In a rock cavern inside a mountain in the scenic Hardanger fjord in western Norway, is one of the Nordic region's biggest power stations and inside that is a hall which is renowned for its acoustics. The whole 1,120-megawatt power plant was shut down recently in preparation for a concert to let an expert tune a grand piano undisturbed by the hum of huge hydroelectric generators.
Noise is part of life. For many, this is as true of their inner selves as it is of their environment. Thoughts, demands, anxieties, plans for the future, fill their heads with an unending hum. The possibility of shutting that down, even if only temporarily, is profoundly attractive.
We can make opportunities to rediscover the quietness enclosed deeper within us. Sometimes it’s best to remove ourselves physically from the places where we normally operate and to make sure we have as little to distract us as possible. Where this isn’t possible, deliberately taking time out from our normal routine in order to be still can have a similar effect. Opening ourselves to what lies within us also puts in touch with what lies beyond and can have a transfiguring effect on our lives.
Perhaps it’s worth making space to do this. If we want to perform well, we need quietness so we can attune ourselves properly, be in harmony with the people around us and live lives which bring sweet music to the ear of others.
Silence doesn’t work on radio. Radio stations have a technical back-up system which automatically transmits music in the event of a long silence, which it presumes is a technical fault. So the first ever broadcast of a Quaker act of worship on Radio 4 this weekend had hardly any silence, certainly compared with what would be expected in a normal Friends’ Meeting.
In ordinary social interaction too, silence is normally taken to imply “a technical fault”, something must be wrong if silence falls in the middle of a conversation, or if someone present is not contributing verbally to what’s happening. Often it feels embarrassing.
In the Revelation given to St John about the end of time, ‘there was silence in heaven’ (Rev 8.1). It came at a moment when it seemed essential just to stop the noise and absorb the enormity of what was happening. Nothing else - not words or music or any activity - did justice to the occasion. A silence in the middle of a conversation, whether in a group or on more intimate occasions, can be a time simply to be present and enjoy the moment, to absorb what’s happening or being said.
Perhaps today, we might hold back the temptation to prevent a silence developing, break into one that’s started or put pressure on somebody being silent to speak. It may not work on radio but in our relationships and conversations, silence can make a valuable contribution.
Geoff Marshall and Neil Blake recently visited all 275 stations on the London Underground in a record 18 hours, 35 minutes and 43 seconds. This was their seventh attempt at the record. "This time we worked out a new route,” said Geoff, a computer expert, “although it only needs one train to break down and your chances are over."
Our lives can sometimes consist of an attempt to cram as many different things as we can into the shortest space of time. It can leave us concentrating more on getting through it all than on what we are actually doing. When some unforeseen circumstance slows us down, we then feel a failure because we have not achieved the rigorous agenda we had set ourselves.
Ironically, by the time the successful pair had completed their journey, they had just missed the last tube home. One of the effects of a hurried lifestyle can be that we lose sight of the basis of our lives, of our true selves. In the superficial busy-ness, we forget to keep grounded in who we are and what we most deeply want. The longer we keep up a frenetic way of life, the harder it is to find our way ‘home’
Perhaps today, if we need to, we could try slowing down.
The number of skylarks in the UK is rapidly diminishing but an unexpected solution has emerged. If a small uncultivated space is left at the centre of fields being planted with cereal crops, the songsters begin to thrive again. Now the government is offering financial incentives if farmers will create such fallow areas.
Human beings also benefit from having a fallow area, a restful space at the heart of their lives. The busy-ness which occupies us can take over if we don’t allow ourselves opportunities for the kind of quiet reflectiveness which puts us in touch with the stillness at our centre. We often need to be quite disciplined about making time to reconnect with that inner place.
In the image offered to us by the skylarks, the field’s crop does not profit from the space at its centre, though research has shown that leaving an unsown area doesn’t cause the yield to decrease. It is the skylarks who benefit. Perhaps today, if we need some encouragement to re-discover our quiet centre, it might come from realising that we are not the only ones whose lives will be enhanced. Those who come into regular contact with us might also find they’re able to sing the song in their lives with greater enthusiasm and vigour.
There’s an annual convention at the National Exhibition Centre for keepers of caged birds. The hall is full of proud owners displaying their pets, many of which speak volubly. In fact so loud is the noise of parrots and budgerigars that mere humans can hardly hear what their companions are saying.
On one occasion, the prophet Elijah desperately needed to receive God’s encouragement and guidance. He found it, not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in a gentle murmuring sound. He could so easily have missed it.
Our lives are often so fast-moving and busy that wind, earthquake and fire are suitable images for them. Our minds are often full of noise, thoughts clamouring for attention, so that it is really hard to focus on what really matters.
Perhaps today, it might be worth spending a moment pushing these surface noises aside and trying to focus on the voices that come from deeper within us.