Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflecting on "The Big Silence"

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted the first of 12 parts of a BBC documentary entitled "The Big Silence." It is the story of an endeavor of a Benedictine monk to teach five ordinary people the value of integrating silence into their daily lives.

There were enough buzz words in just the short introduction to the clip to have me completely hooked into the story, and by this morning I had spent the requisite three hours to watch the entire documentary. It was the most interesting thing I've seen in ages. I was completely intrigued by the experiences of these volunteers as they entered first into a monastic "dry run" of silence, experimented with trying silence on their own, and then as they dove into, and subsequently came "down off of" the meat of the experiment, which was an eight day silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat center. Their encounters with themselves, with God, with each other, were all fascinating to me.

Silence is fascinating to me. Like many things, I have this intuition that my relationship with silence is somewhat inverse to that of most people. It seems that many people fear silence. They fear facing themselves in silence; they fear what demons and dragons may emerge if they are alone with no distractions by which to dodge reality. I normally consider silence my friend, even though sometimes it goes by the name Darkness, that Simon and Garfunkel once sang about. I get wiggy if I spend too much time without silence. Far from fearing silence, I often crave silence. But I do experience a related difficulty. There are times when I try to take refuge in silence when I really need to speak out. And sometimes, that speaking is exactly what I fear. There are occasions where I fear what demons and dragons may emerge if I speak my mind too freely to someone. And there are times when Jeremiah's words are my own: "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it." (Jer. 20:9)  I have discovered that sometimes, in order to return to my peaceful quiet, I absolutely must say, or write, something.

Yesterday, before I started watching this documentary, I was pondering hard on a comment made by the friend of a Facebook friend (or, in other words, a total stranger). She had commented to me that sharing my conversion testimony (the post I wrote on Christmas Eve) must have taken a lot of courage. I suppose, in a way, it does require courage to share something from the depth of my heart. But I realize that I have practiced doing this for years. Starting when I was barely 11, I would write letters to my best friend almost every day, and I quickly discovered that writing was a way I find understanding, and that understanding brings relief to my soul. So, I hardly think about it any longer, the courage it might take to use my pen (keyboard, these days) to dig out my heart for another. The thing I struggle with is not the digging out, but choosing, or desiring, or (ouch) really needing to say to another person "I need you to hear this. I need you to read this. I need to say this to you." But I have discovered that there are times when I cannot get back to my fertile silence unless I purposefully make my voice heard to others. That thing of making my voice heard, of moving out of the silence with the word that burns in my heart, that is where my heart quakes.

I am left strongly challenged by the experiences these five individuals shared in this documentary. I am curious about the quality of my own relationship with silence. Though I love it, there are times when I am stung by how silence rhymes with violence, because indeed there have been times when the silence I keep is the silence that kills, as Rich Mullins wrote about. I have always been moved by a sequence of songs on John Michael Talbot's album The Regathering. The song "Keep Silence" (Keep silence/before the Lord/And wait for Him...) is followed by the fiery song "For Zion's Sake" (For Zion's Sake I will not keep silent/For Jerusalem's sake I will not be still/until her vindication shines forth/like dawning/and her victory like the flame of the Lord). There clearly is a time for silence and a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7). It seems, though, that there is a fine point of discernment here to know when each is appropriate. Or perhaps more accurately, both silence and speech that are open to the power of the Most High require courage that is born only of grace.

To explore the BBC series, check out The Big Silence, Growing Into Silence, or simply start watching the first portion of the program below:

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