Musings on Silence

Silence is another door into the temple.
~~Mary Oliver
Be still and know that I am God.
~~Psalm 46:10
There is the rest of detachment and withdrawal when the spirit moves into the depths of the region of the Great Silence, where world weariness is washed away and blurred vision is once again prepared for the focus of the long view where seeking and finding are so united that failure and frustration, real though they are, are no longer felt to be ultimately real.
~~Howard Thurman
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
~~Rainer M. Rilke

Most leaders speak 80% of the time and listen 20%. The best leaders reverse that equation, listening 80% and speaking 20%. Being in silence and being with silence expands the circle of listening and hearing, thus the depth of leaders.

Silence: a gift, a blessing, the spirit’s pulsating soul. What I would give for some time of silence, I often think. When my wish is granted, I disrupt it and flee from it by creating a distraction or cacophony of sounds. Do I really want that for which I ask, SILENCE? What is silence and what role does it serve for the ripening of our deep self, or our souls?

Silence is frightening. Silence is an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame. It orphans us from certainty. Silence leads us beyond this well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable reality about to break in upon our lives.

Silent Place

Silence does not end skepticism but makes it irrelevant.  Belief and unbelief or any previously rehearsed story meets the wind in the trees, the watching eye and listening ear of a loved one. The distant horn in the busy port harbor, the sound of a tug boat trudging down the Mississippi in the early morning fog, the melodious saxophone heard echoing in the early morning through the New Orleans French Quarter streets and an eerie silence accompanies them all.

In silence, essence speaks to essence itself and asks us for a kind of unilateral disarmament.  Our own essential nature slowly emerges as the defended periphery solidifies and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves, we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, a revelation revealing in the way it listens. Silence invites us to watch our own undoing. It invites us to a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, belonging to a different person than the one who began the process.

Silence is a bridge, a sacred, secret space, a cathedral for wandering and wasting time. Silence is a bridge where religions and cultures meet, merge and enjoy each other, a jewel of imagination, play and stories. There, in our silence, we need no railings or police.  It’s chancy and subliminal.  From this place, sensitive creativity and wisdom flow that move beneath our labels and concepts that divide.  Joseph Campbell tells of a friend who attended an international meeting of the meditative orders, which was held in Bangkok. He said that the Catholic monks had no problems understanding the Buddhist monks, but that it was the clergy of the two religions who were unable to understand each other.  In the contemplative traditions, there was space for the mystical experience; there was space for mystery and silence, there was place for different metaphors to speak of similar experiences. In the silence, there was the place of connection and unity. Sounds and words if not growing out of a cultivated, humble, soulful silence, can divide.

Jesus’ recognition of silence is demonstrated throughout his life. Time and again, he lives in the rhythm of being with others, then going to be alone, whether in the garden, out in the wilderness, on the mountaintop, by the sea or on the waters. He is alone to discern and pray; to listen. He engages silence and the unheard voices that dwell therein.  He goes off to touch that place where words form, beneath the sound, where the experience happens.

Out of the quiet emerges the sheer incarnational presence of the world. This incarnational presence seems to demand a moving, internal symmetry to its own powers.  It is music with its own deep rhythms. It is living water.

Out of the silence, if we listen deeply enough, attentively enough, and long enough, we hear a voice like currents in and beneath the wave, God’s internal flow pulsating like sap through a tree, electricity through an exposed power-line buzzing and zapping, showering sparks; blood racing through our veins or wind passing through the ice covered limbs on a cold, wintery night. Silence, the pulsating stillness, which is not inactivity, but a stillness and calmness found in the heart of soulful activity; a silence that comes and goes in a deeper, different, synchronistic way.

My son who lives in California enjoys surfing. He said that after a hard day’s work, there is nothing like going out into the ocean on his surfboard to put things back in perspective. He said, “When out in the surf floating and waiting for best wave, alone, the silence is breath-taking with the ominous power of the sea all around me. In that context, I am alert to the wildlife both frightening and exciting that swims beneath the surface. Life looks different after being in that space and having such an experience.” Silence in nature, as the poet Mary Oliver commented, “Over and over again announcing our place in the family things.”

To become deeply silent is not to become still, but to become tidal and seasonal, to be rhythmic, a coming and going that has its own inimitable, essential character. It is a story not fully told, the background of the sea, the rain falling, the river going on out of sight, or the sun setting on the horizon, out of our lives.


Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence and absolute giving away. It is something only fleetingly possible, but invitational to a different form of discipline. It demands a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a brave giving in and giving up; another identity than the one always ready for the easy, unearned answer, the question half spoken and rarely understood, hidden but present. In Rilke’s words, “Yet, no matter how deeply I go down into myself, my God is dark, and like a webbing made of a hundred roots that drink in silence.”

Silence: a gift, a blessing, a curse, a beautiful call to be and let be. In the words of Mary Oliver, “Silence, another door into the temple.” Thus we are invited in the words of the Psalmist, to “be still and know that I am God;” a God in the silence and of it, the rhythm that pulsates beneath the sound and the silences.

I ask for you,
I seek you,
and when you appear,
I do not know your name,
I do not greet you as an old friend,
I do not look at you like a beautiful setting sun on the far horizon.

Outwardly I am silent or quiet. Inwardly,
you know how I am shouting.
Alone every person stays quiet
unless we look in the other’s eyes.
The tears are traces of their inner voice,
the lonely looking for connection.
Be still, for there are secret things happening in the silence.
Do you know this silence?

With gentleness, oh silence, you invite me through the door of the temple
the threshold of thin places nearby.
I do not welcome you as an invitation.

Instead I turn up the volume to avoid you,
I complain about being too busy, not having you;
The small voices,
the hidden innuendoes,
the unrealized hopes and dreams;
the fears and concerns that dwell nearby.
All held in the soul’s container of one.

Oh silence, how can I learn to meet and greet you,
To step into the river’s deep currents,
with belief and unbelief, knowing and unknowing,
flowing toward the vast sea to which it goes?

As I listen to the robin’s song in the early morning,
can I hear you, can I embrace you in arms of love?

How can I tend to you like a morning walk on sandy shores,
waves rolling against the fresh sandy beach,
where strangers walk to see what you have washed ashore in
the night, in the dark, in the quietness, in the silence?

Oh silence,
How can I meet you as a story not fully told,
like the background of the sea,
the rain falling, the river going on out of sight, or
the wind over that field
stirring things we will never see, or
the sun setting on the distant horizon.

Silence, may you speak,
I meet you and greet you,
Quietness is an empty cup,
But silence unweaves the shroud of words we have woven;
it is an overflowing abundance of eternity, The Great Silence! Where blurred vision is repaired.
What majesty, what awe, what nocturnal power.
Welcome, oh I welcome you.
Or at least I try!

I wonder what it would be like to let silence be the art we practice?


Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

For You alone, my soul, in silence waits.
~~Psalm 62:1

Silence is the language of god,
all else is poor translation.
~~ Rumi

. . .the mercy of God is not heard in words unless it is heard,
both before and after the words are spoken, in silence.
~~Thomas Merton



Print Friendly, PDF & Email