Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Silence and Solitude

Over the last several months, I have been thinking more and more about the simple concept of silence. What's interesting is that Pope Benedict XVI has chosen Silence to be the theme for the 2012 World Communication Day.  Why silence?
In the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, silence is not presented simply as an antidote to the constant and unstoppable flow of information that characterises society today but rather as a factor that is necessary for its integration. Silence, precisely because it favours habits of discernment and reflection, can in fact be seen primarily as a means of welcoming the word. We ought not to think in terms of a dualism, but of the complementary nature of two elements which when they are held in balance serve to enrich the value of communication and which make it a key factor that can serve the new evangelisation.
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI was visiting a Carthusian monastery and had this to say about silence:
Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always a lingering background noise, in some areas even at night. In the recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality that risks getting the upper hand over reality. Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night.

The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude.
Anthropological mutation? Sounds very serious. I think that last paragraph is key and bears great reflection. Naturally, this isn't to say that leisure is bad, or that listening to music is harmful. On the contrary, what it says is that these things are elevated above and beyond everything else. We are a society that is generally very uncomfortable with silence, and the average attention span is often very short. Further, there appears to be a tendency in our society to equate long periods of silence with a lack of amusement, i.e. boredom, and so we are constantly seeking distractions. If we aren't doing something, watching something, or listening to something, there is a sense that we aren't making good use of our free time. I find this to be true in my own life, for sure. I attempt to devote time to reflection and prayer, but it is quite difficult. My mind is so tempted by so many other things.

What I love about the film, Into Great Silence, is that it gives you a true insight into the daily routine of those for whom silence is a major part of life. Indeed, the film itself is very difficult to watch unless you are truly prepared to enter into it. If you allow yourself to be subdued by the film without falling asleep or becoming distracted by something else, you find that you are given an extraordinary encounter with something almost otherworldly. You are able to take time to really notice the most simple of things, and you are much better able to live in harmony with the changing seasons of the world rather than seek to be distracted from them.

Also related to this, as the pope points out, is the concept of solitude. This is something that transcends personality traits (whether one is an introvert or an extrovert). Consider that even the most introverted of persons struggles to find comfort with solitude in a public place without some distraction, whether it be music, or a book, etc.

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