For nearly twenty years, I have been investigating the power of silence, a topic that first struck me when teaching the later poetry of T. S. Eliot. I then discovered all the many things Thomas Merton had to say about silence as contemplative prayer. In several articles on Merton and silence, I tried to define the broader implications of silence as something more than the absence of sound.
Many other writers, I found, have explored this topic, suggesting that genuine silence is not about emptiness or negativity but presence. What kind of presence is not always easy to define, but it became clear to me that true silence has its own positive, independent existence: it is the enduring reality that sound interrupts. Or we can say it is the permanent reality that supports sound, a bit like the way the white space on a printed page exists in dialogue with the words, which come out of silence.
Silence lasts while words do not. And while such insights come from my literary background, they also come from my search for prayer, the kind that goes beyond words to an interior reality known to mystics in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Christians might find in contemplation and meditation an awareness of the kingdom of God within. This attention to spiritual reality through stillness and silence has been called the sacrament of the present moment.
Recently, I have profited from listening to Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and author, who sees silence as an alternative consciousness, a way of way of knowing beyond rational analysis. The ego, he says (drawing on Jung), needs words to make points and to get what it wants; the ego is uncomfortable with silence since part of us wants to argue.
But the soul, so to speak, sees that silence is more important than words. Silence for Rohr is the wholeness of being with nothing to argue about. It gives us moments in the timeless present but also something more: a sense of the eternal since time increases ("grows into a fullness") in silence, which is more significant than words.
Rohr's great spiritual model is St. Francis, who said, "Pray always and sometimes use words," referring to actions (good deeds) and silence as more expressive of love than language. If our words begin with, and come out, of silence, our words will be carefully chosen. Words not surrounded by silence (but blurted out in a great rush) can be hurtful, critical, sarcastic, hardly spiritual.
Rohr also suggests that a focus on silence as a spiritual practice prepares us for death, the Great Silence. And the other manifestations of silence in art--the stillness of paintings, for example, or the eloquent absence of sound in certain films--are also worth studying.
I remain grateful to Merton for reviving the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer and seeing its parallel in Buddhist practice, something he was exploring in Bangkok at the time of his death in 1968. I am happy to see that what he and many others have done, in both poetry and prose, continues the exploration of silence as a source of ultimate meaning as well as the source of language and music.
As T. S. Eliot wrote (in "Ash Wednesday"), the word cannot be heard here, in ordinary time: "there is not enough silence."