Trading Noise for Silence, and How To Use It

December 30, 2021

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 The word “noise” in English comes from about the eleventh century, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, most probably derives from the Latin words nausea (upset, seasickness) or possibly noxia (harmful behavior). From its earliest uses, “noise” has a negative connotation: disturbance, quarrels, discordance, general unpleasantness. We may not fully realize that the exhortation in Psalm 100 to “make a joyful noise to the Lord,” as it is rendered in many translations, is a paradoxical challenge, a reframing of the negative to the positive. However, the term “noise pollution” did not enter the language until very recently; the OED marks its first usage in 1970. The phrase “background noise” is likewise recent: the earliest appearance of it in the OED’s illustrative quotations is from 1942.

Noise used to be something that happened, an intrusion; today, it is part of the ambient environment. We sometimes cancel it out with “white noise” (a term whose first appearance in the OED is in 1943), but mostly, I venture to say, we take it for granted. There’s plenty of noise around us that we can’t personally affect. Cars. Leaf-blowers and lawn-mowers. Televisions on in restaurants (and at gasoline pumps). Music always playing in stores. And we have, today, the ability to fill every moment of our own time with sounds. We can listen to music anytime via earbuds that let us keep up a background soundtrack to life wherever we may be. We can listen to podcasts and audiobooks on the commute to work or while doing the laundry. We can watch videos and television anywhere. It’s possible to go from waking to sleeping without ever having had any silence in the day.

Let me be completely clear: music, podcasts, videos, audiobooks are all good things (assuming that the content is wholesome! We will take that as a given.). These forms of media provide ways for us to enjoy good, true, and beautiful things, and to be informed, edified, encouraged, entertained, and refreshed.

The problem here is not the media, but its increasing ubiquity. We have the ability to occupy our attention with something in every waking moment. And this has the result of excluding silence from our lives.

We need silence; we need mental quiet, and space to think. Indeed, we are starving for it, culturally and individually.

This isn’t just about finding time to pray or to listen for God’s word in our lives. It’s more fundamental than that: it’s about finding time to think. How can we even know what to pray about, at the deepest level, if we do not allow ourselves time to consider our own thoughts, desires, needs, fears? How can we grow more Christ-centered if we do not allow ourselves mental space to assimilate what we learn from Scripture, from homilies, from devotional reading? And how can we evangelize—truly listening to others and speaking to their genuine questions and concerns—if we don’t have the internal steadiness that comes from being at home in the quietness of our own hearts and minds?

About fifteen years ago, I started doing a silent-reflection activity with my students. One beautiful spring afternoon, I told my freshman composition class to leave their books in the classroom and come outside with me to sit on the hillside overlooking the ocean. I directed them to disperse themselves over the grass and gave one simple direction: we would sit in silence for fifteen minutes, and then go back to class and write brief reflections on the experience.

Most of them found it challenging; many found it revelatory. Some found it alarming, as even this brief stretch of silence was enough to reveal to them how they had been distracting themselves, even anesthetizing themselves, rather than facing their own fears and anxieties. Nearly all of them were shocked at the realization of how little they allowed themselves simply to think. (Semester after semester, I was impressed with the capacity of these young people to reflect honestly and searchingly upon their own inner life when given the opportunity to do so.)

The implications of this activity for evangelization are significant. How can we expect people to think seriously about the claims of Christianity, claims that, if true, may require a total reorientation of one’s life, if they do not have any leisure to think about these new and unsettling claims? It may well be that what we perceive as indifference is, in fact, cognitive overload: they simply have no mental space to take in what we are saying. I would venture to say, then, that a profoundly important pre-evangelistic activity is to provide opportunities for silence and reflection.

In my teaching of Christian graduate students at HBU, in the MA in Apologetics (where I am now Visiting Professor), I kept up this activity in my “Modern Culture and Philosophy” class. At the start of each term, I assigned them to spend three twenty-minute periods simply sitting in silence, and then write a reflection on what they had learned from it. Many of my graduate students were confident, going in, that this would be easy—unlike my college freshmen, they were already culture-savvy and self-aware . . . right? But year after year, my students discovered that they were more affected by the culture than they thought; that they had filled up every available moment so that there was no silence in their lives, no space really to think or reflect, no time even to be present to God. And having recognized this, they could do something about it, make changes in their own lives—and also, they could engage with the culture in a more thoughtful, sensitive way.

I wholeheartedly commend this activity to you. Perhaps you think you don’t need to do it because you have plenty of silence and self-reflection in your life already. Try it anyway. Perhaps you think you don’t need to do it because you are already aware that your life is filled with too much noise, and you don’t need to be reminded of it. Try it anyway. It will be good for you.

Here are the directions.

Over the course of a week, on three separate occasions, set aside a twenty-minute period to sit in silence without activity. I recommend choosing three different times of the day, and different contexts: a room in your house, a spot outdoors (weather permitting), and, if you can manage it, in an Adoration chapel or in church. You do not need to ensure total absence of noise, but you should try to avoid high-traffic places like a coffee shop, where there are many distractions. If you have small children, you’ll probably need to get up early to do this! Don’t combine this with any activity: no media consumption, of course (no music, internet, or books), but also no other activity (no walking, doing housework, or driving to work). Silence your cell phone, but do set a timer so that you can know when your twenty minutes is up without checking your phone or your watch.

Do not occupy yourself with anything during this time. That includes writing notes about your thoughts (save that for later!), or even such things as praying the Rosary or interceding for other people. It is indeed very good to pray during a time of silence, and likewise silent time is often very good for generating ideas for one’s writing or to-do list, but this particular time of silence has a specific purpose, which is to allow you to discover what’s going on in your mind and heart when you’re not keeping busy. You may find yourself offering spontaneous prayer, which is perfectly fine and in tune with this activity—just don’t deliberately occupy your attention in this way.

Let me emphasize that the goal is not to “empty your mind.” Not at all! The goal is to set aside, for a certain time period, all the things that usually occupy your attention, so that your mind is free to just think. Pay attention to where your thoughts go, but don’t try to direct them in any particular way. Allow your mind to follow its own train of thought and notice where it goes; find out what really is on your mind. The experience may be quite difficult; it may be boring, stressful, or even distressing or anxiety-producing. This is OK! Pay attention to your own reactions, so that you can reflect on them afterwards.

Prayer should be the frame and context for this activity. Before you begin, ask the Holy Spirit to bless this time and to guide your thoughts in whatever way is best so that you will learn and benefit from this time. Then just . . . sit quietly. When your twenty-minute period is complete, pray again: ask God to guide you to gain insight from this experience, and pray for any intentions, needs, or concerns that have come up in your thoughts during your time of silence. After you’ve concluded your prayer, spend a few minutes jotting down any thoughts or observations you had about your experience. What was it like? What was on your mind?

Then do it twice more—and then reflect on what you have experienced.

What will it be like for you? I can’t say—but I will say that this has been a tremendously fruitful experience for many, many of my students over the years. Speaking for myself, periodically having silent reflection times has been, and continues to be, an important part of my own intellectual and spiritual life. For one thing, it helps me more clearly discern the difference between the media that is genuinely valuable in my life (for my work or for relaxation), and that which is merely an addictive kind of noise.

Silence is a kind of well, a deep water that we need to dip into frequently for refreshment, and I daresay, most of us are thirstier than we realize.

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