Paul Andersen: A ‘Silent Night’ is a holy night
Jimmy Ibbotson’s “Colorado Christmas” is a paean to peace on Earth and a lament about what can go missing on a holiday that’s defined by spirit.
“The closest thing to heaven on this planet anywhere/Is a quiet Christmas morning in the Colorado snow.” I can picture Ibbotson watching the falling snow at his idyllic gingerbread cabin on Woody Creek, which was later razed as if it were simply too perfect for a crass material world.
We may not have much Colorado snow this Christmas, but we can still find quiet. A silent night — a holy night — is a gift to oneself that is ideally opened in solitude amid the wonders of nature.
Mystics say that quiet is necessary to cultivating deep inner peace and harmony, that tranquility is essential to well-being. How else can we monitor and regulate the deeper rhythms of life if not through silence?
“There wasn’t a sound last night except for the river,” enthused my son, Tait, on a recent morning. “I opened my window and just listened to a silent night!”
Tait is home this winter from graduate school in Norway, where he came to appreciate the value of silence. He didn’t have it last year in a dorm setting on campus, so his appreciation has deepened.
Silence makes room for awareness. When we’re denied it by the demands of electronic media and the din industrial life, we lose the subtle influences of the soul.
The still, small voice of God came to the desert prophet Elijah after a mighty storm. In the ensuing silence he became attuned to the heartbeat of the universe, perhaps through the beating of his own heart. The Hebrew word “selah” is a literary and musical directive to pause and reflect, a time to take stock in one’s thoughts and feelings, perhaps a necessary moment to weigh the conscience.
Meditative quiet in natural solitude is an age-old, sacred approach to spiritual epiphanies. As Army veteran Stacy Bare said at a wilderness talk last week in Aspen, revelations don’t occur at the mini mall; they take place in the quiet of nature as they did for Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammed.
In silence, thoughts have the space to coalesce, resonating with the distant echo of the Big Bang and the subtle reverberations of the cosmos. Silent nights are holy nights when calm and brightness offer transcendence.
Finding silence in an urbanizing world is not easy. If you can’t find actual silence, perhaps there is a cloister — an office, a bathroom, a closet, your car — where you can mute the static and find a moment to cultivate internal stillness.
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste,” intoned the Desiderata, “and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
Listening is a form of silence, where the listener must be quiet to honor a speaker. To quietly listen to others is to connect with their stories. To listen in solitude to your own story is to connect with self.
“No one really knows me,” confessed a combat veteran this summer on a Huts For Vets program during a philosophical group discussion. This young man saw himself as so internally changed by his service that inside he bore no resemblance to the person his friends and family had known before. He felt he was a stranger to everyone.
Another veteran replied: “Do you know yourself?” The silence that followed was a potent selah moment that none of us will forget because it begged the question we all must ask.
“Know Thyself” (gnothi seauton) was written on the Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi as instruction to philosophers and statesmen who laid the foundation for Western culture. The Greeks understood that knowing oneself is fundamental to all other pursuits, and that self-knowledge provides the depth from which to form sound judgments and right actions.
Many of us will sing “Silent Night” to celebrate a “quiet Christmas morning in the Colorado snow.” Even if there is not enough snow to mute the sounds of daily life, a shared moment of silence may open a window through which we can see ourselves and the world anew.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I find myself ruefully conceding that I may well have joined this country’s 66,000-plus new daily COVID-19 victims last weekend.