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solitary time in silence

Silence and the Stirrings of the Soul

February 19, 2024


As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.

―John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

―Will Rogers


Do you hear that? 

That’s right—Nothing.


What an odd—even overwhelming—sound. In an age of incessant din (jabbering televisions at gas pumps, endless iPhones chirping in cars, oppressive chatter in libraries), silence can seem curiously strained, if not a little awkward. Unconsciously, we wait for the noise to begin again. It heralds a sense of “normalcy.” And yet we need silence; inwardly, we crave it. 

Opening his poem, Long-Legged Fly, W.B. Yeats affords us a stealthy look at Caesar considering a matter of seismic importance. He is not conferring with his staff or watching noisy maneuvers. For such a moment, with maps spread and hand on his head, he needs silence. 

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post.
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand upon his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

While silence can be solitary, it can also be communal. Playing pool in my favorite lake lodge, I always marveled at the oft-selected jukebox selection: Two Minutes of Silence. After Fleetwood Mac faded away and before Billy Joel tickled the ivories, quiet ensued for two whole minutes while people smiled warmly and leaned into their conversations. Once, as a young boy itching to break an extended silence that hung over several of us in my family room, my father observed that such quiet is possible only when people are truly comfortable with each other. 

Sigurd Olson, the godfather of the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area, spent years guiding over-busy, noise-addled professionals into the heart of the silent wilderness. Days of quiet interrupted only by the shake of late summer leaves or the cry of a mournful loon were, initially, unwelcome, if not unnerving. And yet, before long, the peace was a balm. To discover that silence is not a yawning void to be filled, but an earnest companion to be cherished—one who sharpens your thoughts, warms your heart, and ennobles your soul—is to, once again, discover the pleasure of what it means to be human. Time and again, Olson implored his charges to relish the silence. “At times on quiet waters,” he wrote, “one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege.”

We need silence; inwardly, we crave it. 

Silence can mediate graces. Interviewed on a late-night television show, Louis C.K.—a rather edgy comedian—mused on the time, while driving, when a Bruce Springsteen song triggered a painful memory. Immediately uncomfortable, he struggled to suppress the thoughts with any noise or distraction possible. But instead, he pulled over, silenced the radio, and wept. It was difficult, he admitted. But it was good. 

Fr. Romano Guardini (in an excerpt I am struggling to find), en route to the orchestra, described the noise and distraction we endure in the mad dash through traffic to arrive on time. Even if we arrive as the opening notes try to soothe, he lamented, we are, initially, impervious to their charms—we are still not there. Instead, our souls are stuck in traffic amidst honks and screeches, curses and apologies. If only we had a small dose of preparatory silence, we might have been open to such graces. 

Silence is formative. Robert Cardinal Sarah observed that “contemplative silence is a fragile little flame in the midst of a raging ocean. The fire of silence is weak because it is bothersome to a busy world.” And Pope Benedict XVI would add, 

Put simply, we are no longer able to hear God—there are too many different frequencies filling our ears. What is said about God strikes us as pre-scientific, no longer suited to our age. Along with this hardness of hearing or outright deafness where God is concerned, we naturally lose our ability to speak with him and to him. And so we end up losing a decisive capacity for perception. We risk losing our inner senses. This weakening of our capacity for perception drastically and dangerously curtails the range of our relationship with reality in general. The horizon of our life is disturbingly foreshortened.

I am struck by the notion of “losing our inner senses.” Just as shoreline is carved by the incessant pounding of waves, so too our souls are formed by the unrelenting presence of noise—or perhaps I should say “deformed.” If contemplation is to be forever interrupted by noise’s irritating tap on our shoulders, how will we grow, how will we learn, how will we recover from the trials of our day? There is no wisdom to gain where there is no thought. And there is no meaningful thought where there is no enduring silence to think. 

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Silence is a vast space of interiority, the landscape of the soul. It is not proud or ostentatious. It is not shallow or selfish. It accompanies Christ in his Passion and Mary in her Compassion (Pietà). It speaks volumes without speaking. Thomas Merton went further by eulogizing our interior life, which collapses in the absence of silence. Silence affords the opportunity for a holy secrecy—antithetical to boisterous sharing and testifying—between God and ourselves.

[We must learn that] the inviolability of one’s spiritual sanctuary, the center of the soul, depends on secrecy. Secrecy is the intellectual complement of a pure intention. . . . Keep all good things secret from yourself. If we would find God in the depths of our souls, we have to leave everybody else outside, including ourselves. 

Silence, to borrow from (and paraphrase) Thomas Merton once more, “allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” 

If only we truly understood this.


Do you hear that? 

That’s right—Nothing.


And, with it, the stirrings of the soul.