02 June 2017

Questions On the Place of Silence and Solitude

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I read you blog occasionally throughout the year. I am interested in learning how you think lay people can live solitude and silence given your experience as a Roman Catholic hermit. I am a single woman who feels called to live with more solitude and silence. Recently, I was reading a book that spoke about how lay people can live with a sense of enclosure in the Benedictine sense. A sense of guarding our time with God and having sacred space. It really spoke to me, not because my life is so busy but because more of who I am. So I would [ask] how solitude and silence figures into this?]]
Hi there! Thanks for writing! There is a lot of literature available these days about silence and solitude. Most of the books out there do not expect readers to become hermits. They recognize that God dwells in silence and that silence is necessary for any person to hear the voice of God. You are sensitized to guarding time and space to create a sacred place to be with God; silence is an essential part of  such a space. Otherwise it would be like carving out time and space and then filling the resulting "place" with boxes of junk while turning on a TV, radio, and stereo at the same time. We carve out sacred space (or create what is called a "cell" in monastic literature) so that we can 1) meet God, and 2) meet ourselves. But more than dedicated time and space this requires an environment of silence and solitude. We practice silence and solitude so that over time we maybe changed into persons who know how to listen to and believe in the profoundest content of or presence within our own hearts; we practice these things because we are made for them and are shaped into whole and holy persons by the love-in-act that comes to us and claims us in them.
Of the books available on Silence and Solitude, a number approach the matter from the phenomenon of noise. Most recognize that noise is ubiquitous in our world and in our own lives. Just in terms of external silence, for instance, we cannot seem to work without "multi-tasking" and having ambient noise in the background. We cannot be with others without filling the time with conversation --- including our time in Church or chapel! Beyond this our being-in-the-world is usually noisy and careless. Marketers fill the environment with music meant to distract and make us stay and shop or buy more. When noise seems to overwhelm  the "muzak" (or whatever it is called today) the usual solution is to add more noise to cover that. I am always surprised that even our prayer tends to be incapable of real silence; it is all about talking. Don't misunderstand me; pouring our hearts out to God requires words but words are required until we reach that place beyond all words and can only wait and worship in silence.

Robert Cardinal Sarah has a relatively new book out which refers to "the power of silence against the dictatorship of noise". It's a good description of the place noise holds in our world, and it is a dictatorship which makes us less and less human or capable of being human --- especially when we understand that we are meant to be "hearers of the Word." Sarah's major thrust seems to be the insight that unless we practice and achieve silence and solitude at points in our lives we will not be able to hear or respond to God.
So how does anyone in this world begin to live silence and solitude? First, learn to cultivate outer silence and attentiveness. Silence is meant to allow attentiveness; it has a purpose, especially early on as one learns to embrace it. Begin to turn off sources of ambient sound. Cut out multitasking and attend to the thing at hand; give it your entire attention. Learn to move and act quietly. Create space for attentiveness; for instance, try not to fill time with activities meant to distract. (For me the big temptation there is to read in order to distract myself; sometimes this is acceptable, but other times I just need to be attentive to whatever is going on, including the noise that is abounding!) I think you get the idea here. Take time walking in nature when you can. When you turn on the stereo or TV and choose what will play attend to it as fully as you can. The idea is to learn to be present to the music or program, to engage with it, enjoy it, and then, to turn the TV/stereo/computer off!

The next thing (there is overlap of course) is to learn to listen to our own hearts. Besides outer silence we need to cultivate an inner silence which is typical of recollectedness. From that place you will come to know yourself and the God who holds you in existence with his love. The purpose of enclosure and of silence and solitude is to ensure the place and necessary conditions for an encounter with God in the depths of our own hearts. Especially one turns to lectio divina in this context, the meditative reading of the Scriptures and some other books. If you have not learned how to do lectio I cannot recommend more emphatically that you take the time to do so. If you do lectio I can't recommend more emphatically that you make it a center of your daily practice. In my own hermitage this is the heart of any spiritual praxis apart from quiet prayer and often it is linked to or foundational for much of the day's quiet prayer. Additionally, one tool which is very helpful in this process of cultivating an inner silence  and ability to attend to God in us is journaling. Journaling helps us to listen to the voice(s) of our own hearts. It can assist us to express the more superficial "noise" of our lives, but more significantly it can help us hear and claim the deeper voices, including the silence of God. Using journaling in conjunction with spiritual direction can be an important element of any life of prayer and I highly recommend these. The purpose of all of this is to create an environment in which you and God can meet and embrace one another.