Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Speaking Up For Silence

Sunset color glows above Royal Lake with clouds partly obscuring Grey Wolf Peak.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. ~Eccl. 5:1

The contemplative spiritual discipline of silence invites us to set aside speech and step away from noise, into a time and place of quiet and rest. This sounds easy but can be very difficult for some who are used to filling their days with sounds. Our homes, workspaces, and cars are full of noise. We seldom get to enjoy the gift of silence.

Try a little experiment. Walk outside your house. Find one square inch of quiet in your neighborhood, in your corner of the woods, in your backyard. Try to find a place near where you live that is unbroken by human noise. How far would you have to travel to get to such a place? For the past three decades, this has been the quest of Emmy award winning sound recorder, Gordon Hempton, who has recorded the sounds of nature on nearly every continent.

Sitting on a moss covered log in the heart of the Olympic National Park, Hempton, sets up his sound recording microphones and meters to listen, claiming the Olympics to be the quietest of all our national parks. According to Hempton, our silent spaces are dwindling. “In 1985,” writes staff reporter Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, “[Hempton] recorded 21 places in Washington state where natural quiet was unbroken by noise intrusions from 15 minutes or more during the daytime. By 1989, there were only three.”[1]

The most aggressive invader of natural quiet spaces is the jet airline industry. Alaska Airlines alone accounts for more than 30 flights over Olympic National Park per day. By happy accident, Olympic National Park happens to lie west of most of national and international flight patterns. Still, the scarring sound of jet engines accounts for the most disruptive human sounds heard in the Olympics. I know. I’ve hiked half of the 700 miles of trails in that wonderland.

Over the past 18 years, our family has enjoyed fifty-mile backcountry treks into the National Park, including Olympic National Park. We practice “leave no trace” camping, packing out all our garbage and literally leaving no trace of our presence, preserving the space for the next camper. The jet airline industry seems unable to practice “leave no trace” as an industry. During one week-long family vacation in the Olympic backcountry over a decade ago, our sons counted the times per day when the natural quiet was interrupted by jet airplanes. Dozens and dozens of jets flew overhead, breaking into the deep silence of God’s creation. Long after their five minutes of roaring had cleared the skies, their vapor trail was still evident as it dissipated thousands of feet above our heads. That was over a decade ago, and the intrusion of human machines into the natural silence has only increased since then.

We spend days of hiking, carrying all our gear and food in backpacks, in order to arrive at serene alpine meadow, twenty-five miles from the nearest parking lot. There we sit, listening to the footsteps of a Great Blue Heron stalking frogs along the lakeshore. We hear the peeping of a Water Dipper chick looking for her mother and the tune in to the symphony of bees gathering nectar from alpine wildflowers in that pristine wonderland.

A jet airplane flying overhead in such a place is like a kid burping for five minutes during a church service. Or it is like that twitchy person with the itchy throat, sitting in the seat behind you at the symphony, the guy who keeps clearing his throat, and finally gets out a throat lozenge, only to spend several irritating minutes crinkling the wrapper before getting the lozenge into his mouth.

Sound invasion goes on all the time. According to Hempton, natural quiet is so rare that most people under age of thirty know nothing of the experience. “Whenever someone tells me they know a quiet place, I figure they have an undiagnosed hearing impairment, or they weren’t really listening,” admits Hempton. “Most people believe they know what natural quiet is, but they have not had the experience; it is not the same thing as sitting in an empty theater, a church, a library.”[2]

Sound engineer, Ron Sauro of Tacoma, Washington, convinced me that we are raising a whole generation of young people who are hard of hearing due to listening to loud music through earphones. He explained to me the physiology of our sense of hearing. Sound waves vibrate the meadows of cilia in your ear-canal, setting off signals which are sent along to your brain. When you expose your ear canal to intense decibels of sound for too long, the cilia break off and do not grow back. Oddly, the hearing most commonly lost due to excessive exposure to high decibels is the middle range, the range of the human voice.

In my experience, humans tend to be uncomfortable with silence. As a pastor who plans and leads multiple worship services every Sunday, I’ve seen people squirm and fidget whenever there is a short period of silence. Try it out the next time you get into a good conversation with a friend: experiment with periods of silence from your side of the conversation. See how your friend responds to the gap of silence, how quickly he attempts to fill the gap with words. As the prophet warns, “In quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it” (Isaiah 30:15).

Spiritual seekers welcome silence, both the outward form of natural quiet in places such as the Olympics as well as that inward form of creative silence found through such practices as meditation and journaling. “We spend our lives in containers”, observes Hempton. “Cars. Buildings. Planes. Natural quiet is in open, living space. It’s alive.” His current campaign is with airline executives, attempting to reduce the number of flights per day over the Olympic National Park. Like those visionary folks who set apart our national parks in the last century for future generations, Hempton strives to preserve and protect the gift of silence, declaring to anyone who will hear: “Quiet places are the think tank of the soul.”

St. John of the Cross expressed our need for silence in this way. “Let them trust in God who does not fail those who seek Him with a simple and righteous heart; nor will He fail to impart what is needful for the way until getting them to the clear and pure light of love…. The attitude necessary…is to allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude even though it may seem very obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time…. They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God.”

Finding inner silence is ever harder than a little exterior peace and quiet. For many, as soon as you shut off the music, and shut down all the electronic devices, the monkeys in the brain start bouncing on the bed and making a messy ruckus. How do we settle the monkeys? Where can we find a monkey-tamer?

Here are a few steps into silence:

First: set aside a time of day where there are fewer sounds and fewer interruptions. For most, this time is early in the morning, just before dawn. For others, this time may be late at night, depending if you are an owl or a lark. Even a short time of day such as a few minutes in a bathroom behind a closed door can offer a few moments of quiet to enjoy the gift of silence.

Second: set aside a space or place where you are able to refocus your life apart from sounds and noise. In this place, put a few objects that help you focus upon God, not upon activities, lists, demands, distractions. Choose to leave your mobile phone and digital devices in another room. Maybe for some, this place is in a chair out in your backyard, where the main sound you hear is birdsong. Birds love singing at dawn.

Third: quiet the many voices in your head through the ancient practice of silently breathing the Jesus Prayer, as expressed in the previous blog. This ancient practice is one of the best spiritual disciplines for quieting my anxious, noisy soul. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is the long version breathed in two slow breaths: Lord Jesus Christ (inhale), Son of God (exhale), have mercy on me (inhale), a sinner (exhale). The simple version is “Lord, have mercy,” or in Latin, Kyrie eleison.

One time, I asked a Trappist monk why they breathed in rhythm with their prayers. He simply replied that they believe prayer is as important to the soul as breath is to the body. As I breathe that ancient prayer, my mind focuses upon Jesus, our good Shepherd and my heart begins to quiet in his beautiful presence. As we are willing to enter into places and times of silence, we begin to learn not only to listen but to truly trust in the voice of the Shepherd of our souls, our truest source of silence and rest.

[1] Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times, August 1, 2005 (Seattle, WA: Seattle Times Co., 2005), A1.

[2] Ibid., A9.

2 thoughts on “Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Speaking Up For Silence”

  1. The forced isolation has been a blessing in that we can more easily make the choice to find that quiet place in our homes and in our souls. Thank you for this

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