“Silence is golden” flashes across the theater screen just before a film begins. In other words, stop talking, listen to the film, and allow others to listen as well! Yet, for many used to the relentless noise in our lives, silence is far from golden. Silence is disruptive, even threatening to us. When I lost my husband several years ago, I was struck by how loud the silence had become in my own life. Days would go by without my having spoken audibly to anyone, save my two dogs.
Yet, I was not without sound during this period of my life. I began to pay attention to all the sounds that made up my day to day existence. The din of traffic noise, airplanes, and nautical sounds from the harbor all made for a symphony of sound. Because I wasn’t speaking out loud to anyone, I was able to intentionally listen to a whole new world of natural sounds. I heard the wind in the trees, or the soft patter of my dogs’ feet as they walked across the hardwood floors. I listened for the distinctive sounds of a variety of birds as they went about foraging for food or calling for a mate. At the time, I didn’t realize how unique it was to be able to truly listen because I was by myself, nor would I have viewed it, as I now do, as a gift.
According to audio-ecologist, Gordon Hempton, it’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. “If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe 12.”(1) We live in a noisy world.
Of course, silence is not the absence of sound, and is very different from manufactured noise. Hempton continues, “For true silence is not noiselessness… silence is the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”(2) I remember one of these silent places Hempton describes. On a backpacking trip with my brother high in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State, we heard no other human noise, except our own exhausted breathing, no bird or animal noises, only the trickling of a nearby brook and the gentle wind as it danced around us.
Being able to hear the sounds of nature is an unexpected and often rare gift in a world bombarded by artificial noise. Of course, it is often the case that noise serves as a distraction from truly listening. Perhaps fearful of listening to the tangled thoughts within me, I can often fill my days with the noise of constant movement and activity, so that I rarely pay attention, or tune my ears to the stirrings of my own heart and mind.
The ancient discipline of keeping silence, though not always as benevolent or delightful as attuning one’s ears to the natural world, was used for intentional listening; so that one’s deepest thoughts and feelings could be heard. Removing the distraction of external noise, one is able to ‘tune in’ to thoughts and emotions, questions and answers. Many thoughts that arise in silent spaces are ugly, distorted, and grave. Listening in silence exposes pretense and self-righteousness, falsehood, hypocrisy and self-importance. In that vast mountain range of truly listening, perspective is given. There is little room to hide.
Yet even listening to the thoughts of darkened hearts and minds provides an opportunity for reorganization and evaluation. It provides the opportunity for renewal. Quiet gifts of discernment, spaciousness, and grace arrive. Wisdom for a new direction in which to go, and more space for truly listening grow within. We may even hear the still, small voice of God. In one of his ancient songs, David reminded himself of the gifts of silence: “My soul wait in silence for God only; from God is my salvation….My soul wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from God. God is my rock and my salvation.”
Author Alan Jones has written that “silence, in the end, can become a healing and comforting experience.”(3) When we pay attention and listen, we open up space where we can meet with God. Unlike prayers where we do all the talking, Jones describes the listening posture of prayer as “a daily willingness to place ourselves on the threshold and wait there.” Indeed, he goes on to suggest that cultivating quiet and a practiced attunement becomes the time when we move from the agitated periphery of our lives, identifying with our lives without qualification or added information to simply a silent, interior space. (4)
Paying attention in silence is not simply for the sake of listening to the oft—unheard sounds around us nor is it exclusively ascetically-motivated sensory deprivation. Instead, it is the tuning of hearts and minds to attend to sounds that truly matter. For the Christian, prayerful listening is the opportunity to attune our hearts to the voice of God. Indeed, a silent heart is often the only fitting response to the overwhelming holiness of God’s presence. As the ancient prophet wrote: But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.
Paying attention in silence creates space to listen to our lives and to listen for God to speak. It is a discipline for listening well in a very noisy world. The gospel writers often speak of Jesus removing himself from the noise of his day and withdrawing to “lonely places” for prayer. Jesus understood the place of silence, paying attention to God’s voice by purposefully withdrawing and turning off the noise around him. The silence is often lonely, as I experienced after my husband’s death. And yet, unique gifts are given in the lonely, silent spaces, and the still, small voice of God can be heard.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Gordon Hempton as quoted by Kathleen Dean Moore, “In Search of Silence,” Utine Reader, March-April 2009.
(2) Julia Baird, “An Unquiet Nation,” Newsweek, January 27, 2010.
(3) Alan Jones, Soul Making (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1985), 62.