Noise Pollution and the Spirituality of Silence

“Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon my home town.”  That’s how Garrison Keillor  begins his popular radio monologue about a fictional place in Minnesota where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. And with the exception of a few fishing boats and some ambient noise from the Side Track Tap, it’s apparently pretty quiet there.

Good for them.

Noise doesn’t just increase our chances of deafness. Surrounded by high decibels, we can suffer memory loss, more stress and we sleep less. Not a recipe for health. New York City became much more pleasant when laws were passed eliminating horn honking. Some countries (e.g. Germany) have passed strict laws governing sound pollution. In Berlin, for instance, nights and all Sundays are quiet, except for church bells, emergency sirens, snow plows… and children.

It’s hard to imagine a European city without squealing mopeds.

 Acoustic pollution from ships and sonar testing  in marine environments has emerged as a growing environmental concern due to its potential to affect cetaceans and other species by altering naturally occurring underwater  soundscapes.

Oceans are just one place you might expect to find quiet.  Or, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Or visit a desert, an island, the woods, a mountain top. Or maybe Antarctica. Admiral Richard Byrd, who spent an entire polar winter alone, said of the quiet, “I am thrown upon myself.”  Silence does that to you. The Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, calls this kind of quiet contemplation, “Listening to the Silence of God.”

When my husband and I left behind the sirens, horns, dogs, and rapper music of Mass. Ave. in Cambridge to move to central Vermont, one morning I said, “It’s so quiet up here, I can hear the chickadees chewing.” 

I learned a great deal about silence from Sara Maitland’s book, appropriately called A Book of Silence.   She spent three years writing it, surrounded by the moor-quiet of Weardale, a remote spot in northern England. It brought back memories of one of my own quiet weekends alone in an tiny English village near Oxford. I went for a walk and a pheasant stepped on my foot as a fox sat nearby watching us both.  All in silence. Suddenly I was very awake! Maitland also discovered that silence truly does enhance all your senses. Furthermore, silence brings up thoughts of both death and birth. Perhaps that’s why so many people fear quiet emptiness. But John Cage, the musician who wrote silence into his compositions, claims there is no such thing as empty space or empty time. I think he may be right. Even as I sit on a bench in my still woods, I hear the wind in the trees.

Once on a desert retreat Maitland discovered that quiet is more than a context for prayer. “It is, in itself, a form of freedom; it generates freedom, free choices, inner clarity, strength. A freedom from one’s self and a freedom to be oneself.”

This is the quiet week when many of us Christians turn inward, contemplating Christ’s death and his resurrection. Sometimes I think Jerusalem back then must have been almost as noisy as Mass Ave. Merchants hawking their wares, camels and donkeys braying, Romans clanking armor. Small wonder Jesus invited his closest friends up into an olive grove to get some quiet away-time before all hell broke lose, so to speak.

Every week can be a quiet week in our own Lake Wobegons if we look around for those quiet places. And just float a bit.

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photo by: Ha-Wee

About Karen Speerstra

Karen Speerstra is a veteran writer, editor and author of seven books the latest being Sophia: the Feminine Face of God. It is accompanied by a new ten-part audio guide available at Speerstra spent ten years freelance writing before entering the college text and professional book publishing world. Her career and interest in travel has taken her to many sacred sites in Europe as well as in the U.S. She blogs on several sites including her own, where she has been telling the recent story of tropical storm Irene which devastated many sections of her home state of Vermont. Karen continues to aid others in their desire to write and to be published. A mother of two grown sons, Karen lives with her husband John, in central Vermont, surrounded by her labyrinth and gardens.