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.
Many years ago, when I was too young to know better, I worked in a 25th-floor office four blocks from Times Square in New York City. Teletypes juddered the news furiously into our midst every second—this was the World Affairs department of Time magazine—and messengers breathlessly brought the latest reports from our correspondents to our offices. Editors barked, early computers sputtered, televisions in our senior editors’ offices gave us the news as it was breaking. We spoke and conferred and checked facts and wrote, often, 20 or 25 pages in an evening.
I left all that for a monastery on the backstreets of Kyoto. I wanted to learn about silence. I wanted to learn about who I was when I wasn’t thinking about it. The Japanese are masters of not saying anything, both because their attention is always on listening, on saying little, even on speaking generically, and because, when they do talk, they are very eager to say nothing offensive, outrageous, or confrontational. They’re like talk-show hosts in a nation where self-display is almost forbidden. You learn more by listening than talking, they know; you create a wider circle by thinking not about yourself, but about the people around you, and how you can find common ground with them. The Japanese idea of a dream date—I’ve been with my Japanese sweetheart for 23 years and I’ve learned the hard way—is to go to a movie and come out saying nothing.
Perhaps I wouldn’t need this kind of training in paying attention and keeping quiet were it not for the fact that I used to love babbling, and my colleagues and friends in England and the United States trained and encouraged me to talk, to thrust myself forward, to assert my little self in all its puny glory. Perhaps we wouldn’t need chapels if our lives were already clear and calm (a saint or a Jesus may never need to go into a church; he’s always carrying one inside himself). Chapels are emergency rooms for the soul. They are the one place we can reliably go to find who we are and what we should be doing with our own lives—usually by finding all we aren’t, and what is much greater than us, to which we can only give ourselves up.
“I like the silent church,” Emerson wrote, “before the service begins.”
I grew up in chapels, at school in England. For all those years of my growing up, we had to go to chapel every morning and to say prayers in a smaller room every evening. Chapel became everything we longed to flee; it was where we made faces at one another, doodled in our hymnbooks, sniggered at each other every time we sang about “the bosom of the Lord” or the “breast” of a green hill. All we wanted was open space, mobility, freedom—the California of the soul. But as the years went on, I started to see that no movement made sense unless it had a changelessness beneath it; that all our explorations were only as rich as the still place we brought them back to.
I noticed, in my early 30s, that I had accumulated 1.5 million miles with United Airlines alone; I started going to a monastery. It wasn’t in order to become religious or to attend services in the chapel, though I did go there, over and over, as Emerson might have done, when nobody was present. The real chapel was my little cell in the hermitage, looking out on the boundless blue of the Pacific Ocean below, the Steller’s jay that just alighted on the splintered fence in my garden. Chapel was silence and spaciousness and whatever put the human round, my human, all too human thoughts, in some kind of vaster context.
I’ve stayed in those little cells in a Benedictine hermitage above the sea more than 50 times by now, over almost 20 years. I’ve stayed in the cloister with the monks; spent three weeks at a time in silence; stayed in a trailer in the dark, and in a house for the monastery’s laborers, where I’d come upon monks doing press-ups against the rafters on the ground floor and planning their next raid upon the monastery computer.
Now the place lives inside me so powerfully that my home in Japan looks and feels like a Benedictine hermitage. I receive no newspapers or magazines there, and I watch no television. I’ve never had a cell phone, and I’ve ensured that we have almost no Internet connections at all. We own no car or bicycle, and the whole apartment (formerly, population four, my wife and two children and myself) consists of two rooms. I sleep on a couch in the living room at 8:30 every night, and think this is the most luxurious, expansive, liberating adventure I could imagine.
A chapel is where you can hear something beating below your heart.
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Vintage). Excerpted from Portland (Winter 2010), a nonprofit quarterly magazine published by the University of Portland. www.up.edu/portland
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.