A reflection on the power of silence
Marlborough College Chapel 4th February 2019
I have to admit that I rather enjoyed a weekend which was unexpectedly less full of activity than some others. Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk, and apart from a few people on the way to Manton, there were not many people there. Later I realised that may have been because I took a wrong turn and had ended up on private property! Anyway, it made me think about how the power of silence. Especially when the snow seems to quieten everything around us, the only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps and breathing.
It can be very hard to be silent; I don’t need to tell you that. Why? I think one of the main reasons is that by speaking we take control, and hence, remaining silent makes us feel vulnerable. Imagine someone telling you that you should work a little harder. The first thing you probably want to do is justify yourself, or at least, that’s what I would want to do. ‘Yes, I know I should, but I am trying’. Our immediate reaction is wanting to respond, to take back control of the situation. It is much harder to remain silence, hear what the other is saying, and let it sink in.
That is a slightly negative example, but there are positive examples as well. You may have been to a concert or performance, where at the end there is that brief pause before the applause starts. It is as if the whole audience is keeping their breath, because of the beauty of what has just taken place. And when the applause starts, there is both a relief, but also a slight sadness that this moment of suspension is over. To put it slightly more theologically, as former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said:
“Silence is letting what there is be what it is. In that sense it has to do profoundly with God: the silence of simply being. We experience that at times when there is nothing we can say or do that would not intrude on the integrity and the beauty of that being.”
Although it is hard to be silent, it is as necessary for us as breathing, eating and sleeping. We need to learn to be able just to be, although we may not find that easy. It is maybe even harder when you’re surrounded by other people, but at the same time, a shared purposeful silence – such as the one after a concert – can be a powerful experience.
Maybe one could say that one of the purposes of worship is to be silent together; to be vulnerable before God, together. That is why good liturgy should ultimately lead into silence: a silence in which we can be who we are in the face of God.