One unfortunate artifact of the technological mindset of our age is that we are uncomfortable with what we cannot grasp. Silence makes us uneasy because it makes us aware of a certain emptiness inside ourselves. So we fill our lives with noise and distractions – television, games, music, frivolous shopping. Our advances are geared toward the ever-increasing availability of these high-demand diversions. Not that most of them are inherently bad, but they do have the effect of dissipating our focus.
While social media has greatly expanded our breadth of communication, our depth has generally suffered. Twitter is a tool designed for emission and reception of messages in quick succession, and there are certainly many situations where this sort of communication is necessary. Messages from our Holy Father’s account prove that even deep spiritual nourishment can fit inside 140 ASCII characters, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and depth comes through quiet reflection. As John Henry Newman observes (sermon “The Lapse of Time”), “no meaningful knowledge of great truths comes without the deep conviction of it that derives from thinking over it steadily and seriously”.
Though written fifty years ago, a profound passage from Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation” draws strong parallels to the modern age (chapter “Solitude Is Not Separation”):
Where men live huddled together without true communication, there seems to be greater sharing, and a more genuine communion. Buth this is not communion, only immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and cliches repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking. The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible. Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes cliches.
So what lies in the silence we fear? In leaving distractions and stimulation behind, we become aware of our mortality, our insignificance, our spiritual poverty. But something else enters our awareness as well.
Jesus said, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). When we come across something of extreme beauty – a sunset, a song, a pretty face – we become momentarily paralyzed and lost in its beauty. Somehow the loss we experience in beholding it brings us great delight. We are temporarily drawn out of ourselves.
In his superb work “Christian Ethics”, Dietrich von Hildebrand lays down the distinction between two categories of importance we may associate with an experience. What he calls the “merely subjectively satisfying” are those things that gratify our passions. Their importance to us depends on our disposition at the time, disregarding any incidental good they may bring to us. Values, on the other hand, hold importance entirely independently of us. When we assign an importance to this experience for the satisfaction it brings us, we gratify our own ego. When we assign an importance to this experience for its own sake we glorify God.
Not only beauty, but also truth and goodness hold this “value” according to Plato. And when confronted with each of these we are capable of sanctioning their inherent importance, independent of us. Josef Pieper notes in his book “Leisure: the Basis of Culture” that wonder begins where the self-explanatory ends. When through quiet reflection we awaken our awareness of an importance of things that escapes us in the noise of everyday life, we free ourselves to properly love that which is inherently lovable. We recognize that in totality they escape our comprehension and our grasp: we cannot possess them. Yet in a sense by sanctioning them we can lovingly give ourselves over to them and be possessed by them.
But goodness, truth and beauty are all attributes of God. Our ultimate fulfillment lies in the final act of beholding. When we subject all things to our own ego and love only that which pleases us, we set our own ego as our final love. When we love all that demands our love whatever the cost to our own condition, our love is directed to Him Who bestows them their value. Left to behold ourselves eternally, we place ourselves in hell. Giving ourselves over to beholding God eternally, we enter heaven. It is reflection in silence that brings us the tranquility of mind and heart to open ourselves to the world of values by which God communicates Himself to us.