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”.

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.

Poignant, Hopeful, Maybe Even Joyful

Hibiscus, national flower of Haiti.

In February 1986 Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier was deposed as President of Haiti and went to live in exile in France. Ordinary people were no doubt hoping that the near 30 year brutal rule of his and ‘Papa Doc’ (his father) would come to an end. However the general chaos remained with a military junta in control. Their will was enforced by the ‘Tonton Macoutes’, a sinister legacy of the Duvaliers which lived on. Their name was Creole for ‘bogeymen’. The populace feared them and the main thing was to avoid their attention. They would race round the capital in open jeeps and armed with guns. 

It was with this background that in the November of that same year (1986) I visited Haiti. My reason for going was to initiate preparations (known as ‘line up’) for the visit of MV Logos to the country. Make a brief survey of the situation for others to follow up later. Arriving at the airport in the capital Port au Prince I was immediately struck by a sense of chaos. Exiting the arrivals hall I was accosted by many wanting me to use their taxi services. In a more benign situation the scene would be reminiscent of some film star being mobbed by fans. Not so for me, it felt scary. Eventually I settled on one driver. Tip for using a taxi in a poor land. Always sit in the back with your luggage and just have the driver in front. Never allow a ‘hanger on’ person, either in the front or back.

As we left the airport it was unnerving that crowds were thronging around the car and banging on it. A big relief to get away. My destination was the compound of a Christian organisation in the capital. Upon arrival I began to understand the angry scenes at the airport. Greeted by my host he was shocked to see me. Did I not know there was a general strike on? How had I managed to travel in such circumstances?  I had arrived on one of the worst days of demonstrations and riots since the deposing of ‘Baby Doc’. The other greeting has also remained with me. It helped to cement my overall feeling of being in a place where law and order were in short supply… “welcome to the last kleptocratic country in the world”.

The compound was a haven of safety where a number of mission families lived. The whole area was walled in. Outwith the gates were people who seemed to live in hope of some economic benefit from those inside the wall. In my imagination it felt like being in some medieval fort or Biblical walled city. My misplaced sense of identifying with people made me question why those who were there to serve others were so insulated. In fact a concern at the time for the compound community was for one family that had decided to live in a house in the city. However my appreciation grew for having the safety of a walled compound. I recall being wakened at night by the sound of machine gun fire. 

Mission compound, Port au Prince, Haiti

My survey visit was only for a mere 6 days. The people I was with would not go downtown for the first 2 days of my stay because of the instability. Much of that time was spent sneaking around back roads to get from A to B. I had great respect for those who chose to live in these difficult, dangerous circumstances for years. I took seriously the counsel that when out and about to wear no watches, rings or jewellery. Another tip. Have small amounts of money in several places including in your socks or shoes.

One category of locals allowed into the compound were shoe shine people. I engaged someone to work cleaning my footwear. Definitely more of a salve to my conscience than any perceived need of clean shoes. Those I was ‘helping’ seemed desperately poor. Apparently the income the shoe shine people received enabled them to employ other people. Seemed there was a hierarchy of poverty. 

I don’t remember any tourist sights in the capital though am sure there were. My only ‘sightseeing’ memory was seeing the desecrated grave of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Given his and his son’s legacy of terror it was understandable why there would be some pride in my being shown this.

The dilemma for me in this anarchic situation was where would I get ‘permissions’ etc for the MV Logos to visit the country? I had been given the name of a potential useful contact who agreed to meet with me. Linked by family with the leadership of the junta it seemed this person could be a help. The address for the meeting was on the outskirts of the capital. I made my way there to a well to do part of the capital. My contact managed one of the country’s most luxurious hotels and I was to meet him there. It was all a bit surreal as most seemed to carry guns. Not your normal hotel environment. Turned out my contact had 24 bodyguards. If anything happened to his relative in power he was prepared to go into siege. Again my overactive imagination made it all feel like the set at the ending of many Bond films. 007 meeting his archenemy holed up in his lair. Ushered in to meet my ‘contact’ my bizarre musings were fuelled further. He was in a dimly lit room covered in piles of animal skins and surrounded by several men armed to the teeth. Not sure how dangerous I appeared to warrant such. 

Now to the business of the meeting. It was obvious from the start that my presence was of little consequence. My contact was glued to a ‘walkie talkie’ radio most of the time. For short periods in between his intense radio communications he would address me. It was clear that what I was saying was of no interest. What was transpiring on the radio was where the real drama was. My reason for being there became irrelevant as I too was drawn in as he repeated everything he was hearing. 

It turned out that a major riot was taking place in the city centre. My contact was following the event as it happened. It was clear he was speaking to some key informant in whatever was going on. It seemed the mob had now arrived at the offices of a world famous (now defunct) American airline. They had smashed their way in and were now trying to break into the safe where airline tickets were stored. In those days air tickets were often written by hand on blank triplicate (or quadruplicate?) forms. Blank tickets, it would appear, would be very valuable. I leave the reader to decide what kind of interest my contact had in this live account of looting. 

For my part the intermittent, inconsequential conversation with my contact was becoming embarrassing. It was clear that all I was doing was interrupting more exciting things going on. I suggested I leave. At this point my contact became interested and engaged. He must have been listening to me after all! He could help me with anything and introduced me to his partner. Apparently all it needed was a $2,500 up front ‘service fee’. I sensed the whole thing was opportunistic. Suddenly all that mattered to me was to get away. As politely and firmly as possible I got out of the place. It is at times like that that knowing the prayers of many for my protection became real. 

It came time for me to leave the country and travel to the ship which was then in Puerto Rico. As if to cement my kleptocratic understanding a ‘departure tax’ was levied at the airport. I was told it was not destined for any government coffers but some individual.

Some weeks later it worked out to return on board the ship MV Logos. We had an encouraging 10 day stay in Port au Prince as well as 5 days in the town of Cap Haitien on the country’s north coast where thousands visited. No space to relate the activities involved. If interested to know more you can click ‘Logos‘ on the tags cloud.

Haiti’s history is a blot on our shared humanity. A toxic legacy of gross injustices, African slavery, greedy colonialism, despotic leaders and extreme poverty. The suffering of its people being further compounded in recent years by natural disasters. The huge earthquake in 2010 killed an estimated 200,000. Add regular tropical storms, further earthquakes and ongoing political instability and it would seem there is no end to ordinary citizens suffering. Environmentally even in 1986 large swathes of the land had been denuded of its hardwood trees such as mahogany.

I appreciate relating my Haiti experience may not be uplifting to the reader. My desire though is that our common humanity would engender love and compassion for the plight of this country’s hard pressed people. When words fail, sometimes nature and music can step in.

Haiti’s national flower is the hibiscus. A thing of beauty yet delicate, like the Haitians whom God loves.

“So much of what music can do most beautifully is humanize things that have become dehumanized,”

Laurent Dubois, Duke University professor and historian on Haiti.

While wondering how to finish this blog I happened to go to a musical concert. To my surprise among the featured musicians was the Haitian-American singer Leyla McCalla. She sang a folk song in Haitian Creole. You can hear her sing Mèci Bon Dié on YouTube here. It’s a song of hope, even joy, for a land of resilient people in sore need of healing. The translated lyrics are below.

Thank you, God,

Look at all that nature has brought us.

Thank you, God,

Look how misery has ended for us.

The rain has fallen,

The corn has grown,

All the children that were hungry are going to eat.

Let’s dance the Congo,

Let’s dance the Petro,

God said in Heaven

That misery has ended for us.

“Merci Bon Dieu (Mèci Bon Dié In Haitian Creole)” (Harry Belafonte Lyrics)