Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 11/01/2013

Apparently, one of the things that alerts Britain’s Trident
submarines to the possibility that this country may have suffered a nuclear attack is if the Today programme unexpectedly falls silent.

So it is perhaps excusable that I’m now going to use my 2 minutes, 40 seconds of allotted time to extol the virtues of silence without actually providing any.

For amongst many other possible interpretations, silence can sometimes be dangerous, a frightening absence, an indication that something is wrong. Yet it’s precisely silence that a large London department store is now offering to its customers with the opening of a quiet room and a No Noise initiative. Here, frazzled shoppers can find a moment of peace and calm amongst the bustle of
the January sales. And, of course, no mobile phones please.

So what are we to make if this unusual development? Well, the answer is I suppose: it depends. For silence is never simply absence. It’s always contextual. It always means something. As Professor Dairmaid MacCulloch cleverly explained in last year’s Gifford Lectures on the
history of silence in Christianity, silence is a bit like what radio people call “wild track” - that is, a location recording of nothing but background noise. Wild track is silent to the extent that nobody speaks, but it’s not silent in so far as all silences feel different,
they take on the surrounding atmosphere. Likewise, some silences can be embarrassing, some can be shared contentment, and some silences of evasion and of things unsaid. One of the points Professor MacCulloch
makes is that the church came to be suspicious of silence when it became anxious to police what people actually thought. Audible creeds are a way of checking, of getting people to sign up and holding them to account.

I’m sure there is something to this. But nonetheless, I also worry that some forms of silence are just forms of escape, little mini holidays from the world of the real. Somewhere quiet to put your feetup whilst shopping, as it were. And that does bother me. For the sort of silence I am suspicious of is that which does little to transform
the world. I suppose one could always say that it often transforms the person sitting quietly, but if that transformation is simply a way of recharging our batteries so that we can return refreshed to buying more stuff that we don’t really need, then I am a little bit of a
skeptic.

At its best, silence can be an intensification of sensitivity to one’s surroundings. A means of noticing things. This, of course, is the very point of prayer. Less about telling God what he already knows, but more about listening to the still small voice of response. For there can be just as much evasion in speaking too much as well. Which, I guess, is the perfect cue for me to shut up.

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