“Silent night, holy night…”
The words are hauntingly beautiful, sung as they are in perfect harmony by the inimitable Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. But as the song proceeds, a noise in the background creeps in and begins to grow louder. It’s a broadcaster giving the seven o’clock news, and as his voice emerges into the foreground of the soundscape, we as listeners become aware of days and nights that seem everything but silent and holy. Racist housing policies; the protests of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and opposition to these protests by the highest institutional authorities. The Vietnam war. Comedian Lenny Bruce’s death by a narcotics overdose. The stabbing and strangling of nine student nurses. By the conclusion of the song, the newscast has all but drowned out the peaceful hymn. The effect is stark, spellbinding, and chilling.
When I first encountered this song as a young Evangelical Christian, I was frustrated and critical, interpreting it as a suggestion that my faith was little more than an irrelevant silence and holiness ultimately impractical and inevitably drowned out by the reality of violence and evil in the world. Yes, I thought, this pristine passivity is a problem, but that’s not what Christianity is about. Christianity is about changing the world, bringing salvation into those very situations described in the news; “I wanna be a history maker,” we would sing unreflectively if sincerely at our worship services – and being a history maker meant something other than fading with irrelevance into the silent night.
Later on, however, as I began repenting my days of being a history maker and experienced firsthand the despair that can make such casual optimism at best naïve and at worst cruel to others, I came to see the song as equally frustrating but for different reasons, this time because I interpreted it as a lament. There were, I knew now, no simple answers to the events of the seven o’clock news, and there was a faith that was still real, but I watched powerless as evil unfolded in the world and faith poked its way along in silent holiness unnoticed and unheard, fading as the world around me grew louder. “Silent night, holy night”…what could this do against the wrenching violences and darknesses that surround and oppress?
I share this anecdote because I think it is how many listeners may – perhaps even must – begin their encounter with the hymn “Be Still My Soul” in the modern world. It shares with the “Silent Night” of Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition a haunting beauty, and a particular appreciation of stillness and quiet. But even insofar as it shares this, it also raises the question of whether it doesn’t also share the isolated irrelevance and impotence alleged in the song. In the midst of a ravaged and ravaging world, is the stillness we bid our souls to occupy even possible? And even if possible, isn’t it a bit selfish and otherworldly, gnostic even?
As a Catholic still working through the activism and emotionalism of my originally Evangelical roots, these are questions I perennially wrestle with, temptations I continue to grapple with. Indeed, practiced wrongly and outside the bounds of the Church that calls me to contribute my stillness and contemplation as a gift to the broader communion of saints, it can become a solipsistic, gnostic enterprise. And conversely, when I’m most alive to the suffering and pain around me, there is a great temptation to dismiss the stillness altogether and revert to my frenetic activist self; I want to do something, and all you can tell me is to be quiet?
Amidst these grapplings, one of the things I have necessarily had to recognize is that there is such a thing as awe-filled comfort that is not a mere escapism. One of the best explications of this I’ve encountered is in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Sam looks up to see the glory of a star amidst the depths of the hellish Mordor:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. (LOTR, Return of the King, HarperCollins 1999, p. 234)
Here, in the midst of gloom, Sam’s attention is arrested – fixed – by a beauty beyond the muck. Yet his appreciation of it is not an escapist turn away from the world, but an appreciation of the fact that beyond both him and the evils around him there is a higher beauty that will outlast evil, that wins the day independent of the outcomes of certain of our skirmishes on earth.
Even so, the beauty that “Be Still My Soul” reaches toward not only in its words but in its swelling music is the stillness appropriate before the arresting and even awful goodness of God. We are right to be wary about a mere turn to a decontextualized stillness that runs the risk of idolatry and injustice; indeed, earthly tyrants want nothing more than a certain kind of stillness of soul in their subjects because still subjects won’t disrupt their plans. But false and subservient stillness should not lead us to mistake all stillness for this, and the best response to such indifference is not the frenetic activity of Martha but the adoring yet equally engaged stillness of Mary. “Be still, my soul,” I suspect, is a song much like those used by David to calm the troubled Saul, bidding the disordered spirits that troubled him to slink back to the hell appropriate to them, and allowing the king to lift his head, if momentarily, to bathe in the powerful stillness of God. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, KJV) says the Davidic Psalmist in one place, and, in another, “stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still” (4:4).
Given all this, there is part of me that wants to leave it at that and simply say that there is a silence and stillness appropriate before God however irrelevant or useless it may be, and it is this stillness precisely we are singing about – it needs no apology. The Saturday night news might drown it out in the recording, but in the eternal scope of things, it is this stillness, the beatific vision, that will last…though I speak in the tongues of angels and of newscasters…And yet, as with so many such things, our concerns are not all wrong – our hatred of sin and evil is after all from God, and His response more manifold than we can imagine. In this case, His manifold response is manifest in the paradoxical fact that such stillness of soul is perhaps the most deeply active force in the world.
As a way of understanding this, we might consider the history of Christian monasticism, which overall (though with many twists and turns) testifies to the fact that stillness before God is not a life of escape so much as a preservation and redemption of space and time; historically, the power of this redemptive stillness not only spilled over into surrounding secular cultures, but in fact, as in the case of the Benedictines in England, often became essential preservative factors in these cultures – the “uselessness” of stillness turned useful.
That this is the kind of stillness spoken of in “Be Still My Soul” is probable, for though little is known about the eighteenth century German author, Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, it would seem she was familiar with monastic practices – some hymnololgists think she eventually became a Lutheran nun. Monasticism of course is not the only way to be still before God – there are countless practices we can adopt in any vocation, and countless moments we can set aside. But it is an encouragement to those of any vocation to know that alongside us there are those – whether formal monastics or individuals with particular charisms – whose lives are devoted to this stillness.
But of course in this devotion they – we – are really only following the example of Christ. There are a number of times the gospels describe Him withdrawing to a quiet place for prayer, and these are only the times the gospel writers have noted – surely there were more. And though we are not privileged to know what exactly went on during these times, we get glimpses in events such as the temptation in the desert, the transfiguration, and Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane. Every time the gospels give us a brief window into what happens during these times and places of stillness before God, we encounter moments not of irrelevance or uselessness, but moments on which the world hangs. Sometimes I wonder if we won’t get to heaven and discover that for everything going on with the outward historical events surrounding Christ’s life, there is a correlative struggle and action hidden in this interior life of prayer. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if, from the heavenly perspective, things don’t look the other way round, with this interior life appearing more concrete and determinate than the mere accidents of history in the economy of salvation and the flourishing of the world. Not of course that we should ever be dismissive of the physical world, which God made good. But neither should we be dismissive of this stillness before God which we participate in through Christ. The evil in the seven o’clock news, it turns out, is not loud because it is powerful, but because it is desperate – it jabbers – its day and doom are set – every mouth and misdeed will be silenced. And it is in the awful stillness of our hearts in Christ before God – “be still my soul” – that this silence of victory begins.
Dr. Karl Persson is a part-time professor of language and literature at Signum University. Though his formal scholarly training is in the fields of Medieval and Early Modern literature, his scholarly pursuits are more broadly determined by his interest in the intersections of literature, theology, and the Bible, and he is currently contracted through Wipf & Stock to write a book making an Old English spirituality of suffering accessible to and practicable by modern lay Christians. In addition to his formal academic projects, he is a freelance researcher and writer, and blogs regularly at Patheos Catholic’s contemplative blog, The Inner Room.