Whatever the future holds for the church and the nation and the world, I think silence will have to play a significant part in it.
I know this runs against the current pattern of our common thinking and living. I am typing right now on a device that never ceases to amaze me with its ability to both educate and distract. I can push a button and have all the news of the day, along with the opinions of more people than I could possibly read with any depth at my fingertips. Any question I might have I can get answered by merely typing into Google, or looking at Wikipedia, or asking Siri.
I attended an event a number of years ago in a setting that prides itself on lack of cell phone coverage. Once you got down into the valley, you might as well turn off all outside connections, because they would not work. Those were some amazing years, with heartfelt and genuine community built among the participants, much of which was made possible – one has to imagine – because of the lack of distractions.
Now that same event takes place on a college campus, with live Tweeting and constant Facebook updates. I know community still happens (one only has to read the Tweets and status updates to see that), and no doubt the event still changes lives. I am aware that the World Wide Web offers its own brand of togetherness, and I may be hopelessly behind the times. But I feel a sense of loss in knowing that one more space, one more opportunity for people to unplug and connect in a different kind of way – absent 140 character blurbs and incessant chatter about nothing – is now lost to the world. What will be the price of such loss? One price I fear is the loss of any kind of depth, and with it, the chance for true wisdom.
I spent the first part of my sabbatical in a monastery, surrounded by silence. And in these final days I am alone in a small mountain cabin, surrounded by trees, the only sound the occasional rain and the birds who come up on the porch to feed their babies in a small nest. It would be a lie to say it is easy, this silence. It is not. The lure of technology – including the iPad I am writing on right now – is ever present, offering its narcotic. It is not easy. But it is necessary.
At a recent lecture, I heard Phyllis Tickle describe most Americans as “bone-tired” when they come home at the end of the day, filled to the brim with information and noise, opinion and hyperbole, but very little wisdom.
If the church has a place in the coming so-called “post-Christian” era, surely it will be in the cultivation of a counter-cultural wisdom, an antidote to frenetic busyness and noise. Perhaps one of the gifts we can offer this bone-tired world is the gift of silence.
I am grateful to the congregation I serve – a place rich in the gifts of silence and wisdom – for the grace of this time apart to experience quiet spaces and the gentle voice of God within them. I look forward to returning to them, so that we can together discern how the gift of Sabbath might be offered to the world God loves and for which Christ died.