The Noise Outside


Nearly every time I listen to Spotify, I am assaulted with the same internal ad. I’m not a premium subscriber, so Spotify is constantly trying to get me to upgrade- for a low monthly fee, of course. But I’ve found it interesting how they set the bait. Many of the ads deal with someone in various situations trying to find the “perfect song.” Whether at work, working out, on the road, at a party; the promise is that you’ll always have the perfect soundtrack any time. You can take music with you wherever you go, which is a terrifying prospect for me, albeit not surprising since their targeted ads seem to think I REALLY want to eat at KFC, when in fact I REALLY shudder at the thought of eating their food.

We take comfort in this constant soundtrack, as it can fill in the background noise of our lives. We have become culturally allergic to silence, perhaps even at times truly fearing it. Even in our churches we find silence a difficult thing to deal with, and much of our programming and production aims at its mitigation or minimization.

Having imbibed the world’s understanding and fear of silence, we too consider it to be “dead air,” as if our worship is meant to be a broadcast. It makes us just as uncomfortable, and instead of seeing in it a moment to encounter God face-to-face, we come to consider it a mistake, a hiccup in an otherwise solid production, an anomaly to be corrected in the future.

At a recent worship service I attended, some music was being played while communion was being received. The usual goal is for the music to end as communion ends, so as to seamlessly flow into the announcements and benediction. However, for whatever reason on this day the communion unexpectedly took longer than the music, and as the band stopped there was silence. While I admit I should have been praying, I noticed that the musicians glanced over to mentally estimate how long it might take to finish up (I know because I’ve done this before…), and then with fits and starts moved back into the music, finally ending more in sync with communion’s end.

As I was kneeling, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. Here we were remembering and celebrating a mystery of exceeding profundity, yet instead of allowing for a few moments of silence for contemplation of this great mystery and perhaps encountering Jesus face-to-face, something had to be inserted, some sort of noise needed to fill the supposed emptiness. Rather than a potentially intimate moment within one’s very being, the banality of modern worship song-noise took center stage, crowding out any space for something deeper and richer.

We tend to understand silence as an emptiness to be filled with something else, and so much of our world’s (and sadly even our churches’) efforts and energies are devoted to filling this supposed emptiness. We sense an abyss and are accurate, but it’s not an abyss of emptiness, but rather of fullness. Understood in this light, the noise we create is too often an attempt at escaping this fullness, to substitute lesser things that are more manageable and understandable and comfortable. Robert Cardinal Sarah speaks in his book The Power of Silence about how the din of the world intentionally tries to crowd out this silence:

Noise surrounds us and assaults us. The noise of our ceaselessly active cities, the noise of automobiles, airplanes and machines outside and inside our houses. Besides this noise that it imposed on us, there are the noises that we ourselves produce or choose. Such is the soundtrack of our everyday routine. This noise, unconsciously, often has a function that we dare not admit: it masks and stifles another sound, the one that occupies and invades our interior life. How can we not be astonished at the efforts that we continually make to stifle God’s silence? (p. 83)

He contines:

Noise is a desecration of the soul, noise is the “silent” ruin of the interior life. Man always has the tendency to remain outside himself. But we must ceaselessly come back to the interior castle. (p. 83)

Silence is a state that brings us too close to this abyss of God’s silence, to an encounter with him wherein our pretensions cannot be masked and in which we are left exposed. We get uncomfortable with silence because we crave the distraction and control that noise brings. If allows us to, in a sense, stand outside of ourselves, to deal with ourselves and the world as something exterior. Noise as the soundtrack of our lives fits comfortably into this program, and allows us to crowd out God’s silence, that complicating factor we cannot control or define. Sarah remarks that

Silence is a paradise, but man does not see this right away. He is full of contradictions. We ought to be like children in God’s presence. But we try in so many ways to make our relationship with God difficult or obscure or even non-existent. Man has lost the simplicity of childhood. That is why silence is so difficult for him. And man rejects silence even more because he wants to become God himself. In silence he cannot be a false god but can merely stand in a luminous face-to-face encounter with God. (p. 70)

For God nothing that exists does so outside of him; that is, he is the source of all being, and everything that it is exists only so far as it exists in him. While everything that is created certainly isn’t God, it does not stand outside of God as if it has being irrespective of him.

But since we are not infinite beings, our way towards this desired divinity is to assert our control over that which we see and do. The din of our actions and our desires is the soundtrack of this aspiration, and noise is just another means of us perceiving the world as exterior, as something to be manipulated and over which to assert our wills.

St. Augustine captures this wonderfully in his confessions in which he says

For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou wert with me and I was not with Thee.

In my younger days I was skeptical of this passage and the notion that all along he needed to seek God inside of himself, but I have eventually come discover the truth of this dynamic. In his searching he was viewing God as a relationship that could be external to himself, something kept at arms-length. The things that capture the eyes or arouse the senses become the objects of affection and desire because they can be possessed in this external manner. By possessing them he gains a mastery of sorts over them, asserting his will in the possessing of this or that thing.

But since they are only created things, they cannot fulfill the desire that he has for God. And God cannot be found in such an external manner, as if he were an object to be possessed. Rather, God is always within, ready to be found in the silence and the surrender. St. Augustine was the one standing outside of himself, not realizing that his pursuit of God lay within rather than without.

In the silence of his own interiority, he was able to come to this face-to-face encounter with God. The idolatry of the things he desired outside of himself cannot stand before this infinite ocean, nor can his grasping after anything lay hold to that which is beyond his ability to possess.

In the garden, Adam and Eve had this child-like relationship with God, in that they communed with him without any form of externalizing. Their nakedness was not an absence of anything, but was rather the fullness of this communion in that they knew no shame. Once sin entered into the world, however, suddenly God became something exterior to themselves, a relationship to be held at arms-length. They understood their nakedness and tried to cover themselves and hide, further solidifying their leaving God within and understanding him as without, another object among objects to be approached as exterior to oneself.

When confronted with their sin, they cannot even acknowledge their sin as their own, but see it as exterior to themselves as well; it’s someone else’s fault, I am not responsible. The sweet silence of that childlike relationship is replaced with the noise of recrimination and excuses and rationalizations; the more words are expended, the deeper the rift becomes and is revealed to be. Man wants to become more and more outside of himself, and the noise serves to assuage this loss of primordial silence, making it ever more difficult to hear God’s voice. Sarah remarks:

Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed an volume. in order to say something. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It hold forth in an unending monologue. Postmodern society rejects the past and looks at the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of almost obsessive progress. Its dream, which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark dungeon. (p. 56)

In this obsession with noise, it becomes almost impossible to listen for God:

When that happens, the word of God fades away, inaccessible and inaudible. Postmodernity is an ongoing offensive and aggression against divine silence. From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of the ensures noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God. (p. 56)

In my own life I have noticed this tendency towards noise. Every summer for the past few years my wife and I have taken a vacation to a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. Where we stay is a relatively isolated spot, and a truly great place for silence. Yet surrounded by such magnificence and beauty, I too often have found myself wanting to fill it with noise: playing video games on the Xbox, watching something on Netflix, anything that will fill the quiet with something I’m familiar with. It seems such a stupid thing: here I have a chance for wonder and rest, to just enjoy the gift of life and the grandeur that encompasses me, and yet I seek out lesser things. The irony is that in my normal life I get stressed out and busy and long to just “get away,” but in the moments of actually getting away I too often trade those moments for what I was supposedly wanting to leave behind.

This past year my mom was able to accompany us, and I was struck by how content she was able to just be in silence, to marvel at the wonder of God’s creation, to soak in the beauty of what was before her, to actually exist in that moment of silence rather than trying to cram it full of the din of everyday life. Yet here I was afforded the same opportunity, and took far too little advantage of it.

Sadly enough, in our churches we tend to hate silence as much as the world, and try to stuff it with noise to crowd God out, even if we don’t intend to. It is likely not a deliberate attempt on our parts, but rather the voice of the church fading into the background radiation of the world. Thomas Merton perceives that

Exterior silence- its special necessity in our world in which their is so much noise and inane speech. As protest and reparation against the “sin” of noise…. Silence not a virtue, noise not a sin. True. But the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins- its godlessness, its despair. A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is world without anything to live for… (The Sign of Jonas)

Instead of adding to the noise, our churches need to become places to cultivate spaces for silence, with room enough to let God’s silence fill and permeate both the space itself and the space in the hearts of those who come to seek God. We are great at creating noise of all kinds, but we have utterly failed at creating a respect for silence in which we can encounter God:

Too few Christians today are willing to go back inside themselves so as to look at themselves and to let God look at them. I insist: too few are willing to confront God in silence, by coming to be burned in that great face-to-face encounter. In killing silence, man assassinates God. But who will help man be quiet? His mobile phone is continually ringing; his fingers and mind are always busy sending messages…. Developing a taste for prayer is probably the first and foremost battle of our age. Stationed in garrisons of the most pitiful noises, is man prepared to return to silence? The death of silence is apparent. God will always help us to recover it. (The Power of Silence, p. 57)

The difficulty with silence in a world permeated by noise is that we come to consider silence of any kind to be the most dreaded of all modern sins: boring. We too easily become distracted, and this constant sense of distraction leads us to find stimuli in everything, and if we do not receive it within six seconds, we move on to the next shiny thing that clamors for our attention.

It is thus understandable that our churches tend to reject silence with the same vehemence, for we hate more than anything to be thought boring. Thus we are always developing new strategies, new ministries, new programs. We tinker with our worship production to make it more stimulating, looking for that new thing that will take us to the next level or help us to achieve a certain state of relevance. We buy into the notion that if we can make things less boring, then we can make them more attractive.

But what ends up happening it that by framing things in this way, we end up making church less boring by trying to make it more entertaining. This doesn’t happen necessarily by intention, but since that is how the world frames this dichotomy, if we buy into the meanings latent to this understanding then the result is the same. We fill our worship with noise and distraction and entertainment, creating productions that are stimulating and professional and supposedly “not boring.”

But the great deception is that we think this will make our worship less boring, not realizing that it isn’t necessarily the quality of the stimulation that makes something boring, but rather- for a noise-saturated world- whether it is stimulating at this moment and for the reasons I want it to be stimulating.

Thus we can make worship less “boring” as much as we please, but in doing so we make it just as banal and mundane as what exists in the world, just another stimulation among all the others, competing for views or likes or shares. In doing so we turn it into something its not, allowing the noise-soaked world to form our understanding of the church and even of our faith, causing us to largely buy into its misguided understandings in an attempt to be relevant.

What gets lost is the ability for silence to capture us, for us to be able to stand before the abyss of God’s love and be confronted by him deep inside of ourselves. We are good at framing the message, but in all of our words we can easily obscure the reality. Sarah remarks:

Words often bring with them the illusion of transparency, as though they allowed us to understand everything, control everything, put everything in order. Modernity is talkative because it is proud, unless the converse is true. Is our incessant talking perhaps what makes us proud? Never before has the world spoken so much about God, about theology, about prayer, and even about mysticism. But our human language lowers to a paltry level everything that it tries to say about God. Words spoil anything that surpasses them. (p. 125)

In all of the noise we create we attain stimulation at the expense of clarity, entertainment at the expense of mystery. The more noise we inflict upon our worship- be it of any kind- the further we retreat from mystery:

There is a real warning that our civilization needs to hear. If our intellects can no longer close their eyes, if we no longer know how to be quiet, then we will be deprived of mystery, of its light, which is beyond darkness, of its beauty, which is beyond all beauty. Without mystery, we are reduced to the banality of earthly things… Without silence, we deprived of mystery, reduced to fear, sadness and solitude… In order to preserve the mystery, it is necessary to protect it from profane banality. Silence performs this role admirably. A treasure must be placed out of reach; what is precious always remains veiled. (p. 125, 126)

The more noise we create and allow to permeate our lives, the more banal they become, and even sacred things can become themselves mundane, especially if we are do everything we can to make them so. We must begin to understand in our worship that it does not conform to the categories of boring or stimulating or entertaining. It is not something to “get into” or even to experience. It is all to easy to perceive our worship and our relationship with God as something exterior to ourselves, and noise only cements this idea the more we partake of it. Only silence can give us the space to encounter God in his mystery, which means at some point we simply have to shut up.

Noise makes things about us; silence makes things about God. The only question is if we are adding to the noise or not.

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