After suffering a brain injury back in 1997, I experienced four long-term effects regarding my hearing. There was some general hearing loss. I lost the ability to tell the direction of high-pitched sounds. I used to have the ability to conduct one conversation and listen surreptitiously to another simultaneously. This ability, which came in quite handy at my last job, was completely lost. The fourth and most life-altering effect was that I developed a severe and persistent case of tinnitus.
The audiologist told me that this was to be expected, I had scar tissue on or in my ear canal. It started out as static in my left ear – often really loud static. This evolved into a ring, which I have identified as a high B-flat. It is always there. Sometimes it is oppressively loud. Sometimes it keeps me awake. Sometimes there is a second, discordant note. Sometimes (and this is the worst) the note varies at odd intervals. I know that certain factors make my tinnitus worse – fatigue, stress, and especially caffeine. But nothing makes it better.
I’m known as a fairly loud person. I have (or at least had) a booming voice. I play music loud. I have no doubt that the tinnitus has increased my need for volume. The thing is, I loved silence. I loved the early morning in the office – 6:00 am say – when everything was absolutely still. This was the best time to study and pray. But I have not experienced silence, even for a moment, since January 1997.
I have been teaching I Timothy on Sunday mornings, and the apostle Paul has a few things to say in favor of quietness in this letter. In chapter 2 he says that quietness typifies the life we should pray to live.
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men – for kings and all that are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior. I Timothy 2.1-3
He goes on a few verses later to use the same word, “quiet,” to describe how a woman should conduct herself in worship (v.11).
This all leaves me feeling more than a little bit left out. A cursory reading of this passage and so many others (Psalms 4.4, 46.10, 131, 139.18; and Habakkuk 2.20 are good places to start) might make a person deprived of silence feel a little “less than” – somewhat spiritually disabled.
Paying attention to the text, though, reminds me that the word “quiet” Paul uses in I Timothy does not mean silence, it means “quietude”, stillness. Stillness is not dependent on silence (either external or internal). It is the gift we receive from God because He is present.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down is green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. Psalm 23.1
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child rests against his mother, I have quieted my soul within me. Psalm 131.2
Even that famous phrase from Psalm 46, be still and know that I am God, means “stop struggling and know that I am God.” Most modern translations phrase this verse that way, although I prefer the earlier translation.
Silence, then, is a matter of location and choice. It is the gift we have when we know God is present AND we decide to stop struggling and lie down beside the quiet waters He provides. Neither tinnitus, nor boom-boxes, nor traffic, nor any of the noise pollutants we encounter can take this gift away.