Given our society, we tend to spend most of our waking hours running, doing, achieving, talking, buying, obsessing and the list goes on until we reach the end of our rope and we are completely spent. The idea of silent reflection feels like alien territory. Deep down we yearn for that place of quiet but our external cravings keep getting in the way.
Of course silence is a nuanced term. It can be a descriptor of a contemplative heart but more often we've grown up using silence as a way to avoid truth telling or a means of punishment. At its worst, silence keeps violence and oppression going. It is called the sin of omission. No wonder there is a bit of suspicion of solitude that is hardwired into us.
The Doorway to Union
To enter silence as a holy place, as a chamber where one encounters the spirit, we only have to reach back into the collective memory of the wisdom tradition to see that silence is the doorway into union with God and oneself. This concept is not particular to the Christian mystics but can be witnessed in Egyptian wisdom, in Islamic and Jewish traditions, and very much in the Eastern traditions. It is safe to say that there is no spiritual pathway, ancient or modern, that does not give credence to silence as integral to the practice of contemplation. The great sage Confucius said, "The cosmic order functions without word and the wise person emulates the silent ways of heaven."
For our particular study, it was important to delve into the Christian tradition; to familiarize ourselves with our own sages in order to discover the way into the Self. Self really means the way to God, the capital "S" self as opposed to the ego-self that is responsible for so much of our suffering. The ego-self needs nothing more than to escape the internal quietness.
James Finley, a contemplative writer, sums up the quiet life with simplicity. It is about "Being where you are, Seeing what is there and Celebrating Life." Nothing is said about perfection, achieving or running from activity to activity. In fact he speaks of this as suffering: "We are not suffering because we cannot 'get there' but because we find it so incredibly difficult to be here, fully present, open and aware to all this present moment really is."
Another contemplative, Beatrice Bruteau, gives much thought to the idea of consciousness and evolution as it is linked to returning to a place of silence or divine nothingness. Her creed might be summed up in this way: Silence transforms consciousness, silence transforms personal identity, and silence connects creation. We are constantly bombarded with externals that threaten to annihilate this place of holy nothingness, the place that some describe as the fecund abyss. She articulates this dilemma well: "A thousand times a day we are driven away from finding our true being in participation in the divine life and are urged to locate ourselves in our assigned niche in the dominance hierarchy."
To find a moment of silence amid the comings and goings is a good start to the contemplative practice. It is a promise of respite from all the expectations and demands that fill our days and so at one level it becomes a place of comfort. There is a warning here, however, for what starts off as a retreat from the inner activist quickly becomes a vacation for the ego. We in the Western world have a knack for turning spiritual practice into flights of fancy and the room to which we go to quiet down becomes a den of detachment from the sufferings of the world. Silence is now more about pillows, pristine environments, fine art, views overlooking seascapes, candles, incense and "me-time".
Because of her passion for depth and consciousness, Bruteau sees the act of silence not as a perfunctory activity, merely an add on to our middle-class lives, but as a doorway into a reality that will shake our very being: "Contemplation itself is an ambitious and radical undertaking… it is a direct experience of participation in the divine life."
In light of this then, silence is not merely an activity or practice, but a reality.
A Point of Pure Truth
Thomas Merton spent most of his life seeking the silent life. He is an honest writer when it comes to how the ego plays havoc on our soul. He had a thirst for God that kept him a seeker until the day he died a trustable combination. He is an authority on the subject of contemplation and solitude not because of his credentials, how many books he wrote or the charisma that made him such a public figure but because of his humanity, his willingness to identify himself with those that suffered from the onslaught of the ego. Despite his poetic style, he is clear and to the point:
"I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface."
Because he can admit to his flawed humanity he can also say: "At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouchable by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God."
Entering the practice of silence is not about aesthetics or comfort. It is not about puritanical piety or being cloistered from humanity but it is about discovering the I AM that is lodged deep within. Solitude is not about something we can master and perfect; it is, in essence, allowing God to strip us of all descriptors that we spend our whole life working so hard to collect. Simply put, Theresa of Avila said it best: "Silence is not about negation and false piety but rather a deep and intimate connection with all of life."