Reflection: Make room for silence

This morning I was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by the sound of our town’s Department of Public Works crews clearing the heavy slush that accumulated overnight.  I didn’t begrudge them the noise this morning because the sounds I heard were sidewalk plows trying to clear a place to walk for schoolchildren and train commuters, as well as plows cleaning out the parking lots for the senior center, the town hall and our library.  (I did, however, begrudge the DPW’s 5:30 a.m. leaf blowing on a holiday last fall, as the poor fellow who encountered an angry, middle-aged woman in L.L.Bean boots and flannel pajamas striding across the park next to our house to demand that he stop immediately can, alas, attest.)  But all the noise this morning got me thinking about just how noisy most of our lives have become.

I confess that I contribute mightily to the noise in my own life.  Most of the time, when I’m cooking, say, or folding laundry, I turn on the radio or television for company.  NPR is a constant driving companion, as is the classical music station.  And now that I’m relegated to the gym instead of walks in the woods during this long, hard winter, the backdrop for my exercise is the truly appalling soundtrack they play at the gym, or a talk show on headphones while I trudge on a treadmill.  It has been years since I visited a waiting room that doesn’t have a screen of some sort, or at least a soundtrack.  On my day off this week, I was in no less than three waiting rooms during a day of errands and appointments, and I was treated to a home improvement show, a (really bad) talk show and a pop music radio station.  Next week, I have to have a filling in one of my teeth, and I dread the appointment less for the needle and drill than for the country music soundtrack my dentist favors.

The truth is, noise is a kind of clutter that can keep us from connecting to ourselves, and to God, and can prevent us from tending to our spiritual lives.  The bottom line is, it’s hard to pray with a “Law and Order” rerun on in the background, and that still, small voice of God is mighty hard to hear over Katy Perry (or Bach, for that matter).  Silence creates a kind of spiritual space, a soul decluttering, that can open us to God’s presence, and can allow us to think clearly.  And it’s hard (if not impossible) to pray or to meditate when we aren’t able to be focused and present. 

In early Epiphany, I went on a three-day retreat at Emery House, the Society of St. John the Evangelist's retreat center in West Newbury.  I arrived stressed out, having driven up in heavy snow.  I think maybe it was the post-driving adrenaline that made me notice how quiet it was in the main guest house.  There was no soundtrack, no machines humming; the only sound was the popping of the fire in the fireplace and the soft voice of the brother who checked me in, speaking very quietly about where I could find my key and which hermitage had been assigned to me for my stay.  In the silence of my hermitage, I discovered that I seem to have developed a mild tinnitus in my left ear, a wee humming sound that most of the time remains masked by the background noise of daily life (including a fan that provides “white noise” even when we sleep). My grandmother had had tinnitus, which she described as “the crickets in my head.”  Over those three days, I remembered that silence can be a little intimidating, that just sitting, just being (as opposed to doing), can be hard.  It was odd to be in a small room alone, with just “the crickets in my head.”  But after a few hours of that stillness, as my brain cleared out, and I eased in to the silence, “my crickets” and I were joined by—or finally became aware of—what I can only describe as God’s presence.

In that beautiful prayer attributed to St. Francis, the person praying asks God to make him or her a channel of God’s peace.  Some versions, including the one in the Book of Common Prayer, use the word “instrument” rather than “channel,” but I rather prefer channel, because the word makes me think of a clearing out, an opening to God’s deep and abiding peace, as well as a means of offering, or channeling, that peace—and light, hope, joy and comfort—to others.

When the prophet Elijah found himself in big trouble, really afraid and angry, and in genuine danger, he was told to go to a mountain where God would pass by.  First the mountain was assailed by a mighty wind, then a powerful earthquake and finally a raging fire.  God was in none of those presumably loud occurrences.  But then came “a sound of sheer silence.”  Only then did God speak to Elijah, offering him comfort, guidance and protection.  My prayer for each of us this Lent is that we might allow ourselves to be silent, to seek silence if necessary.  It might be as simple as turning off the radio in the car, or washing the dishes with the television off.  It might mean closing the book at night, maybe even turning off the light, and just sitting and being still. I believe that God is always present, always with us.  But I also believe that we’re more likely to sense God’s presence when we are present to God—and it isn’t possible to be fully present when we let noise get in the way.  

-- The Rev. Mary Scott Wagner, Rector, Church of the Good Shepherd, Reading.  This reflection first appeared in the parish's March 4, 2015, "The Good Word" newsletter and is republished here with permission.

Opinions expressed in Reflections are those of the writers.  Submissions are welcome; all material is subject to editing. Submit Reflections for consideration to