A few summers ago, my wife and I visited California for the first time. A highlight of our trip was a brief stop at a state park in the heart of a redwood forest. One of the most impressive aspects of this place, apart from the awesome trees themselves, is its silence—a palpable silence, thick as gravy.
Silence today is most notable for its rarity. It is virtually impossible to escape the hum of electronics or air conditioners; the sound of traffic, no matter how distant; the whirring—or banging—of household appliances; the inscrutable throbbing of music-so-called, devoid of any beauty, logic or redeeming qualities; the sounds of conversation or machinery; the whoosh of jets overhead.
Not only is it difficult to escape the sounds of everyday life, but on the rare occasions when one can do so, the experience can be disconcerting. Alone with one’s heartbeat, one gets the sense that some unspeakable catastrophe has just occurred—or is about to. We’re not used to life without sound of some kind. Noise is a comfort to us, a reassurance that life goes on and we’re still part of it.
Silence for the spirit is equally rare. It is not only the physical silence we lack, but also the time it takes to be silent. Life has become so complex, our schedules so full, our responsibilities so pressing that we fail to grasp the importance of scheduled silence for the spirit. William Penn, in the preface to his treatise, Some Fruits of Solitude, wrote,
“There is nothing of which we are apt to be so lavish as of Time, and about which we ought to be more solicitous; since without it we can do nothing in the World. Time is what we want most, but what, alas! we use worst; and for which God will certainly most strictly reckon with us, when Time shall be no more.”
While we can neither advocate all of the Quakers’ theology nor swallow all of the fruits of Penn’s solitude, we ought to heed his warning about our use of time and make certain we include in our spirits’ itineraries regular visits to the redwood forest.
(A longer version of this article was first published in 2006–or thereabouts…)