The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence

In the early 1960s an aspiring 20-year-old folk singer took his guitar into the bathroom of his parents’ home to practice because he liked the slight echo chamber effect he got. One night he turned off the light and tried out a few lines, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again…”

A few months later Paul Simon and his college singing partner Art Garfunkel recorded “The Sounds of Silence” with a soft acoustic guitar accompaniment and released it as the lead track on their first LP, which went on to sell a disappointing 3,000 copies. Simon and Garfunkel broke up and Paul Simon moved to England.

Somehow the “Sounds of Silence” found a small audience on college radio stations in New England and Tom Wilson, who had produced the recording, decided there was still a possibility of creating a hit, but something needed to change. So without Simon or Garfunkel being aware of his actions, he overdubbed an electric bass, guitar and drums to make Sounds of Silence one of the first folk rock hits of the 60s. And of course it went on to sell millions of copies.

The verse from our Old Testament reading that caught my attention this week and made me think of Paul Simon’s song was the one that tells us that God spoke to the prophet Elijah, not in the wind, the fire or the earthquake but in a still small voice, or as some translations put it “with the sound of sheer silence.”

This passage suggests that God is not in the noise of nature, nor we might infer in the clamor of the city, the beat of a rock and roll sound track or the hum of human activity that permeates our world. God is available to us this passage suggests when we quiet ourselves enough that the buzz of the world fades from our awareness and we encounter something beneath or beyond sound.

In the Mission district of Kelowna there is a Jewelry store called “Silent Noise”. When I first saw that name I thought it was kind of dumb. But as I have pondered the idea of silence over the last week I have begun to see something in it. What the name suggests to me is that what really attracts our attention – what makes a big noise – is something that is quiet, understated, not in your face. In terms of jewelry what attracts attention is subtle, elegant and even graceful.

If we carry that notion into our understanding of the divine, this passage from the story of Elijah is suggesting that God does not come to us with the noise and drama of wind, fire and earthquake, but rather that God is found within us when we take ourselves to a quiet space and listen very deeply.

I’m not telling you anything new when I say that we live in a noisy world. I recently read that the noise level of the average city street is equal to that of a vacuum cleaner running in the same room we are in. How often have you remarked on the noise of traffic that makes it hard to talk when out for a walk, or the noise of clattering cutlery, cooking utensils and cash registers that make it hard to have a conversation in a restaurant? We live in a noisy world.

Often enough we like it that way because silence makes us nervous. One of my favourite exercises that I assigned to my leadership students at UBC was to have them sit in a circle of ten or twelve people and spend ten minutes without saying a word, while all the time looking into each other’s eyes. Many of them found that extremely uncomfortable. Yet it gave them an opportunity to experience the power of silence, which gives us the ability to communicate with another person without words. Forcing them to sit in silence also allowed them to get through the discomfort that silence can create. If they became a little more comfortable with silence they would be less likely to be made anxious in the future should they encounter such a situation.

At the heart of that exercise was my belief that silence is a way that a leader or a speaker can have a great impact on those whom they are addressing. And I think that is what God intended in his interaction with Elijah. Rather than roaring at the listener, it can be much more powerful to whisper.

Let me offer another image that suggests what the sound of silence might be. You may be aware that in the 1980s Bose Acoustics developed noise-cancelling headphones. Originally these were intended for airline pilots, but they are more widely available now. As I understand it, the way in which they operate is to create a sound that has exactly the opposite wave pattern of the noise in the environment that you would otherwise be hearing.

Sound is created by vibrations that travel through the air; vibrations that set our eardrums moving in a pattern that duplicates the wavelengths of those vibrations. So the wavelength of the roar of a jet engine might be “1,2,1,2,1,2…” If the headphones create a vibration that is the inverse of that, one that goes “2,1,2,1,2,1…” then the two vibrations cancel each other and your eardrums don’t move at all, thus your brain does not detect any noise.

One of the most widely recognized approaches to treating depression is called cognitive therapy. According to scientific studies it is as effective as drugs such as Prozac for many people. I have found it very helpful myself at those times in my life when I have experienced depression.

The idea is very simple. Depression is often the result of negative messages that we carry in our heads. Therapists sometimes refer to this onslaught of negativity as the “chattering monkey” within us. If we were told that we were a bad boy when we were young that message repeats and repeats. Like a tape recording playing over and over we hear the messages, “You are a bad person, you are a bad husband, you are a bad father, you are a bad lawyer or teacher or dentist…” and on and on.

Cognitive therapy trains you to speak back to those internal messages with positive ones. So when you hear the internal message “you are a bad person” you reply, “no, I’m a good person.” Or when you hear “you are a bad husband” you reply, “I may not be perfect as a husband, but there are lots of ways in which I’m very good.”

One way to think about it is that cognitive therapy is something like a noise canceling set of headphones. If our minds are full of negative messages then we can eliminate their impact by putting up positive messages. It’s not that one part of our brain argues with the other and persuades it that we are not so bad; it is that the two voices cancel each other out.

The monkey mind chattering its negative messages is not our true self. But neither is the positive messenger. Who we are is more than the sum of those messages. And that is why I like the sound cancelling analogy, which suggests that my true self is accessible when the chattering voices, positive and negative, cancel each other out and leave the sound of silence.

I think the story of Elijah should have ended after he encountered the sound of sheer silence and went to stand at the mouth of the cave. That is where he encounters God and finds his true self. But the storyteller could not resist turning God back into a chattering voice barking out commands “Go put a new king on the throne, kill the false prophets, get rid of the apostate queen.”

In the space of sheer silence at the mouth of the cave, when our voice is still and the chattering voices we call God and self are silent, then, the God beyond words and the self beneath the words connect.

Paul Simon spoke of a “vision that was planted in my brain [that] still remains within the sound of silence.” The God we experience in silence, the God who is not chattering about what to believe or what to do or how to behave, that God is, I believe, the vision that plants itself in our brain, that becomes part of who we are. The God of silence is the God who lures us forward; drawing us toward becoming the person we aspire to be. In that sense our true self can be encountered in the sounds of silence. It is also the place where God is encountered; in sheer silence.

Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.