Hearing God in silence

Published January 4, 2016

For several years now, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto has opened its doors on New Year’s Eve to those who want to usher in the new year “in an environment of peace and quiet fellowship.”

For a modest fee, one can spend 28 hours (“or more if you wish”) in the convent and enjoy a candlelight labyrinth walk, festive food and a guided retreat on “finding a balance of life through living mindfully and intentionally.”

The sisters have been attracting folks who choose to avoid the customary New Year’s Eve noise and revelry.

Those who opt for this contemplative and spiritual renewal approach appear to be a growing demographic, and businesses have caught on to the trend. Elsewhere around the world, yoga, wellness and meditation retreats are becoming popular New Year’s Eve activities, albeit with heftier price tags, some in such exotic locales as the rainforest of Costa Rica or the island of Phuket, Thailand.

The yearning for peace and quiet is understandable. The world is a much noisier place these days. In 2013, BBC measured the noise levels inside a “quiet” restaurant in London and found them to be “as high as the loudest notes of orchestral instruments from two hundred years ago.”

The digital revolution has undoubtedly compounded the environmental noise that assaults us on a daily basis. Today, many of us are tethered to our smartphones, and when we’re not yammering as we go, we are listening to music, watching the news (or Netflix), playing Candy Crush Saga or updating our social media profiles. We take in so much mental noise, avid consumers as we are of other people’s incessant navel-gazing on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other time-sucking apps.

Fifty-five per cent of Canadians own a smartphone, and the Toronto Star quotes a 2013 Google report that eight in 10 users won’t leave home without their mobile device and experience “high levels of anxiety” when their phones are not within reach. Many of us complain of information overload, and yet we are addicted to chatter.

A number of books and articles have already been written about the effects of this digital shift, including the paradox of how much more disconnected we are in this age of hyper connectivity. Prolonged exposure to noise also “causes impaired hearing, affects our heart rhythm and blood pressure and our behaviour,” says the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise. “The louder the noise, the more aggressive we become.”

Enjoying moments of silence, on the other hand, is said to foster well-being, according to several studies that point to such benefits as lower blood pressure, reduced stress levels, improved memory and increased creativity, energy and vitality.

The benefits of silence go beyond one’s physical and mental health, of course. Most, if not all, faith and spiritual traditions point to the importance of silence, stillness and solitude in cultivating a deep spiritual life.

The Bible is replete with references to silence as a way of being in communion with God (“Be still, and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10), none more evocative than the account of Jesus praying in private: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

As we think about New Year’s resolutions, it may be worth putting silence on the list-and not just for New Year’s Eve or for Lent, but as a daily habit.


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