Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Silent Spaces

To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over the land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence. — Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude

This is the passage with which I began my course on silent spaces last fall. We took a historical approach, working our way from the desert fathers and mothers up to present day contemplatives. I wrote early on that teaching this course felt like autologous dissection, a sense that persisted for the entire semester.

In some sense I don't belong completely to the silence that Merton is talking about here. I don't live in an enclosed silent monastic community, I am not a hermit. Yet a quick look at my calendar reveals that last year I spent 30 days in silence, albeit spread out over the year and not in one go as when I made the Exercises.

The class was framed around a few key questions. Is silence an exterior condition or an interior stance, or some complex interplay between the two? Is there a difference between being an occasional visitor to silence, and dwelling in it? Is silence necessarily the same thing as an absence of sound?

I may not yet belong completely to the silence, but I do let it soak into my bones, breathe it, and feed on it.

"Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God." — Madeleine Delbrêl

Photo is of the desert at the edge of an oasis near Al Alain in Abu Dhabi. I wonder if that is where I dwell these days: in the oasis, but a step away from the desert.


  1. I'm beginning to wonder if the capacity for silence is a sort of gift -- much like a gift for writing, or cooking, or painting, or math, or music -- a gift that needs to be honed to be fully realized, but a gift nevertheless.

  2. Silence... a great need. I think that you and Robin are helping me here, reframing things as you have. Thank you.

  3. It's those words "need" and "desire" that cause me to wonder about silence as a form of gift. I think, for instance, that a pianist needs to play, and that need motivates learning and practice.

  4. in the midst of holiday shows and teaching and this that and the other things, I stopped and and realized I needed silence, if not then, then at the beginning of 2012. There was something calming about that desire. love that closing quote!

  5. Thanks for this. So much!