When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other men, nor from God, nor from our selves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality. (Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude, Boston, 1993)
In the third day of a spiritual retreat, under the supervision of a Jesuit guide, I heard these words from his mouth: “If I had recommended an eight day retreat, instead of merely a weekend, that would have literally killed you!” He laughed out loud, at my impatience, my need for words, and my irrepressible energy firing those thoughts and words. I joined his laughter, knowing that, in merely a few selected hours he had been able to see all the nearly half-century of my existence as the nervous, excited, skittish gnat that had flown across the top of so many ponds looking for other gnats of the human variety, and all the while hoping no one would really ‘see’ me, that is the hidden self, so desperate to be loved and accepted without knowing the depth of that need. At a supervision session, under another Jesuit, following a memorable pastoral counselling session, recorded for replay and review, I heard these words from the mentor: “You two (the client, a mid-twenties young man and I) sound like a couple of hummingbirds buzzing around the room. When are you going to settle and demonstrate for your client what he really needs from you?”
These two independent and unknown to each other Jesuit mentors were commenting honestly, if somewhat poetically and tragically, and also truthfully, on a half-life lived in anxious interactions that neither provided, nor permitted any time and space for silence. I recall daily being one of, if not the, first to raise my hand to answer the teachers’ question; I also recall sitting on a sundeck where visitors from ‘the city’ had gathered for evening summer barbecue’s, sitting near some interesting and unfamiliar person, fully engaged in whatever topic of conversation seemed to be appropriate to the ‘adult’ who was willing to engage with this precocious pre-adolescent. Having been introduced to the school-drill that accompanied the formation of sentences and paragraphs, I loved playing with words to see what new combinations might emerge from my meanderings. At night, after going to bed, throughout my teen years, I had the radio tuned to what was then CKEY, (later CKFM) where such luminaires as Russ Thompson, Stu Kenney and Carl Banace were the voices of my pubescent dreams of finding a way to deploy my voice, as they had done theirs’. In university, the first year English professor was a man named John Whichello Graham, (about whom much is written elsewhere in this space, and who recently left us, sadly, after a full and robust career as professor, scholar, actor, father). His command of the language, including his visceral, crisp and dramatic lectures on Elizabethan poetry flew off the ceiling in the lecture hall, far above my capacity to comprehend, at least for the first two or three months. I did not, however, cease to try to grasp the words, thoughts, provocations and motivations of this “Pericles” of a man, transported to the campus of the University of Western Ontario. During college years, I also sought out and found homilists like George Gogh, and Dr. Andrew Lawson, both in the United Church of Canada, who also inspired oral communication that compared favourably to the rhetoric of the recently newly elected president, John F. Kennedy. His words, phrases, and later those of his two brothers were added (although certainly no longer needed) fuel to my burning sense of the various uses of the human voice to inform, to inspire and to evoke images of historic proportions that, to a lower-middle-class kid from a very small town, drew me away from the mundane, the ordinary and the pedestrian, in so far as the uue of language was concerned. (I was later permitted access to microphones in both radio and television, for the purposes of interviewing interesting guests, and also for broadcasting “editorial” opinions, another chapter in a live full of oral communication!)
Silence was then so foreign to this high-strung, verbose and animated (most would say agitated) that there are rumors, even sleep was punctuated with talking, much to the dismay of anyone near. Teaching English, then filling a marketing role, and then both training for and the practice of ministry all demanded both a respect for and a facility with words, language, mostly oral with a little written communication.
And, of course, I followed whatever public displays of various forms of oral communication from such comedic pieces as Don Harron’s Charlie Farquharson, Dave Broadfoot’s Bobby Clobber, and in a more serious vein, Patrick Watson’s and Laurier Lapierre’s “This Hour has Seven Days” were baked into the cake of my consciousness about humans verbal engaging.
All of this is mere background to a more recent decision, by my wife and I, to insert some silence into our regular time allocation each week, as part of our way to seek for God, to experience the still small voice, to listen to the inner voice, and to remain calm, and outside whatever the week’s “fray” may have brought, or may yet bring next week. It is no accident, nor is it surprising, that many have written about their experiences in silence, as an integral component of their spiritual pilgrimage. There is truth and profound blessing in the silence, not having been accessed in a regular and systematic and disciplined manner in the last several decades. Busyness, obviously, negates silence; it also negates solitude, except for the millions of eyes glued to the cell phones, fully(?) engaged in some conversation with another about topics ranging from the bizarre to the platitudinous. (please forgive my sarcasm!)
In these new moments, now quite literally an hour each week, thoughts settle, eyes want to be closed for some inexplicable reason, ears still pick up sounds while that may not continue, and both hopes and fears find a new way of being experienced, less threatening in the case of fears, and a little more expansive, in the case of the hopes. With others, in a circle, also silent and respectful of the silent space, I have grown to appreciate the experience, following, and look forward to the return to that space each week, in the middle of the somewhat frenetic pace that fills most day. So there is a kind of ‘banking’ of silence, and a kind of return/retrieval/withdrawal of silence that has been quite noticeable in the moments which previously might have provoked anger, anxiety, disdain and even disgust. Returning to a space where silence is both remembered and refreshed definitely changes the colour, the intensity and the outcomes of situations which previously could and often did result in division.
So, personally, psychologically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually, I feel different because of this new way of spending silent time. And, from the perspective of encounters with others, silence, while not a fully-developed habit yet, nevertheless accompanies each moment, giving it a new dimension that if the new dimension were a new light, it would be a kind of soft glow, or if a sound, it might be a quite melody, that infuses the moment. And that, dear reader, is a spill-over never even imagined prior to the start of the regular experience.
I look forward to finding and taking the time, space and solitude in which to enter into a silence which, perhaps with more practice, might and hopefully will, deepen potential insights, calm previously agitated nerves over issues seemingly unresolved, and make their resolution less required, and certainly less forced, and those issues perhaps even less visible in my conscious mind.
“And, where is God, in the silence?”
In the silence with each of us, present and accessible in ways not available through spoken words, or songs, and in groups animated with talk.
“How do I know?”
I have a sense of change in my relationship(s) to myself, (more accepting, more accommodating and less judgemental) to others (more tolerant and accepting) and to God, as companion, mentor, friend, and poet, and less as judge, jury, king and parent.
“Is this discipline worthy of my continuing?”
I only would wish that I had fully listened and entered this spiritual practice way back when those Jesuits were nudging me in that direction.