I spent the weekend reading 'A Book of Silence,' a memoir by Sara Maitland, a British novelist who spent time in the Sinai desert and on the island of Skye off Scotland exploring the effects of silence, a topic of wide interest these days. It'sa topic that has occupied me for the past ten years, resulting in several articles.
I learned several things from Maitland's admirably bold adventure but was ultimately disappointed because her journey seemed mainly an intellectual exercise: Twice in one chapter she mentions thinking about silence and prayer without sharing with the reader the spiritual experience of the latter.
The author has read widely and shares many insights about the many different types of silence as found in forests, deserts, mountains, hermitages and in many religious traditions, and she seems torn by the desire to write and be active on the one hand and to divest herself of the ego on the other, as the silence is calling her into a deeper state that she never describes; it's as if all the silence has not been a transformative experience. It has not made her poetic or prayerful as Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are. (I am expecting too much.)
If I quibble with some of the conclusions she makes about saints and desert fathers, I nevertheless value many of her insights and am grateful that we do not have here another book on noise and silence (I recently saw a review of three new books on this topic). Silence is hot these days.
I applaud Maitland's determination to go beyond the usual pieties (such as ineffability)that arise with contemplative silence and to actually test the emotional effects of silence, which she does with a candor that sounds more American than British. Yet I keep wanting to say, "Go deeper. Cover less material at greater depth. Write a true spiritual memoir."
I have not had anything like Maitland's confrontation with "the freedom of solitude" or "the energy of silence" in the remote places of our globe, but I wish she would explore what these phrases of hers really mean rather than conclude that silence is ultimately a mystery and that, as we are repeatedly told, it is not the absence of sound or noise. That should be obvious to anyone interested in reading this book.
I hate to say it, but deep down, there is something superficial about this book.