My friend Bill tapped the microphone. “All right, folks, before we start this community meeting, let’s have a moment of silence for those who are no longer with us.”
The clamor in the auditorium stilled — somewhat. A cell phone chimed, a cough rasped, a quick murmur passed between two bent heads near the back. A motorcycle roared out on the street; a police siren wailed in the distance. As the meeting began, I realized that the moment of silence had been a rather loud one indeed.
Our world thunders with noise, both man-made and natural. Cities and towns blare a constant chorus; ear buds drive in our preferred sounds. Media transmissions wrap around the globe. Even the desolate regions of our planet echo with the cries of animals, the rush of wind and water.
The written word bellows at equal volume. In print and online, we’re urged to buy, believe, denounce, defend. Comments, hashtags, likes, retweets and emoticons bark nonstop. We’re constantly invited to “join the conversation” — and often we must scream to be heard.
The din within is no less deafening. Thoughts, memories and desires loop throughout our minds, day and night.
Noise — relentless and chaotic — is the soundtrack of hell, as C.S. Lewis observed in “The Screwtape Letters.”* Under its strident cover, “the melodies and silences of Heaven (are) shouted down.”
Small wonder, then, that Scripture so often calls us to seek the Lord in silence. “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust shall be your strength,” the prophet Isaiah reminds us (Isaiah 30:15). “The Lord is in his holy temple,” proclaims the prophet Habakkuk. “Silence before him, all the earth!” (Habakkuk 2:20).
Elijah encountered the divine not in nature’s fury but in a “light, silent sound,” a mysterious whisper that summoned him before the almighty (1 Kings 9:11-13).
Silence is more than the absence of noise. When properly cultivated, it is one of the most profound signs of our trust in the Lord and our submission to his will. Standing before Pilate as the religious leaders slandered him, Jesus “remained silent … (making) no response to any of the charges, much to the governor’s surprise” (Matthew 27:12, 14).
Of course, silence in the face of injustice and error can be deadly. Evil must never be allowed to flourish while we say nothing. Yet even the most righteous words can swell into a damaging storm — harsh words, spat in fear and hatred, rather than offered in kindness and courage.
Before his conversion, St. Paul had zealously “(breathed) murderous threats” against the early Christians who challenged his beloved ancestral faith (Acts 9:1). Humbled by Christ on the road to Damascus, he knew well that charity must govern every utterance: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Too many of us are playing percussion these days; our jagged rhythms are increasingly agitated, and we are collectively losing our hearing. A return to silence — away from information overload, hashtag heroics and continuous entertainment — is the first step in our recovery.
In that soundless space, we can allow the Lord’s love to infuse us at a depth unfathomed by language: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:11).
Then, and only then, will we be able to discern when there is “a time to speak, and a time to remain silent” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
And when we are led to open our mouths, we will do so with “a well-trained tongue, that (we) might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them” (Isaiah 50:4).
* The full quote from “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis (New York: Bantam Books, 1982, pp.65-66) is as follows:
“My dear Wormwood: Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell – though longer ago than humans, reckoning in light years, could express – no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia.