When you have a chance to hike in the desert, as I have on a few occasions and did recently, something interesting happens: far away from the noise of civilization you can hear the silence.
Absence Can Be A Presence
I remember reading Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in college. In one passage, he describes how an absence can be experienced as a presence. A man sits at a café, sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette (how French, eh? Must have been a Galoise.) He is waiting for a friend, who is late in coming. He has not seen her in a long time. Perhaps she is attractive to him, his lover maybe, and he imagines her figure and what might transpire later on. As time passes, he feels her absence as much as he might experience her presence, were she to arrive.
The silence of the wilderness is not simply the absence of noise. It has a presence all its own. If it could be tasted, I might describe it as sweet. It does not feel heavy but, likewise, there is no lightness to it. It can be a joy just to be a part of it, with the only noise inside one’s head, and that slowly slipping away. And, in silence, there is the possibility of finding truth.
Where Is Truth To Be Found?
“The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth wrote during the Industrial Revolution, in a critique of the idolatrous materialism that the Revolution wrought. Instead, he suggested, truth and beauty were to be found in nature
I am not a Romantic as was Wordsworth. I do not believe that truth can be found in nature, except the truths of the laws by which nature – material reality – conducts itself. Yet there is something about nature – and the beautiful silences that can be found there – that make it a place ripe for revelation. If nature, itself, does not give up truth perhaps it is the absence of civilization and its noise that are conducive, that allow one to hear things that can be conveyed only in silence: the beating of one’s heart, the truths of one’s soul, the expectations and love of one’s God.
Jewish Wilderness Traditions
It is no accident that many of the great revelations of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) occur in the wilderness. Jacob’s dream of God’s presence; the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai; God’s speech to Elijah as he fled God’s opponents.
This summer, we will travel to Vail, Colorado. While not a wilderness itself, the town will serve as a gateway to experiences in the wilderness – hiking, prayer and reflection, amongst others. Our learning will focus on Jewish wilderness traditions, as we explore our ancestors’ conceptions of the wilderness and the truths that might be found there. Perhaps some of us will even experience a revelation of sorts during that week.
Thanksgiving, Silence and Gratitude
This essay, however, is not a commercial for our summer trip. Instead, these thoughts about silence – and the poetry of Wordsworth – came to me as I thought about the dinner that our family will share tomorrow night. There is a lot of noise in our world, and so much of it is useless, dispiriting, frightening or angry. And when we are frustrated, dispirited, in fear or in anger, it is difficult to appreciate the things we have – material and spiritual – and to feel grateful for them, much less to express such gratitude.
Tomorrow night, at our tables, I will share quotations from a variety of sources about gratitude and thanksgiving. We will discuss and then share them, as we do B’Chavana-style. But after that, I intend to ask for a moment of silence and that people listen to that silence.
I do not know what each will hear but perhaps the silence will deliver a clearer, cleaner message than all of the hubbub that bombards us today. Or, perhaps, the silence will allow truths to emerge from within us that otherwise would remain buried.
This Thanksgiving, I wish you a heart filled with joy and gratitude. And I suggest that, amidst the noise of conversations and football games and annually-repeated stories that you take a moment to let the joy and beauty of silence enter your home and your heart, to do there what it will.