The Art of Silence

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Will Deatherage, Executive Director

“And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!
There’s one thing I hate! All the NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” (Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

There is a fine line between music and noise. It is the same line that divides the sacred and the mundane; the fulfilling and the pleasurable; the man and the animal. What is the difference between music and noise, though? Noise overwhelms. It stresses. It is the bane of humanity’s existence. Noise yields no conscious response from the human person. It merely bounces off like rubber. Music, however, is absorbed. It nourishes. It is like water, seeping into whatever it touches. But what makes music music? Is it a mere series of patterns that pleases the ear? Can every culture agree on the laws of good music as they do with the laws of mathematics? Does every Mozart fan enjoy the Beatles, or vice versa? No, an appreciation of music is not intrinsic for every man; it requires effort from the listener.

Have you ever walked down a construction site and detected a slight beat to one of the sounds? Maybe you started bopping your head or tapping your foot to some hammering. Or perhaps along a nature trail you noticed a melody from the chirping of birds, humming it back to yourself. Do you ever find it remarkable that so many people walk by such sites without a similar perspective? Is it not odd when you are the only one in a crowd who notices a beat or a tune so suddenly?

Noise bounces off of most of us because we choose to ignore it. It never becomes music until we listeners decide to… well… listen! But because listening requires effort, humans are tasked with discerning whether or not something is worth listening to. Such a charge is made increasingly difficult by the pervasive amount of noise that surrounds us. Clicks, beeps, and whirs haunt us like the jungle bugs that buzzed around our ancestors. The incessant noise surrounding us distracts us. It disturbs us. It makes us anxious. It prevents us from honing in on that which matters most in life, addicting us until the mere thought of silence scares us. Inches away from their iPads, children are conditioned to love noise before they love their own parents.

Our world is in utter turmoil. The noise of politics in particular is unavoidable. From blockbusters to basketball, the noise of meaningless political slogans bounces around us at lightspeed. There is a difference between what is heard and what is listened to; spitting out words without understanding them signifies hearing noise without listening to the music of their meaning. For example, in a recent Gallup survey, a majority of Americans indicated support for affirmative action conceptually, yet most of them disagreed with the proposed methods of enforcing it. This, to me, illustrates how we hear the noise of political ideas without listening to what they really mean. Do we really support affirmative action if we do not support what it means? This applies to Catholic teaching as well: Are we really Catholics if we mindlessly hear but do not actively listen to the teachings of the Catholic Church?

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
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. (Kgs 19:9, 11-13)

God is nowhere to be found in the noises of daily life. Acquaintance with God can only come from a relationship with the beautiful, but we cannot seek out the beautiful if we are immersed in noise. But even the most beautiful music can be distracting. Think of a song whose lyrics you enjoy. How difficult is it to listen to every word getting distracted by its beat? Every good song has a bit of a charm to it: a superficial pleasure that distracts us from encountering the beautiful. The question is, where can we hear the music of God best?

After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.  (Mt 14:22-23)

John Cage’s 4”33” is a remarkable piece. It is a song (debatably) that consists of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. In one sense, it remains the most beautiful piece of music ever created, yet so few are able to appreciate it. The work of art’s purpose is to stretch the imagination of the observer. After all, the more abstract a piece is, the more it dares the viewer or listener to imagine. Disturbing art is even more challenging because it actively attempts to turn away the viewer’s interest. There is little charm in the disturbing. Silence, however, is the most daunting piece of art to decipher because it not only presents us with a blank canvas to interpret but a rather uncomfortable one as well. We are disturbed by it. Silence has driven men insane, yet the greatest prophets and Christ Himself, are drawn to it.

I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace. (Ps 85:10)

We cannot listen until there is silence, yet silence eludes our grasp so easily. How easily do you get distracted from prayer? How often do the creeping anxieties of life pound harder and harder until you can no longer hear the voice of God? A test? A medical examination? A sick relative? Financial woes? Anything can disturb the silence that allows for us to listen to God. Worse yet, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that these stress-induced images, these icons that we fastened, are God speaking to us. Even in silence, we create our own noise, call it God, and commit idolatry. Christian silence is certainly no easy skill. It is, in fact, the most difficult art to appreciate. God does not expect us to perfect it, but He invites us to appreciate it the best that we can.

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