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withdrawn shutdown and Godly silence?
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?
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,” awaken.org (March 30, 2015, http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=1065).
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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FK-KC2aQpcI) and “Symphony
No. 33, II” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lvCmHZaYF4).
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).