A friend of mine from London sent me a book in October called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris. I’ve been dipping in and out of it since, and remembered this afternoon that she had written a few pages on silence. Here’s an extract:
…when I worked as an artist in elementary schools I devised an exercise for the children regarding noise and silence… when I raise my hand, I told them, you make all the noise you can while sitting at your desk, using your mouth, hands, and feet. The kid’s eyes would grow wide – and the teacher’s as well – so I’d add, the important thing is that when I lower my hand, you have to stop.
…making silence liberated the imagination of so many children. Very few wrote with any originality about making noise. Most of their images were clichés such as “we sound like a herd of elephants.” But silence was another matter: here, their images often had a depth and maturity that was unlike anything else they wrote… in a tiny town in North Dakota a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me: “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”
And reading that reminded me of a sermon from my own priest Fr Simon, as he told us that most of the children celebrating their first communions last week had told him that their favourite part of the service was the bit where there was a period of silence. Where everyone was quiet and just breathed in the moment.
Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes puts it like this:
…there is the silence that is attentive, focused, coming out of peace not anger, coming from fullness not woundedness (well, perhaps from both…). Our freedom to be silent… is the index of our freedom from resentment and from the struggle for power. That’s why authentic silence is difficult; yet it indicates an affirmation, a great Yes to life in freedom.
…Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems.
So for all that we are diverse, silence seems to be really important and necessary in our lives. We need to integrate it into the noise of our world. Be holy, whole and healthy. Not “holy”, tired and stressed.
I wonder what would happen if we placed the meeting-place for General Synod on the top of a mountain. If it took most of a day to hike up, and the result of this was that all members must camp together in the hall before setting the chairs up in the morning, I wonder, how many would turn up? Would we be as committed? Would we embrace the “Communion” of the Anglican Communion, sharing the same floor sleeping in sleeping bags instead of individual-roomed hotels and loaning our extra pillow to the “opposition” that forgot theirs? I wonder what would happen if in the evening before the day of General Synod, all members took to the mountainside and watched the stars, in space of silence, and in space of sound singing camp-song hymns together. I wonder how much we would learn. Putting the effort in for God in getting up the mountain, putting the effort in for one another in the sharing of pillows and such-like, and putting the effort in for ourselves allowing time just to breathe.
Exodus 14:14: The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.
So we should stop fighting one another, yes?
I’ve come to learn that silence is incredibly valuable. In his earlier years, Adolf Hitler said – as he opposed the honouring of the Treaty of Versailles – that it was not time for silence, it was a time for revolution. And the reality is that too many of us are saying something similar. And for nearly two years I’ve studied Ancient Greece and Rome, and have found that two and a half thousand years ago we were making the same mistakes. It’s time to learn our lesson. It’s not time for one side to seize power. It’s time to be still. Time to listen. Time to love.