There needed to be a book about silence. We live in a noisy world, and true silence, if there is such a thing, is hard to come by.
I say “if there is such a thing” because, as author Sara Maitland discovered, there is some sound everywhere. That sound can be a lifesaver, preventing those who have been forced to live in isolation from going mad. Or it can be a terrible distraction for those who are straining to hear the voice of God.
Maitland (Daughter of Jerusalem) was crept up upon by silence. Her life at a changing point, she found herself living alone; in that state, with no one to sound off of, she began to luxuriate in the quiet. That experience grew deeper, and as a writer she was bound to explore it.
She has given us not just her personal view of soundlessness but also her investigations into silence in literature, media, and some travels specifically planned to go farther, even unto the desert.
Silence is generally associated with religious experience. There is, however, an element of torture in it, since isolation is used as a punishment. Maitland describes the experiences of several people who were forced to endure silence by their captors, and we learn that being completely alone with no time limit can cause a condition known as
accidie - a lack of feeling, a mental numbness, a loss of caring. The way to cope with accidie, which is considered a sin by the monks and others who impose silence on themselves, is to engage in productive work. One monk sewed leaves together and at the end of each year, burned the leaves he’d sewn together and started again. It sounds a little discouraging, but perhaps God offered him inner compensation.
When Maitland went purposefully to the Sinai to find out what the early church fathers would have gone through in their voluntary isolation, she finds that silence has a sound, or “song”:
“It does feel like an aural experience…but I think in fact it is the absence of anything to hear.” She discusses this sound with others who have delved deeply into silence, and there is an agreement that it is “two-toned.” It might be the voice of God, or the residual echo of the constant noise made by the non-silent all over the world, or perhaps the “spinning of the universe.”
To go to another side of silence, Maitland meditated in the forests of Scotland. There she felt the dark and mysterious world of fairy tales come alive in the shade and shadow. She found she was glad that there were no wolves allowed.
To understand fully the religious aspect of silence, Maitland, a Roman Catholic convert, began attending Quaker services. These, she found
(especially in the older meetings in England), generated a profound sense of the true practicality of silence, discovering from Quakers that “you can run an international organization for 300 years without a hierarchy; that out of shared silence a shared voice can emerge.”
Maitland mentions Meher Baba, “the influential and popular twentieth-century guru who claimed to be the Avatar” who lived most of his life in silence. One of his statements, not given in Maitland’s book, would nonetheless be something that she would, I believe, agree with: “Things that are real are given and received in silence.”