Finding “Snatches of Silence”

Several years ago, Newsweek magazine carried an article written by Julia Baird under the rubric of psychology, titled “The Devil Loves Cell Phones”—a rather unexpected and somewhat jarring title considering the secular orientation of such a mass media journal as Newsweek.  The article was a one-page commentary based upon a review of a new book by Sara Maitland, titled A Book of Silence.  Baird begins by reminding us that “in the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening.”  She then quotes Maitland, who makes the provocative statement that the mobile or cell phone is a “major breakthrough for the powers of hell.”  We are further informed that Maitland “spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey.”  As part of this pursuit, Maitland spend 40 days—a perfect choice of time period!—“in an isolated house on a windy moor” in Scotland.  Maitland writes,  “I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture, and that somehow, whatever silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking.”  She claims that her physical sensations were heightened—her porridge tasted better and she “heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional.”  Beyond that, she “experienced great happiness, felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss.”

Baird then comments on the over-all impact of the book.  “It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweeting, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age,” she writes.  “It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it.”  A contention from Maitland sounds like something I would read in an article about Orthodox Christian hesychasm from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: “Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack—insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought.”  Silence, for the saint, allows us to hear “the still, small voice of God,” as did the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb.  This is the key to genuine prayer.

Julia Baird rails a bit more against our noisy culture, observing how “we often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation—we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak.  The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly countercultural.”

I would add that a 40-day fasting period before the Great Feast of our Lord’s Nativity sounds real countercultural!  The volume will intensify in the days leading to Christmas.  And not a whole lot of that noise will be in praise of the mystery of the Incarnation.  Perhaps we can find some snatches of silence amidst the cacophany of sounds that will swirl around us.  We may begin by limiting our cell phones to necessary calls, and not allow it to be a toy in our fidgety hands combined with a need to be distracted.  The cell phone is fast becoming a “security blanket.”  Baird includes in her article this passage from C. S. Lewis’ fascinating work, The Screwtape Letters, in which we “hear” of hell’s furious noise— “the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile….  We will make the whole universe a noise….  We have already made great strides in this direction regards the earth. The melodies and silences of heaven will be shouted down in the end.”

It may prove to be difficult, but maybe we can find a way not to add to that ungodly din.