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The Sound and the Silence

(for National Pastoral Musicians Convention,

East Brunswick, IN 30 June, 08)

the sea, the earth and the sky

In the mid-1980s, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a marvelous essay on liturgy and sacred music, and, what may come as a surprise, he ended it by quoting Mahatma Gandhi thus:

Gandhi refers to the three living spaces of the cosmos and to the way in which each of these living spaces has its own mode of being.Fish live in the sea, and they are silent. Animals on the earth cry.But the birds, whose living space is the heavens, sing.Silence is proper to the sea, crying to the earth, and singing to the heavens.[1]

Then he goes on to say that we human beings, however, have a share in all three of those realms, the silence of the sea, the cry of the earth and the song of the heavens, because we bear within ourselves the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of heaven, and for that reason all three of those properties belong to us: silence, crying, and singing.But in our present time, he lamented, the cry is all that remains for us if we are without transcendence, if we will to be only earth or if we attempt to make heaven and the depths of the sea into earth.

Id like to take that same teaching of Gandhi as my starting point, but mainly to concentrate on this first level, the silence of the sea and the mystery of sound.

the power of sound

In Indian philosophy sound has many levels of meaning.The broadest term in Sanskrit is shabda.Shabda is never simply noise; Hindus believe that shabda-sound has power.And what is especially powerful is any sound created by human beings because they are intentionally focused releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, and above all in chanted mantras.Hindus believe that when the spoken word is properly controlled it can reconnect us with the source of creation, and lead to direct illumination.Thus arises devotion to the folk goddess named Vac, who is considered the mother of all mantras in the Tantric tradition.She is the god who channels sound into speech.†† Hence, too, the importance placed upon the chanting of the scriptures, particularly the Vedas, which when sung properly are believed literally to release the wisdom they contain as real sacred energy that can actually create the spiritual states of mind and of life which the words describe,[2] and influence the course of human destiny and even the order of the Universe.Sanskrit is now considered a dead languagebut in the Indian meditations Sanskrit words are used because of the power of sound and vibration that is contained in them.[3]So the Brahmin priests who spend their childhood learning the scriptures by heart and chanting them every day in the temple, as well as the sadhus who wander the land chanting the sacred mantras and singing bhajans and kirtans, are doing so not only for their own spiritual attainments, but for maintaining the equilibrium of the world as well.Id like to think of myself in this lineage.

Another Sanskrit word for sound is sphota.Sphota is the word used to name two things.First of all it is the capacity that is in the shabdasound to burst forth[4] and manifest its sourceand the source of all shabda of course is ultimately none other than Brahman who is the essence of all speech.Sphota is also used to describe the eternal word that arises from the unmoving principle with the illuminating power called shakti.The Sarvadarsana-samgraha teaches that this eternal word, called sphota is actually the cause of the world, and is actually identical with Brahman; and it shines out in the meaning of all things, and it is the source of the whole world.[5]

One other broad term for sound in Sanskrit is nada, and there are two types of nada.There is ahata nada,which is struck sound, sound that is produced, sound that gives some kind of immediate, usually pleasurable, impact.This refers to sounds of all kinds whether a human being can hear them or not.This, of course, is the same as the Western understanding of sound that always comes from some kind of movement, from something having been struck, either the wind through the vocal cords or through a reed, or the percussive sound of the plucking of strings or the beating of a membrane.But according to Indian philosophy there is yet another type of nadasound, which is the source of the first kind, and that is called anahata nada, the un-struck sound, the cosmic sound. This is sound that is potential, sound that is thought but not expressed.The heart chakra is called the anahata, because the beating heart is a symbol of un-struck sound. This cosmic sound of anahata nada is only perceptible to the poet or the rishithe seer; it is the un-struck sound that vibrates in space without a cause, the sound that is produced from the ether.Unlike the Western notion of sound, this is not sound that comes from vibration; this is the sound that causes the vibration that in turn sets all life in motion.The anahata nada is also the sound of devotion and concentration, the sound that the yogi hears in deep meditation.There is no sound in the external world that corresponds to this internal one, but it is said that all other sound comes out of this, the un-struck sound.

We could also say though that according to Indian philosophy the most primal reality of soundis actually nada Brahmathe sound of God, or God-as-Sound, the form of the formless.[6]And this is where OM comes in.What the OM symbolizes is the sound of Nada-Brahman, the sound of the sphota, the God-sound.That is why OM is considered to be the mahamantrathe Great Mantra, because it is the sound of God manifesting. The second century compiler of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes, Gods manifesting symbol is the word of glory OM.[7]And the first and last sound heard by the enlightened is OM.

The last word yogis hear before passing into the final condition of illumination is OM;

when they pass out of it and come to their senses again,

the first word they hear is OM.[8]

All ahata nadastruck sound is a manifestation of the deeper un-struck sound, the anahata nada, that is to say, of the OM.OM is the symbol of sphota, God as eternal Word.And since a symbol can never be separated from the thing it signifiesas both Western and Indian philosophy teachso OM and sphotaGod as Word are one.

Sonically, the mantra OMand it actually is a mantra, the shortest of mantrasis made up of three sounds, AUM, and is thought to be the generalized symbol of all possible sounds, representing the whole phenomenon of sound production.As Vivekananda writes, even though any word symbol that tries to express this inexpressible sphota is going to particularize it in such a way that it will no longer be the sphota, still OM is its truest symbol because the combination of these three specific soundsA≠U≠≠Mparticularizes it the least and at the same time most approximately expresses its nature.

When you worship God with form, you must have a name

Call God what you please, but OM is Gods universal name. [9]

So when Hindus begin and end every prayer with OM, they are beginning and ending with the Nada-Brahman, the God sound, or God-as-Sound.God spoke it came to be, God commanded, it sprang into being.[10]What did God say?The Indian might say God said, OM, the word that is with God, and in some way is God, through which all things come into being.

the Word

So, John begins his Gospel this way:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,

and without him not one thing came into being.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us...[11]

It is not a very far stretch to see something very close to the Judeo-Christian understanding of sound and specifically Christ as the Word hidden here in all of this.One can hardly avoid the similarity between the OM and the Word of Christianity, especially since both are associated with Creation.The Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan, commenting on the Prologue of the Gospel of John, says its thinking is identical to Indian Vedanta philosophy, and not just among Hindus:

but among the Semitic, the Hebrew races the great importance of the Word was recognized.The sacred name, the sacred word, were always esteemed in the Jewish religion.Also in Islam, that great religion whose mysticism the West is only beginning to discover, one finds the doctrine of IsmaÔsm which translated, is the doctrine of the mystical word.The Zoroastrians [also] have always preserved the sacred words.[12]

The Hebrews, like the Greeks, regarded language, being composed of sounds, as possessing a creative power of its own to conjure things up.In the Hebrew mind language does not just convey meaning; the very melodiousness and rhythm of the sound of language affect human beings even in their physical nature.So the spoken word does not serve only a phonetic purpose; even the spoken word functions as a rhythmic and musical force at the same time as it operates as language.Gerald Van Rad calls it rational art-material which is shaped for its own sake.[13]In other words, the early Israelites were convinced that the word possessed creative power, and the word of YHWH even more so, since it towers incomparably high above mere mortal words.So Moses insists that the people should not think of the Lords word as empty, as does Isaiah:

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;

it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will,

achieving the end for which I sent it.[14]

And the psalmist says that

By Gods word the heavens were made;

by a breath of his mouth all the stars....

For God spoke it came to be;

God commanded and it stood forth[15].

And Psalm 147 says that the Lord calls the stars by name.The divine sound, the divine word is an event, a happening in history.

Just as for the Indian sphota is the eternal Word without divisionthe cause of the world, the essential and eternal material of all names and ideas, the power through which the Lord creates the Universe, and is in truth itself Brahmanso in the Christian tradition we speak of Jesus as that Word that God speaks, the logos.Could we justifiably translate the prologue to Johns Gospel, In the beginning was the sphota?Certainly Abhishiktananda would have us do something similar, he who found such power and light in the manifestation of the Word under the form of the OM.In his diary he translates the prologue of John into Sanskrit: agre OM as it...

In the beginning was the OM,

and OMwas in Brahman,

and the OM was Brahman.

All things were made through him and for him

And OM was made flesh.

He continues then to speak of the OM, this sound of God manifesting, resounding everywhere, in the Indian Upanishads and Shaivite ritual as well as in Christian liturgies and in the Bible, especially in the psalms.In a particularly moving passage, he says the OM is the groan of the afflicted, the song of the contented, anger at evil, the fervent appeal, the act of trust, of love.[16]

Putting all this together, we can say that Christ is the Word, the sphota, made flesh, the Word that was made flesh to dwell among us, with the power to burst forth and manifest the source, the Father.Through the vibratory power of the OM, God created and sustains the entire universe[17] and Paul sings in the canticle from the letter to the Colossians, Through him all things were made; he holds all creation together in himself.[18]Hildegarde of Bingen writes: The Son is in the Father that same way that a word is in a sound,[19] as the second Eucharistic Prayer for reconciliation of the Roman Rite affirms, Christ is the Word through whom you made the Universe.So OM can be for the Christian the sound of the Word becoming manifest, the song of Jesus, the mantra of Christ who is the Word made flesh, the sound of the Word creating the universe through, with and in Christ or, perhaps better, the Word as the Christ creating the Universe.[20]

Abhishiktananda again writes of OM in Prayer,

we could recognize in the OM that Wordwhich eternally proceeds from the silence of the Father. It is in that same Word, made human flesh, mind and word in Jesus Christ, that all our prayer and worship ascends to the Almighty.[21]

the silence

The quote above by Abhshiktananda continues:

But even in a Christian interpretation of OM, it [the OM] is always in the first place a symbol of Gods ineffability, the very last step in our ascent towards him that is capable of outward expression.[22]

The≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠≠ Maitri Upanishad [6,22] teaches

There are two ways of knowing reality:

one is through sound and the other is through silence.

It is through sound that we arrive at silence.[23]

It continues to teach that the syllable OM is the Sound Brahma that the body uses like an arrow, with the mind as the point of the arrow aimed at the silence; and, switching to visual images, darkness is the mark, that which is soundless, immortal and enduring, Eckhart's abyss of the Godhead.That is where we are heading.In a similar vein Joseph Campbell (in his video interview with Bill Moyers) taught that the OM is called the four syllable element:

What is the fourth element? AUM and the silence out of which it comes, back into which it goes and which underlies it.Now my life is the AUM but there is a silence that underlies it and that is what we call the immortal.

So, just as the sound comes from the silence, which is God, it is also meant to return and return us to the silence that is God.It is silence that is the source and summit of all sound, speech and music.The Upanishads teach that we can simply take the path of silence, hoping to attain the state wherein we, like the rishis, can hear the anahata nada, the cosmic, un-struck sound.Or, what the Indian understanding makes so very clear, sound itself is capable of leading us to the silence, especially bhajansdevotional songs, mantras, the chanting of sacred texts.


Let me repeat that last bit in another way to make it absolutely clear: just as the sound issues from the silence, so can sound lead us to the silence.This is a poem from the 17th century Indian saint Tukuram:

God has never really spoken,

though a thought once crossed his mind.

It is the echo of divine silence we hear the birds sing,

and that is the source of all we see and touch.[24]

This, though perhaps not articulated often in the West, is certainly not completely foreign to great Western classical musicians.Here are few of the quotes I have collected over the years regarding silence and music:

from Josef Levine, the pianist: Music is painted upon a canvas of silence;

from Marcel Marceau, the French mime: Music and silence combine [so] strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.

Daniel Barenboim: Sound enables music to have a tragic dimension because every note is just about to die The minute you play two or three notes boundlegatoyou get the tension that is created that wants to defy the will of the sound to go into the silence.Not unlike human life, it comes out of nowhere, develops and ends in a similar nowhere.[25]

And my favorite is this from the great late pianist Arthur Schnabel who says of himself: The notes I handle no better than many pianists.But the pauses between the notesah, that is where the art resides!

This is a very particular concept to the Hindu, the space between the notes.In India it is called sandhya.What I found fascinating is that the word sandhya has a double meaning.First of all it is that space between the sounds, notes or words.But also the traditional Indian spiritual practice is to observe three times a day when the devout stop for prayer, the threshold times of dawn, midday and sunset, the morning, midday and evening liturgies.These times are also called sandhya, and are always associated with the Gayatri mantra: Om bhur bhuva svaha...

And this is what our liturgies, our prayer times, are meant to besandhya,threshold times, times in between.Even more, our musicand this may be my whole point, especially our sacred music (as if there were any other kind!) is meant to come out of the silence, grow from our listening, and should avail itself of the power to lead us back there as well, to the place or state in which we can await the sound of God creating the cosmos through the OM, because all sound ultimately has its source in the Word.

right liturgy

Back to the comments of then-Cardinal Ratzinger: right liturgy, the liturgy of the communion of saints, ought to restore our totality to us, teach us both silence and singing again by opening up the depths of the sea and by teaching us to fly like the angels.By lifting up our hearts, right liturgy can bring the song that is buried in us to sound again. Indeed, he says,

we can even say the reverse: one recognizes right liturgy in that it restores to us again [both] the depths and the heights, quiet and song... It sings with the angels. It is silent with the waiting depths of the universe. And thus it redeems the earth.[26]

My monastic prejudice will perhaps shine through if I say I think especially of the Christian chant tradition (including but not only Gregorian chant) and the so-called monastic style of liturgy in general (which is none other, it seems to me, than a contemplative approach to ritual), with its intentionality, its obligatory pauses, its focus on the Word, and attention to pace and flow, all designed simply to bear in mind how especially powerful are those sounds created by us human beings, because they are intentionally focused releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, above all in music carrying sacred texts.And perhaps it is only from islands of spiritual composure [such as these] that new cultural purification and unification can break forth.

Chrysogonus Waddell wrote beautifully about Boethius profound concept of a musica mundana, the music of the spheres, the music that is the principle that brings order into the whole cosmos as it moves through space and time in its solemn, mysterious dance.But in order to understand the musica mundana and participate in it, we have to be in tune not only with our deepest self, but with the entire cosmos. This of course is really the origin and true purpose of asceticism, monastic or otherwise, reversing the disorder created by sin, so that the individual could once more fall into step, with the help of Gods grace, and enter into the great sweeping rhythm of love and truth which forms the very essence of this musica mundana, this music of the spheres.

Am I expecting too much of us?Of our liturgical music?I dont think so.

the body, the souland the spirit

Now to return to the opening images, the sea, the earth and the sky For years now I have been operating out of a very specific anthropology, a way of understanding the make-up of the human person.(Incidentally we find out along the way that all of our theological-spiritual questions ultimately wind up being anthropological ones anyway.We are never simply asking about the nature of God; we are always intending also to ask the question, Who am I? or at least What does all this have to do with me?)I have grown most comfortable with thinking of the human person at three levels, that are not just part of a hierarchy, but a holarchy, each higher level including the one preceding: the body contained in the soul and the body-soul composite wrapped in and pervaded by the realm of spirit, that which is beyond and is the source of all phenomena.

I tend to think that the silence, the silence of the fish of the sea, dwells first of all in the body.And I associate the cry, which I like to think of as a howl (how apt, remembering Allen Ginsbergs famous poem of the same name) as associated with the soul; our cry is that of the soul, specifically the human soul, the human person being the priest of creation giving voice to the groanings of all creation that is in agony even until now while we await the redemption of our bodies.And perhaps, yes, the song is of the spirit, the song of our bodies giving voice to the promptings of the spirit and the groanings of the anima mundi-the soul of the world.

Most importantly, I want to propose that an inescapable part of our spiritual evolution is a return to our bodies, an absolutely essential, incarnational movement, because it is in our bodies where the silence lives and the roots of the song lie.†† Just as the possibility of the height of a tree depends on the depths of its roots, just as in vocal pedagogy we learn that every time we get a new note at the bottom of our range we get another on the topbut not vice-versa, so the deeper we sink into our bodies, the more authentic will be the howl of our souls, and the stronger will be the wings of our spirit-song, because it is in our bodies that this sea-depth of silence lies.This is why meditation is never simply an exercise of the mind: it is always first and foremost a return to our bodies.In the West we have learned meditation as a mental exercise, moving from one thought to the other, ever expanding out of ourselves.But in the East, and I refer here to the psychosomatic technique of the hesychast or Jesus Prayer tradition of the Christian east as well as Hindu yoga or Buddhist meditation, it is always first and foremost a practical science of pratyahara-withdrawing of the senses from outside and coming home to my body, whether it be through a dropping the chin to the chest and gazing at the center of the belly so as to put the mind in the heart, as Simeon the New Theologian suggests, or the stretching of the limbs so as to remove any physical obstacle that might impede me from sitting comfortably for a long period of time, or the art of concentrating on the breath that makes us aware and draws us inward to the deepest part of our own being, our own apophatic depths where the silence lives, and where we are already in some marvelous way in union with God because the love of God, we Christians teach, has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, and that love of God, as Jesus teaches, is meant to pour back out of us like a stream of living water or, better for our purposes, like the howl of all creation groaning and in agony, in prayers of intercession and hope, and, ultimately the song of our own self transcendencing.

And marvelouslythis is also very importantnothing gets left behind as we soar.That spirit song contains the silence of the muddy depths of creation, and the urgency of creations agony.Nothing gets left behind!Everything gets lifted up and made more sublime, resurrected, transfigured and transubstantiated.

And I want to emphasize something that the Holy Father might not articulate in the same way: I also think that that howl is very important.We dont want to get stuck there, but we dont want to ever leave it out either.Cardinal Ratzinger gave me another very important phrase.He said this is why it is important that there be the antechambers of popular piety and its music as well as spiritual music in the wider sense which should always stand in a fruitful exchange with liturgical music.The music of popular piety and the wider realm of spiritual music are fructified and purified by the music of antechambers on the one hand by its association with the liturgy, but it is also bringing something to the table: the antechambers also prepare new forms of liturgical music. From their freer forms there can then mature [something that] can enter into the common possession of the universal liturgy of the Church.(And, a side note, it is in this realm that he thinks we should be trying our creativityimplying not during the liturgy itselfin the hope that something will grow out of it that one day may belong to the whole.)

I am particularly fascinated by these antechambers and have grown to have a pretty ecumenical approach to them.There is something especially fascinating going on in the antechambers of the church, the antechambers of liturgy.People are finding spirituality, spiritual practices and ways of living that would put us to shame in terms of its integrity, dedication and transformation, and they are doing it outside the church, sometimes in spite of the church.But, again for our purposes, Im especially fascinated by the music that they are listening tosacred music from around the world, music of the Native American tradition, roots music from Africa, Tibetan chanting, Sufi qwali singing, and a huge audience for Indian bhajan and kirtan singing, the likes of Krishna Das for example and his album A Pilgrim Heart.This is the audience that helped make such a success of the huge sales of albums of Gregorian chant and the music of Hildegarde of Bingen in the past decade.As a matter of fact its mostly what we would describe as chant, or at least what I would describe as chant.

What Im also suggesting hereand I hope this is not too much of a side noteis that we may still be looking in the wrong places, or at least that there are other places besides pop music, folk music, classical music, and Broadway shows that we are not completely exploring in our search for our own voice in liturgical music.Perhaps in this era liturgical composers and musicians should also be studying with Hindu bhajan singers and the Brahman priests who sing the ritual and have committed the Vedas (the Hindu sacred scriptures) to memory; and the Jewish hazan who is not only the cantor but the guide of the synagogue celebration[27]; the Islam hafiz who commits the entire Koran to memory; [28] perhaps listening to Buddhists chant a sutra or their dharma lineage together at the end of a period of meditation.Why?From a practical standpoint these are types of music that sit gently on a rite and give pride of place to the word (if not the Word).From a theoretical standpoint, somehow I get the feeling that these musicians are doing the same thing we are trying to do or are supposed to be trying to do, and that our music comes from the same root, this challenge of daring to give voice to the sacred.And even more importantly, they are doing what we ought to be doing as well spending time in the silence from which the word (the Word) proceeds.

But most of all, for our music to really have spiritual roots, we need to return to the silence, the apophatic silence of the Father from whom the Son proceeds, the silence of the fish of the sea, the unstruck sound that is the source of all sound and toward which all sounds aims, the silence that is the apophatic depth of our own beings.

Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam.



[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI),Liturgy and Sacred Music. Adoremus Online Edition: April 2008 Vol. XIV, No. 2

[2] David Tame, The Secret Power of Music (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1984), p. 175.

[3] Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music, p. 248

[4] Indeed the word sphota comes from the Sanskrit word for 'a boil', hence the ability to burst forth like a lanced boil.

[5] Sarvadarsana-samgraha 13.6, as quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 917

[6]Russill Paul, The Other Half of My Soul, (††††††††††††††††††††††††† ), p. 65

[7]Aphorisms of Patanjali, 1:27, trans. Herbert Slade in Explanation Into Contemplative Prayer, (New York, Paulist Press, 1975), p.

[8] Commentary on no. 27, Aphorisms of Yoga by Bhagwan Shree Patanjali, trans. with commentary by Shree Purohit Swami. (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1938), p. 38.

[9] Commentary on no. 27, Aphorisms of Yoga by Bhagwan Shree Patanjali, trans. with commentary by Shree Purohit Swami. (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1938), p. 38.

[10] Psalm 33:6

[11] John 1:1-3, 14††

[12] p. 249Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music,

[13] Gerhard Van Rad, The Message of the Prophets (†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ), p.

[14] Is 55:11, cf. Dt. 32:47

[15] Ps. 33: 6, 9

[16]Ascent to the Depth of the Heart: The Spiritual Diary of Abhishiktananda, ed. Raimundo Pannikar, English trans. David Fleming and James Stuart; (Dehli: ISPCK , 1998), p. 166.

[17] The Secret Power of Music, p. 171

[18] Col 1:16-17

[19] The Letters of Hildegarde of Bingen, Vol. I, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994),p. 97

[20] For an in-depth study of this comparison the reader is recommended David Tames comprehensive treatment in The Secret Power of Music, cited here several times, especially his Chapter 6 Assessment: The Physics of the OM.

[21] Abhishiktananda, Prayer(Delhi: ISPCK,1999), p. 112

[22] ibid., p. 112

[23] This is how Russill Paul has it in the extensive notes that accompany his CD Shabda Yoga, from his collection The Yoga of Sound(New York: The Relaxation Company, 2000), p. 8

[24] from Love Poems from God, Daniel Landinsky, p. 343

[25] From the DVD Masterclasses: Barenboim on Beethoven (45)

[26] from Liturgy and Sacred Music by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) Adoremus Online Edition: April 2008Vol. XIV, No. 2

[27]The hazan is trained in Hebrew, vocal and musical mastery, and is considered to be the custodian of the liturgical tradition.

[28]In the orthodox Muslim world religious music is strictly solely vocal, and the hafiz learn a highly structured and refined art of chanting including specified pronunciation, pauses and phrasing.