William Temple: “Religion is what you do with your solitude.”
Most of us cannot stand the nakedness of silence. When a person is entirely alone, they are naked before themselves. When a person is alone, they must find some way of dealing with what they find when they are stripped of all other affirmation and dignity afforded to them by their society and their accomplishments. They have to come to peace with themselves or find a way to take their mind off the unrelenting, unmitigated fact our existence, the bareness of our souls, the alienation of our selves. The first reaction to silence is fear.
So, we have found the means to flee permanently from silence and solitude, extending the world of words, pictures, videos and digitalized society into every corner of our lives. The encroachment is subtle. It hides under the illusion of self control, but it has exiled solitude, the silent sage, from some of our existences. What goes with it? Perhaps just a sentiment. Perhaps the ability to think for ourselves. Perhaps the whole world as we have known it.
Then again, many who have lived by the rhythms of silence and solitude tell us that it is hardly being alone or quiet at all, in fact, they tell us that to be silent is only to draw the curtain on the real voice of the world: the roaring heavens, the hum of the earth, the worship of life all around. And even these things, only a harmony to the song of the angelic beings, and the voice of God himself.
Of course this sweet chorus is unbearable. It reminds us of the country that we have never visited, the ocean we have never swum in, the song that lives in our bones but we have never sung. It is unbearable because we feel our entire existence drawn to it, and yet it feels more distant than a memory of a dream. If only we could dismiss it as a mere dream, but its doggedness seizes us. It has the quality not of a dream, but a memory of when we were awake. We can’t quite shake the feeling that we might be asleep, and yet we know not how to wake.
This thing that we don’t have a name for, this thing that is revealed by silence: its impossibility is terrifying, its necessity is excruciating. Our only hope of escape, the satisfaction of a thousand, million other smaller desires. Cover the silence with a thousand other sounds, but underneath it all the silence remains. We will not escape any more than a man who dresses himself to forget about being hungry.
Our only real hope is to learn to stand in the silence. What does it take not to protest our innocence, what does it take not to grovel or beg for mercy? What does it take not to be distracted? What does it take not to be condemn ourselves? What does it take to be still and know that he is God? We cannot find out unless we trust the love of God enough to listen out for it.
By Bradley Yam, Yale Saybrook ’21. Bradley is majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics.