“The Sounds of Silence” by Mark W. Harris – January 24, 2010

Sermon “The Sounds of Silence” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – January 24, 2010

Call to Worship from Robert Weston

There might have been other uses for this moment.
There might have been other pleasures;
There might have been rest,
But there is something beyond all this which I must seek.
And except I give it time and attention
It may never come to flower.
It is a yearning for meaning for which the tongue has yet no words.
It is a quest for holiness.
It is a quest for self-forgiveness,
For all the things wherein I have failed myself
In failing others:
The light I have ignored;
The pleas of the spirit, rejected;
The meaning still to be found,
peace in a world of conflict, and still something more.
It is something only sensed in moments of quiet and solitude
Or in the shared meditations of others
Who seek with me.
Perhaps, perhaps it is myself,
Now so buried under the demands and pressures of the world
That it may only be found as I take time
To listen for it and to let it grow.

Reading from Pierre, or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville

All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence. What a silence is that with which the pale bride precedes the responsive I will, to the priest’s solemn question, Wilt thou have this man for thy husband ? In silence, too, the wedded hands are clasped. Yea, in silence the child Christ was born into the world. Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiffs hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.

Nor is this so august Silence confined to things simply touching or grand. Like the air, Silence permeates all things, and produces its magical power, as well during that peculiar mood which prevails at a solitary traveler’s first setting forth on a journey, as at the unimaginable time when before the world was, Silence brooded on the face of the waters.

‘ No word was spoken by its inmates, as the coach bearing our young Enthusiast, Pierre, and his mournful party, sped forth through the dim dawn into the deep midnight, which still occupied, unrepulsed, the hearts of the old woods through which the road wound, very shortly after quitting the village.

When first entering the coach, Pierre had pressed his hand upon the cushioned seat to steady his way, some crumpled leaves of paper had met his fingers. He had instinctively clutched them; and the same strange clutching mood of his soul which had prompted that instinctive act, did also prevail in causing him now to retain the crumpled paper in his hand for an hour or more of that wonderful intense silence, which the rapid coach bore through the heart of the general stirless morning silence of the fields and the woods.

Sermon “The Sounds of Silence” Mark W. Harris

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible . . . Indivisible? When do we ever use that word? Except in the context of the pledge of allegiance, I don’t think I have ever said it or written it. What does it seem to mean? The implication would be that we as a people cannot be divided. We are joined as one, and yet the word indivisible, as you might infer, comes from individual. What that implies is that the meaning of individual has changed over the last two centuries. Sara Maitland, who has written A Book of Silence, says until the end of the 17th century, indivisible and individual pretty much meant the same thing, that which cannot be divided, cannot be broken down into smaller units. Indivisible was related to the doctrine of the Trinity, and to marriage – three or two become as one. Whether that imagery resonates with you or not, there is this sense of the individual extending beyond the boundaries of the self. Since 1800 though, thanks to some degree to the Romantic period, individual has increasingly meant unique and separate. In fact, the development of the individual self has become a virtual religion in America, and it plays an important role in the religious orientation of most Unitarian Universalists, too. We are democratic. We are non doctrinal. We call for the free search for truth. Free search has often meant individual search.

And that search has meant that we have held up one use for silence to the detriment of another. That one use is when the individual goes into quiet reflection to consider the most profound issues in order to develop the self. This use of silence give us more profound insights that some of us could create great pieces of literature. Whether you write or not, it is still the idea of silence to fill oneself for self-understanding and/or self-expression. It is about me and my mind. That’s wonderful, but it loses the balance necessary for the individual to gain a sense of connection to the indivisible. Even in marriage, we hesitate to say these days that two become one, because we want the marriage partners to be equal, and not have one subordinate or worse be the property of another. What is lost though is that sense of silence where the individual gives up the self and merges with the larger whole or God. It is the silence of the monk or hermit who many of the individualists would find too unsuccessful or too simple. It is the silence of humility reflected in the Zen story of Ryokan, a Zen master, who lived a simple life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was confused, but slunk away with the clothes. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Can we even contemplate that kind of silence, where we give up the self and feel that which is indivisible, or one with us? Can we can have any silence in our lives to empty ourselves of the chaos of life, to reflect upon the difficult issues we need to make decisions about, or simply to enjoy the vastness and beauty of our natural surroundings? Whether it is the silence that fills us or the silence that empties us, the problem is that most people are not comfortable with silence. In Waterville, Maine, I used to see this giant sign by the turnpike exit advertising a restaurant called The Silent Woman. The image on the billboard was of the body of a woman in a colonial dress, but she had no head. Now that will keep you silent. One can only imagine the number of men chuckling over the image of a woman who had a body but could not speak. And this is one of the primary reasons we react negatively to the idea of silence. Who wants to be silenced? It means someone has power over you, and tells you that what you have to say is irrelevant or stupid, such as children should be seen and not heard. What women have had to say has been devalued for so long it may seem that silence is more like a jail sentence, then it is the idea of having a choice of sharing those sentences filled with thoughts and ideas.

We think of oppressed women and political prisoners, and even children who are told to hush, and we know that being silenced is not something desirable. To be silenced may mean we cannot vote, we cannot speak, we cannot stand up for our selves for fear of our lives. We may be shamed when a teacher berates us, and we take it in silence for fear of greater repercussions. We wait in silence for it to be over. There may also be a sense of dread we associate with silence. The night is silent. For some this represents the unknown or the forbidden. We dare not enter the dark forest that is filled with the silence of night. Who know what lurks there? Lions and tigers and bears . . . Oh my! My hometown of New Salem, Massachusetts was recently featured in the Globe as the safest town in the whole state. It has had one crime in two years. The town administrator commented in the article that there was not much danger from people, I’m not worried about crime,’’ she said “I’m worried about the bear that might be in the woods.’’ In fact, New Salem is the only place in my life that I have encountered a bear in the wild. It was a little scary, but exciting, too!

If the silence of the woods is mostly an unfounded fear, what about the silence of death? Doesn’t the dark night remind us of the darkness that we all must face one day, and would rather not speak about. Or perhaps we cannot stop from speaking because we are afraid of the day when we will be forever silent. Those of us who have been with a loved one in their final moments know that even after they can no longer speak, there is a steady breathing and a continuing presence, but that the silence of the final breath signals to us a time when their lives will be forever silent. Words are important in creation. For instance, God said let there be light. When we can no longer say things, we are cut off from communicating. Speaking is often seen as something that distinguishes us from other animals, but this languages also makes us the only animal who is aware of death. So we say out loud, Hey, here I am. I am alive here. Silence can mean some fairly scary things, inferiority, powerlessness, illness and even ultimately death. To be alive is to be speaking. Some of this heritage we get from Judaism, where the faithful speak to God, and God speaks back to them directly, or at least through angels and prophets. The expression of the relationship with the divine was through prophecy and poetry. And this is largely the tradition we have maintained, sometimes manifest in the words and actions of men and women who have inspired us to create a more just and peaceful world.

Yet Judaism also recognizes that silence must be part of the witness of faith. God cannot be named in Judaism, and even when God is addressed directly, God says, I am who I am. When God spoke to Elijah on Mount Horeb, God could have done so in the wind, earthquake, fire or any number of loud, noisy ways. But He didn’t. God spoke with a “still, small voice that takes away the last vestige of Elijah’s fear of being all alone. Elijah hears God in the stillness.
The problem is we expect to have noise around us all the time. Noise lets us know we are alive. It lets us know there is work to be done and places to go and things to do. So we have music in the dentist’s office, and TV’s in the grocery store and elevators that talk to us, and tell us welcome to the hospital and pay before you go, and buses that say watch out for luggage left unaccompanied because who knows about silent presences that we cannot explain. We have noise all the time now, and not even a moment of silence when we might hear a silence that is the echo of the great bang or mystery from long ago that created us all, or a silence of sight upon a vast galaxy upon galaxy of galaxies of stars that we cannot see, not even with the most powerful telescope of all, and yet they seem like eternal fires of burning light against the darkness of silence that is the night sky, when the noises of the city stop and we look up.

Maybe the only silence we know is a few brief moments of that reflection time on what we are doing with our days, but that silence is really more an absence of all that noise. Got to get away from it all. How could we cultivate a presence for silence? We desire not merely a little emptiness of cars and youtube and children yelling, as good as that might be. We want some silence that replenishes our strength, and takes us some place that lets us see beyond the horizon of the bed post or the dash board, or even the monitor that we spend so much time tap tapping away at. We want silence so that we can empty the shopping lists and laundry lists and to do lists. But we also want silence so that we can fill ourselves with deeper places of love and harmony that are indivisible. We need moments to reflect on how we are spending our time, and maybe even reflect on ourselves and what we are doing, but we also need time to reflect on what is it all means, and what is the rhythm of that breathing, thinking, loving that flows from me to you. It is the end of noise. It is the end of talking. It is deep listening to the sound of no sound.

(Let’s try to hear that silence for just a moment)

Melville says all profound things are preceded by silence. Perhaps it is fitting that he said that in his novel Pierre, that was also titled The Ambiguities. There is ambiguity in silence. Silence portends that something is about to happen. Sometimes that is a disaster. I think of the silence that we all hear when a child has been injured, and is about to scream a blood curdling cry, and there is the brief moment, that often seems eternal before our ears actual hear the awful sound. They say there was an eerie silence before Pickett’s doomed Confederate troops assaulted the Union line in July 1863. Perhaps this speaks of the presence of the pain of life in small and universal ways. It is not merely that absence of the cacophony of noise that irritates us and makes it so we cannot think. No, this is the presence of something more, something silent that is indivisible from larger events. Yet it is not only pain, but something perhaps more vast, and even beautiful that is the observance of a blessing upon the universe with its mantle of stars or shifting of tides that tells us life will continue and love will endure. It is getting noisier all the time. And so, we must open ourselves to the silence that can fill our lives, and be a positive presence. Empty the noise.

Perhaps you will come to know the Silence of Remembrance. As a child I saw the vast clouds that scurried across the sky. They were stratus, and cirrus, and cumulus. They were low and flat, heavy with rain, white fluffy and billowy and soft as down, ready to lie on and be an angel forever, and also forbidding gray turning black. They were shapes of ducks and elephants, marching armies with row upon row of banners. I saw so many things in those silent sentinels of the sky, and it was all orchestrated by my father. We would lay on the front lawn on one of those lazy summer days when it is so hot and humid it seems the sky will crack. Now I associate any moments like those with him. It was a silence of relationship, of togetherness in witnessing those clouds. Whenever we honor someone who has died, we stop and say, there will now be a moment of silence for those who have died, for those who have given their lives. Our silence is images of remembrance of pain and sorrow, of sacrifice and courage, of love for something greater. We often have these moments for soldiers, but there is silence to for all those who struggle, each one of us who remembers a face or a life now gone, that gave life to us as parent, teacher or lover- the silence of the embrace and the hand of comfort and security. Let us share a few moments of the silence of remembrance. Let us listen to those lives.

Perhaps you will come to know the Silence of Trust. Long ago I learned to swim. In swimming you often have to learn to trust others. I remember teaching my boys, holding them in the water, and feeling their flailing arms and legs try to create a buoyancy to stay afloat. The trust for me though was in the silence I heard and even endured in the pool. I would surface dive, and go to the bottom. There it was silent. My stroke went from my chest out, as I became frog like to move along the bottom of the pool. My goal was to swim the length of the pool and back under water. It was silent for what seemed an eternity, but not very long for a boy to hold his breath and execute this little risk of bursting lungs and straining arms. It was run silent, run deep. But it was the silence of concentration that I learned, of trust of self to prepare to do what was required of me. It was one of those moments that precede great acts, or small ones that give us confidence that we can do something. When we prepare to hit a ball, or enter the pulpit or make the important presentation, or even more intensely to give that final push before birth, or gird up your loins for the final climb, push or jump. This silence of trust is to know that you are taking a risk, but you trust yourself, or those who are there with you. And you feel their arms holding on as though you were belaying off a mountain top. There is trust here in the universe that others will help you, and support you in the challenges you will face, and it will be enough. That there is even something trustworthy about the universe that will give you life, even in the face of death. So if you survive that disaster you trust that someone will try to get to you, and hold a hand out to you. We will go on and face challenging forces with hope and love that tomorrow will be better. Let us listen in silent trust of ourselves, and in another.

Perhaps you will come to know the Silence of Awe. It is silent as the clouds float or scurry by. I often thought they ran from the wind. It is silent underwater. We think of fish blowing bubbles, but it is silent communication down there. It is eye to eye, and all the while looking in different directions. It is silent when it snows. I am in awe of snow. Once told that every single snowflake is different, I have never gotten over that. I am silent before this universe of chaos and diversity and beauty and grief. The snow is cold. I don’t care much for cold anymore. I feel it in my bones now as I grow older. I know that snow can kill. My great uncle died in a snow storm long ago. Passed out and froze to death. Life can and will take us, you know, and as I said before that is why we sometimes cannot remain silent for long. We speak to remind ourselves that we are still here. But that cold, frozen snow that took my relative from this life is also silent in its beauty, its grandeur, its purity and freshness. Those flakes are different, individuals in a way, each asserting its own identity with uncommon flair. Each calling out in its silent passing that we might pay attention. Then in that individual falling they become indivisible. This snow is a silence that brings me joy to see and to hear. We see its cumulative effect making a dark landscape light. And isn’t that what we long for? It is some reassurance that the cold, dark deadness of winter will turn to a landscape of light and life. Further I swear I can hear the snow, not like the pitter patter of rain, but that the silent snow comes down with a sound. It is the sound of the universe of the great mystery that creates and destroys. It is the awe we feel in prayer. I have felt and heard this silence at Bryce Canyon and at Mesa Verde. I have felt and heard this silence at Stonehenge and Fountain’s Abbey in Yorkshire. We stand silent before the creation, and we stand silent before human creations that are touched by the holy. And we are silent. They reflect a universal harmony, a tune if you will that echoes in our hears, even if you cannot hear it. I hope there is silence for you and for me, so that we remember all that has gone before, so that we can trust ourselves to be alone and yet together in life and death, that we can be in awe of all that is and ever will be. It is all a part of us – the weather, the place, the people, indivisible and free.

Closing Words from Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte

These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
until now.

Until now.