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Advent Silence

Wednesday, December 12, 2012
'Silence is golden' – really? Just think of all the pejorative adjectives we attach to silence: an awkward silence, an embarrassing silence, an oppressive silence, a stony silence, a deathly silence, even a silence you can cut with a knife. Uncomfortable silences are now eased only by the Awkward Turtle...

Generally, our busy and noisy culture has no time and space for silence. Our time costs money – if a lawyer snoozes for two minutes, that's a loss of £50! We tend to think of silence as something empty and boring, to be filled as soon as possible with talk or music – almost any kind of noise will do to keep silence at bay. We may be afraid that, when the noise dies down and we are left vulnerable to our innermost thoughts, all our suppressed anxieties and traumas will resurface.

This is the problem diagnosed by a new book, The Power of Silence: the riches that lie withinby the journalist, Graham Turner. I met Graham yesterday, after he presented his book at the University Church in Oxford. Talking about silence may sound like an oxymoron, but someone's got to do it! The book is based on interviews with many people around the world and in all walks of life. You might expect all of them to be professional silence-keepers – monks and nuns and Zen Buddhists – and these certainly make an appearance. But silence becomes absolutely fundamental to the life of everyone who discovers its power, including those whose professions might seem to be anti-silence: actors, musicians, mountaineers, and even dentists! More importantly, silence can be the only way for us to face, and then to overcome, our suppressed problems. We may have much to learn from Graham's tale of the convicted murderer who sought healing through silence.

Silence alone, however, is not enough. If it were an absolute nothingness, it would be dead. The reason silence can be fruitful and creative, is that it helps us cultivate attentiveness. That's the problem with filling our lives with constant noise (no matter how 'entertaining'): the more noise there is, the less we really listen to it, and it stops us hearing other things. Then, when the silence occasionally falls, we probably feel lost, awkward and rudderless. So we need some kind of direction, something luminous on which to focus our attention. Instead of the Awkward Turtle, perhaps the traditional Catholic response is more positive: Un ange passe...

Yesterday, Graham Turner described how his morning meditations often result in quite clear and definite resolutions, arising not in any perceptible way from within but coming as an external certainty – what he calls a 'response of love'. I think the phrase is exact and well chosen. Graham insists that not everyone need ascribe this to 'God'. But his phrase captures precisely what Christians mean by God: the personal, loving Creator who calls us and responds to our every need. The silence of God is a creative Word, a presence without oppression, a command without coercion. God's stillness is full of life, His music without noise. But I cannot describe this adequately at all; far better you go and read the Christian mystics.

Indeed, as a Dominican, I belong to a fairly talkative Order! The work of preaching (pace St Francis) must often be done with words. Yet, we also practise the contemplative life, praying the Divine Office together and spending periods in silence. Our preaching must be the fruit of contemplation, for how can we preach God's Word unless we first receive it ourselves in attentive silence? Thus, one of our Dominican mottos is contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere: to contemplate and to hand on to others the fruits of contemplation.

And what has silence got to do with Advent? This is the period when we wait in hope for the coming of Jesus Christ, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Waiting is often a time of quiet and stillness, especially when we don't know how long we have to wait. Unless we are silently attentive, we might miss what we are waiting for! This is especially true when we wait for God, who has an unsettling tendency to come in humble, unobtrusive and unexpected ways. 'Be still and know that I am God.' God comes in the silence; on the gentle breeze; on the quiet altar of adoration; and, in the flesh, even as a vulnerable little baby in a manger. That is truly a 'response of love' worth waiting for, especially in silence.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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