In April at the Magazine, we’ll be looking at insights and reflections on the human (individual and collective) relationship with the created order. That could be nature, the environment, our use of resources, animals, each other, like the creed says – all things seen and unseen. In this piece by Maria Evans, we are confronted with the question of ‘what is silence?’
“For God alone my soul in silence waits;*
from him comes my salvation.”–Psalm 62:1; BCP
True confession: I’ve lived in a remote area of the country for so long, I forget how badly the silence can creep out guests and house-sitters. Once the mail carrier has visited, it’s possible some days that another human being will not pass down my road until tomorrow’s mail run. If I do see another human being, I generally know them as one of my neighbors, or a “regular”–the garbage collector, the UPS driver, the person who leaves my weekly shopper paper.
I know I’ve run into one of those people when they cast an uncertain glance around the property and say, “It’s so quiet out here…”
Of course, my response is that it’s NOT quiet. Barking dogs, braying long-eared equines, wind, birds chirping, coyotes howling–I could go on and on. Yet the reality is, it’s made me realize that we define “silence” as, “The absence of human-created sound.” We become accustomed to the sounds, not only of our own voices, but the voices of the things we have created–and they’re often much louder than the sounds of the created world. We might not want to believe that things like automobile noises and beeping appliances are comforting, but they are, when we’re faced with their absence. We find the sounds that remain so scary at times, we call it silence.
It’s also interesting that many cultures have humanized the louder sounds of creation. When it thunders out on the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota, you can bet that within a few seconds one of the folks there will mention the wakinyan–the thunder beings–capriciously mischievous entities who arrive every spring from the Black Hills with the power both to give life to the land and take it away. The Lakota have taught me to acknowledge them when they show up.
Back to that thing we call “silence,” though. I doubt we think much about the sound of the created world as being a part of God’s creation, but it is every bit as real a piece of creation as all the living things in it. It’s clear the authors of the Bible had a different comfort level with silence. Truthfully, they lived within it more than we do.
When we begin to spend time without our sounds, and in the sounds of God’s created world more, it can be frightening. I recall the first time we did a Taizé service in my home parish. We wrote a “product warning” about the discomfort that the silence can provoke and gave suggestions on how to remain in it.
I also think we make it too complicated sometimes. I remember the first time I was exposed to Centering Prayer. It looked complicated. I said to myself, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to think about not thinking.” Then a good friend looked at me like I had three heads and said, “You know how when I call you on the weekends and you tell me you’re ‘just sittin’ outside and being?’ Well, hellooo! DUH! That’s just an unscripted variation on Centering Prayer! Don’t tell me you can’t do it, when you’re sort of doing it already.” Funny–when she told me that, Centering Prayer suddenly got a whole lot easier.
Even where the busy-ness of the human world is present, if we learn to listen in a new way, we can hear the vibrations of the created world. In them, I believe, is precisely the spot where God speaks to us. The leap of faith in this, is that we are being taught not to hear God speaking in human language, but in the language of the created world.
This Easter season, take five minutes out of your day to go outside and simply “sit and be,” in whatever form that takes for you. What sound of the created world did you hear, that you didn’t hear before? Where does that sound–God’s voice–take you?
Maria L. Evans is a surgical pathologist in Kirksville, Missouri, a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds a moment to write on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.
image: Christ in Silence by Odilon Redon