Sound and silence

Every year in July, there are lively celebrations in honour of Santiago the Apostle in Compostela. The narrow, winding streets of the historic area of this medieval city are packed with pilgrims and tourists. As well as the solemn Mass in the beautiful Cathedral, there are performances by music bands, theatre groups, exhibitions, parades and a sensational fireworks display. In the church, the mass is attended by the famous huge smoker with aromatic herbs that hangs from the ceiling on a pendulum and is moved by a thick rope by a dozen monks, incensing everyone present. I’ve always had an intense connection with the city. However, I’ve always avoided festive dates because I love stillness and silence. That year, as several members of the EOMM would be attending the event, I encouraged myself to go too. The streets were lively and the bars and restaurants were packed. That evening, after watching a few shows, we went for dinner. Everywhere, people were talking, laughing and having fun. At a certain point, the colleagues at the table with me began to comment on a subject that was quite sensitive for me because it reminded me of a situation that happened years ago, in which I made very bad choices. Although they were talking about a different event and didn’t even know about my decisions in the distant past, I felt judged by their acid criticism. All that talking and noise began to bother me. I told them I was tired, asked to be excused and went in search of a little silence and stillness. As I didn’t want to go back to the hotel at that time, it was too early to sleep, so I wandered through the crowded streets. All the movement of sounds and colours that had once excited me began to bother me. I walked and walked, unable to find a quiet corner. The next thing I knew, I was in front of the Cathedral, which was closed at that hour. I thought it would be the right place to calm down and reflect. I walked around its perimeter, driven by an absurd idea, until I found a small side door which, although closed, wasn’t locked. I went in. There was no-one there. Inside, lit only by the candles on the altar, I found the silence I had been longing for. I sat down on one of the wooden benches and enjoyed the marvellous feeling of well-being. After a while, a monk approached me from the altar. As he was wearing a hood over his head and the lighting was very poor, I couldn’t make out his face or any features of it. I was sure he was going to ask me to leave. Contrary to what I had imagined, the monk just sat down next to me and didn’t say a word.

As his presence didn’t alter the pleasant sensation of well-being I was feeling, I closed my eyes and concentrated on prayer. Some time later, the monk’s voice brought me back: “Why do you fear the sound?” he asked. There was both firmness and sweetness in his tone. Having recovered from my initial jump scare, I replied that I wasn’t afraid of sound, I just preferred silence. He said: “Sound belongs to the world; silence belongs to the soul. Both are equally important. One is the foundation for the other to exist and show its value. You can’t walk only with silence, nor only with sound. One makes us navigate, the other shows us the direction.”

He then added: “There’s no point in sailing adrift; much less knowing where to go without ever setting out to sea”.

I argued that I loved music; I listened to jazz and bossa nova every day. They were my working rhythms. The monk said: “Music is essential nourishment for the soul, but I’m not talking about that. The sound that comes from movement, from words spoken and heard, is indispensable to life. No-one lives to the full without interacting with the world; no-one knows the true depths far from the silence of the soul”. I maintained that there was no inertia or stagnation in my days. I was looking for encounters, discoveries and conquests; I was moving. It wasn’t that I repudiated sound, but I preferred silence. The monk explained: “Virtue lies in balance. You have to enjoy socialising with people as much as you enjoy the moments when you’re alone. Extroversion and introspection. It’s important to feel at ease in a crowd as much as when you’re alone. The world is a testing ground from which we draw experiences to be developed in the laboratory of the soul. From there we learn and then transmute into new experiences, other ways of being and walking. Silence and sound, in constant and valuable exchanges”.

I said that I knew the theory from Taoist studies, which teaches us the value of Yin and Yang movements. The monk nodded with his head covered by his hood and surprised me: “In all knowledge there are multiple layers of perception waiting to be revealed. These are the endless mysteries of knowledge. There is much of this valuable theory that has never occurred to you”. I found his words strange, as if he knew me from somewhere, but I made no comment. I just said I didn’t know what he was referring to. The monk explained: “Those who love silence are not only those who love to be with themselves in a rich dialogue of self-knowledge. Among lovers of silence, there are also those who like quietness in order to hide from the world, like someone hiding in the depths of an existential cave. They feel uncomfortable socialising with other people. They claim disinterest due to differing interests or cite inconvenient behaviour as reasons for distancing themselves from everyone. However, this behaviour reveals an open wound that needs healing. Relationships of all kinds are important sources from which we draw the indispensable understanding of who we are not yet. Everything that bothers me signals something in me that needs rebuilding. I distance myself from people so that I don’t have to face my difficulties and come face to face with my imperfections”. He paused to emphasise: “Some retreat to the stillness and silence of a temple, others to the darkness of a cave so as not to be seen or remembered. You have to understand the fundamentals of each movement.”

Then he added: “The voice of the world is an indispensable element of dialogue for my soul. It helps to awaken my soul. The opinion of others will not shape who I am, but it will help me understand many of my mistakes. Not everything the world thinks about me is true, but much of what I believe is also just a misconception that needs to be reformulated. Without the voice of the world, dialogue with the soul is impoverished”.

The monk was a good teacher: “In the same way, those who are only interested in the world, turning their backs on the soul, need to understand why they are so bitter about being alone in front of themselves. They need to ask themselves why they hide, deny or run away from themselves. Busy days and intense rush represent only superficial achievements. Without listening to the voice of the soul, life in the world will remain shallow”.

Facing the altar, in a position where I couldn’t see his face, he continued: “There is sound in silence. Without listening to the silence of the soul, the sound of the world will be empty. There is silence in sound. Without silencing the sound of the world, the voice of the soul will be inaudible.”

As if speaking to himself, he philosophised: “It is the harmony between silence and sound that allows music to be created; when they are misaligned, only the noise and the threat of roars common to turmoil and fear will be heard. Silence is justified by the luminous encounter with oneself, never by the absence of listening, virtues or love. Otherwise, silence will become abandonment and cause agony and despair. In the same way, sound cannot be characterised solely as a distraction and an escape; it must not be used to crowd the mind in order to occupy the space of words we don’t want to hear. We’re all ashamed of something we don’t like about ourselves. The truth often bothers us, which is one of the reasons we find it so difficult to deal with. However, we need to meet our shames, talk to them and forgive ourselves. This encounter begins in the world through the words that bleed; it means that something inside us needs healing. All suffering is a prison and a conflict. When we encounter it, we will discover the freedom and peace lost in the dark corner of a distant day. We will notice our forgotten dignity and happiness. Only then will love be possible in all its breadth and depth. Loving pain as if it were inevitable is not love, but a sad gesture of self-pity.” He then reminded me: “To do this, don’t reject your shame or feed it; welcome it with compassion and humbleness. In this way, they will become part of your wealth through the transformations they will bring you. An achievement that is possible because of the sincere and courageous dialogue that began with the sounds of the world and was completed with the soul in the house of silence”.

I kept quiet, because I needed to allocate those ideas. The monk didn’t give me time: “Why does the voice of the world bother you so much? What is there in it that you don’t want to hear? If you insist on this behaviour, the silence that fascinates you will be impoverished. The best will be lost.” I insisted that he was wrong. I pointed out that silence is an important source for arriving at the truth. The monk argued: “There are various silences. There are those that lead us to the truth, but there are also those that tell us only what we want to hear. Which one have you been in dialogue with?”.

Without waiting for an answer, he continued: “It’s no different with the sound of the world. Many bring us valuable knowledge, others are mere annoyances. We can only select those that are pleasing to our immature ego. However, there is the difficult choice of not immediately rejecting the voices that annoy us. In fact, many are just rude and don’t deserve any further attention. A few others, because they cause discomfort to the ego, when one is willing to mature, deserve to be taken to the silence of the soul, where we will find new filters and lenses for a better understanding of reality.”

I asked if this was why it was said that there was wisdom in silence. The monk surprised me again: “Yes and no. When silence comes from the lack of need for words, is sustained by an internal and intense dialogue, in which the voice of the soul shatters the absurdities of the world and gives us the understanding that was missing to dissolve suffering, then silence signals wisdom. However, when it is motivated by fear of rejection, fear of criticism and dread of facing the naked truth, without any deceit or lies, silence will only mean a dark hiding place. Nothing more.”

He continued: “However, there is a time to be respected, to put love into words, to dialogue with the world in search of understanding. There is a need to talk to people in order to bring hearts closer together and align differences on the paths of light, in which the indispensability of sound will manifest itself in wisdom through the bridges that are built, allowing us to cross the abysses of existence. Where, on the other side, we sometimes find the wonders of the world; sometimes our own beauty. However, when words are only expressions of power, hidden interests and regrets, their powerful magic will be wasted and misused.”

“In short, silence can be a dark existential cave or a precious illuminated temple; sound will be noise and roar, but it can represent interaction and symphony. It all depends on how you use them.”

The monk turned to me, but the dimness of the church prevented me from seeing his face hidden by the hood, and asked: “Why are you here, in search of an encounter or in the desire to escape?”. I didn’t know. It seemed that this strange monk knew more about my soul than I did. Before I could say anything, he added: “If it was out of a need to talk to you, stay. If it was the discomfort of living together with other people, then go”.

He let me think calmly. After a few minutes, I confessed that the silence was useful and comfortable for me. It was useful because of the encounters and understandings it had always allowed me to have; it was where I equated my many doubts, learnt to ask the right questions and find doors I had never seen. It was also comfortable because it kept me safe from the criticism and judgement of others, a kind of trench to which I fled every time I considered myself incapable of dealing with the inevitable conflicts of the world. I had made some bold choices during my life, but there were others I was ashamed of. I explained that I loved socialising with people, but when conversations touched on certain subjects that were extremely sensitive to me, even if no reference was made to my life, I felt as if I was being judged. This was the cause of my discomfort and the reason I was there. It was the first time I had said that to myself. The monk said: “The world’s judgement of your choices doesn’t deserve more attention. The relentless shame you’ve condemned yourself for has all the importance. Don’t wait for the world to absolve you, it probably never will, because the crowds need the bad guys to feel like the good guys. However, don’t delay in making peace with yourself. Never give up this power. The sincere realisation of your mistake, the sensitivity to make amends and the firm intention to change are enough. Self-love manifests itself in personal evolution in motion. To do this, it is necessary to return to the world to experience who you have become; there will be unforeseen events to show you the improvements that remain to be made. Then return to the silence for the necessary elaborations and adjustments. Come or go, move with the joy of someone who can already see the hidden wonders of life. There is no greater beauty than experiencing the infinite transmutations of our being.”

The monk concluded: “I’ll leave you alone. Take this moment to align yourself with your truth. Then you must go. There’s a lot of life out there. When you need to, come back; there’s a lot of life inside you.” Then he got up and left. I stayed in the church for a while longer, long enough to realise that the past cannot have the power to imprison, but must contain the necessary force to teach and improve. The real shame would be refusing to move forward; overcoming needs the mistakes of the past to show all its value and charm. If I wasn’t what I was in those distant days anymore, why did I continue to mistreat myself?

I smiled to myself and signed a definitive peace treaty with my past. So, without ever stopping to visit the silence, I managed to fall in love with the world and all its sounds once and for all. It was a simple but important step towards freedom. I returned to the streets of Compostela when it was still dark. I wandered around. Just ahead, in a small square, a group of gypsies were singing beautiful, lively flamenco songs. A gypsy pulled me into a circle. I danced until dawn.

About the mysterious monk? I went back to Santiago Cathedral several times. During the day, I attended Masses with the participation of the illustrious smoker that fascinated me so much; at night, I ventured through the side door, which was always closed, never locked. I would sit on one of the benches; sometimes he would appear to chat, sometimes not. I never saw his face. Ezekiel is his name, I know nothing else about him.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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