St. Werburgh Church, Wembury 

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No one dared disturb the sound of silence

Just after Easter I spent a few days silence in a monastery. O.K, I confess to wandering into a nearby pub whilst out on a silent walk. The landlord was kind enough to ask me what I wanted. It would have been rude not to break my silence and reply “A pint of Bank’s Mild please”. But other than that thirsty lapse I maintained long days of silence - of quiet and not speaking. It was remarkably refreshing, especially with the absence of mobile phones, TV, and computers. The sound, other than the four services each day in the chapel, was the sound of silence.

One of the great benefits of a few days of not speaking is that the inner quiet starts to allow you to catch up with yourself. Perhaps the best way I can try to explain my need of that is found in an apocryphal, but truism, story: An archaeologist once hired some Inca tribesmen to lead him to an archaeological site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden, the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” (The story always reminds me of jetlag!)

Of course, you will have almost certainly recognized that the title of this months ‘Thought’, comes from the 1963 Simon and Garfunkel hit, ‘The Sound of Silence’. The song has a Kafkaesque quality, the lyrics take us into it, yet those same lyrics stand us back from it, (“In restless dreams I walk alone”). We are familiar participants yet invited observers, drawn in by the enigmatic opening line, ‘Hello, darkness my old friend...’

Penned over 55 years ago it is already engaging with a world of noise, of busyness, of the emerging post-modern individualism. The angst filled lyrics of a disenfranchised generation have biblical and 1960’s cultural allusions. They carry similarities to several of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

In the context of the song, silence is focused as a negative. A sense that everyone is talking but no one is really saying anything. That we are hearing but not really listening:

‘People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.  People writing songs that voices never shared.

No one dared disturb the sound of silence’.

The silence is depicted as an outcome of affluence, ‘and the people bowed and prayed, to the neon gods they made...

The song is set in a year of escalating war with Vietnam and a western world shortly to be stunned with the assassination of President John F Kennedy. It is backdropped by the American civil rights struggle and a challenge to the many, who whilst not actively racist, were content to remain silent, passively assenting to injustice. This passive compliance being profoundly summed up in a speech by Martin Luther King,

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,

but the silence of our friends.” 

Inevitably I refreshed my knowledge of the song by listening to it again on YouTube (as the last copy I had of it was on a cassette). If the lyrics were radical for 1963 how much more do they silently shout into our 21st century society? I did find myself reflecting that perhaps, with the passage of time, the melodious composition coupled with the perfect harmonization of two male voices, detracts us from the original angst. In contrast a more recent cover version by Todd Hoffman, dispels any doubt of the songs 21st century relevance. You can listen to it at https://youtu.be/X_7zghWA6QY to enjoy the restrained and then the released raw energy, of what I think is one of the best covers of these iconic lyrics.

Meanwhile, back to my own very positive experience of silence, undertaken for spiritual as well as physical and emotional refreshment. It was an opportunity to listen. To listen not to the clamour of the world around, nor to the flawed Cartesian wisdom of my own inner voice, but to listen to God’s guiding. All of which meant that whilst on retreat I spent time reading my bible, rather than my usual literary smorgasbord of espionage, murder and human intrigue. (Though there is no shortage of espionage, murder and human intrigue to be found in the Bible itself). One bible verse that arrested me on the very first day came from Psalm 46, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Originally written in Hebrew the words ‘be still’ can also be literally translated, ‘’be dumb’. In other words – there is a time to stop talking and start listening. That is the true value of the sound of silence. For the next few days it was a silence I dared not disturb.

Wishing you every blessing, Martin