I can still recall (probably a good thing) sitting in Peter Denny’s cognitive psychology class during grad school days, enthralled by what this man had to say about language, it’s infinite cultural variations, how one’s environment shapes the subtleties and nuances that insinuate themselves into our speech. And perhaps most profoundly, how words facilitate thought (which, after all, was the point of the class); and its converse, how, without words, thought beyond certain, elemental levels becomes difficult, if not impossible. I’d venture that my love affair with language and reverence for same was cemented in those heady days of academe. A favorite read: Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Fowler’s English Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style continue to occupy positions of veneration on the book shelf. How fitting that I have earned my living with words for all of my working life. And please don’t presume to correct my syntax!

Then encouraged by a friend to give ear to a recent Rowan Williams’ BBC interview and focusing on prayer, things shifted. He finished with reference to a poem written by a priest-poet, following 9-11 recounting the meeting of a priest, a rabbi, and an imam (no, this is not the lead in to another tired joke!) Sharing neither a common language nor essentially a common belief, the three contemplate the enormity of what’s just happened and what their respective roles might be – as they minister to their damaged and damaging flocks. They sit in silence – and, in that wordless space, the healing began.

I was immediately struck by the paradox that the very capacity to speak, not merely ‘communicate’ (as, obviously some ‘sub-human’ species are able), at once contains perhaps the single most defining aspect of our ‘humanness’ and the particular seeds of our undoing. Although the point of Babel was to highlight the folly of human achievement for its own sake (vs. the ‘glory of God’), an interesting sidebar is the mechanism by which the endeavor was ultimately quashed – failed communication. How many times have we heard variations on the theme of being ‘misunderstood’, when our meaning fails to match the intention of our spoken word; heard email pilloried because it lacks the nuance, the face-to-face quality and cues, the inflection in the voice – and is ‘mis-read’. How, when we sense we are being misinterpreted, our compulsion is to throw more words at the issue – and succeed in only making things worse.

Conversely, how often silence is referred to as ‘awkward’ and gaps in conversation filled with idle chatter – seen, most times for what it is, yet indulged nonetheless. How, faced with the prospect of ‘being out of touch’ for more than minutes, the cell phone comes out, the recent ‘texts’ checked, the twittered comment sent, email reviewed. How often is the quiet person vilified in some fashion – standoffish, sullen, uncommunicative, isolated; the loquacious one seen as social, friendly, engaging. How we abhor silence. How we suspect what it might conceal.

Our friend, as she so often does, built some lovely connections between Williams’ comments and a much-loved subject of hers (and ours): meditation – and the attendant importance of silence. “What is going on when nothing is going on?” a popular invitation to ‘listen to the silence of oneself’, foregoing the urgency to fill the space with noise, words. So elemental, so primitive and involuntary is our compulsion to ‘drown out silence’ that reportedly our brain, confronted with same, will ‘manufacture’ its own sound (in the form of that hugely irritating hum, the whine experienced as a tinnitic ‘ringing in the ears’) that plagues so many of us as we age.

Our priest today, quite unwittingly I suspect put the final punctuation point behind our culture’s tacit but widely shared opinion of this ‘anathema’ of human interaction – silence. Excluded from the oral and quite redundant recitation of the ‘announcements’ (printed in their entirety in a bloated bulletin of Sunday services) was any mention the contemplative (read: reflective, meditative and silent) activities in the parish. I suspect the irony was lost on most that, in his own way he was ‘supporting’ these very goings-on and their shared de-emphasizing of the spoken word by ‘keeping silent’ about them; while airing the things we could quite easily read about, were self-evident, or of little interest – much in the vein of so much of our ‘communication’.

A small plea then to test drive the alternative. When compelled to share the bit of gossip, the less than helpful suggestion, to fill the space between with small talk, to ‘tweet’ – try silence. For anyone who’s sat in a filled room and foregone the ‘human privilege’ of speaking, who’s experienced a day or even an hour at a silent retreat, will know the potency of quiet. Perhaps it’s time to heed the words of another poet and listen to ‘the sounds of silence’.
David Howard