Saturday, July 26, 2008

Afraid of the Silence

I hate horror films, but that’s another rant.

One of the tricks to horror films is dead silence before someone dies horrifically with an orchestral diminished chord blaring over the panicked screams of the victim.

It’s no wonder we fear silence. If we hear it, something dies.

I work in construction. Job sites often have radios blasting heavy metal, some shock jock with his laughing chick sidekick, hip hop…anything frenetic to spur the pace of a pieceworker’s day or distract from the existential pain of another hour of the rest of one’s life.

I also work in people’s homes, mostly VERY nice homes. Most of them are wired for sound and video in every room. I’ve seen TV’s in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. I once built an entertainment center in a master bedroom that had a centerpiece for a 52” TV (back when that was the biggest available) and nine smaller TV’s surrounding it so the people could watch several channels at once in bed. When I work in someone’s home the people always ask me, “Do you want some music? How about a CD…what do you like? Do you want me to turn on the TV for you?”

“No thanks.”

“Really?... Are you SURE? Its no trouble… here’s the media center, this is how…”

“No, really… thank you anyway.”

“Ohhhh Kayy…but if you want, here it is.”


Then they wander around the house like they are lost, not knowing if they should turn on the TV or stereo anyway. Eventually they find a place to watch TV or play a radio…anything to break the silence. I can literally say, I’ve only had one client in 26 years who said they were glad to finally meet someone who loved quiet as much as they did. Their house was always silent.

I’ve worked with people who cannot endure silence. It has been a rare employee who can work wordlessly, quietly without having to fill the silence with chatter, humming, singing or earphones pounding something into their heads.

Why? If we encounter silence, intuitively we know something will die. Silence is the precursor to encounter. And we are afraid.

Let me say here: No, I’m not a monk-a-bee, I don't stand in my closet full of icons, burning incense and mumbling the Jesus Prayer on a rope the length of jumper cables. Yes, I enjoy music, all kinds. I’ve seen ZZ Top, Cowboy Junkies, Phoenix Symphony, Eric Clapton, Kitaro, Pinchas Zuckerman, Arlo Guthrie, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin, Yoyo Ma…I love chant, James Brown and Hank Williams. I go to NBA basketball games...well, you get the idea. But many years ago, I set my heart to learn to live comfortably without distractions and noise, and I prefer it above even beautiful sound.

What happens in silence? It is a descent into a place where we have no familiar landmarks, no baubles, bright lights and kaleidoscopic fracturing of reality to hold our attention. We walk into a foggy, still, silent landscape and open a creaking gate that leads to a bleak house that has not been tended for years… it is our inner self. And like all horror movies, what is encountered within can only be preceded by silence.

But what lies within? Yes, the demons. Our self created demons, our twisted perceptions, our vain hopes of escaping unharmed, our panicked reactions to reality, our inattention to signs of impending doom, our lusts and passions, like failing flashlights, that give us irrational courage to enter into dark rooms and descend into black basements. The audience hears the silence, but we don’t. If we attend to it, fear grips us because we know something is about to leap on us and drag us screaming into hell.

But there is always something more in the bleak house: Redemption. Within the house always lies the path out, the tools to overcome, an epiphany, a strength within that rises up and conquers the demons and in the end, the silence opens to the daylight, the world now seen as a sign of salvation, the casting down of the powers of darkness…sounds are now a comfort and peace. Silence no longer is foreboding, it is joy.

God waits within, in the bleak house we have neglected, wherein lies all our demons. The path to encountering both is silence. And we must encounter both to break out into the Light.

(And a nod of thanks to James the Thickheaded's much more articulate post and my daughter who just returned from the Antiochian Village and encountered stillness.)


Anonymous said...

Hey, hey, HEY! What's with the criticism? Aside from the length of jumper cables (hilarious), your depiction of a "monk-a-bee" doesn't seem too outlandish. Incense burning and the Jesus prayer should have a place in every Orthodox home. And some of us have to pray in the closet, so as not to offend our spouses with a more public icon corner (or on the porch, so they don't choke on the incense).

But the point about silence is well-taken. I think I've moved beyond needing to fill the silence, but now it's always the tension between spiritual reading, Orthodox podcasts, etc., and reserving some silence in the day.

Steve Robinson said...

Hi Peter, Actually we do have said closet too and I actually pray in it once in a while (with my one knot prayer rope :)). But we don't need that environment to attain silence within or to pray (I love St. Benedict's statement about work as an ascetical discipline: "My work is my prayer", but that's another post. I was more trying to defuse a perception that I may be some kind of wacko wannabe ascetic who is in "retreat mode" from engaging the world (though my friends will affirm I am wacko, just not an ascetical one). I'd submit that even "Orthodox" sound can function as just another distraction. Silence isn't necessarily "quiet" because even if it is quiet we can fill our heads with all kinds of remembered sounds, images of the past, and fantasies of the future so we don't have to hear it. The "present moment" within us is the hardest moment to attend to at all times and in all places.

JTKlopcic said...

Interesting notes on horror movies. I had a seminary professor who would talk sometimes about the theology of monster movies -- what was it that our society really valued or was afraid of....

Well, with ten children, we CRAVE silence! For a number of years, now, we have trained the children on "Quiet Time", when the small ones (and maybe Mommy and Daddy) are taking much-needed naps. During Quiet Time, each person remaining awake must sit in one location engaging in a silent activity, with no interaction between sibs!

Many people think that this is rather draconian, but we consider it a taste of sanity. Our children have learned to take it as a matter of course, which I suppose is good training for the rest of life.

Thank God for Quiet Time!

Anonymous said...

We removed the Tv from or home 4 years ago. No radio in the house. I suppose reading blogs and qualifies as mental noise, but I find it relaxing not to have to listen to blabbering of the boob tube. Also in the car, I can only listen to so much chant and then the peace of quiet fills the car as i go to work in silence. Oh what a cherished noise silence is.

I even get angry at the dogs when they break the silence with barking. Right now, they are all quietly snoring behind my chair. Yes, the dogs.

Unknown said...

Kitaro? Now THERE's a band that I haven't heard mentioned in 20 years.

Another great post, Steve. Thanks for doing your blog and for Our Life in Christ (which is outstanding). For all you do, this Bud's for you!

Athanasia said...

There is not much more that I enjoy than perfect silence. I prefer it to the cacophony of the TV, radio, etc. However, I continue to learn and struggle to gain the peacefilled silence in my heart. I try to fill it only with "Lord have mercy" in order to push out the other. Perhaps someday God will teach me to push even that out in order to be filled with His heavenly silence.

The Bosom Serpent said...

You are absolutely right, many of us see silence as the interlude before the hammer blow.

Your posting reminded me of two things. First is a book I read in college entitled “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.” Building a memory palace was a way of remembering vast amounts of information. The technique involved imagining a palace complete with rooms and furnishings. Each item, each step held a memory. I’m not sure why this came to mind except that such a palace was an internal life, a thing completely inside like the descent into silence you describe.

Second was the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band album called “The Roaring Silence.” Sometimes the silence can indeed roar. Unfortunately most of us are so used to the cacophony around us that it provides an escape from looking too deeply within. For a long time I listened to NPR everyday. Eventually it became too depressing. As a partial antidote I gave up talk radio and music. Two days a week I ride in silence. I has lifted my mood and allowed space for introspection.

James the Thickheaded said...


I'm still enjoying the vision. I'm getting a little uncomfortable with the vision merging with one from an old SNL sketch of John Belushi as a Killer Bee ...only dressed in a cassock... but I'm trying not to go there.

Especially appreciate your courage in mentioning our demons. Recollect Peter Kreeft's comments that "...not once in the past 20(?) years has a Roman Catholic theologian or priest mentioned demons..". As he says, we are embarassed at this and reluctant to remind a modern world of such ancient notions. And yet when we rightly point at the demons within... we may more readily still the urge to distract ourselves by demonizing "the other". Hmmmm. Maybe these antedeluvian ideas... aren't in fact so creaky and old fashioned as we're told.

As for me, well.. the demons mostly fill the silence with things like: "Hey...'nuff of the yogurt... gimme a real sammich.' don' forget the chips. Maybe a brownie or something."

Thanks for the post.

Steve Robinson said...

James, If that's what your demons say to you, I'll trade you... mine are a LOT nastier than that.

NIMS, Ah, Manfred Mann's Earth Band...yes, silence is an unbearable roar to some, better the screeching lies of the world than the still small voice of God that speaks Truth.

JT, we had six kids, 2 dogs, 4 cats. Silence was a premium event. You are wise to train your kids to engage it and see it as "normal".

Anonymous said...

A great high school English professor of mine once told me it isn't the dark we fear, but what's lurking in the dark.

I guess for me thats why I hate silence. It's not the thing itself, silence, that I avoid. I use my iPhone, iPod, 1174627 cable channels, computer, and Wii to help me drown out all the exciting things that silence likes to remind me of.

Some people take drugs.

Anonymous said...

The Sound of Silence.... as someone with tinnitus, this is something I am actually incapable of hearing. However, it is internal silence that I truly long to hear.

The television is rarely ever on, music doesn't play often, most of my life away from work is in silence. That has taught me that INTERNAL silence is much more difficult than I once thought, and I do hope to hear it some day.

Steve Robinson said...

I have bad tinnitus too, so I never hear true silence either. I think it was the Led Zeppelin concert I went to in 1970. sigh. Inner silence is a treasure, but it is buried deep under a lot of "world" we've accumulated and piled on.

Abraham said...

I loved working with you and buffo monkabee for the silence(even though i chatter a bit and giggle too much). There is no silence in my mind yet, but just a lot of brilliant shards. I don't know if i'm afraid of silence or incapable of it. maybe i'm incapable with fear?