Sydney radio host Fr Jim McLaren and the sounds of silence

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Silence is a quality which more obviously can be felt now that the calendar page has been turned to the first month of winter.

Changeable weather intrudes at times when bitterly cold winds gather strength, possibly whipped up by systems that produce pounding and destructive waves along the coastline.

At other times, walking through sheltered bushy areas produces sounds only from the movements of one’s own feet crushing leaves fallen after warmer times leaving above only the stark outline of tree branches.

Stillness otherwise pervades with creatures either relocated or hibernating.

That quality of silence may be found at other times in selected places but it’s always more obvious when even nature itself seems to be at rest.

Time spent embracing the silence of this season can evoke feelings that arise when we make our own quiet times for prayer.

Visiting the parish church when I was in primary school first gave me such a feeling. Attending Sunday Masses and weekday Eucharistic celebrations along with fellow students, or paying quick visits before or after school usually involved levels of noise as other people arrived or departed.

Dropping by on that mid-afternoon after being sent on an errand from the classroom provided an opportunity to experience a different feeling within the church: something like the sounds of silence, and triggered a greater appreciation of an opportunity for prayerful contact with God.

Using the term “sounds of silence” may seem to be rather counter-productive given that silence really doesn’t make any noise but it can engender a feeling, and those words were applied as a title to a radio show in Sydney many years ago hosted by Fr Jim McLaren.

“Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” were the opening words of the song Sound of Silence by the American duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel which was used to open many of the programs hosted by Fr McLaren.

Talkback callers filled much of the time on air and Fr Jim’s response was usually gentle and understanding, allowing his guests an opportunity to do the majority of the talking before he would attempt to offer advice and assist with addressing their problems.

In a tribute at the time of his death from cancer at the age of 70 in 2001, the archdiocese of Sydney said that Fr Jim through what it called his radio “thinkpieces” which were syndicated to stations across Australia pioneered the use of modern music to communicate religious messages.

This he did using a repertoire that was much wider for his Sunday night program than the simple presentation of the initial track and his success before the microphone led to him occasionally filling in for the former top rating broadcaster, John Laws whenever he was absent on leave.

It’s hard to find anything like the Sounds of Silence program on mainstream radio now because of changes to legislation which governs the operation of radio stations.

Former requirements for significant blocks of time to be allocated to programs involving religious issues have been eased.

To that end, it could be said that what may be called the sound of silence has embraced this aspect of broadcasting.

Programs from Fr Jim allowed the audience time to think about what his callers had to say and the relevance of that to my opening point about winter providing quiet times for embracing our own thought processes is to suggest an opportunity for applying such reflections through the immediate few months to come.

When we look at our human lives, we often equate the other three seasons with the earlier stages of growing and developing while winter comes near the end.

Signs of germination for the future are absent when the cold begins to spread its embrace – but we accept that new life can follow nearer the coming spring and soon begin looking for signs pointing to that future.

Our Christian teaching suggests that feelings about a winter in our lives also should involve accepting the promise of a coming eternal life – which may well offer something further to ponder when “feeling” the sound of silence through this winter season.