Why Silence?

One of a series of short articles on ‘Why’ taken from the printed 2016-17 edition of the Anglican Religious Life Year Book

by Bonnie Thurston

On an ordinary day, when or where does one experience silence? Noise is ubiquitous. We have become a people who spend enormous amounts of time, energy and money making noise. Why have we become people who cannot bear silence? Could it be because we are afraid?

We protect ourselves from things we fear. We protect ourselves from serious illness with doctor’s visits, vitamins, and insurance policies (in case the other two don’t work). We protect ourselves from injury with bicycle helmets and automobile seats belts. From what are we protecting ourselves by constantly manufacturing noise, including speech? We go shopping, and there is music in the background. We get in the car and turn on talk radio or pop a disc in the CD player. In many homes, the television is seldom off. It forms the constant undercurrent of noise in domestic life. I know a man who can’t go to sleep without the telly on in his bedroom. Even in our worship and liturgies there is precious little silence. We protect ourselves from silence by making noise. What are we afraid of in silence?

Truth be told, I think this noise making is about not wanting to know things about ourselves. If we are quiet, we might have to listen to voices from deep within ourselves. If we inhabit a quiet environment, messages from inside that we have been marking “return to sender” might be delivered.

Some of us chatter constantly. This reminds me of what the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (whose birth centenary was 2015), wrote in his book Thoughts in Solitude: “We put words between ourselves and things.”i We also put words between ourselves and other people and between ourselves and ourselves. I wonder if some of us manufacture so much language noise because we are afraid that if we are silent and listen inwardly…we won’t hear anything at all, that we will discover “nobody’s home.”

In No Man is an Island, Merton suggests people can hide behind language, that they can use words to hide from each other and from God. They “… resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise.” Thus they “… never discover that their hearts are rooted in a silence that is not death but life. They chatter themselves to death…”.ii Some folks talk incessantly to assure themselves that they exist. Talking is a way of asserting self in the world. Obsessive talking is sign of personal insecurity. The perhaps unconscious and certainly false reasoning is “If I’m not talking, maybe I’m not.”

People who can be silent are those who know that authentic identity comes from another place, another Person, from God Who can be known in silence. In a chapter in New Seeds of Contemplation entitled “Pray for Your Own Discovery,” Merton wrote, “God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of himself.”iii We are “partial thoughts of God.” God “utters us,” speaks our being as God spoke everything else into being. But how will we hear God’s affirming and identity creating voice, the voice that says “I love you,” if we keep our ears constantly full of noise and our mouths constantly full of meaningless chatter?

Unremitting noise and chatter is a barrier between us and the world, between us and God. The noise-addicted make it very hard for God to get a word in edgewise. The chatter-addicted are less likely to hear God’s voice, that “still, small voice” or “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) Who addressed Elijah on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:12), the “sound” which conveys the secure identity of knowing oneself eternally loved.

A created thing, sound is not evil. A few minutes of Bach or a few Psalms from the KJV prove the point. But, like many things, sound and words are wonderful servants and terrible masters. Merton (an articulate promoter of silence if ever there were one!) understood that authentic language, language that communicates, arises from silence. “Words stand between silence and silence: between the silence of things and the silence of our own being.” “Truth rises from the silence of being to the quiet tremendous presence of the Word. Then, sinking again into silence, the truth of words bears us down into the silence of God.”iv

“Be still and know that I am God” the Psalmist reminds us. (Psalm 46:10) Perhaps people who feel estranged from God, who haven’t “heard” or “experienced” God, or who have and now don’t, are listening in the wrong directions or are so assaulted by noise that they can no longer really hear. No wonder Jesus commands “listen!”. (Mark 4:3)

Christian spirituality bears witness that the ability to be silent and to listen are primary requisites for intimacy with God. In our world, one of the few places we can go to be silent and listen are monasteries or religious houses. Silence and listening are reasons we go there as guests or postulants, and why some of us remain to become Religious or monastics. But all of us can take 4th Century Desert Christian Abba Pomen’s advice to be silent and have peace where ever we live. And some of us will be called to make our lives a listening for God in silence, to be, like Abbot Bessarion’s monk, “as the Cherubim and Seraphim: all eye.”

i Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956/1977), 85.

ii Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1955), 261-262.

iii Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (NY: New Directions, 1961), 37.

iv Merton, Thoughts, 86.