Saturday, 8 October 2011

“The Sounds of Silence”: “Still Small Voice of Calm”

"whispered in the sounds of silence"

“The Sound of Silence” is perhaps one of the most beautiful songs of all time. It is deeply poetic and meaningful. It describes our struggle to truly communicate with one another; that we only really communicate on a superficial level and therefore do not understand one another; “people talking without listening, people listening without hearing”. It is suggesting that we dare not really reach out and truly communicate – “take my arms that I might reach you” – to disturb the sounds of silence. The poet (the songs character) makes a futile attempt to reach beyond the silence; “but my words like silent raindrops fell within the wells of silence”. The enigmatic ending tells us that when meaningful communication fails all that is left is...the only sound is...silence.

“whispered in the sounds of silence”
Last Thursday, 6th October, was national poetry day. This is why I decided to pick these words by Paul Simon...whatever we think of the music, we cannot deny the beauty of the words.

One of my favourite hymns is entitled "Others Call it God. This my favourite verse:

“A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
And Socrates drinking hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
And millions, who though nameless,
The straight, hard pathway trod –
Some call it consecration,
And others call it God”

While I do indeed find God in beauty and laughter and song I also find God in consecration, in mercy and love towards those who suffer and the suffering in nature too...that said maybe I find God in silence more than in the din and illumination of life.

“whispered in the sounds of silence”

Maybe we need to listen to “The Sound of Silence.”

This is not always easy, just to find silence, just to make room for silence. I know that I must and in fact I do. I do make some time in the morning to connect and to listen. I no longer turn the radio on when I first get up. I spend a short period in prayerful reflection and then shower and shave etc. I pay attention to what I am doing in silence. I’m not just being functional here, as I once was.

I no longer need the distraction.

In the Book of Kings (1 Kings ch 19) the prophet Elijah is threatened by Queen Jezebel and flees to a cave on mount Horeb where he is told that God will pass by and speak directly to him. A great wind comes, followed by an earthquake and then a fire, but God is in none of them. After the fire comes the still small voice – a voice, a sound like silence – it is this voice that is less than a whisper and yet not quite silence that signals the presence of the divine. Elijah then covers his head and goes out to talk with God.

Elijah had been commissioned that day to set right the problems of Israel and to call a new King for Syria and a new King for Israel and a new prophet who would lead the next generation.

Now many folk will no doubt dismiss this as a fanciful tale, like many of the tales told about Elijah it does sound beyond belief when read literally. Should we dismiss it though? Is this the wise thing to do? Perhaps there is a deeper metaphorical meaning here? I believe that there is a deep truth being described here. I do not believe that it should be dismissed as merely a fanciful tale.You may well ask why? Well because it seems that down through the ages this voice keeps on speaking; the voice of comfort, of hope, of challenge, of support and also at times the voice of rebuke...This same voice spoke to Jesus, Muhammed, The Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, but perhaps it is not a voice as we understand it....less than a whisper and yet more than silence...

Maybe the voice is felt, rather than heard.

...the still small voice of calm, the sound of silence...

What is this still small voice of calm? What are the Sounds of Silence?

What is this something, this next to nothing, that is more than silence and yet less than a whisper? What is this emptiness that can fill us with awe?

It is so gentle and yet powerful and seems to emerge, nay burst, from nothingness into life; it is a nagging thought or presence that is their floating around in our consciousness or perhaps unconsciousness; it never seems to easily be revealed; it requires us to go into our own depths and wrestle and struggle with it to find its true meaning. Maybe it is something more than a mere thought or feeling, that appears from nowhere or perhaps even beyond nowhere; this feeling that comforts, that accepts, even pardons just when we need it the most. Perhaps it’s the voice of conscience that lives in that space between what we say and what we do, between the talk and the walk.

We can never be truly certain what this is. Some, myself included, call it God, others prefer a myriad of names. But what does it matter what we call it, this is just belief or unbelief. It is truly beyond us to know what is behind this voice, this thought, this feeling, this experience but I feel sure that we have all known it from time to time. We have all known this indescribable presence at some point in our lives; we have all experienced this sense of being addressed by something; we have all felt this powerful irresistible urge that is the source of art and poetry of religion, of love.

“Some people call it longing, And others call it God”

The passage from Kings portrays powerfully Elijah's experience with the Divine, in the stillness, in the quietness; it portrays it as powerfully as anything in our human canon, before or since. It is not unique though and is an experience we can all have if we take time to truly listen “to the sound of silence.” I have known it myself; I try not to ignore it these days. I need to hear it as it gives me the courage to trust, to have faith in life, to have faith in the promptings of my conscience, to have faith in myself and to have faith in God.

It is said that one night after receiving a threatening phone call, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that Martin Luther King Jr went into his kitchen and sat quietly, desperate, alone and ready to give up. At this point of brokenness and hopelessness he prayed out loud the words “I’ve come to a point where I can’t face it alone”.  At this very moment, bursting from deep within him came these words, “Stand up for justice; do what you believe is right.”

The author Taylor Branch said this about the incident:

“The moment lacked the splendour of a vision or of a voice speaking out loud. But the moment awakened and confirmed his belief that the essence of faith is not some grand metaphysical idea but something personal, grounded in experience – something that opens up mysteriously beyond the predicament of human beings in frailest and noblest moments.”

In his darkest hour in his moment of doubt and despair Dr King found that silence and entered a greater depth, a void and in that place hope and deeper faith was unearthed and tapped into.

He heard and responded to that still small voice of calm in the sounds of silence.

I am learning more and more that so much of ministry is about listening: "Listening with the ears of your heart". Not merely listening to the words that are said, but to what is beneath the words, to what is really going on. By the way I am not only speaking about people here. I, I think we all, need to listen to not only what is being said on the surface of life or in the centre of our vision, but beneath the surface too and in the corners of our vision too..."There is something in the corner of our lives that we cannot quite see"...I do believe that the conscience, life, the universe, God does indeed speak, but not loudly or aggressively, gently and quietly.

It seems to be less than a whisper and yet something more than silence.

It is that still, small voice of calm almost hidden in the sounds of silence

You see the real trouble is that everyone is talking, but are any of us really listening.


  1. Danny, this blog post is really wonderful. Thank you for posting it on UK Spirituality as well.

    I love the song The Sound of Silence (and many other songs by S & G), and I do think that silence and listening are really important.

  2. Thank you so much Yvonne and for your continual encouragement, it means an awful lot...what's been really interesting is that since i wrote this post I have been given a deeper lesson in how much I value and require this space and silence and when I found it I have heard that still small voice that is some less than a whisper and yet more than silence...blown me away