In Praise Of... Silence

It’s very noisy out there. Shopping centres are noisy. The streets are noisy. Television and radio are noisy. Life can be noisy. It’s no wonder people seek respite from this noise in a quiet home or place.

But why do we need quiet? And is quiet the same thing as silence?

Being quiet is a postponement of an irritant noise: a raincheck for some time in the (near) future when the noise will restart. We tell people to be quiet when they talk during a concert - we are asking them to postpone their talking because it intrudes on our listening pleasure. The noise from television and radio advertisements intrudes into our space. We want to turn the volume down.

In a shopping centre, the music from each store competes as much as their brands. When we ask the sales staff to turn down the music because we can’t ‘hear ourselves think’, we want to stop the intrusion of noise. Or we’re indicating we’re old. Or grumpy. Or both.

We can catch up on ‘peace and quiet’ when having a cup of tea, or reading the paper or a good book. This gives us a break from the relentlessness of noise. The ringing of our ears can stop briefly and we can relax; not being assaulted with noise that compels us to hurry: hurry our shopping, our walking, our activity, our lives. We achieve quiet.

Being silent, however, recharges us. It is an internal event, allowing for reflection. It turns our thoughts inwards. When a crowd is stunned by a momentous event, they are silent. When at an ANZAC dawn ceremony, or on hearing of a shocking world event, this silence is delivering a time for inward reflection. The crowd becomes contemplative.

We take a ‘vow of silence’, not a ‘vow of quiet’. This type of silence, adopted by some Church Orders (think the Carthusians and Cistercians), is maintained to reach a contemplative state: to give the mind (and soul) the time and space and freedom from interruption to allow reflection. A recent book by Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, covers the importance of silence in fascinating detail.

Can those who do not know silence ever attain truth, beauty or love? Reflection is a critical human faculty that is sadly lacking. Reflection allows us to consider our actions, our behaviour, our ethics. Are we good people? Is our response to something considered and worthy?

It is also crucial for us to ‘recharge’ ourselves. This is the opposite of self-absorption: it is comparing our actions to our best selves, not as our best selves.

We are silent in awe. We are reflecting on what it means for us. How does a Goya affect us? We reflect on the painting, and our deep reaction to it. The silence allows us to take the time to listen to ourselves and our deep feelings – our true and honest responses.

We talk of ‘noise pollution’; busy roads, especially from buses, motorbike exhausts, being under a flight-path. This noise is relentless. Being silent allows a pause – a cessation from action – where we can regain our resilience to noise.

When we listen to Gregorian chants, we can be silent in contemplation, even when there is no quiet. There can be a ‘spiritual’ response that is gained by internal reflection and consideration. We can’t reflect and be considered when there is noise – it distracts us. Silence is the necessary and sufficient condition for this reflexion.

Perhaps noise distracts us intentionally? Or rather, that we distract ourselves with noise to escape reflexion? Clearly, so much to contemplate – silently.

Do you need silence in your life?

(Feature image: © 2010 CTMG Inc. Eat Pray Love)

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