The Sound of Silence

“It’s been a loud year/And I really need the quiet.” I relate to those lines from Brooke Fraser’s “New Year’s Eve” even when it’s not New Year’s Eve. Maybe it is just my introversion, or maybe we all need some quiet every once in a while. The documentary In Pursuit of Silence (2015; streaming on Kanopy) definitely comes down on the side of quiet (or silence; are they the same thing?) being a natural and even original good. 

The film’s central contrast is between the way most of us live our lives, full of noise (which may affect negatively not only our ears, but also our health) and the ways people try to find silence. Those ways often feel extreme, at least in the light of how the majority of people exist. The first person we meet is Greg Hindy, who shows the camera a piece of paper where he has written that he has taken a vow of silence and is walking from New Hampshire to Los Angeles. We also hear from authors, artists, naturalists, experts in Japanese tea ceremonies, and monks (both Christian and Buddhist) who are pursuing various goals, for which silence or quiet are central.  

The noise/silence contrast is emphasized in the calming images of relative quiet (fields, forests, streams, monasteries) and the much louder—both literally and analogically—images of cities, with all their attendant and chaotic decibels. Even within the images and sounds of quiet places, there is often a contrast between the quiet and the beginning of someone’s speaking, which is intentionally jarring. The contrast, in the end, turns out to be more of a synthesis, since people are not necessarily looking for pure silence, but for the balance of sound and silence together. Complete silence may not even be possible. 

When John Cage enters the anechoic chamber for the first time (a space built to be truly silent, at least from outside noise), he hears, he says, a low tone and a high tone. He is told that one is his nervous system and one is his blood circulating. From there he experiments with the human body as a sort of silent instrument. It is hard for me, however, to think of his “4′ 33”” as anything but a sort of stunt, or gimmick. I get the point, I think, about the importance of the atmosphere, but when you add in an orchestra simply sitting there with silent instruments, the audience’s applause has an emperor’s-new-clothes feel to it.

Here and throughout, the film engages how much spiritual weight is variously assigned to silence. According to Kay Larson, John Cage went into the anechoic chamber because the Ramakrishna said, “Find the silence and you will find God.” And the sentiment, if not the particular form, is also practiced in Christian monasteries and convents. Both Eastern and Western religious traditions have emphasized silence, and maybe at times for the same reasons (to clear the mind, focus, hear the voice of God). And yet, when it comes to meditation, the difference between Eastern and Western practices is fundamental: Eastern meditation is most often a way to empty the mind, while Western (Christian) meditation is the practice of filling up one’s mind with the Word of God. 

How central, then, can silence be to Christianity? No doubt, our ears and minds and eyes are overstimulated in the contemporary world. One person in the film says that we have substituted technological experience for human experience. Perhaps our “social” media actually blinds us to just how far we are from genuine human interaction. But even if silence is preferable to the onslaught of noise, at least in larger cities, does that mean that silence is an ideal to be pursued? Is it true, as Maggie Ross (Martha Reeves) says in the movie, that “the farther we get away from silence, the farther we get away from our humanity”?

There is something seemingly natural about the connection of silence with spiritual seeking. And yet, in the Christian Scriptures, there is far less emphasis on silence than there is on speaking—or, rather, than there is on the particular speaking of God. Clearly, there is a sense in which it is necessary to be silent in order to hear. Our speaking has to cease so that the speaking of God—the viva vox Dei (“living voice of God”)—can be heard. But even that listening is not only a purely materialistic hearing of sound waves and how they impact our ear drums. Otherwise, Romans 10:17 would exclude those people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Nor is it, contrary to all the enthusiasts of every religion, primarily an inner hearing in the human spirit or heart. The physical hearing is, in fact, connected to the spiritual hearing, though they are not identical—just as the spiritual eating is tied to the physical eating and the giving of the Spirit is tied to the application of water with the Word—not because of any limiting of God external to Him, but because He limits Himself in order to be found. And the proclaimed Word is the central concept of that limitation.

The Word became flesh, not the silence. God is constantly speaking in the accounts given in the Scriptures. It might be possible to say that divine speaking is emphasized, and that is over and against human silence. But even then, people in the Scriptures are also constantly speaking—even speaking back to and arguing with God. One does not get the sense that silence is high on the list of qualities valued by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus does go away from the crowds to pray, and certainly solitude is connected to prayer, but to what extent is that prayer silent meditation? Have we, perhaps, imported monastic ideals and laid them over the top of what we read in the Scriptures?

Even so, there is something to the poetics of silence, that, as one person puts it in the film, the most essential things in life are things we can’t express. There are limits to what humans can say about the biggest questions of existence. In the Scriptures, that limit is imposed on the person by nature of being a creature and not the creator. This is, I think, the deeper meaning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: here, at the eating of this fruit from this tree, is the limit marked out between the creator and the creature. To attempt to cross that line is to cease to exist, since we are not God and cannot be. So we are thrown down like Icarus, back into the echo chamber of our constant, and futile, talking. Thence, revelation is necessary, and so God speaks—both quietly and loudly in the flesh that clothes the Word.

I think there is much more to be explored here, but these are some of the questions that The Pursuit of Silence raised for me while I was watching it. I am inclined by temperament to quiet (especially the quiet of dripping rain!). And yet, the assumptions about silence related to Christianity ought to be interrogated, especially if there is a fundamental difference in kind between the goal and means of Christianity with respect to other religions’ goals and means. Either way, it is a fascinating documentary, and I’m looking forward to thinking more about this when I have a chance finally to see Into Great Silence, which observes, specifically, Carthusian monasticism at a particular monastery in the French Alps.