Paradoxically, we hear a lot about silence these days. In a world full of multi-sensory experiences, both actual and virtual, silence has become something of a panacea for the over-stressed and often overwhelmed psyche. Courses, classes, retreat centres even tv programmes promise silence as a cure for the busy-ness of life.
People seek the perfect silence –but our own physical presence creates sound – heartbeat, breath, blood rushing through veins. Noise, it seems, is part of the human condition; proof of life.
If noise is the human condition does this make silence divine? Is this why we regard it as something outside our natural abilities, that, in some way it is accepted as an ‘unreachable star’? Is this why we make the link between silence and the religious life? One place where we expect to encounter the silent space is the convent or the monastery. Unlike the media frenzied world filled with twenty-four hour multi-decibel distraction, even a religious community that is not dedicated to complete silence still actively timetables it into the day. It is the ‘place’ for prayer, for contemplation, for encounter with God.
There are those who recommend that we should be seeking silence as a positive addition to our lives, for physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. But is this just a bit naïve – silence is not enriching in and of itself – silence rather has a quality, a clarity that allows other emotional and spiritual experiences to express themselves; a space for opportunity - but like the Gospel story of the ousted demon, this space can be filled by angels or by even more demons.
Dictionary definitions of silence insist on the idea of absence; the absence of sound, the absence of communication, the absence of knowledge. It rejects society, community; it refuses to ‘share’ it connotes selfishness and secrecy. Silence has no positive attributes for a world that needs to know.
Silence is most popularly understood as absence of communication, absence of language. No-one speaks to you, you speak to no-one else therefore silence is created. Within everyday society the mere idea of this behaviour is abnormal. There is a perversity to silence that unsettles; that needs to be dealt with. People dread the awkward silence that can break up a conversation leaving both parties staring at their shoes desperately trying to fill the gap. There is the pregnant pause that suggests accusation or blame or asks for the unwilling reply.
In the classroom, where the modern focus is on stimulation and activity, silence has been become unwelcome. That we find the same students have problems when they are expected to sit for ninety minutes or more in silence in an examination room surprises us. Sitting in silence is considered a punishment, our inclusion room insists on silence – yet the students often remark on what a peaceful and productive day they have had – but as it was part of the punishment they don’t see it as something desirable in their school or home life.
The worst punishment I ever inflicted on my son was to tell him I was so upset with him I couldn’t speak to him (he was about 6). I didn’t hit him, I didn’t say I didn’t love him but for a sociable person who loved to communicate – I might as well have. I never did it again.
I try to make sure now if I have students sent to me that the ‘sitting in silence’ is to give them reflective and ‘letting go’ time - not a withdrawal of my (the school’s) concern or regard for them.
Yet, spiritually and in faith, there is the belief that silence is the language that connects us to God; the Mother tongue. When I try to describe sacred silence to people I ask them what is the difference between being in their house by themselves and being with someone else – even when that person can’t be seen or heard?
Those who are loved immediately get it – they are comforted simply by the knowing of the other person being present.
Those that aren’t say they would rather be by themselves – a silence with another person in it is a threat.
And it can be. For some there is the unwelcome silence of going home,unwillingly, to an empty house; the grief-laden silence of a missed loved one; the resentful and abandoned silences of promises not kept; visits not made. For the lonely or emotionally hurt, silence can be a cruel reminder and a vacuum from which the hurt does not escape. Who wants to contemplate how hurt they are? This has to be something we are aware of – that before silence becomes a place of rest and growth; other healing may be needed.
When I read Sarah Maitland’s ‘Book of Silence’ about the search for this ‘vision’ that she had; I did wonder what what her problem was –it was as if she was seeking an elixir of life - making demands on silence that not only needed to fulfil expectation but made the search exclusive to those who have the time, money and wherewithal. The idea of going to a place of silence suggests that it is a rarity outside normal experience; that it is a luxury; a retreat. Whilst us humans do need to find a place away from distractions; the aim should be, as a desert father said, ‘to find silence in a foundry’. The ‘place’ of silence should only be the first part of the journey.
I wonder if the silent ‘outside’ is like a cosmetic – ‘rehydrating’ the self temporarily – a luxury- allowing us to slough away the deadening hurts, tensions and stress.
The silence ‘inside’ is drinking in the water to rehydrate the living body to allow cells to heal and to grow. The human body is 60% water; we know we need to replenish the water. An atom within the human body is 97+% space. How do we replenish the ‘space’; the spirit?
I suppose I do have to thank Sarah for drawing silence to my attention. Because silence is natural to me I had not quite realised how unnatural it is to others. Indeed, I had not, until recently, noticed silence as the constant in my life. It has, for me, meant many things from reclusive and barren to universal and grace-ful. It has been imposed on me physically, environmentally, and psychologically; in hindsight it has been a sanctuary and it has also been a prison.
And this I have come to accept because, in time, with guidance and God’s help it has become a healing and sacred experience; the grace to carry silence within, is one I would not do without. But that has not been an easy journey. The silence of contemplation requires courage. I have had to hear, feel, know that God loves me; I have had to admit more and more that I am who God wants me to be; I have had to let myself be healed; I have learnt to be content (more than content) sitting with God because I know he is there in the silence and sometimes in that contentment I do hear him.