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.