Where Silence Is Sacred
With or without that old religion, chapels are emergency rooms for the soul
Giant figures are talking and strutting and singing on enormous screens above me, and someone is chattering away on the mini-screen in the cab from which I just stepped. Nine people at this street corner are shouting into thin air, wearing wires around their chins and jabbing at the screens in their hands. One teenager, I read recently, sent 300,000 text messages in a month—or 10 a minute for every minute of her waking day, assuming that she was awake 16 hours a day. There are more cell phones than people on the planet now, almost (ten mobiles for every one at the beginning of the century). Even by the end of the past century, the average human being in a country such as ours saw as many images in a day as a Victorian inhaled in a lifetime.
And then I walk off crowded Fifth Avenue and into the capacious silence of Saint Patrick’s. Candles are flickering here and there, intensifying my sense of all I cannot see. Figures are on their knees, heads bowed, drawing my attention to what cannot be said. Light is flooding through the great blue windows, and I have entered a realm where no I or realm exists. I register everything around me: the worn stones, the little crosses, the hymnbooks, the upturned faces; then I sit down, close my eyes—and step out of time, into everything that stretches beyond it.
When I look back on my life, the parts that matter and sustain me, all I see is a series of chapels. They may be old or young, cracked brown or open space; they may be lectories or afterthoughts, hidden corners of a city or deserted spaces in the forest. They are as visible as people. But like people they have a stillness at the core of them that makes all discussion of high and low, East and West, you and me dissolve. Bells toll and toll and I lose all sense of whether they are chiming within me or without.
The first time I was asked to enter a New York office building—for a job interview 28 years ago—I gathered myself, in all senses, in Saint Patrick’s, and knew that it would put everything I was about to face (a company, a new life, my twittering ambitions) into place. It was the frame that gave everything else definition. Ever since, I’ve made it my practice to step into that great thronged space whenever I return to the city, to remind myself of what is real, what is lasting, before giving myself to everything that isn’t. A chapel is the deepest silence we can absorb, unless we stay in a cloister. A chapel is where we allow ourselves to be broken open as if we were children again, trembling at home before our parents.
In 1929 the British Broadcasting Corporation decided to start broadcasting “live silence” in memory of the dead instead of just halting transmission for two minutes every day; it was important, it was felt, to hear the rustle of papers, the singing of the birds outside, an occasional cough. As a BBC spokesman put it, with rare wisdom, silence is “a solvent which destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.” It permits us, in short, to be who we are and could be if only we had the openness and trust. A chapel is where we hear something and nothing, ourselves and everyone else, a silence that is not the absence of noise, but the presence of something much deeper: the depth beneath our thoughts.
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