It's not hard to imagine hell as a place that is very, very noisy. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis's Devil detests music and silence. Hell, he crowed, was filled with furious noise: "the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless and virile…We will make the whole universe a noise…We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end."
In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believed that Satan did not want human beings to be alone with God, or with each other, fully alert and listening. This is why British author Sara Maitland believes the mobile phone is a "major breakthrough for the powers of hell." Maitland is more conscious of noise than most—she spent more than a decade pursuing silence like a hunter its prey. She writes in A Book of Silence, just published in the U.S., how she traveled to the desert, the hills, and the remote Scottish Highlands because she wanted to discover what silence truly was, and immerse herself in it. "I am convinced that as a whole society we are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding culture," she writes, "and that somehow, whatever this silence might be, it needs holding, nourishing and unpacking."
After spending 40 days in an isolated house on a windy moor, Maitland found silence did several things: her physical sensations were heightened (she was overwhelmed by the deliciousness of porridge, heard different notes in the wind, was more sensitive to temperature, and emotional); she became what she calls "disinhibited" (a Jungian notion that once alone, you are free to do what you want—picking your nose while eating, stripping your clothes off, abandoning grooming, washing once a week); she heard voices (a young girl, then a male choir singing in Latin, which she thinks may have been the wind); experienced great happiness; felt connected with the cosmos; was exhilarated by the risk and peril in what she was doing; and discovered a fierce joy, or bliss.
It is a strikingly refreshing book to read, in the midst of the clamor and din, ever-mounting distraction, yelling TV pundits, solipsistic tweet-ing, and flash-card sentiment of our Internet age. It made me realize what a profound longing many of us have for silence, how hard it is to find, and how easily we forget how much we need it. Most snatch it in small grabs—hot baths, long runs, lap swimming, bike rides. Maitland rails against the idea of silence as void, absence, and lack—something that we must rush to fill—insisting it is positive and nurturing, and something more profound that must be actively sought. (When silence is imposed, of course, it is something entirely different.)
What's interesting about silence is not just the extremism, often merging on madness, of those who can claim to have lived silently: the Arctic explorer, the deep-sea diver, the sailor, the hermit, the ascetic, the nun. What is also important is what the rest of us can wring from the more mundane moments of stillness. We can't all skip around nude through the Scottish bracken, or inhabit caves in Tibetan mountains, but we can experience silence in ways so potent they become addictive: the magical quiet of swimming under the sea; the uninterrupted hours after midnight; the sweet intimacy between a mother and her baby, being nursed in the wee hours; the breathless stillness after excellent sex; the hush of awe while gazing at a proud, ancient mountain, a huge rock glowing red in the desert, or someone soaring down a 20-foot wave. Even if it is not pure silence, it can be enough. We may not all have visions of a spinning, shining, silent God as Maitland does, but, as our thoughts are stripped back and stilled, we might sense the mystery of something greater than ourselves.
We often talk about distraction, and the banality of a culture that seems to smother deep thought or time-sucking contemplation—we tweet sneezes, we blink and record it for our friends, we sprint to be the first to speak. The anonymity of the Internet has been replaced by hyper-identity; the idea of shutting up and staring at a rock, piles of sand, or blinking stars for hours, if not weeks, seems profoundly countercultural.
I know, it sounds like the lament of the Luddite. But if generations of mystics and seekers have insisted that there's something that connects silence with the sublime, you have to wonder what we are distracting ourselves from—and who we could be if, every now and then, we paused.