Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe to me pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lowly-dumb.
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
The poetry of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem The Habit of Perfection speaks of silence and asks that this silence be the music that he cares to hear. Upon reading the book The Catholic Experience by Lawrence Cunnigham, I decided to say a few words about silence. Is it a commodity in our present culture that is lacking?
We certainly experience silence during our hours of sleep. But what about our waking hours? Has the noise of the world overtaken us to the point that we find it hard to experience silence? We live in a world full of noise - loud stereo music, elevator music in the malls, horns blaring on the highway, constant interaction with our I-pads or talks on the cellphone (even in our cars). It seems sometimes that when we do find a period of silence we don't know what to do with it. Did you ever feel uncomfortable when there is a lull in a conversation? Do we feel the need to fill the void with words or can we just let some quiet take over?
There is a history in my Church - the Catholic Church - which recognizes the role of silence. We know of contemplative religious orders, for example, that practice silence as a means of staying more in touch with the divine and being open to the stirrings of the Spirit. Our Catholic liturgy places particular moments of silence throughout (although sometimes it seems that they get glossed over very quickly).
We might believe that being silent at times (during private prayer, on a retreat, etc.) will allow us to hear God's message more clearly. What about those times when we feel the silence is on God's end of the conversation? In Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal the figure of death speaks to the searching knight:
KNIGHT: I want knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out his hand to me, reveal himself, and speak to me.
DEATH: But he remains silent.
KNIGHT: I call out to him in the dark but no one seems to be there.
DEATH: Then life is an outrageous horror. No one can live in the face of death, knowing that all is nothingness.
Have you felt those times when it seems that God does not hear or is even present to you? I'm sure all of us have experienced this at one time or another in life. Do we give up or do we continue to listen for what God is telling us? Can we hear the message of God when surrounded by all the noise of our world? The monks in cloistered communities like the Trappists live with silence and involve themselves in contemplative prayer. One of their most famous members - Thomas Merton - in his work Contemplative Prayer says:
Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we most truly begin to hear God's word when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not attentiveness to a particular wave length, a receptivity to a certain kind of message, but a general emptiness that wants to realize the message of God within his own apparent void....He waits on the word of God in silence, and when he is "answered" it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddently, inexplicably, revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.
Can we use our moments of silence then to listen to what the Lord wants us to hear? Perhaps we need to look at our expectations of how God makes his message known to us.
One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is found in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 19:
Then he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the Lord came to him, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life." Then the Lord said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord - but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake - but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire - but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
A tiny whispering sound. Sometimes the Lord may get our attention with something loud and majestic but most often his voice comes to us in that "tiny whispering sound." We need to be open and attentive to it. We need also remember that the voice of God most often comes in forms we might least expect - many times in the words and love of others for us. Do we recognize God's voice in those times and in those people in our lives?
The man whispered, "God, speak to me." And the meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. So the man yelled, "God, speak to me!" And thunder and lightning rolled across the sky. But the man did not listen. The man looked around and said, "God, let me see you." And a star shone brightly. But the man did not see. And the man shouted, "God, show me a miracle!" And a life was born. But the man did not notice. So the main cried out in despair, "Touch me, God, and let me know you are here." Whereupon God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed away the butterfly and walked on.
God comes to us in the touch of a loved one's hand, in the off-key music of a little child, in the soft refreshing rain that quenches the thirst of the earth. Are we listening - are we aware?
In Psalm 46 we read: Be still and know that I am God. We need to find the time in our hectic lives to "be still" and cherish the silence so that we can hear the voice of God in whatever form it comes to us. May each of us be willing to say that this silence, in the words of Hopkins, is "the music that I care to hear."