Silence in Heaven
Michael Westhead | The Daily Knight
The past year has been tumultuous to say the least. With all that has transpired and continues to develop within the Church and our Country, it can be easy to miss or forget another distinct characteristic of 2020: quiet.
Early in the shut down, I remember walking about trying to escape the mainstream madness and general delusion that had descended upon us, and finding respite in the remarkable silence. Many of the urban and suburban environments that I frequent had a dampened soundscape that heretofore I had not known, but was not unique. Researchers collected data from 268 seismic monitoring stations around the world and published their findings in the Journal Science. More than two thirds of the stations they examined showed significant reductions in high-frequency seismic ambient noise. In fact, “The 2020 seismic noise quiet period is the longest and most prominent global anthropogenic seismic noise reduction on record.” The reduction was so profound that, “this seismic quiescence extend[ed] for many kilometers radially and hundreds of meters in depth.”1 In other words, this silence permeated the earth.
Wouter Halfwerk reported in The Quiet Spring of 2020 that ecologists E.P. Derryberry et al. observed a substantial impact resulting from this quietude on animal activity, “namely, the songs of white-crowned sparrows.” As noted by the scientists, “[the] birds responded by producing higher performance songs at lower amplitudes, effectively maximizing communication distance and salience.”3 The reason for this enhanced singing was directly linked to the softening of ambient noise, representing a dramatic return to the soundscape circa 1950. “The amount of background noise across whole continents dropped substantially” they confirm.2
And then, of course, there is the personal silence experienced subjectively by each of us; maybe during times when we were forced into our homes, or when we sought spiritual consolation in desolate churches, or elsewhere in our lives. I think everyone experienced this quieting to a degree regardless of their position on the events of 2020, and its universal nature has prompted some reflections.
In the eighth chapter of the book of the Apocalypse we read, “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven, as it were for half an hour.” This silence in heaven is a lost concept in our busy age and is one of the reverential aspects drawing many young people back to tradition. There is an unconscious reverberation of the soul with this reverential silence in the Tridentine Mass because it is right and just in the presence of our Lord. Our Churches are the Domus Dei, et Porta Caeli, the House of God and Gate of Heaven. The soul striving towards her Creator must also be quieted, so like Elias she can her the faintest whisper of our Lord.
Silence, be it in heaven, the soul, or the earth means that God is about to act. Are not the Eucharistic prayers of the latin mass said nearly in silence, emanating from both the motionless reverence of the laity and the whispers of the priest? Have not so many Saints testified that the entire choir of angelic host present at each mass are, as it were, flat on their faces in adoration?
And so it was at the first coming of Christ, surrounded by celestial adoration and wrapped in the most profound silence of that holy Christmas night. A great clue is given to us by Saint Luke when he writes, “And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.” (Luke 2:1) Venerable Bede, the eminent scripture exegete and doctor of the Church, explains:
“A lover of peace, He would be born in a time of the most profound quiet. And there could be no plainer indication of peace than that a census should be taken of the whole world, whose master Augustus was, having reigned at the time of Christ’s nativity for some twelve years in the greatest peace, war being lulled to sleep throughout all the world.”
No right-minded emperor would conduct a census during wartime with its casualties and shifting national boundaries and thus such a decree testifies to the angelic proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.” (Luke 2:14)
Cornelius A Lapide expands on the state of the world at the time of Christs birth: “This census was taken by Augustus when he had the whole world in a state of peace, and had therefore closed the temple of Janus...” and furthermore, “Augustus himself having already learned from the Oracle of Apollo that a Hebrew child was born who had imposed silence upon the Oracles of Idols.”4 Thus we see that at the moment of the birth of Christ the pagan temples were closed and whole world, good and bad, were silenced.
In the Old Testament, silence in reverence and awe surrounded God, His temple, and His actions with many of the holy prophets attesting to it:
“But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab. 2:20)
“Be silent before the face of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is near” (Soph. 1:7)
“Let all flesh be silent at the presence of the Lord: for he is risen up out of his holy habitation” (Zech. 2:13)
What then shall we think of our day and the empirically measured quiet of 2020? Let us return to our sparrows, the bird that the Holy Spirit uses to refer to us. For sparrows we are, often caught in snares but freed to nest in His Kingdom, never falling to the ground without His knowledge. These sparrows came out and were heard more surely amid the silence, their songs more beautiful to those who had ears to hear. And of course, the sparrows in this study were not just any old sparrows - they have white crowns. White-crowned sparrows signaling in the silence. In nature, these birds signal spring, the old English of which is Lent.
Let us keep these many thoughts before us and meditate upon them frequently as we press onward. The mire of this valley of tears will only thicken in the days and months ahead. Come what may, let us be comforted:
Spring is around the corner, Lent is upon us, white crowns are being prepared and there is silence in heaven. God is about to act.
1. Lecocq, T., Hicks, S.P. et al. 2020. Global quieting of high-frequency seismic noise due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures. Science, 369, 1338–1343, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abd2438
2. Halfwerk, Wouter, Science 370, 523 (2020).
3. E.P.Derryberryetal.,Science 370, 575 (2020).
4. A Lapide, Cornelius. Commentary on Gospel of Saint Luke. http://www.catholicapologetics.info/scripture/newtestament/2luke.htm