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Thinking Out Loud

The Weight of Silence

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 24, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Weight of SilenceWhat is the purpose of silence in the life of the Spirit?

This question has been asked for centuries by sages, mystics and other puzzled folks. And there are a variety of answers.

A close friend once told me that, as he was preparing for his first silent retreat, he was terrified. He could see it looming out there on his calendar: two solid weeks in which the only utterances he would make would be prayers in chapel and conversations with a spiritual director.

Why was he frightened?

There might have been several reasons. The purpose of talking is much more than merely the communication of facts or ideas, though, of course, it can do that. Talking also serves to draw us closer to others, and to draw them closer to us. It can be used to test boundaries and to express intimacy. It also can serve to buttress our self-concepts, reinforcing what we wish others to see when they see us. To leave speech behind can leave us feeling like we are appearing naked in public. Stripped of our self-presentations, our subtle ways of self-credentialing and self-ranking, we walk about in the presence of others denuded of many (though, by all means, not all) of the things we use to define ourselves to others. That can be scary. And coming to terms with the false selves we present to ourselves and others is a large part of the spiritual work we do in silence and solitude. But I don't think that was what was frightening my friend.

I think he felt apprehension at the sheer weight of silence.

He is a busy professional, responsible for a massive organization. He is surrounded by meaningful conversations, complex activities, and the hum of the bee hive all day every day. And as he looked at his calendar, usually full of meetings, conferences, work, and he saw that vast open section that just read, "SILENT RETREAT" stretching for two weeks, he could feel the weight of the silence awaiting him. He sensed it yawning like an empty chasm. All that open, silent space. You can almost hear him asking:  "What will be expected of me there? What will I do with myself? What will fill that time? What will I encounter when the chatter and the noise and the distractions cease for so long?"

I recall the weight of silence descending on me the first time I entered into a discipline of silence. The first twenty-four hours I was very restless. I was like a bee buzzing from one bloom to another in the garden, although it is doubtful I was harvesting anything like nectar. I couldn't sit for more than a few minutes at a time before I was off again, walking around, exploring the monastery grounds, visiting the bookstore. Walking up to the top of this hill, I would sit for ten minutes, then I trooped over to another hill. Looking back, I am conscious of the fact that every time the pall of silence began to drop, I peeked out from under it, looked around in panic, and immediately went in search of another place to be quiet.

Mind you, I wasn't talking. But my mind was chattering and my body was chattering, and I would not allow myself to fully enter the silence however little audible noise was coming from my mouth. It wasn't till the next morning, waking up early and feeling exhausted from the previous day's attempts to escape the silence that I began to pray: "God, silence within me any voice but yours." And then, I began to settle down.

St. Antony, often regarded as the Father of the Desert Fathers, said, "He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart."*

I have observed other people ruthlessly avoiding silence and solitude while on retreat. My initial response to them, I am ashamed to say, was anger. I know. I know. Having had such a hard time myself with silence, I should have felt empathy and compassion. Well, that only came later.

As I was sitting alone in the garden at Gethsemani Abbey one morning, I recall two guys I had heard after breakfast talking in the hallway leading from the refectory. We all had received the same instructions the night before: silence is the rule. Unless you are in one of the designated speaking areas (the reception area, a conference room, or the one speaking dining room) you should not speak.

Now the same two guys were walking together in the garden talking away. I was sitting on an elevated knoll behind the monks' cemetery, reading Merton's little guide to contemplation, having just meditated for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. From yards and yards away, across the garden, I could hear them chattering and laughing as they walked around the path of the Stations of the Cross.

Again, my first impulse, driven I'm sure by self-righteousness, was irritation. I judged them harshly for interrupting my prayer.

Then it occurred to me that they were just doing in a different way what I had done the day before; to be exact, they were doing externally what I had been doing internally. I had been trying, with only mixed success, to silence the voices inside my head so I could hear the Word of God. I had been externally quiet. I'm an introvert; there's really no virtue in me not talking! Of course, I hadn't spoken a word, but inside I was running with every crowd I could find chattering away with unseen companions. The weight of silence was bearing down on me. And I should have recognized that it was bearing down on them, too. We were just responding in different ways to what silence demands.

The great struggles all seem to happen in our hearts.

Why do we try so hard to escape silence? The answer, I think, lies in another story from the Desert Fathers, which I shall quote at some length from Sister Benedicta Ward's translation of their sayings:

"This story was told: There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, 'Blessed are the peacemakers' (Matt.5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found him also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see him who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, 'Look at the water,' and it was murky. After a little while he said again, 'See now, how clear the water has become.' As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, 'So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults."*

This brings us, of course, to the ironic shift in awareness which we experience regarding the weight of silence.

When we allow silence to do its work, revealing ourselves to ourselves, in times and places where God's grace can be heard and felt and allowed to touch our hearts, silence becomes spacious and light, a refuge we find ourselves seeking again and again. Yes, as the hermit said, we will be able to see ourselves face to face, and that means recognizing ourselves as sinners. But, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we also will be able to see the face of Christ who is all mercy and grace, and in whom we find forgiveness. The weight of silence, if endured, gives way to the astonishing lightness of grace.

Several years ago, driving south of Bardstown, Kentucky, on the way to my first silent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, I longed for what I anticipated at the Abbey like a person dying of thirst longs for water. And, yet, I was also apprehensive, with the anxiety of a person who doesn't know what will be expected of them. I just wasn't sure what it might cost me to quench my thirst. I entered into the silence with some trepidation. After all, I was praying with the Marine Corps of the spiritual life, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

In the days that followed, through silent struggles of the heart, through tears and sighs too deep to utter, through prayer, meditation and contemplation, long silent walks in the hills, long silent vigils in my room, worshipping with the community in the chapel, I faced myself. I came to myself. And, at the end of the retreat, from this place of silence and solitude to which I had driven in some trepidation, I departed only with the greatest reluctance.

These days, as I drive the farm road on each visit to the Abbey, and look for the spire of the Abbey church as it appears above the fields and forest, I am eager for the freedom I feel nowhere else in such abundance. I feel the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders as I move again into the silence.

The challenge, of course, is to take the spirit acquired in silence and solitude back into the world beyond the Abbey, to take the lessons silence teaches into our daily lives, to allow a heart forged in solitude to respond in the midst of our crowded lives. "There is," as Antony said, "one thing with which we must struggle" whether in silence and solitude or among the most noisome crowd, "our hearts."

Both of these stories can be found in Benedicta Ward's translation of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London, 2003), pp. 8 and 11.

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