Silence! . . . the absence of sound or noise or speech, or the state of stillness or quietness. To be silent is to be noiseless, not making any sound.
"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). "But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him" (Hab. 2:20). "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Eccl. 3:1-7).
We are living in a time when it seems to be increasingly difficult to enjoy silence. It is almost a characteristic of the age that we must have something to fill periods of silence. Many people are actually afraid of silence.
Science and electronics have brought music and speech to us wherever we may be. Small transistor radios are carried around in the pocket by some so that music can be available at all times. Modern houses are frequently equipped with speakers in every room so that music will be there at the flip of a switch. Shopping centers and stores as well as restaurants all feel the necessity of giving the public a continuous flow of background music. At Christmas time even the lampposts blare out the carols of the season. A radio is almost standard equipment on autos. Many students have formed the habit of studying with soft music playing in the background.
A number of serious-minded educators look with disfavor on this trend, and their opinion is that this condition is training a generation not to pay attention to music. Some call attention to the fact that much of this background music is inferior and not worthy of attention, and some warn that this continual background music is actually damaging to one's powers of concentration and to one's taste in music.
G. Wallace Woodworth, professor of music at Harvard University, states the case in these words: "Insofar as twentieth-century inventions in mass communication have brought the art of music to millions to whom it was inaccessible before, we can be grateful. But where radio, television, recordings, and audio have debased the coin, forced music into the background, filled the sound waves with inferior drivel, and taught people not to listen, we should recognize this new age for what it is, not a blessing but a curse upon the art of music." —The World of Music, p. 21.
This continual bombardment of the ears with sound has had its influences in the church and in the attitude toward music as a part of worship services. In some churches it is felt that there should be not one moment of silence from the beginning of the service to the end. Frequently the organ is used to fill up even the slightest gap that may occur. On some occasions when the minister at the desk asks for a moment of silent prayer, one has to be disturbed by the sounds of organ music during this moment. For some sensitive worshipers it has become impossible in a service to find any time for absolute silent meditation.
A timely lesson might be learned from the Society of Friends, sometimes known as the Quakers. George Fox, the founder of this group, was not opposed to music, but he was opposed to formality in worship, and he realized as few others did the value of silence.
F. J. Gillman, a member of the Society of Friends, has told us in his book The Evolution of the English Hymn in a chapter entitled "A Pause in the Music," that Fox protested mainly against the insincerity of the worship services he observed. Fox wanted reality in worship. He wanted spontaneity in worship. If a worshiper could not sincerely sing the words of the song it would be better to keep silent. Gillman says, "To the Friends, silence was an essential element in spiritual worship."—Page 186.
The Society of Friends yearly Epistle of 1854 dwelt on the dangers of sacred music, and warned that it deluded the mind by "producing an excitement mistaken for devotion, and making an entertainment of the most awful events recorded in Holy Scriptures."
While some of the statements of the Quakers may seem extreme, we should be grateful to them for calling attention to the real dangers in the abuse of music.
George Fox was not alone in this. Others such as Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome, Wycliffe, Calvin, and Bishop Heber, all expressed similar fears that music would distract rather than aid in genuine and sincere worship.
The Quaker poet Whittier has well expressed the thought in his beautiful hymn:
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above!
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love.
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease,
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.
There is a time for background music, there is a time for organ interludes. But there is also a need today for silence, absolute quietness. During moments of silent prayer, during the partaking of the bread and wine at the communion service, and possibly at other times there should be silence, no background music of any kind. A mature individual will learn to value these moments. Then in the presence of great music one will learn to listen attentively and actively, giving himself over completely to hearing the music. Music such as the great choruses of Bach, the symphonies of Brahms, and similar music, deserves and should have our complete attention or else we miss its significance.
There is a time to listen, and there is a time to keep silence. Our generation has nearly lost the key to this art.