The ears, Martin Luther said, are “the only organs of the Christian.” His point was not to contradict Paul’s “body of Christ” analogy but that hearing is the most passive of the senses. While the watchful eye and the grabbing hand both suggest a more aggressive mode of action, the ears simply receive whatever comes their way. Their lack of filter leaves them completely vulnerable to their surroundings and, in our modern age, they often take a beating. Chances are your ears pick up jack-hammers and sirens more frequently than trickling waterfalls and whispery breezes. The world is full of noise, what Ambrose Bierce once called “a stench in the ear; the chief product of civilization,” and we are at its mercy.

Bianca Bosker’s article in last month’s Atlantic presents a brilliant overview of our relationship with manmade sound. The ancient Greeks established the first noise ordinance in the eighth century B.C., “banishing roosters as well as blacksmiths, carpenters, and other ‘noisy arts’ from the city limits.” Today, it seems there’s nothing to be done about the hum of traffic or the clamor of construction, yet studies show that our ears are physically unable to adapt to their surroundings.

While we tend to downplay noise as a privileged complaint, its side-effects have been proven to take a toll on our well-being. One study correlates the soaring blood pressure of a group of children with an airport opening near their school. Another study suggests that test subjects exposed to the benign hum of white noise become mean, aggressive and more eager to hurt other subjects. Noise can “provoke people to murderous extremes,” Bosker writes. She sites multiple episodes from just this past year of neighbors killing each other over noise disputes, one man leaving a post-it note at the scene of the crime saying, “Can only be provoked so long before exploding.” As you can probably imagine, what’s most disturbing about these stories is how relatable they are. Who hasn’t been driven half-crazy by a neighboring late-night party or disregarded car alarm?

While the church body is meant to proclaim the Gospel and love people, one of its hidden offerings is to serve as a haven from the clamor of the world. Its physical structure alone can serve as a fortress for the mind and spirit. In his modern classic Unapologetic, Francis Spufford describes churches as “vessels of hush.” His description of sitting in an empty pew is too rich not to share at length:

The silence is almost shockingly loud. It hisses; it whines thinly at a high constant pitch, as if the world had a background note we don’t usually hear. It crackles like the empty grooves at the end of a vinyl record, when the song is over and all that’s left to hear is the null track of the medium itself. Which is welcome, because it’s the unending song of my self that I’ve come in here to get a break from. I breathe in. I breathe out… The silence hisses, neither expectantly nor unexpectantly.

And in it I start to pick out more and more noises that were too quiet for me to have attended to them before. I become intensely aware of small things happening in the space around me that I can’t see. I hear the door sigh open, sigh closed. I hear the creak of wood as someone else settles into a pew. I hear the intermittent murmur of a conversation going on in the vestry. I hear the sailcloth flap of a single piece of paper being turned over up in the organ loft. I start to hear things outside the church too. A passing plane. A bird in a tree. A car’s ignition coughing awake. The patter-tap, patter-tap of a leafy branch the breeze is brushing against one of the windows. Two street drinkers arguing. Layer upon layer of near sounds and far sounds, stopping and starting according to no score, none of them predictable by me, none of them under my control. The audio assemblage of the world getting along perfectly well without me.

Such an experience can help explain why meditation is a booming industry. We are longing for an escape from the noise. Silence and stillness are the gateways through which suppressed emotions can return, bringing self-awareness, humility and healing.

And yet, Christianity offers more than silence. For in silence we are given ears to hear a still small voice. As Christians, we experience a God who is not seen but heard. We hear his Word (or, rather, His two words of Law and Gospel) in scripture where the power of God’s Word lives. This is what Martin Luther was getting at: that to be human is to be one to whom God speaks. And now that we’ve finally taken a brief moment to listen, what do we hear Him say? “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12). In a noisy world, this word of comfort is all I want to hear.