Sound of Silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Last weekend I happened on a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence by Passenger. Dang. It’s such a brilliant song, both for its lyrics and its melody, and Passanger draws out from it such depth of feeling. It was part of my childhood, and so whenever I hear it now I think of my brother’s scratchy vinyl album playing in the living room as I tinkered with my Lincoln Logs.

Though I am not entirely certain what the song’s lyrics meant to Paul Simon, they have meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’d like to share very briefly here one meaning they took on for me while I was serving at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelter and hospice in D.C., Gift of Peace, back in the early 1990’s. I’ve shared this story here before, but when I heard Michael Rosenberg sing I thought of this experience in a whole new way. I’ll paste it again here and add a few flourishes:

+ + +

I was assigned to care for a man, we’ll call him Richard, when I started volunteering at Gift of Peace. Richard was in his 40’s, was originally from Tallahassee, Florida and had had a stroke while he lived on the streets. Actually, he had a stroke in midwinter, while he was sleeping in an abandoned car under a bridge suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He was found and survived, but lost some of his fingers and toes, as well as his ability to move freely or speak intelligibly. A life full of tragedy, it seemed.

The sister who paired me with Richard said that, in addition to the bodily care he needed, more than anything else he required my companionship. My time. He needed me to sit with him, mostly without any practical purpose, and learn his language, talk about Tallahassee (where I had previously lived), sing songs, talk sports or just wheel him around. He had come from a world where no one listened, where few, if any, cared. I wrote in my journal one night, “Sr. Manorama wants me to break Heaven’s silence, be a word of God for him. That’s deep. Hope I can fill such a tall order.”

I would imagine him living out in the streets, surrounded by countless people, yet utterly alone. Those silent nights of dreamless sleep. There are so many like him in D.C., in every city and town, in homes, offices, marriages. Lazarus again passed by, unnoticed, neglected. No time or place is immune from the disease of apathy, the curse of neglect or ‘harmless’ benevolence. Studdard Kennedy writes of this in the Birmingham, England of the early 1900’s:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds–and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—
the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

When my time at Gift of Peace was complete and I was ready to leave — for good — I had to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I planned to soft pitch it to him with an “I’ll be back to visit” white lie. But Sister would have no part of that. I had to tell him I would not return or he would think I was like everyone else. A liar, abandoning him.

So I told him. He would not look at me. He was hurt. Mad. Disappointed. I finally convinced him to look at me. In the eyes. Then I said very spontaneously, “I love you, Richard.”

It was a detonation.

He exploded into wailing and sobbing, heaving gasps. I was horrified. What had I done? Was my love a dagger? I tried to console him, but he would not be consoled. A Sister came over and told me it was okay to leave. She would take care of him. I walked away, down the hall to say goodbye to Sister Manorama. I told her, “That’s exactly why I didn’t want to say that was it, last time. Never again. Terrible.” She asked me what happened. I told her. She said, “Don’t you see how important that was? You told him you loved him. Who do you think has said that to him in his life? See, better than words, first you showed him your love was true these last months. That’s why those three words had such power. Got into his soul. Now he knows he’s loved by a man who knew him well. A brother. No one can take that from him. Go in peace.”

I still was haunted by those wailing sounds. Go in peace? A small comfort. Yet I saw, differently, all my life as an opportunity to break God’s silence, to fill deadly silence with love so that silence is no longer barren absence, but pregnant presence. Full of human and divine love. This is why each of us exist: to be a divine word, a divine thought spoken into the deep wells of silence. Transubstantiating absence with Presence, non-being with Being, darkness with Light, the wailing dirge with a New Song.

“But this song only really works if everyone’s super super quiet.” Only thus are we able to listen to the Word.

O God, split the night, that we might know we are not alone. Only then will others come to know, through us, they are not alone.

For you are with us, in the silence.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls (can’t you see that we’re lost)
Oh silence”

4 comments on “Sound of Silence

  1. Louise says:

    Tom – this is one of my all time favorite songs as well. Loved the acoustic version! God bless you

  2. DismasDancing says:

    The Christophers say: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the dark.”

    One “I Love you” to someone who rarely, if ever, hears it, can dry the curses of an eternity of bitter tears. Add a warm embrace and you add a taste of paradise and an unforgettable experience for both the giver and the receiver. God bless you for sharing, Brother Tom. Without going in to detail, I’ll simply say to my friends, “Try it. You’ll find a touch of Jesus that is tough to find confined to a pew.”

  3. Jennifer says:

    Your description of your encounter with Richard is so powerful. It is remarkably vivid, I feel like if I strained my ear I’d hear his voice myself.

    Entering into this intimate, silent space with a another where God’s whisper can be felt on your cheek is transformative in a way nothing else is.
    It is so hard, heroic, to love generously the broken… Especially to stick with it, that commitment, that promise. That unconditional yes to acting for the other’s good. I don’t think it can be done, carried through, without complete surrender to He who is love.

    Likewise it can be hard, heroic, when you’re the broken, unlovable one, to risk opening your self to accept and believe in the disinterested love of another. It takes humility to be vulnerable to a love which you can neither demand nor control but desperately desire. And it utterly transforms you as the realization that this tender compassion that is breaking upon you like the dawn can be of only one source. (How beautiful are the feet…)

    And hence God’s love transcends our own. And thus, as the beloved Apostle theologized, ‘whoever loves is from God’.

    It is a sacred space that soul to soul interaction and you’ve captured its rarefied beauty with tenderness. Surely God’s hand was upon your own as you typed this.

    I’m gushing, I know, but really, I think this might be one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read!

    Praise and thanksgiving to our mighty God!

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