It was a nine-hour drive from my home in Alabama to the campus in Virginia where I attended college. From the time I was a sophomore, I had car to drive myself to school and back the four times each year. It had only an AM radio, if you can picture such a thing, so I rigged a “boom box” with cassette player, if you can picture such a thing, to provide from the passenger seat the musical accompaniment that was clearly necessary for such a drive. By last semester senior year, I had a car with an AM/FM cassette player, but no air conditioning; that lack, however, is a subject for a different day.
It was at some point in those four years, as I drove Interstate 81 through the rolling foothills and commanding ridges along the Appalachian mountain chain, that I discovered I did not need music as much as my eighteen-year-old brain had assumed. I realized of a sudden that the tape had ended two counties back, and I had been driving in silence for almost an hour. I had been so caught up in the work of driving, the beautiful vistas, and my own thoughts, that I didn’t want for any music.
Though I did not recognize it until some years later, this episode was an early clue to my need for silence. I still love music, and listen to it at home and on the road. But more often, while cooking or working on things around the house, and even while driving, I choose silence.
Sometimes I use music to protect myself from the distracting racket that surrounds me, to define my mental and physical space, as I often did in my dormitory and seminary rooms. And sometimes it is good to protect my ears and mind against the din. The noise-cancelling headphones I bought fifteen years ago, when I was flying across the Atlantic eight times each year, finally met their demise last fall. I will probably replace them mainly for air travel, even though I fly far less often now. Sometimes they came in handy even at my desk!
But watching the people around me here in the DMV, it seems that now it is a grave hardship for many to walk more than a few hundred yards without headphones providing a soundtrack of their own choosing. On Metro, in airports, heck, even on the sidewalk up to Woodmoor Center, folks of every age are listening to something other than what is around them. I don’t so much wonder why as I do wonder how they stay sane.
You see, that long-ago episode in the car revealed how much I need silence, and how good it is when I get it. I see and act more clearly; I think more deeply. I can marvel at beauty and wonder at how it came to be there. All of these things together become a help to prayer. I have expanded the role of silence in my life in a steady, intentional way since that day in the car, and now I cannot imagine life without it.
My car now has a Bluetooth-connective sound system with more speakers than I have fingers and toes, it seems. On Sunday I will get into it and drive just over an hour, likely with music to cheer me, to a hermitage on a hill. In the first day or so there, I may play a symphony or string quartet to listen to its complex beauty and appreciate its intensity and genius, but after a few days, I won’t even want to talk on the phone. The silence will have settled not only on the house, but I hope into my mind, heart, and soul, so that prayer can take over to refresh and restore me. It is my annual retreat, and I can hardly wait. When I drive home at the end of the week, you can be certain it will be in happy, fruitful silence.