By: Carla McKenzie

The thing about spending time in silence is that it is simple. Not easy, but simple.

I recently watched a BBC TV series called “The Big Silence.” In it, five volunteers, people of various or no faith seeking some kind of connection to something deeper, offer to try the experiment of entering into silence. Abbot Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk, invites them to the monastery where he lives for a weekend to taste a more contemplative lifestyle, in ways shaped by the catholic tradition. After this, they spend a week back at home, trying to incorporate some silence or quiet contemplation into their daily life before they begin the real challenge: 8 full days in silence.

At the beginning of all of it, the Abbot outlines to the group what he believes the importance of silence is: in silence, we encounter ourselves- the deepest part of oneself which you could call the soul, and in encountering this, we encounter God.

Simple. Accessible.

The group spent their 8 days at a retreat centre, and were each assigned a spiritual guide, trained and steeped in Ignation spirituality,2 whom they met with once a day. Over the days they spent in silence, I was struck by the overarching themes and commonality of their experiences. They certainly resonated with my own experience of being on a silent, guided retreat. It is not that everyone had the same experience, but rather that their experiences illustrated how, once we allow the vulnerability of being in solitude and silence to open us up, it seems that we have remarkably similar fears, hopes and flaws.

Many of the retreatants spoke about loss and loneliness. They experienced deep gratitude for love that they received in their lives and a deep desire to love in as selfless a way. Some felt a sense of remorse at the past hurts they had caused others and a desire for forgiveness, and to forgive. They also, all of them, during their time on retreat experienced real, deep feelings of peace, well-being and comfort.

Of course at times it was difficult, and to a greater or lesser extent they each struggled and resisted the silence initially, resisted God. It made me think how it seems also almost universal that we fear the silence, the quiet of our own mind, our own thoughts. This is shown in how we glorify busy-ness in modern, Western cultures. We have something to fill every minute of the day and feel at a loss when we don’t, empty somehow. Perhaps because in some way we fear ourselves, or what we might find within ourselves? Or perhaps we fear God, or the idea of God, too?

As the abbot wisely said at the beginning (and I paraphrase), we are afraid we might find an ‘impure heart’, a bag of fragmented motives and experiences and be frightened by the ugliness. It is difficult to face oneself. For one of the retreatants who had been struggling for a long time to come to terms with the death of her father, she came to the realisation that she feared the silence because she had been running from her grief and deep down she knew that if she stopped, it would catch up with her, and she would have to feel it.

And yet, the beauty of contemplative prayer and meditation in the Christian tradition is that truly, deeply, there is nothing to fear. It is not in my experience, something harsh. These forms of prayer are not a mind over matter sort of thing, not about ‘transcending the physical’ or ‘conquering’ all distraction. I would even say, contemplation in the Christian tradition is not about transcending oneself, but rather – more deeply, more honestly, encountering oneself. And finding that you are not actually doing this alone, but that there is a surprising, loving Presence there with you.

In the words of Abbot Christopher: “It’s a repeated experience, that when people do step back, enter courageously into the silence, that they meet God. Something bigger than me, a presence, transcendence.”

We do not do it alone, and although silent contemplative prayer may at times be difficult, a struggle, even painful, in my experience, I have found it to be a gentle process marked by the surprising realisation of how gently God deals with us.

In a beautiful moment towards the end of the 8 days, the retreatant who had been running from the grief of her father’s death, spoke with her spiritual guide about how in a time of contemplation, she had had the urge to turn her hands which were resting on her knees, palm up and had had the resultant sense that somehow her hands were being held. How lovely, her guide pointed out, this turning of your hands from palms down holding tightly onto knees, to palm up: gentle, open. She continued, “maybe this has something to do with how we are to hold our pain and suffering?”

We do not all have the opportunity to take 8 days to enter into silence, let alone have access to a wise spiritual guide or a retreat centre to facilitate the process. (Although perhaps with a little searching we might find some of these opportunities around us?) But we do all have access to silence. This opportunity for encounter is available to each of us.

Similar to the experience of these five people, in our scriptural tradition, we have the example of the prophet Elijah:

“Then he was told, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.’ For at that moment Yahweh was going by. A mighty hurricane split the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. And after the hurricane, an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake.

And after the earthquake, fire. But Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire, a light murmuring sound.

And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then a voice came to him, which said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”’3

If the idea of this kind of encounter moves you, perhaps you could try a period of intentional silence today? A time, something like 20-30 minutes, where you set aside everything, any task or music or company and sit in a comfortable spot, quietly in silence. Set an alarm so you don’t need to check the time. It may help to light a candle, or to sit in front of something small and beautiful (a plant, a small pebble) to help to keep focus. If it is hard at first, go with the struggle, sit with it and see where it takes you. I say this because I truly do believe that one of the ways God speaks to us is from within ourselves. Gently, wordlessly.

 

  1. ‘In the silence of the heart, You speak’ lyrics from the beautiful ‘You speak’ by Audrey Assad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFr6dVTVN2w
  2. http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/what-is-ignatian-spirituality/10-elements-of-ignatian-spirituality.
  3. 1 Kings 19:11-13; New Jerusalem Bible

 


Profile CarlaAbout the Author

Carla Mckenzie

I am an adult convert to Catholicism, which happened much to my own surprise and that of those around me. I live in a vibrant catholic student community and am studying medicine, which occupies much of my time and thoughts. The rest I spend balancing my desire to read the omnipresent pile of books next to my bed and spending time with family and friends, being outdoors: hiking and surfing.  I love the church most for its misfit mystics and eccentric saints, and for being able to follow Pope Francis on Twitter.

  • Great, Carla. This reminds me of Bede the Venerable – or even the entire Monastic tradition of the middle ages up until Aquinas. This idea that at our core where we reside, is where meet God. We don’t “transcend” ourselves in some sort of out of mind or body experience, but we find God where the “I” meets the Divine.