It is very easy to valorize silence. Who isn’t looking for eternal peace and quiet? But the fundamental challenge of it remains: Why do I want peace and quiet so desperately? What kind of silence are we talking about? Are we talking about the kind of silence that enables us to escape the pressures and truths of our lives? Or is silence the way we control or ignore the people around us? The answers to those questions, Benedictine spirituality implies, are among the most important answers of the spiritual life.
Silence has two dimensions, both of them intensely godly. No one talks about it much, but silence is not only a spiritual discipline. Silence has as much to do with what it means to be a life-giving part of the human community as it does with what it means to be piously reflective.
No amount of talking can ever do as much to bring us face-to-face with ourselves as immersion in our inner darkness. The understanding of the role of silence in life has a great deal to do with how each of us grows and what we can eventually become. Most of all, the way we use silence as a spiritual gift has something to say about our own role in the growth and development of others, as well.
Each of these dimensions of silence—internal and social—determines how we go through life and whether or not we do it well.
The silence of the heart, that deep-down awareness of what we’re thinking and why, is our monk’s cell. It’s in that place of total honesty where we come to realize who we ourselves really are. We learn there what we fear and what we are resisting. We hear there the voices we so commonly block out with noise that seduce us to give in to ourselves. It’s in silence that we hear the sounds of our better angels calling us to rise above our lesser selves. It’s in silence that we arm-wrestle our picayune selves to the ground of truth.
Silent reflection throws us back upon ourselves, exposes our wounds, and challenges us to authenticity. Silence is not an event—not a confession, not a miracle. Silence is a process that transforms us from an etching of our potential to the fullness of ourselves. Silence frees us from our public selves and steeps us in our spiritual selves so that we have more to give to the rest of our world in the future.
Silence can, of course, become our private game of escapism. We can begin to substitute feeling holy for being holy. We can withdraw from the real world and call withdrawal a spiritual life. We can use silence to avoid the world, its problems, and our responsibility to them. We can simply dissociate from the people around us and tell ourselves that we have done a holy thing. But if we do, we are misusing silence, debasing its spiritual value, and making ourselves our own god, whom we go inside ourselves to worship.
The ninth step of humility is clear: Silence is not for its own sake. The silence we seek is the silence that does not sin the sin of eternal agitation. It is a silence meant to help us—once healed of our anger, finally harmonious and serene—see that the world around us is a graceful and peaceful place.
It is only this kind of silence, calmed and calming, that knows how to listen to others rather than freeze them out in tacit anger or ignore them in the interests of our own self- protection. Silence can become such a holy way of being un- holy at our very base.
It is only by listening that we get to really know the other as well as ourselves. The attention we give to others by showing interest in their interests or fears or preoccupations is the beginning of human community. It requires us to actually at- tend to another rather than simply use the encounter as an excuse to talk about ourselves alone. It is the holiest of human acts.
The understanding that we bring to others comes out of the understanding of ourselves that our own self-reflection has earned us. Only when we know ourselves—our motives, our struggles, our fears—can we reach out to the other without judgment, with care.
It’s by listening to the pain and fear of the other that we prove the compassion we like to think we have. It is in the genuine care we bring to the other out of the honesty of the self that wisdom emerges. Both ours and theirs.
In silent listening, one soul is able to meet another without the noise of a garrulous and superficial world to drown out what is trying to be said. It is silence that leads us both to honesty and to insight unalloyed. Then we learn in a whole new way how listening is a dimension of silence and silence is the only ground from which real listening can possibly spring.
Finally, it is silence that teaches us, as the ninth step of humility insists, that there are simply some times when silence is the only real answer that counts.
This essay was an excerpt from Joan Chittister’s new book Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, which will be released on April 25, 2017. Copyright 2017, Joan Chittister. Penguin Random House Books.