Friday, January 14, 2011

Column: Does silence have to be quiet?

Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him is a mighty tempest. — Ps. 50:3

On my travels last fall I spoke to a group of university students about contemplative practices. As we were talking about ways to set aside space and time for contemplation, I noted they had a well-used meditation space in their college library. The library stacks open onto an internal courtyard, with shops and a food court on the bottom floor. The whole building hums with noise, the characteristic hush of a library punctured by the sounds that bubble up from below.

When I mentioned that the space wasn’t very quiet, one of the students quickly countered, “It’s very silent. I usually study nearby because of that.” I agreed that relative to the rest of the campus and even the library, it is quiet. But on my scale, not so much. A nearly empty retreat house in the dead of winter at 3 in the morning — that’s silent.

Or maybe not. Conceivably the student was right, his meditation space is a silent spot. Lately I’ve been reading French Catholic laywoman Madeleine Delbrêl’s reflections on silence. Delbrêl, who founded a lay community dedicated to living the contemplative life within a city, has a very different definition of silence from mine. She poses much the same question as the student: “Why should the wind through the pines, the sand storms, and the squall upon the sea, all count as silence, and not the pounding of the factory machines, the rumbling of the trains at the station, and the clamor of the engines at the intersection?”

Why do I consider the stirring of dry leaves as silence, but the train clattering on the tracks and the babble of student voices as noise?

Composer John Cage’s most famous piece might be 4’33" — which consists of someone sitting at a piano without playing a single note for four minutes and 33 seconds. In a biography of Cage, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann suggests that Cage intended the stretch of silence as a frame, to hold our attention on the sounds neither audience nor musician controls, and underscores Cage’s contention that everything makes music.

Perhaps Delbrêl’s sort of silence is similarly a frame to hold up to the world, to focus my attention on the fact that God is present all around me. A way to remind me that I do not control how the world unfolds, neither the sights nor the sounds nor the people around me. “Silence,” she observes, “does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

Abba Poemen of the early desert fathers, too, points out that silence is as much an internal attitude as an external attribute: “If you are silent, you will have peace wherever you live.” As I take a deep breath, ready to start the new semester, I’m planning to tuck Delbrêl’s handy frame in my pocket — to pull out whenever the decibel level rises beyond what I can bear. Perhaps with its help I can recollect myself in the open space inside of my heart, and peer out to discover anew God is all around.

“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention…” — Mary Oliver, from Praying


  1. Love this!! Thank you. I find myself struggling to make the transition each day from the silence of my writing to the "noise" of my three children buzzing around after school until bedtime. I have often wondered how to find the peace within that chaos. This column is a gift.

  2. On Wednesday night at dinner at the retreat house, the refectory was buzzing with conversation as there was a talking retreat in the house. My director, checking in to see how the afternoon had gone, apologized for the noise and pointed out that I could take a tray to the small dining room down the hall and eat in silence and I told him I was treating the noise like the babble of brook. It's there, but no need to let it disturb me. He was amused!

    No buzzing here this afternoon as mine are all out and about (Science Olympiad 'away game')!

  3. This is a wonderful reflection on all the things that silence can be. Quiet, while very wonderful, is not a prerequisite, is it? It is a bit hard for me to get my mind around it, but actually... Thank you Michelle.

  4. I find it much more difficult to quell the noise inside my head than to let the noise around me slip from my perception.

  5. the other night I spoke of silence as a wilderness experience. Entering out own silence to find ourselves.

  6. This sounds like insistent spiritual director-"We are always in the presence of God!"

    I hadn't thought of the piece that way before.

  7. God in all things?!

    Yes, I had never quite connected these experiences of "noisy" silence with the Cage, either!

  8. Thank you as well for the verse connection.