The silence beneath the public babble
Words by Pico Iyer

Giant figures are talking and strutting and singing on enormous screens above me, and someone is chattering away on the mini-screen in the taxi from which I just stepped. Nine people at this streetcorner are shouting into thin air, wearing wires around their chins and jabbing at screens in their hands. One teenager in California — in the city named for sacraments — was found to have handled 300,000 text messages in a month, or ten a minute for every minute of her waking day (assuming she was awake sixteen hours a day). A typical being in the privileged West now spends eight and a half hours every day in front of a screen. Even by the end of the last century, the average human being in a country such as this took in as many images in one day as a Victorian inhaled in a lifetime.

And then I walk off crowded Fifth Avenue and into the capacious silence of St. Patrick’s. Candles are flickering here and there, intensifying my sense of all I cannot see. Figures are on their knees, heads bowed, drawing my attention to what cannot be said. Light is flooding through the great blue windows, and I have entered a realm where no ‘I’ or ‘realm’ exists. I notice everything around me: the worn stones, the little crosses, the hymn-books, the side chapels; then I sit down, close my eyes — and step out of time, into everything that stretches beyond it.

When I look back on my life, the parts that matter and sustain me, all I see, even though I’m a member of no church or belief-system, is a series of chapels. They may be old or young, cracked brown or open space; they may be lectures or afterthoughts, hidden corners of a city or deserted spaces in the forest. They are as variable as people. But like people they have a stillness at their core that makes all discussion of high and low, East and West, you and me dissolve. Bells toll and toll and I lose all sense of whether they are chiming within me or without.

The first time I was asked to enter a New York office building — for a job interview 34 years ago — I gathered myself, in all senses, in St. Patrick’s, and knew that it would put everything I was about to face (a company, a new life, my twittering ambitions) in place. It was the frame that gave everything else definition. Ever since, I’ve made it my practice to step into the great thronged space whenever I return to the city, to remind myself of what is real, what is lasting, before giving myself to everything that isn’t. A chapel is the biggest immensity we face in our daily lives, unless we live in a desert or in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon. A chapel is the deepest silence we can absorb, unless we stay in a cloister. A chapel is where we allow ourselves to be broken open as if we were children again, trembling alone before our parents.

Whenever I fly, I step into an airport chapel. The people there may be sleeping, reading, praying, but all of them are there because they want to be collected. When I go to San Francisco, I stay across from Grace Cathedral, and visit it several times a day, to put solid ground underneath my feet. Returning to the college in England I attended, I sit on a pew at the back, listening to the high-voiced choir, and think back on that shuffling kid who wandered the downy grounds and what relation he might have to the person who now sits here.

So much of our time — my time at least — is spent running from ourselves (or hiding from the world); a chapel brings us back to the source, in ourselves and in the larger sense of self (as if there were a difference). Look around you. Occasional figures are exploring their separate silences; the rich and the poor are hard to tell apart, with heads bowed. Light is diffused and general; when you hear voices, they are joined in a chorus or reading from a holy book. The space at the heart of the Rothko Chapel is empty, and that emptiness is prayer and surrender.

In 1929 the BBC decided to start broadcasting ‘live silence’ in memory of the dead instead of just halting their transmission for two minutes every day; it was important, it was felt, to hear the rustle of papers, the singing of birds outside, an occasional cough. As a BBC spokesman put it, with rare wisdom, silence is “a solvent which destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.” Permits us, in short, to be who we are and could be if only we had the openness and trust. A chapel is where we hear something and nothing, ourselves and everyone else, a silence that is not the absence of noise but the presence of something deeper: the depth beneath our thoughts.

One spring I travelled to a chapel in the west of the United States, to give a talk as the light was falling. Great shafts of sunshine stretched across the courtyard, catching and sharpening the faces of students returning to their rooms. Later in the evening, since this was Holy Week, an enormous cross was carried into the space, in darkness and reverence and silence. Now, however, people were walking in from all directions, leaving themselves at the door, putting away their business-cards, gathering in a circle. They said nothing, and looked around them. The light through the windows began to fade. A scatter of seats became a congregation. And whatever was said, or not said, became less important than the silence.

Many years ago, when I was too young to know better, I worked in a 25th floor office four blocks from Times Square. Teletypes juddered the news furiously into our midst every second — this was the World Affairs department of Time magazine — and messengers breathlessly brought the latest reports from correspondents to our offices. Editors barked, early computers sputtered, TVs in our senior editors’ offices gave us the news as it was breaking. We spoke and conferred and checked facts and wrote, often, twenty, twenty-five pages in an evening.

I left all that for a monastery on the backstreets of Kyoto. I wanted to learn about silence; I wanted to learn about who I was when I wasn’t thinking about it. The Japanese are masters of not saying a word, both because their attention is always on listening, on saying little, even on speaking generically, and because, when they do talk, they’re eager to say nothing offensive, outrageous or confrontational. They’re like talk-show hosts in a nation where self-display is forbidden. You learn more by listening than talking, they know; you create a wider circle not by thinking about yourself, but about the people around you, and how you may find common ground with them. The Japanese idea of a dream date — I’ve been with my Japanese sweetheart now for 29 years — is to go to a film and come out saying nothing, if only because words and ideas separate those brought together by silence.

Perhaps I wouldn’t need this kind of training in paying attention were it not for the fact that I used to love babbling, and my colleges and friends in England and the U.S. trained and encouraged me to talk, to thrust myself forward, to assert my little self in all its puny glory. Perhaps we wouldn’t need chapels if our lives were already clear and calm (a saint may never need to enter a church; he’s carrying one inside himself, and his job is ultimately elsewhere). Chapels are emergency rooms for the soul. They are the one place we can reliably go to find who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. Usually by finding all we aren’t, and what lies beyond, behind the simple ways we try to place ourselves in a box.

“I like the silent church,” Emerson wrote, “before the service begins.”

I grew up in chapels, at school in England. For all the years of my growing up, we had to go to chapel every morning and to say prayers in a smaller room every evening. Chapel became everything we longed to flee; it was where we made faces at one another, doodled in our hymn-books, sniggered every time we sang about “the bosom of the Lord” or the “breast” of a green hill. All we wanted was open space, mobility, freedom — the California of the soul. But as the years went on, I started to see that no movement made sense unless it had a changelessness beneath it; that all our explorations were only as rich as the still place we brought them back to.

I noticed, in my early thirties, that I had accumulated 1.5 million miles with United Airlines alone; I started going to a monastery. It wasn’t in order to become religious or to attend services in the chapel — though I did go there, over and over, as Emerson might have done, when nobody was present. The real chapel was my little cell, looking out on the boundless blue of the Pacific below, the Steller’s Jay that just alighted on the splintered fence in my garden. Chapel was silence and spaciousness and whatever put the human round — and my human (too human) thoughts — in some kind of vaster context.

My house had burned down eight months before, and kind friends might have thought that I was seeking out a home; but in the chapel of my cell, I was seeking only a reminder of the inner home that’s always within reach. To be a journalist is to be beholden to the contents of just now, the news, the public need; to be a human — even if you’re a journalist — is to be conscious of the old, what stands outside of time, our prime necessity. I could write for Time, I thought, only if I focused on Eternity.

I’ve stayed in those little cells in a Benedictine hermitage above the sea more than 70 times by now, over more than a quarter of a century. I’ve stayed in the cloister with the monks; spent three weeks at a time in silence; slept in a trailer in the dark, and in a house for the monastery’s labourers, where I’d come upon monks doing press-ups against the rafters on the ground floor and planning their next raid upon the monastery computer.

Now the place lives inside me so powerfully that my home in Japan looks and feels a bit like a Benedictine hermitage. I receive no newspapers or magazines there, and I watch no television. I’ve never had a cell-phone, and our Facebook is the smiles and understanding glances of the people among whom my wife and I have lived for more than twenty years. We have no car or bicycle, and the whole apartment (formerly, population four, our two kids included) consists of two rooms. I sleep on a couch in the living room at 8:30 every night, and think this is the most luxurious, expansive, liberating adventure I could imagine.

A chapel is where you can hear something beating below your heart.

We’ve always needed chapels, however confused or contradictory we may be in the way we define our religious inclinations; we’ve always had to have quietness and stillness to undertake our journeys into battle, or just the tumult of the world. How can we act in the world, if we haven’t had the time and chance to find out who we are and what the world and action might be?

But now Times Square is with us in rural Idaho, where I write this. The whole world is clamouring at our door even on a mountaintop (my monastery has wireless Internet, and the workers downloaded so much of the world that the system crashed). Even in my cell in Japan, I can feel more than 7 billion voices, plus the Library of Alexandria, CNN, MSNBC, everything, in that inoffensive little white box with the apple on it. Take a bite, and you fall into the realm of Knowledge and Division.

Intel, the high-tech firm, once experimented for seven months with enforcing ‘Quiet Time’ for all of its workers for at least four consecutive hours a week (no emails were allowed, no phone calls accepted). It tried banning all email checks on Fridays and assuring its workers that they had 24 hours — not 24 minutes — in which to respond to any internal email. If people are always running to catch up, they will never have the time and space to create a world worth catching up with. Some colleges have now instituted a vespers hour, though often without a church; even in the most secular framework, what people require is the quietness to sink beneath the rush of the brain. In Silicon Valley engineers observe Internet Sabbaths in which they go offline from Friday night to Monday morning every week, so they’ll have something fresh to offer when they go online again; the most eloquent evangelist for our latest technologies writes his books on them without smartphone or laptop or television in his home; I know, much too keenly, that when I hop around the Web, watch YouTube, tend to emails, I start to speed up and feel jittery. I go for a walk, enjoy a real conversation with a friend, turn off the lights and listen to Bach — or open a long novel — and I feel palpably richer, deeper, fuller, happier.

Happiness, after all, is absorption, being entirely yourself and entirely in one place. That is the chapel that we finally crave.

Long after my home had burned down, and I had begun going four times a year to my monastery three hours up the coast, long after I’d constructed a more or less unplugged life in Japan — guessing that a journalist could write about the news best by not following its every convulsion, and writing from the chapel and not the madness of Times Square — I found a retreat-house in my own hometown. Sometimes, when I had an hour free in the day, or was running from errand to errand, I drove up into the silent hills and parked there, and simply sat for a few minutes in its garden. Encircled by flowers. In a slice of light next to a statue of the Virgin.

Instantly, everything was okay, even for someone who has never been an official believer. I had more reassurance than I would ever need. I was caught up in something larger than a tiny ‘I’ that could never last forever.

Later, I opened the heavy doors and walked into the chapel, again when no one was there. It sat next to a sunlit courtyard overlooking the dry hills and far-off blue ocean of what could have been a space in Andalusia. A heavy bell spoke of the church’s private sense of time. A row of blond-wood chairs was gathered in a circle. I kneeled and closed my eyes and thought of the candle flickering in one corner of the chapel I loved in the monastery up the coast.

When I had to go to Sri Lanka, in the midst of its civil war, I went to the chapel to be still; to gather my resources and protection, as it were. I went there when I was forcibly evacuated from the house that my mother had rebuilt after our earlier structure had burned down, and our new home was surrounded by wild flames driven by seventy mile-per-hour winds. In the same week, my monastery in Big Sur was similarly encircled by fire.

I went there even when I was half-way across the world, because I had reconstituted the chapel in my head, my heart; it was where I went to be held by something profound. Then another wildfire struck up, and a newspaper editor called me in Japan: the retreat-house near my home was gone.

Where does one go when one’s chapel is reduced to ash? Perhaps it is the first and main question before us all. There are still chapels everywhere. And I go to them. Yet like the best of teachers or friends, they always have the gift of making themselves immaterial, invisible — even, perhaps, immortal. I sit in the 8th century capital  of Japan, Nara, and I see a candle flickering. I feel the light descending from a skylight in the rotunda roof. I hear a fountain in the courtyard. I close my eyes and sit very still, by the side of my bed, and think of the second and final question before us: how to bring the stillness, the clarity of the chapel into the clamour of the world?

If your silence is deep enough, I tell myself, bells will toll all the way through it.

Pico is a British-born essayist and novelist best known for his travel writing. For more information on his life and works visit

All images supplied by the New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur, California.

This feature was first published in Issue One of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.

Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri