The Value of Silence

By Jeff Mallinson

When a wall of sound floods our consciousness, when visual images bombard our eyes from flickering screens, when endless online chatter creates a virtual din in our minds, something is lost. Silence is lost.

On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, we discuss the value of Ash Wednesday, and our plan, this Lent, to create some space by reading poetry when we otherwise might be listening to musical playlists in the background, or television. This poetry has its own sound, of course; but poetry also enlivens the imagination through intervals, absence, and contemplative space. It often gestures at the sublime without defining and taming it.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that the patron saint of the podcast is T. S. Eliot, the poet who converted to Christianity between the writing of his famous “Hollow Men” poem and his post-conversion poem “Ash Wednesday.” Throughout his writing, he emphasizes the importance of silence, especially as it relates to our ability to seek the divine. Permit me to highlight a few places in “Ash Wednesday” that illustrate the ways in which we can use poetry and silence profitably.

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The poem is Eliot’s parallel to Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and reflects on Eliot’s own ascent up a spiral staircase. Each turn of the staircase relates to his turning away, his repentance, from the petty things of life. Not the fun, joyful stuff, but the wasteful things. He expresses a desire to…

            … pray to God to have mercy upon us

            And pray that I may forget

            These matters that with myself I too much discuss

Most of us realize that we should avoid gossip. Yet that’s not our only wasted effort. There are a thousand petty battles that distract us from our true purpose. We fill up our days with endless chatter in order to keep out silence, which can be frightening if our spiritual and emotional lives are unhealthy.

Sometimes, we congratulate ourselves that we are on an important crusade. This might be a battle within our relationships, our workplaces, or our churches. Sometimes, these battles are worthwhile. Often, they are the wrong hills on which to die. Eliot writes:

            Teach us to care and not to care

            Teach us to sit still.

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We should deeply care about goodness, truth and beauty; but in our penultimate world, we must avoid martyring ourselves for trivial causes. We should care deeply, but not so much that we lose our focus or our balance. By putting aside our arrogant lambastes and proclamations, we have a chance to listen to the One who is the Word:

Lord, I am not worthy

Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

Of all the compelling lines about silence and speaking in the poem, my favorite lines are these:

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the world;

And the light shone in darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the centre of the silent Word.

The center of it all is the silent Word. Around the Word the world is a cacophony of agonized and frantic men and women. We must stay close to Christ, therefore. We need to get centripetal even as our madly spinning world is centrifugal. The unholy force that wants to spin us out of Christ’s orbit isn’t always worldly in appearance. It might take the form of theological bickering, church fights over building plans, or even incessant community service. There’s nothing wrong with such discussion, planning, or service, of course. But we must never become disconnected (“Suffer me not to be separated…”) from the source of life.

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This Ash Wednesday, if you seem to have lost your bearings, pause and seek some silence. Amidst that silence, listen for whispers of hope.  Eliot writes:

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence

Not on the sea or on the islands, not

On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,

For those who walk in darkness

Both in the day time and in the night time

The right time and the right place are not here

No place of grace for those who avoid the face

No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Grace is about passive righteousness, the righteousness of Christ that is a gift to us who walk in darkness. If we avoid confrontation with the divine face, and content ourselves with frivolous noise, we will miss something important this Lent. Let us not miss our opportunity to seek the place of grace.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Written between chapters of A Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, while sipping a Mardis Gras inspired cocktail.

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