When I was a small boy, there was a lady named Mrs. Frazier who lived across the street from my home. Mrs. Frazier and her husband were a bit older than my parents; they only had one child, Pam, who was a good ten or twelve years older than me. So when I was a child, they lived alone in their house. Mrs. Frazier and I bonded; both of my grandmothers died before I was born, so she was a surrogate grandma for me. I would go over to her house and we’d make fresh-squeezed lemonade that tasted like a kiss from an angel.
One of my most vivid memories of visiting the Frazier home, however, involved silence. I was the youngest of three boys and so the McColman household was a pretty noisy place, between the television, radio, and/or the stereo constantly blaring (this was in the 1960s, long before computers or MP3 players or any of the other gadgets that would later come down the pike; still, we made plenty of noise with what we had).
I remember one day in particular going across the street to Mrs. Frazier’s house, and walking in her living room, only to be taken aback by how quiet it was. The only sound was the gentle rhythmic tick-tock of her grandfather clock.
It felt a little uncomfortable, that silence — but it also fascinated me. I remember trying to make sense of it. Was it so silent because this was how old people lived? That’s pretty much the conclusion I drew. Not to be critical — I really liked the Fraziers and considered them my friends. My reaction to the silence was not so much to reject it, but rather to feel challenged by it. Why did it make me feel uncomfortable? What was going on there? Would I be silent like this when I became old?
As the years went by and I traded in childhood for adolescence and then for adulthood, I encountered silence in other places, like libraries, forests, and churches. When I was in my senior year of high school, a friend invited me to accompany him to visit a center called the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, about an hour from where I lived. I was a bit suspicious — I knew that the A.R.E. was founded by the medium Edgar Cayce; I was a conservative Christian at the time, and I had been taught to see psychics as heretics and deceivers. Still, I enjoyed the company of my friend and he challenged me to keep an open mind and to go check this place out for myself.
We got to the A.R.E. and attended a lecture, and during the Q&A session a lively conversation ensued about meditation. I wasn’t really sure what meditation was, but I was fascinated by the dialogue. Then my friend invited me to accompany him to the center’s meditation room, on the top floor of the building, with large windows facing the ocean. Aside from a white noise generator that sounded like a noisy air conditioner, the room was completely silent. My friend and I sat in there for five minutes or so, but — just like Mrs. Frazier’s deeply quiet living room from a decade earlier — those few minutes became anchored in my memory and my imagination.
I began to realize that there was something important in silence, something that I couldn’t access through language or logic or the scientific method. I couldn’t put it into words — after all, to describe it would be to depart from it. I knew that this was something deeper than religion, something more essential than philosophy. But having never been trained in meditation or other spiritual practices like yoga or tai chi, I was pretty much at a loss as to how to keep accessing that place-I-couldn’t-put-into-words.
My undergraduate years were a time of deprogramming myself from fundamentalist religion, and in graduate school I slowly began to explore more liberal expressions of Christianity, like Quakerism and Episcopalianism. Then one day I learned about a D.C.-based organization called the Shalem Institute, not far from where I lived in Northern Virginia. Shalem was sponsoring an event called a “Quiet Day” and I had no idea what that was, but I signed up for it anyway, since I knew Shalem was a spiritual organization and I was hungry for meaningful spirituality. I went to the Quiet Day, and was introduced to a practice of observing silence in a communal way. Once again, I was deeply impressed. But I no longer felt the unease with which I encountered silence as a child, or the sense of not quite understanding what it meant, as I felt that day in Virginia Beach. At Shalem, I felt I had come home.
I still couldn’t put into words why silence was so important. But in my heart I knew it was. And I realized I was not the only one — I had found my “tribe.”
Many years have passed since then, and from Shalem I went on to explore the spirituality of Trappist monks, of Tibetan Buddhists, and of Contemplative Outreach, the organization dedicated to promoting the practice of Centering Prayer. I still cannot put into words why silence matters so much. I’m not talking about the bad kind of silence, where someone refuses to listen to, or allow, another person to speak. No, I’m talking about the good kind of silence, the silence that rests in each of our hearts, between and beneath the chattering of our minds, a silence that we can only find when we take the time to gently seek it within.
Here’s a challenge for you: reflect on the ways that silence has shown up in your life. Maybe it’s made you uncomfortable, like what I experienced in Mrs. Frazier’s living room; or maybe it left you filled with questions, like me after visiting the A.R.E. meditation room. Or maybe it felt like a homecoming to you. However you have felt in response to silence, or whatever thoughts you may have entertained — try to gently set those aside. The thoughts and the feelings are not the silence. Not that they’re bad — thoughts and feelings are important parts of life. But just as it’s important to exercise the body but also to rest, it’s important to find times when we can gently set aside the chatter within.
Take time today to practice Centering Prayer or a similar method of silent prayer. Resist the urge to force your practice, or to judge it (especially when you get distracted by your endless parade of thoughts and feelings). Try to simply rest in the open space between your thoughts and feelings. Be gentle, be kind and be tender. The silence will teach you, but what you learn cannot be put into words. Because it cannot be put into words, there’s no other way to learn it. So give yourself the gift of silence. Even if you spend 20 minutes in Centering Prayer but only manage to rest in the silence for thirty seconds, it’s worth doing. And do it again tomorrow and the day after. The more you do it, the more you will find those restful moments. And the more the silence will teach you.
Featured image: Meditation Room, Association for Research and Enlightenment, Virginia Beach, VA.
Carl McColman is the author of various books including Unteachable Lessons, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, and the forthcoming Eternal Heart. He is a blogger (www.anamchara.com), podcaster (www.encounteringsilence.com), spiritual director, and retreat leader. The house he shares with his wife is filled with books, icons, cats, and love. It’s silent much of the time, and if that means Carl is old, well, so be it.
This post was first published at www.ContemplativeMonk.com.