Sounds of Silence

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“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”—Thomas Keating.

When I was growing up, my father moon-lighted as the sexton for our church, and my first paying job was to go there on Saturday morning, pick up last week’s bulletins from the pews in the sanctuary and set chairs up in the Sunday school classrooms. I loved the empty church, especially the sanctuary. I loved the way colored dust floated in the light through the stained-glass windows. I loved the smell of candlewax, the soft carpet under my feet, and above all, the palpable silence that enfolded me.

I’ve been in love with silence ever since.

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“…but the Lord was not in the wind… the Lord was not in the earthquake… the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”—1 Kings 19:11-12.

I measure the worth of my pilgrimages, retreats, and other trips by the amount of silence I experience. I recall with joy the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where sound seems muffled in ethereal light, and the Arizona desert, as the rising sun over saw-toothed mountains silently splashes light over prickly pear, cholla, barrel, and saguaro cacti.

Conversely, my stomach still reels when I remember the old city of Jerusalem: the noisy labyrinth of streets and alley-ways, strange chants from Armenian priests in black hoods at Saint James’ Cathedral, Orthodox Jews bobbing in front of the Western Wall, torrents of Muslims returning from Temple Mount after Friday prayers. Gawking spectators, money changers, tasteless displays of religiosity. And everywhere, voices yelling at me to buy, buy, buy.

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“Silence like a cancer grows.”—Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.”

I’m sorry, Paul, you blew it with that line. Don’t get me wrong, usually, I like your stuff, like especially that in your seventies (like me), you’re still writing new material, still performing. It’s noise, however, that’s the cancer of our culture, and it’s gotten worse since you wrote that song. I can’t buy groceries, go to the dentist or the doctor, wait on hold, without being assaulted by the blasting or the bland. (Who of us growing in the 50s and 60s would have thought that the music that so shocked our parents would be today’s shopping center Muzak?”)

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“… there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”—Thomas Merton

If you want to talk cancer, during the months of November and December of 1988, I sat by my eighteen-year-old daughter’s bedside at the Eastern Maine Medical Center, watching Laurie die of the disease, and asking “Why?’ Why weren’t any of the treatments working? Why couldn’t the doctors and nurses keep her more comfortable? Why did she become sick in the first place? Why was she dying?

After one particularly bad day—Dr. Brooks had explained to Laurie that her cancer had spread into her pelvis, the new patient next door kept screaming at everyone to “Fuck off!” Laurie had started vomiting green bile, and my ex-wife wanted me to complain about one of the nurses—I left Laurie’s room about 4:00 p.m. to return to the Ronald McDonald House. I was so upset that I didn’t realize that the elevator had dropped me off at the second floor and not the lobby. Lost in thought, I walked down a hall until I found myself standing in front of a door that said “Chapel.” I turned the doorknob and entered.

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the room was. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the sound of my heart beating to the question, “Why?”

From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The silence seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

Out of the stillness I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” These words might have saved my life.

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…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles

speak.

—Patricia McKernon Runkle: “When you meet Someone in Grief”

After Laurie died, I received all kinds of advice—Be patient… It’s God’s will… You’ll get over it… I know just how you feel because my uncle/cousin/grandmother/dog died…Suck it up!…—none of which was helpful, and nearly all of which pissed me off. It wasn’t until I started trying to counsel other grieving parents that I realized how difficult it is to find words of support. That was when I realized the only thing that had helped me was someone compassionate enough to simply sit with me in silence. I try now to do the same.

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“Silence is helpful, but you don’t need it to fine stillness.”—Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks.

What I’m really after, of course, is interior silence, what my twelve-step program calls “serenity,” and Eckhart Tolle calls “Stillness.” And, say he and others, one can have that stillness even in the midst of the noise that harasses us almost every minute o every day. I read an account once by a writer who took a Buddhist monk to a movie. Apparently the movie was louder and more violent than the writer had expected. He turned to the monk to see if he wanted to leave and saw in meditation, a half-smile on his face. Later the monk thanked the writer for giving him two hours of uninterrupted meditation time.

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You have called me into this silence to be grateful for what silence I have and to use it by desiring more.”—Thomas Merton

But I’m not a monk, Buddhist or otherwise. Especially as I enter into this holiday season—not only noisy in the good ways that being with family can be (Mary Lee and I have just had twenty people for Thanksgiving), but also deafening in its crass materialistic ravings, all complicated by the fact that this is the time of year I spent by my dying daughter’s bedside so that every day from now until December 23 will be an anniversary of some sorrow—I need to set aside places and times of silence, where I can relish and nurture the memory of those silent retreats and pilgrimages, draw from them, drink from them as if they were oases in the desert.

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“The rest is silence.”—Hamlet

This morning, Mary Lee and I went for a quick walk before breakfast. Under a motionless November sky, the 20° air was still. An occasional oak leaf fluttered noiselessly to the ground. Trees raised their bare branches to the sky, as if in silent prayer. We walked without talking, something we do more and more these days, resting in what we have created between us over the past thirty-three years: a silence and a stillness too deep for words.

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