The modern hostility to silence
Spiritual masters of all schools have traditionally regarded the practice of silence as a requisite for experiencing the divine, however conceived. Even in ancient times, long before the appearance of our electronic means of communication, the wise men of the day counselled spiritual aspirants to withdraw frequently from the stream of social life because they regarded every hour frittered away in idle conversation as time lost to serious thought, contemplation or – in the case of religious thinkers - prayer.
If the civilisations of antiquity already offered innumerable diversions from the cultivation of the inner life, how should we assess our own modern, technologically advanced society? The truth is that today we live amid more noise, with fewer quiet spaces, than ever before. If there was ever a culture characterised by outright hostility to wordless silence, ours is surely it.
The volume of purely background noise to which we have accustomed ourselves – from the roaring, screeching and blaring of dense motor traffic to the ubiquitous thudding and jingling of amplified music – is unprecedented. But in addition many people now appear to have evolved a desperate need for constant verbal communication as well. They just can’t stop talking - or more precisely, they just can’t stop talking loudly.
Empty vessels make most sound
Twenty – and certainly forty or fifty - years ago most British people valued their own privacy and respected that of others. The great majority of conversations in public places were conducted in subdued voices, expressing a general desire not to intrude upon others and a philosophy of minding one’s own business while expecting others to do the same.
Today the governing values are not politeness and quiet considerateness but rather the opposite: self-absorption and noisy exhibitionism.
In the street, in the supermarket queue, in the train carriage, in all sorts of places, moreover, where previously a reflective silence reigned - bookshops, museums, galleries, churches and so on - one’s inner thoughts are more and more liable to be invaded by braying descriptions of the tastes, interests and activities of complete strangers, as they conduct “private” conversations at a volume plainly intended to arrest the attention of those around them or else bellow theatrically into their cell phones.
We have rejected the truth of the old saying that empty vessels make most sound. Now, conditioned perhaps by the milieu of “reality tv”, in which excitable personalities hyperbolise unceasingly on camera, increasing numbers of Britons derive great pleasure from staging what can only be described as little public pantomimes, assailing their unfortunate spectators with detailed and sometimes intimate accounts of their home life, problems or triumphs at work, the typical weekend antics of friends or the endlessly entertaining witticisms pronounced by their children.
“I’m in the library – it’s rubbish!”
More than any other invention the mobile phone has made constant verbal communication possible, by means of either the spoken word or by “text-messaging”. For owners of a mobile phone, seemingly, its principal advantage lies in the fact that they need never again spend a single moment in solitary thought. It is nearly always possible to open a channel of trivial chatter with someone.
Furthermore it appears that part of the etiquette – if that is the right word - of mobile phone use is that their owners immediately become oblivious of the needs or even the presence of others while conversing or “texting” in busy public places. Engrossed in their exchange of private banalities they bump and shove past others without apology or hold up all movement as they rivet their attention on the fascinating content of their call.
God’s still small voice of calm
One would like to be able to say that religious people and Catholics in particular have resisted the shallowness and bad manners of the age. Sadly, the behaviour of many Catholics even when they come to church simply mirrors that of their heathen neighbours.
Despite the presence of the Blessed Sacrament as a focus for silent adoration, noisy socialising now predominates over quiet prayer in many of our churches, while at Sunday Mass the new breed of precocious, highly vocal infants are encouraged to spread toys and colouring books across the floor, chatter with parents or wander round the building seeking additional relief from their boredom. The modern antipathy to silence and depth has even infiltrated the sanctuary of the Lord.
In the last analysis however the development of human character beyond a collection of fluctuating sensations and desires depends on our willingness to confront our appetite for distraction and constant speech. Certainly the growth of any relationship with God depends on learning the practice of silence, because his “still small voice” can never be heard above the din with which we persistently engulf ourselves.
Contemporary culture is unique in its quest to perfect every means of escaping from silence, and the movement towards the so-called “24-hour society”, in which noise, activity and diversion are available around the clock, has naturally intensified this escapist tendency. Let us hope that the followers of Christ, and all who are repelled by the emptiness and triviality of modern life, will still manage to create vital spaces of silence in which contemplation and interior prayer lead to a truer vision of human life, and ultimately to communion with God.
(Readers may be interested in John Wijngaards’ website, Mystery and Beyond, which contains useful suggestions for cultivating the dispositions necessary for earnest prayer, stillness and contemplation: www.mysteryandbeyond.org).