An article from the LA Times popped up on my internet page on the subject of background noise in light of the COVID effects of distancing and the isolation it creates. Here are some of the author’s thoughts (in italics) as he quotes an associate professor of a university in New York teaching architectural acoustics:
Why do humans tend to enjoy background noise? Well, it could have something to do with our deep-rooted instincts for avoiding danger…. After all, animals in a forest typically go quiet when a predator is near, which is why many instinctively feel more at ease when birds are singing.
Quiet is equivocated with danger? In some cases. However, birds do not sing all the time. They don’t sing in my bird bath. I often observe them in surrounding trees and hear their silence. Many people on the other hand react with anxiety to silence.
The author continues:
“Though it hasn’t been studied, it’s possible that listening to office sounds could give someone a sense of normalization….. So if you’re someone who works best in the office or at a coffee shop, finding some ambient sounds or background noises that replicate your preferred workspace may restore some sense of order to your days. Ultimately, people should listen to what they think is good for them.”
The author also offers relief (?) on a web site for people who have been so conditioned by office sounds that they cannot work without them: https://imisstheoffice.eu/ No thanks.
Even the musicians Simon and Garfunkel knew better. Consider their hit song: The Sound of Silence. Yes, even silence has a sound. We are so conditioned to noise, that we cannot hear —the Silence—the Silence of God.
The human ego needs stimulation and is terrified of silence. The COVID event reveals that we have come face to face with how really restless we are internally. Simon and Garfunkel’s opening words, find a different perspective: “Hello Darkness My Old Friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.” Darkness a friend? At first, silence appears as darkness, a precipice from which we will be thrown into nothingness, an existential bottomless hole of abandonment and non-being. Yet darkness is welcomed as a friend to the psalmist who witnesses: “Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike” (Psalm 139).
It is at the point when we become aware of our anxiety around the lack of noise, that we have been given a gift—an invitation, though fearful as it might first appear, to walk off the edge of the precipice and fall into the hands of a loving God (Hebrews 10). Robert Cardinal Sarah: Silence is a paradise, but man does not see this right away… partially because we want to become God ourselves—because our egos are smothered by the noise of sensory and emotional reality, are no longer able to hear. Only the soul hears the Silence of God…when we listen. Even research has proven the hazards of noise to mental health.
Contemplatives (those who practice contemplative prayer) know how difficult it is to sit still enough for long enough to empty the noise out of our heads and tension from our bodies to fall through its cacophony into the Silence of God. St. John the Divine attempts to describe what the Great Silence sounds like in Revelation 14: 2: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps….” His explanation is confusing as “harps” are not silent when they are played. Metaphorically, harps are difficult to hear unless everything else is silent around them.
Sometimes we can use sound (not noise) to take us to the edge of silence. Gregorian chant, as an example, uses the voice to chant in various frequencies to help the body and mind relax to empty its contents so as to create a space for the Silence of God to dwell. One of my favorite ways is to sit in the complete darkness of a hunting blind at 05:30 in the morning. No birdsongs. Nothing—except perhaps for the sound of a gentle breeze. The hunting blind becomes a confessional where the Silence of God bathes me with His Presence and I am “home.” I also remember years ago when scuba diving in the Florida Keys. We dove at the site called, “Christ of the Abyss.” The only sound there was on the bottom of the ocean floor was the regulator releasing air into my lungs and the bubbles on the exhale.
Another point I want to make is the how culture (the author) influences the spiritual life, not necessarily from the point of truth (not relativity) of what is spiritual health: “people should listen to what they think is good for them.” What I think isn’t necessarily good for me. Thinking is often based on my ego and the ego chooses by the dualistic dynamic of attachment and fear which easily drowns silence out. The ego attaches to what feels good or normal and avoids that which it fears/doesn’t feel good.
Dropping into the Silence of God we experience St Paul’s words (Romans 8:26) of the “Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” When we fall into the Great Silence, we hear and feel the Spirit praying through us. Silence actually becomes not something empty, but rather a new breath and life giving Presence. In silence, God embraces us with the infinity of his Love. Becoming vessels of God, we communicate this presence by allowing the Spirit to come through us. Georges Bernanos, a country priest wrote: “Keeping silent—what a strange expression! Silence keeps us.”
Even while I sit in our quiet sanctuary, I can still hear noise much of the time, an external distraction. Even though small, a distraction can interrupt me from gleaning the deep silent moving rhythm of the Spirit. As Robert Cardinal Sarah writes: “Silence is sacred because it is God’s dwelling place.” Silence transforms us into receiving The Great Silence. Sarah continues, “The closer we are to the Holy Spirit, the more silent we are….” “Many words are more of an expression of our doubt than of our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power” (Henri Nouwen). Jesus himself tells his disciples to go “hide in the closet and shut the door” so that we can hear God. The Silence of God moves through us.
It all depends on what we want to hear.