A Book of Silence

When I went on my sabbatical into silence, six months at the Friends of God Dominican Ashram, by the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the things I expected to be able to do with all my freed time was read more. This proved an illusory hope as, in fact, my average one and half books a week slipped away to probably half of that even though my only outward obligation was cooking for our community on Thursdays!

As Sara Maitland discovers on her own exploration into silence in her 'A Book of Silence', you find yourself slowed, you read with more attention and greater care. Unlike her, who sought the different dimensions of silence and adjusts her reading accordingly - the Desert Fathers to explore the self-emptying silence of the desert or the Romantic poets and the 'self' conforming genius of creativity when faced with the solitude of nature  - mine changed not an iota. It continued in its wayward substance, reading along in what I now see is my haphazard fits of bundled enthusiasms that circulate around each other loosely.

It is a beautiful and honest book about a dimension - the conscious seeking after a structured silence and solitude - that is deeply counter cultural. Though I confess, her friends are not mine. Several of hers questioned the validity of her quest, even questioning its sanity, whereas mine were all full of cheering enthusiasm and curious enquiry! Not for the first time, reading this difference, I imagined that I live in a 'bubble', a sustaining one, but somewhat remote from the patterns of 'ordinary life' (that given an engagement with it, through work, at some of its hardest edges, is a continuous surprise)! It is presumably a product of my mostly seeking the good in people that even guilty peeks at the comment streams in newspapers refuses to displace!

In her careful 'phenomenology' of silence, read across both religious and secular practitioners (such as lone yachtsman and Arctic explorers), I was taken both with how familiar it was and how it 'missed' my most striking feature which was the release of dreaming. I would dream, vividly, seven or eight times a night, waking each time to notice before lapsing into another cycle. I would take such dreams as I could remember or fitfully note down on my morning walks with me, around the harbour lighthouse and back, dialoguing with them as you would on a slightly wild evening of conversation with an enthusiastic friend! Each night, they would 'answer back' continuing the unfolding conversation. On it went except for the two occasions when I stepped back into the world when they came to an abrupt halt resuming equally abruptly on my return. It was deeply ironic that in the wider, embracing silence of community and lakeshore, prayer and solitude, I was caught up in such a vivid act of conversation!

No wonder desert monks, I thought, imagined assaults by 'demons' (and ministration by angels) as I appeared addressed by 'daemons' - the rich patterning of a creative, polytheistic self given the space to be heard. As the psychologist and cultural critic, James Hillman, remarked the soul is always a polytheist, even as the spirit may seek oneness.

Interestingly, though Maitland skirts dreams, she does find herself hearing voices - that proves, through other accounts, to be a common pattern and gives a very honest and compelling account that brings them back within the bounds of 'normality'!

My most lasting impression of the book is the revelatory nature of silence. It, in time, given time, reveals our deepest interest and that is, often, I expect, in need of radical purification. If we choose silence, rather than have it imposed on us (or choose it even if it is imposed), after the initial euphoria, we find it peeling away the layers of 'psyche' either to reveal the Spirit in the self-emptying silence of religious practice or 'a self' that is a creative agent as in the solitary searching of the artist or, if we are especially conscious of its rhythms, as Maitland argues, potentially both.

Both heart what it means to be human and from both, the 'aloneness' of both, can, paradoxically, come speaking witness. It was Pascal who said that all the problems of the world arise from people who cannot sit quietly, alone, in their rooms. For if we cannot, we are too easily 'confiscated' by the ebb and flow of the world. A world that happens to us rather than one we choose and construct out of being anchored in an identity beyond 'myself', in the silent creativity that is the Spirit. 


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