Befriending Silence

One year ago today I was sitting in Taize, alone. Taize worships at least three times each day. If you are over 35, the activities between worship are few. The schedule was slow and between worship services I would go for long walks alone, often walking in circles because I was afraid of getting lost. One day I overcame my fear and walked to Cluny, an old city centered around a convent. Funny things happened on the way to Cluny, including needing to use the bathroom but having no bathroom in site. I also calculated that it was a four-mile walk but 6.5 miles later, I arrived in the town. What was most fascinating was the verbal activity in my brain among the many steps I trod. I was alone but still “talking” or what I more often call “spinning.” I am sure no one can relate to this. The walking to Cluny and back gave too much time for spinning in my head. Sometimes interesting thoughts and questions would come to mind, but more often than not people and relationships, conflicts and difference crowded in. 

I know that people are my primary consideration and love in this world. More than tasks, ideas, or visions, what is most important to me is friendship with others. So when relationships go sour or lack honesty, or dissolve, I feel the pain of this significantly. Instead of being generous to those thoughts, I often run to judgment and criticism. I want to fix the relationship and preserve myself as quickly as possible, but sometimes relationships don’t work on mechanical timeframes; they surely don’t work in frameworks of self-preservation. Sometimes relationships go sideways for reasons beyond the obvious; the response ought to be compassion and mercy, not criticism or judgment (meaning self-righteousness). 

I admit I like the spinning in my head sometimes. It is a place to have a fight without anyone knowing it is happening. But I worry about the toxicity I invite into my body by such negative thinking. I do enjoy the creativity that occurs through internal ranting. In my teaching, we call this Jackal-speak. Have you ever had times when you are so flipping mad at someone you role-play what you WISH you could say ? Those are fiercely creative times for me, and I am amazed at the playfulness and poetry of language that comes from those rants. I am also glad that God gave us inner dialogues as to not let everything be spoken aloud. However, there are times when the judgment and criticism runs its course, and I come out the other side with compassion and mercy. Not always but sometimes. I appreciate those rants when I can move from the rant to recognizing my ridiculousness and then to laughing at myself. The most elation I can experience is when I get to a final stage of finding calm at the end. I love the calm at the end. It is rare that I get there, for self-righteousness and self-protection are bulwarks difficult to push through. This happens most often when I am mowing. The calm at the end - as I write these words, I can feel the peace grow in my body. My shoulders are releasing, my back relaxing, and my fingers are moving more gently over the keyboard. The calm at the end - this is when the spinning stops, the rant ceases, the ridiculous ends, and peace comes. It is a glimpse that reconciliation is possible. I spent quite a few steps on the way to Cluny in judgment land that day, but I did experience a glimpse of calm following moments of laughter at my ridiculousness.

I made it back to evening worship at Taize exhausted from walking to Cluny and back. My feet were sore. As worship ended that evening, I wrote the following in my journal:

I love the calm at Taize. This place teaches me that silence and singing are reconciling practices. Speaking rarely is reconciling and often it is only when it occurs in relationship to silence. A world with a 24-hour news cycle and a social media plagued asynchronous relational drama makes silence a difficult friend to find. We live with noise-upon-noise by which silence is often prohibited by incessant speech. The church is guilty of this; American worship looks more like a news cycle than the Psalmist-cycle. 

For to you, O Lord, silence is praise. Psalm 65:1

Words only have meaning and beauty in relationship to silence. I even think grammar agrees, whether for poetry or prose. Two spiritual friends are the period and the paragraph indentation. Even the semicolon is a spiritual friend. They invite us to stop, breathe, and ponder before going on. They invite us to recognize that something has ended before another begins. These friends slow us down.

These friends we meet in reading, have their way in our manners of speaking, also. If we speak or fail to listen in ways that do not allow another to finish a sentence or begin a new thought, we rarely meet these friends.  How do we hear people to the end of their sentences or the end of their thoughts? How do we allow a friend to speak without jumping in with our own speech? So much of my cultural manners of speech and listening are as-if people talk and think in bullet points. I had a professor who once said “If we read or speak or listen in a bullet point fashion, surely someone will die. Bullets are not meant for healing."

Silence in relationship to speech is a peculiar yet important idea. Silence is scarce and speech ubiquitous in my cultural formation. I think I long for silence until I have had 30 seconds of it. I am an extrovert and a verbal processor. I am really bad at quiet, yet the Psalmist seems to say it is necessary. Lest you think silence is an introvert's friend and an extrovert's foe, I think Richard Rohr said it well, “Silence is not merely not speaking; introverts have plenty of speech, it is just primarily contained to their heads.” This is how I experienced my walk to Cluny; lots of noise in my head. The Psalmist is making an invitation to inner silence that seeks not words or thoughts but emptying oneself, or what the Christian tradition calls “kenosis.” I think it an act of generosity to let go of the many thoughts that plague us - an act of not considering ourselves more highly than we ought.

I long for communion with others, including God. Silence appears to be necessary for real relationship, for even God is not willing to speak over us as we seek him. This is true when God meets Elijah at Horeb and it is true in Matthew in describing the Messiah: 

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
   nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.  (Mt 12:19)

Befriending silence in a speech-frenzied world is more than difficult; it is counter-cultural. Even when I choose to be alone and not talk to anyone, the spinning of thoughts, words, and arguments remains in my body. 

Silence is reconciling. I cannot imagine how silence will become a friend or foe as I walk the Camino. But I pray silence comes to me as I befriend myself and others, including YhWh. I will hold to YhWh who longs to be close and reconciled to us. But clinging may come with a long walk in learning to be silent.


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