February 1, 2016
by: Jane Bishop Halteman
More than 10 years ago, I read an inspiring book about finding God in the silence. W. Paul Jones’ Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing, which I devoured in my down time on a trip to Europe with Jim’s business/econ students, illustrated in a powerful way “both the terror and the exhilarating freedom that come with profound solitude.”
The silence that so threatened him at first gradually became “a garment of healing” for Jones as he embarked on an adventure of self-discovery, recognizing in time that his capacity for thinking far outshone his capacity for feeling. The plunge into silence ultimately illuminated for him the “elaborate, even skillful, intellectual defenses” he had established to keep feelings at bay.
The experience of reading about self-discovery and finding God in the silence, even as I was immersed in a whirlwind trip through five countries in three weeks, impressed upon me a serious fascination with the impact of silence on one’s faith journey. I have made it a practice ever since to collect quotes about silence as spiritual discipline, quotes which speak eloquently and persuasively to my personal experience.
"When we make a place for silence, we make room for ourselves. This is simple. And it is radical. A room set apart for silence becomes a sanctuary—a place for breath, for refreshment, for challenge, and for healing. It is helpful to keep the space plain and simple: a few cushions, a rug….Simplicity allows the senses to rest from stimulation,” says Gunilla Norris in Meditation Practice and Mindful Living.
“Silence is often referred to in terms of space: the immensity inside, the cave of the heart, the oasis of quiet, the inner sanctuary, the interior castle, the sacred center where God dwells. For centuries, people have used this practice (of silence) as a resting and renewal stop on the spiritual journey. It provides a way to periodically withdraw from the world,” according to Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat on the Spirituality and Practice website.
Thomas Merton (quoted in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings edited by Christine M. Bochen) says this about silence: “Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two.”
In her book Silence: How to Find Inner Peace in a Busy World, Christina Feldman discovers that “silence is a teacher; within it we learn some of the deepest lessons of our lives—about aloneness and intimacy, joy and sorrow, conflict and peace. When we speak less to the world and everything in it, we bring a silence in which we can listen to the story of life, other people, and our own heart.” How do these sentiments resonate with you?
“The moments of silence we encounter are benedictions, blessings that echo in our hearts. They invite us to be still, to listen deeply, and to be present in this world,” says Feldman. “The glimpses of silence we encounter in the world are potent intimations of the inner stillness possible for each of us. The glimpses of silence we meet remind us of a way of being in which we are deeply touched by the mystery and grandeur of life. In the midst of silence we remember what it feels like to be truly alive, receptive, and sensitive. Silence, we come to understand, is the language of the heart.” Can you recall times when you have experienced silence as the language of the heart?
If you want to investigate the power of silence for yourself, find ways to integrate it into your day. Start small by making time to spend a minute or two of quiet before or after a meal, as you fall asleep at night, upon waking in the morning, as you perform your exercise rituals. Keep a personal log or journal of the glimpses of healing and hope you notice as you deepen your practice of silence.
Should you discover that the discipline of silence intrigues you, make space at home to engage in stillness or find a place in your community where silence is expected, permitted, or at least tolerated. Create a sanctuary of silence for yourself near a cemetery, in a public garden, by a body of water, under a tree or starry sky, on a bench near a piece of great art in a quiet museum corner. Share your story with others who have found the practice of silence a valuable way to enhance their faith journey.