The Sound of Silence

Anyone with a pulse knows that silence is an elusive commodity in our lives. Between car radios, i-Pods, music in stores and eateries, and omnipresent TVs — in the supermarket, the gym, hospital waiting rooms, and Jiffy Lube, not to mention most rooms in our own homes — there’s a lot of noise out there. Left to dumb luck, you’d be hard pressed to find much silence in your daily life. Thus cultivating silence take intentionality.

I recently heard the story of the American avant-garde composer John Cage who, in 1952, wrote a piece titled 4’33”. It was unique in that the score directed the performer not to play an instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It didn’t matter what instrument the soloist chose not to play – saxophone, tuba, washboard, whatever – the important thing was that, while on stage, he or she didn’t play it.

But the piece wasn’t meant to simply be a four and a half minute period of silence. Cage’s theory was that true silence does not exist. So, for Cage, the piece actually consisted of the sounds of the environment in which the listeners heard the work performed. People breathing and coughing; perhaps the sound of the heating system or the low hum of the lights; that annoying person who takes forever to open a candy wrapper.

Now once you get past the feeling of being subjected to the musical version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” there’s actually something to this. In reality, there is no such thing as total silence. Even if you entered a soundproofed room, you’d still hear the sound of your own body breathing and moving.

The upshot is that we can never enter into total silence; it simply does not exist. But what this might suggest to us from a faith perspective is that there is actually another sound in the mix. It’s often referred to as the “still, small voice within” – the sound of God’s movement within your own soul. And it is indeed a sound that cannot be silenced.

I actually considered giving a performance of 4’33” as a Sunday sermon — with the proper context and explanation of course. I decided not to though, mainly because I didn’t want people coming up to me at Coffee Hour and telling me it was the best sermon I’d ever preached.

But I would suggest that the church does offer its own version of the composition. It’s called contemplative prayer. And I always encourage people to try it out since we all desperately need some silence in our lives. Here’s a link to Father Keating’s guidelines for contemplative centering prayer. Enjoy and if you’re comfortable sharing your experiences with this devotional practice, I’d love to hear them.


5 Comments on “The Sound of Silence”

  1. Derek Olsen says:

    I try and meditate for about a half hour every morning. It’s usually noiser on the inside than the outside…

  2. Father Tim says:

    Excellent point, Derek. I know those who regularly practice this discipline suggest two 20-minute sessions per day to maximize the experience. Unfortunately for some of us, that’s laughable at this stage of life.

  3. Grace Matthews says:

    I love (am impressed by) the way you insert profound spiritual practice into seemingly disparate contexts. I’ve forwarded this post to several friends. You’re right, of course, about how hard it is to find 20, much less 40, minutes a day for centering prayer. While I’m gardening offers the best opportunity. No electronics there.

  4. Father Tim says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Grace. Yes, the “off” button, as you suggest, on our electronic devices goes a long way.

  5. Sarah Brockmann says:

    The closest thing to silence that I have ever encountered is standing in a wood at night during a snowfall. Exquisite!


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