Silence: A User's Guide

This review of Silence: A User’s Guide by Maggie Ross is in the current issue of Third Way Magazine.

Silence is the crucial element in Christian life, argues the solitary and author Maggie Ross in this punchy, timely book. It is vital because the fundamental promise of Christianity cannot be realised without it, namely, new life in Christ. Ross calls this process of transfiguration “the work of silence”. The results of it St Paul realised when he declared that he no longer lived but Christ lived in him. It led St Augustine to sense that God was closer to him than he was to himself; Mother Julian to know that all will be well; and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to advocate the kind of contemplation that “beats away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love.”

A practice of silence can move the individual from living within the anxious strictures of their self-consciousness, to living out of the infinite love of God’s deep mind. The tragedy is that silence has almost disappeared from western Christianity. Ross describes this loss, a sorry tale over two millennia of theological and ecclesiastical seduction by political, personal and institutional power. The stance an individual or church must sustain towards the unfolding action of silence goes when, with James and John, individuals place themselves at Jesus’s right and left; or when the receptivity of Mary is eclipsed by the busyness of Martha; or perhaps today in the Church of England when the growth demands of intentional evangelism out shout the quiet mission of God – with which, after all, God is engaged regardless of the nervous preoccupations of a struggling established church.

Ross’s study is also timely because the need for silence is currently on many non-Christian minds. The intuition that silence tracks the path to life in all its fullness has become a popular movement with the explosion of interest in mindfulness meditation. Or consider the threatening ecological crisis: Ross argues that this is, at root, a result of our civilisation’s disconnection from the natural world. It arises because we have learnt to regard creation as a commodity for human exploitation, and have forgotten how to approach it as an environment with a life of its own, which we might behold.

It is a sign of the times that a nascent science of silence is emerging too, as presented in Iain McGilchrist’s seminal book, The Master And His Emissary, an important reference point for Ross. The science suggests that human beings have broadly two ways of engaging with the world. The first is characterised by focus and manipulation. It attempts to organise things for its own ends and according to its own lights. It has evolved to help us survive, but if it becomes dominant then it restricts and throttles the life it tries to possess. This, McGilchrist argues, is the current state of the western mindset.

The alternative way of dealing with the world is open and receptive; it delights in surprise and mystery; it embraces the expansive possibilities of paradox, the potential of uncertainty and disturbance. It delights to “move upon silence”, to recall W.B. Yeats’s lovely phrase. It is necessary to spiritual flourishing because, in theistic terms, it can tolerate human fragility and let God be God. It can see beyond self-concern and hold out for a relationship with the inexhaustible source of all life. A silent practice is the way to come to know this gift because in silence an individual’s default way of engaging with the world can, first, be seen and, then, shift from the controlled to the open.

It’s a difficult shift to undergo because it also requires confronting the grief, anger, hate, envy, despair, pride that observing one’s mind reveals. It’s the path through the narrow gate though, paradoxically, it’s also to take up the lighter burden that Jesus spoke of too. The great Christian psychologists that Ross discusses – from Evagrius Ponticus to Simone Weil – have undergone and charted the change, though I believe there is also much to be gained by engaging with the insights of contemporary developmental and depth psychology. It seems to me that they offer a tremendous resource of living theory and practice for those serious about the work of silence. This new resource may well have arisen because, as Carl Jung noted, modern churches have a fractured if not dying relationship with the older contemplative wisdom. Perhaps Ross will discuss this in a promised second volume.

Her book is rhetorical as well as scholarly, an eleventh hour plea for the recovery of silence and all that it opens, beholds and enables. And I agree: the situation is serious. Nonetheless, I felt that she is at risk of condemning too fiercely the noisy trajectory of western Christianity. It may be true that some of the desert fathers and mothers declared, “Flee the bishops!” as they made for the wilderness, before the bishops rebranded them “white martyrs” to keep them in the fold. But it seems untrue that the last great theologian and senior ecclesiastic who understood the relationship between speech and silence was the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa. Ross’s book has a forward by an obvious counterexample: Rowan Williams.

This is just as well because silence requires much holding and skillful discernment if those undertaking it are not to go astray: the enlightened individuals that can guide us will necessarily emerge from flawed institutions. Plus, McGilchrist’s point is that we need both ways of engaging with the world, in right relationship. The challenge today is to find where the flame of silence still flickers amongst Christians, as well as to connect with where it burns more strongly elsewhere.

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