by Jill Baker
Writing about silence is almost as ironic as speaking about silence. If the heart of silence is an absence of words, then a blank sheet of paper (or screen) might be the best way in… but a few observations, none the less.
This week the 2017 Methodist Conference is meeting in Birmingham; a gathering of around 300 people, with many reports to debate and decisions to take. Not a natural arena for silence, and quite a contrast to the setting where I drafted these thoughts; during a “Five-Day Community for Spiritual Formation” in Northern Ireland just a few weeks earlier. As the name suggests, around thirty of us lived in community for five days, hoping to be spiritually a little more formed by the end of it – time will tell. Alongside teaching, worship, listening time and wonderful Irish hospitality, one of the tools for the formation was silence. After each presentation, morning and afternoon, we kept an hour’s silence, and following Night Prayer remained silent until Morning Prayer next day.
This could be a delight but could also be a challenge. Silence can be threatening; we often use noise and activity to distract ourselves from our deepest emotions and from an encounter with ourselves. Silence can break down the defences and make us vulnerable. Silence can also be abused; whilst it may be a tool it must not be a weapon. If a person has been silenced by others, they have been violated. Too often in the power struggle which has never been far from the history of Christianity, bible texts have been used to silence women and other groups.
Silence is not our natural state and has to be learned. We do not come into this world in silence; a silent baby would struggle to survive. Susanna Wesley may have been able to teach her children to cry softly, but that is not a widespread practice! Indeed, the idea of “suffering in silence” in adulthood has about it a stoic quality which, whilst it may be commendable at times, also suggests a martyred attitude, an unhealthy repression which will, in time, bear bad fruit. The psalmist seems to agree,; “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long”.
So why might we consider silence a practice worth learning? There are around a hundred references to silence or keeping silent in Scripture, many of them occurring in the “wisdom literature”. Perhaps that affords a first reason; Proverbs reminds us; “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” Silence can save us from speaking hastily, rashly, hurtfully, selfishly. Monks living permanently in community have been known to reflect that it is the silence which enables the community to survive.
Perhaps the most famous Bible reference to silence is Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb5. Elijah is expecting God to “pass by”. Wind, earthquake and fire all fail to reveal God’s presence, but then comes the “still small voice”. Almost the only thing I remember from three years of studying Hebrew at Durham is our professor’s own translation of this almost untranslatable phrase, “a rarefied, audible silence”. Elijah certainly recognises the presence of God in this silence, for he covers his face as he goes to the entrance to the cave. The voice follows, but the silence comes first.
So silence has two directions (at least); we learn to be silent before God – sometimes waiting for God to speak, but often rather learning to hear God in the silence. In human relationships silence is often used to express disapproval, anger or indifference. Sometimes it may simply mean that our interlocutor is no longer present to us. But at other times, silence in conversation may itself be a language. Barbara Brown Taylor’s little gem of a book, “When God is silent – divine language beyond words” explores this idea very helpfully. Silence may not mean absence, but may be a deep communication; the silence of lovers, the silence of those who are communicating without words.
The final biblical reference to silence comes in the book of Revelation; after the seventh seal has been opened by the Lamb, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. A fascinating thought!
2 Susanna Wesley. Thoughts on Raising Children, July 24, 1732.
3 Psalm 32:3
4 Proverbs 17:28
5 I Kings 19:12
6 Revelation 8:1