Saturday, 10 May 1997
  Sample Issue | Special reports | Additional articles |Quick archive search 


The silence of the soul

Laurence Freeman

Christians are rediscovering the practice of meditation. A Benedictine monk who has been prominent in this movement, as director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, reflects on the truths taught by silence. This article is extracted from the 1997 John Todd Memorial Lecture.

There is nothing so much like God as silence." These words of the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart capture the contemplative wisdom of centuries. The loss of this wisdom has plunged modern humanity into many painful and desperate complications.

What does it mean to say that silence is like God? Silence can disturb and frighten people and, at least initially, make them angry. In our very unsilent culture we often see silence as an unnatural void, to be filled as quickly as possible with speech, music or other noise.

St Benedict used two different words for silence. One is taciturnitas, which means restraint of speech and other noise-making. This is especially important in monasteries and other enclosed spaces where people live close to each other. Children are taught taciturnitas when adults tell them not to speak when others are speaking, or to close the door quietly on leaving a room.

The other word St Benedict uses is silentium. Whatever is purely natural, not trying to be anything other than itself, is silent in this sense. Silence, authenticity, does not mean merely keeping noise levels low; it is the condition of pure truthfulness.

True silence is full, unimpeded communication, free-flowing, direct and spontaneous. This is why it can be so disturbing and it is why being truly silent in another’s presence can be the most effective or even the only way out of an impasse when communication has broken down.

Nothing is so like God as silence, because God is pure, unbounded, truthful self-communication. If God is Trinity, as Christianity and other religions have discerned, then the oneness of God is in the perfection of the divine information technology. This technology is the Spirit, the perfect communication between Father and Son we call love.

Whatever assists communication is spiritual. What represses, denies or avoids communication is unspiritual and, in the words of St Paul, saddens or stifles the Spirit. This is equally true in the realm of politics, art, religion or psychology. Psychological repression or political repression make the Spirit sad by stifling the flow of communication which allows us to become fully human and achieve the realisation of our divine likeness.

The Spirit by definition is not limited by matter. It is by nature therefore immeasurable. Jesus tried to get Nicodemus, the great religious materialist, to understand this, when he told him: "The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn. 3:8). If you cannot define the middle or the end, you cannot measure.

This is another reason why silence is so disturbing to us. As soon as we begin to become silent, we experience the relativity of our ordinary everyday mind. With this mind we measure our space and time co-ordinates, we calculate probabilities and count up our mistakes and successes. It is a very important and useful level of consciousness. It is so useful and familiar a state of mind that we easily think it is all there is to us: our whole mind, our real selves, our full meaning.

Life, love and death frequently teach us otherwise. We bump into silence at many unexpected turnings on the road of life, in unpredictable ways, in unlikely people. Its greeting has an effect which is both thrilling, full of wonder, and yet often terrifying.

Our thoughts, fears, fantasies, hopes, angers and attractions are all rising and falling moment by moment. We automatically identify ourselves with these fleeting or compulsively recurring states without thinking what we are thinking. When silence teaches us how unreliably transient these states really are, we confront the terrible question of who we are. In silence we must wrestle with the terrible possibility of our own non-reality.

Buddhist thought makes this experience – what it calls anatman or "no-self" – one of the central wisdom-pillars of its path of liberation from suffering and one of its essential means to enlightenment. The Buddhist practitioner is encouraged to seek out this sense of inner self-transience and rather than fleeing from it to dive headlong into it, as Meister Eckhart and the great Christian mystics also did.

Understandably, anatman is the Buddhist idea that others generally have most trouble with. How absurd, how terrible, how sacrilegious to say that I don’t exist!

In fact most Christian antagonism to anatman is unfounded or founded on misinterpretation. It does not mean that we do not exist but that we do not exist in autonomous independence, which is the kind of existence the ego likes to imagine it has; the kind of fantasy of being God with which the serpent tempted Eve. It is the hubris to which religious people often fall victim.

I do not exist by myself because God is the ground of my being. In the light of this insight we read some of the words of the New Testament with deeper perception. If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind; day after day he must take up his cross and come with me; but whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it (Lk. 9:23-24).

If through silence we can embrace this truth of anatman, we make important discoveries about the nature of consciousness. We discover that consciousness, the soul, is more than the amazing computing and calculating and judging system of the brain. We are more than what we think. Meditation is not what we think.

As the Christian mystical tradition has long taught, God cannot be known by thought, but by love. Thought is a form of inner noise and as we progress through the purifying realms of silence, as consciousness deepens, we move beyond thought into the luminous consciousness which is love. If you can understand it, St Augustine said, it is not God.

The ancient Christian understanding of Logos, the Word of God, leads to a deeper understanding of silence. Silence is the source of creation. The Word proceeds from the abyss of the silence of the Father. According to the Orthodox Fathers, the human cry of Jesus and the silence of the Father make the supreme harmony.

Meditation is the work of entering the silence of our own true nature and the silence of God’s true nature. One of Hinduism’s central sacred texts, the Bhagavad Gita, speaks, like the Cloud of Unknowing, about a work that is silence and silence as work. It is not a work of thought but of moving deeper than thought.

What is even more remarkable is that these greatly diverse traditions also agree on the essential way to do this: by stilling the mind beyond the waves of purely mental activity. There are many ways suggested by these different traditions for achieving this stillness. Among these, one, the continuous repetition of a single word or phrase – a formula, mantra, the Jesus Prayer – is universally valued in all traditions.

The Benedictine monk John Main, who was first introduced to meditation in the East, later recognised the tradition of the mantra in the teachings of the early Christian monks, the Desert Fathers. He recognised a discipline of silence which was both immensely practical and practicable by people in every walk of life. Today, many thousands of Christians around the globe follow this teaching of the fourth-century heroes of desert asceticism in two periods of silent prayer at the beginning and end of each day.

A woman at a meditation retreat I was leading once came up to me on the second day in some distress. She had never meditated before and was sitting through the sessions four times a day in a state of turmoil. She had no idea what to do with this quiet time of stillness, which she spent looking around at everyone else sitting with their eyes closed, convinced they had all achieved the nirvana of total stillness and silence of mind as well as body. I told her the story of the pole.

A man had served a god very well and in reward the god offered him a servant who would fulfil all his wishes. The servant was amazing. He would do anything he was asked swiftly and efficiently. Very shortly the man had everything he could wish. The only thing he wanted now was a quiet life to be able to enjoy it all.

He discovered, however, that the servant had a couple of drawbacks. First, you could not send him away. Secondly, he was incapable of resting. He was continually demanding more tasks to perform. Eventually the roles were reversed and the man was in flight from the servant, who pursued him from morning till night for the next job.

When the man went back to the god to beg him to withdraw the servant, the god offered him a way to keep the servant and enjoy the benefits. He told the man to go to the forest and cut down a tree, strip it and erect it as a pole in the courtyard of his house with a rope tied to the top. Then whenever he had no job for the servant he should instruct him to hold the rope and run up and down the pole until such time as he was needed. It worked. Both the servant and the man were happy.

The servant is the mind. It is insatiable and hungry for thought and sensation. It cannot rest. Unsatisfied, it will turn on its master and devour him. The pole is the spine, held upright during meditation. The rope is the breath. The going up and down is the saying of the mantra.

The woman at the retreat soon learned that the other 70 people sitting so quietly around her were as busily engaged in taming the servant of the mind as she was. What made the difference to her was that she now also had work to do in the times of meditation.

The best way to discover the experience and meaning of silence is to do this work. At first you will become aware of the fruits of meditation in your daily life, your personal character and reactions to the events of the day. St Paul describes these fruits as the "harvest of the Spirit", love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).

These are heavenly and yet mundane qualities which develop in silent and subtle but unmistakable ways. We do not do the work of silence in order to exploit the psycho-neurological system and so get dramatic experiences. The masters of silence warn against looking for experiences. Cassian speaks of the mantra as a way to poverty of spirit in which desire and expectation are relinquished.

One of the greatest difficulties people face today is the lack of a clear moral consensus. Is there a deeper and fresher moral awareness waiting to be born out of a newly awakened universal contemplative consciousness? Can the work of silence, performed in meditation by individuals and in communities, stir this new spiritual approach? How else can we bring lasting peace to conflicts which have torn people apart for centuries or millennia?

How better can Christians contribute to the healing of the wounds of sin and division than by experiencing that the life-giving words of Jesus are born of the silence of God which is love and which is everywhere?

More by Laurence Freeman
Contents Page
More on Other Faiths
More on Spirituality
More on Theology
 Back to Top

The Tablet Publishing Company