A Time for Silence

A Time for Silence

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The noisiness so rampant in the world today demands a time for silence to maintain our emotional and spiritual health.

A rest in music notation signifies a time for silence. During my trumpet playing days in high school and college, I learned to appreciate the rests, especially when the arrangement kept the brass section particularly busy. It’s not a stretch to connect the value of a few measures of rests in a musical score to the need of a time for silence in everyday life.

The Need for Silence

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls noise pollution a “modern plague,” adding, “there is overwhelming evidence that exposure to environmental noise has adverse effects on the health of the population.”

Exposure to environmental noise produces a range of health issues, including increased risk of coronary heart disease, sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment, stress-related mental health, and tinnitus, to name a few.

Conversely, the Harvard Business Review cites studies that show a time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to our complex environment. Research at Duke Medical School even finds that silence is associated with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the brain region associated with learning and memory.

Despite laws and restrictions, the volume of noise pollution continues to increase. Relief, however, may still be found for those who engage in a search for silence.

The Search for Silence

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries define silence as a complete absence of sound. But can such a state exist?

American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912—1992) published a book in 1961 entitled Silence. The book includes lectures and writings from the period 1939—1958. Cage writes that it’s impossible to achieve absolute silence.

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.

The Biblical concept of silence emphasizes quietness, meditation, and stillness, but not emptiness. A quiet time serves the purpose of hearing that which otherwise goes unnoticed. A time for silence offers the opportunity for listening to the still small voice that Elijah heard while standing on a mountain (1 Kings 19:12). David’s years as a shepherd gave him ample opportunities for quietly contemplating the glory of God. Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).

The Sounds of Silence

The dictionary definitions of silence center on rather narrow and negative characteristics: the absence of sound, prohibition on speech, and refusal to communicate. But silence can also be a form of communication. Mark Twain said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

For instance, a dramatic pause in a movie can heighten the mystery or danger, stimulate anticipation, or amplify emotional content. Composers and performers often insert silence for a beat or two designed to seize the listener’s attention.

Silence can stand as the softest kind of music, and it can also exist as the nothingness represented by rests, which the performance must challenge to be alive. 
(From Silence, Music, Silent Music, edited by Nicky Losseff, Jennifer Ruth Doctor)

Grand Canyon Suite

Listen to this excerpt from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, Movement 5, Cloudburst. The storm lets up, the wind dies down, but suddenly in the distance a bolt of lightning. Since light travels faster than sound, the thunder always reaches the ears a few seconds after the flash of light. To depict this phenomenon, Grofé inserts a few beats of silence. The audience knows it’s coming. Anticipation builds. Then, boom, a clap of thunder. Nothing but silence can accurately set this up.

Cast Away

One hardly notices the absence of a musical score during two-thirds of the film Cast Away. Alan Silvestri’s wistful theme doesn’t make its entrance until Chuck Nolan leaves the island and gazes back on his home for the last four years.

Silvestri’s stirring soundtrack draws its effectiveness from the prolonged absence of music that precedes it. The silence speaks to the isolation and aloneness Noland suffers after being torn away from his fast-paced work and the love of his life and then deposited on an uncharted tropical island. The music announces that the climatic drama now begins—the castaway’s integration back into a world from which he’s detached—a world that doesn’t quite know what to do about his return.

John Cage 4’33”

Composer John Cage created in 1952 what might be one of the most controversial works of the 20th century. The composition entitled 4’33” calls for a performer to sit silently at a piano, or any instrument, for three movements of set duration—33 seconds, 2 minutes 40 seconds, and 1 minute 20 seconds, respectively. The piece lasts for four minutes, thirty-three seconds, when timed precisely.

Not surprisingly, audiences and critics didn’t receive its first performance well. The public didn’t get it. But Cage proved his point. The impossibility of absolute silence. The ambient sounds became music. Cage explains:

What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third, the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

Later, audiences understood. The silence on the stage refocuses one’s mind on sounds usually unnoticed and unappreciated. As Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, observes, “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”

Saint Catherine’s

I once visited Saint Catherine’s, a Greek Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. We heard no human sounds but the crunching of dirt and rock beneath our feet as we toured the grounds. Yet the silence communicated a message unique to each visitor.

The quietness took me to 1300 BC and a lone figure standing near this very spot receiving the Ten Commandments that the finger of God etched on tablets of stone. To this day, when I read the account in the Book of Exodus, I’m carried back to the sounds of the silence at Saint Catherine’s on Sinai.

Afraid of the silence

The most successful and inspiring public speakers I’ve known use a technique that the mainstream strives to avoid. They occasionally pause during their presentation, which gets the audience’s attention and allows the listeners to digest a critical point. Preachers might learn from that by injecting a few beats of silence into their sermon. Most fear they might lose their listeners, but a pause at the right moment effectively engages the congregation. Sometimes silence, as the saying goes, speaks louder than words.

Generally, people feel threatened by silence. Radio and TV announcers fear “dead air” and must keep everything tight.

How many people keep a TV or audio device playing in the background whenever they’re home? Quietness makes us uneasy, and so we fill our lives with noise.

Author Erling Kagge writes, “Silence in itself is rich. It is a quality, something exclusive and luxurious, and a practical resource for living a richer life. Silence is a deep human need…” He should know. He spends a good deal of his time walking, climbing, exploring, and sailing during which he shuts out the noise.

In a lecture at St. Andrews University in Scotland, Kagge began his presentation with a minute of silence. Then he spoke to an audience already on the edge of their seats—waiting.

Attend most worship services these days, and the sanctuary echoes with chatter up to the moment the service begins. In bygone days, worshippers arrived early and sat silently, preparing themselves to hear from God. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

The smartphone provides convenient methods for filling the silence. I see them every day on their walks, cell phone at in hand, earbuds in place while missing a golden opportunity to listen to the sounds of nature or the voice within. The Huffington Post reports that smartphone users average checking their devices every 6.5 minutes. A time for silence cannot coexist with compulsive cellphone usage.

A Time for Silence

Inner Silence

The personal application of a time for silence and its consequential benefits must begin internally.

An old hymn by Isaac Watts in 1719 asks:

How long shall my poor troubled breast
Be with these anxious thoughts oppressed?

The Harvard Business Review article referenced earlier concludes, “Real sustained silence, the kind that facilitates clear and creative thinking, quiets inner chatter as well as outer.” A search for external quietness does little good while harboring a cluttered mind. Calming the soul constitutes the first step toward achieving a time for silence.

Methods for squelching inner chatter include comfortable, head to toe relaxation, deep breathing, focused listening to ambient sounds, replacing negative thoughts with memories of pleasing experiences, silencing cell phones, humming a pleasant tune, and counting blessings. Counting blessings segues into the most effective of all preparations for a time for silence—turning our attention toward God. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3).

Outer Silence

In the search for silence, one must next find a quiet time and place.

A Day’s Beginning and End.

Ordinarily, early morning and late evening accommodate the search for silence more than any other time. King David began his day with thoughts of God. “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee” (Psalm 63:1). A book of daily devotionals like Billy Graham’s Wisdom for Each Day, available at Amazon books, provides a helpful tool for morning and evening meditation.

A Backyard Vacation.

Dr. Leo Marvin writes a prescription for his wacko patient Bob Wiley in the hilarious film What About Bob? The prescription reads, “Take a vacation from my problems.” Dr. Marvin hopes Bob will take the advice figuratively, not literally. A vacation need not entail a Caribbean cruise or a trip to Disney World. These may be the last places suitable for escaping to a time of silence.  A quiet time in the back yard provides more relief from stress than any tourist attraction. Besides, it’s cheaper, requires less preparation, and always available.

A Quiet Place for Reading.

A nook and a book as someone said. Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The operative phrase here is to sit quietly. Most habitually try to replace the silence with background music during reading sessions.

Research shows that our brain is not as proficient at multitasking as we might imagine. Playing one’s favorite music might hinder more than assist in reading or study. One cannot help but divide attention between the two. A gentle soul once said nothing soothes his mind like a “quiet place, a soft chair, and a good book.” John Wilson penned a delightful verse about the joy of such a place.

Oh for a book and a shady nook, either indoor or out.
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cries all about.
Where I may read all at my ease,
Both of the new and old;
For a jolly good book whereon to look,
Is better to me than gold.

A Sanctuary

Sanctuary derives from the Latin sanctuarium used to reference a church or other sacred place where a fugitive was immune, by the law of the medieval Church, from arrest. Modern usage defines sanctuary as a place of refuge or safety, primarily a holy place or church.

Habakkuk 2:20 sets the tone for entering a sanctuary. “The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Traditionally upon entering a church sanctuary, one finds a quiet place to leave the noise and the troubles of the world behind. Besides communing with God and His people, one derives abundant benefits from a quiet time before the service.

Unfortunately, many houses of worship trade reverence for a racket that turns the congregation into deafened spectators. The refuge of the sanctuarium seems all but lost in a world that prefers its noise. But still, if one searches, a few places maintain the sacredness of sanctuary the church once knew.

A Media Fast

A time out from technology known as a media fast offers benefits one can’t imagine until experiencing a period of media disconnection. A media fast means silencing the TV, the Internet, Cell Phones, Video Games, MP3 players, and the like. A writer at a workshop I attended observes a media fast on the mornings when he’s writing by abstaining from checking email and messages and avoiding news headlines.

A Silent Lunch

According to the experts, a quiet, solitary lunch break during a busy day increases productivity and decreases stress. While working at the Chatham County Board of Education, I often enjoyed my sandwich on a bench in one of Savannah’s beautiful squares. The time out never failed to physically and mentally infuse me with enough energy to finish the day.

Speaking Silently

A time out from speaking during an intense or heated exchange with others proves to be the most effective method of tempering a spirited conversation or de-escalating an angry exchange. Wise King Solomon wrote that there’s “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). James said it this way: “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). The proverb words are silver, but silence is golden, serves as an apt reminder that a time out can often be a powerful means of communication.

Taking Five

In conferences and meetings, regular time outs increase the effectiveness of a lecture or other activities. A five-minute pause helps our brains to integrate information into what Daniel A. Grossman introduces as “our conscious workspace.”

Alone with God

Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”

Zechariah 2:13 entreats, “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord.”

Christ, the Son of God, often retreated to a remote place, seeking a time for silence to communicate with His Father. On more than one occasion to escape the crowds, “he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, Jesus was there alone” (Matthew 14:23). As the throngs of people grew around him incessantly, “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). If Jesus felt the need for time alone with the Father, how much more should we?

Well over 250 years ago, Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards espoused a quiet time alone with God as an integral element of the Christian experience. The Works of Jonathan Edwards contains this statement that provides an appropriate conclusion to A Time for Silence.

A true Christian doubtless delights in religious fellowship, and Christian conversation, and finds much to affect his heart in it; but he also delights at times to retire from all mankind, to converse with God in solitary places. And this also has its peculiar advantages for fixing his heart, and engaging his affections. True religion disposes persons to be much alone in solitary places, for holy meditation and prayer.