March 12: The Sounds of Silence


Lenten Devotion: The Sounds of Silence

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Sounds of Silence
1 Kings 19:9-13

Our Lenten devotion theme—A Listening Way—is particularly compelling for those of us who enjoy the blessings of music and the practice of listening, for we know that a listener can be as important as that proverbial observer of a tree falling in the forest. And yes, for the philosophically curious, the listener can, by the very act of listening, affect the listened reality of the sound that is heard. For listening and the making of sound—in the context of a live musical performance—can be a symbiotic relationship that is often interdependent: the performer is driven by the energy of the listener, and the listener is compelled by the vigor of the performer.

But listening to sound can be just the beginning of the listening experience. Often, the act of listening also involves the absence of sound, or what some would call silence.

The world of music is replete with examples of strategically placed silences that enhance and define the notes that surround them. In fact, recent research from the Stanford University School of Medicine demonstrates that a few seconds of silence during a musical composition will trigger a listener’s ability to pay close attention to the music and anticipate what comes next. The study found that it was the pauses in the music, not the music itself, that stimulate parts of the brain that allow the listener to remember the experience. Indeed, the most important cognitive activity occurs when seemingly nothing is going on. And the findings went beyond brain signals. According to Dr. Vinod Menon, author of the study, the actual heart rates of listeners became more variable during the pauses in the music.

John Cage, the notable American composer, understood the power of silence. Speaking of his groundbreaking composition, 4’33” (a composition that calls for a pianist to sit at a keyboard in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds while the audience squirms in their seats), Cage said, “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence.”

Jacqueline du Pré, one of the most celebrated cellists of the 20th century, became known for her extended rubatos—the rhythmic changes and pauses between notes purposefully placed to enhance the dramatic tension of the music. And what dramatic tension they produced! Her use of silence in the interstitial spaces of sound cemented her reputation as one of the greatest musical stylists of her day.

Our devotional text for today begins with God’s quiet question to Elijah: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” What follows is a torrent of sound—we can imagine Elijah loudly complaining of his persecution, his plight, the less than comfortable accommodations he was enduring, and the sins of Israel against the prophets. To this reader, Elijah’s response is cacophonous, brimming with sound, and yet not quite saying anything. God’s response—shrouded in silence—says something and means something: “Go out and stand on the mountain…for the Lord is about to pass by.” This is a quiet instruction, the counterpoint to what comes next: a noisy symphony of wind tearing at the mountains and shattering the rocks that are further shaken by an earthquake and scorched by a roaring fire.

But God was not in any of these. Rather, God was in the sound of a gentle whisper posing the same question asked before: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Neither Elijah’s noisy response nor that cataclysmic Sturm und Drang of wind and fire seem to matter. It is the silent whispers that came before and after that contained the still, small voice of God. The silences in between the notes. May we listen for them, and may they guide us as we make our way along the paths of grace.

Walter Collins
SFTS Vice President of Advancement