High School student Jack Higgins has a severe form of autism which makes him hypersensitive to noise. His graduation rite of passage was looking to be an impossible occasion, with vast crowds of students all clapping, cheering and whistling in exuberance and (literally) overwhelming joy. But as he approached the stage to receive his diploma with his fingers in his ears, expecting to have to block the din and trauma, he was met by silence.
His parents had pre-arranged with staff that silence was how Jack Higgins would be greeted, so the hall full of students was primed. None misbehaved; none sniggered; none played the fool or whispered cynical jibes. Jack Higgins was greeted and congratulated with the corporate soul of compassion of Carmel High in New York. The Class of 2019 even gave him a spontaneous silent standing ovation:
Lou Riolo, Principal of Carmel High, said of his students: “They are a class act and superseded expectations. For example them rising to their feet after Jack received his diploma was them. It was not pre-planned and no one told them to act like that that. They felt compelled to show their support in that way. They made that amazing compassionate gesture on their own.”
“I have been lucky and blessed to see some really remarkable things in my 31 year career but this so far has to be the most incredible. But as much as the students rose to the occasion so did Jack. Since Jack is very limited verbally, how overwhelming was if for him with a large crowd and expectation that it would be loud? It was so brave of him to take that walk which must have seemed like forever and he did it with grace, class and strength.”
We live in a world of noise, but the wind in the trees and the music of lark have been invaded by buzzes, commotion and crashes, not to mention the incessant clanging of social media. They may be inaudible, but they squawk at the soul like the pricks of needles. The whole of culture has become a cacophony of bitter distraction and detached hearing: we are overwhelmed (literally) with social drumming, political yelling and ecclesial babble.
‘And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour‘ (Rev 8:1).
Silence is golden, especially in the presence of God. Silence tests our shame (Jn 8:1ff); it gives opportunity for self-reflection (Lk 22:63ff); and challenges the depths of our soul (vv54ff). We may be used to silent prayer (indeed, we might even prefer it to the spoken sort), but if the chief purpose of silence in the Church is to hear the voice of God, the chief purpose of silence in the world is to meditate on the self and reflect on transcendence; to realise that busyness and much speaking are not the only route to compassion and mutual flourishing.
It is inconceivable that politicians in Parliament might ever gather to experience silence: parliament, after all, comes from ‘parlement’ which is meeting, speaking and discussing. But silence does not have to be absolute. St Benedict differentiated between silentum, absolute silence, and taciturnitas, relative silence. As people of faith move from the murmurs and whispers of the inner life into the deep silence of divine presence, so those of faith and of no faith may learn and express more from quiet talk and gentleness, rather than proclamation and denunciation.
Secularity is strident and noisy, but it doesn’t have to be. One wonders how many of those students at Carmel High School learned in those minutes of silence that sometimes saying nothing is the best way of saying something. In a few minutes of silence those students drew nearer together in love and understanding; their corporate spirituality became individual contemplation, to the extent that one was moved to stand spontaneously, and then another, and then whole rows stood to emphasise that their outer silence had moved the interior life of their souls.
‘And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people… and when he opened it, all the people stood up‘ (Neh 8:5).
Silence illuminates and embarrasses; it is revelatory and awkward, but as Archbishop Michael Ramsay wrote: ‘..the only initiation into silence is silence. And when the silence is continuous it ceases to be merely negative – not talking – and it begins to have the quality of depth.’ To learn from silence we have to do silence, and then we might just hear something we never heard before.