The contrast was remarkable. After 45 days in the rehab unit of a nursing home where I had been recovering from two broken wrists, I was finally home. I sank into my favorite living room chair and heard nothing—lovely, peaceful nothing. Total silence was rare in the nursing home. Only when I heard nothing in my home did I realize that my head had been buzzing with noise for over six weeks: television sets in nearly every room, oxygen tanks hissing when working or clunking when empties were being replaced with full ones, residents shouting when call lights didn’t bring assistance fast enough and night shift staff talking and laughing in the hallways, forgetting that not everyone was deaf or deep into pill-induced sleep.
Several years later, I still appreciate silence as a choice and a luxury. More than just one of the comforts of being home, it is as necessary to me as air and water. Why do I crave silence, when, in fact, it is nothing?
Some Benedictine practices are easier for me than others. Silence is easier than humility, for instance, and I know silence isn’t the same as listening well to others. I often choose not to listen to the radio in the car, and I don’t turn on the television just to keep me company. I don’t stay long in a store where loud music is blasting. I’m not uncomfortable with periods of silence in discussion groups. Before proceeding to confession in public worship, the pause for silent reflection is never quite long enough for me. In a fast-paced world that is often full of noise, I seek out times and places that are quiet.
In the way that bare trees in winter let in light, silence leaves space in my head for something else. It gives my mind room for creative thoughts, and in contemplative times, the Holy Spirit finds a place. Memories, gratitude, decisions and fresh ideas flourish in the absence of noisy stimulation and distraction.
As I list some of the rewards of silence, I realize it is not everyone’s choice. The distractions of social media, although more visual than auditory, seem counter to the notion of silence as emptiness. While texting is quieter than talking, it is obviously more stimulating and distracting than contemplative silence. I don’t know why anyone would deliberately and consistently choose noise over silence, but I can speculate that loneliness, worries or boredom might be relieved by the distraction of some kind of sound.
Because I am free to choose silence, I sympathize with those whose job or family life makes quiet almost unattainable. When I see news stories about refugee camps, I can only imagine the noise created by thousands of people living in crowded conditions—the cries of hungry children, the quarrels between family members and neighbors, the moans of the ill and the injured. For many, silence is an elusive luxury.
Although it is tempting to declare that silence should be the natural choice of the wise and the devout, I am reminded of times that silence is painful. I think of Beethoven, unable to hear his own compositions as he became increasingly deaf. Imagine never hearing “Ode to Joy” again. The long absence or death of a loved one may create a big empty hole of silence. I have been guilty of silence resulting from cowardice, times that I should have spoken to object or to disagree. Sometimes I struggle to find a balance between silence and engagement with society. Although I may choose quiet over noise, there are voices and songs that I will always want to hear and cries that I dare not ignore.
Marge Lundeen, OblSB
Photo: Snowy branches, taken by Sister Karen Streveler