Sunday, 27 May 2012

Silence is Golden

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out. The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out” The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?” The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?” The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

While silence sounds simple, it is far from easy and don't we all like to point out when others fall short of the mark...we all break the silence...

I have fond memories of childhood birthday party games when quite often we would play sleeping lions or statues or silence. We became very competitive over these games. We reacted just like those four monks. As soon as someone made a noise, we would begin one by one to point out that they had broken the silence. Yep I have no doubt that a six year is at least if not more enlightened than any monk. To be still and to be silent is no easy task for anyone, whether you are child who's eaten too much sugar or a monk in search of enlightenment.

During a recent session of the “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” reading group I decided to give space for silence. We were looking at the fifth step “Mindfullness”.  There has been a lot of lively and intimate conversations during these groups and we have spent a long time listening to one another. In this step it is suggested that we invite someone to lead the group in mindfulness meditation but I decided to keep it simpler and thought we would benefit from sitting in silence together, if only for ten minutes. It went well, we all gained from that time and I believe that it enabled us to engage more deeply for the rest of the session. The space enabled us to listen to one another, to follow Kahlil Gibran’s direction and “Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear.”

Before I began attending Unitarian worship I explored a variety of other religious communities. I attended several churches, meditation at local Brahma Kumaris and Buddhist centres, as well as Quaker meeting for worship. I had become a bit of a religious tourist I suppose. I was also reading lots of “New Age” literature such as the “Conversations With God” series by Neale Donald Walsch, “The Power of Now” by Ekhart Tolle and other similar writers. I was trying to make sense of the life transforming spiritual experiences that had occurred over a period of a few months. I settled on the Quakers for a while, I liked where they were coming from, their approach to religion, which seemed very open and humble. After a while I sensed that something just didn’t feel right about it though. I wanted to do something, I wanted to be involved, I wanted to sing and move perhaps. Maybe something was quaking inside, perhaps if I’d allowed this to flow free I may never have discovered Unitarianism, but I did not. I did not wander down that road. Instead I continued to search and discovered Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and the rest is history. The ethos and approach to religion I found there was very similar to the Quakers and yet somehow I found Unitarian worship more engaging. There was focus, if a varied one, that I was able to relate to. I also rediscovered my voice during worship, I began to sing again. When I sing I feel oh so close to God, this seemed to be missing in Quaker worship. I know today that I am just too noisy and energetic to be a Quaker.

By the way this is in no way a criticism of the Quakers, who are the most beautiful people; I just know that I am not one. I also believe that silence has a vital role in worship. We share a time of communal silence each Sunday during worship. I lead a regular singing meditation, which is about the sharing and intermingling of of the human voice and silence. I engage with other forms of meditation too, both with others and on my own. I love silence; I love stillness. I truly appreciate those words from the 46th Psalm “Be still and know that I am God”. This is an internal experience I believe; it’s about faith and trust. It is serenity; it is calm in the storm. Meditative practise helps me develop this stillness in my daily life. It helps me to be present, it helps me to connect.

 Many people find silence challenging, especially extended periods in company with others. How do you feel when you sit with people and suddenly everything goes quiet? How do you feel when no one speaks? It’s uncomfortable isn’t it? We want someone to break the silence and of course usually someone does so, with an anxious or awkward remark.

Silence is vital and we need not fear it, instead we should befriend it, we need not fill the space between our bodies or our words.

I have learnt, over the past few years, to befriend the silence. I have to say that at first I found it embarrassing, rather silly actually, but then I did not really understand its purpose. I had a very busy mind in those days and I did not like the thoughts that would often appear. In time those thoughts settled, became manageable and the silence began to speak to me. I found these moments of silence inspirational. I found clarity and the ability to make sane decisions in the silence. I believe that during this time my connection to God, to the ground of all being, to that which runs through and connects all life, developed in the space of silence. The still small voice voice of conscience deep within began to develop during this time. What the Quakers describe as “That of God in everyone”

During the Gospel accounts there are several depictions of Jesus going off on his own, to pray, to embrace silence. At the beginning of his ministry he spends 40 days and nights in the wilderness alone, where he comes face to face with temptation. In Mark 10 vv 30-46, Jesus spends time preaching, teaching and then feeding the crowd that gathered around him. It is worth noting that before he does so he and the disciples attempt to spend time in solitude and afterwards he goes off to pray alone. It would seem that he knew that to be of service to and for others he had to spend time alone, he needed to nourish himself spiritually.

The great sages understood the need for silence. The Sufi mystical poet Rumi wrote “Silence is the root of everything...if you spiral into its void, a hundred voices will thunder messages you long to hear.” Kahlil Gibran said “silence is painful, but in silence things take form, and we must wait and watch. In us, in our secret depth, lies the knowing element which sees and hears that which we do not see nor hear. All our perception, all the things we have done, all that we are today, dwelt once in that knowing, silent depth, that treasure chamber in the soul. And we are more than we think. We are more than we know. That which is more than we think and know is always seeking and adding to itself while we are doing -  or think we are doing -  nothing. But to be conscious of what is going on in our depth is to help it along. When sub-consciousness becomes consciousness, the seeds in our winter-clad selves turn to flowers, and the silent life in us sings with all its might.”

“Silence is Golden” it is so vital to the active life. We all need time alone, in silence, in solitude; a time to commune with that greater reality, a time alone with God; a time alone with our deeper selves. Prayer and meditation is as vital to me today as air, food and water. My body and mind cannot function without these elements; my body and mind cannot maintain good health without my soul being fed by prayer and meditation.

The spiritual and religious life has to be both active and open. To give ourselves fully to the lives we live, we need to ensure that we ourselves are in fit spiritual condition. Therefore like the great sages sometimes we all need to wander off into the wilderness, commune with our God and feed our souls.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.


  1. Danny,
    A beautiful testament to silence. ... You close with a verse from a hymn which Howard Thurman loved. Other meditative hymns like this were called, "Thurman Hymns" by his students at Howard U. and Boston U. Someday get his autobiography, WITH HEAD AND HEART. If you wish I can email you the service I did on Thurman at the UU Church of Atlanta, Georgia (it may still be on their website). Richard B.

  2. Thank you Richard I will get his autobiography...I would love to read the service thank all is well with you