(Editor’s Note: The following article is republished from the Spring 1999 issue of MinistryMatters, a now-defunct publication of the Anglican Church of Canada. Its author, Vianney (Sam) Carriere, a former editor of the Anglican Journal and the church’s director of communications and information resources, died on August 10. Described by many of his colleagues and friends as a gifted writer and editor, Carriere crafted graceful, insightful prose that were often about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.)
>Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1Kings: 19: 11b-13)
Silence is something like one’s good health. It is most prized when abruptly taken away, most cherished when suddenly recovered, when, as with the rush of light, we suddenly realize that we have been deprived of it for a long time. Then as it returns, a wealth of rediscovered feelings comes with it. Silence begins as something external and it becomes a state of being.
People who live in cities almost never experience silence. There is always something – traffic in the distance, the chatter of neighbours, a far-off siren, even the white noise of office buildings.
Yet it is a mistake to think of silence as the absence of noise. Silence is not a negative, not an absence at all, but an overwhelming presence, an awesome something that brings sustaining and resuscitating gifts all the more precious for their rarity. Silence is a wonder for all the faces that it has, all the garments that it wears, the nuances and qualities that come with it: the silence of a starlit night in a wilderness; the silence of a deserted church, empty yet holy, the engulfing silence of fresh snow, the silence that passes in a glance between a loving couple, running like electricity through a wire. All different. All magical.
That is why we whisper when we pray, why our “I love you’s” are spoken so softly – it is isn’t all reticence or a need for privacy. It is a tribute to the silence of special places and special moments, the mystery of special moods that we know are so fragile and so transitory that the merest sound can drive then away. We know in our very soul that we ought not to disturb these times. They are as skylarks, timid, every poised to swoosh away.
The very best kind of communication that can happen between people is silent. This is one of life’s mysteries – how we, as a species with the marvelous and unique gift of speech, make ourselves understood, share a moment, communicate our love and our passion with a look or a glance, so much more effectively than we do with words.
So much of what we say to people with whom we live and work or to people whom we meet is not important at all. It won’t be remembered or it will be misunderstood. The really crucial things are communicated wordlessly, punctuated, perhaps with a mere squeeze of the hand, with a smile, or with a look with which you suddenly find yourself gazing into the very depths of someone else’s silence.
The wordless way we have of communicating our really vital thoughts and emotions are as personal as fingerprints. No two people do this the same way. It requires awareness, fullness of soul, love, and silence. Silence, above all, cannot be dispensed with.
It is a way of communicating not unlike the way we are taught, as infants, to communicate with God, the way we are taught to pray. Prayer, even for those who find it difficult, is enabled by silence. Silence, stillness, is the route to holiness and to communion with God, much more so than the other props we’ve picked up, the icons of prayer, the formulaic words we learn as children, the beads of a rosary, the gestures.
There is a reason, surely, why Jesus and all the prophets sought out the wilderness in their quest for inspiration and to nurture their special sight. They were seeking holy silence – the consuming presence of an empty, quiet space, which is the surest conduit to God and the things of God that nature allows.
To seek silence is to seek God; to love silence, to learn the beauty of stillness, is to invite God to touch us and our lives. And in silence, in this private, internal wilderness that we create, God finds us, as he once found the prophets, and speaks to us in ways that can enlighten, inspire or confound. That is another mystery, another level of communication, another place. A silent place is a holy place if only we can learn to hear and love that mystical nothingness that is everything.