A sacrament of pause

Coming out of spring break, I’m reminded of the gift of pause. Though many students and faculty may have been active over spring break, it is a time that offers relief from the normal routine. If you stayed on campus, it was much quieter and slower. The reduced buzz on campus was an example of a needed pause in life.

I make a living from talking as a preacher and professor of preaching. One might think preachers are only talking heads, running their mouths all the time, but this isn’t the case. The first word in preaching or any oratorical act is silence because words come out of silence. This means the first task of a public speaker is to listen. The first rhetorical move is a "hush," a pause.

Even the great orator Martin Luther King Jr. took days of silence, according to historian Lewis Baldwin. As a proverb notes, "A still tongue makes a wise head." Wisdom can be found in silence.

A major influence for King was Howard Thurman, who preached in Duke Chapel in 1979. If you listen to the recordings of those sermons, you will be struck by the long pauses Thurman takes. It’s no wonder that he had a spirituality that emphasized silence. In his book "Meditations of the Heart," Thurman wrote:

"How Good it is to center down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!"

Silence is built into human speech as Derek Nelson, associate professor of religion at Wabash College, explains:

"The act of speaking itself is simply sound punctuated by silence, sound rendered intelligible by silence. Speaking is phoneme, pause, phoneme, pause, phoneme. Speaking without silence is incomprehensible. It would be like a typewriter whose carriage did not move with each new letter, so that every letter was struck on the same place on the paper."

Pause allows for a speaking that is without our speaking. It allows space for the other’s voice among our voices. Pause ensures that we do not fill up all of the acoustical air with our words. A pause allows for the potential of "the music not heard with ears."

The pianist David Tudor leaned into this idea when he walked on stage at the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, on Aug. 29, 1952. He sat down at the piano and — for four and a half minutes — made no sound. He performed "4'33″," a conceptual work by musician John Cage. It’s been called the "silent piece," but its purpose is to make people listen. Cage didn’t believe there was such a thing as silence because one could hear other sounds during that piece — the wind, raindrops, people talking or walking out. Many didn’t really care for this musical experiment, including his own mother. Performance expectations were not met on that day, but it may also be the case that people just have a hard time with silence because we may not like what we hear when we pause.

In his book "The Hum," Evans Crawford, a retired Howard University professor, takes it even further. He sees a connection between pauses in preaching and truth itself:

"Sermon pause represents not only a rest from the sound of the preacher’s voice, but an opening in the preacher’s consciousness through which the musicality of the spirit breathes so that the musicality of the sermon resonates with the living truth."

Pauses in public speech make room for divine breath, the Presence in the pause. We pause to inhale divine life and exhale this life to others. This goes beyond human speech. There is what might be called, "a sacrament of pause."

Silence — as uncomfortable as it can be — could be what we need in our TikTok society full of talking media heads. The pause could be a nuanced corrective to how we operate in the world. Rather than standing up and speaking up, maybe the next best wisest move is to sit down and listen to the music of silence.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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