One night during our graduate seminar, a student asked how hopeful we should be that ordinary people will experience a conversion of the soul when exposed to sublime beauty in great art—a lofty claim that is sometimes made in art’s favor. The trouble is that a great work of art can easily pass in front of our eyes without any real experience of it at all. Experience is more than mere exposure.

In order for experience to happen, there must be a certain receptivity in the soul. This receptivity requires stillness and silence, watching and waiting. We cannot hear a friend while we are talking. Nor can we hear a friend when we are are silent but only in the manner of those impatiently waiting their chance to speak. We must first undergo a basic conversion of soul. We must hold our tongue because we have a true desire to hear. Starting with this choice to hear, the soul will—of itself because it is natural to the soul—begin to settle. This may take some time, however. We will not immediately experience a listening silence if we have filled our minds with a noisy crowd of political slogans, punchlines, advertisements, flattering or frustrating snatches of conversation from yesterday, lover’s whispers, and the Devil’s lies. How often have I been unable to hear the strains of Brahms—even though I want desperately to hear—because my inner ear is deafened by a throng of shouting louts.

To listen we must begin to cultivate a walled garden of silence within the citadel of our interiority. We must guard the gates. We must build the wall, stone upon stone. This means a certain kind of fasting, refraining from trivial stimulants that would populate our inner castle with the wrong kind of peasants. The silence then grows slowly if we protect it, but it is worth patiently cultivating because it is in such silence that one can hear the word of beautiful truth.

Joseph Pieper reminds us that silence is a “prerequisite of the apprehension of reality.” Therefore, “only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.” We have a native power to receive truth and beauty in our understanding, but this power must remain “undisturbed.”

Of all the many forms of grace that we so desperately need, I sense that our noisy and distracted age aches for this especially. Let us pray for the gift of silent receptivity.