This is part 4 of our series, ‘Out of Silence’. In the first two we’ve looked at the possible meanings of silence and stillness in our Christian spirituality…. Silence as a context for our living, stillness out of which comes potential for creativity and the way of listening for the Spirit of God. Last week we talked about Jesus’ powerful symbol of ‘Living Water’ – … If we receive the Spirit of God, we will give the Spirit of God. The life we receive is the life we give…. How nurturing of silence and stillness in our lives might enable us to hear, and taste and see ‘living water’… and how, in the words of Sara Maitland, A silencing of the heart and mind, is a common response to certain kinds of music… The melodies and silences of heaven – let’s fill the world with more of those.
In today’s stupendously long Gospel reading (see Larry’s notes for the background), we have a noisy story – Jesus’ healing a blind man. It begins with the disciples asking Jesus about a controversial issue – whether a person disabled from birth is paying the price of sin (the sin of his parents or ancestors, presumably). When he can suddenly see, the people who recognise the man jibber-jabber about whether he’s the same guy. They drag him off to the Pharisees who make a big fuss about it being the Sabbath. They basically accuse him of lying and summon his parents, then still don’t believe him and send him packing, raging about how he could insult their intelligence. The people in the text are all too quick to talk, criticise, judge and condemn. Jesus says hardly anything in this story.
In the midst of all this clamjamfry, there comes a moment of stillness, when Jesus touches the man. Today’s Psalm (130) – De profundis (as it’s headed in the Book of Common Prayer, where every Psalm is identified by the first phrase in Latin) – out of the depths, I cry to you, o Lord. The blind beggar, we can well imagine, cries out from the depths of his darkness. I want to say ‘out of the noise’ – in the dark chaos of what’s happening around the man, comes the stillness of Jesus’ healing act. As Larry’s notes suggest this maybe wasn’t as mysterious a gesture as it might seem at first.
Barclay – There are two miracles in which Jesus is said to have used spittle to effect a cure. The other is the miracle of the deaf stammerer (Mark 7: 33)…in the ancient world it was quite a common idea. Spittle, and especially the spittle of some distinguished person, was believed to possess certain curative qualities. Pliny, the famous Roman collector of what was then called scientific information, has a whole chapter on the use of spittle. He says that it is a sovereign preservative against the poison of serpents; a protection against epilepsy; that leprous spots can be cured by the application of fasting spittle; that inflammation of the eye can be cured by anointing, as it were, the eyes every morning with fasting spittle; that skin tumours and so on. The fact is that Jesus took the methods and the customs of his time and used them. He was a wise physician. He had to gain the confidence of his patient…. he kindled expectation by doing what the patient would expect a doctor to do. After all, even now the efficacy of any medicine or treatment depends at least as much on the patient’s faith in it as in the treatment or the drug itself.
Vanier puts more emphasis on the touch – Jesus, in the midst of all the noise, touches the man. He heals not only through the word but through his touch. Voice and touch are extremely important for blind people. It is the sense of love, for it implies presence, proximity and tenderness. Tenderness, which is the opposite of hardness, does not mean possession or seduction, but the giving of life. We defend ourselves in the face of hardness; we open up in the face of tenderness. A baby needs tenderness in order to live and grow in wholeness. A sick person needs tenderness in order to trust. Tenderness never hurts or destroys the weak and the vulnerable.
There is healing in this stillness. We can imagine also a healing stillness in the moment the man washes in the pool of Siloam. The Pool of Siloam was one of the landmarks of Jerusalem and, in its day, it was the result of one of the great engineering feats of the ancient world… bringing fresh, living water to the city. It’s left to our imagination to conjure with the experience of that moment of quiet transformation as the mud is washed away, and the darkness turned to light. And then the noise and arguments begin again.
Maitland: We live in a world where literally millions of people live in a constantly noisy environment the whole time. The origins of the word ‘noise’ are uncertain but two of the suggested derivations are from nausea (the Latin for sickness) and noxious (the Latin for harmful). I have come to believe that we are at risk of underestimating the danger: …Noise may be damaging even when we are not experiencing it as excessive.
Take the entire history of the human race, as it evolved – after millions of years, the very most recent bit has become overwhelmed by noise… especially beginning with the industrial revolution.
Maitland P132 One of the points that Henry Mayhew, the nineteenth-century journalist and sociologist, made in his most famous book, London Labour and the London Poor, is how damaging intellectually and morally the dense population, and the constant noise that it inevitably generated, was to the urban poor; the effect was compounded because people who had worked alone or in small units outside in agricultural labour were now transferred to the immensely loud, steam-powered factories of the Industrial Revolution. For extremely long periods of the day more and more people worked in the enclosed spaces and hellish din of industrial units and mines.
If the volume of ambient sound increased in the nineteenth century because of urbanisation and industrialisation, in the twentieth century yet more noise arose as a side effect of technology, and indeed of increasing prosperity….engines make more noise than horses; and aeroplanes make more noise than any of these. Almost every labour-saving device vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, liquidisers, central heating and air conditioning, computers, even hair dryers makes more noise than the manual version of the task that it replaced. Radios, stereo sound systems and television – along with other recreational devices also add volume. Our homes may be more private than they were but they are not quieter. Above all, communication technology has, in increasing human contact, decreased the amount of silence around us. The ubiquitous mobile is the latest form of instant communication. ln the Middle Ages Christian scholastics argued that the devil‘s basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being. The mobile phone, then, seems to represent: major breakthrough for the powers of hell – With a mobile, a person is never alone and is never entirely attentive to someone else. What is brilliant about it from the demonic perspective is that so many people have been persuaded that this is not something pleasurable (a free choice) but something necessary.
When we met to plan the worship for today, Suzanne directed me to articles she’d seen about the environmental consequences of noise.
One was about how cities are getting louder. San Francisco, in particular, has gotten about six decibels louder since the 1970s — a significant amount considering adding 10 decibels makes something seem twice as loud. The added noise, called anthropogenic sound (meaning caused by humans), mostly comes from low-frequency car traffic sounds, but also includes other regular city noises, such as air traffic, construction, sirens and car alarms. This is bad news for the little birds that rely on song to attract mates and defend their territory. In loud city centers, birds now have to fight to be heard. David Luther, a biology professor at George Mason University, says various species have begun to sing higher notes to be audible over urban din. “A response in many different taxa has been an increase in the minimum frequency of acoustic signals, which increases signal transmission and detectability by reducing overlap with low-frequency anthropogenic noise,” Luther says. But for the birds, this has a negative effect… They found that in louder areas, the birds indeed try to sing at a higher pitch to cut through the low-pitch noise, which in turn decreases the range of notes they sing, hurting their vocal performance. They also found something they didn’t expect: The birds were singing faster trills to compensate for their lack of bandwidth.
In another – from the Guardian – Noise emanating from passing ships may disturb animals such as killer whales and dolphins far more than previously thought, with new research showing that the animals’ communication and ability to find prey could be hampered by the underwater din. The low rumble of passing ships has long been connected to the disturbance of large whales. But US researchers have documented persistent noise also occurring at medium and higher frequencies, including at 20,000Hz where killer whales, also known as orcas, hear best.These noise disturbances could be hindering the ability of killer whales to communicate and echolocate – the process of using sound to bounce off objects such as prey and identify where they are. Dolphins and porpoises, which also operate at higher frequencies, may be suffering the same problems.
Meanwhile – the Independent recently reported that Tesco has launched a “quiet hour” scheme in an attempt to make the shopping experience more comfortable for customers with autism. Shopping in a supermarket can be a profoundly troubling experience for someone with autism. This is because autistic people, who make up around one per cent of the British population, often experience what is referred to as a sensory overload in busy and noisy places.
Perhaps we should be thoughtful about all of this – as we reflect on ‘The silence of Christ’ – he who was ‘spoken’ into the silence of creation. Incarnation – an act of self-silencing. There are notable silences in Jesus’ story, both in life and in death.
Bouteneff P116ff The Silence of Christ
Ancient and modern Christian writers have understood the life and death of Jesus Christ in terms of a thundering Silence. As we have already seen, in Christian tradition Jesus is understood as God’s Word, God’s perfect self-expression. Ignatius of Antioch speaks of Jesus Christ as “the Word that came forth from silence (dmo myfic npoelecbv) . . He is “spoken” into the silence of creation. When this eternal Son/Word took on human composition, the earliest Christian authors called it an act of “self-emptying” (in Greek, “Kévwoic/kenosis”). The idea that this eternally divine person, the world’s creator, chooses to become a time-bound, mortal creature who is vulnerable to his creation, is endlessly profound: doing so was an act of unfathomable detachment. According to Philippians 2:6, Christ did not count his own divinity as some thing to be attached to, or “grasped.” Christ, the eternal Son of God, becomes the time-bound son of Mary, subject to all that could befall a human being, all the way to death. It was an act of renunciation, of reduction, of self-silencing.
There are many notable silences recounted during Jesus’s life. Some of his acts are bookended with stillness: among these are the quiet within which he listens to the woman caught in adultery. There, the evangelist takes note that the moments both before and after Jesus speaks (“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”) are marked by wordless action. Some of his most significant self-revelations are followed by a conscious silence. For example, after telling his disciples to walk in the light, and to become children of light, he departed “and hid himself from them.” Then, his speechlessness before his accusers on the way to his crucifixion represents many things: it was a fulfillment of prophecy, an embodiment of his own teaching of non-resistance (“Do not resist one who is evil.”), and an active example of his revolutionary injunction to love one’s enemies. The gospels report Jesus’s silence before the authorities as a conscious choice, for as the Divine One he had the option of obliterating his enemies. His silence helped propel him onto the cross, which was the whole point: he knew it was the cross that would inaugurate salvation.
And then there is what the ancient Christians understood as the most profound quiet of all: the silence of Christ crucified. The apostle Paul identified this in the mid-first century as “the word of the cross,” another iteration of “silent speech.” We have heard already of the hush of the angels before the crucified God himself. Jesus’ silence on the cross, broken only by a few key phrases, follows from the silence that led to it.