Silences, Empty Houses and Poetry
One of my favorite writers, Heather King, while reflecting on her pilgrimage seeking silence and prayer, recently observed, “I see that a lot of the ‘noise’ for which I blame the world is really noise inside of me!”
When people ask me what brought me to my new job, or what caused me to leave my old one, I have been saying things like, “I wanted more time to think” or “write” or even “be human.” Those are just other ways of saying I wanted more silence, more space. I thought, if I didn’t have to grade papers all the time, or fret about tomorrow’s lesson plans, I’d have more time to pray! To write that novel! To be involved in my community! To really flourish!
And I have had more time, it’s true. And I have been writing more. And it’s been wonderful.
But I also find myself filling a lot of that time with Columbo episodes, and NPR, and podcasts, and plenty of social media scrolling.
The “noise inside of me,” you see. Or perhaps concerted efforts not to listen to it.
Jesus, that expert on human nature, said once that when an evil spirit is driven out of a person, it wanders “through arid regions searching for rest but finds none” and, upon returning “home,” finds it “empty, swept clean, and put in order.” And then the spirit brings back lots of its demon friends and “the last condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45).
My gloss on that rather terrifying parable is that this pattern applies to other kinds of evil spirits, too—less alarming but perhaps therefore more insidious: spirits of exhaustion or discouragement or burnout or busyness. We get rid of them, we think, by changing jobs or going on retreat or embarking on a pilgrimage. We set aside real time for prayer. We get ourselves situated, “swept clean and put in order”, if you will. But notice that Jesus begins his description of the recently freed soul as “empty.”
Free from that troublesome spirit, yes, but free for what?
Without something to fill the space inside us, we may just fill it with noise, or invite the old spirits in through the back door so we don’t have to hear the echoes in the empty house.
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper explains,
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.
Since I’m leading a seminar on poetry this fall, in which I propose that poetry develops in us habits of attention that help us read ourselves and the world better, I think one way I might fill my new empty spaces of time is by memorizing some poems. Poems aid us, I think, in filling silence well without resorting to distraction, because they help us re-attend to the world. Lyric poems in particular often have that companionable voice that can visit us in our clean-swept houses. Emily Dickinson knew all about that:
Silence is all we dread.
There’s Ransom in a Voice —
But Silence is Infinity.
Himself have not a face.
I might add, though, that poems like hers often offer us that “Ransom” without thereby rescuing us from the silences we all need to confront.