Silence that Screams

by the author of “Inner Way: Toward a Rebirth of Eastern Christian Spiritual Direction” the Very Rev. Dr. Joseph J. Allen († 2020)

Very Rev. Dr. Joseph J. Allen
(† 2020)

It is difficult and almost impossible for us to imagine in today’s world that silence is beautiful. What was possible at one time is quickly becoming extinct in all areas, but greatest amongst those disappearing elements is silence. When we shop in the stores we hear bells of all sorts e.g. cash registers. Driving for only the shortest time can bring every kind of noisy sound, from the toll booth to the old car next to yours with a bad muffler. Then, of course, — there is the neighbour who runs the lawn mower at every hour or, for the apartment dweller it is the young couple upstairs (and young couples so very often begin their married life in apartments) who have all those first year “battles.”

But I cannot help feeling that somewhere in the depth of man’s soul he longs for silence, for a time when the phone won’t ring and he won’t “have” to listen to the newest FM radio. But we seem trapped by it all! How can man escape all this without becoming isolated, or greater, from becoming neurotic? Where can he turn to find the “silent sound,” sound that can in a way scream about a kind of joy just because it is silent. This is the joy that needs no sound to be joy, the joy that a mother understands when she places her ear to the face of her newly born infant and hears the soft sound of life as it breathes.

This is the sound of a “new” life and it reminds us of the sounds of another “new” life, the one that God created “in the beginning.” Surely the sounds then were such “silent” sounds, sounds of movement which also screamed of the beauty of His Works. I cannot help but feel that somehow mankind has placed himself in a position that will not allow appreciation of such inner beauty. Instead he can only enjoy the loud, the superficial, the ugly, which robs that inner beauty.

How true it is that we can only appreciate in depth that which we so seldom receive. Is this not one of the great joys of Christmas and Easter for Christians who wait in anticipation for the fulfilment of that “seldom received joy?” And so it is with silence, for it so rarely is part of my life. What is paradoxical about all this is that it is only an appreciation of silence that bears the fruit of a real appreciation of sound. I remember only too clearly during my childhood, the beautiful sound of the garbage cans being knocked around when the city garbage men were collecting the garbage. Isolated, that is probably an ugly and miserable sound. But I heard it during the earliest part of one of those hot and wonderful summer mornings when it pierced the darkness. How beautiful was that sound, but only because I loved that silence!

But why all this concern for sound and silence? It is not to say that “sound is evil, for surely it is terrible not to be able to hear at all. In fact, it is surely wrong for Christians to remain silent when truth demands that they speak. But the Orthodox Church is moving into its Lenten season and that implies for us a “change,” a change in our total life, a change to increased prayer, to increased fasting, to increased “silence.” This silence is valuable not only because it changes us from our everyday life, an isolating silence, but a silence of unity that makes us part of that beauty of creation which at its elementary level can be appreciated without sound, and in its own type of silence. The beauty which needs no sound; The ‘‘Pieta” without sound, the Cross without sound, the whole beauty of the lenten message and Passion Week without sound: only the silent sound which screams its message.

But there is one other silence that Christians must also remember and Henry Ward Beecher said it best: “More quarrels are smothered by just shutting your mouth and holding it shut, than by all the wisdom in the world.” This is my personal silence which for most of us will certainly be a “change.” All year we talk about the movie or the football game or “each other.” These are those loud and ugly sounds which bombard us all year long. Certainly it is time for us to hear those “silent sounds” again—to remind us of what life is really about and the lenten message is exactly that; it tells about the beauty and depth of life without all the superficiality.

And finally, for those of us who have celebrated, either as priest or layman, the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evenings during Lent, know the beauty of silence. Archbishop Philip, when I last saw him, said that our liturgy can express every lesson in life, and he was right. He said that we can clearly see the concept of sacrifice and love here, of time and memory. It is in the Presanctified Liturgy that we see the lesson of silence. I will never forget the first Presanctified Liturgy that I served and how strange it was to carry the gifts at the Great Entrance and not say anything. Just silence. But silence which says it all, which “screams,’ because it is silence.

Certainly this is the Church’s way of telling us that it also is making a change to the soft and the silent during this season. We, as Christians, in our personal life, must express what the Church in a more general way expresses.

Where is that beautiful silence? “Seek and ye shall find.”

From Word Magazine p. 7. April 1969