“. . .search your hearts and be silent.” Psalm 4
The greatest classroom stem-winders, those profs who can hold students spellbound for 90-minutes plus, still love students who talk back—who ask questions. After 40 years of teaching, I can predict the success of a class if I know ahead of time whether or not there are a few orally-gifteds tucked somewhere amid the rows (often front-and-center), students who will gleefully break the otherwise deadly silence. Teachers love good talkers.
But then, our age is adept at yakking. Years ago already, a veteran kindergarten teacher told me her students had changed immensely over the years. When she began teaching in the late fifties, she claimed it took her at least two weeks to get the frightened little kids to open up. Now, she quipped, five-year-old kids walk into class, take a look around, and say, “Who’s in charge here?”
Television may well be a visual medium, but it doesn’t abide silence much better than radio. Silence isn't golden at all, it's mostly uncomfortable—and the research is convincing: we all do more swaggering, more lipping off, more jabbering.
But there’s another rule-of-thumb my years of teaching have taught me. The big talkers aren’t always the best students. Flannery O’Connor, I remember reading, almost never spoke in her classes at Iowa Writers Workshop. I believe it. Every year I had a few silent types that knocked my socks off when they handed in an essay. A classroom that sounds morgue-ish doesn’t necessarily mean that the minds that inhabit it are laid out cold.
Generalizations are always hazardous, but, historically at least, the annals of the American West are rife with stories about white folks—immigrant farmers, cavalry lieutenants, even French trappers—who grew terribly uncomfortable with the silence Native folks felt imperative before a discussion. Then again, the history of the West wouldn’t be as jaded if white folks had kept their mouths shut even more than they did.
Given our sexually-charged media culture’s incessant yapping, it’s probably understandable why some people would opt out and seek the enforced silence of the monastery. Thomas Merton and Henry Nouwen have wide and devoted readership; it’s difficult to know whether Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk begat a phenomenon or merely rode the wave. To many—and to me—silence looks good, probably because it’s hard to come by.
I’ve become more than a little familiar with old folks’ homes. My mother is in one; so is my wife’s father. Silence pervades those places, no matter how cheerfully decorated. But their immense silence doesn’t make life there any more moral or high-toned. And the fact is, I’m not always anxious to visit. Aging creates its own hurtful enforcers.
Here in Psalm 4, silence is a command. In this 12-step regimen David is creating, he raises a finger and says, simply, shut up.
Me too. Be still, he says. And here I am on this Sunday morning, going on and on. Words, words, words. Jabber, jabber, jabber.
Be still, David says. Just, be still.
Lord, help me.