After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which, of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world … Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. —Karen Armstrong
Silence is becoming a scarce commodity in our world today. That is a shame for many reasons. Silence — in the right time and place — is its own reward. It is rest and refreshment and strength. More than that, it is the opportunity for self-awareness. When you are not listening to the multitude, you have the rare and precious chance to listen to yourself, to hear your own weeping, your own laughter, your own heartbeat. And maybe — with enough silence, with enough time — you will discover the person who lives in there.
Of course, it is not easy. There are thousands of distractions every day, hundreds every hour. I think it is part of the conspiracy of our age. The more we are distracted by the noise of commerce and entertainment and cheap prattle, the less we are able to resist the tides of mass culture. The people who sell us cars and candidates like it that way.
Beyond that pull of mass culture, there is the rage of the id in an age of unrestrained “personal freedom.” Our public places have become jungles of noise and litter and vulgar commerce. In the mid-19th century, our leaders glimpsed what the future held, and they were appalled. They started building public parks — municipal, state, and national — to create a refuge where silence and beauty could be protected from the ugliness of the age, places in this democratic republic where ordinary citizens could enjoy streams and forests, lakes and fountains, as only baronial lords could in the Old World.
Frederick Law Olmsted, the foremost architect of these parks, wrote this of the national parks movement: “It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against all the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.”
A 1893 article in Garden and Forest magazine summed up Olmsted’s accomplishments quite nicely, noting, “Millions of people now unborn will find rest and refreshment in the contemplation of smiling landscapes which he has made.”
That was the way it was supposed to be. Today we live in a nation of diminishing hope and expectations — and diminishing quiet. Many of our leaders have declared that parks are a luxury we can no longer afford. Some national and Army Corps of Engineers parks are already seeing their hours and days of operation cut back. Some call for turning our national parks over to private operators. In South Carolina, the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism has seen its budget cut by 40 percent in the last four years, while operating hours at some parks have been cut. Here in Charleston, the city lacks the will or the resources to enforce any noise or litter ordinances in its many beautiful parks.
There is one local place of quiet and beauty not subject to the vicissitudes of politics and economics. I recently took a weekend retreat to Mepkin Abbey, the Trappist monastery near Moncks Corner, some 40 miles from Charleston. The fact that I am not a Christian did not bother me or the monks of Mepkin. For a donation, I was able to spend two days and three nights in the monastery’s spare facilities, walking the vast, silent, manicured gardens along the Cooper River. The monks maintain silence among themselves and urge their guests to do the same. I was happy to comply.
I left my computer at home and turned off my cellphone when I checked in. For 65 hours I did not hear a single motorcycle or loud muffler. I did not encounter a single commercial message. And the only litter I saw was a cigarette butt on the pavement near the visitors’ center.
My trip to Mepkin was not a life-changing experience, but it was restful and restorative, and I was able to catch up on a lot of reading. As I was packing my car to leave, I noticed the dozen stickers on my bumper proclaiming my politics and social agenda, favorite causes, restaurants, vacation spots, etc. Was I part of the problem I had fled to Mepkin to get away from?
Hmm. I’m still processing that.