We expect monks and mystics to tell us how important silence is. Gordon Hempton is neither of those. He is an acoustic ecologist, someone who studies the sound of the natural world and seeks to preserve it.
In his book, One Square Inch of Silence, Hempton says there are less than a dozen places left in America where you can sit during daytime hours for at least twenty minutes and not hear any noise of human activity—a plane flying overhead, the hum of electric transformers, the blat of car and motorcycle engines. “Silence” for Hempton is not the absence of sound, but an awareness of the symphony of creation—often drowned in the senseless noise of modern life. “Silence,” Hempton writes, “is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.”
What Hempton hears—or senses—is the great Presence brooding, as Hopkins heard and sensed so brilliantly, over the whole creation.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
and though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Silence, then, is not being in some soundless place (in fact, if we were put in an absolutely soundproof booth we would eventually go crazy). It is simply stilling the perpetual motor within, quieting our own heart in the midst of what may well be cacophony so that we can sense “the presence of everything.” Thomas Keating, the father of Centering Prayer, can sit in the whirlwind of an airport waiting area and center down. He is not cancelling out the noise; he is simply not allowing it to take over his soul. There is a deeper place of being, and when we go there, it is still and silent—no matter what is churning around us.
Noise, we could say, is an inside job. Which is good news, for it means we also have the power within us to drop down into silence, fall into that vast yet intimate Presence. Here is where–perhaps for the first time–we meet ourselves.
Might this be a good day to go for a walk in silence?