There was an article recently in the journal America on line entitled 'Sacred Silence' by Christopher Pramuk . For some reason the high desert plains of New Mexico which he describes have fascinated me over the years although I have never been there. However the startling beauty of the landscape, the association with the artist Georgia O'Keefe, the monastery of Christ in the Desert and the Merton connection have come together to create an attractive image. “One has to be alone, under the sky,” observed Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, “before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all."
But that is only a surface gloss. What is implied in the title of Pramuk's article is the nature of real silence that is sought out as a positive reality, not just the absence of noise. For we do indeed live in a world that is forever noise filled, be it the chatter of people in a room or the cacophony of city life. It is hard to find silence.
Many years ago I stayed in a friend's cottage in the middle of the Abernathy forest in Scotland, about 30miles south of Inverness. It had no radio, no television, no phone and in those days certainly no laptop. Standing outside in the small garden, the silence was tangible, you could physically feel the absence of sounds. There is something liberating about such silence. You are free to dwell in it without the necessity to respond, just to be in that place and at that time.
How often do we confuse a time of prayer with the incessant speaking of words, the singing of song or the playing of music? All important, all offering a direction on our journey but all in the end insufficient on their own. Prayer may also be the opportunity to listen, a time of emptying, the letting go of our own fine phrases, the time of making space for the good Lord to enter our very self and animate our being.
Yet that in itself can be disturbing and as we begin to realise that deep silence, there can come upon us a fear of being there and so we resort again to familiar words and lose the occasion to listen.
Silence is the space between words, the pause-point for understanding, a release into emptiness, a time to listen.
Call it meditation, contemplation, what you will. I prefer a simpler word, call it prayer.