The Sounds of Silence

New day on shoulder of Ben Lomond, 14 Aug 2022

Recently I have been reading the book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’ (‘The Sound of Silence’). It is written by Tomas Sjödin, a Swedish pastor and author. Sadly only available in Swedish. Sjödin explores the many ways in which our lives need and are enriched by what he calls ‘good’ silence. Not always, possibly rarely, is such silence experienced through an absence of sound.

good [meaningful] silence is more about finding the [right] tone than being silent, not about what you want to avoid hearing, but what you long to hear”**. 

(My rough translation from Tomas Sjödin’s book ‘Ljudet av Tystnad’. Bracketed and bold words are mine. See end of post for the Swedish)

In our noisy world I lose my bearings and often cannot articulate what I long to hear. Instead a thousand noises and voices compete for attention. There is a need to recognise the voice that speaks in the silence.

And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The Sound of Silence (verse3), Paul Simon

A while ago I discovered that the English word ‘absurd’ comes from the Latin absurdus. Apparently the root of the word comes from being ‘out of tune’ or ‘deaf’. It struck me that to not experience ’good silence’ is to live an absurd (deaf, out of tune) life.

I struggle to hear but below are some ways I have been blessed with good silence.

The comforting silence of being understood

Praying should be like sharing with a good listener. It should be the one place to go where there are no expectations, where I can truly be myself. Yet much of the time my prayer is driven. I ask for change in people and situations, for God to answer my concerns and needs. Of course there is a time and place for this. Yet the first and greater need is to come as a child to the Father. To know I am understood. In recent years I have found the Ignatian practices involving silence helpful and refreshing spiritually. 

The many faces of longing

Sjödin cites the Reggio Emilia approach to education which says a child is born with a hundred languages. Sadly most of us grow up to discard all but a few. Nobody teaches a child to cry, scream, laugh, babble or gurgle with joy. Similarly Sjödin makes the point that we begin life equipped with many ways to pray but these ways often disappear as we go through life. So much for becoming older and wiser!

There are many languages, postures and ways of prayer. Hands clasped, hands open, hands raised, eyes open, eyes closed. It can take place while we sit or in bed, while we walk, stand, kneel, run or even swim. (The latter reminds me of a friend who said he prayed for me on the seventh lap of his daily swim. As his family grew and grandchildren came along he said I had been relegated to being prayed for, I think, on the 13th or 14th lap instead. Even though he is dead his prayers live on and I am grateful). 

Prayer can be praise, worship or song. It can be wordless. Asking, seeking, knocking. It could be a cry of joy, of sorrow, of anguish, of thanks, of need, of delight, of despair, of hopelessness. It can take place anywhere and in any of the 6,000+ languages spoken or those known only to God.

“God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.”

Genesis 21:17 NIVUK

The sacred silence of exhaustion 

“I lay down, strangely mesmerised by the tree branches overhead. Maybe it was my stress hormones but at 0200 the night was utterly quiet. Words can’t describe but I could ‘hear’ the silence and it was deafening”.  (from my West Highland Way Challenge – Race Report 2021). 

This was a silence of no strength. I had been moving, trying to run, for about 15 hours. On my own in the middle of the night in a wood near Crianlarich, Scotland. No doubt my blood sugar was very low and my senses and reactions were impaired. I was also very cold and so was vigilant about not resting or sleeping for more than a few minutes. I was fixated on my goal of going another 60km or so to Milngavie, Glasgow for 9pm that same day. Blood was pounding in my ears. In the midst of all that I lay down on a picnic bench and heard the silence.

The awesome silence of the heavens

“It was a balmy night with the occasional light wind to cool things a bit. It was keeping the midges (small, biting insects) at bay. Lying in my bivouac I kept looking up at what looked like the Pleiades cluster of stars directly overhead my mosquito/ midge net. To the southern horizon on my left the near full moon shone its reflected glory. I felt the immensity of space and time above. This coupled with the sense of my fragile head resting on the ground evoked both wonder and smallness. It was an ‘awe-full’ time. Eventually got to sleep about 0100 I guess.”

Journal entry, August 2022.
Camping on shoulder of Ptarmigan, overlooking Loch Lomond. August 2022. 

The refreshing silence of slowing down

With social media and the torrent of information around today mental capacities become overloaded, at least mine. There are little or no reserves left to give attention to what we are exposed to or going on around us. To focus is not easy and to ‘pay’ attention implies a cost. Sjödin observes that in the past people spoke at a slower speed than today. Nowadays we also apparently read 10% faster. All this doesn’t necessarily lead to more effective communication. There are times when I need a ‘sabbath’ break from mobiles and computers. Giving some space to create my own thoughts and not those that come from others. If these are too hard to come by then a good substitute is giving attention to the sounds and sights in nature. The silent, gentle progression of day to night is surely a calling to recognise a bigger picture.

Sunset over Loch Lomond, 13 Aug 2022

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** “Den goda tystnaden handlar mer om att hitta tonen än att bli tyst, inte om vad man vill slippa höra, men vad man längtar efter att få höra”.

8 Miles Until 10pm

The above sign I have passed many times on the main road between Glasgow and Perth whilst heading to the north of Scotland. Each time I wonder if this is a window to a new dimension. Space and time merge on approaching. I have bored my wife at my childlike (she would say childish) enthusiasm each time we pass. My reaction is no longer funny.

For sure if it was 9pm and I was driving at 8 miles per hour it would indeed be 10pm in 8 miles. Any other time of day and it’s a bit more complicated. Maybe at 8pm it means 2 hours driving at 4mph. These speeds are very slow for a car so more realistically at 9:50pm it would be 10pm in 8 miles if driven at 48 mph. On the other hand it could be the sign is a cue to check the time and adjust your speed accordingly. Indeed reaching 10pm in 8 miles is possible at any time of day but requires great care to drive at the right speed. 

On the other hand am not sure speed is what is signified. ‘8 miles until 10pm’ seems to be saying that whatever speed travelled 8 miles will bring you to 10pm. 8 miles in any direction and at whatever speed brings you to a fixed point in time, 10pm! Yes this sounds rather fanciful. Yet some of the things that particle and quantum physicists theorise about our universe are even odder. 

Maybe there is something special about the time itself. For most 10pm is the end of day and rest beckons. Perhaps the sign is a challenge to reflect on the day past or prepare for day’s end. Experiences, things done or not done. Regretted or relished. It’s time to put to bed both literally and figuratively.

Context means a lot. The accompanying petrol pump sign on the notice gives it a more mundane, yet important, meaning. Still I’d rather hope that the roads dept. wish to fire up our imagination. I can choose to dwell on the depressing realities of the news that is often the backdrop to our world. It is also possible to believe in a magical, transformative world. Yet most of the time I do not have eyes to see. To complete a car journey it is necessary to have enough fuel in the tank or sufficient charge in your batteries. Yet our longing is for life and journeys to have more meaning than just the utilitarian. 

There is enduring interest in the works of fairy tale and fantasy writers such as CS Lewis and TR Tolkien. They show that adults have a need, like oxygen, for imagination. As much if not more so than children. People from every background and age have great affection for and are inspired by books and films like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

This humble road sign is an invitation to embark on an adventure. Like crew and passengers who choose to embark on some giant cruise ship. Everyone then makes individual choices of how to spend their time on board, living different lives. Yet all on board trust the captain will bring the vessel to safe harbour at evening’s end.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

― C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

Touches of Lightness

I find the pithy sayings of G K Chesterton striking. His book ‘Orthodoxy’ is a defence of Christianity and his journey of faith. It is right up to date in addressing the problems of our age. This despite being written over 100 years ago.

The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity……. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

GK Chesterton

Available to many of us are the simple sights and sounds of nature. Enjoying them can feel guilty when contrasted with the current news of war and pestilence. However these pleasures can be balm to the soul in dark times. So I will indulge you in the following ‘touches of lightness’ that have been a blessing to me in recent winter weeks. You can adapt if you live in Southern Hemisphere!

After months of long, grey days experiencing late winter clear skies has been very refreshing. The light is not as strong as spring or summer. There is a sweet, almost delicate tinge to everywhere the sunlight bathes. Now this may simply be because of many dark days and my eyes not used to brighter light. Whatever the reason it is special and different.

Sunlight is felt as well as observed. There is something gentle on a cold day to have one side of your face being warmed, albeit with a weak sun.

Wakening in the middle of the night to birdsong. When the worries of the world seem to threaten mind and heart their music is balm to the soul. I am no bird expert but listening to this pre-dawn chorus is healing. Naively I have always thought that birds waken later in winter, a bit like myself. It’s only this year I’ve heard them so early. Maybe God wakens them to get up and sing for me!

Country walks punctuated by the gurgling of water. Streams transporting melting ice seem especially joyous and playful. That may just be my imagination. Of course water also rushes and roars with tremendous strength and destruction. However this seems the season for gentle, murmuring waters.

The seemingly random and chaotic patterns of deciduous tree branches in winter. There are scientific descriptions for these patterns in nature (‘fractals’). For some years I find observing them is soothing to the brain. Recently I read that there is apparently scientific evidence for this. Not that I need any. Gazing at the seemingly random patterns of branches against a blue sky is like a brain massage.

The many sounds of different terrain.

The cushioning thud of feet on a dry forest floor.
The scrunching of dry ice underfoot.

The ending of most pandemic rules in UK has also awakened other dormant experiences. One such has been the comforting murmur of multiple conversations when in a large room or hall. Groups of people talking to each other seemed unremarkable and mundane before pandemic times. Such a hubbub of noise makes no sense. With other eyes it shows something of the glory of being human.

You can no doubt add to this list. Wherever you live on this globe there are plenty ‘natural’ soothing ointments for frazzled, fearful and tired souls.

Savour the end of a clear winter’s day. Slower and more nuanced than a summer sunset.