The need for solitude and reflection amid today's cacophony

The need for solitude and reflection amid today's cacophony

Andrew Kania

The importance of solitude, recollection and reflection to the nurturing of the human spirit is as obvious as it is paramount. As one cannot remain alive without drawing breath, so one cannot lead a life of the spirit without setting time aside for prayer - and without searching for meaning in the present.

The Australian poet, Bruce Dawe in 'Enter Without So Much as Knocking', plays with the theme of man being dust and to dust he must return (cf: Genesis 3:19). The poem begins with the birth of a boy, born into the complex and demanding world of television advertisements, consumerism, fashion, smog and the glaring lights of a big-city that never sleeps.

At every point of the poem the beauty of humanity is shrouded by the artificial nature of modern life, to the point that the wonderful gift of new life offered to the reader at the beginning of the poem has become a horrible creature by the end, sharing little with the new babe other than the ability and necessity to draw breath.

As Dawe writes: 'Anyway, pretty soon he was old enough to be, realistic like every other godless money-hungry back-stabbing miserable so-and-so, and then it was goodbye stars and the soft cry in the corner when no-one was looking because I'm telling you straight, Jim, it's Number One every time for this chicken, hit wherever you see a head and kick whoever's down, well thanks for a lovely evening Clare, it's good to get away from it all once in a while, I mean it's a real battle all the way and a man can't help but feel a little soiled, himself, at times, you know what I mean?'

In what is a too often witnessed reality, the central character of the poem dies, having never lived - the only silence he has ever known, from the very time of his birth until his death, the only time for reflection he has enjoyed is the imposed silence of the grave: 'Six feet down nobody interested'.

In his study, For the Life of the World (1973), Fr Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) introduced his work by discussing the fast-paced life of the modern person and the consequences such a speed of living has had on the ability of individuals to realise their spiritual potential. As Schmemann wrote: 'Is it not true that the more 'time-saving' devices we invent, the less time we have? The joyless rush is interrupted by relaxation ('sit back and relax!'), but such is the horror of the strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word, 'relaxation', that men must take pills to endure it, and buy expensive books about how to kill this no man's land of 'modern living'' (p. 49).

Decades later, scientists would research extensively into the effects of a lack of time for silence, reflection and contemplation on the life of children and young adults. Aspects of this research were summarised by Claudia Wallis in a feature article for Time, April 2006, titled, 'Are Kids Too Wired For Their Own Good?'

In this piece Wallis revealed to the reader, ''Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run,' says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

'Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect. Roberts [a Stanford University researcher] notes Stanford students 'can't go the few minutes between their 10 o'clock and 11 o'clock classes without talking on their cell phones. It seems to me that there's almost a discomfort with not being stimulated - a kind of 'I can't stand the silence'' (Wallis, 2006, pp. 49-50).

Johann Christoph Fredrich von Schiller (1759-1805) discusses in his The Aesthetic Education of Man that the key to good living is the ability to truly live in the moment: 'When we strike a note on an instrument, only this single note, of all that it is capable of emitting, is actually realised; when man is sensible of the present, the whole infinitude of his possible determinations is confined to this single mode of his being' (p. 79).

Such a notion directly correlates with Christ's teaching, 'do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own'' (Matthew 6: 34).


Yet how can we live in the moment, how can we discover the Divine within the cherished minute that we have been given, when that minute is so congested with the din of an iPod, the digital stereo sound of a Plasma television, the alert alarm of incoming e-mail on our computers, and the inane polyphonic ringtones of a mobile phone?

How can individuals consider the meaning of life when the cacophony that surrounds them drowns out even the sound of their own heartbeat? As moderns it would seem we surround ourselves with any noise loud or discordant enough to free our minds from the reality of our personal mortality; fantasising about what is unreal and impersonal, and keeping our minds and spirits free from having to take life too seriously.

Schiller would claim that we moderns live life not even a fraction of the way to its potential, because our minds and spirits have no focus on what is integral to our lives. We live as infants entertained by a carousel of stuffed animals circling above our cots, entertaining us, but we have no idea how to nourish ourselves, nor clothe ourselves, nor lead ourselves to a higher stage of development.

We just lie back, stare, smile and think that all is well and then when the noise stops we cry, for want of not knowing what other purpose there is to our existence. We cry in the hope that someone else will entertain us and that if we make our distress known some television executive, radio programmer or disc- jockey will reset the carousel, re- wind the noise machine, so that we will not have to think about something.

Thinking can be disturbing, so most people, it seems, eschew thought for entertainment and barter silence for noise, in the hope that if they close their eyes and put their fingers in their ears and scream as loud as they can whatever they don't like about life will magically vanish after a few minutes. Such are the rules of child's play.

God's voice

It is when we take time to hear the voice of God speaking softly to us, that we come to realise there is an underlying soundtrack which plays alongside the day-to-day living of all of us, a soundtrack aboriginal to our true natures; a soundtrack that sings and echoes the truth of St Maximus Confessor's three great purposes of living: a universal obedience to natural law, in order that we fully enjoy 'being' human; an obedience of scriptural law, so as to enjoy higher levels of this living; and a constant nurturing of the Spirit through prayer, so as to prepare ourselves for eternal life (cf. Maximus the Confessor, p. 29).

Such a soundtrack is presently unavailable for download in MP3 format, but it can be accessed, where it has always been available, well prior to the age of technology. It can be found in moments of silence, of recollection and in all those moments where the human spirit deliberately makes time for God and seeks Him out, rather than hides from Him under a blanket of noise.

For as the Syrian Father, John the Solitary, has told us: 'God is silence, and in silence is he sung by means of that psalmody which is worthy of Him. I am not speaking of the silence of the tongue, for if someone merely keeps his tongue silent, without knowing how to sing in mind and spirit, then he is simply unoccupied and becomes filled with evil thoughts: É There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is a silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit' (cf. Parole de l'Orient 26, 201-266).

Dr Andrew Kania has been Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth. He is the author of numerous articles on religious topics and is currently studying at Oxford University.

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