Sara Maitland writes in A Book of Silence about her own journey into silence as a modern day, somewhat alternative hermit. In one particular chapter Sara describes some time she spent in the Sinai Desert and this leads her into some specific insights. In an engaging paragraph she writes:
I started to think that perhaps silence is God. Perhaps God is silence – the shining, spinning ring of ‘pure endless light’. Perhaps God speaking is a ‘verb’, an act, but God in perfect self-communication in love with the Trinity, is silence and therefore is silence. God is silence, a silence that is positive, alive, actual and of its ‘nature’ unbreakable.
Sara’s reflection on silence in the desert made me wonder about the relationship between the desert and God’s creative silence. It’s true that we spend a lot of time in the Church reflecting upon the Word – the act of the Father in Christ the Son. But if what lies behind that act is God’s silence, what is the implication for our devotional practice, for our seeking of wisdom in the Holy Mystery of Divinity? Silence and desert monasticism has a long history in Christian devotional practice, and perhaps it is enjoying something of resurgence today as people seek out new spiritualities.
I have found, as many have, that periods of silence in worship have become deeply enriching and necessary, as my spiritual journey has progressed. My own first real experience of communal silence was at theological college where with Sarah Coakley, we sat in an hour’s silence each week. Also, every morning before prayer we had 20 minutes of silence. These silences rather than being empty were full, and that perhaps is the essential paradox. They seemed able to take me further, to explore more, to enter more deeply in to God.
Yet silence has also had to answer some criticism. Is silence really a retreat away from the world, a form of escapism from real problems? For those groups or individuals who have been oppressed and literally silenced, surely we should be encouraging them to come to voice?
Sara Coakley, a feminist theologian, has written on the interplay between justice and silence. In Powers and Submissions, she addresses the charge of whether ascetic practices have been used to encourage women’s submission, disassociated introversion, apolitical anaesthesia and ultimately the silencing of women. Have women been silenced, she asks? Of course yes women have. But that doesn’t have to be the last word on silence.
She argues for an alternative interpretation: contemplative practice should be at the centre of feminist theologies, as being that which leads to a proper disciplining of self as well as assisting freedom from all that binds and manipulates. She writes: ‘the means of peace, and indeed of the final gender equity that must attend it, are patient practices of transparency to God, by whose light political strategies must ultimately also be illuminated.’
If the ‘Church’ and religious traditions have been guilty of subjecting women and others into various limiting stereotypes and models, freedom from religious misuse of power and subjection comes for Coakley through the patient practice of silence. And this can be deeply empowering. We remember Jesus’ silence before Pilate. We remember the long silence that Rowan Williams apparently made on Radio 4 when asked a question. A silence that actually empowers us by its deepness; silence is in many ways the final act of defiance from those who are being oppressed and manipulated. For in silence we refuse to engage in the cunning of words and politics that seek to condemn us.
It is perhaps no coincidence that two very different but similarly engaged contemporary (feminist) writers on religion should be drawn to silence and contemplation as a means of liberation. It is perhaps only from the deep creative silence of God that a proper religious renewal can emerge, one that re-generates religious language and practice.
The question of the language we use to speak of God and to God is at the heart of course of the practice of religious belief and doctrine. I remember that I had a spiritual crisis during which I felt that the language of the church was inadequate and limiting when it came to its naming of God and my relationship with God. Calling God Father as we do in the Christian religion can become a stumbling block for many for different reasons; language which at one time was very helpful can become unhelpful. Any language which becomes static, inflexible, unchangeable is a language that is not honouring God or Her creation. Language has to move and adapt and this is true too of liturgical and religious language. The language should not simply mimic culture unreflectingly in order to be relevant but through diversity, play, creativity, freedom and novelty, it should challenge and empower people once again to find a language to talk to God and about God. As we experiment with prayer we translate a theology of inclusion into a practice of inclusion. And yet, the silent source of that movement and creativity is of course the inexpressible, unknowable mysterious God.
If communities find that language is a barrier to communion perhaps sitting in silence together (for a time) is a strategy for renewal. At an Inclusive Language conference I attended I was very moved and challenged by the idea of a silent Eucharist which one woman told me she had been involved in. I imagined being part of such a service, where the actions of Christ are brought into silent focus, as we keep silent and remember the story through mime. What possibilities of renewal of liturgical language might come through such a discipline?
Desert spirituality of course in only part of the journey; it is a time of purification and testing. But Christ comes out of his forty days in the desert not a broken an exhausted man, after all, but one ready to boldly start his ministry, to proclaim the Good News. He comes out of the desert ready to speak – not to remain silent: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1: 15)
There is a time for silence and a time for speech; but speech without silence is likely to be arid and empty.