Writing about silence is inherently paradoxical. Everything anyone may write, or say, about silence is a betrayal of silence.
So this attempt at a glossary entry for “Silence” will be marked by a sense of irony (as just stated) as well as humility (in recognition that this “definition” will fail).
The challenge of trying to define silence is that, since all words serve to undermine silence rather than describe it, the best we can do is to talk about how and why silence makes a difference — in our case, how it makes a difference in Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality.
The simplest way to define silence comes straight from the dictionary. At dictionary.com we find this description of silence:
- absence of any sound or noise; stillness.
- the state or fact of being silent; muteness.
- absence or omission of mention, comment, or expressed concern:the conspicuous silence of our newspapers on local graft.
So silence entails absence: the absence of sound or noise, of speech, of concern. From here we can discern that some “silences” are healthier than others: the absence of sound can be restful and peaceful, but it can also be isolating or discomfiting. The absence of speech can represent a willingness to think or to listen, to meditate or contemplate; but it can also signify an unwillingness to be in conversation, for example when a relationship is strained (giving someone “the silent treatment”). Silence can also be imposed on people by an institution or some external authority, so we have the silencing of children (“they should be seen and not heard”) or of individuals or groups whose voice is rejected by those with power.
Silence is silence. But the circumstances surrounding silence can be positive or negative, healthy or toxic, spiritually freeing or psychologically oppressive.
With this understanding in mind, what role does silence play in the mystical life? To begin to answer this question, let’s consider some of the positive images of silence as a spiritual practice that come out of the Bible:
“For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Psalm 62:1
“To you, O God, silence is praise.” Psalm 65:1 (this verse is often mistranslated)
“But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” Habakkuk 2:20
“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Isaiah 30:15
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests.”Zephaniah 1:7
“It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Lamentations 3:26
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35
“Learn to be silent.” I Thessalonians 4:11 (another verse that loses much in translation)
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Revelation 8:1
What even this small selection of verses reveals is that spiritual silence is not about the kind of silence that harms relationships or inhibits communication. Rather, the silence of spirituality is the silence of listening, pondering, meditating, contemplating. It can only be freely chosen; never imposed. Even if someone embraces a life with an institutional dimension of silence (such as becoming a Trappist monk), the life must be freely chosen, with a recognition that some days will always be better than others but even those days when the silence seems oppressive have to be embraced as part of a larger commitment to seek silence as a healthy nutrient for the spiritual life.
So what is the point of being silent? Silence brings several blessings, some of which are easier to put into words than others.
Silence, especially external, physical silence, gives us the room to think, ponder, listen, meditate and contemplate. Silence is a shield from the many distractions of life — conversations, ideas, conflicts, and other “hooks” that come to us through the medium of language. These things may in themselves be very good, but even the best words or concepts can unwittingly lure us away from the cultivation of a quiet awareness of God’s presence — in all things, including our own hearts. It has been said that soul is shy; the same thing could also be said about the Holy Spirit. Silence offers space for the “shy” soul or “shy” Spirit to gradually become known to us who seek.
The natural corollary to the above: silence fosters prayer. In a general sense, prayer is understood as communication, and communication often involves language — “saying our prayers,” asking God for blessings or confessing to God our failings, etc. But even in human relationships we know that nonverbal communication often takes up more bandwidth than the talking and listening that goes on. So in a real sense, silence fosters (nonverbal) communication, just as surely as it makes the room for listening to verbal interaction. If the Bible verses quoted above are any indication, then God desires to communicate to us in non-verbal ways as well as verbally: through emotions, through intuition (hunches), through bodily sensations, through sensory input beyond the stuff of language. By fostering silence, we create the space for God to communicate with us nonverbally.
Silence also gives us insight into our own interior life. This can be profoundly humbling. Many people find when they go on a silent retreat — say, at a monastery — they learn to their chagrin that all the external noise in their lives (TV, radio, music, portable devices, etc.) merely function to mask just how noisy their internal lives seem to be. The endlessly chattering “stream of consciousness” that runs like an unending sportscaster seems to make it difficult, if not impossible, to attend to the silent loving presence of God in our hearts. Medieval Christians like the author of The Cloud of Unknowing chalk this up to original sin — in our “fallen” state, our minds naturally are unruly, undisciplined, and endlessly chatty. Whether you accept that view of human nature or not, it seems apparent that for most people, noisy inner lives are part of the human condition.
Silence therefore can inspire us to be humble — humbly recognizing that we cannot even control our own interior monologue — while it can also be a gentle invitation to slow down the inner chatter, in order to “be still and know” the God who is present (Psalm 46:10).
The Anglican solitary Maggie Ross has written extensively about silence, especially how silence invites us into a “second way of knowing” — the first way being cognitive, linear, conveyed through logic which depends on language. But the second way is holistic, nonlinear, intuitive, embodied, and conveyed by our capacity to simply bask in the deeply-rooted presence of the Holy Spirit within, who communicates not with language, but with love (Romans 5:5, 8:26).
Silence is to the mystical life what exercise is to our bodies. Presumably a person could live a long and happy life without exercise — at least in theory. But for most of us, regular exercise is vital for maintaining optimum physical health. Likewise, perhaps you could become deeply immersed in the mystical life without cultivating either exterior or interior silence — again, theoretically speaking. But it seems for most people, making the time and space to be silent, to rest in silence, and to pray in silence is essential for responding as well as we can to the infinite, unconditional, and entirely non-aggressive love of God. Silence opens the door for the mind and heart to perceive, to receive, and to know the Divine presence — and the loving guidance that this ever-present God offers us.