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October 1, 2016

October 2016
Bonnie Howe

  In this season I feel called to speak about silence. It seems inherently perilous, probably unwise, to speak about silence. Nevertheless, I feel I must risk saying something.

  We live in a culture saturated with what David Foster Wallace called total noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.” In the run-up to the election, the noise level is so high it triggers childhood memories: My mother cries out to my brothers and me, “Y’all be quiet! I can’t even hear myself think!” My struggle in this season has been this: How can I speak truth kindly and act with fidelity when the political and media noise either seduces me into making more noise or drives me to want to withdraw, shut down, and clam up entirely? What’s the difference between withdrawn shutdown and Godly silence?

  Silence can be frightening and unnerving, but it can also create a place of calm. It can be a holding place for resting and for waiting, awaiting whatever is going to be given or is coming next. Richard Rohr observes, “You do not hear silence (precisely!), but it is that by which you do hear. You cannot capture silence. It captures you.”

  Recently, a friend who is a musician invited me to come see and hear – “Come meet,” she said – her new harpsichord, handcrafted by John Phillips of Berkeley. So on a Sunday afternoon in September, I went to my friend’s house in San Francisco to see this gorgeous instrument and hear her play it. First she played the Suite in C Major by Louis Couperin. All the lively, lovely movements of the suite brought out the brightness and resonance of the instrument, its versatility displayed in the courante and sarabande, the pièces croisée.

  Next she played the Bach Partita in E Minor. Following the moments of silence that ended the partita, the harpsichordist began to speak quietly about her love of that Bach piece and how her relationship to it had grown over the years, at least forty years now, of playing it. This new harpsichord, she said, had already spoken to her, shown her what it could do, but it was also showing her new ideas, new richness and subtleties in her old friend the Bach partita.

  Then she said: “Music lives in silence.” It starts, she observed, in silence. Silence is woven into each composition in phrasing and rhythms. Also, the music ends in silence. Silence is its ground and holding place, its beginning and destiny. Music is not merely the filling of silence with sounds. There is the intensity of sound and feeling as musical concepts weave together in the various movements of the partita. But we cannot stay in the intensity. To do so would be to make noise, not music.

  Perhaps all of us have had the experience of feeling that something others called “music” was noise, not music. Sometimes this is simply a reaction to music we do not understand – to some genre outside our ken, not our kind of music. I recall a different Sunday afternoon a couple of decades ago when a teenager sat down and assaulted the baby grand piano in our church sanctuary. She was “playing” some intricate classical piece with much sound and furious energy, pounding it out rapidly and confidently. She may have hit each note accurately and in the proper sequence, but it was almost frightening to witness what she was doing to and with that instrument. I remember it vividly. That performance was not moving like the mature and delicate keyboard work of my harpsichordist friend. The youngster had no patience for silence. To my ears there was littlemusic-making.

  I’ve been pondering whether the ground anchoring the music-making of my moral action in the world is quiet enough. We are called to action and speech that brings forth God’s kingdom, but before and during that activity are we not first invited to enter stillness? Of course I believe God’s presence is available to me, to us – but do I dare notice, enter, and receive Godly silence?

  I am circling around this one truth – that silence and music are friends that walk hand in hand. I cannot stop the world’s yammering, clamorous din, but I can be within Godly silence, and then speak and act responsively out of that silence, trusting the One who holds me – and all of us – there.

  Post Notes: Marilyn MacEntyre had some tips in the August 2016 NCB blog post for practicing silence and noticing how its rhythms can permeate daily life.

  Richard Rohr writes on this topic in “You Cannot Capture Silence, It Captures You,” (March 30, 2015,

  The contemporary composer and Estonian Christian Arvo Pärt is a musical master whose work arises from, wrestles with, and incorporates silence. For example, “Silentium” on the album Sanctuary ( and “Symphony No. 33, II” (

Bonnie Howe (Ph.D.) is NCB Visiting Professor of Ethics and Biblical Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dominican University. Her most recent book is Cognitive Linguistic Explorations in Biblical Studies (with Joel B. Green).

Posted on October 1, 2016 at 0:10 AM

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