My family and I recently returned from a great family vacation in Washington DC. While I have been there in previous years, this trip was intentionally planned to include various elements of touring this great city that are often passed by when time is restricted. So prior planning netted us a scheduled tour inside the White House and a congressional staff-led tour of the Capitol. In addition, with the help of the Metro system, we ventured to places usually untapped, such as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Washington National Cathedral. Though tired when we arrived home, our vacation was full, exciting, and everything we had hoped.
Being both the national and international mecca that it is, Washington DC is a busy, bustling place. The sound of traffic, both on the streets and in the subways, is never ending. Continual construction produces the noise of jackhammers and other tools of the trade. Warning sirens from various security and emergency vehicles regularly interject the cacophony. Helicopters and jets dart across the sky day and night. Even inside the most esteemed museums, the beep and buzz of security scanning equipment interrupts the expected quiet. Such is life in this big city.
This commonality of commotion made it especially meaningful when I found myself in places of silence. This happened three times on our visit, in three places that I will never forget. The first experience of silence occurred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While not surprising, the silence was noticeably stark in comparison to the usual volume of sound. We stood at the Tomb for over 30 minutes, watching the sentinel guard perform his succinct march back and forth in front of this sacred place. Then we observed the Changing of the Guard, a solemn ceremony reflecting the somber duty of these men to guard the precious preserved remains of those men who, making the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, remain known but to God. As people of all ages, all ethnicities, all backgrounds, filed quietly in and out of that place, the silence remained constant. Cell phones were off. Children were told to be quiet and babies were held tight and rocked so they did not disturb the silence. As I stood there and looked at the glistening white tomb and then the skyline of Washington DC beyond it, I was struck with the meaning of such a great silence. Though it may seem that we sometimes forget what our freedom cost, when we are faced with the reminder, we do realize the rarity of this freedom we experience every day. We do remember the price that has been paid. We do not want to forget, so we take the time to journey to this place of remembrance for the common man who paid an uncommon price. The silence of honor.
The next morning our family made the trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We began our visit at “Daniel’s Story”, a permanent display for children explaining how a young Jewish boy’s life changed dramatically as the Nazi regime took over Germany. Then we made our way through three floors of historical artifacts and records that present the horrific sequence of events that led into the unthinkable time period in world history called the Holocaust. The propaganda, teachings, dictatorship, and intent to destroy segments of population considered unfit, are almost more than the mind can comprehend. Yet with each new photo and display, we are confronted with the fact that all of these things did occur, at levels of atrocity that go far beyond what the average person has known. Considering just the children alone, 1.5 million were killed in this time period. The concentration camps, gas chambers, death marches, all scream loudly of the capability of mankind to perform evil against itself at an unspeakable level. At the end of this tour, viewers find themselves in a rotunda-like room called the Hall of Remembrance. Surrounding this room is a ring of small candles, waiting to be lit by those who have just entered. Central to the room is a large, continually burning flame placed above a marble case containing dirt, earth, collected from sites at concentration camps, mass burial sites, and battlefields where soldiers lost their lives fighting this evil. Surrounding this marble hall are benches that provide a place for contemplation. As I lit a candle and sat down on a bench to absorb all I had just learned, the silence was my friend. There were no words to be said at this time, not for anyone who entered this hall. Yes, we had moved quietly through the tour chambers, politely moving aside for each other to read, whispering our comments to others so as not to disturb. But in the Hall of Remembrance, there was truly nothing left to say. Only the heart could whisper a prayer that such an atrocity will never be executed by humans against humans again. The silence of horror.
On the final day of our vacation we made our way, by subway and bus, to the Washington National Cathedral. Standing outside this place of worship looking up at the towering spirals is enough to take your breath away. Entering the cathedral brings the visitor immediately into the large nave, the main worship area framed by high stone arches and breathtaking stained glass windows. A tour guide led us through several smaller chapels, pointing out beautiful stonework, wrought iron work, paintings and tapestry. As the tour ended, we made our way into the Great Choir area and listened to a brief organ recital presented on the 10,000+ pipe organ which filled the great worship room and lifted the eyes, the ears and the heart heavenward. After the majestic echoes of the organ fell silent, there was a silence among the group assembled there. We left our seats and quietly exited the nave of the cathedral. In a place of magnificent size, where everywhere is carved the phrase, “To the glory of God”, one cannot help but feel small. And so we should. The silence of humility.
This vacation will be one I will always remember. Yes, the monuments and museums were great. I loved the National Archives and the buildings representing the workings of our government, the land of the free. But I will always find myself grateful for the places of silence I discovered in this city and the significance of that silence, the silence that reminds me to be thankful. Thankful for those who gave their lives for freedom, thankful for those who stopped a horrific holocaust, and thankful for those who knew that we needed a place of worship to remind us of just how small we are.