Silence

There was a 40 knot southerly blowing when I went for a walk on the beach today, so I wasn't bothered by the crowds. About halfway between St. Clair and St. Kilda three young women in wetsuits were pulling their surfboards out of the waves, trying to control them in the gale as they stumbled and shrieked their way into the comparative shelter of the dunes. Their faces and hands and feet were scarlet with cold and they caught my eye as I passed and  smiled in mute acknowledgement of the absurdity of their situation. It rained, and the sand blew in a small drifting mist at about ankle height above the firm beach. It was high tide and the waves just reached the six foot high cliff caused by the scouring away of the sand during the recent storms. After half an hour I turned and faced back into the wind, pushing against it and against the softness of my footing, glad of my Gore-Tex and gloves and snow cap, and straining on the flat beach as though I was walking steadily uphill. I retraced my own footsteps, the only ones in the sand. There was no one else about:  the surfer girls had retreated somewhere; the seals had realised that the sea was warmer than the land today; and even the seagulls had found somewhere calmer. The wind howled and rattled the little fittings on my hood, so they sounded like the tackle of a yacht at sea, but there was, nonetheless, a silence.

It was the silence of aloneness; the silence of being in a place where there was no-one to talk to and nothing happening that required much thinking about so my mind was free to wander about like a pet dog let loose, sniffing here and there with all the semblance but none of the reality of purposefulness. This was a silence that was nevertheless full of words. I mused over the ever shifting balance of sand, and on the patterns of it flying around my ankles. I looked at the olive green sea with its millions of tons of shifting water, and the millions more tons of water sitting above me in the gray clouds, sucked up into the air by the sun, only to fall back down around me and move the sand some more. I thought about impermanence and change, and Heraclitus who made a philosophy out of that, and  a line from a song by Jewel in which she says that everything is temporary if you give it enough time. I felt the sand give beneath my shoes and looked at the dunes and the dense packed surface beneath me and remembered that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth and thought briefly of that immensity of which  I was currently traversing some tiny pin prick sized corner. My head was filled with words the whole while. There was silence, in other words, only because in all that extravagance of wind, there was none that happened to be blowing across my vocal cords.

This seeming silence is the silence of aloneness; it is the silence of long drives and  times spent sitting on the deck watching the sunset. It is the silence of retreats and of the lengthy pauses in church which we sometimes, but only sometimes, slip into the slopping over the sides bucketsfull of words in our liturgies. It is a silence that is better than no silence at all, in that it does open us to that range of possibilities we usually drown out with our own speaking.

It is absolutely impossible to listen while  we are talking, and almost impossible to listen while we are thinking, so the almost of this silence is an improvement, as far as exposing ourselves to the great gifts which the Universe is continually proffering us goes. But there is another silence: the deeper, intentional silence which only comes when it is willed and worked at. I couldn't find that deeper silence in this afternoon's wildness, and neither did I try to.  I was content enough to let my mind run free and muse my way back to the warmth of my car and the promise of hot tea and a log fire waiting for me at home.

Comments

Simon Marsh said…
Wow! Wonderful post. Thanks very much for sharing ...

Simon
otherleadership said…
Fantastic post!

Here are some considerations on silence in a corporate environment:

http://otherleadership.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/a-leader-listens-deeply-lessons-from-plutarch/
Merv said…
... and so sometimes our comments are silent, too
annie lockwood said…
Do you read Thomas Merton? I have found his writing on silence helpful. On the other side of silence is much that we long for and need. I often meditate about all the references in the Bible to a gentle and quiet spirit as pleasing to God, and wonder that to cultivate silence in our hearts is a step towards learning to lose our lives to find them.
VenDr said…
I have not read much Thomas Merton - the Seven Storey Mountain and the Asian Journals - and that was a long time ago.he's on my To Be Read list because he is one of the four who reintroduced the contemplative tradition back into Western Christianity from whence it had all but disappeared - the others being John Main, Bede Griffiths and Thomas Keating..

Your point about the inner silence as a step towards learning to lose our lives in order to find them is the whole point of Thomas Keatings Centering Prayer method in a nutshell. In CP you sit in silence and constantly practice kenosis, emptying. So for 20 minutes you are more or less surrendered to God but more importantly,it is a workout of the skill of surrender which will stand you in good stead for the rest of the day.
annie said…
My father used to take me on 30 mile day hikes in order to find this kind of silence. In the wild and lonely reaches of high alpine mountain passes, gained through the zen-like rhythms of our steps on the trail as we climbed, there was a silence of the spirit I have rarely encountered since. Your beach walk reminded me of many similer hikes on the wild coast of Washington State, also with my father, gortex--clad, exposed to the elements, no less lovely for their inclement mood.

I appreciate Keating very much and have enjoyed both his books and his lectures on CD. Since I am a newcomer to contemplative prayer,and have come to it through my spiritual director only in the past year, I have had to listen several times to his CDs in order to fully grasp what he is saying, and I am still not certain I fully grasp the import. But I am learning to pray this way, and to appreciate the space it leaves for Grace to enter.