Religion relies on words and plenty of them. But there comes a point where one must cease all words and wait in silence. God’s voice was not to be heard in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, says the writer of 1 Kings 19:12. What is silence? As long as we draw breath there is no such thing as complete silence, but we may find relative silence if we seek it. My definition of silence is the cessation of talking, and the cessation of making noise, so that quiet reigns. The early morning is the time I find most conducive to this silence.
Our society, especially men, seem addicted to noise. I hate leaf blowers and other noisy gadgets men use in their yards, when they could be doing themselves some physical good and saving their hearing and contributing to the peace of their neighborhoods by using the old manual methods. The older I get the more I value quiet. Silence means taking a break from noisy activity, from elevator music, from news media and talk shows and television, and whatever else one uses to fill the quiet spaces in life. Not only are we refreshed but we also gain new perspective on issues that trouble us. Not paying attention to background and foreground noise, we begin to pay attention to the present moment and whatever is being presented to us in that moment.
Does God have more to do with silence than we appreciate? “Silence is the language of God. It is also the language of the heart,” wrote Dag Hammarskjöld. Is silence the space between the words where God dwells? Is silence the invisible dark matter which makes up 70 – 80% of the universe and which astrophysicists are beginning to think holds its secrets? An appreciation for silence means slowing down in order to listen to these spaces and let them speak to the yearning for silence in our own hearts.
“The rest is silence” were Hamlet’s last words as he died. What did Shakespeare mean? Hamlet’s eloquent rage against injustice and his quest for vengeance are over. He is silenced. The play is nearly ended, death has come to most of the protagonists and an eternal silence lies before them. His question “to be or not to be?” has been answered, and the voice calling for revenge has been silenced. Will the rest that comes with death bring him peace? In perhaps his most eloquent and cathartic play Shakespeare has emptied every emotion of anger, revenge and frustrated love. He has come to the end of words – now there is only silence. Perhaps he is agreeing with T. S. Eliot that “words, after speech, reach into the silence” (from the poem, Burnt Norton). Before God’s eternity the only human response left is the humility of silence.
For me the meaning of silence lies in humility, the emptying of my obsessive self-concern, and its replacement with a true compassion for others. Religious traditions worldwide teach the value of silence in religious practice, especially in the practice of meditation. There is a daily way to nurture the silence within our own hearts and to rest in the silence of God, and it is meditation. Meditation is one of the best ways to practice silence. Different methods of meditation help to reduce the interior noise and voices, but there is no perfect interior silence that I have experienced. Once in a while I forget myself, and am conscious of being in God and those are blessed moments. It helps if you do not allow perfectionism to ruin your meditation, but rather adopt a gentle attitude to yourself. You may check the Meditation page on this website for further details about ways to meditate:
Feel free to leave questions and comments and check back for my responses. Paradoxically there is much to be said about silence, but it is much better to experience it.