Stillness and Space by George Merrill


Years ago, I remember how the minister began the Morning Prayer service by saying, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let the whole earth keep silence before him.” Then, for the next hour, sounds of every sort would reign non-stop: there’d be prayers, chants, a sermon, hymns and anthems. This list does not include the audible whispering that congregants engage in throughout the service. Nor does it mention the announcements, which, depending on what’s going on in the parish can be extensive. So many different sounds can seem dissonant; they lack the harmonic concord of a unified melody. Where silence is concerned, we talk a good game and that’s the problem . . . we just can’t seem to be still . . . even in the hallowed halls of the Almighty.

With regard to space, it goes in a similar way. Part of the beauty and wonder that explorers Cabot, Hudson and Verrazano wrote of when discovering the New World was its open and unencumbered spaces. It was openness that allowed luxuriant flora to thrive. In four hundred years humans have filled the space with the marvels and the effluence of engineering. Many of the plants and trees are extinct as a result – while the few remaining plants, flowers and trees survive by growing in highway medians. These are born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on rush hour commuters who will never see or smell them.

It’s not nature that abhors vacuums; we do.

We are driven to fill silence with sound, and clutter space with stuff. My guess is that it’s because we are still at the adolescent stage of our evolution as a species. Most adolescents’ bedrooms are the ultimate showcases for litter of all descriptions. When ordered to tidy up, all the clothes on the floor go in the washing machine along with hamburger, gum and candy wrappers. In adolescence, my room was a mess. So were my children’s. It’s clutter from wall to wall and when the kids played music, it was loud enough to rattle the china in the cupboard downstairs.

Since I’m more respectful of space as I’ve grown older and try not to clutter, I also play music more softly. This change has given me hope for mankind’s future. Like wine, we can mellow with age.

A huge meteor hurdles through space intact and at dizzying speeds, all in silence. When it reaches the earth’s atmosphere, it slows down and begins disintegrating while emitting sound for the first time. Beyond the earths atmosphere it travels silently. What’s more astonishing is how even exploding or imploding stars in our galaxies, with forces hundreds or thousands of times greater than our home made atomic concoctions, are born and die in unimaginable conflagrations without so much as a peep. I’ve thought perhaps when a meteor gets too close to the earth, our planetary noise level makes it go to pieces. We call it atmosphere.

There’s power in silence. There’s healing as well, since we must first be still in order to hear. I have experienced how listening is an instrument of healing. Sometimes the most troubled soul, when he or she knows they’ve been heard, feels momentarily at peace.

I’ve walked many state parks. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be sufficiently distant from highway noise to enjoy solitude. Jets passing overhead quickly reminded me that finding silence is a significant challenge.

There are two places I believe where there’s infinite space and also stillness: in the universe and in our souls. They enjoy similar characteristics.

Two writers I’ve read ponder space and silence in similar ways. Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote of space: “For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms . . . and objects and people are unique and significant – and therefore beautiful.” The moon gains radiance because the sky it occupies is black – and it orbits in plenty of space. Chet Raymo writing about the mystery of silence: “A note in music gains significance from the silence on either side . . . only in relation to silence does sound have significance.”

In an age dominated by technology, our hearts suffer an inadequate vocabulary to articulate the spiritual riches of our souls if we even knew they were there. We are constantly bombarded with information. There’s never enough time and mental space to process it. In short, we’ve lost the art of interior reflection. We’re driven by sound bytes of dubious credibility and our endless busyness.

It was such a lovely day, I left off writing this essay to walk for a while. The day was cold and clear with a fierce wind blowing. The trees swayed ecstatically and the slate gray underbelly of the passing clouds accented the white of their crowns. The sky was deep blue, setting the clouds in sharp relief. As the sun dropped lower, the underbelly of the clouds turned orange as though kindled by fire.

As I walked, for a moment I had this silly thought; that the universe had broken it’s silence for me long enough to reveal itself in a muffled rush of wind and by displaying its glory in a space as big as all eternity.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Diane Shields says:

    Beautifully written, and heart-felt!

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