Site of Silence

With a solid footing of snow, I decided yesterday was an fitting occasion to head over to Bechtel Park for a Nordic ski. I am more inclined to go to a local golf course, largely because it is so very close. But time was a bit more spacious on January 1, and so I jumped in the car and headed about 8 km north on the express way so that I could ski the set trails at Bechtel.

It was actually a bit icier than I was anticipating, and so after a few swings around a couple of trails I crossed a little bridge over a small creek and inched my way on a path neither groomed nor friendly to cross country skis. I eventually always do this when at Bechtel. I usually take along a small thermos of hot chocolate and get far enough away along the creek’s side to know that I won’t likely be meeting dog walkers or other skiers. Yesterday, I took a few photos with my phone before finding a fallen tree to function as my chaise. It wasn’t long before I noted a pair of cardinals across the stream in one tree, and a pair of nuthatches in another. I was transfixed by them. I’m not a birder and really know next to nothing about our feathered friends, but every now and then I find myself drawn to them. After a time, I made my way along the path back to the parking lot, realizing that I had not taken any photos of the birds, but happy enough all the same.

Later in the day, I listened to a podcast on “On Being.” Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton about his work to reclaim silence in our world. Noise pollution is his concern, and he makes the rather audacious claim that silence is about to become extinct. Silence, please note, is not for Hempton an absence of sound but a dearth of artificial sounds. He spoke at length, and eloquently, about learning to listen, and the curious fact that humans are not hard-wired to hear humans as much as certain other animals. Our auditory interest in humans is a later overlay. He spoke in particular of our ability to catch the song of birds, since their call often indicated a locale of some importance for the primordial homo sapiens. It seems there is a deep seated reason for my attraction to bird song.

Hempton spoke eloquently of our need for listening. He claimed that ours is a world pre-occupied with sight. Learning to shift our focus from eyes to ears, and then to hear what comes naturally is no small task. Luther, the famed Reformer whose 500th anniversary of the posting of 95 theses (which is said to have kicked off the Reformation) is being commemorated in 2017, spoke of the church as a Mundhaus, or place of hearing. He made mention some 500 years before Hempton of the curious fact that ears do not have lids like eyes. Hempton made the case that this makes sense from the side of evolution because hearing is how we best discern who or what is in the environs. Luther made the case that this makes theological sense because hearing is passive in a way that is not quite true for seeing and so an especially apt receptor of words of grace.

Yesterday I was delighted to both see and hear the cardinals and nuthatches, and I was also very happy to look up at the clear blue sky and see snow laden trees branches form a frame for that heavenly blue as if they were playing the part of stained glass. Hempton calls the great outdoors his cathedral, a point I can appreciate even while I am quite content to let cathedrals be cathedrals and nature be nature. Both have things to teach us. Both provide both moments of rapture and occasions of deep awe – in their own way. But I am happy to hear – and see – in both evidences of hope and healing. Both can be for me sites of silence.

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4 thoughts on “Site of Silence

  1. did some cross-country today as well. Thank you for your thoughtful, and thought-raising, reflections on silence.

  2. shoreacres says:

    I was caught by your comment that you didn’t take any photos of the birds. In our image-obsessed society, not taking a photo is a kind of silence, too. I always think of this, from Annie Dillard:

    “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”

    What she says about seeing echoes Luther’s point about the passivity of listening without intent. When we simply listen, rather than “listening for,” there’s simply no telling what we might hear.

    • agjorgenson says:

      I like this connection! I think the analogy holds nicely. In both cases we have made a project of an activity that is best engaged as intrinsically meaningful. I also think that both walking and listening are profound modes of prayer: praying with feet and ears.

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