Faith and Silence

Guest Blogger Dr. James Keating

“But silence and contemplation have a purpose: they serve, in the distractions of daily life, to preserve permanent union with God. This is their purpose: that union with God may always be present in our souls and may transform our entire being” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Before silence is sought as a way of life with God, deepening our faith in Him, it is first encountered as a suffering. Even though many seek silence as a relief from a culture dominated by words and noise, few seek silence as a healing for their addiction to noise. Relief simply is that, temporary and topical.

Alternately, healing presses into a person’s wounds, wounds unaddressed by the regular choice to medicate spiritual and emotional pain through noise.

To better understand what it means to experience silence we can look at what was learned in an experiment at a Benedictine Abbey in England in 2010. In this experiment, which included several lay people spending many days within a monastery, silence was first encountered as pain.  The silence itself was painful, but this same silence transported the participants’ consciousness into centers of affective pain that they had been trying to relieve simply through their noisy daily routines.

Silence itself, experienced as pain, was created by the participants’ deliberate withdrawal from this daily routine of sound and activity. The abbot, Dom Jamison, who was monitoring the visiting lay persons, noted that the participants “lived in an epidemic of busy-ness.” The noise of the “real world” is so intense that when the lay persons returned from the monastery to “life as usual” they could only note that silence had affected them, but not changed them.  Silence was deemed to be akin to a diet that one cheats on: one wants to be silent but chooses instead in its place noise and busyness.

Silence, in the space of days within which the experiment took place, had little power to overpower the “epidemic.” But there arose, within the participants, a “desire” to enter silence again as part of their daily routines; but this proved very difficult since sound was “in them.”

In the early stages of the monastic experiment the participants experienced silence as boring, oppressive, relentless, and hard work. Both men and women reported that it was vexing to no longer listen to music, engage in conversation, or be active in texting. Most telling, however, was the disturbance felt within silence that left each person with “only my own thoughts.” To be in possession of one’s own thoughts alone, with no external stimuli, was deemed “scary.” They experienced thoughts as “pouring into their own minds” as if their own ideas were alien intruders never encountered before.

For many years these participants had been entering noise through technology and social gatherings as a way to ease their discomfort with themselves, with their own thoughts or questions. Because of this they neglected to cultivate a sense of self related to the truth of who they are or to God.  Since this communion was undeveloped, they identified silence with loneliness, isolation and even rejection. To relieve this pain, such a person runs back into a rush of activity, socializing and networking…but most of all they seek noise.

Faith calls us to seek our ground, our anchor in the silence that alone is able to diminish the interference that fills our minds and hearts.  Silence alone is capable of opening us to the truth of our identity in God.

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