Silence feels frightening: so when a moment of stillness threatens us, we can defeat it by opening YouTube, putting our headphones in, and watching Pew Die Pie shout racial slurs at video games until we fall asleep.
Earlier this week, I led a discussion about the Holocaust with a group of young people. We covered the points you’d expect a youth group to cover: What is it? Why is it important to remember? Who are today’s scapegoats? And then I suggested a minute of silence to honour those whose lives were taken and to commit ourselves to standing on the side of the victims, rather than the victim-makers.
I was nervous about the silence. What if the young people messed around? What if one of them got the giggles? I was worried about having to address behaviour, which would have shifted the focus away from the victims and on to the group.
The good news is that it never came to that. After contributing thoughtfully to the conversation, the young people sat in respectful silence, and then went back to the usual noise of table tennis, Super Smash Bros, and Instagram.
It’s easy to be frightened of silence. I want young people to be interested and entertained by the service we offer. I harbour an anxiety that if they’re introduced to the alien feeling of boredom at the youth group, they’ll be so repelled by it that they’ll never come back, and become addicted to drugs and gambling, and everyone will forever remember how awful a youth worker I was (past-tense because I’ll have also become addicted to drugs and gambling).
To be clear: noise isn’t the bad guy in Christianity. The story of the Bible is that God created all of the stuff, and then became a part of that stuff in the shape of that guy Jesus. So, the stuff is good. Music is good. Art is good. Movies are good. Food is good. Human interaction is good. Baths are good. Making Lego is good. A glass of port is good as long as you’re eighteen or over and are enjoying it in moderation please don’t tell me off. Noise is good.
There was a movement in the 17th Century called Quietism which suggested that Christians shouldn’t focus too much on doing things like helping people, and should focus more on attaining a kind of blissful, mystical union with God, leaving the world and all the stuff behind. The pope slapped it right down. Christianity is an Earthy religion, and God is here with us in all the noise.
When Elijah ran off to cave to have a nervous breakdown after being involved in some pretty messed up business, God’s comfort was found in the smallest echo of a whisper. And when Jesus was teaching people to pray, he suggested that rather than standing on corners and shouting, they should go into their pantry – the one room with no windows – away from the noise of the crowd. And then there’s a great history of Christians who find God when silence is forced upon them: St Ignatius was lying in a hospital bed after being hit by a cannonball, St Francis was locked in his father’s basement, St John of the Cross was in a prison cell…
The world of noise is also the world of rivalrous desire. There are winners and losers in the world of noise. Without a sense of who I am, without the confidence that I’m loved, it can feel oppressive and overwhelming. The world of noise can be exhausting, and sometimes it’s healthy to take a break from it.
So if all we’re giving our youth groups is more noise, more entertainment, more distraction, maybe we’re hurting them. Silence, like getting into bath after a long day, can remind us of just how much we’re aching, while also soothing us.
But we shouldn’t stay in the bath forever because otherwise we’ll get all wrinkly. I don’t think we should necessarily run half-hour meditation workshops every week (although that might go down well with Instagrammers if we could do it on a scenic beach somewhere, maybe with some fitness models and avocado-based health food). I just think we might do well to let young people slow down from time-to-time. Unplug. Listen.
That means confronting my anxious desire to entertain, and possibly even to allow some boredom to creep in. But I guess it’s better to take the risk, in the hope that God might do something cool in it, than to just keep on making noise, in the knowledge that I won’t.