Sheer Silence

I love that idea…the sound of sheer silence.  These are words found in the Bible’s  1 Kings 19 which I was asked to read during a service at a conference a few years ago.  I enjoyed lingering over those words as I read them to a large group of musicians, who by and large appreciate silence more than most people.  There is the irony of silence having any sound of course.  And I like the word “sheer”, which could be synonymous with “utter” or “complete”, but could also have a hint of the word’s other meaning as something transparent, allowing light to come through.

I’ve written before about the potential for understanding that comes with silence – during a pause at the asterisk in psalms or during meditation.  We hear so much in the silence. Musically, it is the rests that give power and shape to the notes.  Musicians know that a musical rest is anything but restful.  Something is happening during that time – the music gathers force  from, or empties into, a rest.

It’s a phrase that also calls up for anyone of a certain age the 1966 Simon and Garfunkle hit song The Sounds of Silence.  The silence of those lyrics becomes something ominous, a sign of complicity, and that’s the silence that Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author, wrote about.  His obituary in The Washington Post on July 5 began by saying that no one was better able to grasp “the terrible power of silence…He understood that the failure to speak out, about both the horrors of the past and the evils of the present, is one of the most effective ways there is to perpetuate suffering and empower those who inflict it.”

But he saw the possibilities for silence to be useful too.  In a 1996 interview Wiesel said: You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job was silent after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health. Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence. You see, silence itself can be testimony and I was waiting for ten years [to speak out about his experiences in the Holocaust], really, but it wasn’t the intention. My intention simply was to be sure that the words I would use are the proper words. I was afraid of language. 

Wiesel made the case for silence, and more specifically, people’s despair at God’s silence in the face of suffering, as proof of God’s existence. In our protests against that silence he found the potential for redemption. With all of the chatter that surrounds us now, competing for our attention and sometimes confusing us with inaccurate or twisted information, living with some silence might be welcome.

How do we move then towards the sheer silence that allows the light of understanding to come through the powerful, brilliant silence Weisel wrote about?  And move us away from the silence of fear or disbelief or complicity?  Are we brave enough to seek the silence that creates the space we need to actually hear what has been said? A silence that just might help us find the courageous words we need to say?


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Where I’ll be:
June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 a.m. rehearsal.

July 31-August 12 – organist for Christ Church, Glendale (Ohio) during their residency at Canterbury Cathedral (U.K.)

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.

Save the Date: Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.



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