One of the pleasures of being married to my husband (a retired philosophy professor) has been the many stories I’ve heard through the years about philosophers and their peculiar habits. One of my favorites is about a friend of Bob’s who several years ago gave a lecture in a class and then was asked a follow-up question by a student. In response he said, “You know, that’s a really good question. Let me think about it.”
He sat down and thought about it, and then got up and stood looking out the window for a long time with a faraway look in his eyes. The minutes ticked by slowly as the students watched him in growing bemusement. Finally he turned around and gave his answer, clear and well-reasoned. And after class the students spread the story as proof of just how strange philosophers can be.
What flummoxed the students, of course, was the extended silence. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence, especially in a public setting. But even when talking privately to a friend, we typically rush in to fill any pause with words. So the example of the philosopher in class, of someone being comfortable with an extended silence, conveyed a message that probably went unlearned by most of his students.
This story came to my mind in thinking about the lessons of this past year and my hopes for the new one. For many of us, 2020 has held too much silence. I realize, of course, that for some it's been just the opposite, especially those with young children at home. But for millions of people, this year has brought social isolation. Before this hard time ends, I think it might be useful to reflect a little on what silence can teach us.
My thinking about this topic has been greatly influenced by attending the annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky, several years ago when its theme was Sacred Silence: Pathway to Compassion. For five days, religious leaders from a wide variety of faiths got together to talk about the transformative effects of silence in their traditions.
It was fascinating to hear these wise people wrestle with the many implications of holy silence. My favorite presentation was by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and author of many books on contemplation and spiritual development. He reminded us that silence is a fundamental discipline in all the world’s religions—perhaps the most fundamental discipline. This silence is not just an absence of words or being alone; it is an alternative consciousness. It is often the product of many years of prayer and meditation, disciplines that help us open ourselves to the divine presence.
Rohr put it this way: “The ego gets what it wants with words. It prefers immediate answers, full clarity, absolute certitude, and moral perfection. But the soul finds what it needs in silence. It is silence that allows us to be at rest, expectant, and open. Silence is a living presence that creates a resonance within us to the holy.”
We may think this type of silence is only for the professionally religious, for Buddhist monks and cloistered nuns. But all of us know intuitively the power of silence. Think of those times when it has blossomed within you—perhaps after hearing a piece of beautiful music, seeing a spectacular sunset, sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying, or holding a newborn baby in your arms. The deepest, most heartfelt honoring we can give to an experience is silence.
Richard Rohr also spoke of silence as a form of voluntary poverty--not poverty in a deprived sense, but poverty as a discipline and teacher, as St. Francis modeled so well. This is the silence that surrounds everything. Rohr described it as the space between letters, words, and paragraphs that makes them decipherable and meaningful. It is the interweaving between notes that makes music possible. It is the divine silence before, after, and between all events, the fount from which all grace flows.
Science reinforces the centrality of silence as well. University of Virginia astronomy professor Mark Whittle has studied the sound of the Big Bang that began the Universe. Whittle believes that in the first instant, the sound would not, in fact, have been a big bang at all, because the initial explosion consisted of a perfectly balanced, radial release of energy. Instead, the Universe was born in silence.
If he's right, science is in perfect harmony with the mystics of many faiths, who have also sensed the power of Holy Silence. It was there at the beginning of creation, and it is in the blessed quiet after a colicky baby stops crying and the sorrowful silence after a loved one has died. And it is present whenever we try to enter into it, as halting and fumbling as our attempts often are.
So in this brief pause at the beginning of a new year, as we stand here weary and battered by 2020, I invite you to think of what you've learned from the silence of this past year. Away from friends and family, from restaurants and reunions and social events, what has snuck in unbidden? What gift might it still give you, as the old year fades into the past and the new one begins?
May this New Year bring you better times, but still room for Holy Silence.
(photo by Bob Sessions)