The first time I listened to the song “Dream On” by The Chemical Brothers I was confronted with a prolonged silence after several minutes of listening bliss. Had the song ended? If so why had the next song not begun? Was there something wrong with the disk? The speakers? Should I check it out to see if it was still working? I decided this was a good idea. The time counter was still moving: 5:15 . . . 5:16 . . . 5:17 . . . It had been roughly ten second since the silence began and already I was an anxious mess. Maybe this was one of those hidden-track-at-the-end-of-the-song tricks where five minutes of “dead air” (a very telling description of a lack of sound) are used to feign secrecy and reward the listener with the “discovery” of a whole new “bonus” track. But then the song came back . . . as if it had been there all along. This was no “hidden track” and the silence was not “dead air”, but rather an integral part of the song. Pure genius I thought to myself. In total the silence had lasted 20 seconds. In the hundreds of times I have listened to that song since I have come to love the silence. It no longer interrupts my listening bliss, but rather completes it.

Vladimir Lossky spoke of all true theology ending in silence. Philosophy and Cataphatic Theology (an odd word that means the theology that concerns itself with what we can say and know about God) reach their greatest heights and in one blissful moment find that words falter and give way to a mystery they had so futilely tried to describe. The final months of St. Thomas Aquinas’ life, the most voluminous writer in church history, are a testament to the importance of this silence. On December 6, 1273, three months before his death, Aquinas was celebrating Mass when he encountered something his mighty pen could not capture. He would not write another word. His response to a friend’s urgings that he continue with his work was “I cannot because everything I have written seems like straw to me.” Indeed, in these final months Aquinas embarked on what can be seen as the most ambitious theological endeavor of his lifetime, the Apophatic way, or a theology of silence and unknowing.

Silence stirs within us anxiety and fear; particularly in an age where we fend it off so effectively. But these emotions are only the gatekeepers which protect outsiders from being traumatized by the Sacred. Behind the anxiety lies a state of peace, a place so beautiful that the most transcendent language only dims its deifying rays of light.

But are we capable of dwelling in the tension long enough to experience what lies beyond it? It took nearly 20 times of listening to “Dream On” before I was able to receive the silence in its entirety and come to truly know first hand the meaning of that bewildering symbol in music which asks us not to pause, but to rest. It took Aquinas a lifetime and penning a library’s worth of scholastic theology before he was sufficiently receptive to the true essence and completion of theology.

Anxiety acts as a precursor to an encounter with the Divine, but it will pass. And this passage is not the end of silence, but its beginning. The peace which comes from silence is when our perception shifts and we come to see that in silence we dwell not at the lowest, impoverished point of being, but at its dazzling heights.

Works of Interest: James Gleick, “Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything”; Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”; The Chemical Brothers album “Surrender”; The Complete Works of Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Mystical Theology”; “The Cloud of Unknowing.”

Advertisements