Like me, I am sure you have all noticed how much more silence there is in these days of isolation and being-at-home. For us city and town dwellers it is more marked than for rural folk. And, as we slowly emerge from home and begin to mix again, perhaps these ‘sounds of silence’ become more apparent as we prepare ourselves for the noisy, congested and busy times to re-commence.
The Christian tradition has always held a place for silence, going right back to the God of the Psalmist who encourages us to ‘be still and know that I am God’ (Ps 46:10) and to Elijah who hears the God speaking on Mt Horeb not in the rock-splitting wind or earthquake or fire, but in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:12).
The poet T.S. Elliot in his poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ asks the question: ‘Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.’ And C.S. Lewis in his Screwtape Letters contrasts the music and silence of heaven with the ‘exultant, ruthless, and virile’ noise of hell.
People around us, even those who long for life to return to ‘normality’, are asking what we have learned from this time and what we need to take from it as we leave it.
We need to take with us something of that silence: that implicit challenge to the way we blanket ourselves in noise and thick air to block out the anxious, tremulous, questing voice which our solitude has asked us to hear.
The land, the sky and the seas have also experienced a time of ‘silence’ that they will regret losing. Pollution has been markedly less, our carbon footprint has been lighter, our air cleaner without planes and petrol. Some have seen their own cityscapes for the first time in years. The earth itself has had its own isolation, freed from our sometimes repressive presence: a time in the wilderness to become again wilderness, to breathe again pure air.
The privations have been hard for us, especially for those who have lost work, those struggling to teach children at home, those whose businesses have faltered or failed. But this time has also been a gift: to recover silence, to move away from the barrage of noise, to regain a sense of ourselves as contemplative beings, open to hear the word: the one word we need above all else to hear. Earth too longs for that healing, purifying word to emerge from the silence.
Let’s not lose the stillness and the silence. Let’s allow this time of fallow to be re-integrated into our everyday lives and into the environment. Let’s not just take up the drumsticks and bang away on the drums to drown out the silence, the fears, the yearnings, the possibilities. We need them even if they sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. The earth needs them. We all need silence in order to hear the word; we need the fallow for the seed to be sown.
Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee is the Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity. Professor Lee is an Anglican Priest and scholar of the Bible with a wide publication list.