In his book Four Quartets, poet T.S. Eliot wrote:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
I memorized this stanza as a college student because it was the favorite quote of one of my theology professors. I’ve often repeated the lines to myself during those periods in my life where I am waiting for some kind of resolution and forced to be still – when I’m craving movement and noise but stuck in a vacuum of seemingly unproductive days.
I don’t like silence. But I need it.
We all need it on a cellular basis.
The Science of Silence
The word noise is derived from the Latin word “nausea.” Too much of it can literally make us sick. Back in 2002, Gary Evans from Cornell University mapped the effects of noise from the Munich International Airport on 326 primary school children. The data showed that the noise negatively impacted memory, speech, and reading. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Perianesthesia Nursing concluded that noise may be associated with decreased immune function, impaired wound healing, and reduced pain tolerance.
Silence is a kind of vital nutrient needed to keep us well and balanced. It can affect everything from our blood pressure to our hormone regulations. A little bit of quiet can even rebuild our brains, promoting cell growth in regions of the brain linked to learning, remembering, and emotions.
The Wisdom of the Desert
The Desert Fathers didn’t have access to this data when they ditched the cities and fled to the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century to live a life of silence, but they were definitely on to something. The hermits felt that the quiet was needed to purge their superficial selves and achieve purity of heart.
They weren’t a chatty group of guys, but what they did say has made a powerful impact in the writings of western and eastern spirituality for seventeen centuries. In the words of the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the Desert Fathers teach us how to “reopen the sources that have been polluted or blocked up altogether by the accumulated mental and spiritual refuse of our technological barbarism.”
We don’t need to wear robes and live in isolation to strive toward holiness. Just knowing something valuable lies beyond the busyness can herald a kind of peace that may help us to breathe a little more deeply. I believe that silence breaks down the plaque in our heart, so that we are able to process the emotions that we so often run from. The exercise of feeling anger with love, grief with joy, fear with hope inevitably leads us to that solid place where healing happens.
Silence is a kind of gravity that pulls us toward the center – where everything is held in love. We can’t help but be changed in it.
The Tapping of the Heart
When we stop talking and cease our movement, we let our souls catch up with our bodies and minds.
In her book Seven Sacred Pauses, Macrina Wiederkehr tells the story about some westerners who hired a few bushmen to guide them through the Kalahari Desert. They were not used to moving at the pace of their rushed employers, so the bushmen would sit down to rest. Nothing could convince them to continue the journey until they were ready. The bushmen explained that they had to wait for their souls to catch up. They called this “the tapping of the heart.”
This tale reminded me of my pilgrimage through Spain. I treated it like an athletic event, trying to make it to the finish in record time. A hundred miles or so into the journey, an Italian man confronted me and said, “You crazy American. You are missing the point.”
He was absolutely right. Regrettably, I missed out on a lot there due to my overachieving mindset. When I returned, I didn’t have a choice but to reform my ways and to honor the wisdom of the bushmen. There are still days I spend an hour or longer doing nothing but staring at the ceiling fan, counting the blades that go round and round. Instead of beating myself up for not being productive, I consider all the catching up that my soul is doing.
Sound and Silence
Any musician knows the critical role of silence in creating melody. After all, music is the unique sequence of sound and silence that a composer arranges. It is just as important for a musician to know when to refrain from strumming guitar strings or playing piano keys as to when to strum or play. Nothing beautiful or significant could ever come from sound alone.
The stillness is part of the poetic movement of our lives. Without it, we are left with annoying static.
More than 30 years after I first heard Eliot’s quote, I think I am now beginning to understand it. Indeed, the faith, the hope, and the love are in the waiting: the whole and half notes are arranged before and after the rest notes. There is no meaningful movement without pauses. There is no dancing without stillness.