Once upon a time, I couldn’t stand silence. I filled silence with loud music. Now, I feel increasingly jangled in a world that’s ever more-amplified.
I say that the way we do church might propel me into becoming a Quaker, and it’s not because of the theology. It’s because the sound system is so loud that I often go home with a headache.
Each Sunday, the idea of sitting in silence together as a community appeals more and more.
I wasn’t always this way. Before my first visit to a monastery, the thought of silence worried me the most.
I knew I could be comfortable with silence during certain spaces: at night, when I was reading — all the times I would normally enjoy silence.
But during the meals? I associated silent meals with anger, seething resentment and unpleasant emotions of all types.
Happily, my experience at the monastery changed my mind about silence. The first meal felt a bit stressful, but I was with friends who had been there before, and we were more comfortable in silence than I thought we would be.
After the first moments of discomfort passed, I was able to focus on the food and on the people who ate with me. As the weekend progressed, I found myself quickly sinking into prayer: gratitude for the delicious food and love or concern for my fellow retreatants, most of whom I didn’t know, and the monks, who remained a bit mysterious.
We live in a world where silence feels increasingly impossible. Television broadcasts at every hour of the day or night, as does radio.
While technology makes it possible for us to connect with each other in ways that once would never have happened, for many of us, our technological devices give us additional hurdles to finding silence.
Those of us who don’t feel frazzled by all this noise, and by its volume, might ask, “What’s the big deal? Why is silence so important?”
After all, we’re better informed as citizens than we ever have been. Some people might protest that they hear important, life-affirming messages in the music that’s always piping into their ears. We have all sorts of resources, in all sorts of media, to support us in all our goals.
Yet every religious tradition stresses the importance of silence. Why does the cultivation of silence show up as a tool of spiritual formation in every religion?
Many of us use noise to block out sounds we’d rather not hear. And when we do that, we won’t hear God’s voice either.
Of course, we might be using noise to block out God, too. Maybe we know that God envisions a better life for us, but we don’t want to face those implications. Maybe we know that God calls us to do better.
Or maybe we just need to get comfortable with silence again. We tend to fear what we do not know, and these days, most of us have little experience with silence anymore.
So, start slowly, the way you would with any discipline you might adopt. When you go to bed at night, turn off the television, the radios, the electronics. Slip into sleep in silence. When you get ready for the day, see if you can turn off the electronic chatter — you don’t need to know the news, at least not first thing.
As the weeks go by, you may notice that your mood improves as you let more silence seep into your days. And you may notice that God has a chance to talk to you in the hollowed out space you’ve created.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative writing classes for the last 20 years.