Fine Arts Column: The art of appreciating silence


The world is filled with a great many sources of instantaneous excitement and entertainment. One might think that facilitating the pursuit of such experiences would increase the happiness of society, but it has only deepened our collective sense of unfulfillment. One, it would seem, does not lead to the other.

On this point, I know I am not the bearer of any revelation; many have observed this same phenomenon. Some have also noted that part of the problem is that the more we assimilate technology, more sensory overload, more constant busy-ness into our lives, the less time we have for recovery. Many of us, myself included, feel the effects of this cacophony like a constant pressure, whether we are aware of it or not.

What is lacking in our day-to-day experience is silence. Any lack of intentional sound has become something most of us find deeply discomforting. This isn’t really a surprise: even from our childhood, we are surrounded by noise until it becomes a norm for our life. However, the effects of this never-ending symphony are telling.

In addition to this physical silence, it can often be a challenge to cultivate the interior silence necessary to hear the soft whisper by which God speaks to us (1 Kings 19:12). These two forms of silence can, I believe, inform and help strengthen each other. In an environment hostile to both, the arts may hold a key to rescuing them in our own lives.

Here’s an example: it’s Friday night after a long week, you feel exhausted and scatterbrained, and you sit back to unwind with a piece of music or a good book. What this achieves is a sort of mental reset, a return from the hectic pace of one’s mind to a place of stability. Prayer can have this same effect while also serving to unite us to God, which is perhaps why prayer and art are often so closely intertwined. (See also: liturgy)

When we have this kind of inner composure, we often find that the state of physical silence becomes less unbearable. In the first place, we are more open to experiencing the world through our senses, focusing on sight, touch, our inner thoughts. Furthermore, physical and interior silence provides a more suitable stage for our experience of art itself. It’s a mutually reaffirming and strengthening bond. Art leads us to silence, which leads us to deeper appreciation of art.

Often silence intertwines itself with art in a powerful way, each nourishing the other. Musicians are quickly taught the concept of taking artistic pauses in their performance, letting the music speak and sink in rather than steamrolling through each passage without stopping. We see this in both forms of the Mass as well: moments of joyous song punctuated by that most significant silence, when heaven meets earth and Christ renews with us the Eucharistic covenant. We fall silent at this moment because it is important, because it matters more than we do.

As we approach the spiritual silence of Lent, these 40 days in the desert with Our Lord, we would do well to ask ourselves how the art we consume affects our relationship with silence and how our relationship with silence affects our daily lives. Where are the places we could become more comfortable with silence? How might we grow in our spirituality through silence pointing to what is most important? And how might silence heighten our appreciation not only for art but also for the world around us, the places, moments and people we hold most dear?