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Review by Elizabeth Orens
Next to my desk is a pile of treasured books about silence, solitude, and the desert fathers: Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land, Sarah Maitland’s A Book of Silence, Rowan Williams’s Where God Happens, and Benedicta Ward’s edition of The Desert Fathers. I’m delighted to add Kim Haines-Eitzen’s Sonorous Desert to these old favorites. In a world overwhelmed by noise and distraction, these books invite us to experience the value of inner stillness and solitude.
Haines-Eitzen is a scholar of early Christianity and early Judaism at Cornell University. Her current research explores the relationship between sound and silence in the life of the desert mothers and fathers of the early Church. She argues that deep listening to desert sounds (thunder, wind, water, birds, the howls of wolves, the hisses of snakes) had the paradoxical effect of deepening their life of prayer and their inner peace.
Haines-Eitzen describes how the practice of hesychia (a Greek word meaning silence, solitude, quiet, stillness) gave the desert monastics an inner freedom from outer disturbances. It is a spiritual practice that begins by attentive listening to nature (the wind, rain, the call of a bird) and progresses to a place of profound stillness.
She quotes Thomas Merton, who said in his lectures on hesychasm (1962): “The sun on the stones and light and shadow, these are things that you don’t pay too much attention to, but they’re healthy and they create a certain atmosphere of silence. They help interior silence.” It is this attunement to nature and the inner life, says Haines-Eitzen, that we need today as we search for a quieter, less stressful life.
Haines-Eitzen’s research requires not only imagination, but also new methods and the innovative use of technology. Scholars in other fields are making the same point, including Karen Bakker in The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants.
And so, Haines-Eitzen turns to acoustical science. Listening to the sounds of the desert with the aid of high-quality microphones and field recordings, she discerns what might have been the sound experiences of the desert monastics.
Haines-Eitzen’s stories about her experiences in the desert complement her scholarly research. She recounts childhood vacations with her family in the Negev and the Sinai Deserts. She describes as well how she and her family spend summers in an off-the-grid house in the desert of southeastern Arizona. It is here — and at other desert sites such as the remarkable cliff monastery, St. George of Choziba — that Haines-Eitzen continues her field recordings to explore the relationship of sound, silence, home, and belonging.
She explains in her prologue the significance of combining her personal story with historical research: “Sonorous Desert is my attempt to listen to the history of early Christian desert monasticism and to reckon with my own relationship to this history, to recognize that my own longings for quiet solitude, the sounds of nature in remote places, and the experience of belonging have been shared by others.”
And she succeeds, weaving together research, spiritual practice, science, and autobiography with remarkable craft and sensitivity.
Haines-Eitzen reveals the profound rewards of deep listening. As she unfolds the wisdom of the desert fathers and the meaning they found in solitude and community, I wish that she had reflected further on the effect sonority had on their common life and their experience of faith, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Some readers may find the author’s balance between historical research and personal experience awkward, but Haines-Eitzen has written an engaging and inspiring book that provides much needed reflection on the significance of nature, sound, and silence in a noisy age.
The Rev. Elizabeth Orens is an honorary assistant at St. Paul’s, K Street, in Washington, D.C., and rector emeritus of St. James, Parkton, Maryland.