It strikes me that there is an increasing aversion to silence in contemporary culture. There are so few quiet places. There are so few quiet times of the day. Even in rural Lincolnshire it is really only at nights that there is stillness and silence – the road through the village thunders on and off throughout the day.
Although we host many retreats and quiet days most of them are not quiet or silent, except for a few hours. The invasion of noise, and an addiction to it, seems to prevail at all times and in all places.
The Christmas festival is marked by quiet and stillness – I believe that Christmas Day is still one of the few days in the year when most trading stops; it is a reminder of the Sundays of former times. The Christmas carols and readings frequently refer to stillness and the dark of night. Even the most raucous Midnight Mass is able to enter into times of quiet reflection.
In our individual relationship with God silence is the medium and context. Learning to dwell in silent communion in the Divine presence is fundamental to a rounded relationship – in which there is a receiving and listening, rather than a preponderance of being on transmit. It is in encouraging this attitude of open and vulnerable waiting that the “problem” of silence begins to raise its objections. There is a contemporary assumption that where there is silence there is an absence of life and activity. Perceptions have to be changed – there is indeed the quietness of the grave; but there is also the quietness of the concert hall before the first note, and the stillness after the last note has sounded. Silence allows the deep and hidden anticipation and reflection of a person to rise into consciousness.
In Spiritual Direction it is a common concern that in silence nothing happens; that the only activity is the batting away and the wrestling with distractions. There are ways to deal with these: to focus on objects, to use short repetitive prayers, to deal with them one by one, or simply to look beyond them to the object of our prayer. This concern about nothing happening often means that the person who is open to God in silence does not perceive within themselves that there is any change or effect in their experience or relationship with God, themselves, or the world around them.
This is when a Prayer Guide or Soul Friend can help. Self-assessment of the “effect” of any spiritual discipline is very difficult. It often requires another person, one who is aware of the spiritual journey of that person, to discern differences in attitudes and understanding. Over the years I have been able to say to others “I can see a change in your understanding of this, or your relationship to that.” The grace given to those who wait on God in silence is a deep and real one – often engaging at a depth beyond every day consciousness.
But, to be open to God in this way requires stillness and quiet – a time when “all is calm and all is bright.”
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House