Helsinki has a lot of wonderful churches. The Finns like their temples like they like their cellphones: simple and elegant. I could write about the majesty of Helsinki Cathedral or the modern splendor of the Temppeliaukio Church. But instead I want to tell you about the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. It looks like this:
The Kamppi Chapel of Silence looks like an enormous wooden salad bowl and sits next to a shopping center. At first, I thought it was a roller skating rink, but it’s a church. No services are held there. You can’t get married there or turn up on Sunday for bad coffee and a homily. Instead, you are invited to come in and be silent. That’s it.
It’s meant as a refuge of calm in a busy part of the city. It’s open to everyone, regardless of their beliefs and gets public funding. It is popular with locals and tourists alike. And that’s a part of the problem. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is deafening.
I sat in the chapel for about a half hour 1. It was never silent. No one was ever rude enough to speak, but there was still plenty of noise. People would come in, shuffle around and find seats. People would get up, collect their things and leave. They would cough or sigh. They would shuffle their feet and scratch their chins. They constantly made the kinds of quiet motions we all make everyday and never think of as “making noise.” The less background noise like speech or passing cars you have to contend with, the louder everything else becomes. When you’re sitting in a temple of silence, trying to eliminate distractions, every little sniff or rustle is a needle in your ear.
Silence is the thing we can’t stand until we can’t have it. I am not a monk. I’m a guy who watches TV while he plays video games. If my PC is takes more than a second to load a webpage, I’ll fill the void by checking Twitter on my phone. I listen to podcasts while I wait to fall asleep. I am always, always, always plugged into something.
So when I tried to embrace silence and it turned out it wasn’t just a matter of shutting my mouth and taking out my earphones, I felt a little betrayed. At first I blamed the other people in the room2. But it’s not their fault. They can’t stop breathing or shuffling any more than I can.
Then I blamed the architecture. The walls of the Kamppi Chapel of Silence are like the floor of a basketball court: polished wood than makes every little scuffle reverberate around the room. What’s the point of building a space dedicated to silence out of a material that amplifies noise?
But that’s unfair. Because even if I were alone in the room and even if it were made of acoustic tile designed to absorb sound, the room would still be deafening 3. I would hear my stomach rumble, the rush of blood in my ears, the pounding of my withered heart. And if I were struck deaf? There was still be no peace, just the sound of my worried mind whirring away, late into the night.
There’s this bit in the Bible4 where the prophet Elijah is hanging out on a mountain, on the run from some bad dudes who mean him harm. He’s supposed to go there and wait for God to tell him what to do next. While he waits, there’s a whirlwind and then an earthquake and then a fire. Elijah listens for God in each, but he doesn’t hear anything. And then after that, in the quiet that follows, Elijah hears the still small voice of the Lord.
In the silence, we’re supposed to get clarity. So we chase after silence, but we still carry the whirlwind inside us. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a fine experiment, but it proves that taking away noise doesn’t give you quiet, anymore than sitting down makes you still. You can’t create peace from the outside in.