to enjoy the immediate moment. Why? Because we can’t learn to just sit and “be.” Silence forces us to do that: to just sit and be.
The Huffington Post recently published an article advocating that we start making time for silence, rest, and solitude. Some of the benefits include greater self-discipline, emotional cleansing, heightened sensitivity, and bypassing burnout. Regarding burnout, the article says the following: “Too often, our culture assigns self-worth with productivity… It’s a one-way ticket to burnout. Solitude allows for a break from the tyrant of productivity.”
The Tyranny of Productivity
The silent soul learns to drink things in, to take things one at a time. Silence allows us to think, to contemplate, to really ponder what lies before us. It’s no accident that some of the greatest minds came before the invention of the smartphone – though this is not to belittle modern geniuses by any means! Can you imagine a thinker like Aristotle rising in the age of the smartphone and Twitter? I don’t know if that could happen – we’re so surrounded by noise, a body would have to totally shut themselves out in order to think.
By today’s standards of noise, Aristotle’s devoting so much time to thinking would be a heinous crime against the tyranny of productivity; he wouldn’t be posting the latest and greatest on Twitter, or changing his profile picture to support the latest event. He would be…a nobody, someone who is “out” because he couldn’t learn how to enter into the noisiness of today’s society.
Silence teaches us to appreciate the present moment better. When we aren’t constantly imbued with noise, we learn to take things in more effectively and completely. Our brains begin to process things better and more coherently when we take a moment to recollect and focus in silence before beginning a task. Consequently, we need to start training our minds to actually sit still – it definitely won’t come if we don’t practice it, if we don’t reject the dictatorship of noise.
Imagine being in the car without music. Will you go crazy? Possibly – I know I’m guilty of this. In that case, perhaps it is time that we begin to practice silence.
If we’re going to grow as Christians in an increasingly un-Christian world, we need silence to grow in our relationship with Christ.
It’s been said that the language of God is silence. Think of someone you know who is joyful, who is strong. Ask them where that comes from – I can guarantee that they somehow incorporate silence and stillness into their day. Think of Christ in the Gospels – He is constantly going off by Himself to pray, to be with His Father in silence. If we’re constantly running around, distracted by noise, can we really expect to hear God?
There is something in each of us that craves silence, that craves the opportunity to rest. Can we make time in our busy schedules for this? Whether it’s a few minutes at the end of the day, or maybe rising early to sit quietly, I challenge you to create some quiet time for yourself. I ask you, as we sit together quietly, can you not take ten minutes today in silence?
Find a corner in your house, or a spot at a park near you. Be consistent. Return to that spot every day, at that exact time, and hold yourself to it. Use that time to talk to Our Lord: how your day is looking, what you’re thankful for, something that’s been preoccupying you. Maybe meditate on some passages from Scripture – start working through the Gospels, one chapter at a time.
I’ll close with my earlier thoughts on rest from Thucydides. In a world of constant motion, we need this rest to rebuild, to rejuvenate, to ponder and become more fully human. If you and I are to change the world, if we are to be light for those around us, how can we expect to do so if we’re not looking to change ourselves first?
Let’s begin, today, right now, with silence, and may you and I be better souls because of it.