Tag Archives: noise

God Between the Notes

One of my favorite things about the Quaker tradition is the high value it places on silence.  Active silence, waiting silence, not just a passive stillness, is a recurring theme in Quaker writings and meetings.  “Be still and know” is one way of putting it.  I also like the more direct version:  “Shut up and listen.”

This evening I went to hear two of my musical colleagues in concert, a tenor and a pianist who are both unbelievably good at what they do.  The music, as expected, was stunning.  What surprised me tonight, though, was the quiet moments between all the sturm und drang of the poetry and wild Late Romantic harmonies flying through the air.

My friend, the tenor, has a lovely soaring voice that can carry with apparent ease over an orchestra.  My former teacher, the pianist, is barely taller than I am, but he can wrestle huge and powerful sounds out of the marvelous Steinway in the university’s main performance hall.  All of that big and wonderful sound was in evidence tonight, but there were also many instances of quietness and stillness that were somehow even more compelling.

Listening to that astounding voice fading into near-silence, but still floating high above the barely-there tones of the piano, the divine seems not so far away.  People often use terms like “magical” to describe this kind of music, but tonight it occurred to me that “holy” is at least as true.  I sat there, barely breathing, as the pianist’s hands hovered over the keys, reaching down to delicately draw each note from the instrument and drop it into the echoing silence.

I think God lives in those echoes.  We make our human noise, and we make it as best we can, and then in that silent, listening stillness, we hear our voices and the work of our hands come back to us, both less and more than they were when we sent them out.

The musical term for a silence within the music is a “rest”.  God lives in the rests, as much as in the music, if I can just hold still long enough to hear him.

Shhhh.

Silent.

Quiet.

Still.

Peaceful.

Not synonyms, although there is quite a bit of overlap to their meanings.  I am finding that not-talking is not the same as quiet, and that silence is no guarantee of stillness.

I come from a rich tradition of words – beautifully crafted, mentally stimulating, deeply expressive words.  Words to explain, to clarify, to enlighten, but also words to shape, to influence, to steer.  Sometimes words that obscure, words that camouflage, words that sanitize.  And when the evangelical movement is having a bad week, its strength is its weakness, and this facility with words becomes weaponized – barbs and rebuttals and shotgun blasts of language that leave gaping holes in targets and observers alike.

Let me be clear – I don’t want to cut myself off from this tradition.  As long as I have mental capacity and breath in my body, that breath will be voiced in words that make sense.  I simply am not wired for “God is good, God is great, Hallelujah (repeat 47 times)” – I am wired for words.

I think, though, that I might do well to take a cue from my musical life, where the rests are nearly as important as the notes.  If there is no silence, the notes quickly become a barrage of noise.  The quiet passages are necessary for the loud ones to be appreciated, and the softer melodies have beauty all their own.

I need this quiet.  I have come from so many years of noise – church services where I am cowed into unresponsiveness because of the deliberately constant noise.  (God forbid there be “dead air” on a Sunday morning.)  My “quiet times”, not too surprisingly, have come to reflect this constant motion, and my prayers and reading are so full of words that there is no space left for listening.

I want to find out what is in the silences, and perhaps more importantly, what is not.  I need stillness more than I need words sometimes.  Now if only I can get myself to stop talking…

Well, That Was Unexpected.

Meditation is HARD!  Who knew?!

This morning for my quiet devotional time, I decided to sit in silence with one of my favorite passages, Ps. 1:1-3.  My brain apparently does not do silence well.  I won’t burden you with all its tangents, but it was very enthusiastic with ideas! and prayers! and requests! and things to do this morning! and things to write! and things to do once the kids get up! and all manner of other absolutely non-helpful noise.

I think I may have spent thirty seconds really silent, really listening.  That’s thirty seconds TOTAL.  If you add up all of the 4- and 5-second bits, and round the answer up to the nearest ten.

I may need some more practice at this whole “shut up and listen” thing.