Forgiveness: following Jesus into radical loving by Paula Huston

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explore Lent

Practices, tools and reflections for the Lenten season



Written By Paula Huston

SilenceEvery year, my husband Mike and I rendezvous with my four siblings and their spouses for a week-long Sierra backpacking trip. We look forward to this adventure all year, and try our best to do a little training ahead of time, though much of this winds up getting accomplished while we’re actually on the trail, suffering through our first few miles at high altitude under heavy packs. 

The Sierras at 10,000 feet are both beautiful and foreboding.  Glacier-gouged and bare of trees, they tower, granite-gray, over ice blue lakes. At this altitude, even birds are few. If we see a fat marmot, we feel lucky.  You would think, in a setting like this, that you could find silence to spare.

Not so. Few places in the modern world are noise-free anymore, including the austere Sierras, where every day high-flying jets pass over the range with a distant but audible roar. And during our last backpack, we discovered that the ubiquitous cell phone has now penetrated deep into the wilderness. My sister Tina had an exuberant conversation with her husband, 2,500 miles away in Ohio, then emailed him a photo of a nearby glacier. 

Contemporary culture seems bent on filling our every waking moment with sound: round-the-clock newscasts, synthesized music in shopping malls, the squawking laugh-tracks of sit-coms, the screech of tires in endless car chase movies. Our computers chirp out little tunes when we turn them on or off; our phones break into song at inopportune moments; our cars beep warnings when we go into reverse. We are so used to mundane noise by now that when a sudden silence falls across a room, we are unnerved and look around to see what just broke.

True silence—the absence of words, the absence of unnatural sound—is nearly impossible to find these days. Yet ancient spiritual wisdom says that silence is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.  And early monastic literature from the third and fourth centuries speak of people who fled the major cities of Rome and Alexandria by the thousands in search of golden silence—who were willing to live under the harshest of conditions in the vast, empty Sinai desert in order to find quietude.

It wasn’t until I began making solitary retreats at New Camaldoli Hermitage, a wilderness-based monastery in Big Sur, California, that I realized it is still possible to choose silence. Here, ensconced in a small guestroom on the side of a mountain, 1600 feet above the sea, I had my first taste of what that choice might be like. Everything in monastic life, particularly in the lives of these Camaldolese hermit/monks, is designed to preserve quietude. Discrete signs in the common kitchen remind guests not to talk. Cell phone service is non-existent. And because there is nowhere to drive, engine noise is minimal. 

I quickly discovered that silence bestows many gifts. A practice of silence can diminish anxiety, for example. Our neurological system is designed to respond to danger; noise—especially loud, startling, or repetitious noise—drives up the adrenalin level in preparation for either doing battle or taking flight. In a world that bombards us with sound, we often feel jumpy, the effect of endocrinal responses to perceived danger. 

But we cannot concentrate on other things when adrenalin is surging through our systems; we cannot focus on prayer, for example, when we’re all wound up. Thus, the ancient wisdom that says silence is golden.  In silence, our outer senses can rest and our inner, spiritual senses—the ears and eyes of our soul, so sensitive and discerning—can shyly come forward. We begin to see and hear what is usually invisible and inaudible to us. 

My times at the monastery convinced me that I needed much more silence than I was getting during my normal day-to-day existence. Though we’d banished the TV years before, we still had a stereo in the living room and boom boxes scattered in various teenager bedrooms. We had the constant ringing of the phone to contend with, not to mention the chugging of the dishwasher, the slamming of doors, the flushing of toilets—in short, the normal sounds of a busy, overcrowded house full of people. 

Without a lot of hope for success, I stuck notes everywhere, polite little notes like the kind in the hermitage kitchen, asking people to be quieter. After a few weeks under the new regimen, however, I had to face the truth: my noisy brood was not going to change. If I were to find silence, it was up to me to find it on my own. 

I began to think about the potential opportunities in my life for a respite from noise. And to my chagrin, I realized that more often than not, I was the one responsible for much of the cacophony that surrounded me. For example, was there really any reason to religiously listen to NPR’s Morning Edition as I drove to work each day? Couldn’t I leave the radio off and simply focus on the road ahead? I tried it—and felt an almost instantaneous reduction in my stress level.

I discovered another hidden pool of silence one night when I was plagued with insomnia. Usually when this happened, I fretted and stewed and tossed around until I managed to wake Mike, which meant that then there were two irritable, sleepless people in the same bed. On this particular night, however, I slipped out from under the sheets and headed downstairs for a cup of tea. How quiet it was, I thought, with all of them sleeping but me!  Even the cats had their noses tucked in their paws. I found a patch of moonlight, sipped my tea, and reveled in the silence. 

As I got better and better at finding unexpected moments of peaceful quietude, I began to think about something else: for a person who was constantly complaining about the noise level, I did an awful lot of jabbering. In fact, I was what some people might call an inveterate talker, and had been since earliest childhood. I was a natural-born story-teller, someone who loved to regale a crowd with highly embellished accounts of her many antics.

I suspected that ancient spiritual wisdom had remedy for this problem, too, and it did: I needed to learn to curb my tongue. The early hermits of the Sinai desert, when they began to gather in communities for mutual support, soon learned that nothing destroys an organization more quickly than unbridled talking. Thus, in most of the great monastic rules for life, such as the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict, much space is devoted to the discipline of silence—silencing the tongue, that is. 

I began trying to practice this discipline, and soon discovered that our culture is suspicious of those who remain quiet. In a society that values self-promotion over humility, silence does not make sense, so we assume the worst when someone we know deliberately drops the conversational ball. We fear that he or she must be wounded, or angry, or somehow sitting in judgment upon us. When I began holding my tongue during meetings of my voluble writers’ group, for instance, the response was swift and negative. Who did I think I was, anyway? 

Though it was difficult at first, even hurtful, I persisted with my experiment. And very quickly, I saw what the old monks of the desert had intuited nearly 1,700 years ago: too many of our words are thoughtless. Too many of them are disguised criticisms of other people. When we dress them up with humor, our judgmentalism becomes more daring and blatant. Almost anything is excused if it makes people laugh. Thus, too many of our words, even those delivered in the highest spirits, are downright destructive. 

Other times our words are rationalizations for our own bad behavior.  We try to talk others into admiring what probably should be condemned instead. Often, this kind of self-justifying verbiage becomes an ongoing life story, complete with characters, plot and themes. To cease talking so much means we disconnect ourselves from this self-reassuring technique so that we can get down to the hard work of changing.

Though even in the Sierras, pure silence is nowadays but a distant dream, we can control our own noisemaking, particularly when it comes from unbridled talking or from mindlessly distracting ourselves through TV and the Internet. And when we do choose silence, we find ourselves at least partly liberated from the unrelenting stress of contemporary life and thus more able to focus on and explore the realm of spirit.     

Copyright © 2009 Paula Huston