In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, a master devil, explains to his apprentice Wormwood the power of noise in leading souls to hell. Devils despise music and silence, and seek to banish them from human experience in order to fill the air with the cacophony and din of pandemonium.
“We will make the whole universe a noise in the end . . . . The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end,” insists Screwtape.
The artfulness of the devils knows the numbing effect of noise upon the mind and soul, its interference with the habits of thought that allow a person to listen to his heart, hear his conscience, sense the voice of God, and to transcend the mundane world.
The inundation of noise does not allow for reflection, recollection, contemplation, or an examination of conscience—all forms of thought that require stillness and quiet to discern other voices, messages, inspirations, visions, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.
The Death of Silence
Noise not only prevents concentration and attentiveness but also inhibits an interior life essential for prayer. The incessant need for some form of noise to fill the void of silence, whether it is sounds of the radio, the background noise of the television announcer, or the popular tunes of the day, soon becomes habitual and addictive to the point that silence assumes the nature of death and lifelessness – instead of a state of peacefulness in order to be receptive to the truth, beauty, and goodness that come from a heavenly realm.
In Dante’s Inferno the disturbance of noise pervades the whole atmosphere as Dante and Virgil hear only sounds like wails, shrieks, screams, curses, insults, crashes, howling, and rage. No music resounds in hell, and no silence provides a sense of calm to order the soul.
The mysteries of truth, beauty, and goodness require the repose of quiet in order to communicate their divine message. The Psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Elijah hears God in “a still small voice,” not in the wind, earthquake, or fire.
In Hawthorne’s story “The Chimaera,” the beautiful winged horse Pegasus descends from the sky to drink at the Fountain of Pirene only in the perfect quiet of the moment. Only those who listen and wait in silence glimpse the beauty of the magical horse in its glory that does not descend “at the slightest stir or murmur.”
In The Wind in the Willows Pan, the god of Nature, allows a momentary glimpse into the divine during the silence of the early dawn when Rat and Mole travel on the river hearing only the ethereal music of “the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers” until they sense “some august Presence was very, very near” in an atmosphere radiant with holiness, “and but for the heavenly music all was marvelously still.”
Sensitivity to truth, beauty, and goodness depends on the atmosphere of silence and recollection that invites glimpses and visions of the transcendent. The state of silence cultivates receptivity, passivity, and leisureliness that perceive subtle influences, sense the mystery of beauty, or inspire a sense of wonder.
When Michelangelo, said, “There’s a David in that hunk of rock,” he sensed the presence of the beautiful in the quietness of reflection. Without the sense of silence man does not transcend the physical or temporal world but remains bound to the body or to the moment.
As Joseph Pieper explains in Leisure: the Basis for Culture,
“Leisure is a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear.”
Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” illustrates the presence of silence to behold beauty, to contemplate truth, and to appreciate goodness. As the traveler on horseback proceeds through the woods on a winter night, he pauses from his journey to admire the awe of the scene: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.”
While the horse acts disoriented and “must think it queer/ To stop without a farmhouse near,” shaking the harness bells to signal the urge to resume movement, the rider feels awe at the silence of the night and the beauty of the snow and woods—a sense of astonishment that moves him to stop, behold, admire, and glimpse the divine beauty shining through the natural scenery.
In addition to the sight of the simple beauty of the winter scene and the goodness of life’s moments of pure joy, the traveler also senses a great universal truth: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, /But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, /And miles to go before I sleep.” Pausing to marvel at the rare beauty of this evening, the rider also cherishes the value of leisure to envision the future and to commit to life’s duties with dedication and perseverance.
Beautiful, Good & True
The perfect silence and the purity of the beauty communicate so much to someone who hears and sees. The beautiful leads to the good, and the good leads to the true.
If loudness, rush, or restlessness prevailed in these episodes, the devils’ determination to cloud the mind and deaden the soul with noise would have blurred the vision of truth, beauty, and goodness that were shining and speaking as messages from a heavenly world raising man’s mind to ponder the beauty of creation in which the heavens declare the glory of God and the heavens show his handiwork.
Silence and music order the soul, temper the passions, and lead man to that “still point” where the mind knows, the heart feels, and soul transcends.
To stop this natural communication between God and man, the devils produce the constant noise that disturbs the tranquility human beings need to think, feel, see, hear, or receive the visions from above that angels, Pegasus, Pan, the woods at night, and the Holy Spirit are always sending to remind man that, in St. Paul’s words, “the invisible things of God are known by the visible.”
Girl in Scotland © Logan Bannatyne / Dollar Photo Club