I recently asked a teenage girl if she ever took time to sit still and reflect on her life. “Not really,” she smiled nervously, “I think I would find that threatening.” Other digital natives—young people who’ve grown up with the Internet—I’ve spoken to similarly agree that in empty moments, they tended to reach for their handheld devices, whether to check their messages, go on Facebook, or switch over to another song. And if my train line home is any indication, it’s not only teenagers who have this tendency, but every commuter in sight.
“Silence,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, “has become an endangered species.” A collector of sounds in the natural world, he doesn’t define silence as absolute quiet, but simply the absence of human-generated noise. And yet, Hempton argues, the latter intrudes so deeply into the acoustic (eco)systems of even our most natural spaces—whether that’s the backfiring of a car ricocheting across desert plains, or the trill of a ringtone in the woods—that silence is, well, being silenced.
And not just in the natural world, either. Silence is also being drowned out by the human-generated noise of our age, courtesy of 24/7 news cycles and the cacophony of tweets, Facebook posts, and online chatter via email and sms. Of course, our everyday activities online—reading, tweeting, blogging, posting, liking and, for some, trolling—aren’t necessarily loud. Yet psychologically, they’re deafening. Life online just doesn’t allow for much inner quiet or self-reflection.
Compulsive attachments to our gadgets concerns British theologian and philosopher Peter Vardy: “I think more and more young people don’t want to be still and look at those important questions so they surround themselves with noise… and it can be an excuse for reflecting.” It’s why Vardy saw fit to include a strand on the value of silence in the Religious and Values Education program (RAVE) that encourages Australian students to not only wrestle with world religions, values and ethics, but the challenge of simply being still.
For Vardy, the wilderness can play a key role in training teenagers to quietly contemplate the big questions of life—why we’re here, who am I, how to cope with loss—and not only because poor mobile reception in remote areas can render smartphones useless. “There are so many opportunities in Australia to be still as the night is falling, or at dawn,” Vardy says. “Spend a night out in the bush and the whole order of what really matters begins to be reappraised. I think we’ve got a lot of young people growing up who never experience that.”
The idea that natural settings nourish the soul descends from a long tradition of spiritual practice in wilderness areas, from the Desert Fathers and the forest monks of Thailand and India all the way to meditation retreats today, tucked away in bush settings, where you can take a temporary vow of silence. Indeed, silence appears to be a prerequisite for spiritual reflection. This is the kind of silence that fills the place rather than voiding it, one that suggests not “the absence of something but the presence of everything,” says Hempton.
For the spiritually inclined this silence includes the presence of God. Indeed, it was the great silence of God that ascetics sought in simple lives of prayer, contemplation, and service. Among Orthodox believers such practices took the form of the poustinia, meaning ‘desert’ in Russian. Brought to the West in the 1960s by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the poustinia involved retreating to a hidden place of stark simplicity, armed with a Bible, meagre provisions, and a commitment to pray and patiently wait on God to show Himself. In seeking out the inner desert of the soul, the poustinik was met and fed by God.
But wilderness isn’t only a sacred meeting place for God and the faithful. Belden C. Lane, a Professor of Theological Studies whose work examines spirituality in natural settings, says that the wilderness can provoke piety in even the most hardened sceptic. The utter indifference of lonely places to people’s lives, Lane says, is the ultimate reality check on any delusions of human self-sufficiency. In extreme landscapes, he writes, “the fragile ego loses its props and supporting lines. Its incessant need for validation is ignored.” And because the desert is so good at breaking us down, Lane says, it is rich with “all of the emptiness necessary for beginning a life of prayer.”
Maybe you don’t need to head to that mountain retreat or blank stretches of desert to find inner quiet. I’ve heard people of no faith say that they’re happy to sit inside a cathedral, not simply to appreciate its grand interior, nor to slake any latent spiritual thirst for God, but simply to take time out from their busy lives. They see in the space a haven for contemplation, quiet, peace. Hempton says that quiet spaces are often calming because in them we feel secure. When we feel secure, he says, “we can open up and be receptive and truly listen. And when we’re truly listening, we also have to anticipate that we become changed by what we’ve heard.”
But here’s the rub. Probably the biggest difference between silent contemplation then—the Desert Fathers, the practice of poustinia—and now—contemporary meditation retreats—is that in the silent moments of today, we are probably listening to ourselves think about our lives: what we’re grateful for, what we’d like to change, are we happy? And so spells of quiet contemplation intended to silence the greedy ego feed it all the more. This is a far cry from the traditions of desert prayer in which the soul was stilled and silenced so that it could be filled with God.
For Doherty silence, especially in the poustinia, “is always the act of listening.” Yet as soon as “we speak of ourselves and are filled with ourselves, we leave silence behind.” The answer, she says, is to develop a poustinia of the heart, so that the individual carries a secret silence within them wherever they go. In an age of endless distraction such retreat from the world is necessary. As Hempton says, “Even when we just let silence exist, it feeds our soul.”
But it also matters, of course, what our souls feed upon. The psalmist once said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Enter the inner poustinia, if you will, and be nourished by the presence of God. This is difficult advice for many in the West sceptical of God’s existence, but the spiritual traditions of old indicate that great understanding and reassuring solace is found in the great silence of God. Modern man,” Doherty wrote, “needs these things more than the hermits of old.” She wrote this long before the age of information overload—how much more so today.
Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.
This article first appeared in Eternity newspaper.
Photo courtesy of Steve King.