“We live in an age of noise.” Some years ago, a tall, quiet, and rather austere man spoke those words on New Year’s Day to a group of people gathered in a small inner-city church.
He went on to talk about the value of silence, and as he did, I pulled out pen and paper to record some of what he said. In the years since, as I have tried to find more spaces of quiet in my life, I have occasionally returned to those notes, especially after deciding to write about what I have come to call “quietkeeping.”
When I met the man who spoke that day, I was a newspaper reporter doing an article about his church. As I got to know him better in later years – and became a member of his parish – he would say in his wry way, “Judy, write me a nice obituary.” After I left my newspaper job, I regretted that I would not have that opportunity. However, when he died last week, it occurred to me that this blog would be a fitting place to honor him by writing a little about the reservoir of quiet that was his life.
At his funeral, it was said he had been a private person with few friends. Yet, as was evidenced by the attendance, many people were drawn to him, not because he was the proverbial “nice guy,” but because of something magnetic at his core – a steely resolve that made him just a little hard-headed at times and allowed him to speak truths that were not always comfortable to hear. In speaking and preaching, he was a master of brevity and economy, crafting simple, pithy sermons that sent listeners home with a thought to ponder or an action to take. He believed in conveying whatever he had to say in seven minutes. “Anything more, put it in the bulletin,” he counseled a deacon who spoke at his funeral. Still, he packed much wisdom into that short span of time and his New Year’s Day sermon on silence was a perfect illustration.
The message he spoke that day obviously came from someone who was acquainted with silence and made room for it in his life. Lamenting that we had come to a place in our culture where “even our computers have speakers,” he said we don’t appreciate what can happen in silence. He suggested taking 15 to 20 minutes a day to be silent and to listen to the voice of God – a sound he said is easily drowned out by noise.
On the day before this man’s funeral, I read words that echoed his. They were from 14th-century theologian John Tauler, who said, “When the wind howls, and the doors and windows clatter, one can hardly hear the voice of man. As to the voice of God, that fatherly, whispered, secret word, uttered in the inmost depths of your soul – if you will hear it, you must be deaf to all the roar of the world without, and hush all the voices of your own inner life.”
At the church where the man I am writing about served, a sign on the inside door asks those who enter to remain silent. The worship services there are on the quiet side with very little in the way of announcements or spoken exchanges between people – that is, until after the service ends and everyone spills outside. Because of what happens inside, however, going there is truly a respite from the madness that often marks our lives and an opportunity to focus on something bigger than ourselves.
My husband and I were drawn to this place precisely because of the quiet – and the quiet man – we found there. He is gone now, but the lessons he taught that New Year’s Day – and in his simple, uncluttered life – endure. He was able to still himself to listen to the voice of God and let it guide his thoughts, his words, his silence, and his actions. Encountering him left you wanting the peace he possessed. Thankfully, he left instructions.