Friday, July 11, 2008

The Sounds of Silence

Chapter 42, St. Benedict’s Rule...Silence should be sought at all times by monks and nuns and this is especially important for them at night time.

I mustn’t get out enough. Trends come and go before I am even aware that they are a trend. Take for example reception areas for the public. My recent sojourn into SGH had me in a waiting room for a reasonably short period of time. If knitting does not accompany me, a book does. Comfortably seated, number in hand (the Privacy Act precludes hospital staff using your name in the waiting room; one becomes a number to protect one’s privacy. Unfortunately, when one is in the next stage of the process, nothing is private, including one’s ‘privates’; an irony shared in humour by the nurses).

Anyway, back in the waiting room that I am sharing with two anxious mums with their equally anxious very young daughters and few other old timers such as myself, I am bombarded by CNN on the overhead big screen television monitor that peers down at us like some modern-day gargoyle. The volume is overly loud; the very earnest newsreader is incessantly updating us with reports from a U.S. manufacturing facility where a disgruntled employee has shot seven fellow workers and his supervisor. No details were spared. Desperately attempting to concentrate on my book, I couldn’t help but think what my very young and innocent companions were thinking as they eyes were glued to the TV monitor. By the time that my number was called, I was quite relieved to leave the area.

Post-surgery visit to surgeon’s office was another audio blast. The doc was an hour and one-half late; his receptionist whispered to me as I checked in ‘that things were really backed-up and she still hadn’t been able to locate him yet’. No problem; I had my knitting. Out in the waiting room, six other patients were vocally grumbling and visibly irate. Unfortunately, the country and western station was blaring loudly to us about heart-broken cowboys in pick-up trucks; it didn’t help the mood.

Today, I had an appointment with my G.P. The building has been under renovations for some time now. The new reception area is huge, well-lit and yep...there it is, up there peering down at me again...the audio-visual gargoyle of reception areas. I was relieved to see that it’s not operational yet. Unfortunately, the sound system is quite operational. This time, my host is a Kitchener soft rock station with ’96 minutes of commercial-free sounds of my favourites’. Sorry folks, my favourites include my new Mahler 10th symphony recording and music from the renaissance and baroque periods...not Annie Lennox, the Eagles, Amy Grant et al.

No problem, I have my knitting. However, as the pattern is quite simple and the music quite loud, I am incessantly distracted by the chatter with the commercial-free period. Every second song, I am reminded by the station that this is a commercial-free time. Well, I am almost answering out loud, ‘what’s your definition of a commercial, mister?’ The announcer, as well, keeps telling all of us, how much better our work environment is because we have the radio blaring at us. Really? If I am having some issues concentrating, then what about the staff who are in the same area and exposed to all of ‘these great sounds’ while attempting to work.

The clincher came from another non-commercial commercial. A personal testimony of a listener who could not possibly manage driving on today’s stressful roads without the station’s music lulling her into a state that ‘allowed her to zone out so completely that when she pulled into her driveway, she had no idea how she got there’.

This meditative state for which the listener is so profoundly thankful is very disturbing to me. A novice at meditation, I look forward to the time when ‘the complete zone-out’ occurs; but, not while I am in control of a very powerful mass propelling amongst others at high speeds, thank you very much.

I am called to a brand spanking-new examination room. After the short interview, the nurse practitioner readies things for the doctor which includes turning up the sound system as she leaves. I request silence, please.

In 1952, the American composer John Cage wrote a three movement piece entitled 4’ 33”. It is a composition for any instrument or combination of instruments. ‘The performer or performers come out onto the stage and take their places. And then, they sit. They sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. They sit and sit and sit; the audience sits and sits and sits. After the initial uncomfortable period, after the coughs and nervous shuffling settle, people start listening. From the sounds of silence come gentle but subtle sounds...fabric rustling, breaths, paper shuffling, even the subterraneous rumbling of a subway. John Cage’s goal was to teach his audience to listen by actually programming silence’.

More than fifty years later and with the technology today, silence is a lost art form. Full awareness listening is not trendy. Much better that one should be listening and driving or working as well as talking to co-workers simultaneously.

Nearly 1600 years before John Cage, Saint Benedict understood the need for silence in daily life. Chapter 42 of his monastic rule programmed silence into the lives of monks and nuns.

As Joan Chittester OSB writes, “Silence has two functions. The first effect of external silence is to develop a sense of interior peace. The second value of silence is that it provides the stillness that enables the ear of the heart to hear God who is ‘not in the whirlwind’. The constant blaring breaks the peace of the heart and agitates the soul. Day after day, month after month, the incessant noise thickens the walls of the mind until it become impossible to hear the talk within us that shows us our pain and opens our mind to the truths of life and the presence of God. We live with noise pollution now and find silence a great burden, a frightening possibility. Muzak fills our elevators and radios are set into wrist watches and TV’s blare from every room in the house from morning until night. We say that we do not have the time to think but what we actually lack is the quiet to think. Yet, until we are able to have at least a little silence every day, both outside and in, both inside and out, we have no hope of coming to know either God or ourselves very well.”

I leave you with a poem by Rachel M. Srubas from her book Oblation.
Catching Your Breath

I hear the twilight falling, soft a linen over the earth.
I hear the soil drinking its dew.
I hear my own ear receiving you,
The shell of my flesh catching your breath,
Its concealed canal and deeper drum humming
In answer to your prayer for the world,
More music than word. It sings inside me.
My silence, at its finest, harmonizes.

July 11, Saint Benedict Day; for Fiona
The Web Scribe

1 comment:

mackie100 said...

Yesterday I was in a roadhouse restaurant waiting for the others to show up for lunch. It was early and I was the only customer. These types of establishments all have a very similar look, rather dreary pretending to be more fun than they truly are. I sat waiting quietly when all at once one of the two waitresses discovered "You know what's missin? No music!. A 'can' of it was opened and out came an american/western/pop. So much better, cheerier and it masks the noise of the single customer waiting once quietly in the corner.

We have a cottage, really a cabin by the lake. No phone, no radio, a ipod and a tv that can be used only for movies is usually off. The result is that especially at night there is no sound of air conditioners, fans, computers, music, nothing except the fridge occasionally chilling the wine. This takes getting used to but after a short period of withdrawal and adjustment to just how loud the song birds are in the morning, a quiet calm settles in. A type of calm that is hard to find back in the city

I agree our lives are encapsulated by sound. We use music, the good and the bad, as wall paper. White noise perhaps not so much to cancel out the sounds of others but to fill the space in our minds that would be otherwise occupied with ideas and dreams.