Speak up. Shout out. Stand up. Stand out. Don’t mumble. Be heard. Turn it up. Turn it on.
We don’t do silence well. Our children and students grow up plugged in and interfaced six ways to Sunday, and just to get their attention, we learn to do the same, until our hours are filled with multi-tasked, multi-channel, multi-screened, scrolling, annotated, dictated, and high-voltage inputs. If something happens to disrupt the nonstop flow of information, sound, and images, like a storm that knocks out power or internet access, we find ourselves helpless, restless, bored, unable to cope with the interior of our own minds, naked thoughts rattling around, that hopeless monkeymind of modernity. . . .
But we are reminded: in the beginning was the Word. And to hear that word, we must be still enough to hear it.
In my own busy full-plate kind of life, one of the blessings that keeps me grounded and whole is the practice of silence. To be reacquainted with my own company, such as it is; and to know One other in that still and sacred space: the Beloved. Jesus, in my faith tradition–lover of my soul, as the old hymn beautifully names him.
Other faith traditions also embrace and practice silence as invitation into a welcome and welcoming Presence. One beautiful means by which I have learned and nurtured that practice has been through the ministry of a dear friend, Br. Stefan Waligur, who ministers around the world, leading retreats of song and silence and sacred listening.
I have written about these moments before, and offer one such description below:
I am sitting in dappled sunshine above a small pond. It is the first day of spring. Behind me, robins are scratching, a miniature flock of chickens, making a happy racket in the dry leaves and detritus of the long, hard winter. An enormous red-headed woodpecker thrums out a bongo rhythm in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a nuthatch land lightly on a branch damaged by heavy snows, then swing comically about in mid-air as the half-broken limb gives way suddenly and dangles under his weight. He clings briefly, desperately, flapping a bit; then releases and flits away to find a more secure perch. I would laugh out loud, but that would break my temporary vow:
I am at Dayspring Silent Retreat Center for Stefan Andre Waligur’s Song of Peace/Community of Peace retreat. I am relearning silence, reclaiming a too-long relinquished fellowship with these creatures. When I first entered this warm glade, their activity stilled, busy voices falling silent; but seeing that I was content simply to be still, each of them eventually returned to the business of the day, paying me the high compliment of ignoring me entirely. Two days is not nearly enough time to spend pursuing the ancient monastic rhythms of silence, communal meals, sung prayer, and shared work—not nearly enough to thaw the winter out of my bones, out of my stony heart–but for now, it will be a start. The branch is damaged but still holding.
I certainly did not expect to feel close to people with whom I might have shared maybe 15 minutes’ conversation at the beginning of the weekend–but I do. At one of our regular gathering times, I look around the Yoke Room at seventeen others who share my own impulse toward silence as spiritual nourishment–who perhaps understand something about the levels of exhaustion and sadness that would bring someone to beg for a silent retreat weekend as her birthday present. We don’t know each other’s histories–don’t need to know those details—and give each other a wonderful gift: no explanations necessary. I think I love all of them, just for that.
Meals are an odd mixture of barely-suppressed hilarity–how many ways can you pantomime “Please may I have ________?” without completely breaking up for the sheer silliness of it all?—and an amazed awareness of the goodness of the vegetarian meals—colors, tastes, texture, the care with which they were prepared. Without the distraction of forced small talk, we are released simply to pay attention to the food, to “be mindful”, to be grateful. This too is a gift.
We also give each other the gift of music. These are the only times we deliberately break the silence of the weekend, our voices lifting each other up, harmonies rising spontaneously and naturally, creating themselves as the songs circle in endless variations. Some choose not to sing, some are overcome with emotion and are unable to sing for a time, but for each of us there is a sense of having the deepest cry of our hearts expressed and amplified and carried for us. It is release; it is healing; it is a foretaste, surely, of heaven.
And then there is this holy silence that surrounds me under the trees. Neither emptiness nor absence, the deep quiet is actually overflowing with sounds I usually miss. These birds—like me, suddenly released from some deep winter—are part of it, but there is more. Traffic sounds: some, but blessedly far away. A distant bell sounds from the lodge over on the Wellspring side of the property. Feet crunch past on the gravel path behind me. Squirrels and insect life crumple through the leaves. Flurries of breeze. I can’t listen hard enough to catch all of it. And underneath it, through it, around it—I am listening for another Voice, too often drowned out by the din of my own busy-ness.
I will hear it in the labyrinth: I am the God of turnings, too. Even the wrong path is still one that I can turn towards Home. I will hear it in song, over and over again: You are beloved of God. I will hear it in silence and breath prayer: Even in this, I AM. Even in this, Jesus, breathe through me.
I had not realized how heavy my weekend bags were until I pick them up Sunday afternoon to walk back up the drive one last time, heading home. It has been good to lay the burden down, even for a brief time. As I load up my car, the nuthatch flits past, still searching for a safe place. I am happy to have found one.
Br. Stefan returns to offer an annual retreat of song and silence known as the Pilgrimage of Peace this August 10-26, in the Blue Ridge of WV near Washington, DC. Participants can come on flexible schedules–a day, a weekend, a week, as their schedules allow. Fees are flexible, too, to allow all to participate who wish.
If your soul is hungry for silence, consider this moment, consider this gift. I’ll be there, too!