Turbulent times and the sound of a thin silence

By Jill Segger
October 2, 2017

This is National Quaker week and the 2017 theme is 'In turbulent times...be a Quaker'. The Society of Friends has also issued an 'invitation to stillness'.

Turbulence and stillness: these apparently opposed conditions are an ongoing challenge. Turbulence is all around us; stillness and its essential component of silence are less easy to find but they are vital to our individual and collective health and for our capacity to respond to turbulence without increasing it.

Silence has many faces and it is worth considering its negative aspects as well as its life-giving qualities. There is the silence of fear, of collusion and concealment. We will all have experienced the silence of embarrassment. Most of us will also know the temptation to 'keep quiet' because not doing so would oblige us to commitment we may not be willing to undertake. These are the stamps of a silence which adds to personal and collective turbulence.

Then there are the silences of our shared history which must never be forgotten and for which there can be no words: the first silence of 1918, the silence of Auschwitz.

There are questions too. Is silence simply the absence of sound? Does it generate meaning or simply make meaning possible? Are we prepared for its subversive possibilities, for its capacity to mess with our expectations and prejudices?

Silence is at the heart of Quaker spiritual experience. The 'gathered silence' for which we hope in our worship can be challenging. Sometimes mundane qualities like feeling fidgety or preoccupied can impede us.  On other occasions we may resist entering into the silence because we are apprehensive as to what we may find there. We are part of a culture which often uses noise as concealment, a distraction from the unpalatable or disturbing. The 'always on' television, the ubiquitous personal music player, the musical wallpaper of shops, eating places and waiting rooms – these generally unquestioned practices are ultimately isolating and disabling. We cease to hear quietness as a precursor to true silence and are deprived of the experience and therefore the recognition that silence and stillness are skills which we need to practise.

The “still, small voice” experience of Elijah (1 Kings, 19. 12-13) is often quoted as an instance of the silence of the Divine confounding our expectations. But that familiar version may mislead us. The original Hebrew is better translated as 'the sound of a thin silence'. There are two aspects here which speak to my condition. Silence perceived as possessing a quality of sound offers a paradox which invites me to creative co-operation. (Thank you Simon and Garfunkel). And the concept of thinness – not shallowness – is akin to the 'thin places' of Celtic spirituality: locations where the quotidian borders between the material and spiritual realms are suddenly made flimsy. It is in such places and through such experiences that we may find the rumour of God taking form, despite our preoccupation with scepticism and disbelief.

The turbulence around us is very real. Anti-democratic violence has erupted in Spain. The criminally irresponsible war of insults between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un inches the world closer to nuclear conflict. The fall-out of the Brexit referendum with its scarifying abuse on both sides is dividing families, communities and political parties. The ineptitude and mendacity of many whom we elect to represent and govern us generates cynical alienation. Many of our fellow citizens are forced to live in deprivation and fear and this is a deep shame upon us all. We are disturbed, fearful, often angry. We are damaging ourselves badly by total immersion in a world of constant information divorced from wisdom. We are not helpless but we have to find a remedy for the fear that we are.

On 1 September 1939, as German troops invaded Poland, WH Auden wrote:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home,

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood;

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

If we can sometimes dare to turn off the music, to embrace darkness, to enter on the unfamiliar place, in short, to risk the unfamiliar and counter-cultural, silence and stillness may enable a growing understanding of possibility. This is the territory where respite from bickering and insult and release from the futlity of ego-driven conflict can be found. It is not an escape, but it is a portal to the transformative.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.