I grew up in a household where the television was on at least 12 hours a day. High-speed internet and digital devices were still several years away, so my family members and I had our own shifts at the screen, which was the focal point of our family room.
Before and after school, my sister and I watched cartoons; my stay-at-home mother did her chores while following the news and soap operas, and my father relaxed each evening with sports broadcasts and documentaries. After the 11 o’clock news, we enjoyed the opening monologue of the late show, and then (since remote controls were not yet around) manually switched off our favorite appliance for the remainder of the night, only to turn it on again with dawn’s first rays.
Music also crowded the airwaves in our house. My parents were both excellent pianists, I took my frustrations out on a beleaguered guitar, and my sister relentlessly blared Billboard’s top 10 from the little CD player at her bedside.
Our phone (a landline, as you’ve likely guessed) was always in use, and many were the arguments between me and my sister as to who was entitled to yet another 90-minute call with friends. Often mediating these disagreements was our poodle, whose shrill bark could almost trigger tinnitus.
Needless to say, ours was not a quiet home. Noise was the default backdrop, a point made clear to a teenaged me when, having powered down the unwatched television one Saturday afternoon, I was reprimanded by my sister, hard at work on a term paper in the kitchen.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded. “I can’t concentrate when it’s quiet.”
Given my family history, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that I no longer own a television or a radio. I do stream an occasional movie or music playlist on one of my devices, but these days, I’m seeking a selection that airs far too infrequently: silence.
From the time we awaken, our ears are barraged by sounds — some natural, others man-made; some beyond our control, others created or sought out by us. They run together, their echoes muddling as they seep into our thoughts. Words, wants and worries swirl around and within us. Nonstop news and social media whip them into a roaring vortex; even when seemingly at rest, we are often at the mercy of fearful, though unseen, waves.
And lost in the storm is that mute and mysterious place in which we can hear God’s breath, that space where our thoughts are becalmed, and a strange and holy wind lifts us to encounter the Word who transcends all language.
Now more than ever, we desperately need to traverse those soundless seas: “Without silence, God disappears in the noise. And this noise becomes all the more obsessive because God is absent,” wrote Cardinal Robert Sarah. “Unless the world rediscovers silence, it is lost.”
Just as “music is fully listened to when everything falls silent around us and within us,” he noted, we cannot truly experience the presence of God if our soundscape is a deafening howl of entertainment, arguments and trivialities. To trade such passing clangs for the melody of Christ’s eternal love, heard only by the hushed soul, is madness.
Perhaps silence frightens us, since the moment we cease speaking (or, too often, shouting), we are met with the clamor of “all our fears and worries, our desires and our most varied emotions,” wrote Carmelite Brother Philippe de Jésus-Marie. St. Teresa of Avila admitted “in (her) head (were) many rushing rivers … and many little birds and whistling sounds” that distracted her at prayer.
Yet in racing to escape these intruders, we exile ourselves from the very place where the Lord awaits us: our hearts. In our frantic flight, our lives run aground in the shallows. Refusing to put out into the deeps of prayer, we become strident and superficial. Our Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines reveal little more than the shipwreck of our souls.
Our rescue is closer than we think, however. The smallest turn toward our North Star will be rewarded by the good and gracious God, who well knows the limitations of our flesh, which he took on and redeemed.
Our cell phones may be able to provide driving directions, but they can never show us the way to our everlasting home. Let us lay aside every false and noisy navigator, then, and heed the exhortation of the prophet Habakkuk: “The Lord is in his holy temple; silence before him, all the earth!” (Hb 2:20).
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