Arrayed across the page, the words evoke memories, pluck at threads of emotion as though determined to unravel their mystery.
If you do not believe in the ginn, you have only to look at the heavens for proof. That “shooting star”, as you call it, what is it but the stone thrown by one of the angels in heaven when an evil ginn approaches too near in order to try to overhear the conversation of Paradise and thus learn the secrets of the future?
Another custom is the way they mark one of those pauses in conversation which in England is sometimes denoted by the declaration that “an angel is passing”. After a moment of dead silence, one of the company will say, “Wahed dhu!” (“God is One”), and the whole company in a low murmur will repeat, “La ilah ilia Allah!” (“There is no God but one God”), and conversation will be resumed.
I made a note of all the proverbs I heard in these talks, for all conversation in the East is enriched with unending proverbs, as with a wonderful power of expression in poetic form and idiom.
Reading on in S.H. Leeder’s Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam, I realize I’ve encountered source material for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The diplomat Mountolive, whose name provides the title for the third volume of Durrell’s series, reflects on the customs of Egypt using remarkably similar language.
“Ali says that shooting stars are stones thrown by the angels in heaven to drive off evil djinns when they try to eavesdrop on the conversations in Paradise and learn the secrets of the future…
Also, the pause in conversation which we call ‘Angels’ Passing’ is greeted another way. After a moment of silence one says, ‘Wahed Dhu’ or “One is God’ and then the whole company repeats fervently in response, ‘La illah illa Allah’ or ‘no God but one God’ before normal conversation is resumed. These little habits are extremely taking.”
Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, elements from Leeder’s work find their correspondence in the opening section of Mountolive. For the first time, I see laid bare the process of literary transformation, and smile.
Beyond the sheer delight of surprising Durrell at his craft, I smiled as well at the presence, even in Islamic culture, of the so-called “silent pause”. Western literary examples abound, as in this bit of dialog from August Strindberg’s 1879 novel, The Red Room.
“But as breakfast has been ordered for eleven, we’ll have to wait a while. Won’t you sit down?”
There was an ominous silence.
“An angel is passing through the room,” said Agnes.
“You!” said Rehnhjelm, respectfully and ardently kissing her hand.
Only three years later, F. Marion Crawford described the nature of the experience in his novel, Mr. Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India.
There are times when silence seems to be sacred, even unaccountably so. A feeling is in us that to speak would be almost a sacrilege, though we are unable to account in any way for the pause.
At such moments every one seems instinctively to feel the same influence, and the first person who breaks the spell either experiences a sensation of awkwardness and says something very foolish, or, conscious of the odds against him, delivers himself of a sentiment of ponderous severity and sententiousness…
“The Germans,” said Isaacs, “say that an angel is passing over the house. I do not believe it.”
The German expression Isaacs no doubt was referencing – Ein engel flog durchs zimmer (an angel flew across the room) – was collected by folklorist Reinhold Köhler in 1865. Even earlier, Jacob Grimm observed, “If among a group of people there is suddenly a silence, it is said that an angel has passed through, or an angel is passing through, its sublime appearance silencing worldly noise.”
While the French are willing to describe everything from bed and breakfasts to birds in flight as un ange passe, they also use the phrase to refer to sudden, unexpected breaks in conversation due to awkwardness or embarrassment.
In all cases, the implied question remains: is the angel the cause or the effect of the silence? Some suggest an angel’s passage causes conversation to cease. Others prefer to believe that the angel is aware of human awkwardness or embarrassment and “passes over” in order to smooth things out.
Even for those not inclined toward angelic explanations, the phenomenon is real. Some refer to any significant break in a conversations as the “Harvard Pause”. The phrase isn’t limited to academic settings but is used to describe all those sudden silences – sometimes awkward, occasionally discomfiting, always unexpected – that descend upon family gatherings, social occasions or boardroom discussions.
The source of the phrase seems a bit of a mystery. In a 2006 forum discussion, the member known as jshelus described the phenomenon.
You are at a party, everyone is talking in small groups. The din is notable, and people speak up to talk over it. About every 20 minutes… the din drops dramatically for about 30 seconds to the point where it is noticed by everyone, Then, it picks up again.
We both remember being told about the phenomenon as something that was studied by a Harvard professor and [thus became known as] the “Harvard Pause”.
Another forum member suggested the phenomenon had been explored in one of Jay Ingram’s books.
“[Ingram] hypothesized that the noise level at a party randomly goes up and down, and when it goes down to a certain level we subconsciously pick up on it as a signal to be quiet because something’s happening, and so the noise level drops further.”
When a participant recalled being told that such silences mean Abraham Lincoln’s ghost has walked into a room, it reminded me of my grandmother’s response to conversational lulls at the dinner table. “Someone’s coming to visit,” she’d say, though whether she expected Lincoln, an angel or a neighbor from down the street is impossible to say.
Near end of the forum discussion and before comments were closed, someone added, “I’ve only heard it described as (I’m sorry) ‘an angel passing’.”
That someone would apologize for making reference to angels is at least as interesting as the expression itself. If the forum thread still were open, I might suggest the Harvard Pause had to be invented because there aren’t any angels at Harvard to soothe those uncomfortable silences. Then again – because humor of any sort is difficult on the internet – I might not.
Whatever the truth about Harvard angels, we stand at the brink of a season when pauses of any sort are rare.
This is The Clamorous Season, a time when Christians complain about retail pressure and commercialization while non-Christians grump about bombardment with Christmas carols and demands for public mangers.
Still, whether we’re lighting Menorahs or seeking the Star of Bethlehem, awaiting the Solstice or breaking the darkness with bonfires, there’s much to enjoy in the social occasions, the decorating, the gift-giving-and-receiving . The chatter of children, the cacophonies of shoppers, the chants, cadenzas and choruses of song – these are the sounds of celebration, the means of our rejoicing.
And if silence should descend upon our celebrations like a pall, leaving us awkward and embarassed, if we should find ourselves speechless and tongue-tied, silenced for no apparent reason, perhaps we would do well not to seek to fill that silence too quickly.
We are, after all, in the season of waiting and sacred silence which some call Advent. When the unexpected silence comes, as it always does, and when we are tempted, as we always are, to break that silence with our chatter, Advent counsels restraint.
Despite the clamor, this also is a season of angels – messengers to humanity of a deeper, richer reality than most dare imagine. In the heart of every unexpected silence, if we pause to listen, perhaps we shall hear for ourselves at last un ange passe – an angel passing by.
No matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!
Andjeli Pevaju (Angels Sing)
Noć prekrasna i noć tija,
nad pećinom zvezda sija,
u pećini mati spi,
nad Isusom andjel bdi.
Što narodi čekaše,
što proroci rekoše,
evo sad se u svet javi,
u svet javi i objavi:
Rodi nam se Hristos Spas
za spasenje sviju nas.
(Click here for English translation)