How do we experience and understand silence?
The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 21st October 2018 at 11:15 AM
Have you ever met that person who does not stop talking? The one who asks you how your weekend went, and before you could utter a word they have started telling you about everything they have done.
We all know someone like this, who talks without listening, who seems to think that what they have to say is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to them, and who do not seem to understand that listening is an important part of communicating and connecting to others.
Some people who talk a lot are not able to engage in this interactive rhythm, not because they do not care, but because they cannot tolerate the emotions that might emerge as they listen to another person.
In fact, in the course of my work as a priest, I have found that many non-stop talkers actually use their words to stop themselves from knowing what they are feeling.
In our First reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard the words: ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’. (53. 7).
In many ways, silence is God’s first language, and in order for us to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God. Silence lies at the heart of our spiritual tradition.
When we are in silence we can connect to the universe, but its not easy for most of us who are used to the hustle and bustle of modern day life to be silent.
Silence does not simply mean the absence of talking or communication, but what the Christian spiritual tradition does teach us, is that the practice of silence is the prerequisite for coming to know God.
Silence is a gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God. Sometimes being still before God does not mean being literally still. Sometimes it means moving.
John Cassian, the great spiritual father of the fifth century, instructed the monks under his care to weave baskets, pray, and meditate, because he understood that sometimes a little physical movement can foster a greater stillness of mind.
Depending on our temperament, some of us find that if we are simply sitting still and trying to focus on one thing, we are easily distracted by random thoughts.
For many of us, a little bit of mental activity helps to still the mind, such as walking or running. Yet Christianity does have a rather ambivalent relationship with silence.
While one hymn exhorts ‘Tell out my soul’, another warns ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’; Psalm 62 begins ‘truly my soul silently waits for God’, while Psalm 109 starts ‘Do not keep silent, oh God of my praise’.
In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus silences the evil spirits in Capernaum, (1:25) but remains silent himself in the face of his accusers (14:61).
In St Luke's Gospel, he rebukes the Pharisees during the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem saying that were he to silence his disciples, the very stones would cry out; yet in the period beforehand he strictly admonished the disciples to keep silent about his ministry.
So how do we experience and understand silence?
Firstly, if someone says to you, tell me what is on your mind, or even just be yourself, this almost inevitably leads to an uncomfortable silence.
Secondly there’s another sort of silence which is less trivial but no less common: the silence that comes after the words ‘the tests are positive’, or after a friend says they’re divorcing.
It may even be the silence that comes after seeing the devastating results of a tsunami or horrific earthquake. It’s the silence that comes not from our inability to express ourselves but our inability to know how to react at all to a reality that seems completely out of control.
Thirdly there is the kind of silence we experience at the end of a fine play or concert, the pause before the applause starts. There’s something about that silence that says, lets not bring this to an end too quickly. Let’s give it some extra space to allow it to be what it is, and not rush to react.
What all these experiences have in common is that they challenge our urge to dominate situations, and control them.
A recently departed Canon Theologian here at the Abbey, surprised us by saying that every now and then, a strong Quaker surge comes upon him.
There’s a logic to this, because at times we must all go beyond words, so why not just be silent?
Artists have always known that creativity is born of silence, just as the saints, those artists of the soul, have always regarded silent prayer, alongside the Mass, as our supreme activity.
Mindful of those Old Testament words, from the prophet Isaiah:
‘Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’, are thoughts are taken to one of the most dramatic moments of silence in the New Testament, where Jesus is silent before his judges.
The Gospel narratives show us how the high priest and Pontius Pilate urge Jesus to speak. “Why don’t you answer me?” says Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to crucify you or to release you?”
And we’re told in St. John’s Gospel that when Jesus gives no answer to the charges made against him, Pilate is ‘amazed’.
The odd thing in these stories is that Jesus is precisely in the position of someone having his voice taken away; he is a person who has been reduced to silence by the violence and injustice of the world.
But then, mysteriously, he turns this around. His silence, his complete presence and openness, his refusal to impose his will in a struggle, becomes a threat to those who have power, or think they have power.
‘Talk to me!’ says the high priest, in so many words, I adjure you in the name of the living God, tell us!
Pilate’s perplexity and fear in the face of Jesus’ silence are a reminder that, in this case, Jesus takes the powerlessness that has been forced on him and turns it around so that his silence becomes a place in the world where the mystery of God is present.
In a small way, that’s what happens when we seek to be truly and fully silent or let ourselves be silenced by the mystery of God. We become a place where the mystery of God happens.