Sound of Silence
January 03, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
As though they could foresee the crisis that we are living through now, for at least a decade, publishers have been supplying teenagers with a steady supply of post-apocalyptic fiction. If civilization ever ends, and freedom and dignity hinge on the courage and know-how of a group of plucky teenagers, our young people will be well prepared. One such book; my son reads all these books and I pick them up occasionally, and one of them grabbed my attention, and I read the whole thing, and that was the book Feed by M.T. Anderson. And, in this book, for about a generation, children have had what we now have on our cell phones. They have had this access to the internet implanted inside their minds from the time that they are very young, and the internet is just always with them providing them ads, and information, and opportunities of things to do, and ways to be connected to other people. The book is about one such young man and his connection to a girl whose feed does not work properly, and the tragedy that unfolds for them both. When Anderson opens his novel with this line, “we went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely stink”, we are meant to hear an echo of that prophet of solitude and silence, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in Walden “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Silence and solitude are an essential part of our spiritual lives. Even though the feed is in our pockets now, instead of in our heads, the lure of noise is constant. The Voice of Truth and creativity speaks through to the silence. Silence and solitude are counter cultural activities. The desire for solitude has often been met with suspicion; suspicion of the monasteries during the Reformation, and religious people who chose to live their lives alone, suspicion of people who exited themselves from society, a suspicion of Henry David Thoreau during his sojourn at Walden. Poet John Clare said, “I got a bad name among the weekly churchgoers for forsaking the church bell and seeking the religion of the fields, though I did it for no dislike to church, but my heart burnt over the pleasures of solitude”. Henry David Thoreau was trying to separate himself from the conventions of his day. He was trying on purpose to be countercultural in his solitude, and to live more with the woods, than with society. The railroad is an image in that book, in the image of society and commerce, and of noise that interrupts his silence. He disdains the railroad for taking up more labor than it gives back in efficiency, and for using up the lives of the workers who built it.
Now, I have to admit to you that I myself am not a person who relishes solitude or silence; or so I would have said about myself before the pandemic. But suddenly, the best things about being with other people; the best discourse, the comfort we receive from a hug, or a shared meal, a laugh, a conversation with friends, all those ways of being with each other, of being in community and hearing happy noises; those are all unavailable. But the noise of video calls, of remote school, of work from home; they are all pervasive. And some of us now, during this pandemic, have so much solitude that it has become loneliness and isolation; we long to be with other people. Some of us know constant chatter with no time to be alone. Solitude is not an evenly distributed resource. So now in this time of the pandemic, I find that I need solitude. And I try to seek it out in those early morning moments, before the rest of the family is awake, or on a walk around my neighborhood. And occasionally in those silences, I hear the still small voice. I hear that voice in my creative work. In order to do my writing, whether it's writing sermons or other kinds of writing, I find I need to be alone and have quiet. I go down into the basement to write my sermons, because I can be alone there, even when the kids are having school upstairs. I find that focus in playing music as well, even though the music itself makes a noise, it allows me to think of nothing except the music that I am trying to play, and as other thoughts arise, I set them aside to focus again on the music. To create something new, I find I have to listen into that stillness, listen to the voice of the Holy, the voice of creativity, which is inviting me to take part in its work. And in this time of pandemic, we know that we need silence for healing as well. Noise in hospitals is a growing concern. During the daytime, the loudest noises in hospitals are as loud as a chainsaw. It prevents people from resting, slows healing, distracts professionals. People who are recovering from illness during this pandemic know the value of quiet for rest and healing. Now silence does not always make us happy, hearing the voice of God is not always happy. We do not always find contentment in our art or our spirituality. Silence is sometimes the quiet left by a departed loved one, whose voice we longed to hear. It can be the puff and hiss of a respirator when we yearn for words. It can be the quiet of a home after losing a job, or the sullen silence of an online classroom, instead of the happy chatter of school. Yet even in the hard silences, we find truth. We come face to face with the mysteries of life and death. We're left alone with our feelings and our connections to the Holy.
With Elijah, we hear the voice of the Holy, in the silence. Now in the story, Elijah has just come from a scene of noise and chaos. He has participated in a combat between Yahweh and the Phoenician God Baal, because as we heard in Juliet’s story, the Hebrews are considering whether Baal is a more powerful God to worship than Yahweh. And so, there's been a contest about the between the powers of these gods, and Yahweh has triumphed in the contest, and burned all the Baal prophets up in a fire. Elijah is running for his life when he runs to Mount Sinai, which is also called Mount Horeb. So, we can hear in this story; in the wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, we can hear the noise and chaos of that fight scene that Elijah has just run from. But even though that fire originally came from Yahweh, Elijah does not hear God's voice in the fire, or the wind, or the earthquake. Elijah hears God's voice in the stillness. Do you know that Zen saying that says that you should meditate for an hour every day unless you're too busy, and then you should meditate for two hours? This story of Elijah reminds us of something similar, that when our life is at its most chaotic, when we are most afraid, most uncertain about what the right thing to do is, most abandoned by the values and connections that we hold dear, that is when silence and stillness are most important, so that we might hear the voice of the Holy speaking to us.
One reason silence and solitude are countercultural is because noise is the sign of a thriving economy, like that railroad running through Concord. We need a healthy marketplace of things and services to create well-being. But producers and consumers are not the sum total of who we are, and we need places in our lives that we protect from the noise of commerce, the way Thoreau was trying to protect some solitude in the Walden woods. In Anderson's book Feed, whenever a person poses a question to themselves, or is faced with a quiet moment of thoughtfulness, the feed shows them ads, plays suggested answers, offers some things that they might do. Silence is a threat to commerce when we are alone with our own thoughts, and don't engage with the marketplace. Now, it's true that Henry David Thoreau could only go into the woods because of the activity of commerce, because friends brought him food, beyond the food that he grew to eat. He went into town when he needed to, and he made his living by publishing books, and that is certainly an example of commerce. But he saw clearly the evils tied up with the economy of his day, and especially the evils of war and slavery. In fact, it is during his year in Walden that Thoreau was imprisoned for not paying taxes, which he refused to do because the state was engaged in supporting slavery and the Mexican War. He refused to pay national taxes for those reasons and was imprisoned for tax evasion. Another example of solitude and outsiderness; of being in jail, and of deciding that his principles were more important than the practice of commerce. Today we all need the silence and solitude to heal from the coronavirus pandemic. We need to pause from eating in restaurants. Pause from asking so much of frontline workers. Pause from some of our participation in the economy. We need leadership at the state and national level that will quiet the noise, if only temporarily. Quiet our voices behind masks. Keep our breath close to us, so that we as a society can heal. We need national support so that a quieting of the economy does not mean we hear cries of suffering from unemployment, hunger, or homelessness. I have so much hope in the vaccines that are now available, yet vaccines will work better, if we can still the storm of the pandemic. Finding our own meaning, center, and values, in this pandemic will be easier if we spend some time in silence. You and your household may be able to conspire to give each other some silence and solitude. You may find it in nature, where the sounds of nature become their own stillness. You may find it in odd moments, when you rush to fill the quiet with sound, but resist that rush and rest in the stillness. Truth is not in the fire, or the earthquake, or the wind, but in the still small voice that speaks to each of us.
I love you all.