Living in cities, as more and more people do all over the world, means that noise is a constant audio backdrop. The din of human, auto, and airplane traffic all make for a constant, loud cacophony. Add to this the stereo, television, and computer noise and it is a miracle we can attune our ears to hear anything that isn’t artificially created. From time to time, I turn off all the extraneous sounds in my world and listen. Intentional listening opens up a whole new world of sounds around me. I hear the wind chimes by my front door, the tapping of my fingers across the keyboard of my computer, the soft patter of my dogs’ feet as they walk across the hardwood floor above me, the screaming and laughter of children at play across the street, and the distinctive sounds of a variety of birds as they go about foraging for food or calling for a mate.
According to audio-ecologist, Gordon Hempton, it’s not easy to find silence in the modern world. “If a quiet place is one where you can listen for 15 minutes in daylight hours without hearing a human-created sound, there are no quiet places left in Europe. There are none east of the Mississippi River. And in the American West? Maybe 12.”(1) We live in a noisy world.
Most people assume that silence is the absence of noise, but it is not. Hempton continues, “For true silence is not noiselessness… silence is the complete absence of all audible mechanical vibrations, leaving only the sounds of nature at her most natural. Silence is the presence of everything, undisturbed.”(2) I remember one of these silent places Hempton describes. High in the North Cascade Mountains, my brother and I heard no other human noise, and few bird or animal noises. Our constant soundscape came from the trickling of a nearby brook and the gentle wind as it danced around us.
Being able to hear the sounds of nature is an unexpected and often rare gift in a world bombarded by artificial noise. Of course, it is often the case that I use noise as a distraction from truly listening. I drown out the silence by my own busyness, filling my day with constant movement and activity, so that I rarely take the time to pay attention, and to tune my ears not only to the sound around me, but also to the stirrings of my own heart and mind. In all honesty, sometimes I am afraid of what I might hear if I do truly listen.
Of course, paying attention in silence is not always as benevolent or delightful as hearing the natural sounds around us. Keeping silence intentionally reminds us of our smallness in a vast universe, and brings to light many of our deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. When we clear our ears of external noise, we hear our own thoughts. Many thoughts that arise in silent spaces are ugly, distorted, and grave. Listening in silence exposes our pretense and self-righteousness, our falsehoods, hypocrisy and self-importance. There is little room to hide. We are left with ourselves in all our brokenness.
Yet even listening to the thoughts of our darkened hearts and minds provides an opportunity for reorganization and evaluation. It provides the opportunity for renewal. As we pay attention in silence and listen there are quiet gifts received, discernment for a new direction in which to go with our lives, and more space for truly listening not only to ourselves but to others. As we do, we may even hear the still, small voice of God.
Author Alan Jones has written that “silence, in the end, can become a healing and comforting experience.”(3) When we pay attention in the silence, we open up space where we can meet with God. Unlike prayers where we do all the talking, Jones describes the listening posture of prayer as “a daily willingness to place ourselves on the threshold and wait there.” Indeed, he goes on to suggest that cultivating quiet in our lives becomes the time when we move from the agitated periphery of our lives, identifying with our lives without qualification or added information to simply a silent interior space. (4)
Paying attention in silence is not simply for the sake of listening to the often unheard sounds around us, nor is it exclusively ascetically-motivated sensory deprivation. Instead, it is tuning our hearts and minds to attend to sounds that truly matter. For the Christian, prayerful listening is the opportunity to attune our hearts to the voice of God. Indeed, a silent heart is often the only fitting response to the overwhelming holiness of God’s presence. As the ancient prophet wrote: But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.
Paying attention in silence creates space to listen to our lives and to listen for God to speak. It is a discipline our noisy world needs to reclaim. The gospel writers often speak of Jesus removing himself from the noise of his day, and withdrawing to “lonely places” for prayer. Jesus understood the place of silence, paying attention to God’s voice by purposefully withdrawing and turning off the noise around him. The silence is often lonely, as the gospel writers suggest. And yet, there in the lonely, silent spaces, the still, small voice of God can be heard.