“Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.”
― Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island
Whether for 10 minutes or 48 hours, many of the spiritual activities that Godspace promotes call for silence. Very few of us are called to perpetual silence, but, as Thomas Merton points out it is enriching to alternate silence and sound. Yet what is silence for and how do we achieve it? Recently 16 of us went on a 48 hour silent retreat and I was forced to tackle these questions. I’m not yet sure of the answers, (and I am not sure that in all situations the same kind of silence is called for, nor that it need be the same for each of us). I would like to share my thoughts so far with you, and perhaps you will use the feedback below to share what you are learning.
What is silence for? I ask because in general it helps in life if we know why we are trying to achieve something. Loosely speaking it is to be better able to listen to God and myself, but can we break that down?
- I need to focus so as to listen to God (or as Habbakuk ch 2 puts it, watch for God), putting aside other distractions, however important they may be. By practicing silence when I can, I am more able to silence myself when I need to. (We used psalm 131 on the retreat to help us focus).
- Letting my inner self be heard (how often I don’t actually know what I am feeling inside, because I do not take time to listen!).
- Speech always distorts the truth, particularly about God, because it bundles God into words and ideas that I have pre-conceived ideas about. To encounter God, I need to be free from verbalised ‘truths’ about God.
- As one who loves to speak, coming out of silence makes me more willing to consider the words I should use, the value of the things I wanted to say, the need of someone else to hear those things.
- Silence strips away many of the props I lean on and causes me to find what I really believe.
- Silence also helps me to learn about others. I often limit my understanding of people to the words we have shared, I can also learn about them from their posture, expression, silence.
- How to achieve silence?
- Silence may be practised both alone or in community, but I believe there is a particular value in sharing silence. Silence is different from solitude (in itself sometimes a good discipline). I am very bad at self-discipline so I am grateful to those who help me to explore silence.
- What about text messages? Just because they are not heard, they are still communicating, making ‘head noise’. They need thinking about, both to read and to write, so distracting me from God. Yet in a community setting they do have the advantage of only disturbing me and the recipient, if we really need to communicate.
- Is listening breaking my silence or is it similar to reading? Does it matter if I am listening to music or to the spoken word? Even reading/listening to a reading of the Bible can dull my ability to hear God, act as a defence I use against letting God in.
- For some of us on the retreat, it was not the silence that was most difficult but the unstructured time it created. How many unnecessary things I do all day to hide the wealth of time available to me!
- The part of speech that is distracting is the way it is egotistical; focusing on what I want to say, or on my way of saying it. Therefore joining in eg the words of a hymn or a community reading of a psalm is not destructive of the silence, even if in a legalistic sense it ‘breaks’ the period of silence.
A period covenanted to God as silence has its own value, regardless of the benefit of the silence. Too rarely do I make a promise to God to follow a particular course of action for a length of time. It takes energy and a clear decision to lay aside the things I want to talk about, worry about, deal with. This is a gift I can give to God.