Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Power of Silence:

Published on Monday, October 15, 2018

The Power of Silence:

When Silence Becomes Presence

I have to say that these days I almost prefer silence to listening to the blat of talking heads expounding about either the virtues or sins of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. No, this isn’t going to be a blog from another talking head about the state of our politics. But thinking about silence itself has prompted me to write about silence and its practice in my own life ... and maybe in yours.

Most of you know that my original professional training was as a clinical psychologist. And in my graduate practicum work and during my residency at Indiana University-Bloomington, I vividly remember being taught and experiencing the two faces of silence: one negative and the other positive. On the negative side, I was taught to emphasize with folks in couples therapy that silence used as punishment in a relationship is just poison. On the other and positive side, I was taught that silence used judiciously by the therapist him- or herself can be a powerful tool for opening up the client to speak of things that matter. For most of us, silence is somewhat uncomfortable but can be very productive in eliciting inner thoughts. Many people find silence a bit scary because it offers no diversion, so the self is vulnerable to hidden forces coming from without and within.

I am not immune to this aversion to silence. In fact, I’ve always been uncomfortable when sitting across the table from someone who is not speaking, lapsing instead into silence and staring off in the distance to some other place than a conversation with me. Even when I’m alone, I will switch on NPR or a music station on my Pandora app rather than be  surrounded by the sheer silence of my room. And this is a bit ironic because I’m also a long-term member of a contemplative monastic order, The Order of Julian of Norwich. One of the vows I took 16 years ago was a promise to practice silent prayer for several hours a week – a promise that I have struggled with to this day. I generally lose the battle between the promise and all the pressure of my busy daily life. You know how that is, right?

On the other hand, for years I have sought places of silent retreat twice a year or more – for example, seeking solitary prayer time in a Trappist monastery in northwestern Virginia and, more recently, fleeing to Afton Mountain south of Charlottesville and my hideaway in my usual condo in a place called Wintergreen. (By the way, that's where I’m headed next week!) And years ago I was attracted to a Quaker Meeting gathering when I was a student in Bloomington. In fact, I remember finding the experience of group silence in those Meetings as extremely powerful, opening myself to a deep sense of Presence in our midst.

Which brings me to an article that really prompted this reflection about the power of silence in our daily lives – written by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. In "Silence in the face of mystery" (The Christian Century, Aug. 29, 2018), Williams describes occasions of silence that we experience in our everyday lives. What he sees as a common thread through all of them is that we are driven to silence when we can’t control what we are confronting and words, therefore, just fail us. He writes, “I can’t normalize this. I can’t just absorb it into my routine ways of being in the world. I’ve been taken outside my comfort zone and stripped of the ways in which I usually defend myself and organize the world.” As examples, he cites being given a life-threatening diagnosis for ourselves or loved one, or experiencing a play or musical performance that simply takes our breath away. Silence is imposed on us at such times when we are faced with some enormity outside our own control. Sooner or later all of us have or will experience such uncontrollable impingement.

Williams ultimately links such an experience to engaging God in the depth of such silent encounter: “Ultimately everybody is silent in the face of the utterly unmanageable, which is God.” Like Elijah at the mouth of the cave where God is present not in the fire and not in rushing wind, but in the sound of sheer silence.

Finally, Williams drives his point home by reflecting on the Gospel scene of Jesus on trial before Pilate – and his refusal to answer Pilate’s questions, his refusal to defend himself, in fact his refusal to speak – becoming a threat to one who holds political power over him. Williams writes:

Pilate’s bafflement and fear in the face of Jesus’ silence (“For God’s sake talk to me!”), are a reminder that, in this case, Jesus takes the powerlessness that has been forced on him and turns it around so that his silence becomes a place in the world where the mystery of God is present. In a small way, that’s what happens when we seek to be truly and fully silent or let ourselves be silenced by the mystery of God. Becoming a place where the mystery of God happens.
Some years back, an orthodox archbishop by the name of Anthony Bloom wrote a book titled Beginning to Pray. This is a powerful book on prayer – not really just for beginners (aren’t we all), but for anyone seriously considering taking up contemplative prayer as a practice opening the self up to God encountered in the silence. I’ve used this book as a teaching resource about prayer over the years.

In it, Bloom tells of his experience as a young priest being confronted by an elderly lady complaining that she has talked to God for years and years, but never had really experienced God’s presence in the prayers she would utter. So Bloom told her to just go to her room and sit in silence, doing nothing. He instructed her thus:

If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place as word in. ... Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners. ... Light your little lamp before the ikon that you have and first of all take stock of your room. Just sit, look round, and try to see where you live, because I am sure that if you have prayed all these fourteen years it is a long time since you have seen your room. And then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.

... after a while she came to see me and said “you know, it works. ... Oh how nice. I have fifteen minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty, ... Goodness, what a nice room I live in – a window opening onto the garden ... the room was so peaceful. There was a clock ticking but it didn’t disturb the silence. ... And after a while I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, the clock was ticking peacefully, there was nothing to bother about, I had no need of straining myself, and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. ... All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was He who is all stillness, all peace ... (pp. 93-4).

So the takeaway point? Like all important, creative skills that feed our soul – like singing or playing music, or painting, or sculpting – silent prayer does take practice. The only way to experience the Mystery of God in a silent encounter is to take Bloom’s advice and spend those 15 minutes a day experiencing that powerful Silence that will become Presence, nurturing your soul in the process. We are all beginners at this, but that skill that comes with practice will carry you through those times when words have to fail – nourishing your soul daily in the process.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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