"In Pursuit of Silence," a new book by George Prochnik, sounds, from the recent reviews, like a book I must read. Yet one reviewer summed it up by saying, "To understand silence, one must understand noise as well." I beg to disagree.
As I have written in several articles, the longest one just published this month in "Cithara," silence is not the opposite of sound and does not depend on noise but rather has its own independent existence; it is ultimately a spiritual entity. I have tried to show, using everyone from Walter Ong and Thomas Merton to Zen writers, that silence is a positive sign of presence, not absence.
Since words, which emerge from silence, do not last as silence does, a real encounter with God or with the non-material world is an encounter with silence. Thus silence in the East, as in Christian mysticism, is not an empty nothing but the enduring reality that sound interrupts. Silence is the key that opens the door to the contemplative life. Here Merton is the best of guides (see "New Seeds of Contemplation").
As my recent article states, I have been searching for silence in various places not because of its contrast to noise but as a source of prayerful attention to the present moment, as an indispensable source of inner peace. Only in silence can we encounter a timeless reality where we find, among other things, our true selves.
Still, I look forward to seeing what Prochnik has to say since our increasingly busy and noisy lives cry out for the deep attention of silence and since any reflection on silence is likely to be of value, mysterious though it ultimately remains.