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Silent Night, Holy Night

December 4th, 2009

Filed under: LIFESTYLE


On Sunday 29 November I attended a Dutch debate on the subject of silence, faith and creativity. The participants were diverse, ranging from artists, to pastors – past and current, to students, all the way to the curious wo/man on the street. The initiator of this debate was Studio Zonder Titel (Studio Without Title), led by Ingrid Bal, and in collaboration with design researchers, a curator, an academic and an artist. The questions we were asked during the afternoon left us with yet more questions. Being in this position is positive as these issues will guide future discussions on this theme.

Ingrid Bal is curious about the status of the church in modern times. She also wants to know more about the role of creativity in the pursuit of art and religion. She quotes frightening statistics, of tens of thousands of churches to be closed down or left derelict in the coming years in Europe; that we live in cities full of noise and bustle and cannot find peace in our bodies. Ingrid wants to work towards designing a silent space for Eindhoven’s citizens, so they can return to a source of inspiration and reflection, and realise the creativity that humans are programmed for. As I reflect on the ebbs and flows, the assertions and acceptances, the recognition and the misfiring of opposing and complementary ideas of the afternoon, I see this debate as a starting point to work towards how such a silent space would look. What we achieved that grey Sunday afternoon was a clearer definition of what we as a community are missing and seeking, as well as an examination of what silence, faith and creativity may or may not be. It doesn’t matter that there are different points of view. Well, it’s actually the point, I think.

There were two main statemens to explore: the first, silence gives space to a faithful heart and the second, that we should turn our offices and factories into the new churches because God has become homeless. As an onlooker, one might wonder what the use of these questions are in a secular society such as the Netherlands, and also whether the public would even be engaged by such a topic.

I was interested in the way the conversation turned upon itself. What is a devoted or faithful heart? Is silence conducive to having one, or is it the other way around? I am creative. I am not creative. What is silence? Does being silent mean being closed off? Is silence something that we can, or want, to share? Is appreciation only real if we share it? How do we reconcile the reality of media with our choices to shut down, not be contactable? Do we experience silence in our very bodies, our core? What are the consequences of all this for creative endeavour? And so began the string of questioning and debate.

For me, silence is the only way to recognise what I feel. It’s much easier for me to analyse, suppose, assume, to become perhaps neurotic, over all sorts of little things when I am being flooded with messages, panic or the demands of being industrious. When I stop speaking or trying to communicate an opinion, and allow things to ‘just be’, then I become aware of what I feel. Silence enables me to connect with my emotions. With this stillness, I can locate my heart.
This heart of mine has a history, full of arrogance, ego and self-importance. Only recently would I say I am getting to the bottom of my authentic heart. Once it was a heart that massaged the vanity of my modest abilities, alleging that the source of my uniqueness came from within. Today it is a heart that channels messages and ideas from a deeper, broader, wider supply than my humble flesh and bones: I believe I truly am part of something bigger. I would never have been able to identify the qualities of my heart, without silence. So in this regard, my answer is clear. (Oh yes, my human heart is marbled with pride and inflation, but my faith is a larger percentage of its make up these days).

When I think about what silence really means, I think back to how I participated during the afternoon. It was not as a speaker – as my Dutch is not strong and I understand 80% more than I can say – but as a musician. I play the piano, and have not performed in front of an audience for more than 13 years.  The purpose of my performance was to supply a moment of concentrated silence to the participants. Paradoxical somewhat, because I was given the responsibility to create an atmosphere, with sounds and rhythms. My interpretation of these old pieces of music was to enable people to experience a quiet moment. In my preparation for my performance, I experienced some very deep moments of silence, and of flow. I spent time in front of the piano, away from the piano, in meditation and also in panic. During the lead up, when I wasn’t listening to what I was practicing or what I was playing, when I started to worry about how I would be perceived and what people might say about me, I lost my thread. As I performed for those 5 minutes, I looked for a place of silence in myself, in order to produce a moment of activity – of creativity. Gladly I achieved what I wished: that I wouldn’t have a blank, and that I wouldn’t stop playing if I stumbled. Did I have a blank? Yes, most of the time as I was in the flow, but it didn’t interrupt the pieces. Did I stumble? Yes, numerous times, but I smiled and concentrated on enjoying myself. I was there for a reason, and not to be judged. That’s liberating when you are creating silence for others. It gives you a sense of peace. I created a moment of silence for others, through calling upon my own approach to silence.
What place does the church have, or rather, spirituality in today’s world? The world is currently at a crossroads. The economy’s current paradigm must change, individuals have the choice to make decisions on a mass scale to save our environment from the mutilation we consent to through indifference, and our prejudices mask themselves as righteous solidarity in the face of new diasporas. Do we worship at the altar of commerce? And if so, how can we turn these places into sites for meaningful connections with ourselves and others? Where has our awe of both our origins and destinies gone? Why have we assumed that we are each the centre of the world? What made us so arrogant, so closed, so quick to misunderstand? The questions continued.

I was raised Roman Catholic, as was my husband, and we recently made a tour of Eastern and Central Europe for 11 weeks in a camper. Naturally we visited a lot of churches, and heard a lot of holy music. While sometimes battling with the decadence of these buildings and how this was justifiable in places of such poverty, I was humbled by the faith that inhabited these spaces until secularity became widespread after the Second World War. I was impressed that no matter the architectural style, the effect was always the same. Deference and respect, stillness and reflection. In these frequent moments of silence, I became saddened by my faith’s wraith-like intensity, leaving me empty at times, and despairing. I saw that the last ten years had been a fight to recover my creativity and every time I took a step, I managed to take two steps backwards. Since then I’ve turned a corner. I now believe that only through my faith can I open the door to true creativity and make progress that will make a difference to the world and people around me.

I am looking forward to Christmas in Holland this year. I’m Australian, and I’m used to sweltering Decembers, resting with a full belly next to a thwapping fan after a heavy traditional English roast dinner on Christ’s birthday. This year it’ll be a chipper outside to contrast with a cosy inside. There will be the smell of fir trees and maybe I will be able to make out the jingle of an angel getting its wings if I listen very carefully. I will make sure we sing Christmas carols around the piano, and one of them will be Silent Night.

And when a night is silent, particularly on that night of nights, it is always holy.

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