Solitude takes us out to deep and spacious waters where we see that silence is one of our greatest gifts and blessings, in which we discover not only ourselves but God as well.
It’s striking the number of books coming out recently on the subject of silence; it must be a felt need in our chaotic age. The authors range from history professors to cardinals to a polar explorer—that last being Erling Kagge, whose Silence in the Age of Noise was recently published in paperback by Vintage Books.
Mr. Kagge is a Norwegian whose signature accomplishment is being the first person to reach the South Pole alone. His book is an extended essay about the value of silence in everyday life, interspersed with evocative color photos. Mr. Kagge was prompted to write the book by a family dinner with his two daughters in which he broached the subject of silence, a subject in which they had no interest. “Surely silence is… nothing?” Mr. Kagge proceeds to show that silence is in fact something—something necessary for our happiness and health.
The author recalls the total silence and isolation he experienced in the North Pole, where he began to notice details and small joys that would have passed unnoticed in ordinary life: the multicolored shades the snow took in the sun, the formations of the clouds; “The quieter I became, the more I heard.”
Experiencing that external silence (“the silence around us”) led Mr. Kagge to search for the “silence within us”—the inner quietude that we can carry around with us wherever we are. For Mr. Kagge silence and wonder go hand in hand, and they result in gratitude. We ought to be thankful every time the sun rises. We surround ourselves with incessant noise and busyness to avoid “being present” in our own life. We want to distract ourselves from confronting the mystery of existence. Silence, by contrast, is about getting deep inside life and experiencing it to the full, instead of merely skimming the surface.
Despite these fine insights, there is a certain hollowness at the core of Silence in the Age of Noise. In Mr. Kagge’s account of silence, man transcends the world around him, but he is unable to transcend himself. Prayer does not figure in Mr. Kagge’s book, and God only briefly (he cites the famous passage from the First Book of Kings about God revealing Himself as a “still small voice”). A deeper moral dimension to the search for silence is lacking. By Mr. Kagge’s own admission, silence is for him less a mystical exercise than a practical method for finding oneself. But after a person has found himself, what then? What more can one hope for from silence, other than a pantheistic immersion in nature or, at the very least, the chance to sort out one’s thoughts?
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For the answer we must turn to The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, by Cardinal Robert Sarah and Nicolas Diat. Here the insights of Mr. Kagge’s slim volume are raised to a higher plane. God is mentioned fleetingly in Silence in the Age of Noise but saturates The Power of Silence. For Cardinal Sarah as for Mr. Kagge, silence means an escape from external distractions to be alone with oneself. But even more, silence is an attribute of God and leads us to him. That God is silent does not mean that he is absent; quite the opposite, silence is part of his very being and the means by which he speaks to us.
It’s obvious that silence, for Cardinal Sarah, does not mean merely the absence of noise. Rather, it is an interior disposition or attitude, and a symbol for the entire Christian life. The silent person is a person who is receptive, who listens, who is patient, who does not constantly assert himself. Noise is egotism; silence is emptying the ego to listen to God. Noise is allied with ostentation and notoriety; silence is the small, still flame that burns in the soul that desires only to know and be known by God.
The two elements missing from Mr. Kagge’s book—silence as portal to God, and what silence means in our moral life—are the keynotes here. We learn that silence (or solitude) is the necessary precondition for prayer, which is in turn the precondition for a life with God. The habit of silence bears moral fruit in humility and meekness, which allows us to place ourselves on the proper plane before God. Besides this, silence teaches us the limits of human language. The effect of constant talk is to take the mystery out of life, to explicate everything into submission. Silence reminds us that some truths are above and beyond the ability of words to convey.
Lest anyone think Cardinal Sarah discounts the value of sounds, it comes out that he has a deep appreciation for fine music. Yet even music requires silence for its effect, for it comes out of silence, returns to silence, and must be received in silent attentiveness. Silence can also mean a fasting or withdrawal from the world of sense in general, whether aural or visual, leading to inner purification and refreshment. It is a reminder that our salvation does not come from external things, but from God alone.
Cardinal Sarah speaks of the role silence played in the life of Christ, from Nazareth for his first thirty years, to the desert, to the solitude of prayer, and before Pilate and the High Priest. Silence was his constant companion, and his solace when the crowds of his followers threatened to overwhelm him with their secular ambitions. Thus Christ provides our model of silence.
In brief, while Mr. Kagge remains stuck in the secular shallows, Cardinal Sarah takes us out to deep and spacious waters where we see that silence is one of our greatest gifts and blessings, in which we discover not only ourselves (as Mr. Kagge realized) but God as well.
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Now the question is how to integrate silence into one’s life, a task which will presumably be different for each person. It might mean literally talking less—or talking less trivially. For a writer like myself it might mean paring down one’s words to the essence, expressing oneself with restraint, and above all reading and listening. Someone whose work consists in mechanically getting “results” will strive to cultivate the attitude of patient waiting. A person who works in the midst of noise and busyness will try to shut out those things at the end of the day and rest in silent contemplation.
Since reading these two books, my attitude to silence has subtly changed. I have become more aware of how silence embellishes repose and alleviates boredom, whether in the middle of the night or when nothing in particular seems to be going on. In such times silence suddenly appears not as a lack, not something to be endured, but a positive thing—not an absence but the very presence of God and the ground of the good life.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Solitude” (c. 1890) by Frederick Leighton (1830-1896), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.