By Wayne Allensworth
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…
A time to rend, and a time to sow; a time to keep silence and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him (Habakkuk 2:20)
It’s hard to get away from the noise. The cacophony that is now the soundtrack of our lives. The car motors, the motorcycles roaring, the lawn mowers, the leaf blowers, the ubiquitous babble of television, and the electronic devices that seem to latch onto us, not letting go even for a moment, pinging, beeping, ringing, alerting us to “news” stories we are probably better off not knowing. Even when we sleep, we hear the noise, songs we don’t like, blaring images that won’t depart, like ghosts sent to haunt us.
It’s miraculous that we aren’t all mad, as a persistent sense of harried activity transitioning into exhaustion is the baggage so many of us drag around with us all the days of our accelerated lives, down to the very end.
We are anhungered after solitude,
Deep stillness pure of any speech or sound
Soft quiet hovering over pools profound,
The silences that on the desert brood,
Above a windless hush of empty seas,
The broad unfurling banners of the dawn,
A faery forest where there sleeps a Faun (Sara Teasdale, Silence)
What was life for our ancestors like before we were wired, tuned in, and chased by all the noise, all the flickering images that assault us at every turn?
I had a taste of that as a boy, a small taste that now lingers sweetly in my memory.
My grandparents had a place in central Texas, far off the blacktop in those days, dirt roads and distant neighbors, unseen through the scrub oak brush.
In the early morning, and even late into the day, you could sit on the porch and hear the whisper of God’s voice in the breeze that rustled through the limbs and the leaves and the tall grass, soothing and easy. The whisper carried the thin clouds overhead, beautiful wraiths that gently floated by in China blue skies on clear days.
You could hear animals moving in the brush. Someone or something walking through the woods some distance from you, brought near by the breeze.
At night, the sky shown full of stars, stars unseen in the cities, blocked out by a cloak of light. And sounds carried far off into the inky blackness that grew deeper and deeper as one moved from the house along the paths that led away from the little cabin. Footsteps on the wooden porch, however light, echoed in the crystalized darkness, and voices from inside the house seemed near even when they were not.
Deer might cross the pathway that led to the caliche county road and on to small towns miles and miles away. They seemed to glide when they ran, and their steps were so light, they made no discernable sound. Delicate and majestic at the same time.
I’ve come to believe that the lives of our ancestors were so radically different, so much more attuned to the natural rhythms, to the silences and sounds, of life–men working in the fields, women making bread, children playing, songs sung by the people themselves when they were moved, prayers recited, people reading aloud or telling their stories to a family gathered in small rooms–that it is small wonder we no longer experience the visions and miracles they swore were real.
We can’t see them. We can’t hear the messages they received. Ensconced in our self-created bubbles, reinforced by artificial environments and the illusion of digital omnipotence, we are the blind ones. Angels crippled without wings, our senses are blunted, so that even the sunniest, brightest, blooming spring day does not move us, or inspire worship or awe. We are too much in motion, too much cocooned in a wall of sound and image. We lack a sense of life as a gift, of wonder and imagination.
In the fall was the deer hunt. The last time I ever went into those woods along those broken trails so many years ago, I sat on a few boards nailed onto a tree limb in a clearing and waited. The silence was such that I felt as though I might float away on it. My ears felt the needles of the cold, and a slight crisp breeze wafted by me. And all was still.
In the distance, I saw movement, and squinted to watch several doe softly, lightly enter the path at the end of the clearing. They halted, standing as still as statues. The black shadows of evening, gray at the edges, gathered as the sunlight passed away, and they remained, still and silent. I watched them until I saw their ears prick up at a sound I could not hear, and they disappeared in an instant, so that one might wonder if they had been a vision themselves.
Without reflection, at that moment I understood why ancient men had made the hunt a holy, sacred event, venerating the beasts they slew, painting their images on cave walls, adopting the animals whose death gave them life as symbols of their tribes.
Then I heard the noise that the deer had detected long before my pitiful ears could catch the sound. It seemed like a deep, dull roar at first. A train, perhaps, just getting up steam, a small wall of sound that formed an aura around the pack of wild hogs that suddenly burst into the clearing and roared past me as if they were one thing, a school of bristly, tusked flesh.
I didn’t even lift my rifle, but just watched them.
It would be full dark soon, and I climbed down from the tree limb and walked down the path along the fence line back toward the cabin. Movement again, ahead of me on a rise in the path I walked. I squinted and saw a bobcat in the trail. It squatted there in the near dark, the tufts of hair on its ears standing up as the bobcat turned its head and watched me. Not a sound.
I stood there without moving.
Then the bobcat was gone, as if it had vanished instantaneously, going to that place where all things go when you can’t see them.
I stood still for a couple of more beats, then walked lightly down the trail to the cabin.