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This article is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

On Music, Cosmic Noise & Breath-holding
Iain Bamforth

IN A RECENT ESSAY, I pointed out how a kind of constant white surface noise is filling the world even as the individual sounds of things are dying away, some species existing now only as a vestige in the archives – sound bites. Elsewhere in the essay I was too quick to equate silence and contemplation of the divine, perhaps remembering all the books since Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer which have advocated ‘being still’: the cultivation of silence as a means to heightening awareness and interiority. ‘Seek first God’s Kingdom,’ Kierkegaard told his readers in 1849, ‘that is, become like the lilies and the birds, become perfectly silent – then shall the rest be added unto you.’ Like Meister Eckhart six hundred years before him, Heidegger also insisted that the primal language could only be heard in silence. The soul has to attain perfect stillness, emptied of concepts, words and even sounds. That is why silence, as they used to say, is a ‘liberating sea’. A silent person is almost synonymous with a spiritual one.

Then I came across Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial survey Silence: A Christian History which points out that it was only with Neoplatonist influences and the cultivation of inward prayer in the early centuries of the first millennium that the contemplation of godliness began to be associated with stillness – ‘If you love truth, love silence’ (Isaac the Syrian). This was followed by the assumption that the devoutly meditating person is necessarily alone, or at least not interacting with other people. Further back in time, ...

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