The other day, I was commuting through central London, when I alighted at one of the busiest tube stations on the network. As I got off, I noticed that it was remarkably quiet. Not that it wasn’t busy. It’s just that there was very little sound.
Hundreds of people got off the train within a few seconds of one another, but as there were a few seconds where there was no announcement, no train rumbling through a nearby tunnel. Yet there was also a lack of conversations. I couldn’t hear anyone talking, as I usually do. My thought was “this is quite profound.”
But why? I got to thinking through what it meant. Is there profundity in silence? The modern monastic in me said ‘yes’ but I couldn’t quite grasp why. And why silence in some places and not others.
Going against the teaching of my church, I am quite sceptical over the nature of “sacred spaces” or “holy places”. I hope to write more about it in the future, once I’ve done some reading into Celtic christianity. To outline briefly, though, we must think that most of the universe is silent. Even a supernova, one of the most violent events we know of doesn’t, as far as I am aware, make a sound. There’s no atmosphere for it to make a noise in. In this respect, noise is something quite unusual, possibly unique to planets with atmospheres.
So the idea of silence being inherently profound implies that almost everything is profound apart from the spaces we live in. Yet for something to be profound, or of value, I might copy an example from economics and suggest it should be rare. But if noise is rare in the universe and silence common, then silence cannot be profound.
So I concluded that silence itself is not what is profound; it is silence where one expects noise. What I had in the tube station was an abundance of people that collectively made no noise. In large religious gatherings, a moment of silence is something unnatural to our human tendency to make a noise, either as a by-product of our activity or as a means of communication.
What it implies is that there is something else going on. If you were to wander into a shopping centre and hear nothing, yet you can see thousands of people, you might well think something was going on, something hidden. Everyone else is on on a secret. Maybe you join in that silence to see if it will give you insight into that mystery. Then someone else comes in and observes you being silent, being still. They wonder what you know that they don’t that causes you to be silent.
There may be nothing at all, like the traffic jam with no accident, where everyone slowed down because the person in front did. It might be a cumulative silence built on nothing more than an idea. Or maybe there is a reason to it.
Silence then, in my view, is not profound in itself, but it may just point to something that is. Not all silence, not in all places, in all times. But maybe some silences do. To those, all we can do is listen to them. And wonder.