Silence. It’s 3:47 am as I write these words. The middle of the night is the most silent time in my house. But there’s not complete silence. I can hear the fan in the bathroom, I can hear a very small buzz coming from my computer and occassionally I’ll hear a creak coming from the bones of my old house. Occasionally I hear a car drive by. What do you hear in the middle of the night? If you are a city dweller you might hear traffic or sirens. If you live in the country you might hear an owl, a coyote or a mockingbird. I live neither in the city or the countryside, but a kind of cross between a city and a suburb. Sometimes I hear a cat fighting and sometimes I hear the Amtrak train several miles away. I prefer the sound of the train: there is a glamorous quality. I imagine the train full of people sleeping or wandering through the cars, smoking, playing cards and drinking cocktails. My imaginary train car looks like a scene from a ’50s movie. I know train travel isn’t the same now as it was then, but it’s still nice to imagine it that way.
At night we don’t hear much because it is night and most people are sleeping. The streets are quiet for the most part. But what about the daytime and what happens when we are intentionally silent during the day? Have you tried to go an hour without speaking, be that verbally or through writing? Most people can’t do this very well, even for a short time. It feels unnatural. That is why most conversations don’t have many pauses. We feel we need to fill the space. Space is uncomfortable. However, if we can practice silence, it can be a rich gift for the soul. We are surrounded by sound all day long, so much sound, that it blocks our ability to be human, to see the person that needs help, to slow down and notice the butterfly in the garden, to listen to others well.
I have heard about silent retreats but have never experienced one. I think I’m too afraid. An entire weekend without speaking sounds difficult and scary. I was part of a prayer group a few years ago and much of our time each session was spent in silent prayer, listening to our own thoughts and God’s thoughts. Sometimes 45 minutes would go by without words and although it was difficult at first, the time went surprisingly fast. At the end of these times of listening prayer, we all had a lot to say. Our words were often in synch with each other; they complemented each other. Only God could orchestrate such a thing. There were four women, sitting together with a spiritual director, none of whom knew each other before, coming together before God, and hearing his voice in a unified way. I suppose you could compare the experience to a choir, although instead of making music, we were listening as a team and then sharing our insights in a sort of symphony of words and thoughts.
The book of James has a lot to say about words and silence. James says that the tongue is the most powerful instrument in the world. We can do more damage with the tongue than with any other part of our body. We need to watch what we say. This is especially true in the age of the internet where people can say things instantly to a large audience. Many people, myself included, have said things on the internet that we probably wouldn’t say in person. Most of the time we would present those thoughts more softly or respectfully in person. Internet speech is raw, unrefined. It’s easy to criticize this kind of spontaneous and unedited speech. But maybe internet speech isn’t so bad. In some ways the speech on the internet is more real and authentic than the speech we share face to face. We filter our face to face talk but we don’t filter our internet talk as much. You can see people in a more honest way on the internet. That can’t be all bad. Still, I agree with James that we need to speak carefully and think before we speak, except…..
Sometimes there is a need to speak without thinking. If a child runs out into the street, we immediately yell at the child and run after him. When we see obvious danger, we must speak quickly. Likewise if we see injustice or danger, we need to speak loudly and quickly. Martin Luther King Jr. said “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Perhaps he was talking about the deadly silence of not speaking out against racial injustice. But he could have also been talking about interpersonal relationships and the pain we experience when a friend is silent. In these cases, silence says more than words. With words we can approximate the ideas someone is trying to convey, although often we have misunderstandings. With silence we can only imagine what the person is thinking and we are often frustrated because silence is so unnatural to us. Our imagination leads us to many places, many of which are wrong and some of which are right. Sometimes these exercises in imagination are good and we make little self-discoveries, but other times there are no self-discoveries and we waste time churning our thoughts unsuccessfully, like a soul trapped in purgatory.
People wonder why God appears to be silent. Actually he’s not silent at all. In fact, he’s got a lot to say. He wrote a beautiful book full of amazing words. He also speaks to us constantly, but it takes work for us to listen. The contemplative person who practices regular prayer can hear God’s voice with ease. In my case, I often hear God’s voice through visual cues–the beauty of nature or the beauty of a good book or piece of art. I wonder how it is for blind people. The contemplative blind person must use other senses to hear God. I wonder if their hearing of God’s voice is better or perhaps their sense of touch, taste and smell are more developed.
One day I woke up, read the paper and saw a news item that a car had exploded on the street behind us. I had not heard anything in the night. I was sound asleep. That’s a good thing because we do need rest from noise. Our days are often spent with explosions on a small scale and we need a break from that. I better get back to sleep.