Has silence lost its power for us?

Over the last few weeks I have been curious about the role of silence. Many of my critical friends have expressed genuine curiosity about my retreat; and more especially that it is a silent retreat.


Given the kind questions, I thought I’d try to express some of my interest in this and see where this takes me/us. By way of some background, over the last seven years I have honestly found that Rabbi Sacks regularly speaks into my heart, my life, current questions and concerns, and even many of my personal  interests.

I’ve placed this link in here for you for the full text as it is well worth a read Rabbi Sacks

Rabbi Sacks makes a fascinating point into some of the reasons why God might have selected the desert to reveal the Torah or Law that would later mark-out a Nation we today call Israel.

He shares this:-

“…But there is another, more spiritual reason. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered God not in the whirlwind or the fire or thunder”

He then adds this “The sages valued silence. They called it ‘a fence to wisdom’. If words are worth a coin, silence is worth two. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better than silence.

The silence that counts, in Judaism, is thus a listening silence (emphasis is mine) – and listening is the supreme religious art. Listening means making space for others to speak and be heard. As I point out in my commentary to the Siddur, there is no English word that remotely equals the Hebrew verb sh-m-a in its wide range of senses: to listen, to hear, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond in deed”

Incidentally, there is a Japanese word that gets a little closer to the Hebrew than the English. The Japanese word includes both the heart and the ears- signifying the connection of one’s empathy and deeper understanding.

Rabbi Sacks then invites us to ask some quite profound and soul searching questions:-

  • Do we, in marriage, really listen to our spouses?
  • Do we as parents truly listen to our children?
  • Do we, as leaders, hear the unspoken fears of community?
  • Do we really listen to those we seek to lead?
  • Do we internalise the sense of hurt of the people who feel excluded?

But what of others faiths?

If we turn to the Buddha we find the loving story of Kisa Gotami. Her life was struck by a series of tragedies. First, she lost her husband, and then another family member and then her only beloved son got ill and he eventually died. Striken with grief she carried her son’s dead body with her pleading for medicine to help to bring him back from the dead.

Someone then told her to speak to the Buddha, which she did. The Buddha promised to help her. He sent her to get some (very commonly found) mustard seed from the local village. Just as she left to leave, he added:

But Kisa you must find this from a home that has never lost a member of the family, a relative or friend“. Of course, she searched and searched; but each time found that every home had lost someone who they cared for. She eventually returned to the Buddha asking for his blessing on her son’s soul and for him to teach her more. History tells us that she became a genuine disciple of his.

The wise Greek mathematician Pythagoras has this wise sentiment: “Be silent or let your words be worth more than silence”

This is a fab quote from Ben Okri: “Tranquility is the resolution of the tensions and paradoxes of story into something beyond story; into stillness.

He also offers this lovely idea too:

“I think we need more of the wordless in our lives. We need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving”. 

The founder of Christianity, Jesus, also made space for silence.We can read from Mark 1:35

“Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and slipped out to a solitary place to pray” 

So what style, or form, of silence?

So I guess I am talking about a generative or creative silence as Sue Hollingsworth and Ashley Ramsden call it.They describe this as “A creative space full of potential and curiosity, a companionable moment rich in imagination and feeling”

This is more than simply mental stillness. This is a space to quieten the mind and stop the mind’s endless chattering, and remind myself that some of the most insightful and helpful times come when the world just settles into quiet. To listen as Rabbi Sacks has so eloquently described it.

Mother Teresa says “See how nature: trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the starts, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence…we need silence to be able to touch souls”.  

A silent retreat like St Beuno’s is of course one form of a retreat. However,  there are others. One example, is the one that I am attending in a few weeks time with the Centre for Narrative Leadership. Here we are exploring the ‘The Stories We Are’.  I’ve put the link in here for you Narrative Leadership

Stated briefly, we are going to ‘explore the ways in which we create our identity through stories and to consider how, in our various fields of practice, how we can better help individuals and groups come to understand and sometimes to change their stories’.

Together we are going to consider such questions as:

  • How do we create, maintain, and explore our identity through stories ?
  • How do we better let go of the old stories when they no longer serve?
  • How do we find, co-create and share the new stories with each other?
  • How do we bring them into an emerging context that can shape our future?

I’m sure there will be so time both for discussion, inquiry and much much more. I’m sure too that I’ll expereince the power of silence in the ways that I’ve tried to describe.

Take care Jason.



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