Fear of Silence
Steve Robinson · May 7, 2009
In the movies when we hear silence in a darkened house, something dies. Spiritual silence is entering a dark place...but what happens if we are brave enough to shut off the noise?
A few weeks ago, I jolted awake out of a dead sleep. I was instantly hyper aware and didn’t move. I knew something was wrong, very wrong. I lay frozen, stone still and slowly began to scan the room. It was pitch black, and, I realized immediately, absolutely silent. There was no light from the digital clock, the hall night light, no light from the streetlights through the curtains. The whole world was dark. There was no white noise…the sounds of the ceiling fan, the refrigerator, the computers…only eerie and unnatural silence. I listened for any signs of other life in the house, perhaps soft footsteps, rustling papers, a door being opened, but there was nothing. As I began to get out of bed to look around, the house flickered on, the outside world lit up and the noise returned,… and I knew all was right with the world.
In Revelation 8:1 the Lamb of God opens the seventh and last seal, and there is silence in heaven for half an hour. In verse 3 people react I think the same way all of us would react if the world went dead silent for 30 minutes: they begin to pray. And when the prayers finish going up before God, all hell breaks loose: thunder, lightning, earthquakes, hail mixed with blood, fire, locusts and death. But this podcast isn’t about the end times, its about horror films, well not EXACTLY about horror films because I hate horror films for a lot of reasons, but that’s another rant. What I’m talking about today is life without noise, or more specifically, life with purposeful silence.
I work in construction. Job sites almost always have radios blasting. Usually it is heavy metal, or some shock jock with his laughing chick sidekick, or hip hop…anything frenetic to spur the pace of a pieceworker’s day to distract him from the pain of another hour of the rest of his life of installing acres of tile, hanging tons of sheetrock or rolling white paint on miles of blank walls.
I also work in people’s homes, mostly VERY nice homes. Anymore it is standard for them to be wired for sound and video in every room. I recently drove by a 20 million dollar house under construction that had 7 audio/video installation vans parked in front of it for 3 days. I’ve seen TV’s in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Years ago I 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 (that was way before TIVO and picture in a picture etc.). When I work in someone’s home the owners invariably 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?”
I always smile and say, “No thanks, I’m fine.”
“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.”
Sometimes, if I know them well enough I’ll joke and say I need to hear the voices in my head, or I’ll be a little more philosophical and say, that’s OK I’m comfortable being alone with my thoughts. Once in a while that will open up to an interesting conversation. But mostly, I just say thanks for the offer, and the folks will just 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 in their house. 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 is always silent. And for some odd reason they are the nicest people I’ve ever worked for.
Anyway, I’ve worked with and for a lot of people over the years and have had dozens and dozens of employees. Virtually none of them could endure silence. It has been a rare employee who can work wordlessly and quietly without having to fill the silence with chatter, humming, singing or wired plugs pounding something into their ears. I look at how many people wander or drive around with noisemakers attached to their heads. I listen to people who talk incessantly, who can’t endure a pause in conversation. I listen to the stores and shopping centers and restaurants that fill the air with sound that covers the natural sounds of the human beings existing in their places. An entire industry provides us with noise to keep us distracted and dazed. Silence may be golden, but it’s the noise industry that rolls in gold. Now lest you think I’m ranting about music in general, I’m not. 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 Byzantine chant, James Brown and Hank Williams… well, you get the idea. The point is, I’m not a goofy zealous monk-a-bee who tosses beauty and creativity out the window.
The point is, in general, we choose and prefer noise, and silence seems unnatural. Silence is disquieting, uncomfortable and even unnerving.
One of the tricks to making horror films horrifying is a period of dead silence. When you hear silence, its prophetic of and encounter with death. The victim begins to panic, fearful music quietly begins playing over the character’s prayerful fearful breathing. The music crecendos and the victim dies horrifically.
It’s no wonder we fear silence. It’s an empty place that we know is not really empty, and like waking up in the middle of the night, or at the opening of the 7th seal we know it is filled with the potential for death. If we hear it, even in heaven, it is the prelude to judgment and things are going to die, maybe even ourselves. But, the truth is, if we are brave enough to encounter true, Godly silence, something WILL die.
If we peel away all the distractions of life, turn off the noise, and just be still, we will descend into a place where we have no familiar landmarks, no baubles, bright lights and kaleidoscopic fracturing of reality to hold our attention. We will 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…
This is our inner self. This is our heart and all of its brokenness. And like all horror movies, what we encountered within can only be preceded by silence.
Once we’ve left the world behind and entered the quietness of the dark house of our inner life …if we attend to the silence, fear grips us because we now know something is about to leap on us and drag us screaming into hell. What lies within? It is our demons, the demons of our twisted perceptions of the world and people, our vain hopes of battling the dark forces and escaping unharmed, our panicked reactions to reality, our inattention to signs of impending doom. Our lusts and passions, like failing flashlights, give us irrational courage to enter into the dark rooms and descend into black basements of sin and decadence. The audience, like our friends, see all the warning signs, they hear silence and the music rising, but we don’t, and we suddenly we find ourselves in a spiritual warfare, a battle for our very life. In the end, something must die: either the deeds of the flesh and the passions and lusts of our heart, or our very soul. Silence is the beginning of the fight to the death.
In his characteristic shorthand for spiritual principles that would require a book to explicate each phrase, St. John Climacus says,
“(Noetic) silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, it is the secret journey upward.”
Even though the inner warfare rages against our own fears, weaknesses and passions, and against principalities and powers and the world forces of darkness and the spiritual forces of wickedness, like the horror movies, there is always something more and greater than the evil that resides in the bleak house: There is Redemption. Within the house always lies what St. John called the secret journey upward, it is the freedom from bondage, a guard, a watchfulness, the ability to break out of the dogmatism of our habitual responses driven by our passions, the tools to overcome, there is always an epiphany, an unknown strength within that rises up and conquers the demons, and in the end, the silence and darkness and warfare opens to the brightness of day. If we overcome the demons, we are reborn into the normal world from whence we came. But now the ordinary world is sacrament, it is now experienced as a sign of salvation, the casting down of the powers of darkness…its sounds are now a comfort. Silence no longer points us to death, it is the experience of peace. St. Clement of Alexandria sums up the fruit of silence:
The Christian is by nature a man of gentleness and quiet, of serenity and peace.
So, God waits within us, in the bleak house of our soul that we have neglected, into which we have invited all the demons to dwell. The path to overcoming the demons and encountering God is silence. And we must embrace the silence and face the demons to break out of our darkness into the Light.