An old silence waits beyond water, or road, or trail.

This line from “Up a Side Canyon,” a poem by William Stafford, has haunted me the last several days.  Specifically I’m wondering about the phrase “old silence” and the word “waits.”  I’ve been pondering the idea that some silence can be old, and that it is not the same silence as the current, new silence that I hear (!) around me right now.  Or maybe it is the same silence.  Perhaps all silence by its very nature is old, as ancient as a time before there were ears to hear sound.  Is there just one silence, or are there many silences?

I’ve been testing this out as I walk through the woods or sit by the river or take one last look at the sky before going to bed.   If I block out sound, I mean just not pay attention to it, I can hear the silence around me, feel it; and it appears that silence always does seem to wait.  Like it was there before me, and was waiting for me to tune out the sounds of the world and listen to it.  I haven’t felt silence dashing around, going or coming, like a siren getting louder as an ambulance approaches, although silence can disappear as the noise of the world drives it away somewhere.  But wherever it goes, I think it waits, waits for its time to return or re-appear, and sometimes waits for me to let it return.  As if it is always there, waiting. And when it does return, I wonder if it’s the same silence that was and has always been, or a new silence produced by the current lull in the sounds of the world.  Is it possible to tell one silence from another? Or is there in fact only one silence?

Psalm 46 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  This statement too has intrigued me most of my life.  It conjures up the same questions and wonderments as Stafford’s poem.  Why is stillness necessary to know who or what God is?  Throughout human history people have found God or the Sacred in the voices of children, the calls of animals, the whispers of the wind, the murmurs of the waters, music, and all the sounds of the earth. The Great Song of Life need not be a hindrance to finding God.  For many people, it is God.  But for some reason silence seems to intensify the presence of the Sacred.  We seek silence in which to pray, we fall silent before we pray, or as we pray.  We feel some command to be still, stop talking, stop thinking, and just know.

Silence, like God, waits to be known.  The Sacred—God—is “ever ancient, ever new,” and so maybe the old silence and each new moment of silence are exactly the same thing—ever ancient, ever new.

We are told there is a great void out of which all things come, and the many things that come from it become our world—raucous, conflicting, confusing, disturbing—noisy.   I wonder if that great void, though, does not in fact accompany the many things as they come into existence, and that the void is actually a great silence hovering around them, embracing each thing, each individual sound or sight so that we can experience them all, hear them all, see them all.  In other words, silence is as important to creation as it is to music, where individual notes and chords are only discernible because of the moments of silence between them.

Stafford’s poem ends this way:

People go silent:
there isnt any canyon deep enough to hide,
only a sky and a faith and a wilderness.

Not even the Grand Canyon is deep enough to hide from the silence because its own silence is just too big.  Down at the bottom, or along the rim, we feel the grand silence of the canyon, feel the Sacred.  So too the sky, which always seems to be there, is big, quiet, saying nothing, maintaining a lofty stillness even as thunder rumbles across it, undisturbed and as silent as it was before the storm.

I like to think that faith is also silent, even though “people of faith” can make some of the loudest noises shouting about their faith.  But the shouts are not the faith, nor are the songs about their faith the faith.  Real faith is that silence that we sit in alone—sit alone as in a wilderness—knowing that a greater silence embraces our inner silence.  And then we yearn for our faith to become that greater silence.  So we “go silent,” knowing that something exists quietly beyond and around water, road, trail, us.

Originally posted on Tom Cowan’s blog River Currents, March 2, 2012