The Soul of Sound and Silence – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

Finding God in Harvard Square:

1 Kings 19:9-13a;
Psalm 62;
Mark 4:35-41

Last week there was an interesting factoid released on rating the ten busiest Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority stations in Boston.You’ll be very proud to know that our very own Harvard Square Station ranked third just under South Station (#1) and Downtown Crossing (#2) with an average of 23,199 travelers entering the station on weekdays.[i]  So it comes as no surprise that at any time of day you can find a diverse and frenetic populace bustling through the Square and its surroundings on an infinite variety of missions be it school, work, or play.  And with all this activity comes a cacophony of sound that you’d expect to accompany the bronze medalist of busyness.  At any moment you could witness a motorcade transporting high ranking government officials or foreign dignitaries speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School, or an acrobat thrilling an audience with an impromptu performance of stunts, or hear any and all kinds of music being played live while waiting for the T to arrive.  Sometimes the sounds are not so pleasant.  The other day when I was taking a run along the Charles River, I experienced someone laying on their car horn to signal their displeasure at someone trying to make a illegal left turn onto JFK Street from Memorial Drive.  The sound was immensely disconcerting.

This evening is the fourth installment of our preaching series entitled Finding God in Harvard Square, and the theme is “The Soul of Sound and Silence.”  Now you may be asking yourself why sound and silence?  It seems a ‘no-brainer’ that you would hear a sermon on silence at a monastery, and indeed most of our promotional material has billed this sermon as just that.  But I think the two are not exclusive of each other and together play a vital role in our search for God and a deeper knowledge of His love for us.  Sound represents an engagement between ourselves, others, and our environment.  Like members of a symphony orchestra, we each have our part to play, adding our own God given uniqueness to a tapestry of sound that is wonderful to listen to.  Yet each of us desires to return to the silence where we find peace, comfort, and stability; a time of restoration so that the music stays fresh.  Being saturated in too much sound can lead to overstimulation turning what is beautiful into noise.  We can become addicted to this noise and over time our hearing can become impaired and our senses dulled.  Ironically when this happens, the prospect of silence can be disconcerting.  It is easier to stay immersed in sound.  Seeking silence takes effort and intention and what is the point if there is no sound to stimulate?

In our Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings, the word of the Lord comes to Elijah and asks:  “What are you doing here Elijah?”  Elijah then pours out his soul answering, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.”  The word ‘zealous’ is a key word in that it shows us that Elijah is in touch with his need for peace and stability.  He notes that he is immersed in turmoil and chaos:  “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Elijah knows his deepest desire and that it can be found in God.  It is the same desire that the Psalmist alludes to when he sings:  “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in him.He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.”  Certainly we can all identify with this desire and hope.  I suspect all of us have moments when our fast paced, activity addicted culture overwhelms us.  I’m reminded of a television commercial I used to see when I was a kid for Calgon Bath Soap.  The commercial depicts a woman who is overtaken with the stress of life:  the traffic is bad, the boss is screaming, the kids are crying, the dog is barking and she yells out in exasperation, “That does it!  Calgon, take me away!!!”  The next scenes shows her relaxing in a hot bath up to her neck in bubbles with a peaceful smile on her face while a calm and reassuring voice describes how the luxurious bubbles remove the days stress.[ii]  I imagine that Elijah’s experience was not too unlike that of the lady in the commercial, yet Elijah knew that the desire of his heart could be found in the peace of God.

The word of the Lord then instructs Elijah to go up the mountain and wait, ‘for the Lord is about to pass by.’  Elijah experiences a mighty wind so destructive that it alters the landscape.   Then he experiences a cataclysmic earthquake, and then raging fire.  But as immense as all these events are, Elijah recognizes that God was not in them.  Then we read:  “and after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.”  The New Oxford Annotated Bible says that this is translated literally as, “a voice; a barely audible whisper.”[iii]  We see in Elijah’s actions that in this silence, he recognizes the presence of God.

I said a moment ago that Elijah recognizes that God was not ‘in’ the experience of the chaos but rather I think it is more accurate to say that God was not ‘of’ them.  I find it ironic that the word of the Lord comes to Elijah to tell him that the Lord is about to pass by.  I think this indicates that God is already present with Elijah, but his attention is caught up in the chaos of his life; in the overwhelming noise surrounding him, not in the fact that God is an ever present reality even in the face of this chaos.  We see this more vividly expressed in our gospel lesson.  Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a mighty storm arises and threatens to break the boat apart.  The disciples, who are avid fishermen and sailors by profession, are terrified and they call out to Jesus in their desperation.  And what is Jesus doing in the midst of this chaos?  Sleeping soundly like a baby.  And the disciples wake him in their desperation and Jesus speaks a calming word and the storm ceases.  He asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  You may know that in the Prologue of the John’s gospel, Jesus is referred to as the ‘Word of God made flesh.’  The Word that was present before the beginning of time and will be long after the notation of time ceases.  The word of God, Jesus, was a still and calm presence in the midst of the storm and remained so after the storm had passed over.  Jesus was with his disciples ‘in’ the storm, but He was not ‘of’ the storm.

So what does this mean for us who live in the middle of a busy hub like Harvard Square?First, I mentioned earlier that sound and silence are not necessarily opposites of each other, but rather a dynamic duo that help to point us toward the calming presence of God in our midst.  The sign of this is ‘resonance.’  Composer Claude Debussy wrote that:  ‘Music is the silence between the notes.’[iv]In other words, notes are just sounds that occur in a certain measure of time.  What we deem as ‘music,’ what enlivens our passion and stirs us most, is actually the resonance that occurs in the space between them.  But in order for this ‘music’ to be made, you must have both elements of sound and silence.  I think that this a perfect metaphor for our relationship with God.  The resonance that happens in the experiences of our lives awakens desire:  our desire for meaning, our desire for peace, our desire for love, and most of all our desire to know God as we are known by Him.  God lures us into His holy silence by what is resonating most in our lives.  The founder of our Society, Father Richard Meux Benson once said:  “The presence of God is the presence of the Word of God, speaking within the soul, and the love which is to be returned is not a dumb[v] love.  It is the echo of that Word speaking with the soul—its echo, or rather its continuance.  It lives on and utters itself through our organs.  Thus the intercourse between the soul and God is a conscious, articulate utterance.”[vi]  Be in touch with your desire, whether it be a yearning, a passion, or even something in deep need of healing.  It is there that God is waiting to meet us.

Second, Jesus, who is the ‘Word made flesh,’ is not observing us from afar, disconnected from our lives.  Rather, He is ever present in our lives no matter the circumstance.   Jesus is God ‘Emmanuel,’ which literally means ‘God with us.’A prominent feature in this chapel is the crucifix, which is a representation of Jesus nailed to the cross, a sign that God has not abandoned us in our surrounding chaos, but rather loves us so much as to be present with us in the midst of it, shouldering all of that which is too heavy for us to bear.  God desires relationship with us as much as we do with him.  All we have to do is to turn our attention towards Him.  Father George Congreve, SSJE once wrote, “How strange it is that though we would not waste half an hour doing nothing, yet often when walking for half an hour along the road we do worse perhaps than waste it, when we might have glorified it and made it radiant with the brightness and sweetness and preciousness of the life and love of God by thinking of God an speaking to Him.”[vii]

And perhaps that is why you’re here tonight.  Like Elijah, you have heard something resonating deep within your being and you find yourself with other seekers sitting underneath the arches with your eyes upraised listening to the voice; the barely audible whisper of God assuring you of his love for you; His desire for your company; and His constant presence with you.  God’s desire for you resonates within the silence of the walls of this chapel and settles deep within your heart.  Stay here for a while and listen intently and when you’re ready follow that voice back into the Square and add your own unique sound to the symphony assured that God’s love is quietly resonating within you.Amen.


[i] Hoover, Amanda. “What Are the Ten Busiest T Stops?” Boston.Com. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC, 25 August 2015.  Accessed 26 October 2015.


[iii]The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

[iv] “Claude Debussy.” XploreInc, 2015. 27 October 2015.

[v] More accurately mute or silent love.

[vi]Benson, Richard Meux. Instructions on the Religious Life. Oxford: A. R. Mowbray, 1935. Print. Second.

[vii]Woodgate, M. V. Father Congreve of Cowley. London: S.P.C.K, 1956. Print.

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  1. -suzanne on October 21, 2023 at 10:30

    Dear Brother Jim ~ what a simply glorious way to begin this day by opening to and reading Finding God
    in Harvard Square ~ The Soul and Sound of Silence. As always we are taken straight to the heart of the
    matter… to that place in, of and for God, right, smack dab in the midst of the whirl of life. The call to
    “Be Still and know that I am God,” ushers and returns my whole being into the very womb of God’s Creation
    Love, before time lived on earth, through birth, began In silence, I am Home ~ Home in God, and the cacophony of life on earth recedes into its proper dimension, so that the silence of the soul in God can prevail.
    “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Thank you Brother Jim.

  2. jeffery mcnary on March 13, 2022 at 15:41

    gosh…thanks for this….it’s my everyday reality…

  3. Sue on March 13, 2022 at 09:24

    Silence in the music. I’ve found when I’m busy w/activity I can find that “silence w/God” thru humming a hymn whether aloud or only in my head. It’s my connection w/God I need in the noise of activity. Thank you for the metaphor. It enriched my personal reflections on what is sounds and silences. The inner soul can be restfully silent even tho the body is in activity. Tho it doesn’t negate times the body and soul are silent before God.

  4. Anton (Tony) Lovink on October 12, 2021 at 10:43

    I have never reacted to a post from SSJE before, but have often found the daily reflections helpful.
    To some of my music director and some friends, I wrote the following:

    From the Benedictine teaching sent to me today, I reflected that for me the most powerful moments in singing in a choir, or listening, are often the silences between sounds, including words, and at the end of sound; both where ´God’ might be;
    perhaps also together with the relaxed, stillness of the human body as we listen and hear the Silence through the Music, our own included.

    Does my thinking and the meditation make sense in our lived context.

    For the purpose of the email, God for me, in the Meditation, is defined as the Other and the One (capitalization intended). The word our is always followed by own, as in our own.)

    Reading the scripture background to the meditation was helpful. As well, in the Boston or any large city context, finding silence is SO hard, sometimes impossible, but then sometimes under one tree, or next to a river or …?

    Thanks as always. A (Canadian) donation is being made.

  5. Janie McNew on October 12, 2021 at 09:09

    Very meaningful- I love silence!

  6. Roy Hogg on August 18, 2016 at 17:57

    A beautiful expression of an important truth in this story of Elijah. We are encouraged to resonate in the “Harvard Square” circumstances of our individual and collective lives. Many thanks.

  7. Dianne Rader on August 16, 2016 at 18:38

    This is so rich and beautiful with metaphor, imagery and the strength of well articulated language, that my heart is deeply touched and my soul resonates with that touch. With gratitude, amen.

  8. Ruth West on October 29, 2015 at 23:31

    Br. Jim, thanks for this good homily. I find it hard to relate to the sounds of the city, since I was raised in the country on a farm. I have lived in small towns. I know silence. Although I live very near a busy street in my town, someone who visited me a few days ago commented that my house must be well insulated, since I cannot hear the traffic from indoors. As I grew up, my Harvard Square was the sound of cows mooing, horses neighing and the cackling of our laying hens. But in that atmosphere, I still found God. I loved all your quotations, from Elijah, from Jesus, and the Psalmist. We can find Him in the silence as well as in the sounds around us. I like the psalm, “Be still, and know that I am God.” But, even in the midst of chaos, of noise, in the storm, we can sense His presence. My best times of knowing Him here at home is when I play the piano. I liked your remarks about music. I especially like the hymns which are prayers. May God bless you and all of you in the monastery.

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