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    grey, lavender, and peach abstract art

    Desiring Silence

    Ancient believers went to the desert seeking God in the stillness of open spaces.

    By Shira Telushkin

    January 12, 2023
    • Mark Huffman

      Long ago I worked for a satellite manufacturing company that had a large anechoic chamber for testing. I went in there once to experience absolute silence and found it as frightening as the pitch blackness of an underground cavern.

    • John Wilson, Jr.

      I worked on a kibbutz in Israel once (I left two weeks before the Yom Kippur War). This was not a desert, it was rich agricultural land, but in the early morning and late evening it shared some qualities with the desert. It was rural, atop a hill, so there was some of the emptiness of the desert, but being a farm, it was not entirely empty. The kibbutz was on a hill top, across the valley was the Golan Heights. I did agricultural work and would be awakened at about 4:30 in the morning so I could be ready to go down to the fields at a about six in the morning. I used to go to a clearing where I could see across the valley. I would go when it was still dark and the hills across the valley were like a shadow across the night sky. Then there was what they called the “false dawn.” The light of the sun would come over the hill before the sun actually rose. And as the light became brighter, the hills became more distinct, such that what was a shadow became clearer and clearer and the nooks and crevices of the hills and the details of the land and vegetation was seen in vivid detail. All this happened as the light of the sun became brighter and brighter but before the sun itself had risen. It was a beautiful thing to see. But this too is an aspect of the desert. There is the silence and the natural sounds (probably an ideal setting for performing John Cage’s 4’33) with few “un-natural” sounds, closer to the sounds of creation. But there is also the visual changes to the appearance of a natural landscape that take place, in conjunction with the silence, in the course of a day and a night.

    • Lawrence

      Dear Shira. Suggest The Quiet Mind by John Coleman. The still small voice, the whisper from the soul in Islam, is located above the heart and below the throat.

    • George Marsh

      Thanks to the author and to Plough. I turn off the music I love, so that I may hear God.

    • Dale Stewart

      I find silence in the early morning hours— before traffic, phone, computer, AC, or even early morning walkers. Usually 3am. or between 1:30 and 4:00. Time for LISTENING and praying. Then I read devotional messages (not ads or business). It really doesn’t matter where I meditate (though I do have a closet space). Time is the key for me. Dale Stewart

    • Jenni Ho-Huan

      It's so interesting that in seeking to understand silence, Haines-Eitzen went with recording gear to penetrate the Q of what the monks heard. Your line: what sound commands our attention is surely what any experience of silence must reveal. To enter any degree of silence is a challenge to all of us, monastics or moderns, and I wonder if the desire is but the beginning.

    A shriek of manic laughter fills the room. I shoot awake, warm in a friend’s guestroom just outside Sydney, Australia. The sound is somewhere close, arising then subsiding. Finally the pieces fall together: a mass of kookaburra birds are outside my window, their calls eerily resonant with unhinged human laughter. Soon they move on. Now awake, I go to the window. Sheep-dotted fields slowly reveal themselves as my eyes adjust to the moonlight. Everything is dark and still and beautiful.

    I’ve never liked introduced noise; I seek out cafés that do not play music, turn off my apartment air conditioner the moment a room is cooled to vanish its loud clanging, and secretly hope nobody will restart the jets once a hot tub has ceased bubbling and the night air has reclaimed its soothing hush. I’m the person on the night hike who makes every one stop for a moment so I can whisper: Listen.

    As a child I loved the biblical passage where Elijah cowers in the cave on Mount Horeb, fleeing for his life and denouncing his people. I loved how God sends this bombastic prophet first a wind so great and strong it splits mountain rock into shards, then an earthquake, then fire, but comes to him not in these and instead, only, in a kol d’mama daka. A thin and fragile whisper, a howl with no sound. A still, small voice. God as a presence we must strain our ears to hear. I always imagined this moment in suspension, like a film when someone hits pause. No warm gust of wind, no buzzing fly, not even the flap of a bird’s wing. A perfect stillness. Just desert and silence and (maybe therefore?) God. A fragile moment that could be, at any moment, scared away by the shriek of a raven.

    It was an idealization of both desert and silence cultivated by a childhood in the heart of New York City, where any encounter with space or quiet was startling, even magical. I’m sure my mother felt the same way. Above her desk in my parents’ Upper West Side apartment she had taped, years before I was even born, a photocopied page from an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, which I read over and over as a child:

    For a while it was quiet. Kuziba dozed off. Shiddah cradled her only son, swaying rhythmically above him. She thought of her husband, Hurmiz, who did not live at home. He went to the yeshiva of Chittim and Tachtim which was thousands of yards deeper, nearer the center of the earth. There he studied the secret of silence. Because silence has many degrees. As Shiddah knew, no matter how quiet it is, it can be even quieter. Silence is like fruits which have pits within pits, seeds within seeds. There is a final silence, a last point so small that it is nothing, yet so mighty that worlds can be created from it. This last point is the essence of all essences … this last silence is God. But God himself keeps on penetrating deeper into himself, he descends into his depths. His nature is like a cave without a bottom. He keeps on investigating his own abyss.

    This was the silence of my youth: holy, elusive, rare.

    Of course, for much of human history silence was more often noted with fear. In the Bible, people who find themselves alone in dark spaces (Joseph in the pit, Jonah in the whale) invariably do not want to be there. To be immersed in deep quiet meant something was wrong, likely very wrong. “The dead do not praise the Lord nor do any that go down into silence,” the psalmist reminds us, equating silence with death. (A not unreasonable association, I was reminded, when a few days after being awoken I passed an exhibit of hanging birdcages, each playing the call of a recently extinct Australian bird, now forever silenced.) Silence was often evoked as evidence of being abandoned by the world or by God. Even worship, in the ancient Near East, was no quiet meditation of the heart but something noisy, loud, often sung or shouted, ideally in a temple.

    grey, lavender, and peach abstract art

    BD Griffith, Fermata 1835, acrylic on canvas, 2018. All artwork used by permission.

    And yet today, far from being unnerving, silence is usually the soundtrack of transcendent possibility, the sound we most associate with open space. Surely I am not the only one who waxes poetic about echoey galleries with soaring ceilings or abandoned warehouses shimmering with uninterrupted space. And what is more majestic than the desert at sunrise, an expanse of ocean, or walking alone along a forest path densely enclosed by trees? In all these moments it is the unexpected encounter with silence that heightens the experience. Silence is sonic vastness just as a desert is physical vastness. In cramped quarters we are hemmed in by stuff; in crowded soundscapes we are limited by noises.

    But what sounds count as silence, and what sounds count as noise? Is silence the rare glimpse of divine experience, or is it compatible with human presence, accessible and available if only we had the ears to hear it?

    This is the question Kim Haines-Eitzen investigates in Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks – And What It Can Teach Us. Inspired by her work as a scholar of early Christian monasticism, the book is structured around her journeys to capture the sounds of various deserts and remote monasteries across the world, initially to gain better insight into “how natural sounds impacted ancient monasticism.” She wants to know: “What did ancient monks hear in their environment? And what did they learn from these sounds?” The book quickly veers from the tightness of this early interest into a narrative reflection on silence, rooted in ancient Christian sources and the sounds of remote places, but also meditating more broadly on conceptions of wilderness in the modern world, the experience of sound-seeking, and desert community. In a neat bit of multisensory innovation, each chapter includes a QR-code link to one of her field recordings.

    Though at times more sentimental than might suit every reader, Haines-Eitzen’s attention to sound and its impact on our sense of place is impeccable and revelatory. It is impossible to read this book and not rethink our soundscapes.

    At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, she sets up her equipment and soon is recording “the croak of ravens” flapping their wings, a rooster crowing, the buzzing of flies, a prop plane overhead. The sound of nearby rivers and fountains trickles through her microphone. It is the silent cacophony that forces her “to rethink my own ideas about silence as absence. As I listen to the rich sonority of desert landscape, I quest less for silence and more for a quality of presence, and perhaps even ‘excess.’”

    Her central insight is that silence is a sound alongside others, one we can seek or learn to recognize or choose to cultivate. Silence, she argues, does not require the absence of humans, and it sounds different in different places. Several times she emphasizes that “the desert has never been deserted,” insisting on human presence and human sounds as woven into the reality of desert silence.

    This thesis is sometimes at odds with the desire for a more otherworldly and total silence she finds in her texts, and perhaps even her own heart. ­Elsewhere, in Death Valley, she recalls how she began this process of field recordings (for which she attended trainings at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology) “in the hopes of capturing the silence evoked by monastic literature; here I thought I had found it, but it was somewhat tempered: a quiet place for sure, but silence as the pure absence of sound was still elusive.” Sometimes she sees this realization as useful for her work. “Slowly and reluctantly, I gave way to the experience of elusive silence, noting that this too was an important feature of monasticism – the desire for solitude, stillness, and quiet was always sought but seldom found.”

    In another scene, she is in the Judean desert, where she has trekked down the canyon walls to the Monastery of Saint George with her recording gear. “I was eager to record the sounds of the breeze through palm trees, the starlings and doves and ravens, and the brilliant echoes of the canyon,” she writes. “But I was also worrying.” Pilgrims have begun to arrive at the monastery by both foot and mule, and “human chatter and the clatter of rocks” fill her headphones. Later some monks offer to knock on the semantron, the wooden board that calls the monks to prayer, so she can “record its rhythms and hear its echoes down the canyon.” A quintessentially monastic sound, if not monastic silence. Before she leaves the monks gather in the chapel to pray, their hymns stopping the pilgrims in their tracks, as a new sort of reverential quiet fills the room. Though “the monks do not permit pictures of themselves,” she finds, “they were warmly hospitable and glad to sing for my recorder.” Images might be concerning, but sound somehow escapes this concern of corruption, or unseemliness. Sound is more pure, less rooted in the material drudgery of this physical world. I think of ancient texts that vividly describe God in detailed praise, but would bristle at the blasphemous suggestion that God be drawn.

    If Haines-Eitzen is conflicted about her desire for total silence, it is an ancient site of conflict. Even in the desert, finding that perfect quiet was never easy. There was always some other monk living more silently in some cave far deeper in the inner deserts, or some bygone era of silence that monks, even in the fourth century, insisted would never come again. In one story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, she quotes the annoyance of Abba Arsenius upon hearing reeds move in the wind. Turning to his disciples, he says, “When one who is sitting in total stillness hears the voice of the sparrow, his heart no longer experiences total stillness. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.” Though at times she argues for birds and reeds as sounds of total stillness, “the challenges of cultivating inner stillness in the midst of surrounding noisy soundscape” were not solved by the move to the desert. In this way, the monastic search for inner quiet amidst a sea of noise is more familiar than distant.

    And while the desire for silence is often seen as the hallmark of early monastic life – indeed, it was its growth, alongside Hellenistic influence, which finally moved the church to embrace silent prayer – the deserts were not always imagined as sites of ideal silence. Often, the monks saw the desert as a battleground. When Antony first ventures out to the desert, he is assaulted by demons who shriek, roar, thunder, and crash around him like a mob of people. This is par for the course, in some ways. “The sounds inform Antony’s sense of where he is and who he is – he is in the place of demons,” she writes; “his hermitage at the tombs was not Henry David Thoreau’s idyllic Walden.” The desert had to be conquered, more often than not. Even heaven, she notes later, is not silent but full of singing angels and trumpets – and the monastic literature is full of monks who are distinguished in their holiness by their ability to hear such sounds when others cannot. Sound can have its place in holiness too.

    rust, steel blue, and brown abstract art

    BD Griffith, Fermata 1831, acrylic on canvas, 2018.

    It is a reminder that in my own veneration of silence I missed the equally important flipside: In most religious texts, silence is not just about the absence of noise, but the ability to hear something else. The monks went to the desert not just to escape noise, but to find something.

    But what?

    Haines-Eitzen writes about the popular story of a miraculous camel that stops drawing water when the monks are called to prayer, to not drown out the sound; the machine is disruptive noise, the call monastic. I’m reminded of another early monastic text from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where Abba Zeno visits a man renowned for his fasting but who, when faced with the prospect of working in silence and secrecy (that is, without praise), discovers he is no longer able to fast. Until now, Abba Zeno explains, “you were feeding yourself through your ears.” The wrong sort of sounds, filling our ears, can keep us from hearing the right calls, soothe us into abandoning the right fights. In silence, we cannot evade ourselves. “The stories,” says Haines-Eitzen, “aren’t about noise and silence, but rather about which sounds command attention.”

    What sounds command our attention?

    Sound has almost always been the sense over which humans have the least control. We can buy blackout curtains, close our eyes, fill a room with scented candles or sweet perfume, but even the muffled blunted silence of earplugs and sound machines can rarely mimic the vastness of natural silence. Sound, instead, comes at us all the time, in every moment. A boisterous group of friends giggling under our window. A truck honking its horn. The colleague who won’t stop coughing. Haines-Eitzen is not interested in noise – there is no engagement, for example, with the growing literature around sound pollution and its effects on urban dwellers, ocean mammals, and the environment, nor with why so many people today seek to live with the nonstop accompaniment of music or podcasts or news in their ears as they cook, dress, travel, run. Instead, she wants mostly to consider whether the desert silence romanticized in religious literature might not exist, or exist fleetingly, but if there is something else there that is deeply human and deeply worth hearing. She says yes, but her case might fail to turn the stubbornly seeking heart.

    I think about this as I make my way one morning to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, assaulted by the sheer loudness of the Upper West Side – electric trucks that hum, sanitation vehicles with their huge circling brushes, the beep beep beeeeeep of backing-up vans. Motorcycles. Trucks full of bread or soda or cheese rumbling down the street. Even St. John the Divine is swarmed with men and their jackhammers, fixing something below the concrete.

    navy blue and white abstract art

    BD Griffith, Fermata 1806, acrylic on canvas, 2018.

    Was the city always this loud? Had this book simply made me aware of how little access humans among other humans have to silence? Once inside the coffee shop, people turn pages in their books, spoons clink against coffee cups, the espresso machine grinds its beans. There are sounds, distinct and audible, but they are not noise. When a cell phone rings it is jarring, and people glare at the offender. There is a distinct soundscape to a coffee shop, a study hall, children at play. One wonders if the popularity of ASMR videos reflects this desire to tap into, on demand and from any location, the soothing power of specific sounds. Perhaps silence too can be recorded, sought and found, the sonic vastness sought by ancient monks delivered today to our headphones. But Haines-Eitzen’s emphasis on the sonorous desert, the silence as soundtrack to this immensity of space, keeps the book rooted in the interplay of senses which comprised the monastic environment, sometimes to great benefit, sometimes falling short.

    What I do know is that while I often consider how the experiences of my eyes affect my frame of mind, I give less thought to sound. I know that when I do not constantly feed myself through my ears, I force an encounter with myself. And instead, how easily I have begun falling asleep to podcasts so my thoughts don’t keep me up at night.

    At one point, Haines-Eitzen describes a class discussion she is leading on silence with her students. They consider silence as expectancy, the pause before something happens, “silence not as absence but as the fullness of quiet, a blooming attention, moments where time slows down.” Attention, focus, pause. Silence as a moment suspended in time, where if one holds it and stays in it, one might hear a still, small voice.

    Contributed By ShiraTelushkin Shira Telushkin

    Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, art, meaning, and all things beautiful. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications.

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