From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
One of the elders said, “Just as it is impossible to see your face in troubled water, so also the soul, unless it is clear of alien thoughts, is not able to pray to God in contemplation.”
ilence is the lost art in a society made of noise. Radios wake us up, and timers on TVs turn off the day-full of programs long after we have gone to sleep at night. We have music in cars and elevators and office waiting rooms. We have surround-sound that follows us from the living room to the kitchen to the upstairs bath. We have public address hookups in every office building and large, loud, screaming sound systems mounted on street corners. We exercise with earphones on and tape recorders strapped to our belts. We lie on beaches with our ears cabled to portable CD players. We surround ourselves and immerse ourselves in clatter. Racket and jingle, masking as music and news and sitcoms, have become the sound barriers of the soul in this society. They protect us from listening to ourselves.
What the contemplative knows that modern society has forgotten, it seems, is that the real material of spiritual development is not in books. It is in the subject matter of the self. It is in the things we think about, in the messages we give ourselves constantly, in the civil war of the human soul that we wage daily. But until we are quiet and listen, we can never, ever know what is really going on – even in ourselves. Especially in ourselves.
Silence frightens us because it is silence that brings us face to face with ourselves. Silence is a very perilous part of life. It tells us what we’re obsessing about. It reminds us of what we have not resolved within ourselves. It shows to us the underside of ourselves, from which there is no escape, which no amount of cosmetics can hide, that no amount of money or titles or power can possibly cure. Silence leaves us with only ourselves for company.
Silence is, in other words, life’s greatest teacher. It shows us what we have yet to become, and how much we lack to become it. “Wherever I am,” the poet Mark Strand writes, “I am what’s missing.”
Silence, the contemplative knows, is that place just before the voice of God. It is the voice in which God and I meet in the center of my soul. It is the cave through which the soul must travel, clearing out the dissonance of life as we go, so that the God who is waiting there for us to notice can fill us.
A day without silence is a day without the presence of the self. The pressure and pull of a noisy day denies us the comfort of God. It is a day in which we are buffeted by the world around us and left at the mercy of the clatter and jangle of our own hearts. To be a contemplative we must put down the cacophony of the world around us and go inside ourselves to wait for the God who is a whisper, not a storm. Silence not only gives us the God who is Stillness, but, just as importantly, teaches the public self of us what to speak.