The Power of Silence

I have always been attracted to silence — to listening for another voice that may speak, as one of my favorite poets puts it. For me, the voice that may speak is a Voice–God’s Spirit somehow urging, nudging, moving, calling my self to insight, to respond to such transcendent engagement that may break through in the silence. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. And in her book of collected poems, Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), she offers the following:


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak. (P. 37)

And of course, for me, the voice that may speak is a Voice–God’s Spirit somehow urging, nudging, moving, calling my self to insight, to respond to such transcendent engagement that may break through in the silence.

I have always been attracted to silence. Some of you may know that I am an Oblate of an Anglican monastic order, The Order of Julian of Norwich, which is essentially a contemplative Order devoted to silent prayer as its main “work.” But I have to confess that I’m having some trouble with silence these days, since I have come to inhabit my house alone since my husband  died, and the silence can sometimes haunt. One longs for human voice, so I pick up the phone and talk to a friend or turn on NPR or listen to Pandora on my iPhone, or go out to a restaurant with friends or even alone–in order to have human contact. But I do still practice silent prayer too, often for a while after morning Eucharist. So this is a process of contemplative return for me in this solitary life not of my own choosing–getting accustomed to being a widow.

Silence is indeed filled with power–for good or for bad. I’m preaching next Sunday and the sermon will also be posted on this website. Based on Matthew 18, the sermon is concerned with confrontation and reconciliation with another we feel has wronged us some way or another. Many of us develop strategies to deal with hurt, and one that is particularly poisonous is to respond with the silent treatment. It’s both punishing and rejecting, allowing for little opportunity to work through conflict and heal in the process. And there is always conflict that arises in any kind of community–family, work place, or church. (After all, where two or three are gathered … there is going to be conflict, right?) So in this case, silence doesn’t work.

But quiet can also be a way into peace and a way into hearing God’s sound of sheer silence–that other Voice that Oliver obliquely refers to in her poem above. Silence in fact is a fascinating topic to ponder. Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch has just come out in paperback. It now sits on my desk and I’m eager to delve into its pages. As its title suggests, MacCulloch–a first rate historian–covers the roots of the Judeo-Christian practice of silence, from its Biblical base through early and later monasticism both East and West, through the Reformation to the contemporary religious scene. The publisher has the following to say: “We live in a world dominated by noise. Religion is for many a haven from the cacophony of everyday life, allowing us to pause for silent contemplation [as Oliver poetically puts it]. But there are may forms of religious silence, both positive and negative–from contemplation and prayer to repression and evasion [e.g., regarding clergy sexual abuse]. … Silence challenges our fundamental views of spirituality and illuminates the deepest mysteries of faith.”

I’m looking forward to reading MacCulloch. Maybe I’ll take him with me as I head out with a friend, flying to Amsterdam next week. We’re taking a Viking river cruise up the Rhine River, from Amsterdam to Basel and then flying out of Zurich to head home ten days later. Most of our time will be spent in Germany, exploring castles and cathedrals and mediaeval towns–and of course sipping lovely German wine–along the way. Perhaps the next blog posting will include a few photos of our journey.