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Some Thoughts on Silence
by Kathryn Damiano
The culture in which we live does not value silence. Avoiding seduction into this belief is a major challenge. Because of the predisposition to noise in our society, we become used to having some kind of stimulation going on around us. It becomes habitual to turn on the t.v. or radio as one of the first things we do when we get home, just to have something familiar going on in the background.
This stimulation pollution comes in other forms too. Our lives can be so filled with people that we can over-dose on interaction. There can be incessant talking as we flit from one person to the next. We find ourselves internally formulating our responses to the person who is talking instead of listening. Interaction becomes a way to acknowledge that we really exist. If we are talking, worrying, giving our opinion, saying what we've done, what we own, we must be alive, we must have worth! But, there usually isn't any space between the words to absorb what has been said. As a result, most of our conversations are surface and utilitarian. Thomas Merton claims that "it is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard. The words of a proud person impose silence on all others so that they alone may be heard. The humble person speaks only in order to be spoken to."
It almost seems as if it is impossible to speak and not commit "sins of the tongue" - the insensitive response, the unkind word, speaking badly about someone. The longer the conversation, the more likely it will turn to running someone down. There is a thin line between wanting to know about someone out of caring and discerning when it turns to gossip.
We are also subject to the stimulation of millions of words printed in books, magazines, newsletters, and announcements. We are told that we must keep up with changing ideas and paradigm shifts in order to be responsible citizens, to be competent in our field, and to be an intelligent, informed person. Verbalness is related to our society's understanding of power. Words are used to edify, persuade, control, and to compete with others. Yet, research indicates that we spend alot of time repeating the words of others - what we've heard on t.v. or have read and that this reliance on other's words tends to atrophy our own thoughts. Is this kind of "freedom of speech" actually a type of mind control? How can we be in a position to critique the society if we are so caught up in its ways? In what ways does this habitual inner and outer chatter dim the prophetic witness we are called to as Friends?
Yet our culture seems to promote a fear of silence. Silence seems to lack boundaries, it can make us feel that we are not in control. Silence conveys emptiness so it is harder to accept as real and full in a society that commands us to be satisfied and fulfilled at every moment.
We also know that silence can be manipulative. It allows a person not to make commitments or take responsibility. Being silent can be used to lessen vulnerability. Others don't know where you are coming from when you remain silent. You can collect information about others to be used for your own purposes through the tactic of premeditated silence. Silence can convey supposed neutrality. If you don't take sides you will remain in favor with others. Silence can allow someone to be a chameleon. As a result, honest relating can be escaped. In these ways, silence can be violent.
Silence can be oppressive as women and other marginalized people know. They have been kept in silence by others not valuing or encouraging their thoughts or opinions. It is a way to keep them in their place. Oppressive silence becomes internalized resulting in a poor self-concept. Acquiescence is often the response - supposedly to keep the peace in the family or in the work place.
What is spiritual silence? It is not just the absence of talk. Silence has substance. It is the presence of something.
Thomas Merton claims that silence is our admission that we have broken communication with God and are now willing to listen. We can be reduced to silence in times of doubt, uncertainty, nothingness, and awe. When we have exhausted all our human efforts, experience the limitations of human justice, or the finitude of human relationships, we are left with silence. Those who have experienced the sacrament of failure are more likely to know the emptying power of silence.
There is a relationship between outward silence and interior silence. Merton notes that even the overuse of sign language within the material silence of the monastery promotes the busy mind. The more silence becomes part of our lives, the less impulsive we become. We are slowed down. Silence can reconcile the contradictions within us holding them in a healthy tension. Often we can internally watch our first response to a situation. The awareness that comes from a grounding in silence allows us to respond more authentically.
If we can stay in this place of silence without rushing to fill it up in some way, we are humbled to know even for a little while that we in our own power do not have all the answers. We become more willing to listen. Meanwhile, God has always been communicating. Listening to the Inward Teacher is the foundation of Quaker spirituality. We can see this attention to listening in the life of George Fox as he wandered the English countryside, pondering while sitting in hollowed out trees. It was revealed to him in his despair and frustration with priests, Scripture and steeple houses "that there is one Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition." As Friends we know that this guidance is accessible to all people if we listen. This is the revolutionary revelation of Quakerism-- that out of the silence, Christ can speak to our condition so we no longer must be captive to sin. Silence can remove the veil between us and the Truth.
NOTE: Kathryn Damiano was a founding core teacher for the School of the Spirit.
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