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Benedictine Life

What poets, monks and nuns know about silence

Poets live with silence: 
the silence before the poem; 
the silence when the poem comes;

the silence in between the words, as you
drink the words, watch them glide through your mind,
feel them slide down your throat
toward your heart ….

—Michael Shepherd, “Rumi’s Silence”

Silence, poetry and prayer have something in common—they connect us to the mysterious aspects of living. We can’t describe or explain mysteries. We can, however, experience them.

I first learned about the benefits of silence through a long association with poets. More recently after becoming a Benedictine oblate, I’ve gotten to know monks and nuns—collectively called monastics—who have deepened my understanding of the beauty and benefits of silence.

In the dark, it’s easier to see with peripheral vision than if we look directly at things. Since the experience of silence is inexplicable, I won’t attempt to describe what it does or how it benefits us. Instead I will give it a sideways glance, exploring its paradoxical attributes.

1. Silence is Paradoxical

Silence incorporates absence and presence.

It is common to think of silence as the lack of sound, but pure silence is something few of us ever experience. For me, silence is a place where distracting or disturbing noises will not disrupt the ability to concentrate, meditate, pray, rest, listen, dream or create. Silence, then, is that which is not there, an absence of noise.

Silence is a state of being that creative or meditative people seek because it allows them, as poet Jane Hirschfeld writes, to “flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, [they] didn’t know was in [them], or in the world.”

This work of “flushing,” as every hunter, photographer, poet and spiritual seeker knows, requires that we remain quiet. If we charge heedless through woods or words, talking out loud or preoccupied with worries and plans, whatever we’re after will hunker down and hide. To flush out that of which we’re not aware, we must master our impulsive instincts, quiet our relentless egos, and relinquish our desire to make something happen. This is simple yet difficult work. We wait for some thing to change position and emerge, allowing us to discover its presence.

Silence is therefore a place, in the presence of attentive awareness, where we discover a hidden presence.

Silence begins in separation but leads to encounter.

Silence requires our physical and/or emotional withdrawal from others, a separation we often call solitude. It is worth noticing that in the ancient Genesis story, God’s making of the world involved separating the light from the darkness, the waters below from the sky above, the dry land from the sea. Here we see the act of separating as engendering the act of creating.

Separation makes distinctions. Without the acquired ability to separate sequential sounds into individual words, a foreign language becomes nothing more than a stream of unintelligible noises. Minuscule silences, and the ability to hear them, are necessary for the discernment of words. On the other hand, true silence is the absence of language.

Many people spend much of their lives avoiding silence because when we are divided from the comfort of a friendly, amusing or diverting voice, we inevitably will encounter the unavoidable, perpetual problem of loneliness. In his book The Restless Heart Ronald Rollheiser names the forms that loneliness takes: alienation; restlessness; fantasy; rootlessness; and psychological depression.

Silence intensifies the beatings, stirrings and yearnings of our lonely hearts, turning them loud, palpable and painful. Mr. Rollheiser believes that if we allow loneliness to remain hidden, it will ambush us, wreaking havoc. To encounter and name our loneliness, however, is to bring it into focus so we can integrate it into our lives in meaningful ways, enabling psychological and spiritual growth. Then, after we have begun that work of integration, silence will often become a refuge of tranquility, a place where we can experience peace.

In silence we can also encounter God, which brings us to the next paradox:

Silence is both perceptible and spiritual.

In silence, we might notice rustlings and whispers that would be masked by noise: external voices and our own internal yammering; machines and devices; the roar of traffic and crowds. Silence opens doors to insight. We might sense the yearnings of our lonely hearts or feel the palpable presence of peace. The Benedictine attitude toward silence is, appropriately, one of reverence.

Christine Valters Paintner writes, “When we show reverence, we recognize a presence much more expansive than ourselves.” Reverence opens us to listening for that which is transcendent and spiritual, beyond the range of our physical perceptions.

Here’s an old, old story that begins with the perceptible experiences of noise followed by silence, then leads us to a transcendent experience of the Divine:

Elijah, a prophet of God, was standing on a mountain searching for God when a mighty wind arose, strong enough to split the mountain and cause an avalanche of rocks, but God was not in the wind. Them came an earthquake, and after that a fire. God was in not in those great forces either. Imagine the catastrophic din of a tornado followed by an earthquake followed by a fire. Elijah wisely hid in a cave. Think about the hush after all that—the sound of utter silence. It was then that Elijah heard a gentle whisper, a voice calling him by name (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Isn’t this whisper an image of the profound fulfillment of that which we all desire? Whether after devastation or after the ordinary disappointments of a routine day, we crave the gentle voice of someone who knows us, who calls us by name. We want to draw near to the One who intimately loves us.

It’s an ancient story with timeless appeal. So, where on earth today is that holy mountain, the place where we might seek the Divine? Joan Chittister, OSB (Order of St. Benedict) says God is where we are. We don’t need to journey to holy mountains or take difficult pilgrimages to find God. Although shrines and devotions may provide occasional, important life experiences, and although they can be touchstones that help solidify our faith, we are able to have deeply spiritual lives without them. We need only develop, through spiritual practices, “the consciousness of God at all times and in all places.”

2. Silence strengthens Words’ Power.

Poets taught me the careful, “close” reading of poems. Benedictines taught me the similar practice of lectio divina, a meditative reading of spiritual texts. As a poet and a Benedictine Oblate, I have experienced that the careful reading of words serves to make me more conscious of the things in consciousness and in life that are present, but veiled.

At the intersection of text and white space is the close reading of poetry. It is a practice that opens our understanding to the nuances and resonances of language, and to the power of words to contain hidden and multiple associations. The close reading of a poem helps us be attentive to what is, as well as what isn’t, being said.

At the intersection of word and silence is the practice of Lectio divina. Through spiritual reading, we embodied humans–complicated creatures with our physical senses, intellect, and emotions–learn to wait for the transcendent voice of God to emerge “from the words and shimmer within [us]” (Christine Valters Paintner, Lectio Divina — the Sacred Art, 64).

If you google lectio divina, you’ll find many descriptions of this practice. Here is one of the most beautiful:

“The first movement of lectio divina [is] ‘reading’ But this kind of reading is so much more than simply reading words, stringing together sounds, and comprehending the meaning of those sounds. Rather, [it] is an entry to awakening your body, mind, and heart to God’s presence, listening for God’s voice not merely on the surface of the words and phrases, but between them, around them, and deeply within them. In Jewish tradition there is the belief that Torah is black fire on white fire. As Rabbi Avi Weiss writes, ‘The black letters represent thoughts which are intellectual in nature…..The white spaces, on the other hand, represent that which goes beyond the world of the intellect. The black letters are limited, limiting and fixed. The white spaces catapult us into the realm of the limitless and the every-changing, ever-growing. They are the story, the song, the silence’” (Lectio Divina– the Sacred Art, 63-64).

3. Silence adds meaning and peace to our lives. 

Silence is both absence and presence, paradoxically a place of separation and encounter, a sensory experience that can lead to transcendence. Silence can be full of thought and at the same time empty, the white space between and surrounding a thoughtful life.

Poets and monastics have taught me that silence helps attune my heart to better listen to what is present in me, as well as to what is present in others and in the world. Silence also helps me be aware of the immanent presence of the Divine in my life. Awareness —reverent listening—grows when I take time and create space in my life to live with, and in, a healthy measure of solitude and silence. The practice of silence adds meaning and peace to our lives.

4. Make room in your life for silence.

Silence, like poetry, prayer, or anything that moves us into an encounter with mystery, can’t be understood through reading about it. To know silence, we must experience it. Here are suggestions to help you experience silence.

Ultimately, silence will have its most enduring and beneficial effects if we develop a regular practice. Practices–for yogis, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and athletes–are simply formalized habits. By committing something to a schedule, by faithfully doing that thing, we make it into a practice.

This is part 4 of the series 8 Things Poets and Monastics can teach us about Happiness with 8 poems to Make Life More Meaningful. 

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